Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Munster: Kenmare River

Munster cover

Kathleen’s book, which her mother gave her in 1913

I found an old book on my father’s shelves. It is called “Munster, Pictured by Alexander Williams, Described by Stephen Gwynn,” and on the frontispiece in elegant cursive writing: “Kathleen Byrne. 1913. From Mother.” Opposite this inscription, on the inside of the cover, my mother has written her own name and address. Mum was Kathleen’s niece; the book appears to be one of the few items she inherited from her auntie.

Kathleen Byrne, born in 1886, was the oldest of five daughters of George and Susie Byrne. Her dad had arrived in Sydney from County Kerry, Ireland, about four years before she was born, though the exact date eludes me as does the name of the vessel on which he sailed. On arrival George became reacquainted with his childhood sweetheart, Susie Hickson, whom he had known back in Kerry, but who had migrated with her parents and siblings to Australia in 1878, when she was 17 years old. At the time of Susie’s departure from Kerry, George had been in the middle of his apprenticeship to a general merchant in Killorglin, so it was another 4 years before he could follow her. They married in 1885 a few years after his arrival in Sydney. Susie was 24, George 25. Kathleen, their firstborn, came a year later.

The book I have before me was given to Kathleen as a gift when she was 27 years old. She was still a young woman, but she never married, much to the disappointment of her parents. Neither did two of her sisters; when I was a child I knew them as the three spinster auntie, Kathleen, Frances and Isobel. In old age they lived together in a cottage in Springwood, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where we visited them from time to time. I never saw any of them after Frances died in 1974. Isobel was the next to go in 1980, but Kathleen herself lived to be 100 years old, finally passing away in 1986. I have a photo of her and various family members, including my mother, on her hundredth birthday.

1986 Kathleen age 100

Kathleen Byrne turns 100 in 1986. The group are nieces and nephews and their children, including my mother Gwen Holford, second from right and Keith Walmsley, far right.

“Munster” is fascinating to read, not least because of a few handwritten annotations in the margin and some underlined words scattered through the book. It is impossible to say whether these notes were made by Kathleen or Mum, since the handwriting does not resemble either of theirs in the front of the book. I suppose it is even possible that the annotations were made by Kathleen’s mother Susie. What is clear, however, is that for someone in the family certain passages in the book were significant. I have been reflecting on some of these scribblings. The first is about the Kenmare River, which is the subject of this blog. Future blogs will refer to other notes.

Munster, of course, is one of the four regions of Ireland, the others being Ulster, Leinster and Connaught. Kerry, which was the origin of most of my Irish ancestors, is one of the counties of Munster. The book is an account of the writer’s visits to that part of Ireland, but is not a travel guide in the sense of Lonely Planet, or Rough Guides. Kathleen never went to Ireland, but Mum and Dad did, after I had left home, around the time that Kathleen died. Mum is no longer alive to tell me about that trip, but I do remember some of the stories she told me on their return. My younger brother Peter, who was still at school at that time, went with them, and he remembers the journey vividly, as does my father, who is now 84. I am fairly certain that Mum had the book with her on that trip, and that the annotations in the margins guided some of her enquiries.

The first significant notes are on page 24 in a reference to the Kenmare River. The text of the book reads: “The south coast of Cork, from Youghal to the Kenmare River, is the pick of Ireland for yachtsmen… Endless is the succession, from Cork itself with all its lesser creeks and havens… Past Mizen Head, on the west shore, are greater bays, harbours, not for yachts, but for navies – Dunmanus, Bantry and the Kenmare River, whose northern shore belongs to Kerry, but which has a frontier certainly in Paradise.” The annotation, handwritten, referring it would seem to the underlined words, Kenmare River, reads: “Behind George Needham’s cottage, now a Police Barracks.”

Munster Kenmare

“Munster,” p24

George Needham was Susie Hickson’s grandfather. He and his wife had ten children, the firstborn of which was Mary, Susie’s mother. Mary Needham grew up in Templenoe, on the northern shore of the Kenmare River, “which has a frontier certainly in Paradise,” according to the old book of Munster. It is, as these words suggest, an area of extraordinary natural beauty, and forms today part of one of Ireland’s most popular tourist routes, the so called “Ring of Kerry.” The Kenmare River a deep inlet in the coast rather than a river, the hills on the southern shore being in Cork, while the mountains rising from the northern shore forming part of the Iveragh peninsula of County Kerry. The area is not only beautiful, but is also rich in history. Not least it was a smuggler’s haven, especially in the 1700s.

The Needhams were Protestants, and they were Anglo-Irish. George Needham had been, I believe, an officer in the British Navy. I am not certain as to whether he was born in Ireland or not, but I am fairly certain that his wife was English born. Although he eventually became the parish clerk in Templenoe, he had initially, after leaving the navy, been a captain in the Kerry Coastguard, based presumably on the Kenmare River. The Irish Coastguard had been established by the British government largely as a response to the smuggling that occurred not only in Kerry but all up the West Coast of Ireland. Because so many of the local population was dependent on smuggling for their livelihood (they preferred to think of as the “import-export business” rather than smuggling) the Coastguard was not a greatly loved institution, standing as it did in the way of business. George Needham, as a Coastguard captain, and English to boot, may not have been greatly liked. The attitudes to the Coastguard may have softened during the famine of the 1840s, when it was involved in the distribution of food relief, and once George had left the Coastguard it is possible that the locals may have thought better of him. But even as a parish clerk he was part of the English establishment, and that may have made it difficult for him.

Kenmare River chart

Nautical chart Upper Kenmare River

Here is a little of what the book “Munster” has to say about smuggling on the Kenmare River:

Here, as elsewhere, English settlers were brought in as lords of the land, with enormous power over the native Irish, whose loyalty still held to the representative of their old chiefs. The O’Sullivans were chiefs now principally in the extensive smuggling operations – and let it be remembered that under the laws made by England to crush out Irish trade, contraband was almost the one outlet for Irish commerce. If Irishmen wanted to export the wool of their sheep, the hides of their cattle, the meat they had salted, all this traffic was by law forbidden. Such laws make smuggling necessary and beneficent, and the O’Sullivans on the south of the Kenmare River, like the O’Connells on its northern shore, brought in their cargoes of wines, tobacco, silks and laces, and sent back ships laden with wool. With those cargoes went out too that other contraband, the supply of officers and men for the Irish brigade. The English landlord-settler was the representative of English law, and between him and the O’Sullivans conflict was certain… (pp31-32)

The story of how the English came to Kerry is a complex one dating back many hundreds of years, and contains much sadness and injustice. Suffice to say that the English colonised Ireland, as they colonised many other countries in the world in their pursuit of Empire, and were regarded as foreigners in Ireland, even if some families had been there for hundreds of years. The Hickson family, for example, which Mary Needham married into, had come over to Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth the first, and surely felt themselves to be thoroughly Irish. But English was their native language, rather than the Irish of many of the locals, and they were Protestants, whereas the majority was Catholic. Sadly the English government had been using religion as a form of oppression and control of the native Irish for centuries, so for many the Church of Ireland was seen as the religion of the Establishment, and Catholicism as the religion of resistance. That is, however, an oversimplification, since in many cases the most outspoken voices for Irish nationalism were Protestant.

Our distant Hickson ancestors had been landlord-settlers back in the 1580s on the Dingle Peninsula, further north in Kerry, but that was long in the past, and by the nineteenth century our direct Hickson ancestors were neither landlords nor landowners, but paid rent like other commoners in Kerry, and worked as blacksmiths (or more specifically, as nailers). However, they were not subsistence farmers, like the vast majority of the peasantry in Kerry, and that gave them some resilience when the famine hit in the 1840s. Neither were the Needhams gentry in any way, but like the Hicksons they were Protestants, and English, and as such part of a small minority in Kerry that was not greatly loved, though they enjoyed privileges denied to the majority.

Perhaps it was partly for this reason that, while George Needham and his wife both died and were buried in Kerry, most if not all of their ten children left Ireland in the turbulent times of the 1860s and 70s, migrating to North America. Susie, Mary Needham’s second child, who was born in County Kerry, in Killarney, was around 4 years old when her family departed for the USA. She was a Hickson, but her parents William and Mary, made the decision to go with the Needhams to America, rather than following William’s family, several of whom had already migrated to Australia.

Emigrants_Leave_Ireland_by_Henry_Doyle1868

Henry Edward Doyle, 1868, via Wikimedia Commons

The result was that Susie spent her childhood and adolescence as an Irish immigrant in America, much more influenced by her Needham relatives than the Hicksons. However, after 12 years in America her parents, at the urging of William’s family in Australia, decided to return to Ireland, and from there they migrated again, this time to Australia.

So Kathleen and her siblings grew up hearing stories from their parents and grandparents of their childhoods in Ireland, and Susie’s sojourn in America. Their maternal grandfather, William Hickson, died in 1899 when his grandchildren were still very young. Their grandmother, Mary (Needham), lived until 1916 so she too would have told stories of Kerry to her grandchildren, one of whom was my grandmother, Gertrude, born in 1899. Templenoe, and the Kenmare River, as the home of their maternal grandmother, would have loomed large in the childrens’ imagination of the Ireland of their forebears. The book Susie gave to Kathleen in 1913 would doubtless have been treasured by her as a reminder of her mother and grandmother’s birthplace. Stephen Gwynn, the author of Munster writes warmly of the Kenmare River:

Nothing else in Ireland is so perfect, to my fancy, as this long narrow sea lough between the two mountainous peninsulas, and having inland of it the full vista of those higher mountains which encircle Killarney’s lakes… Iveragh (the peninsula)… is bounded on the south by the Kenmare River, on the north by Dingle Bay, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean (with the Skelligs lying off in it), and on the east by Magillicuddy’s Reeks and the lakes of Killarney; which is set therefore in beauty and majesty and splendour and has interest and charm at every turn of every road…
The train will take you to Kenmare… From Kenmare the beautifully engineered road, which was a joy to man and beast till heavy motor coaches began to destroy it, runs along the north shore of the sea lough, and a few miles out crosses the Kerry Blackwater by the most picturesque bridge over the loveliest stream that anyone could ever hope to throw a fly in. A little further along is Parknasilla, the big hotel which has been built at a point where the coast breaks up into a number of wooded islets, with bridges connecting them, and meandering walks – well, nothing could be prettier. Then you go along through Sneem, getting into opener, wider country. (pp 33, 35-36)

Kenmare River 2

Looking south across the Kenmare River to the mountains of Cork. From a visit to Kerry 2016.

This was the country that our Needham ancestors called home, until the family broke up and departed for America in 1865 and the years that followed. Only the oldest of the Needham children, Mary, would end up in Australia. In Kerry, now, there is little trace of the family left, although I did spot the Needham name once or twice in the graveyard of the now boarded up Templenoe Church.

 

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Reconstructing the Byrne family

I am descended from four Kerry families of the nineteenth century: their names are Byrne, Hickson, Needham and Ruddle. My maternal grandmother was Gertrude Byrne and her parents, both Irish born, were George Byrne and Susie Hickson. George’s parents were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle, while Susie’s parents were William Hickson and Mary Needham. My paternal grandmother was Winifred Ross. Her mother was Alice Hickson, firstborn of Kerry born John Hickson, brother of the aforementioned William Hickson. So Irish blood runs thick in my veins.

Unravelling the stories of these four families has been and remains a fascinating exercise. The Hickson and Needham family stories have come together relatively easily, due to written accounts from various members of these families, particularly John Hickson, and Thomas Needham. The Byrnes have been much harder, and the Ruddles are still largely unknown to me. The following article outlines my reconstruction of the Byrne family, and the sources I used to reach these conclusions, some of which are linked to the highlighted words in the article.

George and Richard Byrne

George, my great grandfather, was born in Killarney, on 22 July 1860, and was baptised in the Church of Ireland (COI) parish church at Aghadoe, a village outside Killarney on the way to Killorglin. Until recently I was aware of only one other sibling in his family, namely Richard, his younger brother, who was born about 10 years after him. George migrated first to Australia, I believe in 1883, and Richard some years later, though documentary evidence of their respective migrations has been hard to come by.

GeorgeByrne1

George Byrne, my great grandfather (1860-1929)

James and Hannah Byrne

A few months back I was contacted quite out of the blue by Barbara Fromberg, of Sydney, who had read some of my musings about the Byrne family on my blog. Barbara informed me that she was the granddaughter of another Byrne, James, whom she believed to be a brother to George and Richard.  I had never heard of James, as she had never heard of George and Richard, but she pointed me to a number of documents that showed her suspicions to be correct. She also made me aware of a sister Hannah, who appears to have been the first born in the family.

Aghadoe

Barbara and her husband had recently returned from a journey to Europe including Ireland, and it was she who enlightened me to the Aghadoe connection. She sent me a photo she had taken of the parish church of Aghadoe, where my great grandfather and his older sister Hannah were baptised. Aghadoe appears to have been the home of the Ruddle family, while the Byrnes seem to have come from Killarney proper.

Aghadoe Parish Church

Parish Church at Aghadoe, near Killarney (photo courtesy of Barbara Fromberg)

My daughter Hanna and I were in Ireland last year in August (2016) and did some family history hunting, but then I was totally unaware of Aghadoe and my knowledge of the Byrne family in Killarney was extremely vague. We visited Killorglin and Sneem and Dingle, which were important in the Hickson family story, and Templenoe, which featured in that of the Needhams. We stayed outside Killarney but on the southern side of the town near Muckross. I didn’t even know of the existence of Aghadoe, which lies west of Killarney, just north of the road to Killorglin, which forms part of the famous “Ring of Kerry” tourist route.

Kerry highlights 1883

County Kerry, with family places highlighted

Thanks to Barbara a picture of my great grandfather’s family in Ireland began to emerge. I now knew of four children in the family: Hannah born 1859, George in 1860, James 1866, and Richard, 1870. Together Barbara and I have tried to nut out the Byrne family of Killarney, but it has been a frustrating task, with many dead ends. The picture is still incomplete, and only some of my questions have been answered.

Questions about George and Sarah

George Byrne senior

George Byrne senior 1831-1872, (photo from Barbara Fromberg’s collection)

Sarah Ruddle

Sarah Byrne (Ruddle) 1835-1890? (Barbara Fromberg collection)

Who were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle? Where did they come from, what were their own family backgrounds, how did they meet, when did they marry? Were they rich or poor, in what were they employed, what motivated them, what gave them joy, what were their hopes and dreams, what were their struggles? When and where did they live and die? Were there more than the four children listed above, perhaps some who died in infancy, which was such a common occurrence in the days before infections could be effectively treated with antibiotics? What compelled their children to migrate? Why didn’t they migrate themselves when so many of their friends were doing just that (including the Hicksons and the Needhams whom I have mentioned above)? What was it like in Killarney in the 1800s? There are many questions and I have only started to answer some of them, and of course there is a lot of conjecture and imagining in the process. I have only found a few objective sources to draw on which have provided a framework for thinking. The following are some of them:

Sources

  • Marriage record for George Byrne and Sarah Ruddle (1857)
  • Death record of George (1872)
  • Baptism records of Hannah (1859) and George junior (1860)
  • Birth record of Richard (1870)
  • George junior’s indenture when he began his apprenticeship (1871)
  • Marriage certificate for George junior to Susie Hickson (1885)
  • Marriage certificates of James (1891 and 1906)
  • Various photos provided by Barbara Fromberg, as well as those in my personal collection.

I should mention that my mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, a grandchild of George Byrne (junior), has also given me a good deal of information about his grandparents and their backgrounds, and his son Simon has provided some of the photographs. I hope that other documents will appear as I continue to search, but the ones listed above form the basis of my current objective knowledge.

Facts

From these documents I have deduced the following:

  • George and Sarah Byrne married in 1857 at the parish church in Aghadoe, near Killarney (Church of Ireland)
  • George Byrne (senior) was a nailer (a blacksmith, involved in the manufacture of nails)
  • George’s father was William Byrne, also a nailer (often spelt “nailor”)
  • Sarah Ruddle was a sextoness. A sextoness was a female sexton. A sexton is described as “a person who looks after a church and churchyard, typically acting as bell-ringer and gravedigger.” (Oxford Dictionary online). I don’t imagine that Sarah did much gravedigging, though her father Thomas Ruddle may well have done so, since he was the sexton at the same church.
  • Sarah’s father, Thomas Ruddle, was the parish clerk at Aghadoe
  • George was 26 when they married, which would give him a birth year of 1831. I have not located a birth certificate.
  • Sarah was 22 when they married, giving her a birth year of 1835.
  • They had, as far as I can determine, four children, being Hannah, George, James and Richard, the last three of which migrated to Australia.
  • George died on 30 October 1872 of prolonged bronchitis (his death certificate says 2 years). This would suggest that he may have had some form of asthma, or that he had chronic lung damage from exposure to smoke, or fumes, since he was a blacksmith (nailer).
  • George’s death record says his age was 47, which would give him a birth year of 1825, but this does not match with his marriage record, which gives him a birth year of 1831. I suspect that his age at death has been wrongly transcribed from the original death certificate, since a 7 can easily look like a 1. This would mean that he was actually 41 when he died.
  • Sarah was only 37 years old when her husband died. I have no knowledge of whether she ever remarried. However, she signed George junior’s indenture to a merchant in Killorglin in 1876 with the name Sarah Byrne. She would have been 41 by then.
  • Sarah was deceased in 1891, according to James’ first marriage certificate. So she probably died in her 50s (she would have been 56 had she been alive in 1891) though when and where she died is uncertain.
  • The family lived in Chapel Lane, Killarney, in 1870 (Richard’s birth record) and still in 1872 (George’s death record).

The fact that I have been unable to find various records is both frustrating and mystifying, notably a birth certificate for James Byrne. Barbara made me aware of a fire that ravaged the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, destroying many records. However, according to Claire Santry on her Irish Genealogy News blog-site all civil registration records survived that fire, and according to the Irish Genealogy website these Civil Records list births from 1864 to 1916, marriages from 1870 to 1941, and deaths from 1878 to 1966. Richard, born 1870, is there, but James, born 1866, is not. I cannot find any records for a marriage or death of Hannah Byrne, nor is there any death record for Sarah, who died in this period.

More children?

The first question that occurred to me was, were there more children? Hannah and George (junior) were close together, but then there is a gap of 6 years before the next child, James, and then another 4 years before Richard was born. Were there others in between, or after? To answer that required a bit more information about their parents, George Byrne senior and his wife Sarah Ruddle.

I knew nothing of George senior’s death until Barbara shared with me a copy of his death record, indicating that he died in October, 1872 in Chapel Lane, Killarney. He was, I believe, 41.

Having ascertained that George and Sarah Byrne were married in 1857 and that George died in 1872, I searched the databases on Irish Genealogy for Byrnes born in Killarney to George and Sarah between 1857 and 1872. However, rather than finding more Byrne children, I found less. Two of them – Hannah (1859) and George (1860) – are there in the church records. One is in the civil records – Richard (1870). But James is not there, and there are no other children of George and Sarah Byrne in either of these collections between 1857 and 1873. So if there were other children born between 1860 and 1870 they are either not recorded, or the records have been lost.

Why no birth certificate for James?

And where is our James? According to his marriage records (he was married twice after he had moved to Australia, in 1891 to Florence Ashmead and 1906 to Jessie Lawrence) he was born in 1866. As mentioned above, we cannot blame the fire in Dublin in 1922 for the absence of his birth certificate. His parents were fastidious in recording the baptisms of Hannah and George, which are available online. And Richard is there in the Civil Records. So why did James miss out?

Interestingly there was one other Byrne child born in Killarney during those years (1857-73), and curiously his name was was, in fact, James. But according to the register his year of birth was 1870, and his parents are listed as Edward and Catherine Byrne. Furthermore, though this James’ birth is registered in Killarney, his place of birth is listed as Scrahan, which is north of Killarney, closer to Listowel. His father, the “informant” for the birth, appears to have worked as an attendant at the Killarney Lunatic Asylum, and lived on the premises there. Presumably his wife, Catherine (formerly Barony) was resident in Scrahan, while her husband was working in Killarney.

So there was another Byrne family in Killarney at the time, that of Edward and Catherine Byrne. I have wondered if Edward and George Byrne (senior) might have been brothers, but I have not been able to confirm this. Did Edward and Catherine Byrne have other children, and if so, where are they recorded?

Thinking about the absence of our James from any birth registers, as well as the presence of this other James Byrne, it occurred to me fleetingly that they might be one and the same. Could Edward and Catherine’s son, James, have been “adopted” by George and Sarah out of some unknown necessity, and raised as their own? But his age is wrong. James son of George was by all accounts born in 1866, whereas James son of Edward was born in 1870, the same year as Richard.

I think, quite simply, that there must have been two James Byrnes in Killarney in the 1870s, but that while there is an existing birth record of one of them, the details of the birth of the other – our James, Barbara’s grandfather – remain a mystery. Only from his Australian marriage records can we deduce the year of his birth, and these same records clearly state that he was the son of George and Sarah Byrne, of Killarney.

Australian records

There are Australian records for George junior and Richard too, since both of them migrated to Australia, married and had families. George was my great grandfather on my mother’s side. Richard, oddly enough, married my great grandmother on my father’s side, but it was the second marriage for them both, when they were old, after each had other families. I have written about that unusual occurrence elsewhere. James I had no knowledge of until a few months ago when Barbara contacted me.

But the Australian records give few clues to the Byrnes’ brothers life in Ireland, only that they had come from there and who their parents were. What kind of relationships existed between these three brothers in Australia is unknown to me, and I have no-one to ask. What happened to their older sister, Hannah Byrne, is also a mystery. Did she migrate too, or did she remain in Ireland? Did she marry? Where and when did she die? There is more research to be done here.

Religion

James’ death certificate (1942) indicates that he was a member of the “Open Brethren” religion. I know from my mother (now deceased) and her cousin, Keith Walmsley (alive and well), that their grandparents (George junior and his wife Susie) were also members of the Brethren Church in Sydney. I am uncertain about Richard Byrne’s religious denomination, but I do know he worked for the Bible Society in Sydney in later life, which suggests that he had a Christian faith.

In 1861, the year after George junior was born, there was a religious revival in Kerry, the result of which was the formation of many Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the county, and I suspect the Byrnes were part of one of these. Their first two children, Hannah and George, were baptised in the Church of Ireland in Aghadoe. Sarah was a sextoness at the parish church there, and her father the parish clerk. Whether they left the Church of Ireland in 1861 at the time of the revival is uncertain. I have not found any baptism records for either James or Richard, but if they had transferred their allegiance to a Brethren assembly in the early sixties, then it is possible no records were kept.

Migration

The only migration record I have been able to find to date is that of George junior, who appears on a list of “unassisted immigrants” on a ship called the Sydenham, out of London, arriving in Sydney in 1883. It is not entirely certain that this is our George Byrne, since there are no details about him recorded on the passenger list. This was typical of self funded migrants at that time, in contrast to those who got government assistance, or who were sponsored by family or friends, whose details were usually well documented. As Robin Haines says, in Life and Death in the Age of Sail,

“Privately funded passengers, those better off travellers who sought no government subsidies to fund their passage, were not required to negotiate any bureaucratic turnstiles before embarking on their voyage to Australia. Consequently they are almost invisible in the official record, unlike those who travelled on passages provided by each of the colonial governments.” (Haines, R. Life and Death in the Age of Sail, 2006. p14)

The Sydenham sailed out of London, whereas our George was from Ireland. I have not been able to ascertain her route, whether she sailed to Ireland before heading south. I suppose it is possible that George travelled to London to embark, but this seems unlikely. This record is the only George Byrne I can find arriving in Australia at about the right time.

Exactly when James and Richard migrated is uncertain. James’ death certificate, kindly provided by Barbara Fromberg, indicates, a little cryptically, that when he died in 1942 that he had been “28 years in NSW and 47 years in the Commonwealth.” This doesn’t really add up, since his first marriage was in Sydney in 1891, which was 51 years prior to his death. So clearly he arrived in Australia before 1891, though exactly when and where remains a mystery. The same is true for Richard. The records may be there, but I have yet to find them.

Suffice to say that George and James appear to have left Ireland in the 1880s and Richard, the youngest of the three, possibly in the 1890s.

Summary

The Byrne family, as I know it thus far, was one of four children. George senior, the father, died while his children were still quite young and the task of raising them was left to his widow, Sarah. What became of Hannah is unclear. The three boys all migrated to Australia, George in 1883 when he was 23 years old, the others at uncertain dates, but James certainly before 1891 which was when he married for the first time and Richard before 1893, when he first appears in the Hickson family story (I have written of that in another blog). What became of Sarah, their mother, is also a mystery.

Near Killorglin

Near Killorglin, County Kerry (my photo collection)

 

Tim Fenian

TN 1865 letter p2What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. (Letter home, November 6, 1865)

So wrote young Tom Needham, 14 years old, from HMS Narcissus, a British frigate off the southern coast of the USA, toward the end of 1865, and about half a year after the conclusion of the American Civil War. What had he heard, I wonder, about the political situation in Ireland? What was “this great breaking out” that was causing him so much concern for his family back in County Kerry?

I believe he was talking about the Fenian Movement, which had its origins in America in the 1850s amongst Irish ex-patriates, men (and women) who had left their homeland because of famine, economic hardship, or political persecution, many of whom had fought on one side or the other in the American Civil War. These so called “Fenians” talked of raising a force of Irish-Americans to return to Ireland to assist a rising against the English and establish an Irish Republic.

However, there was no similar organisation of rebels in Ireland planning such a rising until a certain James Stephens, an engineer from Kilkenny who had fled to Paris after an earlier “rebellion” in 1848, returned to Ireland in 1856, determined to raise just such a movement amongst the common Irish. Stephens became the leader of an organisation that he called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which became commonly known, together with its American counterpart, as “The Fenians.”

Why Fenians? They took their name from a legendary group of ancient Irish warriors (the Fianna) of the second and third century. The term Fenian became popular in the mid nineteenth century as the name of the association that Stephens and his American counterparts formed, but has persisted even into modern times as a label for anyone opposed to British rule in Ireland (see the Wikipedia article for uses of “Fenian” in popular culture).

The Irish Fenian movement was most active in the 1860s, when our Needham ancestors were exiting Ireland, and in 1867 there were minor uprisings in different places around Ireland including Kerry. However, these were short lived and universally unsuccessful in achieving any change in the status quo. The significance of the 1867 rebellion was more in what it said about the discontent of a growing part of the Irish population than in any military victory. The movement continued to exist in various forms up until the First World War, and after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, it evolved gradually into the IRA.

The IRB was from the start a secret society. It represented a change in thinking from earlier movements for Irish liberation in that it accepted, even promoted, violence, or armed rebellion, as being the only realistic way of achieving freedom for Ireland, as opposed to the diplomatic negotiation that had characterised earlier movements like the United Irishmen in the 1790s and Young Ireland in the 1840s. Because it was secret, no-one really knew who was a Fenian and who wasn’t, except, of course, those that had joined up. In the small communities of rural Ireland, however, many knew who was involved, though they may not have willingly given that information to the authorities in Dublin. As always happens in such times, the authorities had their spies, and there were double agents who worked for both sides and sometimes came to violent ends.

Ireland was divided into those who supported the Fenians, and those who didn’t, and it was not entirely easy to predict who would be on which side based on either their religion or their heritage. Even some people of Anglo-Irish heritage, and some Protestants in this predominantly Catholic country, supported the Fenians. The Catholic Church was officially opposed to them. Apart from the newspaper published by the IRB itself (The Irish People), the press was also generally opposed to the Fenians (see this article from the Irish Times), and the police force (Irish Constabulary) was tasked with rooting out the revolutionaries and arresting them.

I have wondered at times what our Irish ancestors thought of all this, and whether any of them were involved in this revolutionary movement. The Fenians were strong in Kerry, to which many contemporary sources bear witness:

One of the few places Stephens discovered an existing revolutionary organisation was in the Skibbereen-Killarney-Kenmare area of south-west Cork and south-east Kerry, where O’Donovan Rossa had founded the Phoenix Society to keep alive the desire for an independent Ireland (Pádraig Ó Concubhair, The Fenians were Dreadful Men, p.19).

However, with their English roots, it seems unlikely that the Hicksons or the Needhams were part of the movement, even if the Hicksons had been in Kerry for over three hundred years. Our Hickson family were related to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry, even if only distantly, and John Christopher Hickson’s writings contain no suggestion of sympathy for the Fenians. His older sister, Susan Hickson, who was as far as I can tell the first of his family to migrate to Australia in 1853, married John Hume, another Kerry emigrant, who, prior to himself migrating in 1855 at the age of 30, had been a policeman in the Constabulary. He left, however, before the revolutionary feelings in Kerry had evolved into Fenianism, even before James Stephens had returned from Paris where he had fled after the 1848 rebellion in County Tipperary.

The Needhams were still more “English” than the Kerry Hicksons. George Needham, though as far as I know born in Ireland, was the son of an Englishman. His wife, Susan Carter, was also English (according to the entry for her son, Benjamin Needham, in the US Census for 1910). George died in 1862, five years before the Fenian rising in Kerry in 1867. But in his earlier life he had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and was, as such, part of the British establishment which so many Irish saw as the enemy. The Needhams, like the Hicksons, were in a sense part of the “middle class” of southern Ireland, neither aristocracy like some of the Hickson’s distant relatives, nor the rural poor. Though they very likely understood Irish, their home language was English.

But none of that mattered to Tom Needham’s shipmates, who took great delight in teasing the young Irish lad. In another letter home to his older sister Belinda, from the gunboat, HMS Linnet in 1866, he reassures her:

I hope you never fretts about me because I am as happy as a king. On board the ship one of them calls me Tim Fagan and another Tim Fenian, they gets on chaffing me and I pretend to speak Irish to them and I do make them wild. O there is no coming over me on board a ship. What about the Fenians there? There is great talk about them, the Americans are killing a great many of them… (Letter home, 26 August 1866)

Afternote:

While exploring the Internet for information about the Fenians, I found an article from a local newspaper from a town near to where we now live, Maitland. It is dated 16 May 1867 and contains a copy of The Fenian Proclamation. It seems this statement had been sent out to newspapers all over the world, to raise awareness and support for the Fenian cause in Ireland. Following is a copy of the proclamation, as archived on the Australian website, Trove. The feeling of injustice that lay behind the Fenian movement is easy to discern as the following excerpts show:

Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who, treating us as foes, usurped our lands and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. We appeal to force as a last resort… unable to endure any longer the curse of a monarchical government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience and the separation of Church and State. We intend no war against the people of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields…

1867 Fenian Proclamation

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 – 1893), Thursday 16 May 1867, page 2. National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18718311

Tom’s ships

Tom Needham joins the Navy

Tom was 13 when he joined the navy in 1864, a young Irish boy who had grown up beside the sea on the coast of County Kerry. His father George Needham had at one time been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and may well have been in the navy himself, since many coastguard officers were recruited from the navy (see the Ballinskelligs website).

I have copies of three letters that Tom wrote home, in 1865, 1866 and 1869 respectively. In the first two he mentions the names of some of the ships on which he served: they were the Egmont, the Narcissus and the Linnet.

But it would seem none of these was the ship he initially joined when he left home in 1864. The only information about his first year at sea comes not from his letters, but from the book he wrote many years later (1900) about his early life: From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. There he paints a vivid picture of his earliest experiences in the navy, around the British coast:

the bristling guns; the crowds of nimble sailors; the mysteries of swinging, splicing and knotting of ropes; the fine uniforms; the cursing, the activity… I made great progress in all naval studies and gunnery practice; so that when from overcrowding of the ship transfers were to be made, I was among the selected ones. These changes widened my boyish experiences in the hardship of life at sea. First, I passed through the trials of hazing*… Then came the public floggings for slight misdemeanors… For my nimbleness I acquired the name of Deerfoot, and was often drafted to run races with sailors of other school ships… After several short trips around the British coast a selection came to send me, with several others, to a foreign port… (Needham, T. 1900. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, Chapter 2, “On Shipboard,”). *hazing: to harass with unnecessary or disagreeable tasks, to subject to abusive or humiliating tricks or ridicule.

The foreign port he was sent to appears to have been Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the first letter I have suggests that it was there that he had spent time aboard the Egmont. He wrote from the Narcissus, a short time later (1865):

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus. Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

So what do we know of the Egmont, his first ship after leaving the British Isles?

HMS Egmont, receiving ship, Rio de Janeiro

According to Wikipedia the HMS Egmont was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line which had been launched in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars. It had been the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Vinnicombe Penrose in 1814, but once the war with France was over it was apparently laid off, though where, and in what it was engaged, is uncertain; then from 1848 to 1862, according to a website maintained by P Benyon on naval social history, it appears to have been mothballed in Portsmouth. Finally in 1862 the aging Egmont was called back into service, commissioned in Portsmouth at the end of that year as the “Receiving Ship” for Rio de Janeiro.

Receiving ships were usually obsolete or unseaworthy vessels moored at a navy yard and used as accommodation for new recruits or men in transit between stations. Tom, as he said in his book, was “sent to a foreign port,” and it would seem that Egmont was the ship that “received” him, in Rio. How long he spent on the old ship is not mentioned anywhere, but it was long enough to be missing home, and to write to his dear sister Belinda “a few letters” (though those letters have disappeared).

I have not been able to find any pictures online of the Egmont, but another old ship of the line which met a similar fate was the HMS Implacable, of which there are many surviving images. Those pictures give a sense of what the Egmont, Tom’s temporary home in Rio, looked like. The Implacable, also a 74-gun third rate, was built before the Egmont, but lasted into the 1940s, by which time it was the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, after the Victory. Wikipedia has an account of her history. Here is a picture of her latter days:

So Tom, the young Irish boy, who had “learnt the ropes” sailing around the coastal waters of Ireland and England, found himself, at the age of 14, suddenly on the other side of the Atlantic in the strange and wonderful world of Brazil. He lived aboard a retired veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and would have had daily reminders of those glorious days of sail, as he walked the decks of the old 74. How often, I wonder, did he get ashore, to the streets of Rio? What was it like in the 1860s I wonder? As fascinating as it might have been, Tom was surely thankful when he left the old hulk and moved to the Narcissus, a ship only 5 years old, which headed to sea again to patrol the shores of North America.

The Royal Navy of Victorian Britain

But what, exactly, was the Royal Navy doing in South America? Although between the end of the Crimean War (1856) and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it was involved in no major conflicts, the British Navy was the largest in the world. Why did Britain need such a massive maritime military presence when there were no wars to fight? And why in South America, so far from its home shores?

The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw naval battles between the north and south, and in Europe the Danish, the Prussians and the Austrians, amongst others, were involved in conflicts at sea. Meanwhile the British were just sailing around patrolling the sea lanes of the world, building a bigger and stronger navy while doing little more than just “show themselves.” Why the need for this massive navy of which our Tom was a young tar?

Ben Wilson, in his recent history of the British Navy, “Empire of the Deep,” describes the years between 1860 and 1899 as an arms race for the major European powers. The British Empire reached to the farthest corners of the globe, and the navy was the force that ensured its peace and security. In the mind of the British, it had to remain that way. Wilson explains:

With power came fear. Britain was dependent as never before on the Navy. In 1846 parliament had abolished protective tariffs on corn, which meant that British farmers had to compete on the world market and labour moved from the countryside to the booming industrial towns. Without imports of food the country would starve. Without control of the seas she would become poor. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – and people were awaking to the fact that Britain and her empire were vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than any country on earth…

Unless Britain had a crushing superiority of ships over France, Russia and Germany in northern waters she would lose the security at home that had allowed her to construct a massive empire. But she also needed to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the China Seas and off American waters. Lose any of these and the whole system would unravel. Britain, it was felt, had to be the dominant naval power everywhere or she would lose everything.
(Wilson B, Empire of the Deep, p.503)

So Rio de Janeiro was just one of the many ports around the world that maintained a British Navy presence; in South America and the South Atlantic the British, as elsewhere, were determined to maintain their global dominance.

For Tom the time in Rio marked a transition from the old world to the new. Until then he had been only on sailing ships. But when he left Rio it was aboard the Narcissus, a wooden hulled steam driven screw frigate that in 1864 was just 5 years old. The old sailing ships were gradually being replaced by steamships, even if almost all vessels still carried sails to propel them when there was no ready supply of coal to feed their engines. When Tom joined the Narcissus he left behind the world of sail and entered the world of steam. Ben Wilson writes:

The Royal Navy was in a state of fast evolution. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the fleet contained ships of a variety of ages, performance and speeds. Co-ordinating such a motley fleet was becoming exceptionally hard for the service’s flag officers, many of who were bred to the age of sail. (Wilson B, p.498)

Naval technology was changing rapidly around the world. Some old sailing ships were being modified by the addition of steam engines and the cladding of their wooden hulls with iron – creating the so called ironclads – to improve their speed and armour. Newer steamships started to be built with all-iron hulls, and such vessels saw service in the American Civil War. Wood and sail were gradually being replaced by iron and steam. Traditional broadsides of cannon were being replaced by turrets in which the cannons were placed in rotating towers. The great Age of Sail is said to have officially come to an end in 1862 when at the Battle of Hampton Roads (American Civil War) the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress (Wikipedia).

HMS Narcissus

The Narcissus was a wooden hulled screw frigate in service from 1859 to 1883. These early screw frigates carried a full sail plan, like the older sailing frigates, but had a steam powered screw propellor for propulsion. The screw propellor was the invention of a Swedish naval captain, John Ericsson, and replaced the older and more vulnerable paddle wheels which were used for a short time on naval ships, but are much better known as the propulsion of the steamers that plied the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Steamships had a number of advantages over the old sailing ships, including speed, but most significantly the ability to sail against the wind, making them much more manoeuvrable.

A number of pictures of the HMS Narcissus can be found on the Internet, and the following is from the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

HMS Narcissus, PW8141

Tom’s Narcissus was the third ship by this name in the Royal Navy. Records indicate that from April 1865 to May 1866 she was under the command of Captain Colin Andrew Campbell and was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles Elliot, in service off the south east coast of America. This agrees with Tom’s letter:

I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

Perhaps the ship was patrolling the coast of Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

How long he remained on the Narcissus is difficult to fathom from Tom’s writings. However, his next letter home, written in August 1866 states that he had moved on to another ship, the Linnet. The Narcissus was based in South America for the three years from May 1866. Perhaps it was again in Rio, the main British naval base in Brazil, in June or July of 1866, that Tom was transferred to his next ship.

HM Gunboat Linnet

August 26, 1866
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well and in good health. I have written two letters to you and have not heard from you yet my dear sister. I should like to hear from you. I am quite well thank God and in good health. I have left the flagship the Narcissus, I am in a gunboat which came out from England lately, her name is the Linnet she is a very nice little ship, I like her very well…

My dear sister, I have seen a good many places since I left the flagship, I have been up the river Plata. I have been close up where they are at war. There is sick and wounded coming into the town every day. There was a steamer came in yesterday full of wounded soldiers and they had on board a dead general which was shot through the heart, did not they kick up a row about him.

According to Wikipedia, HMS Linnet was a Britomart-class steam powered gunboat launched in 1860 and broken up in 1872. It was one of 16 Britomart-class gunboats, which are described in an article which includes a photo of one of these 16 gunboats, the Cherub.

The River Plata is better known as the Rio de la Plata and is a large bay on the eastern coast of South America between Uruguay to the north and Argentina to the south. It lies over 1000km south of Rio de Janeiro, where Tom had probably transferred from the Narcissus to the Linnet. Two major ports lie on the coastline of the Rio de la Plata – Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The war that Tom writes of was the Paraguayan War that was waged from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the so called Triple Alliance of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. What role Britain played in the war is uncertain and controversial – see the theories on this in the Wikipedia article on the war. Tom was around 15 years old when his ship, the Linnet, was at Rio de la Plata, and it is clear from his letter that the thing that made the deepest impression on him was the steamers full of wounded soldiers daily coming down the river from up country. It was indeed a bloody and humanly costly war for Paraguay, whose population was reduced by almost 60% during the 6 years of war – from some 525,000 to only 221,000. It is said that some 70% of Paraguay’s adult male population died during the conflict, leaving only around 28,000 men in the country when the final shots were fired. Another tragic waste of life.

1866-1869

I have seen a transcript of a third letter written by 18 year old Tom in 1869, apparently just prior to his discharge from the navy. It mentions no ships by name, and indicates that he was thinking about a passage from England to America after his discharge. This is in keeping with the fact that his family, in the years that Tom had been away, had all migrated to America. This third letter is also addressed to his sister Belinda, who must have died around this time, unknown to Tom, as indicated in his book.

The question, of course, arises as to what Tom was doing in the three intervening years between his second and third letters. The answer to that is found in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, in which he describes how he was inexplicably and bizarrely set ashore and abandoned far south on the coast of Patagonia by a “wicked captain and his more merciless chief mate.” The background to this is not explained in the book. There is a picture in the book of “the merchant vessel in which I sailed to South America, the captain of which was afterward converted.” Although there is no explanation in the book, the suggestion is therefore that Tom left the navy at some stage after 1866 and joined a merchant vessel.

Tom's ship

The story of what ensued after this extraordinary incident is related in the book, and will be the subject of another blog. Tom, of course, eventually returned to England, and there is no suggestion in his book that he rejoined the navy to do so. However, his 1869 letter casts doubt on this assumption, because it seems to be written from somewhere in Europe, and the way he writes seems to suggest that he is still in the navy – he speaks of his Admiral, and of “paying off.” Furthermore the letter is written to Belinda, but according to the book he had a letter while he was still in South America in which he was informed of Belinda’s passing. Could it be that after this last letter he returned to South America, before eventually finding his way to his family in the USA?

It may be that further letters will come to light which will clarify the events a bit better. But what remains is that for five or six years, from the age of 13 to 19, Tom Needham had some extraordinary experiences at sea and in distant, wild lands, experiences that he would later recall in writing his book, which is the story of a journey from unbelief to faith in a sovereign God. In later life, as a travelling evangelist, he became known as the “sailor preacher.”

Missing home

In November 1865, 14 year old Tom Needham wrote a letter home to his older sister in County Kerry, Ireland. Tom was a 14 year old sailor on the HMS Narcissus, a frigate in the British Navy, which was, at the time of writing, deployed off the south-east coast of America. The United States was recovering from the effects of years of civil war, which the British had observed from afar, with little active involvement. 

Tom mentions very little about America. He appears to be quite unaware of the fact that his family, back in Ireland, had already started their own exodus from the green hills of home to that promised land in the west whose coast his ship was patrolling.  Exactly why the Needham family chose to migrate to America is uncertain, but I suspect it had much to do with religion, as well as anti-British sentiment. The Needhams were Protestants in a strongly Catholic part of Ireland, and their roots were English. Tom’s mother was born in England, as his father may well have been too. But all the Needham children appear to have been Irish born and bred. This blend of English and Irish, with the resulting confusion of identity, may well have helped them make the decision to start again on the other side of the Atlantic, where sectarian tensions were less extreme.

Tom’s thoughts, as he writes, are more about his family and friends back home than the bigger forces shaping the world of the later nineteenth century. His letter is quoted in full on a previous blog. It gives a glimpse of his life prior to joining the navy the year before.

Needham Home

Belinda

The letter is addressed to “My dear sister,” and I suspect that the sister he was writing to was Belinda, though he does not mention her by name. I have no information at present about Belinda’s life – her dates of birth and death, nor the circumstances of her early death. Only Tom’s writing give a glimpse of who Belinda was, or what she was like. In particular a paragraph in the book he wrote later in life tells something of her. He describes the distress he felt when he learnt of her untimely death:

I wrote a letter to a brother and sister in Boston, United States. In reply to my long silence came one from my brother urging me to return to them, and telling me that my dear sister Belinda had died… The death of this sister came as a particular blow. It was her who had cared for me so tenderly and patiently in my young days. Her hand had packed the little Bible among my sailor traps. Her “God bless you, Tom,” was the last prayer I had heard. Her hand had waved the last farewell as I left my home shore. Her secret prayers, I well knew, had for years daily followed me over the boisterous waves and wide steppes. And now she was no more. Never again should I see those tender eyes, and that rich, raven black hair, and hear that low musical voice. What knew I of the resurrection and its comforts then? Nothing. I only knew my sister professed godliness and she had truly acted it, She had been a mystery, but an admiration to me. I had been in awe of the influence her piety had over my life . And now it was ended. Could it be? How she must have yearned for me and I never went back to her. And now it was too late. I sat in my cabin with the little black banded envelope pressed close in my trembling hands. I cried and cried alone till my heart was well nigh breaking. (Needham T, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, pp.49-50)

But when he wrote his letter from the Narcissus in 1865 he had no inkling that he would never see Belinda again. He promises to send “his likeness” – a picture of himself – which he knew would be treasured by Belinda. He seems frustrated by his inability to send it now. Whether she ever received such a photograph is unclear. But there is a copy of it in his book.

ThomasNeedham1861

The way Tom writes makes me wonder if it was Belinda who became his substitute mother in the years that followed their mother’s death when Tom was seven. Belinda seems to have been the recipient of all three of the letters from Tom of which I have copies. She doubtless replied to his letters, but Tom seems not to have received those replies, and his distress at this is clearly evident in his writing. He missed her greatly, as much as any young boy at sea would his own mother.

Mary and William

The only other sister that Tom mentions in his letter is Mary, the firstborn of the family. There were five girls in the family – Mary, Belinda, Lizzie, Sarah and Susan. Mary, the oldest, was 18 when Tom was born but had already moved away from home. The year their mother died, 1858, Tom was 7, and later that same year Mary, then aged 25, married William Hickson, originally from Killorglin, on the other side of Kerry. Tom enquires after them in his letter:

How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey.

Mary was my great great grandmother, who migrated to America and later to Australia. She had moved to Sneem when she was in her teens, for reasons unknown. In the 1852 Griffiths evaluation, when Mary was 19, she is registered as the lessee of two plots of land, one just west, the other just south, of Sneem, a village a few kilometres to the west of Templenoe, where the Needham family had their home. Why she was leasing land there is not clear from the Griffiths valuation. Her landlord was James F Bland, the owner of Derriquin Castle and the father of Francis Christopher Bland. FC Bland was the best friend of Richard Mahoney. These two members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry played an important part in the life of the Needham family. The two of them were the main driving force in the Kerry revival.

I believe Mary must have met William Hickson, a nailor, originally of Killarney and Killorglin, during the years she was living in Sneem. I suspect William worked on the Derriquin Estate, which employed a number of nailors, and since he was also from an “anglo-Irish” background, they would have likely met at church in Sneem. Mary married William in 1858, and Richard (“Richey”), their first child, was born in 1859. The fact that he enquires about Richey but not Mary and William’s two younger daughters, Susie and Lizzie, suggests that he had a special liking for the little boy, aged 6 in 1865. Susie (my great grandmother) would have been only three when Tom had left Ireland, and Mary-Ann (Lizzie) just an infant.

Tom seems to be unaware that Mary and William and their three children had left for America earlier that same year, 1865. This makes me think that William and Mary’s departure from Ireland had been quite sudden. What happened in 1865 that made them leave so precipitously? Why did the rest of Mary’s siblings follow so quickly, so that by the end of the decade when Tom finally came home, there were no Needhams left in Southern Ireland?

Tom’s brothers

How is Willy and Ben, are they quite well? How is George getting on? When did you hear from him? How is Aunt and Uncle John getting on? Is Johnny with Uncle always? I suppose he is a great carpenter now. Did Georgy knock off going to school yet? I suppose he is a great scholar now. Is Ben always with the Parson? How is dear Willy getting on? Does he go to school now? If he do, stick him to it, because he shall want his scholarship. I goes to school for a few hours on board and I am very glad to go.

Tom was about 14 years old when he wrote this letter in 1865. He had joined the navy when he was 13. “Willy and Ben” were his two younger brothers, George was around 5 years older than him. These four boys were the last of the ten Needham children and appear to have been very close.

I am not sure who Johnny was, nor Aunt and Uncle John. I believe that there was an older Needham boy but my records give his name as James, and in 1865 he would have been 27. So just who Johnny the carpenter was remains unclear.

“Georgy” had clearly been still studying when Tom had left Ireland, which suggests he had either gone to school late, or that he had continued his education longer than most others (“I suppose he is a great scholar now”). William (Willy) was the youngest – in 1865 he would have been 9, and Tom wonders if he is in school yet. It seems late to be starting school.

The Dromore meetings

How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house?

In 1861, a religious revival had broken out in Kerry, largely catalysed by the preaching of two local gentry, Rev Richard Mahony and his friend FC Bland. The Mahony home, near Templenoe, where the Needhams lived, was called Dromore Castle, and it appears to have been the site of revival meetings. Tom wonders if the meetings are continuing. Ben, who was 12 at the time this letter was written, was clearly drawn to religion (“always with the parson”).

dromore-2

Dromore Castle, the scene of the Revival’s “Dromore meetings.”

The revival, which the Needham family appears to have warmly embraced, resulted in the formation of Brethren assemblies in the area. “Parson Jullings” was presumably associated with the Needham’s own congregation. He was clearly very close to the Needham family, (“Is Parson Jullings always in our old house?”) and had been a great influence on Ben (“Is Ben always with the parson?”).

The revival was not universally welcomed by the local population. Many people wondered what to make of it. But for some it was life changing, and its converts came from both the ordinary classes and the aristocracy. There is a fascinating novel about the times that followed, authored by Christopher Bland, a descendent of FC Bland. The novel, named Ashes in the Wind, which uses fictional names for real characters of the times, relates a conversation in which the revival is mentioned. In the exchange, FC Bland is referred to as “Henry’s grandfather.”

Henry’s grandfather, High Sheriff of Kerry at the time, converted when the Revival came to the South West. Joined the Plymouth Brethren and wound up preaching the gospel in Weston-super-Mare. Why Weston-super-Mare for heaven’s sake? Sent me a copy of his book, he did, Twenty One Prophetic Papers. Couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Said I could be a brand plucked from the burning. (Bland C, Ashes in the Wind, p.8)

TE Stoakley, in his book about Sneem, when writing of the effects of the Revival, refers to 1861 as the year a “chill wind” started to blow at Derryquin Estate, the seat of the Bland family. He criticises the decision of FC Bland to absent himself from his estate at a time when Ireland was “passing through the difficult years of the land agitation.” While Bland was busy preaching in Weston-super-Mare (in Somerset, south west of Bristol) and beyond, his estate was declining, eventually passing out of the family’s possession. Bland eventually returned to Kerry from his missions work, but by then it seemed the estate’s financial difficulties could not be reversed, and a steady decline had begun that would ultimately result in the loss of the estate to the Blands, though the last of the family did not leave Kerry for good until 1933. (see Stoakley, T, Sneem. The Knot in the Ring, pp.77-80)

But what was the fruit of the Revival in the Needham family? All four of the younger boys – George, Ben, William and even Tom, the renegade sailor, would end up becoming evangelists in North America, in association with the famous preacher, DL Moody. Tom’s book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, is a description of his journey to faith, which suggests he left Ireland apparently unaffected by the spiritual forces at work in his childhood years. But something had been unconsciously started in his childhood experience of revival which continued during his years at sea, and which came to fruition in America long after his South American adventures.

What of Mary, my great great grandmother? She and her husband William, after they left Kerry in 1865, lived for 12 years or so in the area around Massachusetts and Pennsylvania where many Needham descendants still live. They carried their Brethren brand of Christianity with them to Australia where they eventually settled and passed it onto their children and grandchildren: my grandmother, Gertrude, grew up in a Brethren home in Sydney. She married an English migrant whose allegiances were to the Church of England, which the Needhams had left so many years before. Her parents were not exactly impressed, I believe. George and Gertrude eventually settled on the Baptist denomination and brought up my mother and her sisters in that tradition.

The midge in Kenmare

Towards the end of Tom’s letter is this cryptic question: “Is the midge in Kenmare always? When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way that I will be near you my dear sister.” I have no idea what this means. Midges are small biting insects which frequent the rural areas of Kerry rather often, especially in warm, humid summers. A search on Google for “midge in Kenmare” reveals plenty of articles about this very subject. It seems that Kenmare was plagued by midges even in the 1800s.

But what ever does Tom mean by “When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way I will be near you…”? In “the midge”? Or in Kenmare? It almost sounds as if “the midge” is the name of a boat, or some horse drawn transport, from Kenmare to Templenoe where presumably Belinda lived in the family home. But Kenmare to Templenoe is not far – only 10 or 15 km. It could be easily walked, though the midges could be problematic!

I think what Tom was trying to say was, “how are the midges in Kenmare this year? When I get home I hope I will get to Kenmare, because then I will be close to you, my dear sister.” The yearning of a boy’s heart, far from home, in another world.

Kenmare River 2

Looking south across the Kenmare River from Templenoe

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