Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sepia Saturday #285: Within these walls: 'School days'

School days, school days, 
dear old golden rule days,
Reading and 'riting and 'rithmatic,
taught to the tune of the hickory stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your bashful, barefoot beau,
You wrote on my slate,
'I love you Joe',
when we were a couple of kids.

It's funny how the mind works, isn't it? When I was looking at the inspiration image of the Chittenden Hotel for today's Sepia Saturday, these lyrics from a very old (1907) American chanty began to run through my head.

For reasons unknown to me, occasionally my Irish mother would sing this tune, while she was washing dishes, doing a simple mending job, or weeding in the back garden. When I was a child I thought it was a very silly rhyming bit, but it made my mother happy, and the light-hearted nature of it seemed to make quick work of the task at hand. I can still picture my mother working away, head slightly bobbing, as she trilled out this simple ditty.

How does this bring me to today's post? Well, the little tune, together with the image of the hotel building, reminded me of school and school buildings, and some of those educational institutions that have figured in my family history. So without further adieu, I give you, 'School days'.

The first set of images shows Clongowes Wood College in its various incarnations. Founded by the Jesuits in 1814, and situated just outside of Clane, in County Kildare, the college is a seven-day boarding school for boys. Several members of my family were educated here, including Andrew J. Kettle, who attended in the 1840s, and his sons Laurence Joseph Kettle and Thomas Michael Kettle, both of whom attended during the last decade of the 19th century.

The gateway into Clongowes Wood College remains much as it was from the school's inception.
'The Castle' of Clongowes Wood College in its earliest incarnation.
[National Library of Ireland]
The Castle, with the addition of the Boys' Chapel which was built in 1907.
[National Library of Ireland]
Clongowes Wood College as it looks today.
Additional buildings on the campus include the white building know as The People's Church.
Built from 1819-1821, it served as the Boys' Chapel until the current Boys' Chapel was built in 1907.
Back in County Dublin, in the lush pastoral setting of Rathfarnham, is St. Enda's Boys' School. My family's connection to the school comes from the paternal side of the family tree. According to my late father and his siblings, my paternal granduncle Patrick Geraghty was a member of the teaching staff of St. Enda's School. Patrick went on to teach at University College Cork, but of his time at St. Enda's, so far definitive proof eludes me.

Founded in 1908 by Pádraig Pearse — he who read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at the outset of the 1916 Easter Rising — the school stands on 50 acres of woods and parkland.

With the view that conventional education was destroying young minds, instead of nurturing them, Pearse's antipodean methods seemed newer than new, but harkened back to the past and a theory of 'pure learning'. Gaelic culture and language were at the forefront of his educational system, as was Irish Nationalism, and the connection with the natural world was deeply ingrained in his philosophy.

The 'Hermitage' of St. Enda's School.
It is now the Pearse Museum.
The Dormitory.
The Study Hall as it once looked.
The Study Hall now stands empty of desks, though little else is changed.
The Chapel as it looked when the school was in operation.
The Chapel as it is today.
One of several follies secreted in the lush green landscape of the school.
Leaving behind the grandeur of Clongowes and the pastoral setting of St. Enda's, we head to the urban landscape, and the single simple granite building which comprised the Christian Brothers' School of St. Paul when it was founded in 1869. This was the school as my paternal grandmother's eldest brother Michael Magee knew it when he was in attendance in 1912. The school is located on North Brunswick Street in the Stoneybatter neighbourhood of Dublin City. With the passage of time the school has expanded, with 'modern' additions added on in later years; however, the original building still stands, and now houses the Boys' Primary School.

Although their programme of education was not as radical as that of St. Enda's School, nonetheless the Christian Brothers infused their lessons with more than a healthy dose of Irish Nationalism. Gaelic language and culture were also part of the curriculum. Such an education would have a profound impact on Michael Magee's life. In 1913, at the age of 15 years, Michael joined the Irish Volunteers. He fought during the 1916 Easter Rising, and would die as a member of the Active Service Unit in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. Coincidentally, St. Paul's school fronts the street in an area in which 18 year old Michael was Volunteer Section Leader, serving with 'A' Company, 1st Battalion of the Dublin Brigade during the 1916 Easter Rising.

The Christian Brothers' School of St. Paul,
North Brunswick Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin City, County Dublin.
Be sure to stop by the Sepia Saturday blog to connect with others and see how they have interpreted today's theme.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

'Down into the Darkness': Mental Illness & Family History

Van Gogh's Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate),
a painting sometimes associated with mental illness. 
Mental illness can be one of those uncomfortable topics some of us may not want to talk about; nevertheless, we may find evidence of it on our family trees. We might turn our hearts and our minds away from psychiatric illness, simply because we cannot figure it out; it is not easily solvable.

There is no visible wound, no gash to bandage, nothing like a broken bone that can be reset and covered with a cast. With the exception of Alzheimer’s, we tend not to accord heroism to those who cope with diseases of the mind.

Histories of mental illness dangle from many family trees, with stories that are spoken of in whispers or dismay. Perhaps there are tales of shell-shocked cousins who would cry out in the dark shadows of night, and then find it impossible to function in the light of day. We might focus on the heroic side of their military careers while failing to acknowledge the truth about the impact of war on their mental health.

So too, there are those histories to which reference is made in cruel jokes about ‘mad’ relations with strangely obsessive habits, aunties who wore bizarre looking hats and spoke to invisible companions, and uncles who weren’t quite ‘all there’.

For some family historians, there may be something soothing about dealing only with the stories of people who appear to have been cognitively rational. They fit into easy slots. We can say person A was a butcher or baker, person B lived in Dublin or Wicklow, but the mentally ill may not always fit so easily into the picture of family life. For some researchers, it may be easier to joke about mental illness, not out of maliciousness, but perhaps out of ignorance, or simply a desire to distance themselves from a connection to something so unsettling.

Still, some of us know what it is to go down into the darkness. We have found the unwanted experience of mental illness laid right at our doorstep. Some of us have suffered from deep depression, the clinical sort, the kind that tips your soul right out of your body, and leaves you in a dark and forbidding place. When we find histories of mental illness on our family tree, aspects of those stories may feel disconcertingly familiar.

We have one beautiful boy on our paternal family tree who, on the brink of a brilliant academic life, emerged as a schizophrenic. Onset of the illness manifested in subtle changes over time — dropping grades and social isolation. A hammer attack on his mother was the horrifying signifier that his mind had completely moved on to an alternate universe. When he was a very little boy he was sweet and shy, curious and a little mischievous, and loved to have his photograph taken. He loved the infinitesimal details of maps, and obsessively computed the distances linking cities and towns, counties and countries, but could not connect with people. He lived with the voices inside of his head, voices who at times seemed to be the only ones who could understand him.

We have had a least two suicides on our family tree. Two beloved young men, a brother and a son, whose hearts were too tender to hang on to this world. Family members of both men have beautiful memories of times filled with light and laughter. However, in the minds of these young men the world was ordered differently, so for them the only hope of peace was to escape it. The deep and abiding love of family members and friends was not enough to keep them on this earth.

There have been periods in history when mental illness was viewed as a moral failing, or as a failure of control, with individuals characterized as self-centred and ‘giving in’ to their wounded or broken minds, and their inclinations toward deviance.

Our Edwardian period family members appear to have been very much a product of their time, and social class, believing those with mental illness made a choice to live inside of sorrow and allow it to feed on them. There was often no hint of understanding, just a recognition of, and sometimes frustration over having to deal with the ’shattered nerves’ and ‘melancholia’ of the individual in question.

Tom Kettle, a first cousin on my maternal family tree, was plagued by mental illness for years before his death on the Somme in 1916. Writing to him in May of 1901, Tom's brother Laurence scolds Tom for his melancholy, because it makes Laurence feel bad afterward. Laurence writes,

‘Why, oh why will you ever assume such a pessimistic attitude in your letters? It makes me feel uncomfortable for a week after.’

In The Ways of War, a book Tom Kettle co-authored with his wife Mary Sheehy, Mary offers an explanation for Tom's overall negative temperament, but she does not point to the origin of his pre-existing 'shattered nerves'. Mary writes,

'[A] brother, a veritable twin soul, to whom he was deeply attached died. This was an everlasting grief to him. This sorrow, together with his shattered nerves, was responsible for his somewhat tragic and melancholy temper.'

Tom’s beloved brother William died of tuberculosis in May of 1903. Perhaps triggered by this tragic loss, in the summer of 1904, Tom suffered a mental breakdown and was sent to recuperate in Innsbruck, Austria.

Noteworthy in the correspondence between Tom and Mary during this period are references to his 'black mood' and ‘miserable glooms’. In November of 1904, Mary writes,

'My dear Love, I see by today’s letter that you are allowing the black mood to keep you company...You must not do that...Keep looking forward — always forward and that will help.'

In a letter written later that month, Mary appears frustrated with Tom, insisting he has broken yet another promise by choosing to remain in care at Innsbruck, and away from her. Mary writes,

'If it is only the doctor who detains you — we have excellent doctors in Dublin..And I think I could help you and keep away those miserable glooms. You promised to be home in a fortnight and now you are five weeks gone — so I have had enough disappointments.'

It was around this time that Tom’s battle with alcohol also began to take shape. While he was a student at the Royal University, Tom had not been inclined to partake of alcohol; however, after William died Tom began to drink in earnest.

There were other times when Tom received treatment for his mental health, including one last instance in 1915, when he was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England, where he was treated for alcoholism and a depressive disorder. The purpose of treatment was to make him fit for a return to military duty in France, where he was killed on 9 September 1916.

On yet another branch of my maternal family tree, in 1909, at the age of only 56 years, my great-grandfather Francis Ball died of dementia. Medical research shows that early onset and death from dementia may mean that Francis Ball also likely suffered from depression.

The working life of Francis Ball ended because of his dementia. With the income of the main breadwinner gone, there was neither money to care for him at home, nor to care for him in a hospital, so in 1907, he was admitted to the infirmary of the South Dublin Union workhouse for treatment. Francis was interned there on two occasions in 1907, from 16 to 17 July, and from 21 August to 5 September for treatment of a disorder of 'nerves'. In the winter of 1908, on 3 January, Jane Ball admitted her husband to the infirmary at the workhouse for what would be the last time. He would die there eighteen months later on 3 July 1909.

On the paternal side of my family tree, the first hints that there had been mental illness in the family came in those rare moments when I could get my dad to talk about his childhood. My father’s childhood home in Crumlin had been a place of strife and violence, with the children, and their mother, suffering at the hands of a father who may have been mentally ill.

In the last days of my father's life, when Dad was telling me about what I should seek out and where I should look to uncover our family history, the confirmation came that my paternal grandfather John Geraghty had been an alcoholic, and along with that confirmation came the revelation that he had suffered bouts of severe depression throughout his life, and may have been interned in Grangegorman Mental Hospital in Dublin. What would have brought him to that terrible place, I wonder? Does such illness explain why my great-grandparents had treated John so very differently from his siblings for his whole life long?

Here in the 21st century, I find myself wondering about how well we deal with mental illness. We are supposed to know more, to be more empathetic, to be more accepting of people with mental illness, yet it is not a rare occurrence to see online rants against people who are characterized as 'crazy', 'demented', 'loony', 'psychotic' and so on. A glance at any modern dictionary will give you more than 50 words to describe mental illness, so apparently we've taken the time to develop the descriptors.

However, have we taken the time to develop our understanding of what life may have been like for those relatives and ancestors whose lives were forever changed by diseases of the mind over which they had no control, or for those family members currently dealing with mental illness?

Can we liberate their stories from a one dimensional existence, and tell of the joys in their lives, while telling of their challenges with mental illness?

Do we have the humanity to cradle their histories and share them with compassion?


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Handwriting & Heredity: Does your handwriting resemble that of an ancestor?

The hands of some Fitzpatrick and Hynes family members.
For those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time writing on a laptop or desktop computer, when we kick against the traces of the tech world and take a pen in hand, our writing may show those marked changes which can be brought on by the ergonomics of tap, tap, tapping on a keyboard. The movement of our hands and the ability to write may also be affected by the simple wear and tear of daily life, and for some of us, diseases such as arthritis change the way in which our hands move, and thus the way in which we write.

A few days ago while I was perusing records, I noticed the toll ten years had taken on the handwriting and the signature of one of my 2nd great-granduncles. Although the signature is still very much his own, there is a slight shakiness to the way in which the characters are formed.

When I looked through other documents — letters and the like — I noticed there are similarities in the cursive writing of members of the same families, similarities which appear to have come down through the generations. When you consider your own handwriting, do you ever compare it with that of your parents or grandparents, or perhaps someone further back? Do you notice any resemblance between the characteristics of your writing and that of a family member, or is your cursive hand distinctively different?

According to geneticists, there may very well be a gene by which characteristics of handwriting might be passed on through the generations; however, they have yet to discover precisely that gene. Some say it is more likely cursive writing is affected by the way in which a child's fine motor skills are developed through schooling, both formal and otherwise. However, if it is only a matter of schooling, then why is it we might find a great-grandchild whose penmanship mirrors that of his great-grandfather's?

Does your handwriting share any traits 
with the writing of an ancestor or a relative?

The signature of paternal great-grandfather Patrick Magee, 1901 Irish Census.
His daughter Mollie wrote with the same flourish, forming her 'M's in the same manner.
The signature of paternal great-grandfather Patrick Geraghty, 1901 Irish Census.
His grandson, my father Michael, formed his 'G's in an identical fashion.
The signature of paternal great-granduncle William Dunne,
Royal Dublin Fusiliers recruitment record.
William's sister, my great-mother Mary Dunne Magee, wrote with a similar hand.
The signature of maternal great-grandfather Thomas Fitzpatrick, 1911 Irish Census.
At least one of his granddaughters forms her 'F's in precisely the same fashion.
Click on images to view larger versions.
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