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.
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.