A week ago I attended a marathon of an event. It lasted from 10.30am to sometime about 9pm, long after I had left. It was absorbing. It was full of surprises, good and bad. It was a glimpse into the past, and it said a lot about the present Irish economy. For anyone from my locality who attended it, there was no doubt a tinge of sadness as well as great fascination.
This event was the sale of the contents of Fortgranite, a gentleman’s residence just a few miles outside of Baltinglass. For over two hundred years it had been the home of the Dennis family, but recently it was sold and now we were picking over the family’s heirlooms, their more personal possessions and the things they had forgotten in the less visited corners of the ancient house.
As well as wanting to purchase a pair of Victorian bookcases and some genealogical books, I had the mad notion of ‘saving’ one of the many portraits for Baltinglass. The house was crammed full of the images of the Dennis family’s ancestors. Most of them were from the Swift family. Apparently they had come to Fortgranite from Swiftsheath, Co. Kilkenny.
In the male line the Dennises originally were Swifts. Meade Swift, a first cousin of the famous Jonathan Swift and a second cousin of the poet John Dryden, was the father of Thomas Swift who married Frances Dennis. Frances’s brother Lord Tracton died without issue in 1782. He left his estates in Co. Kerry to his nephew Rev. Meade Swift on condition that he adopt the surname of Dennis. In 1780 Rev. Meade Swift had married Delia Sophia Saunders of Saunders Grove. Through this marriage the family’s connection with the Baltinglass area had come about. It was their son Thomas Stratford Dennis who was the first owner of Fortgranite. It would appear that the property came with his marriage in 1810 to his first cousin Katherine Martha Maria Saunders. The last resident owner of Fortgranite was their great-great-grandson Piers Dennis, who died in January 2016.
The Swift portraits were not the ones I was concerned about. I got it into my head that the Stratford family portraits should remain in Baltinglass, where they had history and context. In my mind’s eye I could see them on the walls of Baltinglass Courthouse, a building almost contemporary with Fortgranite. Unable to interest anyone with money in being philanthropic, I innocently decided that I might manage to ‘save’ one of the portraits. Who could possibly wish to go beyond the guide price to purchase portraits of complete strangers by unknown artists? Well now I know that the answer to that is many people. The Stratford portrait I was least interested in was that of Lady Maria Stratford, about whose very existence I was previously unaware. The guide price was €4,000 to €6,000 but Lady Maria was fought over by a number of people before someone bidding over the phone got possession for €18,000. It must be said that the catalogue indicated that this painting was attributed to James Latham.
So, why did the Stratfords interest me, and why where their portraits in Fortgranite? Robert and Mary Stratford had a residence in Baltinglass in the 1660s. Their son Edward, though he lived in Belan, Co. Kildare, purchased the town of Baltinglass and many of the townlands in its vicinity from the Carroll family in 1707. His son John Stratford did much to encourage the development of Baltinglass. He married Martha daughter of Rev. Benjamin Neale (apparently Rector variously of Hacketstown, Kiltegan and Baltinglass) and through the marriage acquired further local property, including Mountneill, Co. Carlow, a few miles south of Baltinglass.
John and Martha became Baron and Baroness Baltinglass in 1763, Viscount and Viscountess Aldborough in 1776 and finally Earl and Countess of Aldborough in 1777. Their eldest son, Edward, was the more famous 2nd Earl. It was he who build Aldborough House in Dublin and founded the industrial town (now village) of Stratford-on-Slaney, a few miles north of Baltinglass.
The Dennis family were descended from John and Martha through their daughter, Martha Saunders. The last of the Stratfords was the 6th Earl. When his residence, Stratford Lodge (where Baltinglass Golf Club is now located), went up in flames in 1858 four Dennis brothers were among those who attempted to save its contents. Whether the portraits were there at the time is unclear but they came into the possession of the Dennis family either then or on the death of the last earl’s mother. In any case they adorned the walls of Fortgranite for over 130 years.
As for the portraits, they included one of the original Edward Stratford, one of his son John (1st Earl), two of John’s wife Martha and one of their son Edward (2nd Earl). To me, these historical characters were part of the story of Baltinglass and their images bring to life an aspect of our heritage. I determined to at least bid for the ‘cheapest’ of them, the nicer of the two of Martha Neale. The guide price was €1,500-€2,000 and I was sure it would sell for less. I never got to take part. The bidding started at €1,500 and the portrait sold for €5,000.
Martha Neale may not be a well-known historical character internationally but she possibly was the earliest woman associated with Baltinglass of whom there is a surviving image. Genealogically she made her mark on the world. As the mother of at least fifteen (family legend says nineteen) children she produced thousands of descendants. Among those living today are the Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie of York, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the acting brothers Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
During the auction various military jackets went for huge prices. Much attention was given to a letter dated 1901 from Winston Churchill replying to Capt. (later Col.) Meade J.C. Dennis, who took exception to his comment on the conduct of the Boer War. With the interest shown in military memorabilia it might have been expected that the letter would fetch a hefty sum, but this was not the case.
One portrait that went past me unnoticed, because it was surrounded in the auction by several Swifts, was that of ‘Miss A. Plunkett, niece of the first Lord Aldborough, Countess of Antrim’. This was Anne Plunkett, a granddaughter of the Edward Stratford who purchased Baltinglass in 1707. She was also the great-great-great-great-grandmother of Winston Churchill. I doubt Churchill was aware that the man he was replying to in 1901 was his fifth cousin twice removed.
It wasn’t necessary for me to find space in my house to accommodate Martha Neale, and she left Baltinglass after all. However, I learned that she and the other Stratfords of whom I was concerned went to ‘good homes’ in Ireland. This is reassuring to know. The Dennises were the last descendants of the Stratfords living locally, some three and a half centuries after Robert and Mary Stratford first came to Baltinglass. ‘The end of an era’ is a dreadfully hackneyed phrase. But in this instance the auction was just that, and I was there to witness the end.
In the last few weeks someone ‘Liked’ a Facebook post I published in September 2016. This made me read the post again and decide that it was worth repeating as a blogpost. Little has changed in the two and a half years since I first published the piece. Nothing has happened to the content of the database, either on the National Archives’ free Genealogy website or on the commercial site on which it is mirrored. The two sites have different descriptions of the records in question, but both are misleading. However, with the introduction of the National Archives’ new website there is a possibility that some correction to the database will occur. What follows is the original post from September 2016, with one updating note …
What a huge disappointment the release of the Catholic Qualification Rolls from the National Archives of Ireland has proven to be! It is not the material that disappoints but the way in which it has been presented. I quite appreciate that this does not reflect on the institution itself, as the work was not done in-house. The relevant database is headed variously ‘Catholic qualification & convert rolls, 1700 – 1845’ and ‘Catholic Qualification Rolls, 1700 – 1845’. Neither heading is correct, and whoever thought of throwing these two separate and distinct sets of records (actually merely indexes) together into one database evidently had no appreciation of their differences.
The Convert Rolls recorded those who converted to the Church of Ireland, whether in form only or through conviction, as a result of the Penal Laws. The Catholic Qualification Rolls recorded those who, from the mid-1770s forward, took an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to avail of relaxations of the Penal Laws through various Acts of Parliament. These were prosperous Roman Catholics were had no notion of changing religion. The two sets of records relate to different sets of people reacting differently to the same laws. They are now fed into one database with no differentiation between them. The related images (of pages from different sources) give the uninitiated viewer no hint as to what they are viewing. Indeed the database is misleading to researchers.
The images from the Convert Rolls merely show names and dates, with no context. Those seriously interested in tracking down a possible convert would do better to refer to the excellent revised edition of ‘The Convert Rolls’ published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission in 2005. The Rolls were edited by the late Eileen O’Byrne, FAGI, in the 1980s and published by the IMC. The revised volume includes Fr. Wallace Clare’s Annotated List of Converts, 1708-78 edited by the late Anne Chamney.
As well as conflating two very different sets of records, and misleading the viewer into thinking that they are in some way related, the new online database has entries with failed links to images and very many repeat entries. In fact, it seems to me that there are double entries for almost all individuals listed. From the description of the conflated database on Claire Santry’s Irish Genealogy News blog it is supposed to hold 52,000 records. Should this number be divided by two?
The NAI began its digitisation of records a decade ago and produced an exemplary set of databases to the 1901 and 1911 Census returns. In partnership with Library & Archives Canada the repository gave the world resources searchable in various ways. They were not just designed for family historians narrowly searching for specific ancestors but browse-able to allow genealogists and local historians alike to place each census form in geographical context. This helped researchers to circumvent many of the glitches in the databases. Some glitches (the omission of whole townlands or even DEDs) could not be overcome. Unfortunately these omissions, as well as corrections submitted by interested viewers, were never fully addressed and the databases remain exemplary but flawed. [Note: Since 2016 substantial work has been done on corrections]
The databases of NAI material produced since then, whether on commercial sites or on the NAI’s own site, have never reached the same standard of search-ability. It’s as though the records have been digitised and indexed with more concern for speed than ultimate utility; as though there was an urgency to empty the National Archives of its genealogical holdings. Sadly, once a database has been created, no matter how shoddy it may be, there is little chance that the original source will ever be revisited for high quality digitisation and indexation.
BTOP Belfast may not have been the biggest BTOP ever but there were plenty of people around and I enjoyed it greatly. Working with my AGI colleagues and the NAI staff was enjoyable. Meeting people (some for the first time; some catching up from before) also made it worthwhile. But the highlight for me was spending time with my retired colleagues Hazel Ervine, Joan Petticrew and Marie Wilson again after such a long time.
On my early visits to Belfast (like 30+ years ago!) they were at the heart of the vibrant Reading Room of the old PRONI in Balmoral Avenue. They were part of the small band of professional genealogists who founded APGI (now AGI) in Belfast in 1986. In the early years our annual general meeting was held in Belfast in alternate years and Hazel, Joan and Marie, along with the late John McCabe and our newest Fellow, David McElroy, were always there to greet us.
On Friday afternoon at the close of BTOP we in AGI, joined by other genealogists, had a little ceremony honouring Hazel, Joan and Marie (see the AGI news item). It was a happy event at which David recalled memories from the three ladies’ careers. His words made me think about my visits to Belfast back in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether those visits were for the AGM or for research in PRONI, my northern colleagues were always about and they were always welcoming and helpful.
Genealogy can be an entirely solitary pursuit if you only sit in front of your computer to research: even if you engage with people to an extent through forums or social media, or even Skype. Meeting people face to face, in the flesh, is an entirely different experience. I met people over the weekend I had corresponded with online or had heard of. Events like BTOP are among the few opportunities we have now for meeting in the flesh. The experience of genealogical research has been altered entirely by online availability. Record repositories are victims of their own success in responding to the demand for remote access. Their reading rooms are devoid of the hustle and bustle they once had. Going into Dublin’s repositories now you might see a few familiar faces, but meeting colleagues on a daily basis is a thing of the past.
It’s sad really, and David’s words on Friday made me acutely aware of what we have lost in gaining easier and faster access to information. As I said, spending time with Hazel, Joan and Marie was the highlight of BTOP Belfast for me.
Shock and horror! Today is the fortieth anniversary of my first day of work in genealogy. Where has all that time gone?
I should add that I was a mere teenager then, albeit months away from not being one. It was a dream-come-true. A few days earlier I had my ‘interview’ with Gerard Slevin, the Chief Herald, and I tried to impress him with my meagre knowledge of the records. He already had made up his mind. The Genealogical Office had a backlog of pre-paid searches and not enough researchers. Unknown to me, my enthusiasm had been mysteriously recommended to him and he was prepared to give me a chance.
What was on offer was not a job. It was a place on the panel of freelance researchers for the GO. I would be guided in my initial steps and I would be paid for the searches I completed. Mr. Slevin’s advice has rung repeatedly in my ears over the forty years since: Get it out of your system and then get a real job (or words to that effect).
He was not denigrating the profession of genealogy, as it didn’t exactly exist in Ireland at that time. No one conducting genealogical research for a living. Third level students did it part-time as a source of income; mature married women did it to stimulate their brain; people of independent means did it for the enjoyment. I was going to do it because it was all I ever thought of as a career. Perhaps I should have thought harder!
Working in genealogy for forty years has been hugely rewarding to my soul; had it been equally rewarding in monetary terms I would be a billionaire now. I’m not a billionaire. I had no desire to be wealthy and I knew genealogy would never make me rich. That, at least, was an accurate prediction.
This day forty years ago was thrilling for me, as I stepped across the threshold of the GO as one of its freelance researchers. I experienced delight and terror in equal measure. I met with kindness and encouragement from staff members and freelance researchers alike. They gave me an excellent grounding in genealogical research on which to build over years and decades.
It was in February 1979 that I first met my fellow freelance researchers, Eileen O’Byrne and Eilish Ellis, both now gone to a better place. They were my seniors in age, education and experience but they never made this gormless eejit of a teenager feel like anything other than a colleague. How can that be all of forty years ago?
Predictive text often has us using odd words, conveying a message we never intended. Technology doesn’t always know what we’re thinking! To an extent there is a similarity with the automated ‘helpful’ suggestions we get from the websites of data-providing companies. While they may prove accidentally relevant, or even helpful, by and large they are misleading distractions.
Those I have received fall into two categories: records I already have (but haven’t displayed on an online family tree) and records of people with the same names as my ancestors (but from an entirely different part of Ireland). Luckily I can tell the difference between my ancestors and these strangers. But people starting out in family history often think that the computer somehow mysteriously knows best, and ‘adopt’ the strangers into their online family trees. The fact that the strangers may not fit geographically, socially, religiously or chronologically with their known ancestors doesn’t immediately occur to them. This is one of the root causes of ‘genealogical virus’.
That’s not a widely used expression. ‘Genealogical virus’ is a phrase I coined to describe what I feel is a damaging trend and I first used it in print last year in my book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional.
The cynic in me knows that the ‘helpful’ suggestions are designed to keep me engaging with the site, in case I get bored and wander off to a more ‘helpful’ data-provider. But there are more useful ways that they might engage their customers. If they would concentrate more on explaining the genealogical and historical context of databases, and less on technology, they might well provide information that is helpful to their customers, while retaining their interest.
As things stand, the explanation of sources that such sites provide is meagre to non-existent, and in some cases downright inaccurate. It is apparent that the decision making behind these sites is in the hands of accountants and technology experts rather than genealogists. Hard-nosed business decisions are understandable, but they can go hand in hand with real attempts at helping customers find their way around the records. Educating the customer is not necessarily a bad business decision.
The nature of genealogical research has changed significantly since it has shifted from the record repository to the computer. It is noticeable that a large proportion of novices are less au fait with the records and research methods. They are more inclined to accept hints at face value and ‘adopt’ strangers into their family trees, thereby spreading genealogical virus. This has an impact on my work. How is that?
When I’m approached by a potential client looking to expand on their information on a particular line of ancestry I have to evaluate their information and determine whether worthwhile research is possible. This was a fairly straightforward process a decade or more ago. More often than not they had correct information. Now I no longer can assume that this is the case: evaluation has become more time consuming. I’m sure fellow professional genealogists everywhere are having the same difficulties as I am. Now, more than ever in the past, it would be remiss of a professional simply to take a client’s information and start building on it.
Very often an enquirer will refer me to their online family tree for information. Do any professional genealogists actually base their evaluation on such shaky foundations? I don’t. An online family tree, no matter how many ‘sources’ it may have attached to it, can be riddled with genealogical virus. To evaluate its contents it needs to be picked apart very carefully. Having any number of sources attached does not indicate the research process employed, or ensure that the alleged ancestors are who the enquirer thinks they are.
I would be quite happy to be commissioned to play devil’s advocate on the contents of an online family tree. But it’s another thing to conduct a free evaluation in order to determine whether further worthwhile research might be possible.
Because I don’t know an enquirer’s level of experience in family history I have to treat all as beginners and ‘interrogate’ them as to their initial family information, their research approach and the sources that have led them to the ancestors they wish me to work on. This doesn’t always go down very well with enquirers. But, unfortunately, it has to be done because of the relationship between genealogical virus and computer-generated helpfulness!
I had 13 grandaunts and 18 granduncles – 31 in all – but only four of them were still alive when I was born. It seems that grandaunts and granduncles have gone out of fashion with Irish people. They’ve been supplanted by great-aunts and great-uncles. Why has this happened?
I met two of my grandaunts when I was very young. During my summer holidays I was brought to visit them in the upstairs sitting-room of the house in which they were lodgers. We called them Aunt Katie and Aunt Aggie, but they were my grandaunts, my mother’s aunts and my grandmother’s sisters. Katie was born in 1873 and Aggie in 1887, but they seemed equally ancient to me, with white hair and long dark, old-fashioned clothes. I thought I had been on a number of such visits but looking at the facts now that can’t be true. The visit I remember cannot have been later than the summer of 1964, when I was turning five, because Katie died in December 1964.
Why is that unremarkable visit etched in my mind? Maybe meeting those two old ladies from a bygone age was one of the things that ignited my love of the past. As I expanded my interest in family history over the next decade I was told the names of many relatives from early generations on each branch of my ancestry. They included many of my grandaunts and granduncles, as well as great-grandaunts and great-granduncles. That’s what such relatives were called in Ireland back then.
That’s what such relatives are still called in Ireland. But more and more frequently I’m encountering people who self-consciously refer to their ‘great-aunts’ and ‘great-uncles’. Why is this? Maybe there is less connection between generations now and people are unfamiliar with such relationships. Or maybe they think it’s posh to say ‘great-uncle’. Certainly great-aunts and great-uncles are popular in more affluent English circles, and they get a lot of television exposure from the likes of Who Do You Think You Are? However, they don’t hold sway with everyone in England – a colleague with a background in Yorkshire uses ‘grand’ rather than ‘great’.
Dictionaries, if they mention them at all, will usually give ‘great-aunt’ and ‘grandaunt’ as alternatives. However, I’m saddened by the New Oxford Dictionary from Writers and Editors omitting grandaunt, granduncle, grandniece and grandnephew, while populating its pages with all the equivalent ‘greats’. Getting back to ‘great-aunt’, it is long established in many other English-speaking countries. But to me it’s illogical and inconsistent with other relationship terms. Why would my grandmother’s sister be my great-aunt instead of my grandaunt? Go back a generation and my great-grandmother’s sister is (quite rightly) my great-grandaunt. Unfortunately, there are people who would call my great-grandmother’s sister my great-great-aunt! That’s a step beyond!
The English language is rich in alternative words because of its inheritance from Germanic and Latin roots. The word ‘great’ was in Old English before the Normans brought ‘grand’ with them from France. Having ‘aunt’, ‘grandaunt’ and ‘great-grandaunt’ as genealogical terms helps to differentiate between the immediate generations in a family. I see no good reason to collapse the structure by removing the second layer.
On the recent Irish series of Who Do You Think You Are? I was glad to hear Pat Shortt several times referring to a granduncle. Adrian Dunbar did so too, though he alternated between the two terms as if he was unsure if great-uncle was the correct thing to say.
My gripe-of-the-day stems from a concern for tradition. Irish people traditionally have had grandaunts and granduncles, regardless of what such relatives have been called elsewhere. Let’s not lose touch with the past while digging into it. Hold on to your grandaunts and granduncles. They’re part of your heritage.
Over the weekend my AGI colleagues and I were busy at the annual Back To Our Past (BTOP) event at the RDS in Dublin. We were running the AGI (Accredited Genealogists Ireland) stand, providing free 20-minute consultations, answering queries and promoting members’ publications. Among the publications was my new book, Credentials for Genealogists: Proof of the Professional, and I was very gratified by the response from professional genealogists and aspiring professionals.
While we were working away voluntarily at BTOP, promoting our accrediting and representative organisation, one of my colleagues was alerted by a friend to a slur in an Irish genealogy group on Facebook. In reply to a query about how to find a professional genealogist, the friend had posted a link to AGI’s website. A response was posted along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t trust any of those accredited genealogists: I’ve heard they’ll just take your money’.
My colleague followed this up and it transpired that versions of the same rumour were doing the rounds on various groups, all emanating from a genuine complaint made by one person. When my colleague tracked down that person they were happy to explain the real story and they asked: Is there anything you can do to stop her [the ‘genealogist’ who they engaged] from doing this to someone else?
The complaint was not about a genealogist accredited by AGI or any organisation. It was about an individual in Ireland operating a research and tour service under a business name. When told about it I recognised the name, as I had been contacted about this person a few years ago. It was a similar story – a client from overseas had paid this person for research, the research was not fully completed and / or there were mistakes, emails received delayed responses and then none at all.
The individual’s research / tour service has a website on which it is claimed that the business has membership of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), New England Historic Genealogical Society, the Irish Genealogical Research Society and the Irish Genealogical Society International. This sounds impressive, but it is misleading as there is no actual membership of at least two of the four organisations. Three of them are general membership organisations that anyone can join. The other, APG, is a support or networking body for people working as professional genealogists but it provides no accreditation, and membership is open to anyone who undertakes to pay an annual fee and abide by its code of ethics. Evidently the research / tour service person does not abide by any code of ethics and it appears that she is not currently a paid-up member of APG.
So what can Accredited Genealogists Ireland do about this? The answer is simple: Nothing! AGI provides credentials for Irish genealogists whose work is approved by an independent board of assessors. It represents the interests of those genealogists and it will investigate any complaints made about their practices. AGI does not control the activity of practitioners outside of its membership.
On the other hand, AGI and its membership suffer the consequences to the profession’s reputation of the behaviour of people calling themselves professional genealogists who have neither ethics nor ability. AGI Members and Affiliates, as well as respected practitioners outside the organisation, are victims of the fly-by-night ‘genealogists’ just as much as the people who part with their money to these characters. And to add insult to injury, we have to deal with the utterances of third party rumour-mongers who blithely spread stories they only half understand about ‘accredited genealogists’ taking your money.
My advice to anyone stung by a fly-by-night is to complain to any organisation of which they claim membership, complain to any publication or social media outlet in which they promote their services, complain to any record repositories they mention in their publicity and complain to the relevant tourism and consumer affairs authorities.
My advice to anyone wishing to engage a genealogist is, as always, to look for someone with credentials from one of the world’s regional accrediting organisations. They’re all in my new book!
The recent intense and prolonged heatwave experienced by Ireland reminded me of a short newspaper article I came across a few years ago. I included it in my contribution to the Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, No. 6 (2011), ‘Miscellaneous Biographical Notices Relating to Baltinglass, 1748-1904’.
The article recounted the tragic death of a little boy during a hot spell in August 1882. It appeared in the Saturday 12 August edition of the Kildare Observer, under the heading ‘Death from Sunstroke’:
During the past week a child of Mr. Felix Bowes, of Baltinglass, died from the effects of the intense heat. The deceased was a fine little boy of five years of age, and was playing with a number of other children, when he complained of having a pain in his head, and, after a short illness, succumbed. It appears his head was uncovered, and it would be desirable children should not be allowed to expose themselves to the heat of the sun this weather.
The little boy was John Bowes. He was indeed five years old, as he was born in Baltinglass on 7 January 1877. On his birth record he parents were named as Phelim Bowes, a tailor, and Margaret Bowes, formerly Parker. The names Phelim and Felix were used interchangeably, due to Felix being used as a pseudo-translation of Phelim.
The exact date of John’s death is in doubt. Theoretically, the newspaper was published on Saturday 12 August but it may have appeared a few days before or after that date, as local newspapers often did until recent years. John’s death record gives his official date of death as 13 August, but it was not registered until 13 October, so the date is most likely inaccurate. The record stated that the uncertified cause of death was ‘Sunstroke two days’.
A little bit of digging showed that Felix Bowes married Margaret Parker in 1870 June in the Leeds area of Yorkshire. They were not identified in the 1871 Census in England and the first reference found to them in the Baltinglass area was John’s birth record in 1877. Presumably Felix was a Bowes of Killabeg, Co. Wicklow (between Shillelagh and Tullow), as Catherine Bowes of Killabeg was informant on John’s birth record. John’s mother, Margaret, converted to Catholicism in Baltinglass on 17 October 1878. She was baptised conditionally and the record stated that she ‘was married before Baptism in Protestant Church’. The record gave her parents as Edward Parker and Sarah Watson.
Felix and Margaret Bowes had three younger children – Charles (1879), Felix (1881) and George (1882). Felix died at birth. Then, the following year, John died of sunstroke. George died just over four months after John, aged seven months. The cause of his death was hydrocephalus, more commonly called ‘water on the brain’. The final tragedy came sixteen months later, when Margaret herself died on 21 April 1884 at the stated age of 36. The certified cause of death was ‘Decline’, which she had suffered for ‘years’, possibly from the birth of her last child.
The loss of four members of his family in the space of three years did not entirely defeat Felix Bowes. Four months after his wife’s death he married again. This was not unusual and, indeed, with at least one living child it was necessary that he find a wife who would share the burden. He married Mary Roche of Baltinglass in August 1884. Initially they lived in Car’s Rock, just outside the town, where their son, another John, was born in 1885. Their other children born in Car’s Rock were Michael (1886), Catherine (1888) and Walter (1890), while Felix (1892) and Edward (1894) were born in Baltinglass. Edward died at five weeks old. Felix Bowes, the father of the little boy John, died a widower in April 1916 in Baltinglass Workhouse, at the stated aged of 78.
Earlier this month, on Facebook, I posted the first of two short pieces about the figures of Finn McCool and his wife on the side of Keadeen Mountain in West Wicklow. Actually the figures are on the western face of what is two mountains in one, Keadeen having the higher, northerly summit and Carrig the slightly less talked-about southerly one. Here is what I said:
In the January 1905 number of the Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society (Vol. IV No. 5), Charles Drury published an article, ‘County Wicklow Archaeological Notes Around Kiltegan’. He covered folklore associated with 34 locations (many some distance from Kiltegan). No. 28 was ‘The beds of Finn M‘Cool, his wife, and dog’, with no further explanation. Evidently Finn McCool’s spot on the side of Keadeen was an old folk tale by 1905. So 113 years later it’s a very old folk tale.
When I was young my father pointed Finn McCool and his wife (and maybe his dog) out to me. I’ve been very fond of them ever since. I see them most days I go cycling. They can be viewed from a long distance, though their dog is not quite as conspicuous. Coming into Baltinglass from Castledermot at Clough Cross is a good place to see them from. At the side of Talbotstown Church is another. It’s not that easy to get a good photograph of them as they are always quite far away, no matter where you are.
Two weeks ago I shared this photograph of them on my personal Facebook page because Finn McCool and his wife were quite visible when I was out cycling. Normally they are a sort of light brown / straw colour. In the present, unprecedented heatwave the grass everywhere around turned to straw and the McCools turned green!
In response to that post I got several comments. One questioned which of Finn’s wives was with him, as ‘Did not Diarmuid run away with Gráinne, Finn’s wife?’ I replied:
My wonderful Googling skills have unearthed the information that Sadhbh was Fionn (Finn)’s most famous wife and that Gráinne was his wife when he was at an advanced age. I’ll give the name of Sadhbh to Mrs. McCool of Keadeen from now on!
Another response was from Duncan, a local man much younger than me, who was told when he was a child by an old man named Paddy Kelly that the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne was depicted on the side of the mountain. He said ‘Hounds visible either side of Gráinne and Diarmuid, Finn and hounds visible on the left side of the mountain chasing them’.
Apparently Duncan believed that the Finn McCool and wife figures were those of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
I’m afraid the additional story of Diarmuid and Gráinne in relation to Keadeen is of recent origin! The folk tale of Finn McCool and his wife [possibly Sadhbh] on Keadeen is an ancient one. I only heard Diarmuid and Gráinne added this week! That aspect may have been the invention by Paddy Kelly, who told Duncan when he was a child.
A good measure of folk memory is the National Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Collection, dating from the 1930s. Of course, 1930s children didn’t always get things right, but the collection can help us know about traditions from 80 years ago. There is one mention of Finn McCool on Keadeen in the Schools’ collection. It’s from Talbotstown National School, and dated 27 May 1938 (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0917, Page 171). I’m reproducing the image of the relevant section here, acknowledging the National Folklore Collection’s copyright.
It would appear that the information from Talbotstown was written by the teacher rather than any of the children, as no child’s name is given and the composition and penmanship are advanced and consistent. The informant about Finn on Keadeen was Mr. Richard Geoghegan of Danesfort, ‘whose father resided at Talbotstown’. Richard Geoghegan was living in Danesfort at the time of the 1911 Census, stating his age as 36. In 1901 he was living in Talbotstown Upper, stating his age as 26. So he was born about 1880.
The tale told by Mr. Geoghegan in 1938 was that Finn and his wife died on the western slope of Keadeen. It’s interesting that the writer says ‘The remarkable thing about it is that even when the rest of the mountain looks green in the distance the two brown patches stand out in contrast to the rest …’. That’s exactly the opposite of what is happening in the present heatwave, as I remarked in recent weeks.
If you were to take a photograph to capture the essence of Baltinglass you might think of a general view of the town from the Carlow Road, or one of the Abbey from across the river. But you’re as likely to think of the McAllister monument as your symbol of Baltinglass. McAllister has been at the heart of the town for a lot longer than living memory. In fact, Sam McAllister has been standing in Main Street for exactly one hundred years [first published in 2004].
In May 1904 a huge crowd gathered for the unveiling of the new statue to commemorate the 1798 Rebellion. Six years had passed since the centenary, but the idea of a monument had only been mooted in Baltinglass at a meeting in March 1898. Raising money for the statue was a long process. Two organisations based in Dublin were the driving forces behind the commemorations throughout Wicklow. On a local level the Dwyer and McAllister Memorial Committee did their best to raise funds. However, much of the money came from outside Ireland, with emigrants in America subscribing substantially.
The first ceremony at the monument site was the laying of the foundation stone on Sunday 15 June 1902. Special trains ran from Dublin with a return fare of two shillings. Hundreds of people poured into the town. Despite unrelenting rain, there was a long parade before the stone was laid by E.P. O’Kelly, the Baltinglass man who was then Chairman of Wicklow County Council.
It was almost another two years before the monument was put in place and unveiled. On Sunday 8 May 1904 an estimated 10,000 people crowded into the town. Fortunately it was a sunny day. A parade started at the railway station, where the Lord Mayor of Dublin and other dignitaries arrived. With flags, banners, costumes and marching bands, it was an exciting day for Baltinglass in an era when entertainment was not to be had at the press of a button.
So began Sam McAllister’s long vigil in Main Street. The railings that once surrounded the base of the statue were removed decades ago to be placed at McAllister’s grave in Kilranelagh. In more recent years the area around the statue was paved, and now Sam is floodlit at night [not anymore]. After a hundred years keeping watch over the town McAllister is recognisable to all Baltinglass people as a symbol of home. But the irony is that the real Sam McAllister was an outsider with no real links to the town.
Little is known about McAllister’s life other than that he was a Presbyterian, originally from Ulster, who deserted from the Antrim Militia and joined the rebels. The historian Ruán O’Donnell says that McAllister joined the Antrim Militia on 1 April 1798 in Co. Wicklow and that he may have been resident in the area at the time. That being the case, there is a strong possibility that he was living in Stratford, where there was a significant number of Presbyterians among the weavers working in the textile factory.
What gave him his heroic reputation was the circumstance of his death in the early hours of 16 February 1799. A group of rebels led by Michael Dwyer were sheltering for the night at Derrynamuck in the Glen of Imaal. They were ambushed by a detachment of soldiers and McAllister was wounded in an exchange of fire. In order that Dwyer might escape, McAllister stood in the doorway and drew the fire of the surrounding soldiers.
Unlike other rebellions in Irish history, 1798 involved people from various religious backgrounds. In Ulster it was primarily a Presbyterian phenomenon; in Leinster it was primarily Catholic, but there were Church of Ireland activists, such as Joseph Holt from east Wicklow. However, it has to be admitted that in Wicklow the revolt had a sectarian element and the rebels were no heroes to the general Protestant population.
Sam McAllister was, therefore, something of an oddity. It would be nice to think that the choice of McAllister for the Baltinglass monument was primarily inspired by a desire to be inclusive of all elements in Irish society. However, tradition has it that he was selected in place of Michael Dwyer because Dwyer was held responsible in Baltinglass for a sectarian killing spree in Sruhaun and Tuckmill on 8 December 1798.
Monuments have a way of developing their own character. In 1904 McAllister represented heroism in rebellion. After a century on the street in Baltinglass, Sam has become a symbol of the town. The real Sam McAllister was an outsider. His image in the heart of our town is a reminder that today’s outsider is tomorrow’s old resident.
[First published in The Baltinglass Review, 2004]
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!