Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Templenoe to the world

An unconquerable passion for the sea shaped the whole course of my early life. No wonder it was so. I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations. The sea was to me as toys and amusements. But more than that it was the boundary and limit of my world. I knew that beyond that vast expanse of water, were great cities and strange sights. I longed to see these things for myself. Anyone who has been born and reared on an island will understand the sense of restraint which filled my boyish heart. Thus all my youthful pranks took a seaward turn. If my father deprived me of a boat, I launched the pig trough into the heavy breakers. If he hid the oars I made a pair of garden shovels answer the purpose. When all means of rowing failed I made a sailboat with the sheets from my bed. No punishments, no remonstrances from my gentle sisters could subdue the wild passion that constantly drove me into the deepest “perils of waters!” (Needham T. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.6)

Kenmare Bay from Templenoe jetty

Thomas Needham (1854-1916) went to sea when he was 13. His father had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard in his younger days, so seafaring was in the family. George Needham knew the perils of the sea, and especially the wild Atlantic. He died, however, when Thomas was a young boy, and in exasperation over what to do with him, his older siblings allowed Thomas to fulfil his longings and sign on to a ship as soon as he was old enough.

He left the shores of the Kenmare Bay in 1867 to explore the world. After many adventures he came back eventually to Ireland, but his family had all gone. They had migrated to America. He followed them, and once there became a strong Christian believer. He spent his life as an evangelist, in the time of DL Moody, one of the greatest American evangelists of the nineteenth century. Thomas became known as the “sailor preacher.”

Templenoe, where Thomas grew up, is hardly noticeable nowadays as you drive along the forested road from Kenmare to Sneem. There is a sign to Templenoe jetty and following the dirt road through the trees brings you to the banks of the Kenmare Bay, where the photo above was taken. It was a calm and sunny day when we were there, the waters of the bay still, the sky blue above the mountains beyond the bay.

The old Church of Ireland which the Needhams attended, and where Thomas’s oldest sister, Mary, and William Hickson were married in 1858, was closed up and for sale when Hanna and I were there in late August this year. I wandered through the churchyard and spotted the name Needham on one headstone, but it was clear that most of the Needhams had departed. The Church of Ireland was a lot stronger in the nineteenth century, and many of the old churches are now shut or converted to homes or restaurants.

The minister of the Templenoe church was a member of the local Anglo-Irish gentry in the area. The Rev Denis Mahony lived at Dromore Castle, which we did not see, but which still stands on land now owned by the Irish Forestry. He was a keen “proselytiser” according to Wikipedia, which made him unpopular with many of the local population, who were mostly Catholic. The Needhams were, however, Protestant, and The Rev Denis Mahony was also their landlord, according to the Griffith valuation of 1851, so they presumably had a good relationship with him, and were sympathetic to his evangelistic fervor. In 1861 his son Richard Mahony was instrumental in the outbreak of a Christian revival in the area, which was to have a lasting impact on the world and our family.

Richard Mahony’s best friend, FC Bland, of the neighbouring Derryquin Estate, near Sneem, was also deeply involved in this revival, which seemed to have affected the Needham family, as well as many other Kerry Protestants. Thomas Needham was only seven when the revival broke out and was more interested in boats, but his older brother, George, was 15 at the time and was profoundly changed by the revival. He too later became a well known evangelist in North America: in 1901 a newspaper article from Cambridge Massachusetts reported, “Mr Needham owes his conversion to the great religious revival that swept over Ireland in the year 1861.”

1861 was also the year that my great grandmother Susie Hickson, the first daughter of William Hickson and Mary Needham, was born in nearby Killarney. Her parents, who I believe had met one another when William lived in Sneem some years earlier, were also affected by the revival, possibly through an association with FC Bland, though they were living in Killarney or Killorglin during the revival years. Like many of those affected by the revival, they became Brethren, and this legacy was passed down to my grandmother (Susie Hickson’s daughter Gertie, born in Sydney in 1899) who grew up in the Brethren church in Sydney, Australia.

Gertie, to her parents’ dismay, married an English immigrant (my grandfather, George Simmonds) who was Anglican, but as a sort of compromise they raised their three daughters, one of whom was my mother, as Baptists. Though my mother also married an Anglican, a streak of non-conformism has run through my family ever since the Irish revivals of the 1860s (and the Scottish revivals of the 1840s) and created a longing even in me which has made me look beyond the “Established Church” for a spiritual pathway through life.

Templenoe Church in the ninteenth century

Templenoe Church, now closed and for sale



Sneem Bridge

While driving around the “Ring of Kerry” with my daughter Hanna in late August this year we passed through the colourful little village of Sneem. We had driven “the ring” counterclockwise and therefore came from the Atlantic coast where we had delighted in the beautiful coastline that passes the Skellig islands and Waterville, and all the little rocky coves and sandy beaches around the seaward end of Kenmare Bay. It was evening. The drive around the Ring had taken a lot longer (and we had left a lot later) than expected and we were due back in Killarney for a concert later that evening, so we didn’t stop, driving onward along the northern side of the inlet to Kenmare and then north over the winding road back to the big tourist town on the other side of the mountains.

We went back the next day, driving in the other direction, because I wanted to see a little more of Sneem. I have been interested in the village because of its place in our family history, of which I first became aware when I read Don Robinson’s notes about John Christopher Hickson (JCH):

Some part of his boyhood was spent in the picturesque village of Sneem, on the wild rocky coast of Kerry, where he had Needham relatives.

Later I had got a copy from my father of the book JCH had written after returning from his world trip in 1893, which he embarked on with his twenty year old daughter Alice. On that journey he returned to the places where he had grown up, which he had left when in 1870 he, like the rest of his family before him, had emigrated from Ireland. In Notes of Travel, JCH writes:

[We] drove by jaunting car to the little village of Sneem [from Kenmare], which lies hidden by the headlands and rocky promontories of the wild coast of Kerry. To a stranger this district would appear barren and deserted, but to some of my acquaintances it is a veritable garden of Eden, and the remembrance of early days of innocent childhood clings with a perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose. Here we visited the village church where once I worshipped and was taught in Sunday School; and on the green bank outside, sloping to the river, I saw the monuments of those whom I knew and revered, but who have gone to the “bourne whence no travellers return.” Unpretending and insignificant as this village of Sneem is at present, there have gone forth from the ranks of those born within its limits men and women who have been a credit to the land of their birth, and who have made their mark in the political, military and social history of the age. (Hickson JC, Notes of Travel, p.40, published 1893)

John Hickson, it is clear, lived in Sneem for some part of his childhood. But he was born on the other side of the mountains in Killorglin. So why did the Hickson family live in Sneem, and when?


Don Robinson says that the Hicksons had Needham relatives in Sneem. It is unclear from his notes what he means. However, of interest is the fact that Richard Hickson’s wife (John’s mother) was named Mary-Anne Carter before she married, while George Needham’s wife was named Susan Carter. Were they related – sisters, or cousins? Mary-Anne was 16 years older than Susan. Both died relatively young, Mary-Anne in 1853 at the age of 51 and Susan in 1856 at 38. If they were sisters then the Hickson children and the Needham children were cousins. More research is needed here. But a relationship between these two Carters might go some way to explaining the Hickson’s connection with Sneem, since George Needham and his wife and many children lived in Templenoe, very close to the larger village.

There is a fascinating book about Sneem that I picked up in a little souvenir shop when we were there. It is called “Sneem, the Knot in the Ring,” by T.E. Stoakley, published in 1986. Chapter 7 relates the history of the Bland family, who were the local gentry during the years that our forebears were associated with the area. The Blands were an Anglo-Irish family who had lived in Kerry for over a hundred years. Their estate was called Derryquin and the house they lived in, built in the first half of the nineteenth century (and only one of several Bland residences in the area) was called Derryquin Castle. It stood majestic on the shores of Kenmare Bay a few kilometres south east of the village.



Stoakley describes the estate in his book as follows:

Derryquin formed a community that was largely self-supporting. There was timber in plenty and a saw pit where sawyers were kept busy converting the logs into the planks, boards and scantlings for the carpenter’s shop where doors and sashes were made and all the innumerable odds and ends of estate joinery were done. There was a forge where the tenants horses were shod and all the general smithy work was done, even the manufacture of bolts and nails. (Stoakley TE. Sneem, the Knot in the Ring, p.77)

This last sentence caught my eye when I read it, because I knew that William Hickson, who was John’s oldest brother, was, like his father, a “nailor” – a manufacturer of bolts and nails. I remembered how puzzled I had been by this occupation when I first saw it recorded on William’s marriage certificate. I had never heard of such a trade. Could it be, I wondered as I read these words in Stoakley’s book, that William Hickson and his father had been employed on the Derryquin Estate as nailors? This could have been the reason that they lived in Sneem. But it does not cast any light on exactly when they lived there.


John Hickson was born in Killorglin in 1848. He was the youngest in the family, in which seven children survived to adulthood. The oldest was Susan, born in 1832. William, his big brother was born in 1833, so was 15 when John was born, and presumably at that stage ready to start an apprenticeship. So the family could have moved to Sneem any time after John’s birth, and William may have learnt the manufacture of nails on the Derryquin Estate.

The Hickson family’s life during John’s first fifteen years, can be divided into three five year periods divided by significant life events:

  • 1848 John Hickson’s birth
  • 1853 their mother Mary-Anne Hickson (Carter) died age 51. John was 5 years old. That same year the first of the Hickson children, Susan, who was 21, migrated to Australia. Two more sisters Mary and Ellen migrated two years later in 1855.
  • 1858 William Hickson, the oldest son, married Mary Needham in Templenoe Church. John was 10 by this stage.
  • 1863 Two more of the Hickson children, Kate and George, migrated to Australia. John was then 15 and presumably leaving school.

But in which of these five year periods did the family live in Sneem?

Another clue to times and places is found in a poem John wrote many years later, in Australia on the occasion of the twentieth birthday of William and Mary’s first child, Richard, recalling his birth in Killorglin. Here are the first five stanzas from that poem:

The day was advancing, the bright sun was pouring
Its beams through the leaves of the Elms in the Grove,
The lark which the morn had seen loftily soaring,
Had descended to guard the soft nest of it’s love.

The fair Laune was following in majestic splendour,
The trout replied brisk to the angler’s fly,
The reeds in the distance rose brighter and grander,
All nature seemed pleased that last day of July.

O’er the field the light breezes of midsummer softly
The meadows and bright corn whispering wooed
Midst their shade undisturbed sang the Cormeraks gaily
And the Cuckoo’s note rang loud tones from the wood.

Mid such scenes of such beauty and fullest enjoyment,
This baby was born with tribute to pay
I have spared a few moments for mental employment,
To con a few lines for his twentieth birthday.

As a child in his cradle I rocked him to slumber
Oft his bright chubby form I have nursed on my knee
But as boy our firm friendship was riven asunder,
For early he crossed o’er Atlantic’s blue sea.

It is clear from this poem that Richard was born in Killorglin. William and Mary, and presumably William’s brother John and their father were all probably living in Killorglin by that time. My records indicate that their second child Suzie was born in Killarney in 1861 (though whether that means they were living there I cannot say), and I have no record of where their third child, Mary-Anne (who was always called Lizzie) was born (I believe in 1863). The last two lines of the fifth stanza refer to William and Mary’s migration with their three children to America in 1865.

Are we any closer to knowing the time of the Hickson’s sojourn in Sneem? If John’s “innocent childhood” was up to the age of five, it would place them there in the years between 1848 and 1853, the year that John’s mother died. The trauma of her death may well have precipitated a move. But it is not impossible that they remained there after 1853, and that John started school in Sneem, even if he finished in Killorglin.

The “fragrance of a withered rose”

John Hickson remembered Sneem with nostalgia, something that is clear from his book: “the remembrance of early days of innocent childhood clings with a perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose.” This is interesting knowing that the Irish potato famine had ravaged the area in the years from 1845 to 1852, during the latter years of which the Hickson’s were probably living in the village. Sneem suffered greatly along with the rest of Ireland.

Sneem Church

Church of the Transfiguration


The church (Church of Ireland) where the family worshipped still stands, though it is somewhat changed from its condition in the 1850s: it is called the Church of the Transfiguration. Hanna and I peeked inside its quiet interior and stood in the same churchyard described by John in his book: and on the green bank outside, sloping to the river, I saw the monuments of those whom I knew and revered, but who have gone to the “bourne whence no travellers return.”

The Bland family of Derryquin has a family vault in the churchyard. There is at least one Bland commemorated on the inner walls of the church. The Bland family were very likely a significant part of the Hickson’s life while they were in Killorglin. However, Derryquin Castle has long since disappeared, as has the family who owned it. The main surviving “big house” of the Bland family is called Parknasilla and is today a luxury hotel on the shores of Kenmare Bay. What happened to Derryquin and the Blands?

The spiritual legacy of Sneem

By the beginning of the 1860s, Stoakley explains in his book, “Ireland was passing through the difficult years of the land agitation, and it was inevitable that the fortunes of the Derryquin Estate should decline.” (p.78) However, in 1861 there was an unexpected development in the area that possibly hastened the demise of Derryquin. It was the year that William and Mary’s second child, Suzie, was born (in Killorglin, Killarney or Sneem – I am unsure which). In Kenmare, some twenty kilometres east of Sneem, a religious revival broke out, resulting in the formation of a group within the Protestant church whose members were usually known simply as Brethren. Richard Mahony, the Needham family’s landlord, who owned Dromore Castle near Templenoe, was converted to their beliefs.

Richard Mahony was best friends with Francis Christopher (FC) Bland; the Bland’s estate bordered his. FC Bland, the son and heir to the owner of Derryquin, was, through his friend, also persuaded by the revival. To explain what happened Stoakley in his book quotes FC Bland’s obituary:

It was in the year 1861, and while busily engaged in the improvement of the estate and the condition of the tenants thereon, by building, road making, draining, that the revival broke out hard by in the meetings held by his dear friend and neighbour the late Mr Richard Mahony, of Dromore. Becoming anxious about his salvation, in the presence of numerous conversions among his acquaintances, he [Bland] consulted the Rev Frederick Trench, of Cloughjordan, the well known founder of the Home Mission, and from him received the strange advice to begin preaching, and, as he said, “in watering others you will yourself be watered.” (Stoakley, p.77)

FC Bland followed his advice and became a travelling evangelist, and later an advisor to the famous American evangelist, D.L. Moody. This meant that in 1863, when his father died and Francis inherited the estate, that he was unable to deal directly with the problems the estate was experiencing. Stoakley describes this in a mildly disappointed tone:

For several years while the revival was at its height he [FC Bland] travelled around Ireland on a preaching campaign. He then turned his attention to England… It was the worst possible time for a landlord to absent himself from his estates… In his preoccupation with the salvation of himself and his fellow men, the owner of Derryquin was unmindful that his estate itself needed its own kind of salvation. It is clear from his obituary that he considered his estate as merely an “earthly inheritance”; the duties he had been called upon to perform were on a higher plane. (Stoakley, p.78)

FC Bland played an important and influential role in the spiritual revivals of Ireland, England and America in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. But his neglect of his own estate may well have hastened its decline. Eventually the estate would be sold and in the troubles of 1923 the castle was burned, becoming a ruin that eventually was demolished. Today there is no sign of the old house, the site of which has been swallowed up by a golf course in the grounds of the Parknasilla Hotel.

The Hicksons had almost certainly left Sneem by the time the revival broke out, and I have nothing in my possession written by John to suggest that it had any kind of strong impact on him. However, his older brother William appears to have been affected, as was William’s wife Mary. Mary’s four youngest brothers (who were growing up in Templenoe) all became evangelists. William and Mary probably became Brethren, and their beliefs and practices continued into the next generation. Their daughter Suzie, born in the year the revival broke out, would eventually marry another Irish migrant from Kerry, George Byrne, in Australia many years later. They were staunch members of the Brethren church in Sydney, a fact that profoundly affected their family life, in a way that caused Suzie later came to regret. But that is another story. Susie was my great grandmother, but she died long before I was born.

This Brethren influence thus became in some ways the most important legacy of Sneem in my family. It may not have had much effect on John, but it certainly affected William, and through him his daughter, Suzie, and her children, among whom was my grandmother, Gertie Byrne (later Simmonds).

I have mentioned the fact that Suzie Hickson married George Byrne, another migrant from County Kerry, and that they followed the Brethren path in their beliefs. George had a younger brother, Richard (Dick) Byrne, who came out to Australia a good many years after (early 1890s). He too grew up in Kerry and though he was not even born at the time of the revival, is likely to have been influenced by the Brethren movement. I suspect George and Richard’s parents may have been Brethren. After his arrival in Sydney Richard fell in love with John Hickson’s eldest daughter, Alice, and they planned to marry. John refused to give them his blessing, however, and forbade their marriage.

I have long wondered why John Hickson disliked Dick Byrne so much and I have elsewhere suggested some possible explanations. Another theory is that Dick was too religious for John, which may have been a result of a suspicion that John Hickson had for the non-conformism of the Brethren. John himself was a staunch Anglican in Sydney. Alice, as a result, was not allowed to marry Richard, though many years later after both their respective spouses died they did in fact marry, by then in their early seventies, much to the annoyance of John Hickson, still alive and opinionated and by then into his nineties.


The village is now a picturesque little place on a wild and beautiful coast. The Sneem River tumbles through the middle of the town, spanned by an attractive bridge. The houses are painted in many bright colours and tourists flock to the village in summer, providing it with a good deal of its income. But Sneem has not always been as picturesque as it is now. During the Famine (1845-1852) a traveller described it as a “poor, dirty village.” This was about the time the Hickson’s lived there. In the mid-nineteenth century it was a small place, in 1851 boasting a population of only 359 which had risen by 1861 to just 406 (Stoakley, p.18) The bright colours of the houses for which the village is famous, and the attractive village greens, only began to appear in the first quarter of the twentieth century, so at the time John Hickson lived there it was a bleak and colourless place. By contrast, according to Stoakley, in more recent years “many have expressed the opinion that it is the most attractive village in Ireland.” (p.20)But small and dirty and colourless as it may have been to some, to John Hickson it was a place of “perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose,” even if to a stranger it may have appeared “unpretending and insignificant.” And whether JCH was in favour of, or opposed to, the religious enthusiasm that resulted from the revival there seems little doubt that the effects of that revival, good and bad, were felt around the world through not just the ministry of FC Bland, but also of the changed lives of William Hickson and his wife Mary, in Australia, as well as Mary’s extended family, the Needhams, in America.




The colours of Sneem

Old friends in the old country

In John Hickson’s book, Notes of Travel, the Martin family turns up in passing on a few occasions, and oddly enough plays a small role in the history of our family. It was the Martin family who hosted John (JCH) and his daughter during their stay in Killarney in 1893:

We arrived at Killarney at midday and were met by our old and dear friends Mr William Martin and his family… (Hickson J, Notes of Travel 1893, p.34)

JCH had been gone for 23 years. As a young man of 22 he had left Ireland to seek his fortune in Australia, following his older siblings who had successively departed over the previous 15 years. He had succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, and when he returned to Ireland in 1893 with his eldest daughter, Alice, he was a wealthy man. As a timber merchant and property developer in the young city of Sydney, by the age of 45 he was rich enough to be able to retire from active work and live on the income from his investments.

He had married soon after his arrival in Australia and together he and his wife Martha were raising a family of 10 children, the youngest of whom was still an infant when JCH embarked on his world trip. He had built a big home in Sydney which he named The Grove after the “family seat” in Ireland. I have little doubt that he returned to the land of his birth with a certain amount of pride in both his own achievement and the land that had afforded him such success.

William Martin and his family were “dear and old friends,” according to JCH, but they lived in Killarney, some 20 km away from Killorglin where JCH had grown up. I found myself wondering about who William Martin was really and how he and John Hickson knew each other. After some research on the internet it became clear that William was a rather successful businessman himself.

He was some years older than John Hickson, having married in 1865, five years before JCH left for Australia. His marriage to Phillipa Eager was registered in Killarney. He is variously recorded in publicly available documents as being a grocer (1867), a seedsman (1870), an auctioneer (1880), and a flour and meal dealer (1881). His business was located in Main Street, Killarney, though in later years he appears to have moved around the corner to New Street. Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directory of 1884 indicates that William Martin became a town commissioner, and another directory records that in 1893 he was a Commissioner for Affidavits. JCH himself was a Justice of the Peace in Sydney, so they no doubt shared notes about their official duties when they were reunited in Killarney on John’s return.

But how did they know each other? The clue lies in a reference a few pages later in JCH’s book to a Roger Martin, who appears to have been related to William. JCH had taken the train to Killorglin where he wanted to visit his mother’s grave:

Dromevalley, the necropolis of Killorglin, contains the dust of many dear to me: there lie some of my earliest and best friends, my faithful schoolmate and companion, R. Martin, and beyond all, my dear mother, with some of my brothers and sisters side by side. (Notes of Travel, p.40)


The “necropolis” of Killorglin

Roger Martin was most likely a younger brother of William Martin. Slaters Royal National Commercial Directory of Ireland 1881 indicates that Roger was also a seedsman, manure dealer, flour and meal dealer. But his business was in Killorglin, not in Killarney like his older brother’s. It seems likely that the Martin family lived, like the Hickson family, in Killorglin, but that William moved to Killarney to set up his business in the 1860s, and married and settled there. Roger, however, remained in Killorglin.

It becomes clear in JCH’s book that Roger Martin was John Hickson’ closest childhood friend. They had surely remained in touch by letter over all the years of their separation and John had dreamt of the day when they would meet again. However, before that day came, Roger passed away. Of his arrival in Killorglin that summer day in 1893 John writes:

I met many friends who had known me in youth, but found many changes in faces and places; and of the companions I once knew, some had left, some were dead, and a generation had risen up “who knew not Joseph.” There was one whom I missed intensely, my old and valued friend and companion, the late Roger Martin; and for many years in contemplating my visit to my old home, the pleasure of his companionship and his warm-heartedness would loom up as the central feature. (Notes of Travel, p.37)

They were the same age, both born in 1848. But by 1893, when the 45 year old John Hickson returned to Ireland, his good friend had already gone to an early grave. Online records show that he died in 1891, at the age of 43, but to discover the cause of death I will need to get a copy of the death certificate. Was it illness, or accident? Whether he had a wife and children is also unclear. If he was survived by a family JCH does not record it in his book. When John and his daughter returned two years after Roger’s death they were guests not of his dear friend, but of Roger’s older brother, who lived up the road in Killarney.

A few weeks back my daughter Hanna and I visited Dromevalley, “the necropolis of Killorglin.” It is on sloping ground among green fields on the other side of the Laune River from the town centre. I searched in vain for Hicksons or Martins in the graveyard. I could not find John’s mother, his siblings, or his friend. If at some time they had headstones, they seem to have gone now. But JCH apparently found them in 1893 when he was there.

John Hickson clearly mourned the loss of his old friend. Much had changed since he had left but his loss caused the most pain. It surely made him more certain that his rightful home was now Australia. His descriptions of Ireland betray how dearly he loved his native land, but his destiny was decided. He was now a citizen of another country and though he would visit Kerry again on several occasions over his remaining years, Ireland would never be home again in the way it was during his childhood.

Roger Martin, strangely enough, plays a bigger role in our family history than simply being John Hickson’s friend. His name appears again in connection to another of our ancestors from Kerry. It is a tangled web of relationships and JCH plays a part in that story too, as does his older brother William Hickson. But that forgotten tale will have to wait for another blog.


The view beyond the graveyard in Killorglin


My daughter, Hanna, and I stayed just outside Killarney for two nights last week, in a B&B we found in Muckross Road. Muckross House and the ruined Muckross Abbey are popular tourist attractions nearby but we did not visit them. We were able to see Muckross House from the other side of the lake. We had stopped for a walk in Killarney National Park, following a track down to a place called The Meeting of the Waters, where the three lakes of Killarney meet. We caught glimpses of the stately home on the return to the car.

There is an old cottage there called Dinís Cottage, apparently a tearoom in the not too distant past but now closed for business. According to one website, Dinis Cottage dates back to the 1700s. John Christopher Hickson (JCH) mentions the place it in his book, Notes of Travel, which describes his visit with his daughter Alice in 1893:

We landed at Dinish Island and had tea in the cottage where the Queen once dined on her visit to Killarney. We performed the feat of shooting the rapids, and through the old Weir Bridge, past the Meeting of the Waters, where fisherman were plying the fly, past Eagle’s Nest Mountain and Innsfallen Island; landed and inspected Glena Cottage, another halting place of Victoria when visiting there, and landed at Ross Castle after a most enjoyable and delightful day. (Hickson J, Notes of Travel 1893, p36)

We didn’t “shoot the rapids” (which are rather mild as far as rapids are concerned) but a small boatload of tourists did pass by while we were walking along the stream behind Dinis Cottage. It seems the same activities have attracted tourists for at least the last 120 years.


The Old Weir Bridge at the Metting of the Waters

In fact we saw far less than JCH did on his trip, but he was in Killarney for two weeks and we were there only for two days. We didn’t get out on the lake at all, and our mode of transport was a car loaned to us by friends in Dublin, rather than by “jaunting cars” – which JCH mentions repeatedly in his book. I had been a little mystified by what exactly a jaunting car might be, until we arrived in Killarney and discovered to our delight that they are still readily available for hire in the city centre in order to get to any number of destinations.


Jaunting car near Ross Castle

Hanna and I drove one evening to Ross Castle, which had just closed, though we were able to walk around it and bask in the warm evening sunshine on the lakefront. JCH describes his visit to the castle briefly in his book:

We arrived at Killarney at midday and were met by our old and dear friends Mr William Martin and his family… Together we visited the ruins of Ross Castle on the shore of Killarney Lakes, where once were quartered the troops of Cromwell, and from the top of which a fine view of the lower lake can be obtained; through Lord Kenmore’s domain, a beautiful and romantic spot; the beautiful ruins of Muckross Abbey and the sweeping lawns and embowered shades of Muckross House. (Notes of Travel, p34)


Ross Castle in the evening sun

Killarney is still very much the tourist town, and having now been there it is easy to understand why. It is a beautiful place, set at the foot of the Killarney Mountains, much of which is now contained in Killarney National Park.


Killarney Mountains

More of JCH’s recollections:

We climbed Mangerton Mountain and saw the Devil’s Punch Bowl, and at Torc Mountain we sat and listened to the music of the waterfall. The heather, the mountain moss and turf were mingled and blended, and the views were charming. The landscape is something that must be seen to be understood. The green fields, the dark woods, the bright water…

Our friends organised a picnic in honour of our visit, and we drove in jaunting cars to the Gap of Dunloe. Leaving the town of Killarney we passed neatly trimmed hedges of hawthorn, rich meadow land, and fields of waving corn, and coming to the foot of the mountains we were met by a number of country men with horses or mountain ponies which they hire for the trip over the hills… We travelled as far as we could in our jaunting cars, having the eighteen ponies following in cavalcade…

We lunched at the foot of the Gap, where the echoes were grand; a small lake rested peacefully beside us, and the cliff towered above us, where the mountain cloud rested… Near here still stands the cottage of “Kate Kearney,” and occupied by one of her descendants, but we did not come under the spell from “the glance of her eye.” (Notes of Travel, pp 34-35)

On another trip we will go up to the Gap of Dunloe, though it is unlikely we will use ponies. There is a narrow winding mountain road that is passable with ordinary cars nowadays. Perhaps we will see Kate Kearney’s Cottage then; this time we satisfied ourselves with buying Kate Kearney’s Fudge, readily available form any one of dozens of tourist shops around Ireland.


The road leading off to the left leads to the Gap of Dunloe

Our Hickson ancestry

Our Hickson ancestors hailed from Killorglin in County Kerry, Ireland. They were Irish Protestants, descended from a Reverend Christopher Hickson who had come over from Cambridgeshire probably in the 1580s during the so called “plantation of Ireland” under Elizabeth I. The “plantations” of Ireland, which involved confiscation of land by the English crown and colonisation with settlers from England (see Wikipedia) had begin during the reign of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, and continued through the 16th and 17th centuries. The “plantation” of Munster (of which modern day Kerry is one of the counties) began in 1586.

According to Anthony Hickson, who has assembled the most comprehensive list of Hicksons on the Internet (, Christopher Hickson “was ordained Church of England 20th December 1593 by Maurice O’Brien, 1st Protestant Bishop of Killaloe. In 1615 he was Treasurer of Ardfert, Co Kerry, Rector of Disert & Vicar of Kilconley, Kerry. Two years later he was appointed Rector of Kilgobbin and the adjoining parish of Stradbally in the West of Kerry. He married into the Hussey family and had a son, Christopher, who turned Catholic and “as a rebel and a Papist” was transplanted to Connaught in Cromwell’s time.”

The Catholic-Protestant story of Ireland is a long and sad one, as is the closely related one of English-Irish relations. It has apparently played an important part in the history of the Hicksons in Ireland too. In another email Anthony Hickson wrote “this Hickson family (all the Kerry Hicksons decended from the Rev Christopher Hickson) were very divided by religion. Some were Protestants, some Catholic, hence the difficulty finding relationships.”

Richard and Mary Hickson were part of the Protestant branch of the family. Richard Hickson of Killorglin was a nailor, a trade which, according to a Dictionary of Old Occupations, was a person who “cleaned and maintained the teeth on a weaver’s carding machine, or a metalworker who produced nails.” He was born I believe around the beginning of the nineteenth century, but I do not know the exact year of his birth. He married Mary-Ann Carter, probably in the 1820s.

The church they worshipped at in Killorglin was built in 1816 but closed in 1998; at present it is a restaurant, the Sol y Sombra Tapas Bar. According to a webpage written by another Australian Hickson descendent (though not of Richard and Mary as far as I can see) there is a plaque in the old church which reads:

In memory of Richard and Mary Hickson, who for many years worshipped in this church together with their children beyond the seas, erected by their youngest son J.C. Hickson. J.P. Sydney, N.S.W. 1911

The same webpage lists seven children of Richard and Mary who migrated to Australia. Until recently I believed that Richard and Mary only had seven children, but while reading a book by the youngest of the Hicksons the J.C. Hickson who paid for the plaque in the church, I realised that there must have been more, who died in Ireland and very possibly in childhood:

Dromevalley, the necropolis of Killorglin, contains the dust of many dear to me: there lie some of my earliest and best friends, my faithful schoolmate and companion, R. Martin, and beyond all, my dear mother, with some of my brothers and sisters side by side. Being the last of a numerous family who by circumstances have been scattered over the globe and whose resting places are widely asunder, while leaning on the ivy which overhangs my mother’s grave the beautiful lines of Mrs Hemans occurred to me :-

They grew in beauty side by side,
They filled one home with glee;
Their graves are severed far and wide,
O’er mountain stream and sea.

The same fond mother bent at night,
And kissed each sleeping brow:
She had each folded flower in sight.
Where are these dreamers now?

(Hickson JC, Notes of Travel, pp.39-40, published 1893)

Mary Hickson was named Mary-Ann Carter before she married. She was born in 1802 and died when she was 51 years old in 1853. John Christopher Hickson (JCH) was her youngest child and was just five when she died. That same year, the oldest of the surviving Hickson children, Susan, migrated to Australia. She was the first to leave, but was followed in 1855 by Mary and Ellen, and in 1863 by George and Kate.

By that time William, the oldest son, had married and begun to raise a family of his own. He lived in Sneem, south of Killorglin, and, like his father, was a nailor, though he would become a “whitesmith,” a metalworker who “specialised in crafting items from tin, lead, silver, pewter and the like, or who polished newly made white metal products” (Dictionary of Old Occupations).

It would seem that after the departure of Kate (Catherine) and George in 1863 that old Richard Hickson and his youngest son John moved over to Sneem and lived with William and his young family. John writes in his book:

[We] drove by jaunting car to the little village of Sneem, which lies hidden by the headlands and rocky promontories of the wild coast of Kerry. To a stranger this district would appear barren and deserted, but to some of my acquaintances it is a veritable garden of Eden, and the remembrance of early days of innocent childhood clings with a perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose. Here we visited the village church where once I worshipped and was taught in Sunday School… Unpretending and insignificant as this village of Sneem is at present, there have gone forth from the ranks of those born within its limits men and women who have been a credit to the land of their birth, and who have made their mark in the political, military and social history of the age. (Hickson JC, Notes of Travel, p.40, published 1893)

I have no idea who JCH was referring to when he wrote these words, but some of those who “went forth” from Sneem were William Hickson himself, with his wife and family, and his ageing father, Richard. In 1865 they too migrated, but they chose America rather than Australia, a choice which may have been influenced by religious choices. I have previously written about the evangelical revival that occurred in the area around Sneem in 1861 and the years following. William and his wife Mary were doubtless part of this spiritual awakening as were the whole of Mary’s family. Similar things were happening in North America under the ministry of a young evangelist D.L. Moody, and it may have been those events that drew them there. Four of Mary’s younger brothers became evangelists over the ensuing decades and they were closely associated with D.L. Moody and his ministry.

The one who did not “go forth” from Sneem in 1865 when William and Mary left was JCH – John Christopher Hickson – himself. Why he remained in Ireland over the following five years is a mystery – it was not until 1870 at the age of 22 that he finally boarded ship for Australia. Why he went to Australia and not to America is also uncertain. What he did in those five years is unknown. He later became a timber merchant. Was he serving an apprenticeship in Ireland, bound to his employer for five years? I have even wondered if he may have been in prison – Anthony Hickson mentions a John Christopher Hickson who was in gaol, but has not been able to find details or dates and is not sure that it is the same person.

JCH is the most colourful Hickson in my family. He was my father’s great grandfather. There is more documented about him than any of his siblings, and much that I know about him comes from his book, Notes of Travel, published after a journey back to Great Britain in 1893 with his oldest daughter, Alice. JCH lived to the age of 97 and was successful and wealthy. He effectively retired in his mid to late forties and lived off his investments.

JCH’s book reveals a sentimental character who loved travelling and wrote poetry. He must also have been a very clever businessman to have become so wealthy so quickly. After his 1893 travels he journeyed to Britain at least three more times during his life, a not insignificant undertaking in the days when sea-travel was the only option.

He was also apparently quite proud of his ancestry. He mentions in his book the ancestral home: by rail we went to Dingle and visited “The Grove,” the old family seat of our ancestors (Notes of Travel, p.41). JCH had named his home in Sydney The Grove, after this house, so it obviously had significance for him. In the 1840s when Richard and Mary Hickson were raising their family in Killorglin, The Grove was the residence of another John Hickson (1782-1850), the “last Sovereign of Dingle.” Captain John Hickson had two family seats in Dingle, one being The Grove, at the foot of the Conor Pass Road, and the other quite close by, at Ballintaggart. He had nine children, at least one of whom (Marianne) is documented as being born at The Grove (in 1834).

In 1848, the year that JCH was born in Killorglin, another of Captain John Hickson’s children was born, but at Ballintaggart. Robert Albert Hickson, later a Brigadier-General in the British Army, inherited The Grove and lived there into the first part of the twentieth century. So if JCH visited The Grove in 1893 with his daughter, it is likely that it was on Robert Hickson that he called. Exactly how they were related I don’t know.

The Grove existed until the 1920s but there is said to be no trace of it today, since it was replaced by a hotel. Anthony Hickson’s website reports that there may be a ruin visible today. There is also an old photo of the house on the website which can be seen here. Ballintaggart House still stands and is used today for luxury wedding receptions. Exactly why The Grove meant so much to JCH but he never mentions Ballintaggart is unsure.

Though JCH remains the best known of the Hicksons from whom I am descended, he is not the only one of my ancestors from the family. His older brother William, who he lived with in Sneem, and who migrated to America, also later came with his family to Australia. It was after their father Richard had died – he is buried in Providence, Rhode Island, which JCH also visited on his world travels in 1893.

As I mentioned, JCH arrived in Australia in 1870. He married soon after and did very well for himself from the very beginning, initially in the timber business. Within seven years of arriving in Sydney he had persuaded William, who lived in Boston, to leave America and come to Australia. William and his wife and their seven children arrived in Sydney in 1878. William, I believe, became involved in JCH’s business. Though JCH and his family were Church of England, William and Mary were staunch members of the Brethren Church.

William and Mary’s oldest daughter was named Suzie. She married another Irish migrant, George Byrne, and they had 5 daughters and a son. One of their daughters was my maternal grandmother. In an odd twist of fate, Alice Hickson, JCH’s eldest daughter (who was much younger than her cousin Suzie), fell in love with George Byrne’s younger brother, Richard Byrne, when he came out from Ireland in the early 1890s. JCH expressly forbade their marriage, and whisked Alice off on their world trip in 1893. A few years later Alice married William Ross, whose daughter Winifred was my paternal grandmother.

The Hicksons, primarily John (JCH) and William, feature large in our family story. Their birthplace in Kerry is a place I have yet to visit. When that day comes, which I hope it will quite soon, it will be interesting to see the places they were born and grew up.

Post Navigation