Great Read !! #bookreview

I was always taught that when you start reading a book you have to be captured almost instantly – certainly within the 1st chapter – to know whether it’s worth reading the rest of it …well I was certainly captured with “Where’s Merrill?”

Amazon - Top Ten Thrillers

I can tell you that !!!!

M T Cooper (somewhere in England)

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Not-so-romantic Ireland of old

In my work as a professional genealogist, overseas clients who are the descendants of Irish immigrants regularly relate to me the passed-down stories of why their ancestors had to leave the beautiful island of Ireland. More often than not, these tales are wildly romanticized having been created by ancestors who lived centuries ago, safe in the knowledge that their claims could not be checked out; well, not in their lifetimes anyway.

I have heard a story about a Kerryman who once lived in a grand castle until he was forced to flee Ireland as part of a honorable settlement between warring clans, thereby bringing peace forever more to his native region. Then there was the Corkonian Catholic who passed every course on offer at Trinity College with flying colours only to find that jealous business-owning Protestant families would not employ his inventive engineering skills, so he had to relocate to America to show off his talents. And I’ve been told many a yarn about numerous brave freedom-fighting Republicans who had to be smuggled out of Ireland with hundreds of British Government spies hot on their heels.

Thorough research can often reveal the truth behind the romance, although many clients prefer to ignore the unearthed evidence and stick to their fantastic family lore. The Kerryman more than likely lived in a pitiful timber shack on a bleak hillside until his heartless British landlord decided that the value of his vast Irish country estates could be increased by ridding them of quarrelsome Irish paupers. Eviction could have been forcefully applied, or at best, “negotiated” by offering the poor Kerryman and his family a handful of tickets for the next available ship sailing out of Queenstown harbour.

The Corkonian was really an uneducated and frustrated young labourer who was not permitted to attend school in rural Ireland purely on the grounds of his religion – but this man flourished as a Civil Engineer in the US when he fell under the tutelage of a kindly American benefactor who had spotted the Irish boy’s potential talents.

The hunted-down Irish freedom-fighter saga seems to have been applied to every Irish immigrant who ever broke the law of the land, centuries ago, and who decided that it was a better option to emigrate than risk serving a long, harsh prison sentence in Ireland. Many laws were unjust way back, but they were laws all the same.

I was reminded of these kinds of contradictory ancestral tales concerning romantic fiction set against bland truisms when I came across an archived newspaper article dating from 1880 which describes my remote genealogical homestead. My American cousins prefer to picture the place in the 19th century with its quaint thatched roof cottages, and the cheerful occupants always singing and dancing to the sound of flutes and fiddles, as healthy children curl up on comfy hay beds in front of a roaring fire in the hearth. The words of The Nation journalist, on the spot in 1880, paints a somewhat different picture … as I always suspected, but could never prove until now.

1880 The Nation (Process-serving in Tullinaglug) #1The reality for the vast majority of rural Irish Catholics over decade upon decade before 1900 was a life lived on the precarious edge of breadline poverty. Poor Irish folk died in their thousands as a result of starvation, even outside of the recognized Famine years. Many, many more suffered with prolonged disease and fever. Most homes would be classed as uninhabitable today, with no sanitation or even running water. The bare-footed Irish paupers of yesteryear often slept next to their livestock for warmth, all housed within a filthy shack called “home.”

My 19th century ancestors drifted down from the barren and windswept Ox Mountains to take leases in the boggy townland of Tullinaglug. To them, it must have seemed like a step up from the very bottom of the social ladder. They survived the Great Famine, only losing the weakest children to hunger and undernourishment, and battled on throughout the following years of nationwide economic depression. Some of the extended family had to up and leave for America; there was not enough space for all to exist on the small farmstead in Tullinaglug. Without knowing it, the US emigrants were to become a Godsend for the survival of their kin back at “home.”

By the winter of 1879, after another year’s crops had failed, the Sligo natives were in the midst of another “mini-famine” which became known as An Gorta Beag in the Irish language. No food meant no income, and the poor tenant farmers could not meet their extortionate rent demands. Rather than provide some economic assistance (or abatement), the landlords of Connacht insisted upon full payment of overdue rent or legally enforced eviction. That was all the thanks my folks got for turning worthless swamp, which scarcely afford footing for snipe into much improved farmland. If it wasn’t for the occasional gift of a few Dollars sent home from American relatives, I am certain that my great-grandparents would have starved to death, and my grandfather Ned (and all who followed) would never see the light of day.

1880 The Nation (Process-serving in Tullinaglug) #2To legally evict tenants who fell behind with rent payments, a landlord (or his representative) had to commence a legally-backed “process” wherein the defaulting tenant was served with a notice setting out the terms in which he or she must pay monies owed, or vacate the ramshackle premises immediately after further default. In Tullinaglug, the landlord Phibbs demanded full payment within days … or else!

And so it was that on 7th January 1880, Mr Phibbs, accompanied by 60 policemen carrying muskets with fixed bayonets, set off from Tubbercurry to “process-serve” in Tullinaglug and Escra (aka Eskragh). There he saw his loyal hard-working tenants half-naked, pale and ill-fed, in the words of the journalistic observer.

Their wretched houses black, damp, and poorly thatched, are fast sinking into the mud.

It is apparent that the people of Tullinaglug were too weak to offer physical resistance 1880 The Nation (Process-serving in Tullinaglug) #3(as attempted by the residents of neighboring Curry parish in the same newspaper Process-serving report of January 1880). The Sligo serfs made a peaceful but noisy protest – yet the more bloodthirsty police constables still could not resist striking out at defenseless, even heavily pregnant, women:

A little girl named Stenson was knocked down senseless, and a poor woman named Mary Walsh, on the eve of her confinement, was stunned by a blow from the butt end of a policeman’s musket, and remained unconscious for some time.

1880 The Nation (Process-serving in Tullinaglug) #4This is all a far cry from the Americanized vision of the twee life of villagers in dear auld Ireland. Now you know why America was seen as a last desperate place of sanctuary. Now I know why my grandfather Ned took my family to a damp but much pleasanter home in England. Four of Ned’s eleven siblings were born before Mr Phibbs insisted on slipping a very threatening court eviction notice under the Neary’s cottage door.

For those that can stomach hearing more about the horrors endured by their Irish ancestors, the full-page report of just a few examples of Process-serving is accessible by clicking on this link: 1880 The Nation (PROCESS-SERVING IN THE WEST)

1961 Photographic Tour of Ireland (part 8)

To complete the second third of the Parkers’ 1961 summer holiday tour of Ireland, Lily Parker took out her camera as the car headed through my native county of Sligo. This is how Lily’s son, “young” Gordon Parker, came to share his unique photographic memories with me. 53 years after the event, Gordon explained that his London shopkeeper father, John, had been advised by Irish migrant customers to ensure that the family visited the small village of Aclare if they wished to see one of the finest livestock trading fairs in the west of Ireland. It just so happens that I live on the outskirts of Aclare, and Gordon got in touch with me to ask if I would like to see how the village looked on Fair Day over fifty years ago. Obviously, I wrote a positive reply back in an instant, and a further exchange of e-mails led to Gordon offering his complete 1961 photo collection for public viewing.

Aclare market, Co. Sligo

                                     Aclare August Fair Day in full swing

The blonde haired schoolboy looking into the camera has been identified as Gerard Hart, 53 years ago. Gerard now lives in nearby Ballina, but his son Patrick has returned to the Hart’s ancestral farming homestead in Cloongoonagh. The local schoolboys loved the Fair Days because they would be given the day off school. The young lads were employed to “guard” their family’s livestock when Dad went for a wander around the village to converse with friends – or probably to sneak into one of the many public houses for a jar or two of beer and whiskey. Well – a good sale had to be celebrated in traditional style!

1961 August - Aclare, Sligo

               The ass-carts of Aclare Fair carrying sheep and lambs for sale

London teenager Gordon is very conspicuous in Aclare village in his trendy blue 60’s holiday shirt. Below is a replica image of Aclare as it looks today.

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                                  Where have all the donkeys gone?

To complete their special day in my home county, the Parkers hit the high road from south Sligo and headed up north to Sligo town where they enjoyed an afternoon at the races. Lily attempted to capture the excitement of the big race by taking two shots of the thoroughbreds in action. The second shot of the blurred race winner galloping past the post certainly demonstrates the great speed at which champion horses can travel.

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Murder in Medieval Kilmactigue

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WThe oldest memorial stone in the graveyards of Kilmactigue parish in south County Sligo commemorates the death of a local resident in the 16th century. The image  on the right obviously portrays the more modern recreation of the inscribed obituary of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn which can be found at Banada Abbey cemetery. The story behind the premature death of Tadhg (pronounced as Tigue or Ty-g) reveals the perils of being an Irish literary artist in Medieval times. As shown, Tadhg Dall was a renowned Poet and Scholar who was often asked to recite his nationalistic compositions in the courtyards of provincial Irish lords and clan leaders.

Tadhg was descended from a family of respected professional poets from the north of the Connacht region in the west of Ireland. He was given the distinguishing middle name of “Dall” because he was blind, and this is the Irish language word for blind. He made his home in the townland of Coolrecuil in Kilmactigue parish. Tadhg’s brother Maol Muire also rose to prominence as an Archbishop of the Tuam Diocese.

For centuries, the Ó hUiginn family had been aligned to the O’Conor clan of Sligo, their historical patrons, but by the 1500’s, the O’Hara’s had the upper hand in the south of the county, and Kilmactigue became the O’Hara stronghold. It appears that Tadhg Dall’s bravery in speaking out about the injustice meted out by the ruling O’Hara’s to his fellow parishioners, cost him his life.

An inquisition held at Ballymote in 1593 recorded that Tadhg Dall had died at Coolrecuil on the last day of March 1591. Many years later, a special chancery inquisition in 1617 provided further details of the circumstances of Tadhg Dall’s untimely death as he entered middle age. The 1617 inquest notes tell us that members of the Ó hEadhra (O’Hara) sept from Cashel Carragh, Kilmacteige, were detained in 1591 for murdering one Teige Dall O Higgen his wife and childe in the year one thousand five hundred ninetee and one or thereabouts”. Apparently, Tadhg had composed a satirical poem which narrated the actions of six “robbers,” all called O’Hara. The ruling Lord of the Manor was outraged and reacted by ordering that Tadhg Dall’s tongue be cut out. The obedient perpetrators clearly went even further and butchered all the inhabitants of the Ó hUiginn cottage in Coolrecuil.

The ancient poetic works of Tadhg Dall and his forefathers were preserved in early 17th century manuscripts created by banished Irish exiles living on mainland Europe. Fortunately, Tadhg Dall’s bloodline was also preserved because his nine year-old son, Tadhg Óg Ó hÚigínn, was absent from his childhood home when the murderous O’Hara gang spilled blood in medieval Coolrecuil. Tadgh Óg’s grandson, Pól Ó hUiginn also became a scholar and preacher of repute, although he defiantly converted to Protestantism after falling out of favour with his Roman Catholic peers.

In a perverse way, the gruesome events of 31st March 1591 at Coolrecuil have permitted historians to compile the oldest definitive Family Tree of a non-aristocratic resident of Kilmacteigue parish. Here is the upper part of the Ó hÚigínn tree covering the pre-18th century years which rarely feature in typical Irish Ancestry research projects.

1315 Irish FT #1

Aclare in 936 [to be precise]

Information from 900 years back (written in 1836)

How the name Aclare originated is thus (according to the OS Memoirs of Lance-Corporal Henry Trimble in December 1836) :

In former days there was no bridge at Aclare but a ford with large stepping stones across the river, and when flooded the people had to throw a plank across those stones to get across the opposite side of the river.

In them days there were three brothers of the name of O’Hara. Their place of residence were in three castles, two of which are in this parish and the third in the parish of Achonry, namely Ballyara Castle. The Kilmacteige castles were at Bellaclare and Castle Rock.

The eldest brother was Clare O’Hara who lived in Bellaclare (Belclare) Castle.

2014 Aclare Bridge

The “modern” Aclare Bridge over the River Eignagh

A in Irish is “a ford,” and the Christian name of O’Hara being Clare, A and Clare joined together to make Aclare, being the name and true origin of this market village.

December 1836: OS Memoirs – Parish of Kilmactigue #1

Compiled by Lance-Corporal Henry Trimble

The Anders Family of Carns Townland

“The oldest and first family that became inhabitants in the parish of Kilmacteigue was the name of Anders. There were 7 brothers of them and it appears they were the first that ever employed a horse beast as an assistant in reclaiming a portion of ground. However, in them days people were quite simple. This Anders found it necessary in providing a pair of creels for equipping the horse, and when tackling the horse first they brought the horse inside of their house, and when they fitted the creels each side of the horse they could not conceive how the horse would get out of the door.

donkey creel

Remaining some time in a deep study, they concluded the only method was to throw down the gable of the house. Consequently they done so and permitted the horse and creels to get out. However, they never thought of taking the creels and tackling the horse outside of the house so as to prevent this serious trouble and expense.”

As related by Mr Williams of Carns

[Ornance Survey Memoirs]

✞ Iggy pops off {RIP} ✞

The passing of a close family member in old age always results in sadness, and then happy reminiscences going all the way back to our childhoods. Old family photos are dusted down and shared, and we suddenly realize how special and unique those snapshots of a bygone era really are.

The peaceful death of my uncle Ignatius on 29th August brought about the same happy and sad memories, plus the rare opening of ancient photo albums. Lifelong bachelor boy Ignatius was fondly known as “Iggy” to family and friends. In the words of one of his own funny catchphrases: “He was a very nice man. A very, very nice man.”

There is only one photo of the complete Neary clan (circa 1950) as a proud family unit. This outstanding image, reproduced below, shows my grandparents, Ned Neary and Ellen Durkin, and all seven of their children – plus the family dog, of course. My father, John Thomas, was the eldest child, and also tragically the first Neary sibling to pass away in 1980. The photo was taken about a dozen years after the Neary family relocated from Tullinaglug in County Sligo, Ireland, to Withnell in Lancashire, NW England.

Ned was a hard-working labourer whose weather-beaten face always made him look much older than he actually was. By 1950, all the Neary children were smartly-dressed. Ned & Ellen did a fine job after escaping the comparative poverty of the west of Ireland in the 1930’s.

Ned Neary & family (2014)

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My unorthodox family gravestone that says it all – but also hides so much more

It took me many years to locate my great-grandmother’s grave. Her maiden name was Kate Stenson, but everyone in Ireland knew her as Kit. She was born in 1852 in Ballincurry, a County Sligo townland located between Tubbercurry and Curry. After marrying my GGF Thomas Neary in 1874, her name became Mrs Catherine Neary. She delivered twelve children, and subsequently became the grandmother of 24 grandchildren, the majority of whom were called NEARY (including my father).

As Kit’s youngest son, my grandfather Ned ended up caring for his widowed mother at the home place in Tullinaglug, up until the late 1930’s. At that point, for financial reasons, Ned elected to relocate his growing family to England – but Kit, in her mid-80’s remained in Ireland. Family lore told that Kit went to live with the only one of her six daughters that got married and lived in the west of Ireland; the others having emigrated to New York and/or died before Kit. For a long while, the identity of this daughter was uncertain … but elderly family members recalled that she lived in the coastal resort of Enniscrone, after her marriage to a man called Mullaney.

Extensive research eventually verified that my great-aunt Bridget Neary had initially emigrated to New York City in the late 1890’s, as did eight of her siblings, but Bridget returned home broken-hearted 10 years later. Apparently, a sister had “stolen” Bridget’s first love interest in NYC, and went on to marry him. Within months of re-settling in County Sligo, Bridget married a carpenter called Patrick Mullaney from Enniscrone. On this basis, my search for Kit Stenson’s grave headed in the Enniscrone direction – in the days before the online indexing of headstones!

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WOne summer’s afternoon, a trek around Kilglass cemetery miraculously located Kate Stenson Neary’s grave in a position high on the hill towards the rear of the graveyard, among older more weather-beaten headstones – but more ancestral mysteries were instantly raised. Catherine Neary died in 1944 aged 92, and she was buried in a grave already containing two corpses with names which meant nothing to me, or my family.

Kate Stenson’s grave is marked by the inscription “Grandmother of the Mullany Brothers [of] Enniscrone.” The grand headstone reveals that a male and female both named Fox, and who both died in Jan 1939 aged in their 70’s, are buried in the same plot. I could only guess that this mystery couple had a connection to the equally unfamiliar Mullany Brothers.

On the base of the main headstone, I detected some roughly inscribed words which have been rather unprofessionally added at some later date (after 1944), perhaps without removing the stone to a mason’s yard. These words read as “Erected By Her Son ?? Thomas Neary”. There are two engraved marks before the name Thomas which I cannot make out. My grandfather’s brother Thomas was a US Army career soldier and lifelong bachelor boy.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WAfter a bit more research, and lots of head-scratching, I developed a plausible theory about Neary family events back in 1944. My theory is that Kate Stenson passed away at the grand old age of 92, after being resident in Enniscrone for no more than about the last 8 years of her life. This was a financially depressed era in Ireland, and the World War was still raging around Europe and farther afield. Her daughter, Bridget [Mullany] would have sent letters to my grandfather Ned in England, and other siblings in the Bronx and around NYC, including bachelor Thomas, to inform them that their mother had passed away. The war would certainly have prevented travel from the US for a funeral, and probably also from England. I reckon that the Mullany family could not afford a new burial plot, so they opted to bury Kate in the grave used by some family relatives called Fox. I discovered that the mother of Bridget’s husband, Patrick Mullany, was called Mary Fox, and that Patrick was raised as a child by aunts and uncles named Fox. The extra grave inhabitants were siblings of Patrick’s mother who never married. Initially, this grave would have remained without a significant headstone after the 1939 interments and again immediately after September 1944 when my GGM Catherine was laid to rest..

My guess is that Thomas was still in the US at this time, probably offering his services to the war effort, even if just in a clerical capacity. When the war was over, Thomas most likely officially retired from US Army service, and he would have received a generous pension. I think that he kindly offered to send money to the Mullany family to ensure that his mother had a suitable memorial headstone.

The Mullanys then (sort of) respectfully obliged Thomas’s wishes, and hence we get the gravestone listing the grave’s occupants – with Catherine Neary listed as the primary “resident”. Next, I think that Bridget & the Mullanys would have been surprised when later in the 1940’s, Thomas advised that he intended to return to Sligo to see out his final days as soon as trans-Atlantic passenger travel routes were safely re-established. However, Thomas got the greater shock when he visited the Kilglass cemetery for the first time to pay his respects to his deceased mother. Here he found his mother’s remains lying in a grave alongside two strangers (in Neary family terms). Furthermore, the grave inscription paid homage to the fact that Kate was the grandmother of Bridget’s children; three local brothers who were builders aged in their mere 20’s. No mention of her father Charles Stenson, or Thomas Neary her husband, or Thomas the son who paid for the headstone, or the other ten Neary siblings, or Tullinaglug, Kate’s home for over 60 years.

I believe that Thomas would have been justifiably alarmed by the fact that the Mullany’s had effectively hijacked his mother’s memorable lifetime. Kate gave birth to 12 children. Many had overcome adversity and forged good lives in and around New York. My grandfather Ned had looked after his mother and the family farm for over 20 years as the main bread-winner. The Mullany’s had belatedly got to know Kate very late in her life – why should this family feature in isolation on her tombstone?

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        “Erected by her son ? ? Thomas Neary”

I can imagine Thomas & Bridget exchanging a few heated words about the bizarre headstone inscription. I think this resulted in the amateurish additional words being added at the base of the headstone, as a compromise to an angry or bemused Thomas. I can just picture one of the “jack-of-all-trades” Mullany brothers saying that they would personally inscribe a tribute to Thomas on the foot of the stone – and they made a right old mess of the inscription. The illegible marks before Thomas’s name could even be a spelling error which was crudely obliterated, but remains as a sign of unprofessional stone-masonry forever more.

In my opinion, the whole episode was triggered by Bridget’s rejection as a potential bride-to-be in the 1900’s decade in New York. Two of her sisters married two out of three very eligible Irish sibling bachelors in America. One of these handsome men became a fully qualified and renowned Civil Engineer and lived in the eye-catching big Bronx Reservoir House. Bridget must have felt bitter and jealous of her sisters’ good fortune when she returned to Ireland as an aging spinster. She had to settle for marrying a local small-town building tradesman, six years her junior. By the time her mother Kit Stenson died in 1944, it is likely that Bridget had disowned her successful siblings in New York, apart from Thomas who only emigrated after the Mullany/Neary wedding. Bridget’s bitterness is evident on Kit’s gravestone. The inscription acknowledges the relationship of my great-grandmother to Bridget’s own family, and no-one else …. except for those telling extra words added in amateurish fashion recording that my great-uncle Tom Neary actually funded the selfish memorial.

I might be interpreting the evidence wrongly, and doing my distant Mullany cousins a disservice. As might be expected from this tale, there has been no direct communication between Nearys and Mullanys for almost 50 years. If anyone can shed more light on the burial events of 1944, then please step forward.

Retired US Army soldier Tom died in Ireland in 1954. The whereabouts of his grave, and that of his father Thomas (the husband of Kit Stenson, and my GGF) have yet to be located.

South Sligo National Schools – Largan & Kilmactigue outdo Drimina

No sooner had I publicized the fact that a very old photo of the (named) pupils of Drimina National School existed, dating from the 1920’s, and not one, but two, even older photos come to light from the relatively small Kilmacteigue RC Parish in South County Sligo. The photo below features the pupils in attendance at the tiny Largan National School overlooking the beautiful Lough Talt in November 1913. As you will see, a name has been put to each schoolchild. Do you know any of these families? Were they your ancestors?

1913 November 6 - Largan NS

Largan National School – 6th November 1913.

Back Row: Joe Murry, Joe Murry, Tom Cooke, Willie Curley, Joe Deehan, Francis Murry, Martin Deehan, Pat Walsh, Joe Gallagher, Annie Cooke, John Henry Murry, Beezie O’Donnell, Mike Curley, Bridget Mullarkey, Jim O’Connor, Mary Kate Cooke, Mary O’Connor, Mary Walsh, Maggie Henigan, Florrie Henigan, Kate Quinn, Delia Quinn, Mary Jane Goldrick, Mary Kate Deehan, Mary Ellen Mullarkey, Kate Mullarkey.

Front Row: Martin Quinn, Micheal Walsh, Jim Goldrick, John Lang, Jim Quinn, John William Mullarkey, Mike Quinn, Annie Kate Goldrick, Mary Ann Durcan, Kate Curley, Mary Agnes Murry, Emma Goldrick, Mary Frances Murry, Bridget Curley, Annie Theresa Mullarkey, Maggie Lang, Kate Deehan, Mary Walsh, Kate Kildunne, Maggie Deehan.

The next day, the unknown professional photographer set up his tripod at nearby Kilmactigue National School. This excellent photo was the result:

1913 nov 7 - Kilmactigue NS

The beauty of South Sligo

I have long been aware of the hidden beauty of my “back yard” in South Sligo, but as an early-riser, my appreciation has always been limited to scenic viewing during daylight hours. So I was was both surprised and proud to find that my home patch features regularly in the stunning night-time photography portfolio of Damien Stenson. Damien is a very talented Galway-based landscape photographer but he specialises in night photography – as displayed by the breath-taking imagery shown below.

These four examples were taken from the shores of Lough Talt, nestled in the Windy Gap of the Ox Mountains. A big effort is underway to promote our tranquil backwater as a tourism destination to a worldwide audience. I am not alone in wishing this venture the greatest of success while conversely hoping that the trickle of rambling tourists never becomes a torrent of couldn’t care less litter louts. A tranquil backwater needs places of tranquility – even at peak season.

DS3DS4DS5DS6The bright comet-like object in the night sky of the photo above is the International Space Station passing overhead during a film exposure of several minutes. I am far from being a knowledgeable student of modern photography techniques so head over to Damien’s Facebook page for all the technical blurb about how these wonderful images were captured by a true magician of the lens.

Dozens more memorable pictures, mainly from the West of Ireland at night, can be viewed at www.damienstenson.com

The Burning of Tubbercurry

I am always fascinated by the fact that there are still living witnesses in our parish who saw from afar the local town of Tubbercurry ablaze, during a night of infamous terror. This event occurred in October 1920, so our witnesses are aged 100+. There must be something in the South Sligo water because we have more than our fair share of centurions. Obviously, the number of survivors is dwindling yearly – but the tale is etched into the consciousness of all elderly and not so old Tubbercurry natives.

Wolfe Tone Square

               Tubbercurry 100 years ago

Nationalist rebels had been active in South Sligo for 50 years when the Irish War of Independence erupted at the beginning of 1919. Decades of anti-British sentiment saw ordinary Irish men and boys take up arms against their oppressors. Tubbercurry and surrounding districts instantly became a hotbed of secret IRA military offensives. Well-organized small units in each parish soon became masterly at the new art of guerrilla warfare. Constabulary and judicial targets were attacked in surprise overnight raids, and then the IRA soldiers disappeared back to their farms and cottages. The perpetrators were very difficult to distinguish from innocent civilians, thwarting British military leaders who were more used to fighting a visible army.

By 1920, a pattern of IRA ambushes followed by indiscriminate British-backed reprisals had been established, leading to ever-greater atrocities. The British Government sent in WW1-hardened troops to assist the overrun Irish Constabulary. These mercenary war veterans were ill-disciplined and regularly counter-attacked non-military Irish businesses. As a result, the whole of Ireland rose up to ensure that British rule over the island was ended once and for all.

IRB soldiers

            A typical Flying Column unit of IRA soldiers, young and old

Wartime events in our locality reached a terrifying peak on the night of 30th September 1920. An IRA Flying Column unit successfully ambushed a police and military patrol on the outskirts of Tubbercurry. The aim of the mission was to kill, wound or capture a recently-appointed Police Inspector, thereby sending out a loud message of local defiance. After a gun battle, the Police Inspector was fatally wounded, and the IRA retreated without suffering any losses. The British reprisal attack was swift and brutal. A company of “Black and Tans” entered the once-sleepy town of Tubbercurry and proceeded to burn the shops and homes of suspected IRA sympathizers. As the town was composed of adjoining terraced streets, soon the whole town centre was ablaze with women and children in fear of their lives. A small number of town-based IRA Volunteers could not quell the outrageous violence of an out-of-control British Army.

Read local Commander John Brennan’s witness statement to gain a full overview of the nature of the frightening War of Independence in Sligo: 1918 Tubbercurry Volunteers

After 30 months of fighting a losing battle, the British called a Truce and political dialogue about Home Rule provisions commenced. Then a short but tragic Civil War broke out as squabbles about the governance of the new Nation got out of control. Peace eventually prevailed in 1922. Local memories are long – but somehow, former enemies were graciously forgiven and Tubbercurry re-emerged from a charred past as though nothing had ever happened. That’s how it is today, and that is why it’s amazing, considering that living witnesses are still around.

My Brick Wall

In genealogy circles, the common term for a seemingly insurmountable research dead-end is a “brick wall.” Professional genealogists have the experience to know that a classic brick wall cannot be scaled – but if you keep digging, and dig deep enough, you might just be able to squeeze part-way through a hole and take a peek at the other side. And what you see might convince you to give up trying to go through that brick wall; it’s pointless. There was nothing of value on the other side. On the other hand, a glimpse of something bright and shiny might inspire you to reverse back a bit, head off to the side (not losing sight of that wall), nudge forward and eventually come out somewhere on the far side of that brick barrier that was holding you back for so long. Then you can start to try and make sense of things in a strange new place, but you can, eventually – if you stick around.

My personal brick wall (shown below) is a beautiful thing and pointless. Well, if you look closely enough, you will see that there is no pointing. No mortar. There never was. It’s a work of art; ancient Irish art.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WMy wall is the gable-end of an ancient Irish stone barn. It has withstood all weathers for over 200 years. It is a State-protected structure, and I am the Protector because it sits on my property. I wish that this meant that the State would contribute to the upkeep of the structure, but no! Oh no – as the private Protector, I am expected to privately raise my own funds and get on with the Protecting without a cent of State assistance. Of course, if my beloved wall ever falls down, then I am in big trouble … with the State – who would not hesitate to prosecute me for trying my best, spending a fortune, but ultimately failing, alone, in my lifelong task.

Aclare: back then, and now

Thanks to Gordon Parker, a remarkable snapshot of forgotten life in a village in rural County Sligo has re-surfaced and returned home after over 50 years. Gordon’s family, based in London, recorded the image below in Aclare village way back in August 1961 when touring Ireland on a summer holiday. The rare, high quality colour picture was captured by using the now defunct Kodachrome camera film with the resultant photograph then developed and mounted as a slide, for viewing through a projector. The age of the digital camera has made all that processing a thing of the past … like an ass-cart.

1961 August - Aclare, Sligo

The village is full of asses …. in 1961

The date of Gordon’s photo is significant, i.e. August. The village of Aclare was full of animals and other eccentric characters because the Parkers passed through on the Summer Fair Day. The (sometimes infamous) history of this once well-known and important livestock trading fair has been discussed in previous posts. Refer to Aclare Fair Day and Old Fair Day (Revived).

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The asses have all gone; never to return

The Good, The Bad, and Dad

DadonrightThe photo above featuring my father always caused amusement and curious interest when it was viewed in the family photo album, particularly after his untimely death at the young age of 54. The snap was christened “The Good, the Bad, and Dad” by his irreverent sons, more in recognition of their liking for Spaghetti Westerns than any comment on my dad’s colleagues. You see, my dad is on the right, and we don’t know the identity of the other two young men. We don’t even know where the photo was taken, except that my Irish dad was conscripted into the Royal Navy upon resettlement in England, and he once told tales of sailing around the world, with stop-offs on exotic islands in SE Asia. Perhaps this photo was taken in Borneo, or somewhere like that.

So we don’t really know if the tall handsome man on the left was “Good” or if the shorter streetwise lad in the middle was “Bad” – but thankfully we do have a single picture of Dad as a cool-looking bachelor boy exploring the world. I have learned from interviews with Dad’s old Irish school-friend, Eddie Moran, that my father was an accomplished horseman. My grandfather Ned Neary kept horses and donkeys at the old farm in Tullinaglug, and Eddie and my dad rode them bareback-style whenever Ned was occupied elsewhere.

My dad’s life was not fully appreciated until he was gone. His strife involved escaping from poverty in rural Ireland, living in a tiny run-down old two-roomed Irish cottage with a thatched roof, but Dad ended up providing a spacious six-bedroomed detached house with attractive gardens for his large family, of which I am one. Not a bad return for a poorly-educated manual worker … and he saw more of far-flung Asian destinations than I’ll ever see.

The short poem written on to the image is courtesy of Linda Goetsch, a fellow genealogy fanatic. “Remember Me” is rapidly becoming the genealogist’s equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer. The words just seemed 100% appropriate to accompany The Good, The Bad, and Dad.

A Family Tragedy (and a valuable genealogy lesson learned)

Many years ago, when I started researching my Family Tree, I did not have a clue about my grandfather Ned Neary‘s birth family. After some time, I eventually discovered that Ned was the youngest of twelve siblings; there were six boys and six girls. I knew nothing about any of them, except for Ned, and even he was referred to as Edward or Ted in my lifetime. It appears that “Ned” dropped his Irish nickname after leaving County Sligo in the late 1930’s in favour of the more Anglicized abbreviation of his baptismal forename. Ted Neary moved across the Irish Sea to England, and I suppose that the Irish immigrants of the day had to “fit in” and grudgingly accept the monikers which their new neighbours and workmates applied. However, back in Sligo, everyone remembered Ned as Ned, if you get my gist.

Anyway – I was not long into my ancestry research project when I set myself the challenge of tracking down each of grandfather Ned’s deceased siblings, and finding out about their lives. Both Ned and my father (Ned’s oldest child) were dead too, so they could not help my quest.

When researching the six Neary sisters, my new-found great-aunts, I soon learned that three of these ladies had got married in New York City, and had their own families, thereby introducing me to many second cousins. Three of my new cousins had an interest in their family history, and so they could recall passed-down tales about the three Neary sisters who lived their adult lives in the Bronx, and kept in regular touch with each other as an extended family. There was also mention of a fourth sister who emigrated to NYC in her youth but returned to Ireland broken-hearted when one of her siblings stole away her boyfriend – and married him! This sister was identified to be Bridget, and her return to the homestead led me to more fascinating ancestral tales – but more about this saga will be saved for another day.

So, I was left trying to trace the lives of just two Neary girls, amusingly called Annie and Fanny. I was getting nowhere until my oldest “new” cousin advised that there was a vague family lore tale about a Neary sister who died in a house fire in America, aged in her 20’s (he thought). Another cousin added some more detail: this Neary girl used to work as a domestic servant at a big house, somewhere in upstate NY. Which of Ned’s sisters burned to death? Was it Annie or Fanny? If only Ned was still alive to tell me about this “secret” tragedy.

Back in Ireland, I set about getting the first and main part of the jigsaw in place. Fanny was the youngest of the Neary sisters, and she appears in the 1911 census of Ireland, living alongside even younger Ned at the family farmstead in Sligo. I had an inkling that Fanny was not our fire victim because she would have had to have emigrated just after 1911 (to have died on American soil) and there was no sign of Fanny boarding or disembarking from a transatlantic ship during the 1910’s. My uncles and aunts (and elderly Sligo neighbours) were not aware of a Fanny Neary, so what happened to Fanny? A long search culminated in the discovery of Fanny’s death record. She died in the old Sligo town Asylum Hospital aged just 24 after contracting a form of TB. Poor Fanny – it seems like no-one could remember her time on this earth almost 100 years later. She is remembered now.

The Neary fire victim now had a name – Annie – if the fire story was true. My NY-based cousin Patrick Reilly became fascinated with the “Annie Neary Fire” story as well. As he said (with his legal training), the accidental death of an American would lead to an Inquest, and a house fire resulting in fatalities would be reported in local if not State-wide or national newspapers. Patrick decided to pay a visit to St Raymond’s cemetery in the Bronx where he knew that Neary and Reilly family graves existed. His hunch proved to be very wise. Patrick came across a weather-beaten old gravestone in the Catholic burial ground, sandwiched between newer grave markers of non-family members, which had been overlooked before. The faint but distinct name of Annie Neary was all that could be clearly deciphered from a long inscription. Patrick attempted to retrieve more data by “stenciling” the remaining characters of Annie’s memorial stone. The month of death was April, but the day and year were less clear. After close scrutiny, Patrick insisted that the date began with a “1” [of course!] and ended with a “9”. The second and third digits also looked like nines, but obviously this could not be. Patrick was aware that his Neary ancestors do not show up in Bronx registers until after 1900, and so a logical conclusion was drawn that Annie must have died in April 1909.

We now had a name, a date indicator, and a primary cause of death: FIRE. It couldn’t take much more research to unearth the truth …. could it?

Well … two years later, every reasonable research avenue had been investigated without success. Patrick visited Historical Societies and Vital Records Offices in counties to the north of New York City where the wealthier American families once had country retreats serviced by domestic staff. No sign of Annie – and no notable house fires in the first half of 1909. I searched accessible US newspaper archives, from NY and surrounding states. Still no sign of Annie – but (worryingly) a lot of fire fatalities in the papers in the 1900’s decade, and a lot of US history learned along the way.

Something was clearly not right. Maybe the dramatic “house fire” story was an over-exaggeration. Maybe Annie did once suffer minor burns, and then contracted an illness, and passed away without any great newsworthy fanfare.

A new and final, last-chance saloon research plan was devised. “Let’s retrieve any NY death certificates which feature a female called Ann Neary (or similar) whose year of death ended with the figure 9”, I suggested to Patrick. Whilst we are at it: “How about any deaths that end in the year 8 or 0, just in case the monumental engraver’s etchings have been misread.” As a (by that time) experienced researcher, I also confounded Patrick by proposing that matching namesake deaths from the 1880’s or 1890’s should not be ruled out. Weather-battered carved digits can play havoc with the logic of the human brain, I opined. “And don’t take it as ‘carved in stone’ that April was necessarily the true month of death. The headstone might after been erected years after the death, when accurate recollections had faded.”

We found that there were more than quite a few death certs which met the revised search criteria. Okay – let’s narrow it down to namesake death victims who were teenagers, or aged under 40. That’s better – a handful – and so Patrick ordered the documents for collection from the NY State archives within a few days.

I was staggered when Patrick sent me a copy of the last NY Death Certificate he had added to his list, shown below:

1899 NYC death cert (Annie Neary)

My great-aunt Annie, and Ned’s sister, had died in a fire on the night of 7th April 1899. She was aged 21 years. Back in Ireland, Ned was just five years old. We can only imagine the heart-rending grief in the tiny Neary cottage in Tullinaglug, days or weeks later, when the news filtered through.

The death cert gave us all the answers we needed. Annie was burnt to a cinder in the attic room of a multi-storey Manhattan home overlooking Central Park in New York City; a room reserved for the servants of the wealthy Andrews family. I am somewhat relieved and grateful that Annie’s employer, Mr Wallace Andrews, repeatedly tried to rescue his domestic staff trapped in their upstairs rooms. These rescue efforts cost him his own life. Annie’s oldest sister Mary was called to the Fire Station House in order to formally identify the charred remains. God knows how this task was completed, technically and emotionally.

The full story about the 1899 fire in central NYC is recalled in this initial New York Times article: 1899 THIRTEEN PERISH IN DOUBLE FIRE

I was shocked to learn that dramatic fires in the dry timber homes occupied by American city dwellers at the turn of the 20th century were frighteningly commonplace. A fire in one house often spread to a whole block.

So what’s the genealogy research lesson? Well, everything, really.

A family lore tale says that a relative died in tragic circumstances. First, identify the NAME. What happened? It’s probably based on the truth. Why would anyone make this stuff up. When did it happen? Focus on relative’s ages (at the time) rather than calendar years. If your family suffered a tragedy, say 20 or 30 years ago, you are more likely to say something like “I was aged about 25” rather than “it happened in 1989,” for example. Annie Neary was said to be in her twenties when her life ended in sheer terror and panic, far from home. She was only 21 and this tale got told to her sisters’ young grandchildren, who only half-listened, years after the event.

Where did the event happen? The grandchildren retained some memories of the oft-repeated obituary. Annie worked in “big houses” owned by ultra-wealthy NY families. In the summer months, she worked in second homes (mansions) located north of the city, around Westchester County, where the Andrews millionaires liked to escape to a cleaner environment. Not quite “upstate” but “up the State” for an Irish immigrant unfamiliar with American geography. But for most of the year, Annie Neary would be found cleaning out fireplaces and re-lighting fires in the 67th Street town-house of her employer. Annie’s brothers and sisters were very proud of their sibling. She was a much-loved and trusted member of the renowned Andrews [domestic] household.

ANgravestone1909#8And finally, rely on the eyes of your on-the-ground research colleagues. I was sent a photo of Annie’s tombstone which according to Patrick asserted a date of death ending in 9. I agreed, from long-distance, but I eventually started to question Patrick’s interpretation of the inscription. I put doubt into his mind, which was wrong. This error cost us unnecessary time and expense. We have since learned that Annie was buried in the Bronx in 1899 because she had an uncle (John Stenson) who was settled into this booming Irish neighborhood – but the death year always did end in 9.

When the dust had settled, Patrick and I re-visited lessons learned. Why did the clerk with the burial register at the Bronx cemetery never inform us about Annie’s burial in 1899? Answer:  …. because we kept saying that she died after 1900, and most likely in 1909. As it happens, when we specified our burial date, the clerk could tell us who else shared the grave and who paid for the burial plot. Priceless (early US) family history information which was almost lost forever.

And why did we never find the name of Annie Neary in newspaper reports of the many fires in New York city and state which occurred just over 100 years ago? Answer:  …. because some indexing systems only list the names of the primary fatalities (e.g. Andrews), and other automated scanning systems do not pick up “unfamiliar” surnames of American immigrants, especially if the newsprint is faded. Poor little Annie, the chambermaid, all the way from Tullinaglug; there she was on the bottom line of this New York Times front page article, all along: 1899 NYC fire (NYT)

So when investigating initially obscure ancestral events, maybe the research mantra should be:

  • Trust your experienced intuition. You know the family better than anyone.
  • Focus on the facts, and only the facts, however vague and irrelevant they may sometimes seem.
  • Disbelieve what your ancestors recalled at your peril.
  • Keep an open mind, but do not introduce unnecessary doubt.
  • Most of all – stick at it. Answers, or extra clues, can be found in the strangest of places.

The Discovery of my 1st Irish Great-Great-Great-Grandparent

Being a professional Irish ancestry researcher, it may come as a surprise to some that it has taken over 5 years to positively identify my first Irish GGGGF, i.e. the oldest person in my Family Tree. Other, more experienced, family historians will realize that verifying direct Irish ancestors (who remained in Ireland) from the 18th century takes a lot of knowledgeable craft and a dose of circumstantial good fortune. Many amateur researchers jump to unwarranted conclusions about the identities of their earliest Irish ancestors, just because a few preserved names sound familiar (even when the geographical location of extant record sources makes the associations ridiculous). Usually, frustrated amateur historians adopt wild assumptions because no ancient parish records have been preserved to properly validate the vague ancestral relationships which they attach to the verifiable section of their family tree. Only recently have several new sources of genealogical data become accessible and readily searchable which enabled me to achieve my personal goal of extending my lineage by one further Irish generation.

It was a complicated process, but my tale might encourage others to persist, and to always think laterally and “outside of the box.”

My breakthrough moment came at the end of a holiday weekend in which I dedicated my spare time to re-visiting my ancestral loose ends, instead of spending every waking hour helping clients to expand their particular family histories. I started off trying to find the “missing” dates of a few vital events which had eluded me in the past. First up came a search for my paternal grandparents’ wedding date. I knew where Ned Neary & Ellen Durkin got married, but the church has poorly preserved registers, and Ned’s wedding details could not be found at local level. The marriage was also missing from national civil registers, and my mum insisted that Ned was so unconventional that he probably never got around to formally registering his union with Ellen. With my father being born in 1925 as the eldest child of Ned, I often wondered (and worried) if this omission made my dad “illegitimate” in the eyes of the law. Using new software which permits a search of ALL Irish civil marriage registrations filtered by matching bride & groom names, I finally tracked down Ned’s “missing” marriage certificate. It turns out that Ned did not bother to register his memorable 1924 Wedding Day with Ellen for over three years. My mother was right – Ned was indeed unconventional, if not controversial.

So Lesson One: never assume that a marriage was registered before the birth of the first offspring of the union. I have found many examples where the parents of a specified research subject did not officially tie the knot for years after conceiving children. Technically, these children were born illegitimately; however my dad and Uncle Iggy were conceived within wedlock – but before their dozy father bothered to venture into town to tell the local Civil Registrar that he was a married man.

Buoyed and relieved by this news about dear old grandfather Ned, I set to work on two more of my ancestry conundrums. These were interlinked problems, involving Ned’s oldest brother [John] and oldest sister [Mary], with Ned being the youngest of 12 siblings, most of whom emigrated from Sligo to New York City. I had previously tracked the life of each of my great-uncles and great-aunts, but John remained as a “lost” enigma. As the eldest son of Tom Neary & Kate Stenson, born over 19 years before Ned, he remained at the Neary farm in Tullinaglug as the 20th century dawned, presumably on the understanding that he would eventually inherit the homestead. John features in the 1901 census of Ireland as a 26 year-old farmer’s son, but by 1911 he had left home and could not be located in Ireland. None of my American cousins could recall any stories about John being present in NYC, whereas all of Ned’s other siblings were accounted for in either NY or Sligo. At first, I reasoned that John had realized that Ned would be better-placed to care for their elderly parents, and as such he forfeited his inheritance rights to the youngest male sibling. Free of an Irish mother’s apron strings, John would have ventured overseas, and I assumed that he must have traveled to England for work, and then lost contact with “home” if no elderly cousins in NY had ever heard about him.

I had one lead though which resurrected possible NY connections for John in adulthood. In April 1902, a John Neary namesake disembarked at Ellis Island NY claiming that he was intending to reside with his uncle John Stenson at an address in the Bronx. Ned’s mother (and my GGM) was Kate Stenson, and the Bronx address was close to where other Neary cousins eventually settled about 100 years ago. However, the John Stenson in question, when identified, was 20 years younger than my GGM Kate – and none of my Bronx cousins were remotely aware of a relative called John Neary. Furthermore, John Neary could not be located on Bronx census returns and our John Stenson candidate moved out of the Bronx soon after 1902 and was also unfamiliar to my American cousins. This research trail went cold and was put on the back-burner, for years.

So I decided to resurrect the search for the only other bit of missing data about my extended Neary family members. This involved the tragic death by drowning in New York of a child of Mary Neary who was Ned’s oldest sister. I had been made aware of this incident by my elderly cousin (now deceased) Fr Matt O’Rourke. He told me that his first cousin Johnny O’Rourke had drowned while swimming off a beach in Long Island, and passed-down family lore always stated that Johnny died “before his tenth birthday.” We knew that young Johnny was born in 1912, so I searched and searched the NY newspaper archives for drowning incidents circa 1920, without success, on many occasions. Recently, indexed editions of more obscure NYC regional papers have come “online”, so I tried the search for Johnny’s sad death one more time. Ironically, by accident, I found a brief mention of his swimming accident. Johnny was actually aged 14 when he drowned, and he was one of many NY and NJ drowning victims on a hot holiday weekend which coincided with stormy US East Coast seas.

Having established the exact date of the accident, I was instantly able to retrieve several more accounts of the Long Island drownings. One longer report stated that poor Johnny O’Rourke’s body was not washed ashore for many hours, by which time his holidaying family had returned to the Bronx, devastated. The police contacted a local Queens relative of Mrs Mary Neary O’Rourke to identify the deceased teenager, and this man was described as “the boy’s uncle, John J Stenson.” This was the same John Stenson who had been tracked down as the most likely receiver of my immigrant great-uncle John Neary when he landed at NY Harbor in 1902. In actual fact, John J Stenson was Mary Neary’s uncle, but we can understand the newspaper reporter’s confusion about family relationships on a weekend of numerous tragic deaths in local seas. So, John Joseph Stenson, by 1926 residing in Queens NY, was indeed my GGM Kate’s much younger brother.

A coincidental review of yet more John Neary namesakes living in the expanded search area including the Queens borough of NYC resulted in the discovery of John Joseph Neary, a bachelor with the exact same birthday as Ned’s oldest brother. It appears that JJ Neary born in 1875 was probably named after his uncle JJ Stenson who was less than 5 years his senior. The two John Joseph’s obviously formed a bond which was re-established after their separate emigrations to New York, and thus they lived and worked in the same district. The first wave of my Sligo family emigrants were aware of relatives living on either side of Long Island Sound, but the next generation and offspring were not. This fact was verified when I finally found a copy of John Joseph Neary’s WW1 registration card. Ned’s oldest brother from Port Washington listed his oldest sister from the Bronx (Mrs Mary Neary O’Rourke) as his “next of kin” contact, in case of emergencies.

Now, all of Ned’s siblings were accounted for, but the verification of JJ Stenson as my GGM Kate’s brother opened up a new line of fruitful research. Kate was born in 1852 within the same RC parish where my grandparents Ned & Ellen got married in 1924. As mentioned, the parish registers from the local church in question are spasmodic in terms of preservation. Nothing at all has been preserved dating from 1860 or earlier, and this meant that my verifiable Stenson lineage ground to a halt … until now. John Joseph Stenson was born in November 1870, meaning that he had a retrievable birth certificate and baptism record. Inter alia, my GGM Kate’s parents were discovered to be Edward Stenson & Maria Donlon. Alas, no marriage records for this union are extant, so my Stenson heritage trail was in danger of hitting a road block once more. I had to be satisfied that dear old GF Ned Neary had been named in honor of his own grandfather, Edward [aka Ned] Stenson.

Except that … I noted that JJ Stenson was born in the townland of Ballincurry. A search of the 1901 census returns from Ballincurry revealed that Edward & Mary Stenson were still alive and living there as 80 year-olds BUT so was a second married couple named Edward & Mary Stenson, aged in their 80’s. Unbelievable! These were the only Stensons living in remote Ballincurry – but they shared the same names. Even more remarkable, they were still around in 1911, entering nine decades of living in an agricultural wilderness. Who was who?

I was determined not to be beaten. I noted two things from the Ballincurry census returns which gave me a fighting chance to distinguish which couple were my great-great-grandparents. One of the Edwards was referred to as Ned (Chas.), and the other was plain old Edward or Ned. Secondly, one of the Stenson farmsteads had a visiting married son in 1901, and he was called John. Could this be John Joseph from NYC, or a different John? I had to thoroughly search many cross-Atlantic sailing records to verify that JJ Stenson never returned home to Ireland. Therefore, by elimination, my GGGF had to be Ned (Chas).

As an experienced researcher of Irish records, I immediately had an inkling of what the “Chas” reference meant. Two Edward Stensons lived side by side, so one was known as Ned Chas because this one was the son of Charles [aka Chas]. I guessed that the other must have been the son of Edward/Ned, but the Irish don’t tend to use the same double-forename as a distinguishing nickname. Calling someone Ned Ned Stenson would be just daft, wouldn’t it? Especially when all the locals back then knew that Ned was not Ned Chas!

To prove my hunches I had to revert to Irish property records because (as most readers will be aware) no complete 19th century census returns exist due to a fire at the Dublin archive repository during the Civil War of 1922. Detailed maps of Ballincurry dating from the Griffith Primary Valuation of the townland in 1857 proved that the two Edward Stensons of similar age were direct neighbors. I was willing to place a bet that the two Neds were first cousins, hence Edward Snr and Charles/Chas must have been brothers who both called their first son Edward.

I dug out the patchy 1827 Tithes Applotment Book for County Sligo. This is the oldest comprehensive listing of land tenants in my ancestral county. I found the Ballincurry page … darn it … no Stensons! Wait! Over the page … a continuation of Ballincurry residents … yes!

Edward and Charles Stenson were taxed on a shared landholding of over 10 Irish acres. There he is … my great-great-great-grandfather in black and white (third name down).

1827 Tithes (Ballincurry) Stenson

And so, a search for a lost great-uncle born in Tullinaglug in 1875 took me all the way to New York City and back to another townland in south County Sligo, less than 5 miles away, where my GGGGF Charles Stenson [born circa 1790] once resided in 1827.

In reality, many family history facts worked in my favor to achieve this research result. The fact that Ned and his brother John Joseph Neary were born 20 years apart, plus the fact that JJ Neary’s best friend, JJ Stenson and my GGM Kate were also born 20 years apart. Even the fact that there were two Edward Stensons born and raised in the same place and era did, on reflection, enable the two ancient but different Stenson lineages to be clearly distinguished.

My great-grandmother Kate Stenson lived to the admirable age of 92 years, passing away in September 1944. The story of my search for her resting place, and the incredible family history revealed by a close inspection of her graveyard headstone (shown below) will be saved for another day.

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The Poteen Wars

Retrieved evidence verifies that the wild residents of the Ox Mountains in County Sligo, and in particular the Catholic parishioners of Kilmacteigue living by the Windy Gap overlooking Lough Talt, were highly-regarded distillers of some of the finest Mountain Dew ever sipped in Ireland. Highly-regarded, that is, by fellow aficionados of the home-brewed spirit known as Poteen. The British authorities and later the Civic Guard of the Irish Free State took a different view to the producers and imbibers of duty-free liquor.

As a result, an ongoing clandestine war was fought around the south Sligo mountains and boglands for centuries. The policing agencies always boasted of victories in isolated skirmishes, but truth be told, the distillers were never beaten. The “illegal” trading of mysterious lethal brews still persists to this day – albeit that the receptacles containing the wondrous concoction are more likely to be discarded white lemonade bottles these days (if the plastic does not melt).

The newspaper articles below give a “taster” of the never-ending Poteen War:

1923 A Poteen Case

                 1923: the judge and police know the flavour (of                                         confiscated hooch)

1926 Poteen #2

                                   1926 …. One -Nil

1926 Poteen #3

                                            1926 ….. Two – Nil

1926 Poteen Captures

                                          1926 …. Three – Nil

1926 Poteen Making

1926 ….. Three – One (Cloongoonagh fights back)

1926 Poteen Traffic

1926 ….. Three – Two (no prosecutions in No Man’s                                             Land)

1926 sick cow

1926 ….. Three – Three (if all else fails, use the sick                                                     cow defence)

“ANOTHER ONE” led to the Civic Guards retreating to their Barracks in Aclare. The Poteen Pushers could not be stopped. Casual visitors to Cloongoonagh carried on their everyday business. Christmas was coming. Everybody was happy – even the Guards and the Judge, sampling the finest Mountain Dew prior to enjoying their fattened goose dinners.

If you want to know how to make Mad Man’s Soup follow this link at your peril:

Poteen Making

Déantús an Phoitín

Poítín Recipe

Ingredients:

  •  Granulated Sugar – several stones
  • Yeast – a few pounds of the stuff
  • Spring Water – gallons and gallons
  • For a pleasant change, try an alternative malt and barley mixture, plus yeast, in the same secret quantities.

Get an old barrel and make sure that it is washed out properly. Then melt the sugar but don’t let it burn. The sugar semi-liquifies as it begins to melt. Place the yeast in another container or bowl and break it up with your hands.

Heat the barrel with a drop of hot water. When heated, put a fistful of yeast into the barrel and then pour in some lukewarm water on top of it. Add a good dollop of melted sugar. Throw a wet cloth on top of the barrel and let the sugar and yeast dissolve into the water. The cloth helps to keep the smell down, which is very important.

Place the barrel in a secret dry place. Put hay all around it, including under it, and over the top. Leave it like this for three days. When you go back to the secret place after three days, repeat the same procedure over again, in the same way you did it before, with the yeast, sugar and lukewarm water. Keep doing this over and over, over several weeks, until the barrel is almost full. You now have a wash.

Poitin making sketchWhen the mixture is ready, thin it out with water, preferably potato water. For added flavour, put a bit of treacle through it. This crucial preparation stage is now complete, and the mixture is ready to run.

To run it you will need a steel drum with a lid, copper piping plus a basin with a hole in it. The hole must be the exact same diameter as the copper pipe – because the end of the pipe is pushed neatly through the hole. A worm is also needed and placed into the drum. Always ensure that your drum and worm are thoroughly clean.

Heat the drum gently on a turf fire, and watch as the steam turns magically into whiskey, in the form of a totally clear water-like liquid. Continue running your mixture very gently. When the running is near to completion, gather your whiskey from the still and worm, and then put it back into the top drum one more time and run it again.

When cooled, drink in moderation with your appreciative neighbours – but only after treating the fairies. It would be a pity to be cursed for the rest of your life, after all that patience and endeavour.

If you opt for the malt and barely alternative, there is a lot more hard work involved. Say, you had four stones of malt and barley, then you would have to leave it in water for about three weeks until buds appear. Next, you throw the mixture out onto a dry loft and you have to keep tossing it every day. Do this until the bud goes back into the seed. Finally, you crush the seeds and then put them into the wash barrel with some yeast and lukewarm spring water. The extended process is worthwhile. You will be rewarded with a spirit which your neighbours will declare is ‘The Best of Whiskey’.

Quality Control 

To test the success of your distilling skills, light a small piece of paper and put it into a small sample glass of the liquid (whiskey). When it stops burning, the remaining liquid should only be pure water. If there is a good flame burning from the liquid, that suggests that it is a good whiskey, and can be classed as Mountain Dew. Also check that a nob of butter sinks in your filled whiskey glass. If the butter floats on top, then you still have too much water content and you should return to the still and run away.

A surefire way of testing the alcohol strength of your brew is to boil the whiskey and then let it cool off. When the bead on top is not too strong, run it another time and throw some salt into it. If big bubbles appear at the top of the whiskey, it is strong stuff. This spirit is categorized as Mad Man’s Soup; true poítín.

Always, ALWAYS, throw the first drop of poítín to the fairies. Otherwise, supernatural beings will haunt your furtive drinking session. In modern parlance, this is called “hallucination”.

Various Uses for Poítín: 

Never let poítín into the wrong hands. Share discreetly at local weddings or for a wake house or with someone who is sick – but never let it into the wrong hands. Your livestock will appreciate a drop as well. To liven up your cattle, mix it with milk and let them slurp away. Poítín is particularly beneficial for people with Arthritis or Sciatica or pains in their knees. For additional pain relief, use internally and externally. Rub the poítín into the affected area. The first run of whiskey is considered the best for aches and pains, or maybe you just don’t feel anything when you sample the second or third runs.

Transportation: 

Distribution of your excess whiskey for commercial gain is fraught with danger. When caught on the road, Master Distillers of old were rarely transported overseas, but the County Court Judge will impose hefty financial penalties in the knowledge that your neighbours and customers will stump up a few quid in order to ensure that the still is removed to an even more secret place. Use vigilance and cunning. Here’s an example from our parish:

In the troubled times of 1921, an old woman used to bring Póítín into Tubbercurry and sell it to the big shots in town. She was a mighty woman. The ruthless Black ‘n’ Tans were around at that time; and they used to hold people up on the road, checking their carts. Our heroic old lady used to transport the poítín in kettles. She would fill the top of the spout and seal the lids on each kettle with buttermilk. The soldiers would ask her what was in these kettles and she would reply, “Can you not see that it is buttermilk which I sell to the poor people at the Tubbercurry market each week.” She was known to have one of the most popular stalls on the market, so the local army sergeant was suspicious.

One time, the soldiers followed her out of her village, on her way to Tubbercurry, intending to conduct a thorough search of her cart, away from the busy main road where rebel youths stoned the Brits if they hassled the old locals too much. Word of the soldiers’ presence in the parish was quickly passed to the farmers up the lanes, and a baying mob attempted to delay the platoon as it marched behind the old lady’s cart, passing through Banada. The commotion allowed just enough time for our heroine to lead her ass to the River Moy bank for a drink, out of sight, below the bridge.

Quick as a flash, she tied together the kettles containing whiskey with a string, and dropped them down into the river below the reed beds. She always had them well-sealed, so the Mountain Dew was safe. When the soldiers eventually caught up with her on the riverbank, the sergeant hinted that he would instruct the Moy to be dredged. Not to be outdone, the brave old lady grabbed her carbolic from the cart and immediately started to strip off her clothes. “Will you give me the courtesy of bathing in private – or do the British men have no scruples at all?” howled the old woman. With her underwear now in full view, the soldiers did not know how to react, but the cursing farmers made a decision for them with their shouts from Banada Bridge. “Let a lady wash in peace! Get back into town or we’ll send word to get your barracks burned down!” The red-faced soldiers beat a hasty retreat just as our dear old poítín pedlar plunged fully naked into the icy waters. She was a hardy woman, LORD HAVE MERCY ON HER, and she was never stopped on the road again.

Hiding places: 

Bogs, drains, hen houses, haystacks and manure heaps are recommended common places to hide poítín. However, having uploaded this info into the public domain, you had better not hide your poítín in bogs, drains, hen houses, haystacks or manure heaps.

Poítín & The Fairies:

If you drink poítín in the company of more than one person, then you must always pour out an extra measure for the fairies. One measure is sufficient because they are very small in stature compared to the human frame. Leave this tot outside of your drinking den, in the open-air. It will always be gone by the time you wake from your poítín-induced coma.

Scientists have discovered that virtually pure alcohol rapidly evaporates when left in an outdoor atmosphere – but what do they know? It’s better to be innocent and safe, than sorry.

This stuff is no good - it's legal

          This stuff is no good – it’s legal

The Fair Day in Aclare


(Recounted by John Sheerin, 25th February 2001)
 

“On the fair day each townland had its own area where they kept the cattle.  The people from Gurterslin and Drumartin areas always parked near the entrance of the village on the low road. The people from Tourlestrane, Carrane, Tubberoddy and Coolreagh parked from the barracks up the high road.  Carrowloban, Kincullew and that area parked down the main street. The Killassers parked on the bridge.  Each townland had their own place to park.  When the cattle were sold they were put into Leheny’s yard. Then they were loaded on to lorries up the road.  Before my time, the pigs were taken to Sligo. The farmer of that time would bring the pigs by horse and cart to Sligo. They would bring loads of meal and flour back on the return journey. 

There were a lot of pubs in Aclare in those days. Some shops had both groceries and hardware on sale. There was Kathleen Feehely, Loftus’s, Higgins’, Ellen Haran’s (which became Mayes), Bradleys, Flatleys and Quinns. We had the fair winter and summer.  Each farmer herded his animals in a cluster. The villagers from each townland would hold their animals together up against a wall or steer them around the street. Everyone watched their own cattle. 

The sheep were on the backway. They were held with the dogs. They stayed together. When they had walked ten miles they were damn glad to stand for a while. When they were bought they were taken home on carts. 

Aclare market, Co. Sligo

                                     1961 Aclare Fair Day

The country people brought the banabhs in on carts.  They’d sell them in front of Gallaghers. Touhy’s from Ballaghaderreen came with lorries for banabhs, which they kept in crates. 

On the fair day the village was hard to pass through. It was noisy with voices bargaining, donkeys braying, the mooing of cows and baaing of sheep. The smells were strong. The place used to be in an awful mess when the day was over and the animals were taken home. The next day the County Council would come and sweep the streets. There was no water or electricity that time. We didn’t get the electricity until the 50’s. In the late 50’s we got the water on tap. 

Of course there was many a row on a fair day. When the tinkers were around we often had fights with them. Mind you, not on fair days. One day there were only two guards in the barracks and a row got up. The guards came looking for help to put the troublemakers out of the village. Four or five of us tackled them with the guards. We put them out over the bridge and gave them a good hoisting. Nobody got injured and there were no bad feelings. The fair days were great.  I miss them.  They ended sometime in the 60’s.  Then the mart was started in Aclare by Kennedys.  That continued for about ten years. 

The village had a shoe maker called Dinny Walsh. Kate Fahy was another shopowner. She sold sweets. Other owners were Bretts, Sheerins, McAllisters and Evans. Each shop had a hardware section. Charlie Brett was the blacksmith. Years before I remember there were three bakeries in Aclare; Loftus’, Higgins’ and Lundys. There was also a cooper who lived down at the edge of the river where the car park is now. I don’t remember him but he was in it. There was also a butter house down along the river.  

But getting back to the fair day. It was one of the best fairs in Ireland. The jobbers used to come from Sligo, Ballina, Northern Ireland and Roscommon. The fair was held on the last Wednesday of the month. We stayed in the shops and protected the outside by putting barrels and bars on the streets. These stopped the cattle coming up on the footpath and breaking the windows. 

The jobber would come along and ask the farmer the price of the animal. They made the bargain and finished the thing with a slap of the hand. The deal was made. After that they’d go into the pub and have a drink.”

There’s two “L’s” in Tullinaglug

Hughie insisted that there was “two L’s in Tullinaglug.”

Morris retorted that he should look at the old maps. “There’s definitely three L’s in Tullinaglug.”

“Bollix!” shouted Hughie. “There’s Molly Moran’s well, and there’s Neary’s well. Behind the cottage, by the cow shed.”

There’s no answer to that. It’s true.

John's cottage and his auld Raleigh bike

The well’s round the back

All-Ireland Inquest

Dear Danny,

Went to the Roaring Cock yesterday lunchtime for a pint and the post-All-Ireland inquest discussions. I overheard this bar-room conversation between two locals:
“What time did you leave on Sunday?”
“I dunno. I woke up in Charlestown, early hours Monday. Why – what time did you leave?”
“I dunno.”
“So – did I see you on Sunday?”
“I think so.”
The Irish really know how to celebrate big sporting events.

Gearoid, Ha ha, brilliant ! I was really sad to hear The Green and Red had been beaten again; I thought they might have done it this time around. I’m sure mighty craic was had whatever. Did you watch it in the Cock ? I was wondering if the Killybacside gang were for Mayo or Donegal.

Danny, as you should know – Mayo & Sligo are in the Connacht province, and even though Mayo “bet” Sligo in the Connacht final, healthy local tradition says that you support your neighbours – even after defeat. I know it’s the opposite in Lancashire. Could you ever support Burnley in the FA Cup Final if they beat Blackburn Rovers in the semi!! Then again, this FA cup final could only ever be played on Fantasy Island.

Donegal play in the Ulster Championship. They are close neighbours but they’re separated by a small strip of Leitrim. We were glad that the GAA final involved two teams from the West for a change, but the Green & Red flags were flying in our parish on Sunday. My great-grandmother was a Mayo lady, so I cheered them on too. I was first in the Roaring Cock on Sunday morning (before the bar officially opened), escaping early from yet another midday funeral mass. I even beat old Hughie O’Gara to the bar, and he is a permanent fixture on the bar stool by the turf fire. I took my car home when I was only 1 or 2 jars over the limit, and vowed to return if Mayo got off to a good start. They didn’t. Two goals down in no time. Game over – barring a miracle. So I got sozzled at home, channel-hopping between Premier League soccer, GAA & Formula One.

I think Mayo’s failure just contributed to excess partying in the Cock for no good reason at all. Many say they cannot remember the second half – or the next few hours – or the closed door session after midnight, etc. Where do they get the stamina? Years of practice, I suppose.

Gearoid, I am so happy. I slept ! I went out for dinner with the Dublin/Nottingham girls and had a few beers before I leave Pamplona; I put the earplugs in to drown out the phantom snorer and was dead to the world. Today’s another day. I woke at 6.00am today pleasantly surprised to have slept so well. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that ”Foghorn Leghorn” had kept half the dorm awake again. In the spirit of the Camino, I gave a spare pair of earplugs to an Australian pilgrim who looked like she was more in need than I was.

Early start for me too, today, Danny. Got to research some Dubliners called Costello, a typically Irish surname – but they turn out to have been the Costa family originally from Lucca in Tuscany 200 years ago, and then they started to appreciate their Italian heritage in the 20th century and they start calling themselves Castello after further emigration around the world. Irish genealogy is never straightforward, especially as many Irish folk “adopt” forenames in adulthood which were never mentioned on their baptism records. I have Irish three aunts; my dad’s sisters. They were always known to me in Lancashire as Maureen, Eileen & Doreen. It turns out that they were born as Mary, Attracta & Joan ….. and even Hughie O’Gara (Cock fixture & fitting) was never christened as Hugh or anything like!

Danny, as you’ll appreciate, drink-driving around our parish involves keeping your vehicle in the two well-worn ruts in the single track lanes separated by the green strip of overgrown grass which has sprung up from the ancient tarmac last laid decades ago. It is impossible to leave the road, but meeting a fellow drink-driver coming the other way is a difficult challenge. And if the approaching fellow traveler is perched upon a rusty old red (unlicensed) tractor, then take evasive action. My shiny new motor now has the scars of one of these encounters.

But a bump or two on the family car is like a badge of honour around here – as is the 12 months driving ban for those heroes daft enough to venture into town after a few pints in the village “shops”. Liver complaints are unheard of – but bowel cancer seems to be the price you pay in old age for a lifetime of living off nothing more than Guinness soup. The recommended local medicine for bowel cancer is more Guinness, so that’s alright then.

By the way – Happy Arthur’s Day! Will you find a pint of the black stuff beyond Pamplona – if you dare venture off today.

Arthur’s Day is a great Irish invention which now ensures that the 12 month wait for Paddy’s Day is halved. It’s always better to have a reason to get totally “locked” as the Dubs say. But with Arthur’s Day falling midway between the GAA Football Final and the All-Ireland Hurling replay this year, there won’t be much turf cut this week ……

Which reminds me – a great headline in the Western People this week, as follows:No sun, no silage, no turf, no Sam – a Bad Year for Mayo.

Up Galway, in the replayed hurling final. Might venture out for a drink.

Gearoid , that cracked me up. You should write a book. Oh I forgot , you already have! Did you see the news? Rioting in Pamplona by Spanish austerity protesters.

The Spanish are mid-table rioters as far as I can see on the TV news. Be thankful you’re not passing through Athens. The Greeks really know how to trash the place.

Meanwhile, in parallel to your long trek, the 9-Day West of Ireland Drinking Olympics reached midway on Arthur’s Day. I gave up work early and ventured into the main stadium (aka The Roaring Cock) at about 4pm to check on progress. After patiently waiting for landlord Con’s middle daughter, Mae O (from Sligo), to set me up the perfect pint of Guinness, I jokingly asked whether I was too early for the Happy Hour free black stuff which I knew officially commenced at precisely 17:59. Hughie O’Gara in his familiar corner piped up that in Charlestown they had free drinks for two hours. Now Hughie has an odd Sligo accent which combined with the effects of a mild stroke makes him speak in a strange Dalek-like tongue. To me, it sounded like Hughie said that our Mayo neighbours were offering “free drinks for chihuahuas” – so as my pint settled right on cue, I was able to raise my glass to the regulars and exclaim (as per the Guinness TV ad) –
Chihuahuas!
Hughie didn’t get it. He just said, “I’m not kidding ye. Two hours.”
The session had been re-invigorated. Mae O gave everyone a free pint ahead of time as we giggled like kids and saluted our hero – “TWARTA!”

Next up, Matt The Truth explained that a new word had been invented locally. He told us that the definition of the word is – “to fall into a drunken stupor whilst watching your sporting heroes not unexpectedly let you down yet again in the biggest match of the season.” He advised that this word is DEJAVOODOO.

And then we saw the story in the Irish Independent newspaper on the bar top, wherein a Hong Kong business tycoon is offering $50 million to any man who will “woo his lesbian daughter”. This headline gave ample scope for a prolonged debate about different folk’s interpretation of the art of wooing, especially if the lady prefers to bat for the other side. As you might expect, the conversation degenerated and made young Mae O blush, and cannot be repeated here. Pious Peter was cringing, and said with his lisp, “Now, that’s what I call wooed [rude]” – so I retorted with “as the Chinese millionaire said to his spread-eagled dyke of a daughter.”

My drinking companion, innocent 89 year-old bachelor ‘uncle’ John asked his usual question when female homosexuality is raised. “What do lesbians actually do?” he enquired. Matt The Truth gave him a subtle clue when he said that there’s two lesbians who live on his lane, and they grow a lot of courgettes. John was baffled and advised us that he prefers cabbage.

Sore knees are nothing. My guts are starting to ache this week. Is it the porter, the side-splitting craic, or both?

Keep going Dan. You’ve progressed about 1.5 inches along the Camino map on my 12″ screen.

camino de santiago

Where’s he heading?