Saturday, October 31, 2015

Sepia Saturday #303: On All Hallow's Eve: Tales of Harbingers & Ghostly Visits

Harbinger: noun: a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of something.

All Hallow’s Eve, a.k.a. Hallowe’en, often elicits thoughts of the magical and the mysterious. The Hallowe'en inspiration image for today's Sepia Saturday has me thinking about the mysterious beliefs of those members of our family of 'good lineage', who shared tales about harbingers of death, and the supernatural elements which often accompanied those forewarnings.

When I first heard stories about harbingers of death in the history of our Irish family, as a rational person it was easy for me to be skeptical about the veracity of these tales. However, it seems clear each one of the persons associated with such stories genuinely believed auguries of death signalled the imminent passing of their family members.

Also, following the death of a beloved family member, a ghostly visitation from the deceased person was not deemed unusual by a number of family members, neither was hearing, seeing or even smelling something which you would associate only with the loved one who had died.

According to family lore, shortly before a person dies a harbinger of death appears. This is a belief which has been held by a number of members on both sides of the family tree, including my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins of all varieties.

Most interesting are those stories in which harbingers manifested as an enormous black dog, a small white dove, and most dramatically, a massive fireball. Also, at least one relative dreaded an entire month on the calendar, believing it portended the deaths of his family members.

Why did Alice believe falling pictures,
broken china and dropped knives presaged
the death of family members?
On the maternal side of our family tree, harbingers of death have been known to present themselves in a more understated fashion as well. According to my mother, my maternal great-grandaunt Alice Fitzpatrick Ward — the woman who together with my grandfather raised the Ball children — believed a number of harbingers manifested through ordinary household goods. For example, a hanging picture which inexplicably fell from the wall, landing face down, portended the death of a family member or friend.

So too, Alice warned that a broken china plate, especially a treasured one, was an omen of someone ‘leaving the family’. For Alice, even a dropped dinner knife might indicate the departure of a loved one. Perhaps such superstitions led to strict rules governing the way in which the Ball children cleared away and washed up the dishes and cutlery.

Alice is pictured here on the left in the only photograph I have of her, from her 'In Memoriam' card. Although Alice was a devoutly Roman Catholic woman, she shared with my mother a number of superstitions about the dying and the dead.


Was September a month to be dreaded?
Did it portend the death of Kettle family members?
Andrew J. Kettle (pictured on the left), brother of my maternal 2nd great-grandmother Mary Kettle Fitzpatrick, had a dread of the month of September. An intelligent and accomplished gentleman, Andrew nevertheless believed September was a month which portended the death of family members. So firm was his conviction that the ninth month was one of fateful foreboding, his son Laurence made mention of the belief in the biographical note to his father's memoir, The Material for Victory.

Seems Andrew J. Kettle had good reason to dread September. Mary and Andrew's mother Alice O'Kavanagh Kettle died in the month of September, on the 24th day in the year 1855. Their father Thomas Kettle also died in that ruinous month, passing over to the 'other side' on 22 September 1871. 

Mary and Andrew's brother Patrick passed away on 25 September 1894. As well, Andrew's beloved son Thomas Michael Kettle was killed on the Somme in France on 9 September 1916, and Andrew J. Kettle himself died only 13 days later on 22 September 1916. Fifty one years after her father died, Catherine Kettle passed away on 13 September 1967. Additionally, other Kettle descendants have died in the month of September. It seems September is indeed a month which heralded death for members of the Kettle clan.

Although we might view the Kettle deaths in September as purely coincidental, it is not difficult to imagine this deeply religious man might have come to believe September would continue to ring out the death knells in his family.


Was the enormous black dog on Ringsend Bridge an omen of the death of my paternal grandfather?
By December of 1954 my paternal grandfather John Geraghty — never an especially robust fellow — had been ill for quite some time. On the 9th of December, my father Michael and mother Mary had been married for just over four months, and were out together for an evening's entertainment, visiting friends in Ringsend. At the end of their evening, Michael and Mary decided to stop by her family home on Gordon Street. They were walking across the Ringsend bridge over the River Dodder when toward them came an unattended enormous black dog walking very slowly. The dog crossed the road and passed them on the opposite side of the bridge. 

Startled by the sheer size of the animal, my father said he felt compelled to look at the dog, to be sure it wasn't wending its way back toward them. He stopped at the centre of the bridge and looked across the road to see it, but the dog had disappeared. Inexplicably in that moment my father knew his father was dead. My father told my mother they must go immediately to his family home. They flagged the lone black taxi travelling down Ringsend Road and asked the driver to hurry to the Geraghty home in Crumlin. Upon their arrival they discovered Dad's father John Geraghty had indeed passed away. Although my dad felt skeptical about what his own eyes had seen, he believed the massive black dog, who seemingly disappeared in the middle of the stone bridge, had been a harbinger of his father's death.


Did a tiny dove appear in a china teacup,
presaging the death of my maternal grandfather?
In February of 1963, when my maternal grandfather Patrick Ball died, my parents and brother were living in Canada. My mother shared with me the story of an incident which occurred in the early hours of the day on which her father died. That morning, standing in her kitchen drying the breakfast dishes, my mom reached to draw a china teacup from the drying rack. 

My mother said she was stopped in her tracks because curled up inside the china cup was a very small white dove. Frightened, she ran to a neighbour's house, but simply could not bring herself to tell the neighbour what she thought she had seen, and why she was so frightened. My mom thought her neighbour would think she was 'mad as a hatter'. Later that day my mother and father received a telephone call from Ireland bearing the news that my mom's father Patrick had died that morning. In retrospect, my mother believed the appearance of the tiny dove foretold her father's death.


Did the spirit of Patrick Ball visit his daughter?
After her father died, my mother profoundly regretted the fact that, during the almost six and a half years since she and my father and brother had emigrated away from Ireland, my mom had not telephoned her father very often, nor written to him as often as she then felt she should have. Mom dearly wished she had taken the opportunity to tell her dad how much she cherished him, and lamented not having the chance to say goodbye to her father before he passed away.

A couple of days after her father died my mother was once again in her kitchen. This time she was preparing the evening meal. Although my dad Michael had not yet returned from work, my mom heard a male voice softly calling her name. 'Mary, Mary, Mary'. Initially thinking it was Michael, Mary called out, 'I'm here in the kitchen'.

The disembodied voice repeated Mary's name. Suddenly, she realized the voice she was hearing was not that of her husband, but was instead her father calling to her. In this instance she did not feel frightened. Instead she believed her father had come to say goodbye to her. With tears of happiness in her eyes, she called out 'Goodbye Dad, God Bless You!' Although her words were met with silence, Mom said she whole-heartedly believed she had heard the voice of her father bidding her goodbye, and she felt very happy he had come to 'visit' her.


Did Mollie truly see a terrifying fireball,
and was it a harbinger of her sister's death?
Perhaps the most extraordinary story about the appearance of a harbinger is one told by my paternal grandaunt Mary 'Mollie' Magee Halpin.

On 26 March 1953, Mollie's sister, my grandmother Anne 'Annie' Magee Geraghty was hospitalised for 'exploratory' surgery. It was discovered Annie had undiagnosed diabetes, as well as a whole host of other very serious health problems. The doctors quickly concluded nothing could be done for Annie.

Unaware of the dire state of her sister's health, Mollie waited until the end of the day to visit her sister in hospital, On her way, she had a very strange encounter of the supernatural variety.

Mollie said she was walking across a bridge, when from the opposite side she saw a massive fireball rolling across the bridge toward her. She was both shocked and horrified by what she saw, but was unable to run away, and could do nothing more than turn away from the fire to protect herself. Mollie swore she could feel the heat from the fiery sphere on her back as it passed her on the bridge. When she turned to look at it, the fireball was gone and a feeling of deep peace and serenity came over her. Mollie said in that moment she felt with absolute certainty her sister Annie had died.

When Mollie arrived at the hospital her feeling of certainty was confirmed for her when she learned Annie had died of cardiac and renal failure. According to the attending physician, Annie's death had occurred around the time Mollie was crossing the bridge. Her whole life long Mollie fervently believed the fireball was real, and was a harbinger of her sister Annie's death.


As I said at the outset of this piece, it is easy to be skeptical about such stories. However, there remains so much about death and dying that we do not know, and what truly goes on in 'the great beyond' remains a mystery to those of us still on 'this side’, so perhaps such harbingers do appear when Death comes knocking on Life's door.

Do you have similar beliefs about harbingers of death, or stories of 'visits' by deceased relatives, on your family tree?

Be sure to fly on over to the Sepia Saturday blog to connect with others and read their take on today's inspiration image.

Happy Hallowe'en!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Finding Michael: In search of the life Dad once knew in Crumlin, Dublin City

In 2012, a few months after my mother died, I made my way through her childhood neighbourhood in Ringsend, Dublin. It was a journey I had made before, but with the loss of my mom the walk along those footpaths bore new meaning. My father died what seems like so long ago now, 16 March 2000, but in recent years I had not ventured into the neighbourhood of his growing up years, Crumlin, Dublin. I cannot say for certain why I had not gone there, but perhaps there was still a part of my heart that ached when I recollected my father's profound sadness on visiting his old neighbourhood when I was a young teenager.

It was an absence, an erasure of past life, which defined that journey for me. It was what had been missing from our plans which left the deepest impression. We spent weeks in Dublin, visiting family and catching up with old friends, but despite our proximity to Dad's childhood home, it seemed not a single time when we ventured out would we travel near the road on which he had lived. 

One day we did journey out. Although I do not know what triggered Dad's desire to see the place, we wound our way from a visit with Auntie May, whose house had been jammed to the rafters with family, music and laughter. Travelling down from Santry, we happily chatted about Uncle Gerrie's funny poems and songs. Mom was charmed that Auntie May's front parlour was festooned in flowers, as it had always been, and that May still had her beautiful ebony piano. I delighted in all the different kinds of houses we saw along the way, and wondered which one best resembled Dad's former family home.

As we slipped into the north end of Crumlin, Dad got very quiet, then suddenly he stopped the car. It must have been at Bangor Road, though I do not recall for certain, but he shifted the gear into park, turned off the engine and sat there at the intersection closest to his part of Kildare Road. Despite curiosity-driven exhortations from my brother and me, Dad would not make the turn which would bring us to his old front door. Our enthusiasm was stilled by the heavy silence which came over my father. I was completely shut down when he lowered his head and began to quietly weep.

For the next while not a single word was uttered by either my mother or my father. My own emotion caught in my throat, and my eyes filled with tears I did not then understand, but in that moment I felt a love and compassion for my father I had never before known. Although we had never talked about it, I knew my father had endured a difficult childhood. As my mother gently caressed my father's shoulder and brushed his hair away from his eyes, we sat completely quiet. There was no explanation offered for our journey's pause, nor was one begged. After a few minutes passed, Dad started the car, put it into gear, and spirited us away from his memories.

We drove out of Dublin a couple of days after our stop in Crumlin, and travelled throughout the Republic. We went to all of those places of significance in terms of Irish history, but not family history. My father had cycled throughout Ireland when he was a young adult, so he knew the best routes to the ancient ruins, magnificent castles, and overgrown cemeteries. He travelled with ease during those weeks and seemed very happy to visit places which in no way bore the imprint of his family. We did not return into the heart of Dublin, and the last my teenaged eyes saw of the capital on that trip, was through the rain streaked windows of the hired car, as we travelled along the coast road to the airport on our last day in Ireland.

On my adult journeys to the places in Dublin my father knew best, I have ventured into Stoneybatter and visited the home into which my dad was born, travelled out to Cabra where their family had briefly lived, and stopped by Belgrave Square in Rathmines, the last home my father, mother and brother lived in before they emigrated away from Ireland. However, Crumlin was a place I always managed to bypass. Time and again it was on my 'go to' list, but each trip I managed to avoid it.

In September, a few days before I left for Ireland, I decided perhaps it was time to visit Crumlin again, to see the house on Kildare Road where my father had lived with his family, the house he would not visit, and maybe finally lay to rest the ghosts of the past.


The former Geraghty family home on Kildare Road, Crumlin.
The streamers were put up in celebration of
the All Ireland GAA Football Final on Sunday 20 September.
The former Geraghty home is not on the principle part of Kildare Road, so I was not certain I had arrived at the correct address when I turned into a sort of cul-de-sac. As I emerged from my hired car, an ancient gentleman spied me through narrowed eyes, as though he had me already mapped out as a stranger. Immediately he asked where I was headed. 

Extending my hand to him, I introduced myself, uttered the address and said I had come to visit 'the terraced house in which my Dad grew up'. 'I'm Tom*', he replied, his eyes brightening and the deep creases in his time-worn face seeming to open up to me. 'Geraghty', he repeated as he pointed out the house and then scurried across the narrow road to get 'Kate*', whose family now lives there.

The three of us, Tom, Kate and I, stood in front of the house for quite a while, chatting about the past and the present. They generously listened as I talked about my dad. Tom said he's lived on Kildare Road all his life. He knew the Geraghty family and said he must have known my father Michael, but he could not recall, since his memory is not as good as it was in his younger days.

One part of the past Tom did recollect absolutely delighted me. He explained that the house was quite different now from what it had been when he was a child. In the 1960s or '70s — Tom couldn't quite recall when — two houses, #B and #C, were built onto the end of the row, forever changing the Geraghty home as Tom had known it. When Tom was a child, the house was the last one in the row of terraced houses. 

All of the houses in the row are quite small and have few rooms, 'two up, two down', as they used to say. The homes were constructed by the Dublin Corporation in the mid 1930s, on 250 acres of land in Crumlin, a large scale housing 'estate' for families who lacked decent homes. Because it was on a corner, Tom explained, the Geraghty house had a large back garden. In that garden was a ramshackle shed, and all of it was surrounded by a tall wall. 

Tom remembered my granny — 'Mrs. Geraghty', as he called her — as a very nice, though nearly blind, lady who always let all of the neighbourhood children play in what was the only large back garden on the street. He especially liked that she allowed them to climb up and over and all around that tall garden wall. Tom laughed when he recalled Mrs. Geraghty 'seeing to him' after he tumbled off the wall and into the hedge one summer's day when he was 9 years old. It made me smile to see Tom's face light up as his recollected those long ago days.

When it was time for me to head on my way, Kate asked me to wait until she cleared her kids' bicycles out of the drive, so I could take some 'good photos' of the place, then she wished me 'all the best' on my journey. Tom held open my car door and told me to take very good care of myself. As I stepped into the car he seemed lost in recollections again and said, 'We all loved playing in Mrs. Geraghty's garden, and climbing on that wall. Ah, we'd great fun in your granny’s garden. We'd great fun.' My eyes filled with tears as I bid Tom farewell and thanked him so very much for hanging on to those happy memories. 

As I drove away I quietly whispered 'thanks' to my dad for guiding me there. The knowledge that the garden of Dad's family home had been a place of joy brought me comfort, and I felt perhaps I had finally laid to rest the ghosts of Crumlin and the house on Kildare Road.

Two of my father's brothers, pictured with friends,
in front of the old shed and next to the tall wall in the back garden of
the house on Kildare Road.
Left to right: unknown, Enda Geraghty, unknown, John Geraghty.
My father's youngest siblings, Kathleen and Declan Geraghty, in the garden next to the shed.
Less than a year after this photograph was taken Declan disappeared.
A few blocks from the house on Kildare Road is St. Agnes,
the Roman Catholic Church my father attended with his family.

*Note: In the interests of privacy, the names have been changed and no address is noted.

To learn more about Declan's story see: Walking away from family: A disappeared brother, Declan Geraghty


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tombstone Tuesday: 'Walk on air against your better judgement'

Out of Dublin City, County Dublin to Bellaghy, Magherafelt, County Derry/Londonderry*, I drove to visit the grave of one of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney. It is an overwhelming sight to see his grave and know there will never again be another word penned by this talented poet and playwright. The first-born son of a farmer, Seamus Heaney would grow to become beloved the world over, winning many literary prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, all the while remaining a down-to-earth and gentle man. For me, Seamus Heaney put Ireland and the Irish people into words.

The epitaph engraved on his gravestone is a line taken from his poem entitled 'The Gravel Walks':

So walk on air against your better
Establishing yourself somewhere
in between
Those solid batches mixed with
grey cement
And a tune called ‘The Gravel 
     Walks’ that conjures green.

As I stood by Seamus Heaney's graveside I said a prayer for all of us, the writers, the poets, the dreamers.


Nearby Seamus Heaney’s grave, his little brother Christopher is interred together with their mother, father and other members of the Heaney family.

Tragically, Christopher Heaney died in February of 1953, at the age of 3 years, after being hit by a car. Seamus Heaney beautifully encapsulates the experience of the loss of his little brother in the heartbreaking poem ‘Mid-term Break’. Here are a few lines from the poem:

Next morning I went up into the 
     room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I
     saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left
He lay in the four-foot box as in his
No gaudy scars, the bumper
     knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every

St. Mary's Church and the churchyard from the perspective of Seamus Heaney's grave.
The Heaney family grave is second from the left in this image.

Click on photos to view larger versions.

Lines from 'The Gravel Walks' & 'Mid-term Break' in Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground, Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber, London, 2002.
*Note: In the Republic of Ireland the county is recognised as County Derry; in Northern Ireland it is recognised as County Londonderry.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sepia Saturday #300: The Heavenly faces of Earthly Sprites.

For the last few weeks I have been 'virtually' absent, spending time away in the world of university and military archives in Ireland, doing research for my history work, as well as a tiny bit of family history research, and enjoying a holiday in London and Paris with my husband in celebration of our 25th Wedding Anniversary. Sepia Saturday offers the perfect opportunity to jump back into blogging.

The inspiration image for this Sepia Saturday takes us far from the light and the lovely toward the dark and the ugly, but for my contribution on this very special anniversary I am going to flip the inspiration on its head and look at some of the little lives lived on, or near, our family tree.

Some of the most charming images to be found in my parents' archive of photographs are those of young children. Their cherubic faces and bright wide eyes convey an innocence that warms the heart and lightens the soul. So, with best wishes to the Sepia Saturday blog on this anniversary #300, and a big thank you to Marilyn and Alan, I offer you 'The Heavenly faces of Earthly Sprites'.

This little cherub faced sweetie is a member of my mother's family. According to the information on the back of the photograph, it was taken in Dublin, but no name is noted. I was told by an aunt that this tiny boy is my mother's youngest brother. Strange to think that when the photograph was taken, this poor little fellow and his siblings were motherless. Their mother Mary Fitzpatrick Ball had died in the winter of 1936, leaving seven children to the care of their father Patrick Ball and an elderly grand-aunt Alice Fitzpatrick Ward. Baby John was only six months old at the time of his mother's death.

The adorable little girl in the photograph below is not a member of my family, but is a daughter of the Brennan family, near neighbours of the Ball family in Ringsend, Dublin. The Brennan family lived at #73 Gordon Street, just four houses away from the Ball family home at #69.

The photograph was taken in the early 1940s, and the name written on the back of the photograph in very light pencil is barely legible, but reads 'D. Brennan'. Long ago my mother told me this little one's name, and if I recall correctly, her name is Dolly Brennan, though the name Dottie seems to stick in my brain.

Dolly (or Dottie) is such a tiny girl that she does not look old enough to be making her First Holy Communion, since at the time children aged around six or seven were eligible. After her family returned home following her First Communion mass, she was captured in this photograph while making the rounds of the neighbourhood to show off her lovely outfit, and be given scapulas or holy medals, and perhaps a penny or two, by admiring neighbours. Her little lace dress is exquisite, as is the veil, and the tiny white leather shoes beautifully complete the outfit. There is just a hint of mischief in her lovely eyes.

The last in my trio of photographs is one of my favourite images. The photo was taken in 1937 and features my dad (on the far right) at almost six years of age, as well as his eldest brother Patrick (holding the arm of a Magee child), on summer holidays with their Magee cousins in Rush, North County Dublin. Dad had fond memories of holidays at Rush with his brother and their grandparents Patrick and Mary Magee, their Aunt Mollie Magee Halpin and Uncle Willie Halpin, and their Aunt Anne Maher Magee and Uncle Frank Magee. The look of joy on Dad's face in the series of photos from Rush always makes me smile.

Be sure to skip on over to the Sepia Saturday blog to see how others have connected with today's inspiration image, and perhaps you'll be inspired too.

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