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!
Supposedly evenings are when television programmes have their greatest impact. Really, with so many channels now, it’s just by chance that people see any programme, unless it’s the news or Nationwide or something spectacular like Line of Duty or something addictive (to some) like Love Island.
In my childhood, rural Ireland had one television channel, so everyone saw just about every programme. I remember (or think I do) watching the funeral of Pope John XXIII. Certainly I remember seeing Charles Mitchell on the RTE news speaking about the assassination of JFK.
Even in the 60s, Dublin had the bonus of BBC and ITV. Years later Ireland got a second domestic channel and before you knew it we had wall-to-wall channels, showing all sorts. So now it’s quite rare for anyone to spot the odd appearance on tellie by someone they know.
In the autumn schedule in 2018, RTE broadcast the third series of the Irish version of Who Do You Think You Are?, a franchise that has had surprising longevity. It’s almost 16 years old now. That third Irish series was made by Animo TV. I featured for less than ten minutes in one episode of it. I was talking to Laura Whitmore about her Farrar ancestors from south Wicklow / north Wexford. Blink and you’d miss me!
A few people told me they saw it / me – maybe four or five people altogether over the space of a few months. Since then, the series has been repeated at least four times at an unearthly hour when only night owls like me would see it. Indeed, I caught “my” episode once by accident.
Last weekend I was busy at Back To Our Past Belfast. On the Saturday afternoon RTE had yet another repeat of “my” episode. Apparently stormy Saturday afternoons are prime viewing time. Despite the competition from all the channels, RTE must have done well that day. Just as my AGI colleagues and I packed up to leave Belfast I got texts from three people telling me that they had seen me on tellie. One of the texts was from Malta! Over the next three days I heard from another six or seven people who hadn’t blinked during the episode and had witnessed my appearance.
In the past few decades I’ve been on the odd programme here or there on the goggle box. This was my only time to be involved in any way with any of the WDYTYA? series. Most of the research for this Irish one was done by my colleague, Nicola Morris, MAGI, and her company, Timeline. I was drafted in for part of the research on Laura Whitmore’s ancestry and that’s why I ended up explaining some of it on camera. In fact, all the professional genealogists who appeared as talking heads in that series were Members of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. I’m pretty sure this was the only series in the entire franchise so far ever to feature only genealogists before the camera who hold credentials. That’s a good development in a profession that generally disregards the importance of credentials.
Laura was very nice, as well as being very clued-in and professional. While waiting about, I had plenty of time to wander around the empty rooms of Coolattin Park, the former Irish residence of the Earls Fitzwilliam, where “my” segment was filmed. My one regret about the episode was that my research credit went to another AGI colleague: another Paul. In a previous episode Paul MacCotter, MAGI, featured in the end credits for his research. Evidently someone copied and pasted those credits into “my” episode and my work became that of the other Paul instead! That’s television for you. :(
I sometimes think that I’m more familiar with people who lived in Baltinglass in the past than those who live here now. I mean people who were here in the nineteenth century in particular. It’s not that I communicate with their spirits or anything like that! I just know them from their names in deeds or parish registers, in old newspapers or on gravestones. One such person was Alice Shaw.
Recently someone who knows my interest in the past brought me two large suitcases of old books he had found in an outhouse he was clearing. Though most of them were mouldy, he thought better of just dumping them before giving me the option of saving some of them. They were on various subjects and in varying states of preservation. I kept about twenty of them, some for their content, but others for their individual associations.
One book I rescued was Richmal Mangnall’s Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young People. I admit that I had never heard of this book or its author. I rely on the generosity and possible accuracy of Wikipedia for what I know now. Richmal Mangnall was, in fact, a woman. She was an English schoolmistress who first published the book anonymously in 1798, then in her late twenties. Later it was taken up by Longmans, the London publishers, and there were 84 editions published up to 1857.
The book I have is a ‘New Edition, corrected and improved’, printed in 1829. Curiosity as it is in its own right, it might not have caught my attention but for the signature on the title page: ‘Alice Shaw Baltinglass’. Of course, I knew Alice well, though she had not lived here for over a century and a quarter.
A book gains a life beyond itself when its owner signs it. In the first half of the nineteenth century Alice Shaw sat down in Baltinglass and wrote her name into this book; in the second decade of the twenty-first century I was standing in Baltinglass holding that book, looking at her signature. The book bridged the time difference. Alice Shaw was not just a random name that meant nothing to me. Immediately I knew who she was and I wanted to keep the book for that reason.
Alice Shaw did not lead a remarkable life, as far as I know, and I have no idea about her personality. She may have been lively, humorous, outgoing and charitable, or dour, crotchety, reserved and miserly. Whatever her character, for about eighty years she was part of the life of my home town: one of my predecessors in the space I inhabit.
Going from memory and material easily to hand, I can outline a bit about Alice’s background. The Shaws might be regarded as one of the old Baltinglass families. They were here from at least the mid-eighteenth century and the last of the family to live in the town died in 1911. A branch farmed just outside the town in Boley and they survived a few years more. Alice’s parents were Robert and Hannah Shaw. Robert was a builder, or building contractor. Hannah’s maiden surname most likely was Jackson, as there is a Robert Shaw to Hannah Jackson entry dated 1812 in the Index to Marriage Licence Bonds for Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin dioceses.
The Shaws were Church of Ireland. Baltinglass C. of I. parish is one of those whose registers were destroyed in the Public Record Office in 1922, so there is no surviving baptismal record for Alice. If her parents married in 1812 she must have been younger than the stated age on her death record, so probably she was born in late 1812 or in 1813. It is known that Robert and Hannah had at least two children, Alice and Esther. It is very likely that they had several more children, since Esther was about twelve years younger than her sister.
As Alice Shaw’s copy of Mangnall’s Historical and Miscellaneous Questions was published in 1829, she may have received it about that time, when she would have been in her late teens. Certainly her signature seems mature, but it is unlikely that she would have acquired a book like this beyond her mid-twenties. I wonder was it was a gift from her parents or a teacher or a friend? Maybe she bought it herself. I have a feeling that it meant something to her.
It is uncertain where precisely the family lived during Alice’s youth. In the 1840s Robert Shaw occupied two properties in the town and at least from that time the family lived in the one at the end of Main Street, directly opposite what is now the Credit Union. Robert’s other property was what is now Patterson’s in Main Street. Apparently he was renting other houses in the town to tenants, as Alice later did likewise.
Alice was in her early thirties when her father died in February 1846. Five and a half years later her mother died, in September 1851. For the rest of her life Alice was the owner of all the family’s property. As well as two pieces of land, in Sruhaun and Baltinglass East, amounting to 19 acres, she had tenants in two houses in Weavers’ Square and two houses in Mill Street. She and her sister Esther never married and apparently they continued to live together in the family home for over thirty years. By the 1880s they would have been regarded as elderly ladies.
In June 1888 Esther died of hepatitis at the age of 60. She was buried in Baltinglass Abbey with their parents. Four years later Alice also left this world, dying on 2 November 1892 from what was described as an intestinal obstruction which she endured for almost two weeks. She was probably about 79 years old, though her death record stated that she was 81. Her cousin and neighbour, Lizzie Shaw, was the informant on the record. The executor of Alice’s will was Rev. John Usher, the then Rector of Baltinglass parish. She left an estate of £354-16-0.
Alice Shaw was part of the life of Baltinglass for several decades. Her entire existence was spent in my corner of the world. No doubt she was buried with her parents and sister in Baltinglass Abbey, but no one bothered to add her name to the inscription on the gravestone. However, one day she sat down and wrote her name in her book; now that book is mine.
On a cold February night in the Glen of Imaal, Co. Wicklow, in 1799 it would have seemed unimaginable luxurious to those trying to stay warm that people in the future would swim in heated man-made pools. Rebels on the run hardly thought about such things. Telling ghost stories or tales about strange spirits might have whiled away the hours, but would they ever have thought that such stories could be told in the future through pictures moving on a wall?
Unless you’re from West Wicklow or have some family connection with the event, you’re unlikely to have heard of the siege at Derrynamuck. It followed the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland and involved the capture of a group of rebels, with only their leader, Michael Dwyer, escaping. On the other hand, if you’re not too young you may be familiar with the film Cocoon, released in 1985. It was about elderly people in a retirement home gaining youthful energy by swimming in a pool owned by aliens. It was a big hit at the time, and led to a sequel.
On the surface there is nothing to connect Derrynamuck and Cocoon. Separated by circumstance, character, the Atlantic Ocean and almost two centuries, they have no visible common factor. However, genealogy has a way of drawing unrelated things together.
It’s a small world, as they say. Mathematicians and social psychologists have long theorised about the connectedness of the human population and their idea has been popularised by the term ‘six degrees of separation’. The hypothesis is that any two individuals on the planet are connected in some way by no more than five intervening people. Well, a person concerned with Derrynamuck was connected to a person who acted in Cocoon through three intervening people. Therefore, there are just four degrees of separation between Derrynamuck and Cocoon.
The connection was not through Michael Dwyer or any of the rebels who were with him. Instead, the person concerned was Dominick Edward Blake. He was a young man in the 1790s and certainly not a rebel. Blake was a Church of Ireland (Anglican) clergyman, though he may not have been ordained at the time of Derrynamuck. Then in his late 20s, he had yet to secure an appointment to a parish within the C. of I. It was not until 1804 that he became the minister in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, a position he was to hold for nineteen years. Dominick Blake was born in Co. Roscommon. Exactly why he was in West Wicklow in February 1799 is unclear, but he may have been a friend of William Hoare Hume of Humewood, his contemporary at Trinity College Dublin. In fact, Blake, Hume and the rebel leader Dwyer all were born in or about 1772.
The 1798 Rebellion was an uprising against British rule, led by members of the United Irishmen and prompted by support from the French. The United Irishmen were mainly led by Protestant radicals and in Ulster the rebellion primarily involved Presbyterians. In the general area of Wicklow the rebellion primarily involved Catholics and events led to sectarian distrust and violence. Landlords, such as the Humes, expected their tenants of whatever religious persuasion to support them in fighting the rebels.
It was a trying time for all and the ties of loyalty often were tested. On occasion Dwyer himself was accused by fellow rebels of being too fond of Protestant neighbours. On the other hand, an anonymous letter to Dublin Castle called for William Hume of Humewood to be ‘properly cautioned from screening the disaffected of his own neighbourhood’. This William Hume was the father of William Hoare Hume. In October 1798 he was killed by a rebel named John Moore on the road from Ballinabarney Gap to Rathdangan.
Dominick Blake’s role in the story of the siege of Derrynamuck, four months later, came about by chance. A local man named William Steel got wind of the fact that Dwyer and his party were staying in Derrynamuck on the night of 15 February 1799. Steel was in Humewood at the time, as was Blake ‘who luckily happened to be on horse back’. Steel gave him the information and he galloped off to the garrison at Hacketstown to convey it to the commanding officer of the Glengarry Fencibles, a regiment apparently made up mainly of Catholics from the Scottish highlands who spoke little or no English.
As Charles Dickson’s The Life of Michael Dwyer states, the twelve rebels staying in three houses in Derrynamuck were surrounded by the Scottish regiment in the early hours of 16 February. In the exchange that followed a private soldier was shot dead, a corporal was fatally wounded and three of the rebels were killed. Dwyer escaped and the remaining eight rebels were captured. On 23 February they were tried in Baltinglass and sentenced to death. Three who were deserters from army and militia regiments were shot. Four others were hanged. The other man saved his life by informing about a murder which he may well have committed himself.
Four months after the siege Dominick Blake married Ann Margaret Hume, whose father had been killed the previous autumn. The marriage took place on 25 June 1799 and by then Blake was an ordained minister. His first recorded appointment was two years later, as curate in Kilcock. In 1804 he became Rector of Kilranelagh and Kiltegan. The present church in the village of Kiltegan, St. Peter’s, was built in 1806. The adjacent Glebe House (since enlarged and now no longer a church property) was built about a decade later. However, the Glebe House may not have been completed during Rev. Dominick Blake’s lifetime, as his address when he died was Barraderry. It may be that he rented Barraderry House, just outside Kiltegan, from the Pendred family. On the other hand, he may have had a residence on the part of Barraderry townland owned by the Humes.
Dominick Blake and Ann Hume had two sons born in Kiltegan, the younger being William Hume Blake (1809-1870). He added to the Hume-ness of his line by marrying his cousin Catherine Hume in 1832. In the same year his extended family, including his mother, emigrated to Upper Canada. He and various relatives were prominent enough in their new country to merit entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. William Hume Blake and Catherine Hume were the parents of Sophia Blake who married Verschoyle Cronyn. Their son Hume Blake Cronyn (1864-1933) was a lawyer and politician. His son, also named Hume Blake Cronyn, became an actor.
Hume Cronyn may not have been the biggest name in Hollywood but his was a very recognisable face among character actors from the 1940s to the first decade of the twenty-first century. His first film was Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). He received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in the 1944 film The Seventh Cross. It was the first film in which he appeared with his wife, Jessica Tandy. Cocoon was one of the last in which they worked together (as one of the elderly couples swimming in the aliens’ pool), but it was released four years before Jessica Tandy’s career reached its zenith with Driving Miss Daisy.
Hume Cronyn’s other films included Cleopatra (1963), The Parallax View (1974), The World According to Garp (1982) and Marvin’s Room (1996). He won three Emmys and a Tony for performances on television and stage, as well as a Tony in 1994 for Lifetime Achievement, jointly with Jessica Tandy.
Following Dominick Blake’s death on 2 October 1823 in his 51st year his parishioners in Kiltegan erected a plaque in St. Peter’s church expressing ‘their deep sense of his worth’ and ‘their grief for his loss’. A decade later his widow Ann emigrated to Canada, where she died in the 1860s.
After Derrynamuck Michael Dwyer spent nearly five years evading capture in the Wicklow Mountains before surrendering in the belief that he and his companions would be pardoned and sent to the USA. The man he chose to surrender to was Dominick Blake’s brother-in-law, William Hoare Hume. That instead the rebels were sent as convicts to Australia was never blamed on Hume. Hume died in 1815 in his early 40s. Dwyer died in New South Wales in 1825, almost two years after Blake, aged 53.
In August 1948, during the 150th anniversary of the 1798 Rebellion, what became known as the Dwyer – McAllister Cottage in Derrynamuck was handed over to the state in the person of President Seán T. O’Kelly. The ceremony was attended by William Hoare Hume’s great-granddaughter, Catherine Marie Madeleine ‘Mimi’ Weygand. Mme. Weygand died in 1991, ending the Hume family’s association with Humewood, Kiltegan and West Wicklow.
[I wish to thank Canon Jones and Kiltegan Parish for allowing me to use the image of the Blake plaque; also, I wish to thank Ms. Tandy Cronyn (daughter of Hume Cronyn), Darryl Reilly (New York City arts blogger) and Alan Hanbidge (Kiltegan Parish) for their assistance.]
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.
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!