Chapel Lane

On the thirtieth of October 1872, George Byrne, husband of Sarah Byrne, died at home in Chapel Lane, Killarney. According to his death certificate he was 47 years old, and died of bronchitis, from which he had suffered for two years. He was a nailor by profession.

Recently, on a brief visit to Killarney with my friend, Simon More, we found Chapel Lane and wandered along it. We entered under an arch from a bigger road called New Street near the city centre of Killarney. It is narrow and a bit dingy, with other lanes crossing at right angles, leading to High Street, a much bigger street that runs parallel to Chapel Lane just a block away. A brass plaque on the wall at the entry to the lane speaks of its history, but these days it is an insignificant little side alley, with a cafe, a gym and a beauty parlour, scattered along a row of non-descriptive houses of indeterminate age, but almost certainly not dating as far back as the 1870s. I had a distinct feeling that the Chapel Lane where the Byrne family lived, has disappeared into the dust of time, and wondered if any of the buildings in the lane dated more than a few generations back. I suspect not.

Yet the plaque on the wall at the narrow entrance to the lane speaks of its historic past. There was a Roman Catholic chapel on one side of the lane, which must have been dismantled some time in George Byrne’s lifetime. On the other side were the Bishops House and Presbytery. There is no sign of any of these now; by the time the Byrnes lived there, the “ecclesiastical centre” of town had already moved a few blocks to the west to where St Mary’s Cathedral was erected in 1855. Neither the harness makers not the jaunting cars factory is there now. The jaunting cars (horse drawn traps, or “tub traps” as the plaque calls them) still operating around Killarney must be built and maintained somewhere else in town.

Corner of New Street and High Street, Killarney

The centre of Killarney is a bit of a rabbit warren of narrow streets lined by houses and shops, busy with pedestrians but a bit cramped for cars, which nevertheless wind their way slowly through town. Everything is a bit jaded, but there is a careless, comfortable coziness about the place, an odd combination of ordinary Irish country town and tourist magnet. Killarney has been attracting tourists since the time my great grandfather was born there, though looking at the cramped streets and rather faded buildings it is hard to understand why. The answer of course is the mountains and lakes and waterfalls and rivers, not to mention the impossibly green fields and glorious coastline of the county of Kerry all around. There can be little more charming than a jaunting car ride out to Ross Castle on the edge of the Killarney lakes, or from Kate Kearney’s Cottage up the winding mountain road to the Gap of Dunloe.

Chapel Lane toward New Street

  I tried to imagine Chapel Lane in the 1860s when my Byrne ancestors lived there, but I could not. What were the houses like in the mid 1800s when Kerry was recovering from the awful Famine, and agitation for land rights and freedom from English domination were simmering just under the surface? George Byrne was a nailor, but where was the blacksmiths forge where he plied his trade? Where did the children go to school? What did their mother Sarah do? Before she married George she had been a sextoness at a church on the edge of Killarney, the Church of Ireland parish of Aghadoe, where her father was the parish clerk. Did she continue to work there when her children came along? The family was hardly wealthy, and when her husband died, after fifteen years of marriage, their youngest, Richard, was only two years old. If Sarah had not worked previously she must have been forced to return to employment.   

Killarney from Agahadoe.

What happened to the Byrne family after George’s death? Sarah had lost her husband, the children their father. Did they continue living in Chapel Lane? Hannah was thirteen when her father died. Perhaps she found work as a domestic servant to a wealthier family. Eventually she married, perhaps to a MacGillicuddy. She may have emigrated, as did her three younger brothers. I can find no records for her. George (junior), my great grandfather, moved from Killarney to Killorglin some four years after his father’s death. He was sixteen by that time and had found a job with a merchant. He set about to learn his trade. 

A year later George became reacquainted with a girl he had known as a child, but whose family had migrated to America when he was five. Her name was Susie Hickson, and she was a year younger than him. Their fathers had been friends, both nailors, and he himself had played with Susie’s older brother, Richard. After twelve years in America the Hickson family moved back to Killarney, but only as a stopover before a new migration to Australia a few months after their return. George reconnected with his childhood pal, and fell in love with Richard’s sister, Susie. When the Hickson family sailed away a few months later, George was left in Ireland with cherished memories of this enchanting girl. It would be six years before he saw her again. With his apprenticeship complete, he too sailed for Australia in 1883. A year and a half later they finally married, in Sydney.

Young George Byrne

And what of the two younger brothers in the Byrne family, James and Richard? When George left Ireland in 1883 James was 16 and Richard 11. James learnt the trade of french polisher. Richard may have followed in George’s footsteps and gone into merchandising. At some stage they too left Kerry and migrated to Australia. Perhaps it was after their mother’s death. I have not been able to ascertain either when she died or when they left, but both brothers were in Sydney by the early 1890s. James married in 1891 and his marriage certificate indicates that his mother was deceased. James was 25 when he married and his younger brother Richard 21. I can imagine that their older brother George attended the wedding too. All three Byrne brothers made their lives in Sydney, far from the green hills and mountains of Kerry.

Chapel Lane is still there in Killarney, though it would perhaps be unrecognizable to the Byrne brothers were they to return. Killarney has gone from a little rural town of five thousand to a thriving centre three times the size. The Byrne brothers never went back to Ireland, though they no doubt spoke of it often to their Australian born children. George and Susie were my mother’s grandparents, but George died in 1929, eight years before Mum was born. She vaguely remembered her Irish grandmother, Susie, who would have told her tales of Ireland and America when she was a little girl. Before Mum died she had the opportunity to visit Ireland and Kerry, and see the place she had heard so much about, the land of her Irish ancestry. Of course Grandma Susie had never lived in Chapel Lane, so Mum probably walked right past it without ever realizing that her grandfather had lived there.

Grandma Susie Byrne

It is twenty years since my mother died, so I cannot regale her with stories of my visit to Killarney a few weeks back, nor my earlier visit a few years ago. It is a shame because she would love to hear of it. Mum was a storyteller like me and our Irish forebears, and I have no doubt she would have had things to tell me. But those tales are forgotten now. 

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