Forgotten tales

stories of my family

The Byrnes and our Irish origins

My grandmother’s oldest sister was named Kathleen Byrne, but the family usually called her Lena. She was born in 1886 in Sydney, the first child of George and Susie Byrne, who were both Irish migrants from County Kerry. Her parents were reasonably well off; some would say it was because they were a strict Brethren family who never wasted their money on the frivolities of life. Her father was trained in retail: he did his apprenticeship as a merchant in Killorglin, back in Kerry, in the 1870s, and though I am unsure what he did at first after his arrival in Sydney in the early 1880s, he ended up an executive in the Melbourne based IXL Jam Company (though he never lived anywhere but Sydney). I think of him every time I see the jars of IXL jams lined up on the supermarket shelves when I do the weekly food shop. George and Susie prospered in Australia, certainly much more than they would ever have done in Ireland had they raised their family there. My mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, once wrote to me:

George and Susie must have been well off as they paid cash for any house they went to live in (several) and Susie was able to manage the finances to also build a holiday home at Ocean Beach right near the surf. Nevertheless Susie confided to Connie (one of Lena’s sisters and Keith’s mother) in her last days that she had messed up the family and said – George should have had more input into the family generally – they all should have been given a lot more education – and they should never have gone to the Brethren church as it was “too narrow in many ways” and if she had her time over again would have gone to the Anglican church like some of her relatives.

Paying cash for a home in Sydney, and being able to afford in addition a holiday house in Ocean Beach (north of Sydney in Umina on the Central Coast), today seems almost unthinkable, given the exorbitant price of real estate in the sprawling city. Only a very wealthy immigrant to Sydney would today be able to imagine such privilege; certainly not one from a country as impoverished as Ireland was in the late 1800s. I suppose it is a reflection of how much Australian society has changed. Once it was a land of opportunity for the poor, for anyone willing to work hard, but now such opportunities are restricted to the already wealthy – which are the kind of migrants that Australia welcomes with open arms, while restricting as much as possible those of limited or no means. I suspect that the Irish poor would not be welcomed as migrants to Australia today.

An Irish migrant family in Sydney

For relatively newly arrived migrants, the family appears to have lived well. George and Susie married in Summer Hill, which is where Kathleen, their first child, was born. They lived in a variety of homes over the years, as Keith’s letter indicates. George’s death certificate shows that in 1929 the family was living in Lewisham. However, electoral rolls for 1930 and 1933 show that the now widowed Susie and some of her adult children, including my grandmother, who was in her early thirties, were living in Epping, north of the harbour, where I believe Susie lived until she died in 1946. I do not know the exact location of their holiday home at Ocean Beach (“right near the surf”), but I do have a photo taken in about 1939 of Gertie (my grandmother) and her three daughters (the one at the front right is my mother) at the beach, so I presume that the house was still in the family then, though George was dead and Susie was in her late 70s.

Gert & girls Ocean Beach

Gertie Simmonds (Byrne) and her three girls on Ocean Beach 1939

The Byrne family strikes me as unusual because of the fact that mother and adult children appeared to be all living together when their father died. The exception was Connie (Emily Constance, b.1888), Keith’s mother, who had met a charming Englishman named Thomas Walmsley soon after the First World War, and married him in defiance of her parents’ desire that the oldest daughter, Kathleen, should marry first. The strange idea that the oldest daughter should marry appears to have been something that came from the Brethren Church, in which George and Susie raised their family. Kathleen was the first born, but by the end of WW1 she as 32 and had not found anyone. She was an attractive girl and must have turned quite a few heads, so why she never married remains a mystery to me. Perhaps there were few eligible men in the rather narrow Brethren circles in which she moved. Perhaps Kathleen was just too picky. The outbreak of war when she was 28 would not have made it easier, as so many young men were shipping off to Europe to fight for the Empire. When my grandmother Gertie left home and married in 1933 the three remaining sisters and their brother William were all still living with their mother in Epping.

My grandmother’s rather well off youth was sadly not continued into her married life. In 1933 she married an English migrant, George Simmonds, who was 6 years younger than her. George was a labourer, having grown up in Western London as the son of a market gardener. He had come out to Australia in 1923 when he was 18 and prior to marrying Gertie 10 years later he worked as an itinerant farm labourer in country towns of Queensland and NSW. I am uncertain how they met, but they married in 1933 and eventually settled in Goulburn, though my mother has told me that they lived in Hay for some of her childhood. Gertie’s family never really approved of George Simmonds. For one thing, he was English, but even worse than that he grew up in the Church of England, which the Brethren saw as hardly better than being Catholic. Furthermore, he was a smoker, which did little to endear him to his future parents in law, though Keith confided in me once that he was glad of it, because his Uncle George always kept his tobacco tins for him, at a time when toys to play with were a scarce commodity, and even tobacco tins could provide a young boy with something to collect and treasure.

Apart from the disapproval of his wife’s family, life was tough for George, since work was variable, with Australia in the grip of the Great Depression. It became even tougher when he suffered a serious injury as a result of falling from a horse. Chronic health problems did little to help their already stressed economy. He and Gertie never owned a home, and he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack, when Mum was only 18. My mother grew up, therefore, in relative poverty. At one stage her parents were so poor they had to put their three girls temporarily into a children’s home because they did not have the means to support them. One by one the girls left home – Mum and Dorothy married, but Auntie Joyce remained single all her life. Gertie died alone in 1976 in Goulburn.

Kathleen Byrne

Back to Kathleen who, I believe, worked in an office job her whole working life, and lived at home with her mother and unmarried sisters. Connie and Gertie were both raising families, Connie in Sydney and Gertie in Goulburn. By the time Susie died in 1946 Kathleen was 60. She and her two spinster sisters presumably sold the family home, and, I suppose, the house at Ocean Beach too, and moved to Springwood in the Blue Mountains. When I was a young boy I knew the three of them – Lena, Frances and Isobel – as the “aunts in the mountains.” We would visit them for afternoon tea from time to time, but I was quite small and never thought much about who they were or where they had come from. They were simply “the aunts,” and I found them a bit odd. One of them, though I don’t think it was Kathleen, seemed to be quite mad, though in a gentle ladylike sort of way: I remember her speaking quite seriously on one occasion about the little folk in the garden – fairies I presume – who peered through their windows from time to time: the legacy, I suppose, of her Irish heritage. The aunts passed away one by one, until there was only one left, the oldest of them all, our Kathleen, who died in a nursing home in Springwood in 1986 at the age of 100, an old lady bent and wizened, dearly loved by her nieces and nephews, including Mum and Keith.

Version 2

Kathleen Byrne age 20, around 1906

When she was 27, Kathleen (I prefer her given name, because it sounds so Irish) was given a book called Munster by her mother. This book now sits on the shelves of our home, and has been a source of some fascination to me, mainly because of the annotations in the margins, about which I have written before. I have no way of knowing whether those notes were written by Kathleen or my mother, who inherited the book when Kathleen died. Munster, of course, is the southernmost of Ireland’s four regions, and Kerry, where Susie and George were born, is one of its counties. The book is a travelogue, written in the early 1900s, by which time tourism to Kerry was becoming a major source of income for the area.

Kathleen never went to Ireland as far as I can tell, but she was seemingly as fascinated by the family history as I am, if the annotations in the book are indeed hers and not my mothers. On the second last page of the book (p.61) the name “Byrne” is handwritten in the margin beside the printed name “O’Brien” which is underlined in pencil. If Kathleen wrote this note, it would seem she believed there was a connection between her own name and that of O’Brien, and that this was significant in some way. The O’Briens referred to in the book are no other than Charlotte Grace O’Brien and her father William Smith O’Brien, both people of some fame, who lived near Foynes in County Limerick on the Shannon River estuary. This is some way north of Killarney where George and Susie were both born, but George and Susie, and their six children, clearly knew of them. It seems they may have even believed they were related.

The Byrnes and O’Briens

William Smith O’Brien remains a well known personality in Irish history, his daughter Charlotte less so, though she was well known at the time. William was part of the upper classes, but unlike many of his standing he was not Anglo-Irish, though he was Protestant, a member of the Church of Ireland. He was an Irish nationalist who achieved fame because of his participation in the 1848 uprising against the British in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, for which he ended up being transported to Van Diemens Land. He was betrayed in his attempt to escape from there, but after serving some years in the penal colony he was eventually pardoned and went back to Ireland, where he lived out his days.

His daughter, Charlotte, became famous in her lifetime because of her untiring efforts on behalf of poor Irish migrants, who were being exploited en route to America or elsewhere by unscrupulous con-men determined to swindle unsuspecting immigrants. Charlotte was tireless in her efforts to protect the naive and vulnerable poor who were leaving Ireland in droves. The writer of Munster writes warmly of her, and I realised when I was reading the book that Charlotte came from the same generation as Kathleen’s parents, George and Susie (though she was a good fifteen years older than them, and they would only have known of her only from a distance). Kathleen would likely have admired Charlotte, and would have been proud to think she may have been related (as we all are when we find that we have a distant connection with some prominent person who has achieved great things).

Having said that, the notes in the margin may well have been made by my mother, who sadly died in 1999, so that I cannot ask her. Dad, who is alive and well, cannot enlighten me. The handwriting is not specific. So it may have been Mum who believed that the Byrnes and the O’Briens were connected. However, a quick search on the Internet (notably Wikipedia, in which many people have no confidence but which in this case agrees with many other sites), reveals that the Byrnes are almost certainly descended not from the great Brian Boru (High King of Ireland in 1014) whom the O’Briens claim as their forefather, but from Bran Mac Maélmórda, King of Leinster, deposed in 1018, son of Brian Boru’s sworn enemy, Máel Mórda Mac Murchada, who Brian defeated at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, outside Dublin. There is a fictionalised account of that great battle in Edward Rutherfurd’s novel, “Dublin, Foundations,” published in America as The Princes of Ireland (The Dublin Saga #1), which is a very enjoyable read.

Whatever the truth, whether our Byrne ancestors are descended from the O’Briens (Brian), or the O’Byrnes (Bran), there seems little doubt that they are the most Irish of all our family. The other Irish branches of our family tree are all English somewhere in their past. The Hicksons (Susie Byrne was a Hickson) came to Ireland in the 1500s during the Elizabethan “plantations,” while the Ruddles, (Sarah Ruddle was George Byrne’s mother) were also an English family. The Needhams (Mary Needham married William Hickson, Susie Hickson’s uncle) were also English – apart from Mary the Needhams all ended up in America. But the Byrnes were Irish for at least nine hundred years, if they did indeed come from Bran Mac Maélmórda, though who knows whether people of other nations (the Vikings and the Scots seemed to have a particularly strong interest in Ireland far back in the mists of time) were part of the family tree prior to that.

Mum was convinced she was related to the O’Briens and it may have all stemmed from the book, Munster, or perhaps from something her mother or her aunties or grandmother had said. Her grandfather, George Byrne, died before Mum was born, but her grandmother Susie lived until Mum was about nine. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Mum and Dad and my youngest brother, Peter, who was still living at home, went looking for these places in Ireland. Mum came back very excited, especially about meeting an O’Brien family in Foynes on the Shannon River estuary. She told me the story years ago, and it had faded in my memory. But, to my amazement and delight, Peter told me recently that he had kept a diary on that trip. He was only 11 but the writing is impressive. He gave me permission to quote his diary, and it seems the perfect end to this blog.

Peter’s Diary

13/4/83. Killorglin – Foynes
This morning we set out to get to the Dingle Peninsula.
It was raining hard as we approached Dingle. When we arrived we set out straight for the shops. I looked for a flag of Ireland. Unfortunately I had no success. Mum and Dad were looking for an Irish teaspoon and a good book about Ireland.
Having not much success in that we drove further into the town, where we stopped for lunch. Our lunch consisted of Crackerbread, Orange juice and for desert, some small apple pies.
After lunch we drove to the tourist office to find the time that the ferry crossed from Tarbert to Killimer on the River Shannon. We were told that if we drove fast we would make it on the next ferry.
So Dad went as fast as he dared. We saw the ferry leaving just as we arrived. Dad and I were very angry. In the end we decided to drive to a little town named Foynes.
There was a small cottage there mentioned in a book named Munster. The cottage was said to be on a hillside in Foynes and built by Charlotte Grace Obrien. She was a distant relative of ours. We went to a small cottage on the hillside and asked the owner if hers was C.G.O’brien’s cottage. She replied that it wasn’t but the Littles would know where it is if anyone did. So we went to see the Littles. Mum asked if they knew about the cottage. We were very excited to hear they knew all about the cottage and even knew where C.G.O’brien was buried. So we thanked them and were of at once. The house, which had an overrun garden was now owned by a German. They had told us where she was buried, it was a place named KnockPatrick. We drove up a small dirt road. Unfortunately we came to a dead end and had to return to the main road. We continued on and finally found the place. Having to walk up we were glad to get to the top. Dad and I looked into some sepulchres. One had been flooded with rain water and bones were floating about everywhere. But it was getting late so we found a Bed & Breakfast in the neighbourhood.

14/4/83. Foynes – Bunratty, Ireland
I got up early today because we had an early breakfast. Mum rang up the man who is supposed to be related to us and lives on an island. He said it was just the right time to come because the tide was up. He rowed over, picked us up and rowed back. I found out that each member of a family of 5 [or 7 – it is overwritten] had a boat. They had a little dog called Eccles. He was tiny! Their youngest daughter Charlotte had just had her 21st Birthday. Charlotte was named after Charlotte Grace O’brien who owned the cottage on the hill. There was some Coca-Cola left over and I was allowed some for morning tea. We also had a lovely lunch on the island, but before that, we went for a walk on the beach. Mr O’brien told us that when he was young there were flying boats on the harbour. They would land and take off on the water. After lunch he showed us his records of all the boats that had entered the harbour for quite some time. When back at the car we drove straight to Bunratty where we spent the night.
PS. We went to see Dromoland Castle that night which once belonged to the O’brien family.

830414 Foynes Island

Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, from Peter Holford’s collection 1982

What Peter didn’t write in his journal, but which I remember her relating to me, was the fact that there was a portrait on the wall of the O’Brien’s home of a person who bore an uncanny resemblance to my other brother, Stephen. For Mum, that picture proved it: we were related. We have never had any further contact with the O’Briens of Foynes Island, County Limerick, but perhaps somehow, through a common ancestor in the distant past, we are related. O’Byrnes or O’Briens, it doesn’t matter. Suffice to say that we have a bit of Irish in us, like millions of others around the world, and of that we are proud.

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2 thoughts on “The Byrnes and our Irish origins

  1. Barb Fromberg on said:

    Great read David. There are definitely family resemblances between your aunts and my mum.

    • Thanks Barb. I still think it amazing that your grandfather never spoke about George, my mum’s grandfather, since they were brothers and lived in the same town. I guess that means that mum’s aunts in the mountains never met your mother or her siblings.

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