Back to Kerry. Part 1

A good few of my ancestors came from County Kerry in southwest Ireland. They went by various names – Hicksons, Needhams, Ruddles and Byrnes. I visited Kerry for a few days in August and found myself thinking a lot about them, my forebears. I marvelled at the beauty and majesty of Kerry and found myself wondering why they left. Perhaps they were escaping a life of trouble and tension where hope for a prosperous future was progressively fading, but leaving home must have brought great pain just the same, and I can imagine that there were moments for the rest of their lives when memories of the lush green land they had left behind came flooding back. 

Green fields and mountains of Kerry

Stories of the old country would have been common fare for their children and grandchildren, but by my generation, awareness of Irish identity and heritage had almost disappeared, and barely mattered. But in recent years for different reasons, my interest has been awakened, and visiting Kerry for the first time in 2016 and then again just a few months back has been like coming home to a place forgotten. Pondering the years since my ancestors left, I realised that for every generation since then someone has gone back, searching like me for an identity passed down but barely understood.

Susie Hickson, age sixteen, returns to Kerry, 1877

William and Mary Hickson were the first of my direct ancestors to leave Kerry. Together with their first three children, one of which was Susie, my mother’s grandmother, they emigrated to America in 1865, taking William’s ageing dad, Richard Hickson, with them. Susie and her siblings spent their formative years in America, around Boston, but then, when she was sixteen, in a sudden turnaround, her parents decided to return to Ireland and migrate again, but this time to Australia. However, old Richard Hickson, the patriarch, never saw Ireland again. He died in 1870 and is buried in Providence, Rhode Island. 

The Hickson children, and there were seven by the time they left for Australia, three Irish born and four American born, must have had some degree of national identity confusion. Were they Irish, American, or Australian? I can understand something of what they felt. By the time I was sixteen I had lived in four countries – Fiji, Australia, England and America. En route back to Australia from the USA at the end of 1977, we stopped in at Fiji, the land of my birth and my first three years. I remember the feeling of coming home, the sights, the sounds, the smells, which overwhelmed me with their familiarity though I had forgotten all the details. I imagine sixteen year old Susie Hickson experienced the same thing when she returned to Kerry after twelve years in the USA. She felt she was home, even if she barely recognised anything. Ireland was her heart-home.

Did Susie Hickson think of it that way for the rest of her life, I wonder? Or did it gradually fade to become nothing more than a land of stories and dreams? She had spent her first four years there, and then a brief summer as a teenager. As the years in Australia passed, it must have been harder and harder to remember.

The River Laune at Killorglin, looking eastward and upstream

Memories of Kerry were much more vivid for the man she married, George Byrne, who came out in 1883, as a young man, having completed his school education in Killarney, and his apprenticeship as a merchant in Killorglin. Perhaps George would never have come but for his meeting with Susie during that summer of ‘77 when she and her family were so briefly back in their native land. But when he could, when he had fulfilled his responsibilities in Ireland, he followed her to Australia. George and Susie, Irish immigrants, married in Sydney in 1885, and raised their six children on stories of the green hills of “home” back in Kerry. Years later both of George’s younger brothers also came to Australia, so there are quite a few Byrne descendants in Australia. I know a few of them, and at least some of them have been to Kerry. The first to go back was George and Susie’s son William. 

William Byrne, age twenty visits Kerry, 1917

Kathleen’s book

George and Susie Byrne had five daughters, but only one son, William. The girls, one of whom was my grandmother, Gertie, would only ever know Ireland through books and stories and their imaginations. I have an old book owned by the eldest sister, Kathleen. It is a travelogue about Munster, and the annotations in the margins betray a young woman who was fascinated by her Irish origins. However, travel was slow and expensive in those days, and even if the Byrne family was reasonably prosperous, a trip back to Ireland was hardly to be contemplated, as much as George and Susie might have dreamed of it. 

But when William Byrne was eighteen the cataclysmic Great War broke out on the far side of the world, and a little over a year later, when he had just turned twenty, he enlisted in the Australian Light Horse Regiment, ready for active service. Early in 1916 he was on a ship to Egypt, where he was fortuitously transferred to a Transport Unit, soon travelling further to the Western Front, where he served for most of the following two years. 

Streets of Killarney

In Europe he was temptingly close to his parents homeland, and the opportunity to visit his parents birthplace, so near at hand, was too good to pass up. So he used at least one of his leaves in England to make the long journey by train and ferry to the southwest of Ireland, the birthplace of his parents. I can only imagine what he felt when he detrained at Killarney Station and wandered around the narrow streets of the old Irish town, and saw the places that his father had left 35 years before. 

WW1 song

I feel sure he would have written home to his parents and sisters back in Australia, and shared his experiences with them, but no letters survive. My grandmother Gertie never spoke of such things to me, but I was only a teenager when she died and I was interested in neither family history nor Ireland back then. Nanna Simmonds, as I knew her, lived far from us and we saw her rarely. Uncle Will himself died when I was very young and I never knew him. I would love to have heard his stories of Ireland in 1917, when it was a land in turmoil, racked by strife as it struggled to break free from the iron grip of English domination. I would love to know how he felt when he got off the train in Killarney and walked the streets where his father had lived so many years before. 

My parents and brother visit Kerry, 1983

Will never returned to Ireland. As far as I know, he had no children. None of his sisters, including my grandmother, ever had the opportunity to visit their parents’ homeland. It would be almost seven decades before my mother, Will’s niece, had the chance to visit. She and Dad went in 1983 when I was studying at university. Peter, my youngest brother, was twelve at the time and still living at home, so he went with them. Mum told some great stories on her return, and Peter kept a diary, which he has shared with me. And Dad still has vivid memories of that trip. Sadly Mum has passed away, and her stories with her.

My father too is descended from Irish. In fact, Richard Hickson, the patriarch who is buried in Providence, was my parents’ common Irish ancestor, though they had no idea of this when they married. Richard’s oldest son was William, Susie’s father. His youngest son was John, who actually migrated to Australia in 1866, when his older brother William was building a new life in America. Things went unexpectedly well for John in Australia and he prospered greatly. It was John who persuaded William to leave Boston, return to Kerry, and migrate for a second time to Australia. John’s first daughter was named Alice, and she was Dad’s grandmother, just as Susie, who was William’s first daughter, was Mum’s grandmother. Alice, who was a good deal younger than her cousin Susie, grew up in a wealthy family, for John was very successful in business after his arrival in Sydney. He made his fortune in the timber trade at a time when Sydney was going through a real estate boom – a boom that never seems to have ended. 

Mountains and lakes of Killarney

John Hickson is in some ways the central figure in my Irish ancestry. He clearly loved Kerry and travelled back there at least four times during his life. For more on the returns of John and his descendants, read Part 2.

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