St. Brigid’s Church, Talbotstown, has a really beautiful backdrop, with the twin mountains of Keadeen and Carrig dominating the view. The small car park beside the church is one of the best vantage points for admiring those mountains and for seeing Finn McCool and his wife resting in the sunshine. To the left you will see the much smaller Kilranelagh Hill, the site of an old graveyard and the centre of an area with many remains of ancient habitation. But Talbotstown Church itself has its own beauty and its own history.
It is at the edge of the townland of Talbotstown Upper in Kilranelagh civil parish, but it is an out-church or chapel-of-ease of Rathvilly Roman Catholic parish, which straddles the border between Cos. Carlow and Wicklow. Talbotstown is proudly in Wicklow, though all this part of the county was part of Carlow (Catherlogh) before Wicklow was invented in 1606. Until the early years of the twentieth century the word ‘church’ was used only in relation to Church of Ireland places of worship, while those of other denominations were referred to as ‘chapels’.
Writing in the Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society in 1905, Charles Drury stated that after the old chapel of Kilranelagh fell into disuse, Mass was said in a chapel in Englishtown. He quoted one John Magrath as saying that this practice continued for about 150 or 200 years. The tumbled down walls of that chapel are all that may be seen now, to the side of the road between Talbotstown and Killalesh. That chapel is shown on the original Ordnance Survey map c1840, while the site of what is now Talbotstown Church was part of a field next to the then new National School.
Drury stated that:
… now some sixty years ago, service was first held in Talbotstown Chapel. Father Gahan, who was parish priest at the time it was built, assembled his congregation on the site of the proposed new chapel, and ascertained by actual measurement the size necessary. The dimensions of Tinnock Chapel were arrived at in the same way.
The new Talbotstown Church is said to have been built in 1842. A Valuation Office House Book, dated in the mid-1840s, states:
This chapel has been lately built and the interior is in quite an unfinished state the south western [end?] is [?ed] with cut stone in the grecian style and so are the windows on such side, and all appears to be of the best materials
The building features in The Churches of Kildare & Leighlin 2000 A.D., edited by Rev. John McEvoy, now Parish Priest of Rathvilly. It mentions that the bell from the old chapel in Englishtown was installed in it. Talbotstown is described as:
… a substantial structure built of granite, with a front of fine-cut blocks featuring six pillars. Three doorways allow access, two to the nave and the central one to the organ gallery. The porch has rounded stone arches, a feature repeated in the side-windows and the pillar-supported arch over the old altar.
The book notes that it never had stained-glass windows. Regarding the interior, it mentions that ‘the striking features are the high walls of exposed stone which support a beautiful ceiling painted by Grispini, an Italian artist who also worked on Humewood Castle, Kiltegan.’ This painting would have been done a few decades after the erection of the church, as Humewood was built in the 1860s-1870s.
There must have been much rejoicing when John and Martha Stratford’s eighth child arrived in the mid-1730s, about a decade into their marriage. According to Martha’s second cousin, Pole Cosby, that eighth child, Edward, was their first son. It is said that John and Martha had 19 children, with 15 of them surviving childhood. However, there seems not to be any definite record of all the children, or when they were born. So, it can be said that they had at least nine daughters, very likely eleven, and possibly more.
The Stratfords were upwardly mobile members of the Irish gentry in the early eighteenth century. John was the youngest son of Edward Stratford of Belan, Co. Kildare, and ultimately he succeeded to most of his property, including the town of Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, and much of its environs. Martha was the younger daughter of Archdeacon Benjamin Neale and his wife Hannah Paul. The Archdeacon’s career is a little hazy, but he may have been rector of Baltinglass parish about the time of his daughter’s marriage. The Co. Carlow parishes of Hacketstown and Rathvilly also vaguely featured in his curriculum vitae. In any case, he built a mansion in Rathvilly parish, just south of Baltinglass, which he called Mount Neale [now Mountneill]. After his death much of his property, including Mount Neale, and property from the Paul family passed to the Stratfords.
The Stratford family were a quarrelsome and litigious lot. There was always a disagreement going on between some of them. Sir Jonah Barrington, in his colourful and satirical Personal Sketches, commented that they ‘preferred law to all other species of pastime’. John and Martha had a not very harmonious relationship with their eldest son, Edward. Edward in turn was intermittently at loggerheads with his younger brothers, while his sisters appear to have had divided loyalties. According to Barrington, Edward had a dispute with his brothers about the running of the borough of Baltinglass. To remedy the situation he decided to nominate his sister Hannah as the borough’s new returning officer, an extraordinary proposition for the late eighteenth century. It ‘created a great battle’ into which the other sisters evidently waded. Barrington wrote:
The honourable ladies all got into the thick of it : some of them were well trounced – others gave as good as they received : the affair made a great uproar in Dublin, and informations were moved for and granted against some of the ladies.
The order of birth of John and Martha’s eleven, or so, daughters is very unclear. Almost certainly HANNAH was the eldest, though she has been referred to as Edward’s twin. She remained unmarried. If the order in which her sisters wed is any indication of their place in the family, they were born in this order: MARTHA (married 1753 Morley Pendred Saunders), ELIZABETH (m. 1758 Robert Tynte), AMELIA (m. 1760 Richard Wingfield, younger brother of the 2nd Viscount Powerscourt), HARRIOT (m. 1765 Robert Hartpole), GRACE (m. 1778 Rev. Hayes Phipps Queade), ANNE (m. 1778 George Powell) and FRANCES (m. 1781 William Holt). In addition, there was DEBORAH, who did not marry, as well as two others, MARIA and LETITIA, who died sometime before 1789.
Considering that the Stratfords were regarded as wealthy and that they were coming up in the world, the matches made by the daughters were unspectacular. Amelia was the only one who married into the aristocracy and even that was not a major step up the ladder, as her husband’s father had been elevated to the peerage only 17 years before she became the Honourable Mrs. Wingfield.
In 1763 the Stratfords moved up a peg in society, when John Stratford was created Baron of Baltinglass. This made Lord and Lady Baltinglass’s other married daughters the Hon. Mrs. Saunders and the Hon. Mrs. Tynte, while the unmarried girls became the Hon. Hannah, Harriot, Grace, Anne, Frances and Deborah Stratford. If Maria and Letitia were alive at the time they too would have been Honourables! The following year Amelia’s brother-in-law died and her husband became viscount. She was now Lady Powerscourt and once again ahead of her own mother in the pecking order, as viscountess trumps baroness.
In 1776 John Stratford was elevated to the title of Viscount Aldborough, but this did not change the status of his daughters. However, the next year he became Earl of Aldborough and his daughters’ prefix of ‘Honourable’ was replaced by ‘Lady’. This had no bearing on Amelia’s status as she already was the wife of a peer. By then all of the Stratford daughters ranged from young adults to middle-aged women. John Stratford had long been a wealthy landowner with social aspirations. With his newly found position as a peer in the 1760s, and a houseful of daughters, it might have been expected that better matrimonial alliances would have been a priority for him and Martha. For whatever reason, there were no advantageous marriages.
John died less than six months after gaining his earldom. His son Edward became the 2nd earl and he too had aspirations to greater social connections, but his sisters who married in the following four years did nothing to enhance the family’s grandeur. All three married with their mother’s approval, as she was a party to each of their marriage settlements. One married a student and future clergyman, while the other two settled for fairly ordinary gentlemen. Considering that each of them had a dowry of £4,000-£5,000, you might expect them to catch the younger son of a peer at least.
In relation to this generation of the Stratford family, original documentary sources are supplemented by Ethel M. Richardson’s Long Forgotten Days (London, 1928) and Ronald W. Lightbown’s An Architect Earl: Edward Augustus Stratford (Thomastown, 2008), and by an article, ‘Recollections of Visits to Belan House, Co. Kildare, in the Early Victorian Period’, by an anonymous female writer, published in the Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol. V, No. 5 (1908). Mervyn Archdall’s 1789 revision of John Lodge’s Peerage of Ireland, or a Genealogical History of the Present Nobility of the Kingdom listed nine of the daughters of John and Martha Stratford, including the little known Maria and Letitia, both of whom were stated as deceased by that time. Archdall’s source on these two daughters was ‘Information of the Earl’, their brother. Strangely Archdall omitted Frances and Deborah, both of whom were alive and well at the time. Richardson likewise listed nine daughters, omitting Maria and Deborah.
No one seems to have carried out a full inventory of the Stratford offspring. Over the years, daughters’ names have been thrown about and the total of nine has been quoted, without a careful head count. Assuming that Maria and Letitia actually existed, and there is scant evidence of that, there were at least eleven daughters. Certainly there were six sons. If there were 19 children altogether there are two others unaccounted for, and their gender is unknown.
The following is a very brief summary in relation to each of the eleven daughters of whom there is record:
Hannah: Apparently she was the eldest, named after her maternal grandmother, Hannah Paul (Mrs. Neale). However, Lightbown refers to her as Edward’s twin, and Edward was preceded by seven girls. Certainly Hannah was the eldest surviving unmarried daughter, as she was referred to as Miss Stratford before she became Lady Hannah, evidently at about the age of fifty. By all accounts she was a formidable woman. Apparently her opinion held sway with her parents. According to Barrington’s lively account of the dispute over the borough of Baltinglass, she was an ally of her brother Edward, the 2nd Earl. Hannah died unmarried in 1801 at 8 Great Denmark Street, the Dublin residence her brother the earl had used before building Aldborough House. At that time she was possibly in her mid-seventies.
Maria: According to Archdall’s revision of Lodge’s Peerage of Ireland, Maria was deceased by 1789. The only other evidence of her existence is the ‘Portrait of Lady Maria Stratford, daughter of 1st Earl of Aldborough’ which was sold at auction in 2019 as part of the contents of Fortgranite, the residence of the Dennis family, descendants of the Stratfords. Despite her want of biography, Maria’s picture fetched £18,000, three times the guide price. The portrait was attributed to James Latham, an Irish artist who died in 1747. If it was by Latham, Maria must have been one of the older daughters.
Letitia: Archdall also mentioned Letitia as deceased by 1789. The only other reference found to her was Richardson’s ‘to complete the long list, at the very end, came the little Lady Letitia, who appears to have died early unmarried’. Her position ‘at the very end’ may have come from Richardson’s imagination rather than real evidence.
Martha: The first of the children of John and Martha to marry. Her husband was Morley Pendred Saunders of Saunders Grove, just north of Baltinglass. The ceremony was celebrated at St. Anne’s in Dublin on 20 February 1753 by George Stone, Archbishop of Armagh. That little social coup may have come about by ecclesiastical connections through the Neale family. Stone started his rapid rise through the ranks in 1733, when he became Dean of Ferns. In the same year Martha’s grandfather, Benjamin Neale died in office as Chancellor of Ferns. Martha was still alive in 1800, when she was bequeathed a legacy by her brother Edward. Her many descendants included the Tyntes of Tynte Park and the Dennises of Fortgranite, both in West Wicklow, as well as the Saunders family. The 2019 sale of Fortgranite brought an end to her progeny’s association with the Baltinglass area.
Elizabeth: In 1758 she married Robert Tynte of Old Bawn, Co. Dublin, and Dunlavin, Co. Wicklow. He died in June 1760 near Bristol, on his way to Bath ‘for the recovery of his health, which was much impaired’. Their only child was born posthumously. This was the future Sir James Stratford Tynte, who was created a baronet in 1778, while still a minor. He married his first cousin Hannah Saunders, Lady Martha’s daughter. Lady Elizabeth remained a widow for the rest of her life. According to Lightbown, she died in 1816. The Tyntes of Tynte Park were her descendants.
Amelia: She married Hon. Richard Wingfield in St. Anne’s parish, Dublin, on 25 September 1760. Four years later she became Lady Powerscourt. Her husband died in 1788, but she was still alive in 1807, when she testified in a Chancery case concerning the will of her brother Edward. According to Richardson, she died in 1830, by which time she would have been in her late eighties at least. Among her living descendants are Sarah Ferguson and her daughters the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York.
Harriot: She also married in St. Anne’s parish, suggesting that the Stratfords’ town house was in that area of Dublin at the time. The wedding took place on 30 May 1765 and her husband was Robert Hartpole of Shrule in Queen’s Co. [now Co. Laois], then a grand house in decline. Richardson mentions an account of ‘when she, suffering the agonies of smallpox, gave birth to a dying baby boy’. According to Lightbown, Harriot died in 1775 (in which case she was never ‘Lady Harriot’). Her only surviving son, George, was the subject of one of Barrington’s Personal Sketches, in which the Stratfords were lampooned. He died in 1795, bringing an end to the Hartpole line that had been associated with Shrule for generations. Hannah’s daughter Martha married Charles Bowen and her daughter Maria married John Lecky. The historian William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903) was one of her descendants.
Grace: In 1778, the year after the death of her earl father, Grace married Hayes Phipps Queade. The ceremony also took place in St. Anne’s parish, on 1 September. As Grace’s mother was born no later than about 1708, Grace must have been in her early twenties at least by the time of the marriage. Her husband was a scholarship student at Trinity College, Dublin, aged about twenty-one, and the son of a clergyman. He graduated the following year and was ordained in 1780. Apparently his first appointment was not until 1799, when he became curate at St. Anne’s. Considering his youth and lack of prospects at the time of the marriage, it is not surprising that Grace’s marriage settlement stipulated (with Queade’s consent) that none of what she brought to the union would be ‘at the disposal or subject to the Controul of her said then intended Husband’. Grace died in or before 1803, when her will was proved. In 1805 Queade married his second wife, Narcissa McNemara.
Anne: James Shiel, an ally of the 2nd Earl, in a letter of January 1778, quoted by Richardson, observed:
Lady Ann sings to admiration the song in ‘The Beggar’s Opera,’ ‘I’m like a ship in the ocean lost.’
At the end of that year Anne married George Powell, apparently a distant cousin who attached himself to the Stratford family and later became agent to Anne’s brother Edward. Anne was still alive in 1798 but must have died soon afterwards. Her earl brother died on the second day of the nineteenth century, 2 January 1801, and eleven months later his widow, Anne Elizabeth, married George Powell. That union lasted only a few months before Anne Elizabeth also died.
Frances: She was the last of the sisters to take a husband. She married William Holt of Dublin on 26 April 1781 in St. Anne’s parish, with her brother-in-law, Rev. Hayes Phipps Queade as celebrant. She had two children, Edward Stratford Holt and Hannah O’Neale Holt, both mentioned in her will. In the late spring of 1792 it was known in the family that Frances was dying. On 30 April Lady Aldborough and Lady Hannah went to visit at her home in Crumlin, Co. Dublin. According to the 2nd Earl’s diary, quoted by Richardson, they brought home ‘her only child’ to stay with them in Dublin ‘as her poor Mother is not like to live’. A few days later ‘little Miss Holt’ was brought back to visit Frances. On 15 May Lord Aldborough wrote ‘Lost my poor sister Holt’. Three days later he entered:
Went to Crumlin, to do the last sad office to my departed sister in attending her remains to St. John’s. After the burial service was performed, had the coffin replaced in hearse, and Conveyed to Family Vault in Baltinglass, and grave intended for her in St John’s closed. Spent the rest of the day at home.
The ‘Family Vault’ was not a vault as such, and should not be confused with the much later Stratford Tomb that is to be seen now in Baltinglass Abbey.
Deborah: Debby, as she appears to have been called, remained unmarried. She was little mentioned until her later years. After the death of Edward, the 2nd Earl, in 1801, the next brother, John, became the 3rd Earl of Aldborough. At some stage John and his wife decided to lead separate lives. He remained at Belan House, to which he succeeded along with the title. After his wife’s departure his sister Debby lived at Belan with him, leading a quiet life. The anonymous ‘Recollections of Visits to Belan House’ paints a picture of Lady Deborah’s management of the household:
She was a notable housekeeper, always carrying a large bunch of keys, and keeping her store-room filled with all sorts of good things ; she distilled herbs, roses, and lavender ; she doctored the tenants, or thought she did so, for though they accepted her medicaments, they threw them all out, doctor’s stuff, as they called them, not being to their taste. At Christmas time she laid in great stores of raisins and currants, and, with the help of a boy named Hagarty, stoned all the raisins and prepared the Christmas fare herself. This same Hagarty must have had a bad time ; she watched him closely when stoning the raisins, and, if caught putting one into his mouth, boxed his ears so soundly that he tumbled off the high stool on which he was perched.
Eventually the earl’s daughter, Lady Emily, came to live at Belan, and Lady Debby departed. The anonymous writer added:
In a short time she retired from the scene , and lived a very retired life in Dublin in a large house, I rather think in Leeson Street. Her fine jewellery and a considerable sum of money which she took with her from Belan she carefully kept sewed up in her mattress.
There may be portraits of various of the Stratford sisters in existence. Apart from that of Maria, the only other encountered on this journey of discovery was one of Elizabeth with her young son James Tynte, reproduced in Lightbown’s book.
It’s not that far from home, but I had my first visit to Kilmore Quay, on the south coast of Wexford, just the other day. Apart from the combined feel of fishing village and seaside resort, the most striking thing about Kilmore Quay was the number of thatched houses to be seem. Passing through the village of Kilmore, a few miles inland from Kilmore Quay, such roofs were evident too.
A century or more ago thatched roofs were to be seen all over Ireland. By the 1960s they were a rarity. They had been replaced in very many cases by corrugated iron coverings, as I was reminded by a comment in response to an image I posted a few weeks ago on my Facebook page. Nowadays, driving through most parts of the country, passing a thatched cottage elicits comments about the quaintness and loveliness of its appearance.
The particular roof in the photograph here was just newly repaired and I had a chance to chat to the thatcher as he put huge bags of straw back in his trailer. He told me that Wexford is now the county with the most thatched structures in Ireland. He is a native of the village and one of only a handful of thatchers working in the county. A straw thatch, like this bright new one, would be expected to last for about twenty to twenty-five years, while a reed thatch should last for about forty years. Kilmore Quay has examples of both.
Looking online I learned more. It would appear that the phenomenon is one of revival rather than survival. The Irish School of Thatching, in Duncormick (not far from Kilmore Quay), runs short and intensive courses on the craft. Its website shows that some quarter century ago the late Peter Brockett was brought over from Bedfordshire to give a two-year course in thatching for FÁS (An Foras Áiseanna Saothair, the former national training and employment authority). Prior to that Ireland was accustomed to roofs lasting only seven years.
Revival rather than survival is a reason for optimism – even a source of inspiration. Reintroducing thatch to parts of Ireland, just like native species of wildlife, is a possibility. Wouldn’t it be nice?
A few months ago my website hosting company started sending me early and frequent email notifications about the due date of my annual hosting fee. When I made the payment (of just over €33) there was some glitch. I was assured by one of the staff that, even if the glitch wasn’t sorted, I had a month’s grace before anything drastic might happen to my site. No email notifications requesting overdue payment were received so I just forgot about the glitch.
Then a week ago my email stopped sending or receiving. I thought this was related to an old email problem, so I muddled along with an alternative email account till I could find a free day when I could hand over my laptop to my local IT expert. In the meantime, I discovered that my website was off-line. So I started communications with the hosting company. They acknowledged that the annual payment had been made back in July and they said they would look into the problem.
My IT expert needed further details (beyond my understanding) from the hosting company, so I made several calls to them and it was only on the third call that the penny dropped in my slow brain: the email and website were disabled a week before due to the hosting company’s glitch. As a result of my fourth phone call of the day, my website and email were restored at 5pm. Another day passed by before I got my laptop back, with the email problem eliminated, but with side effects. Tomorrow is another day of uncertainty, thanks to my hosting company’s internal glitch.
At the age of 116, Sam McAllister is the oldest resident of Baltinglass. He has stood at the centre of Main Street since his unveiling on 8 May 1904. He has become a symbol of Baltinglass and even a minor place-name. People often meet ‘at McAllister’. Pop-up events sometimes take place ‘at McAllister’. Unfortunately, on occasion Sam is made hold flags for sporting events or nationalist commemorations – not the most respectful treatment for such a venerable resident.
Sam is very much an accepted part of our community. I doubt that anyone dislikes him. People may be indifferent to him and take him for granted, if they don’t actively like him. Visitors take photographs of him. He was only in his mid-fifties when I was born about a hundred yards away from where he stands, and he’s been at the focal point of my home town all my life. The centre of Main Street would look very bare without him.
McAllister was a late starter in the centenary commemorations of the 1798 Rebellion. Other towns in Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford got their rebel statues before Baltinglass got Sam. The main impetus and funding came from Dublin-based organisers and nationalist emigrants living in the USA, but local committees were expected to raise money too. Baltinglass was a bit tardy, so the foundation stone was laid four years after the centenary and it was another two years before the unveiling.
Visitors may look at the statue and see its message of rebellion. Baltinglass natives may see an old friend. But McAllister is also a minor work of art. The sculptor was George Smyth of Dublin (c1857-1927). He created a life-sized statue of Sicilian marble, representing a defiant McAllister with his right arm in a sling and a rifle by his left side. The base was made of Ballyknockan granite.
Apparently George Smyth was known more for church sculpture. His premises were in Great Brunswick Street, across the road and a few doors down from those of another firm of monumental sculptors, the Pearse family. The street was later renamed after Patrick Pearse, while George Smyth’s premises were absorbed into Trinity College. George’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him were sculptors. The great-grandfather was Edward Smyth, who worked on the ornamentation of the Custom House in Dublin for the architect, James Gandon, who was greatly impressed by him. The riverine heads that adorn the keystones of the Custom House were Edward Smyth’s creation.
As a minor work of art, our McAllister statue has an interesting pedigree, but what of its purpose? Commemoration of 1798 was a way of keeping nationalism to the fore as the centenary of Ireland’s integration into the United Kingdom approached. There is no doubt that the proliferation of statues built a hundred years after the United Irishmen’s ’98 Rebellion had a political motive, one not shared by all Irish people. While the leaders of United Irishmen had set aside religious differences and the rebellion had been led in Ulster by Presbyterians, the fighting in the south-east had a strong sectarian element. Joseph Holt, a Protestant from the Redcross area of Co. Wicklow, was almost the only exception to the rule. Those who involved themselves in the rebellion in the south-east were almost exclusively Roman Catholic; those who were involved in opposing it were primarily Protestant. And then there was Sam McAllister.
Sam is someone of whom little is known. Certainly he was a Presbyterian from Ulster. He may well have come to the West Wicklow area as a textile worker in the calico factory in the new town of Stratford-on-Slaney. While in Co. Wicklow, he enlisted in the Antrim Militia, for whatever reason, in April 1798 but deserted three months later and joined the rebels. In February 1799 he was one of a party of rebels on the run with the local leader, Michael Dwyer, when they sheltered one night in a number of houses in Derrynamuck in the Glen of Imaal. They were ambushed and surrounded by a detachment of the Glengarry Fencibles. McAllister and Dwyer were in one house with two other rebels, both of whom were killed. McAllister was wounded in the arm and the thatched roof was set alight. According to Dwyer, McAllister sacrificed his life by standing in the doorway and drawing the soldiers’ fire in order that Dwyer might escape, which he did.
When it came to erecting a centenary statue in Baltinglass, the original intention was that Dwyer would be represented by it. However, there was a lingering resentment against him in the town due to a sectarian killing spree in December 1798 by a group of which he was the leader. It took place as they left Baltinglass on a Fair Day and walked along the Dublin Road (now Sruhaun Road) towards Tuckmill. Apparently Dwyer was not forgiven for this and so, remembering the Derrynamuck ambush, the shadowy figure of the little-known Presbyterian from Ulster was chosen in preference to the folk hero.
The monument’s inscription refers to both Dwyer and McAllister, and mentions the various nationalist struggles down to the Fenians in the 1860s. This structure cannot have been a welcome new feature in the centre of the town for the several Protestant families who lived here, because it represented a tradition that largely alienated them. Whatever they felt about it at the time, as the years went by McAllister became familiar. He wasn’t preaching or fighting or causing any disturbance. As the decades passed, he grew older and mellowed, and now he is older than anyone in Baltinglass. His persona has developed and grown.
With all his ambiguities, he represents what the beholder wishes to see. He’s a rebel, a shadowy hero, a Presbyterian nationalist, a work of art, an Ulsterman, an outsider, a ‘blow-in’ or (less politely) a ‘runner-in’, a migrant worker, an old friend, a venerable resident, an institution, an icon of Baltinglass, a symbol of our community, a constant in time of change.
I’m very fond of Sam. I look at him and see all those things at different times. Mainly I think of him as an old friend. He’s like a man of contradictions, all whose opinions I don’t have to share in order to appreciate his friendship.
It’s getting close to two years since I published my latest book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional. I wrote it because I passionately care about genealogy as a profession and I can see its structure declining before my eyes. Things have changed a little since the book was launched in October 2018 and one good change came to my attention recently. It relates to Atlantic Canada.
When I was researching for the publication I found it very difficult to get information about the Genealogical Institute of the Maritimes (GIM). This accrediting body was founded in 1983 and it provides credentials for genealogists conducting research in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. A few years ago its online presence consisted of an add-on to the website of the Nova Scotia Genealogy Network Association. It contained a few static pages and gave no contact details for those it accredited.
Recently I was asked to recommend a genealogist in Canada, without geographical specifics. There are two accrediting organisations within Canada, GIM and the Bureau québécois d’attestation de compétence en généalogie (BQACG), which only covers the province of Quebec. When I looked for the GIM web pages they were gone! I was afraid that the organisation had imploded, but when I searched for ‘Genealogical Institute of the Maritimes’ up came its new website.
The first thing I noticed was an excellent YouTube introduction to the organisation’s background and history by Allan Marble, one of its founding members. This new website has a list of GIM Members naming all genealogists, past and present, who have been granted credentials. Separately, it has lists of certified researchers currently active, arranged by province and with contact details. It was a pleasant surprise to see that GIM has been reinvigorated. Though it is one of the smaller accrediting organisations, it serves a very useful purpose for an area of the east coast of North America through which many Irish, English and Scottish migrated. Ireland’s cod fishing connections with the area, dating from the eighteenth century, are well known.
Incidentally, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional is available to order through Alan Hanna’s Bookshop, Dublin. Getting back to Canada, I wish long life and prosperity to GIM.
I’m not happy today to be removing this membership symbol from my website and mention of the organisation from my LinkedIn page. No, I haven’t left the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE). No, they haven’t kicked me out. Instead, they’ve closed up shop – permanently!
This institution within genealogy began life in May 1987 at an NGS Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. Initially it was called the Council of Genealogy Columnists but in May 2000 it became ISFHWE. It functioned as a support and networking organisation for writers on the subject, whether amateur or professional. Though its members primarily were from the USA, I felt it was worthwhile to get involved, partly for myself but also partly to support a body serving the specific area of genealogical writing. I joined in 2014.
In five and a half years of membership I had minimal involvement in the organisation, but I got the impression that most other members weren’t any more active. I did try to recruit a few members in my circle and one colleague joined. In the hope of encouraging some others to consider membership, I wrote an article for CONNECT – the online newsletter for AGI and ASGRA. These are the organisations that provide credentials for Irish and Scottish professional genealogists.
The article was about ISFHWE and a similar organisation which supports lecturers, the Genealogical Speakers Guild. I requested permission to use the symbols of both organisations as illustrations, seeing as I was trying to expand their membership. The then President of the Guild (of which I was not a member) readily agreed; the President of ISFHWE declined. Today I’m using it as a memorial of a dead society, without permission from anyone, as no one has the authority to stop me.
I have every sympathy for people who are trying to keep voluntary organisations going. Everywhere in the world, and in all types of pursuits, clubs and societies are run by a small band of people who find it hard to motivate others to get involved. I’m sure those running ISFHWE found it difficult in recent times. According to a comment I read just last night on the ISFHWE Facebook group, the organisation ‘struggled to remain viable, but just couldn’t thrive financially’. Was that the only, or main, reason for it to stop functioning?
As a member, I’m left wondering. There was no rumour, no hint, no discussion about disbanding. On 23 May I received the ISFHWE online quarterly newsletter, Columns, by email with the subject line declaring ‘Final Issue’. The email itself informed me that the issue included messages ‘regarding information on the dissolution of our Society’. That’s how I heard of it! The website (which was to disappear yesterday) had a notice on its homepage last night stating: The board members and staff regretfully announce that, as of 15 April 2020, the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors no longer exists as an active society. Looking at the Facebook group, I found a post, dated 18 May, saying ‘Fellow ISFHWE members – our Society is closing down’.
I’m baffled, and I don’t believe I’m the only one. There was some talk a while ago about needing to increase the annual membership subscription. This seemed like a reasonable idea, as the existing fee was small anyway. If finances were the only concerns they could have been addressed through consultation with members. Presumably there were other considerations, but if I were in charge of an organisation that was in danger of disbanding I would feel it incumbent on me to inform the membership of the possibility and provide the opportunity to turn things around.
There were approximately 140 members listed on the website last night. If they were told that there was a crisis and that a recruitment drive was needed to save the society, I’m sure at least some would have responded. They might have had ideas on how to make the organisation more vibrant. They might have decided to volunteer to help in practical terms.
One thing I would have suggested would have been to restructure the board of directors. The organisation had five officers but the rest of the board was made up of six regional representatives. Five of those regions were in the USA. The sixth represented the entire world outside the United States. From my time as a member I gathered that some of those regional seats were regularly uncontested. If they were not tied to geographical locations there might have been people from other regions willing to serve.
But it’s gone now – consigned to history – the only organisation of which I was a member that was dissolved without the members being informed. On 23 May I was told that the funeral had taken place, rather than being warned that the death was imminent. Do I sound tetchy? Certainly I’m sad, and I’m aggrieved that I wasn’t given the chance to help.
I would like to acknowledge the volunteerism that made ISFHWE work for over three decades and to thank Mark Beasley and Tina Sansone, two of the people who were helpful to me during the few years I was a member.
I haven’t been in a record repository for over two months. That hasn’t happened to me since the mid-1980s, when I took six months off to supervise a parish register indexing project. Even then I managed the odd trip to Dublin to feed my habit. Right now I’m blessed to have more than enough work to do at home, but soon I will start to crave the atmosphere of buildings that envelop you in traces of the past. The Registry of Deeds is my spiritual home, but any of the familiar libraries or archives would be a joy to visit in the near future. Meeting friends and acquaintances, staff members and fellow researchers, people I’ve known for decades – there is so much more to visiting a record repository than the records and the architecture.
Covid-19 has paused life and it has had an impact on genealogy in so many ways, some of which will only be apparent in decades to come. It has brought families together, at a distance, like nothing else has done in a long time. Most people are at leisure to talk remotely to parents, children, siblings and cousins. Family quizzes via video conferencing have become a phenomenon of the pandemic. I was talking to a man the other day who was telling me of the enjoyment he gets from his family’s weekly quiz, for which his children and grandchildren in Ireland and the USA get together. Two of his grandchildren, separated in age by a year but geographically by hundreds of miles – living in Colorado and Massachusetts, now chat familiarly and are getting to know their cousins in Ireland as well. In half a century today’s Great Isolation will be remembered by many as a time that created family ties.
Genealogical organisations in this part of the world also are seeing changes. I’ve attended council meetings of two such bodies recently on Zoom. One usually has its meetings in London and the other in Dublin. The London-based society has council members living in Australia, England, Ireland and Scotland. Its first two Zoom meetings had almost full attendance. The Dublin-based organisation is contemplating its first online CPD event. Of course, online events aren’t unusual for many in genealogy, with the likes of the Virtual Genealogical Association leading the way with webinars. But many of us have been slow to follow. Online meetings and webinars may well become the norm even if and when social distancing is consigned to history.
Covid-19 has imposed working from home on office dwellers all over the world, temporarily at least. This may be a welcome development for many, or possibly most. For professional genealogists, in general, there’s nothing new in this – we do much of our work this way in any case. Most professionals have a fairly extensive personal reference library as well as online resources to help in responding to enquiries. Report writing, dealing with email enquiries and corresponding with clients have been at-home tasks for most self-employed genealogists for decades. More recently the balance of research work between record repositories and online resources has swung sharply in favour of the latter. Had this pandemic happened ten or more years ago, things would have been different, for Irish genealogists anyway. Now we can do much of our research online.
‘So can your potential clients’, I hear you say! Indeed they can, but having sources available to you and knowing how to use them efficiently and effectively are two very different things. Some people who become clients are uncomfortable with technology. Others enthusiastically begin researching online and get stuck. Others get a certain distance and realise they need help. Others are long-term family historians who need advice or research in records unavailable to them.
In 1999, when I moved back to my home town of Baltinglass, after twenty years living in Dublin, I had to travel to the city two or three times a week for research. About twelve years ago a gradual change began, when the first significant Irish genealogical records went online. Now my trips to Dublin are spasmodic, but maybe once a week.
One thing I normally travel there for is the Genealogy Advisory Service (GAS) at the National Archives. This service, free to the public, is run by a panel of Members of Accredited Genealogists Ireland (AGI) on behalf of the National Archives. AGI is the organisation from which I hold my credentials. Since 2003, with one short break, AGI has been engaged by the Archives to provide this service. There is one accredited genealogist on duty each day, and I do two or three days’ duty per month. I was to be on duty on Friday 13 March, an ominous date, but that day the Archives closed due to Covid-19 and it has remained closed for the past two months.
As every good family historian knows, Invention’s mother’s name was Necessity. As a temporary measure, the National Archives decided to provide an alternative GAS by email. On Wednesday 1 April, another choice date, I had the honour and pleasure of being the first AGI Member on duty for this new venture. It’s not ideal, as at the real face-to-face GAS there is interaction with the enquirer and it’s much easier to explain the processes. Nonetheless, the email GAS is proving popular and we advisors are getting used to its quirks. It’s strange how the mind works: though I know I do the email GAS at my kitchen table, on other days I still picture my on-duty colleague sitting in the GAS room in the Archives.
This email service, with an accredited genealogist on hand to advise you, is yet another way that the world of genealogy is adapting in the time of Coronavirus. Already I’ve seen it being copied in principle by a commercial company and a genealogy magazine. We in AGI appreciate the flattery!
Not too long ago most people beginning to trace their ancestors found their way to a society they could join, a guide book they could read and / or a conference they could attend. Many people still do, but as genealogy grows in popularity it is becoming more of an unstructured quick-fix online hobby than a serious pursuit. Since big business has got involved it’s all ‘grow your tree’, unexplained databases, ‘hints’ generated by algorithms and, most recently, the magic of DNA testing. The element lacking for most people new to genealogy is context.
You don’t get context from a database entry. You don’t learn that Cork is the largest county in Ireland and that Collins is not an uncommon surname there. You don’t gain the basic knowledge to tell the difference between your ancestor Timothy Murphy or Honoria Lynch and all the other people of those names. Most importantly, you don’t realise that there are good reasons why your ancestor may not appear in that online database you’re using. So, where do you find context?
The best introduction to genealogy is a guide book – a good one, written by someone who knows the subject. But I’ve been wondering lately: do people new in family history read guide books anymore? Of course, guide books still sell, but it seems that, while the genealogy ‘industry’ has grown rapidly in the past two decades, the market for such books hasn’t kept pace. What’s that based on? Well, only observation – it’s an opinion rather than an evidence-based fact.
I’ve mentioned some of the older guide books recently on my Instagram account and I intend to highlight more in the next while. People may think that because a book was published ten, twenty or fifty years ago it has no value today. That isn’t true. The records described and explained in a guide book written in the 1960s have not changed: only the way of accessing those records is different now.
In 1992-1993 I wrote a series of articles in Irish Roots magazine reviewing all guide books for Irish ancestral research published to that point. I’m afraid I was savage in my criticism of a few of the awful ones, so much so that the magazine’s then editor, Tony McCarthy, had to tone down my most outrageous attack.
One dreadful book drove me to say this:
A hypochondriac who has spent a lifetime studying a wide range of illnesses could hardly be audacious enough to write a basic medical text book, but anyone who has toyed with family history for a wet afternoon seems to feel eminently qualified to explain the process to all comers. It’s as if they have invented a new pastime.
If I was writing such a series of reviews now I think I would be a kinder, especially to the self-deluded.
The very first guide book on Irish genealogy was written by the founder of the Irish Genealogical Research Society [IGRS], Rev. Wallace Clare, in 1937. A Simple Guide to Irish Genealogy was quite a slim volume: more of a pamphlet really. In 1966 a revised edition, updated by Rosemary ffolliott, was published by the IGRS.
Back in 1962 Margaret Dickson Falley’s two-volume Irish and Scotch-Irish Ancestral Research appeared. While Father Clare’s work was pamphlet-like, Mrs. Falley’s guide was of biblical proportions. In my review, I described it as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. However, I also warned:
This is a book to be dipped into, and you had better tie a rope around yourself and secure the other end to a strong family tree before taking a dip. Otherwise, you might never get back out.
The next guide produced was the Handbook on Irish Genealogy, published by Heraldic Artists in Dublin in 1970. I have no idea what that original one contained. My first copy was the enlarged edition that appeared in 1976. The author was Donal F. Begley but, as he was then second in command at the Genealogical Office in Dublin Castle, he was not in a position to put his name to it. It was not until 1984, when a sixth impression appeared, ‘Revised and Edited by Donal F. Begley’, that he was credited.
Three years before that, my favourite guide book of all time appeared, also published by Heraldic Artists. It’s my sentimental favourite because it was written by some special people and it was my first place of reference during most of the first two decades of my career in genealogy. This was edited by Donal Begley, who also wrote some chapters. The other writers were Rosemary ffolliott, William Nolan, Eileen O’Byrne and Beryl Phair. It has to be said that Rosemary ffolliott’s contribution to the book was the most significant, and the lists she compiled influenced some later guide book authors. Her chapter on the Registry of Deeds is one I regularly advise people to read before venturing to that repository.
From 1988 forward Irish guide books started to appear with alarming frequency. The reputable ones were James G. Ryan’s Irish Records: Sources for Family & Local History (1988), Tony McCarthy’s The Irish Roots Guide (1991), Christine Kinealy’s Tracing Your Irish Roots (1991), Bill Davis’s An Introduction to Irish Research: Irish Ancestry: a beginner’s guide (1992) and John Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors (1992). My reviews went up to that point. I was unfairly nitpicking in the case of Tony McCarthy’s book. He was my editor, so I didn’t want to seem to show favour. I regret that to this day. It was a much better book than my self-important review allowed.
As I said, guide books came hot and heavy from 1988 forward, but one was more successful than all the others and it set its author’s career on a successful path. That was John Grenham’s 1992 publication. Its second (and much expanded) edition appeared in 1999, and the fifth came on the market last year. John’s is the one book on Irish genealogy that is known just about everywhere, and justifiably so.
By 1993 I felt that there were more than enough books on Irish genealogy, but a few years after that review series I was induced to get involved in writing one myself. My AGI colleague Máire Mac Conghail invited me to jointly write a book with her for HarperCollins. Our Tracing Irish Ancestors appeared in 1997. It was my first experience of book writing and it was a hard slog. Some years later we got the opportunity to do an updated version. We were tempted, but by then indexation and digitisation were getting into full swing and it was as if anything you wrote would be out of date by the next week.
The flood of publications slowed down after the 1990s and became a trickle. One more significant book appeared in 1998. This was Ireland: A Genealogical Guide by Kyle J. Betit and Dwight A. Radford, who were editing an excellent magazine, The Irish at Home and Abroad, in Salt Lake City at the time. Since then there have been occasional books on the subject but the only one of note is Claire Santry’s The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide (2017). As the writer of the most influential blog on Irish ancestral research, Claire has the information on all the latest developments in publication, indexation and digitisation at her fingertips, as well as the knowledge of the records themselves.
As I said, older guide books still have value in describing and explaining records. Used copies of most of them are likely to be for sale somewhere on the planet, and Bookfinder is the best place to look for details online. John Grenham’s (5th edition) and Claire Santry’s definitely may be purchased as new. If you’re a beginner in Irish family history you would be advised to think beyond names in a database and learn about context. As the headline says – read a book, for God’s sake!
These photographs were taken at various times from more or less the same location between July 2018 and March 2020. The field in the foreground is at the very edge of Co. Carlow. It is in Mountkelly townland. Beyond the trees is Killalish (pronounced ‘Killalesh’) Lower townland in Co. Wicklow.
The twin mountains in the background are Keadeen (on the left) and Carrig (on the right). Over the shoulder of Carrig on a clear day you can glimpse the summit of Lugnaquilla, the highest mountain in Wicklow, and in Leinster. On the side of Keadeen towards where it merges with Carrig, are two discoloured patches that resemble two reclining figures. Local folklore says that they are the shapes of Finn McCool, of ancient legend, and his wife. I wrote about these figures in a previous post.
Here are the images:
(1) July 2018
(2) January 2019
(3) April 2019
(4) Mid-August 2019
(5) Late August 2019
The other evening in Mountkelly Lane. It was beautiful weather and Lugnaquilla managed to peep over the shoulder of Carrig. I've taken the same view at different times for over the past year. The yellow rapeseed dominated at the beginning of the summer. A few weeks ago it was all brown and tumbled down. Now just the stubble is left. I wonder what crop the field will get next year.
(6) October 2019
Yesterday (12 Oct) Mr & Mrs Finn McCool were enjoying a bit of autumnal sunshine on the side of Keadeen mountain. You can just see the figures over the top of the lowest trees. Of course, they were much clearer and closer to the naked eye. Lug is just in the picture also, on the right.
(7) March 2020
Today (21 Mar) Finn & Mrs McCool were a little cold on the side of Keadeen. Not a day for sunbathing! I'm afraid you can't really expect them to understand the importance of social distancing - they never move from that spot. Those clouds looked weirder in reality, as if a UFO was about to appear out of them. Anything could happen now that we're living in a futuristic disaster movie that's changing everything around us.
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!