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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

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Four Irish-American evangelists

In John Hickson’s book, Notes of Travel, the name Needham turns up a number of times in the chapter on North America. He refers to them as “friends” or “relatives.” John Hickson was an Irish immigrant to Australia. How did he come to have friends and relatives in North America? Who were these Needhams, why were they in the USA and in what was their connection with John Hickson?

The text of the book gives some clues:

Camden (New Jersey) is a fair-sized town on the banks of the Delaware river about 90 miles from New York, and surrounded by some very fine farming land. The few days we spent there were excessively hot, not the dry heat of Australia, but an oppressive damp heat that makes life a burden. Our friends the Rev Wm (William) Needham and Mrs. Needham invited us to picnic with their congregation at a place called Glenlock, some twenty miles from Camden, and although we were most kindly and attentively treated, the heat and oppressiveness of that day will long remain in our memory. However, in the afternoon, over the strawberries and cream and iced tea, we forgot the heat and toil of the day, and talking of events of past days when we were boys together, we renewed our youth and laughed and joked over many an exciting incident. (Notes of Travel, pp 25-26)

William Needham (1856-1941) was eight years younger than John Hickson. But they had been friends in Ireland during their young days, despite their difference in age. William had come to America and become a minister. John had migrated to Australia and become a timber merchant. Now they were reunited in New Jersey. Apart from this picnic on a sweltering day in one 1893, the details of the visit are not recorded, but it is clear that William welcomed John and his daughter Alice to America with open arms. The two Irishmen (John was 45 and William 37) had a good laugh about old times and compared the way their lives had gone. It seems unlikely that they ever saw each other again.

Further down the same page we meet another Reverend Needham, this time Benjamin:

The town of Coatesville is nicely situated between low hills and undulating country, and is rich in agricultural and pasture land… the famous Brandywine [river] passes through it. We were driven by our friend and relative, Rev. B. Needham, along its banks and were shown the places where some severe battles had been fought between Washington and the English troops. It is a very pretty place and we enjoyed our visit very much although the days we spent there were oppressively hot. Mr Needham is pastor of the Baptist church, also conducts a gospel tent and is a man of large influence in the town of Coatesville. (Notes of Travel, pp 26-27)

Benjamin Needham was one of William Needham’s older brothers. He was forty in 1893, the year John Hickson and his daughter came to America, but still five years younger than John himself. He too had come out from Ireland, and had also become a minister. In contrast perhaps to Sydney, where John had made his home, there was a great spiritual revival happening in the north eastern states of the USA. DL Moody was in the centre of this awakening, but there were things happening all over the countryside. The Needham brothers seem to have been a part of this.

Like the Hickson family they were Irish Protestants, but they did not have the proud Church of Ireland tradition that seems to have characterised the Hickson family. There were ten children in the family and many, perhaps all of them, came to America. Benjamin, as can be seen from this extract, was a Baptist pastor. Even before they left Ireland they had been “non-conformists”, neither sharing the Catholic faith of the majority in their homeland, nor the Anglican faith of the Hicksons. The revival in North America of which DL Moody was a part was connected with the Holiness Movement, which had its origin in Methodism, so it was also in a sense a “non-conformist” movement. The strong Anglican traditions that characterised Protestant Sydney at that time was perhaps less dominant in America. And how much the revivals of the 1890s affected the predominantly Catholic Irish Americans is something of which I have no knowledge.

Moody’s name crops up repeatedly in John Hickson’s book. Hickson mentions travelling to Northfield, “the home of Moody and Sankey, where some of our friends live… Here Moody was born and here his mother still lives, as also both himself and Mr Sankey when not engaged in evangelistic work. They have both devoted large sums of money to the establishment of seminaries for the education of young men and women who show an inclination for advancement… Those institutions are … supplied with the best professors and teachers, and every modern appliance and convenience.” So Moody’s legacy is about more than just spiritual revival and had a profound effect on the educational development of that part of the States.

Northfield appears to have been the home of a third Reverend Needham, whose wife, as it turns out, was also a preacher of some note. Hickson writes:

We had the pleasure of hearing a very gifted American lady, the wife of Reverend G. C. Needham, addressing a meeting, and the style, terseness, beauty and common sense of her address would be a valuable acquisition to many of our modern ministers. The Sunday we were at Northfield Mr Needham preached to a large congregation in a beautiful church, and was assisted by a very able choir… Northfield is a lovely place and we would have been pleased to have been longer able to enjoy the hospitality of our friends Mr and Mrs Needham… but… after spending a few days there we took train via Millers Falls to Boston. (Notes of Travel, p.28)

George, born in 1846, was the big brother of the four Needhams who became ministers, and was two years older than John Hickson. His wife’s name was Elizabeth Annable and according to other records they are both buried in Narbeth, Pennsylvania. George is mentioned in Hartzler’s book, Moody in Chicago, as being one of Moody’s co-missioners, so it seems likely George knew DL Moody quite well.

The fourth of the Needham brothers who became an evangelist is not mentioned by John Hickson in his book. His name was Thomas (1854-1916), and since he wrote a book about his early life, I know more about him than any of the others. That book has the curious title of From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, and the story it contains I will write about another time. Where Thomas was in 1893 when John and his daughter were travelling I am uncertain since he doesn’t get a mention, but he lived in the same area around New York-Boston, and was known to DL Moody too, as can be seen he afterword to his book:

Mr Thomas Needham, who, for nearly forty years preached the gospel in the United States, having been associated with DL Moody, Dr Torrey, Dr Chapman, his brother George and many known evangelists and teachers in that land, passed into the presence of his Master on the first Sunday in October, 1916. (From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.69)

The question that arises, of course, is how John Hickson was related to all these evangelists. Hickson’s book indicates that he was childhood friends with at least one of them, William, the youngest, even if William was a good deal younger than John. But he was closest in age to George, who was two years older than him. Notes of Travel clearly states that John Hickson and the Needhams were boys together, but it seems they were more than friends, though Hickson does not explain in his book how they were related.

The answer to this question lies in their oldest sister, Mary Needham. The Needham boys I have mentioned were four of ten children in the family from County Kerry. Some years ago I received an email from Keith Walmsley, my mother’s cousin, himself a descendent of the Hicksons and Needhams. He explained the following:

[Mary] was one of ten children in the Needham family that lived in the south of Ireland. Her father was a captain in the coast guards and her mother died early (is it any wonder after so many children?). Anyway she took on being “mother” to all the other children and obviously did a fantastic job as they were a very keen Christian family of the nonconformist group. Four became evangelists in one way or another.

Mary Needham married William Hickson, John Hickson’s older brother, when John was just a lad. They had seven children, one of whom was Susie Hickson, my mother’s grandmother. Mary and William migrated with their first three children, and William’s father Richard Hickson, to the Boston area in 1865. It was some 12 years later that they decided to leave the USA and move to Australia, where they arrived in 1878. Richard had however died and is buried in Providence, Rhode Island, some way south of Boston.

John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Ireland when he was a teenager in the years before they migrated to America. So Mary was John’s sister in law, and her evangelist brothers, who she had “mothered” after their own mother had died, were thereby John’s brothers-in-law. It was in his early years in Ireland that he got to know all Mary’s family. It was many years after they had all left their Irish homeland that they were reunited in the land of the star-spangled banner.

In Chicago 1893

In May-June 1893 John Hickson and his daughter Alice spent three weeks in Chicago. They had gone there primarily to see the World’s Fair, a massive exhibition which commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America. Such exhibitions were huge events during the Victorian era, and the Chicago exposition of 1983 was the largest to date, attracting over 27 million visitors during the six months it was open. The Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851, which was the first international exposition, and the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built, are two that stand out in my mind, but there have been many others. John Hickson recorded some thoughts about the Chicago World’s Fair in his book, Notes of Travel, published in 1894.

World’s Columbian Exposition 1893
The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 rivalled earlier expos in scope, and was much larger than any that had gone before. It was a celebration of innovation and modernity, but also an opportunity for nations to display their best and finest, to attract admiration, and perhaps investment. A whole city, which became known as The White City, was constructed with many remarkable buildings though only one of them remains to this day, namely the old Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry; the rest fell into disrepair or was destroyed by fire over the years that followed; some buildings were relocated elsewhere. Notably in Chicago was the first dishwasher and the world’s first ever Ferris Wheel. There are many accounts of the Chicago World’s Fair on the internet and two that caught my eye were this blog and this website. Music also played an important part at the Fair, with Dvorak’s New World Symphony composed especially for the event, and a young piano player named Scott Joplin developing a new sound in music – ragtime.

The World’s Fair takes up about two pages of John Hickson’s eighty page Notes of Travel. JCH summarises the experience as follows:

The sights you see return to your memory only by instalments; but as a descriptive account of the exhibits and the whole particulars of the exhibition have been given by specially trained reporters, who have flashed their reports to the ends of the earth in all languages, I will not attempt to describe them; but whatever may be said of the financial failure of the Fair, it was a grand conception, liberally and splendidly carried out, and as a means of education, amusement and improvement, could not be surpassed. (Hickson J, Notes on Travel, p.19)

JCH could hardly have imagined the Expo that he and his daughter visited in 1893 would still be talked about over 120 years later, which can be seen in the many contemporary websites (not to mention books) describing the Fair and its legacy. He seems to imply in what he wrote that the World’s Fair in Chicago was a financial flop, but this seems not to be accurate (see this website), and why JCH formed this opinion is uncertain. The legacy of the Fair was, in any case, not its financial profits, but rather the magnitude and splendour of its exhibits: as JCH puts it, “a grand conception, liberally and splendidly carried out.”

My favourite picture of the expo is one I found on the Nikola Tesla Inventor official website. For me this old photo evokes an image of the young Alice Hickson at the World’s Fair (though there is nothing to indicate it is actually Alice in the picture). This was the sight she saw before her, and this is the type of dress she wore. If her father had been a photographic enthusiast then he would have been behind the camera, but I suspect that there were few people apart from professionals who owned their own camera in 1893!

LookingDownAt1893WorldsFair

The World’s Fair was not the only memorable experience for John Hickson and his daughter Alice. In fact, shortly after their arrival they witnessed:

Decoration Day
On Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), America decorated the graves of its fallen soldiers. The Chicago Tribune, of May 30, 1893, recorded:

The ceremonial of today occurs in conjunction with the great Exposition at Jackson Park, and thousands of strangers will be in the city to witness the parade of the veterans.

Two of those “strangers” were John Hickson and his daughter Alice. Reading JCH’s description brings Anzac Day to mind for all Australians, but in 1893 Anzac was still in the future. A world war of the scope of the 1914-18 conflict could not be imagined in 1893, though both John Hickson and his daughter would live to hear of its horrors first hand. In fact both father and daughter would live through two world wars.

But in 1893 the war dead they remembered were veterans of the the American Civil War, still relatively recent in the minds of the population. Here is John’s description:

On the 31st of May (JCH appears to have got the date wrong!), in Chicago, we saw their annual celebration of Decoration Day. This day is set apart every year to visit the soldiers’ graves and deck them with flowers and tiny flags, and generally orations are delivered by some prominent men. The procession of military and civilians was of great length, but what attracted us most in the pageant was the company of veterans of the civil war, marching behind the same flags that bore them to victory, now old, tattered and bullet riddled, which for thirty years have been preserved and yearly paraded. (Hickson J, Notes on Travel, p.19).

DL Moody
The other memorable experience for John Hickson and his daughter was attending an evangelistic rally with DL Moody, widely acknowledged as the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century. JCH relates that they

were present at a service in a large circus tent in which there were 15000 people addressed by Mr Moody, Mr McNeil and others. At another time, in a crowded theatre where Moody was preaching, I pushed through the throng to speak to and shake the hand of the great evangelist. We also heard Dr Gunsaulus, a polished and able preacher of the Congregational Church, and Dr Henson, the clever pastor of the First Baptist Church. We visited most of the places of interest in and about Chicago, and left there on the 18th June, on our way to New York, via Niagara Falls. (Hickson J, Notes of Travel p.19)

In fact The World’s Fair Gospel Campaign was arguably as significant as the Fair itself, at least in the minds of some. HB Hartzler wrote a book about the campaign shortly after, entitled Moody in Chicago, “an account of six months’ evangelistic work in the city of Chicago and vicinity during the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, conducted by Dwight L Moody and his associates.” Here are some extracts from that book, which can be downloaded from Internet Archive.

The World’s Fair has been closed on Sunday for want of attendance, but the religious services are daily growing. Every good opening for the gospel is readily seized. When Forepaugh’s great circus tent had been set up in the city Mr. Moody tried to secure it for Sunday. He was granted the use of it for a Sabbath morning service, but as the manager expected Sunday in Chicago to be a great harvest day, he reserved the tent on the afternoon and evening for his own performances. Fifteen thousand people came to hear the simple gospel preached and sung at the morning service. The circus, however, was so poorly attended in the afternoon and evening that Sunday exhibitions were soon abandoned. (Hartzler H, Moody in Chicago, p.64)

Hartzler quotes another writer in his book, who had recorded the following:

Now this is what I often found to be true : that these congregations were made up of people from every part of the United States and Canada, and I may say from every part of the globe; everybody that has come up to the World’s Fair is represented in these meetings a great mass of people brought together from every nation and every race in the world, and preachers are brought together who can speak to them in their own tongue. So it is a remarkable movement. I remember that a friend suggested to Mr. Spurgeon that such a great preacher as he ought not to confine his ministry to London, but that he ought to make a tour around the world and preach to everybody; and Mr. Spurgeon replied, I can just stand in my place in London, and let the world come to me; and so they did, as a matter of fact. And so this World’s Fair is a great opportunity because all the world is present in Chicago, and being there, they come to hear the gospel. I consider it one of the most blessed triumphs of the grace of God that on these Sundays the people are attending church and listening to the Word of God instead of going for recreation. Now that is the right way to conquer: not by violence, not by law, not by threatening, but by a counter-attraction, by offering something better.

I have made this statement in order that we may praise God that such advantage is being taken of this great occasion that will never come again. We shall never again see such an event. I need not say that the Fair is magnificent; it is a dazzling alabaster city set on the lake. People are there from every part of the earth; and next to that architectural wonder, and the marvellous display of art and science and beauty of every sort, I consider that the most striking thing in that city to-day is the evangelistic work that is going on. (Gordon, in Hartzler, Moody in Chicago, p.71)

Moody

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One wonders what sort of impression Moody’s meetings made on John Hickson, a man of the world even if he was a regular churchgoer back home in Sydney. Did he go to hear the gospel, or was he just unable to resist the spectacle? Was he a pilgrim, or a tourist? John Hickson was an Irish protestant, but whether he was a deeply spiritual man with a hunger after God I don’t know. He has left no written record to say one way or the other. He certainly had connections in the Christian ministry. His older brother William had married Mary Needham, a girl from a deeply religious family with whom the Hicksons were acquainted back in Kerry. In fact, after his mother died, John Hickson had lived with William and Mary in Sneem when he was a teenager. William and Mary had actually migrated to America before they came to Australia in the 1870s. Mary had four younger brothers who became evangelists in the north eastern states of America and at least one of them, George Needham, was part of the Moody Campaign in Chicago in 1893. He is listed as one of the many missioners in Hartzler’s book. So there was no lack of Christian input into John Hickson’s life. But the impact of that input is hard to ascertain.

How did Alice react? She was twenty when she heard DL moody preach; it must have been an overwhelming experience to be among fifteen thousand people at an evangelistic meeting in America. Many years later, as an old lady, Alice would hear Billy Graham preach, or so my father told me. She must surely have compared the two great evangelists. I wonder whether faith played an important part in Alice’s life, or in her father’s for that matter. They heard the greatest preachers of their time, but what fruit did that bear in their lives? Did they meet God, as Moody challenged his hearers to do? Were their lives changed by that meeting with God? Some of Alice’s five daughters were later deeply involved in the church. But perhaps it was their father William Ross, with his rich heritage of revival in the Scottish Highlands, who had the greatest spiritual influence on them. Hard to know.

Those weeks in Chicago in 1893 must have been an extraordinary experience for John and Alice. They stood by as America remembered her war dead, and wondered how people of one nation could so passionately have fought each other only a generation before. They saw all that the world had to offer at the World’s Fair, and marvelled at the achievements and aspirations of humanity. They were challenged to follow Jesus in the massive evangelistic meetings of DL Moody and his associates. Which of these experiences left the most lasting mark on their lives, I wonder?

Our Irish roots

I have begun to dig into my Irish roots.

My grandmother was the daughter of Irish migrants, George Byrne and Suzie Hickson. Both were born in Killarney, County Kerry, George in 1860, and Suzie in 1861. However, Suzie’s parents decided to migrate to America when she was still an infant, so she did not grow up in Ireland, but in or around Boston, where the Hickson family settled. When Suzie was around 13 her parents decided to move to Australia, where several of her father’s siblings had already settled. They arrived in Sydney around 1874, Susie by that time a young Irish-American.

George Byrne, her future husband, spent his formative years in Ireland, apprenticed for five years (1876-1881) to a general merchant in Killorglin named Roger Martin. Having completed his apprenticeship he decided, like the Hicksons before him, to migrate to Australia, where he arrived around 1882. He eventually found work in marketing for IXL jams. He may well have made contact with the Hicksons soon after arriving in Australia, and in 1885 he married Suzie, who by then was 23. George and Suzie would have seven children, one of them my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, who was born in 1899 in Sydney. They were a religious family, very involved in the Brethren Church in Sydney, something that Suzie came eventually to regret.

George had a younger brother named Richard who also came out to Australia, but a good many years after George, being ten years younger than him. He arrived in the early 90s and promptly fell in love with Suzie’s young cousin, Alice Hickson, who was two years younger than him, the daughter of John and Martha Hickson. They wanted to marry, but Alice’s father did not approve and did everything he could to dissuade them, including taking Alice away on a world trip, including a visit to their Irish roots back in the old country.

When they returned Alice married another Sydney man, someone more acceptable to her father, a certain William Ross, whose parents were Scottish-English migrants. William and Alice married in 1895 when Alice was 23, the same age as Suzie when she married George Byrne ten years earlier. William was almost 12 years older than Alice but their marriage was a happy one. They had five daughters, one of whom, Winifred, was my other grandmother. Her son, Ian, married Gertrude Byrne’s daughter, Gwen. So by a strange coincidence the Hickson’s were once again united, when my father married my mother. Their respective grandmothers were cousins.

The Irish side of my family therefore features these two families – the Byrnes and the Hicksons – most prominently. But they are not the only Irish ancestors. Alice Hickson’s mother, Martha, John Hickson’s wife, also had Irish roots. Her mother was a Mary Magenity, from County Down in Northern Ireland, transported as a convict at the age of 17, convicted of stealing from her employer, for whom she served as a housemaid. She arrived in Sydney in 1832, and 7 years later, in 1839, she married an English convict, a certain William Watts, from Wiltshire. They had a whole tribe of kids, one of whom was Martha, who married John Hickson.

Whatever became of Richard Byrne, George’s younger brother, who had fallen for Alice Hickson, only to be rejected? It turns out that not long after Alice had married, Richard married a girl from Kiama named Victoria Gray. Victoria was also the daughter of Irish immigrants, her father from Ulster and her mother from Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. They had seven children, and Victoria died when she was 66, in 1941.

It would seem the flame of romance between Richard and Alice had never been completely extinguished. Alice’s husband William had died in 1939, a few years before Richard’s wife in 1941. In 1943 Richard and Alice finally married, the young sweethearts finally united in old age. Alice’s father John Hickson was still alive when they married and he still disapproved. He died a few years later but it is said that he never forgave his daughter for going against his wishes. It makes one wonder what Richard could possibly have done to arouse such opposition from Alice’s father. The descriptions I have of Richard are of a cheerful man who was successful in his chosen career and caring to those around him. He was also a strong Christian and in fact worked for the Bible Society for many years. 

But perhaps John Hickson’s disapproval dated from long before he even met Richard, who tried to woo his daughter. Perhaps it was something that began in the old country, before he left (1866), before Richard was born (1870). John, who was born in Killorglin, knew Richard’s parents George Byrne and Sarah Ruddle. Perhaps a disagreement with George when they had been growing up together was the reason he did not allow his daughter the happiness she longed for withe George’s son so many years later.

My research into our Irish roots will focus chiefly on these two families, the Hicksons and the Byrnes. But I will also touch on Mary Magenity, the convict from northern Ireland, whose daughter Martha married into the Hickson family (John Hickson). She is the only direct ancestral link we have with the convict settlement of Sydney and further afield in the first half of the eighteenth century.

The most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain

It is worthy of remark that it was at the climax of its spiritual prosperity the cruel work of eviction began to lay waste the hill-sides and the plains of the north. Swayed by the example of the godly among them, and away from the influences by which less sequestrated localities were corrupted, the body of the people in the Highlands became distinguished as the the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain. It was just then that they began to be driven off by ungodly oppressors, to clear their native soil for strangers, red deer and sheep. With few exceptions, the owners of the soil began to act as if they were also owners of the people, and, disposed to regard them as the vilest part of their estate, they treated them without respect to the requirements of righteousness or to the dictates of mercy. Without the inducement of gain, in the very recklessness of cruelty, families by hundreds were driven across the sea, or gathered, as the sweepings of the hillsides, into wretched hamlets on the shore. By wholesale evictions wastes were formed for the red deer, that the gentlemen of the nineteenth century might indulge in the sports of the savages of three centuries before. Of many happy households sheep walks were cleared for strangers, who, fattening amidst the ruined homes of the banished, corrupted by their example the few natives who remained. Meanwhile their rulers, while deaf to the Highlanders cry of oppression, were wasting their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.
(Kennedy J, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire, pp.15-16, first published 1867)

John Kennedy’s description of the Highland valleys as “sequestrated localities,” gives an idea of their isolation, remoteness and inaccessibility. Nowadays the Highlands are criss-crossed by roads and railways, but before the 1800s the roads were just dirt tracks and the railways had not yet come. Transport was on foot or by horse, and was slow. The people of these Highland valleys lived their whole lives with little contact with the outside world.

There was of course an exception to this. Many young men were recruited into Highland regiments of the British Army, famous for their fighting spirit, and for their loyalty to their lairds.  Responding to the call for volunteers, they marched out of their Highland glens, and departed for distant lands, where they fought and in many cases died, far from home. These were the men Kennedy refers to who wasted “their sinews and their blood on battlefields that, but for their prowess and their bravery, would have been the scene of their country’s defeat.” I am reminded of the haunting words of Mark Knopfler’s song, Brothers in arms:

These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me
But my home is the lowlands
And always will be
Someday you’ll return to
Your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn
To be brothers in arms…

Such young men brought back tales of the many places they had seen, but part of the tragedy of the Clearances was that when they returned to their “valleys and their farms” there was nothing there. Their families had been evicted, the crofts where they had passed their childhood days destroyed to make way for “strangers, red deer and sheep.”

In the two centuries before the last of the Clearances in Ross-Shire (Greenyards 1854) there had been repeated spiritual revivals in the area. This is the subject of Kennedy’s book, and it makes for fascinating reading. It is also the subject of Tom Lennie’s book, Land of Many Revivals, which looks at the same influences not just in Ross-Shire but throughout Scotland. Lennie writes, for example, of the Clearances in Strathnaver, in Sutherland, north of Ross-Shire:

     The district had known rich spiritual blessing from as early as the 1720s onwards. According to the Rev Donald Munro of Ferintosh, a fresh wave of spiritual life began to pass through the Strath about the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. Children and youth, impressed on seeing their seniors repair to Saturday noon prayer meetings – which were common in parts of the North at that time – eagerly began their own prayer groups.
Some in Strathnaver and the wider parish of Farr were said to have been ‘among the most outstanding of the men of the Highlands.’…
A minister who commenced his ministry in Farr said, “…I never knew any place where the religion of Christ so shone, and flourished, and pervaded the community, as it did in Strathnaver.”…
When the Rev David Mackenzie settled as minister of the Mission in 1813, he found a congregation of between 600 and 700, among whom were many men and women – some of high military rank and some well educated – who were ’eminent for piety, and their names still savoury among the churches of the north’ in the late 1870s. Over the next few years, during the period known as the Highland Clearances, every one of the Strath’s 1,600 inhabitants was ruthlessly evicted from the area. The Rev. Donald Sage… later wrote of the last Sabbath in the Strath before the Clearances… It was an unusually fine morning so the service was held on a beautiful green sward by the River Naver. After a sermon and the singing of a psalm, ‘At last all restraints were compelled to give way. The preacher ceased to speak, the people to listen. All lifted up their voices and wept, mingling their tears together. It was indeed the place of parting, and the hour. The greater number parted, never again to behold each other in the land of the living.’ One distressed witness of the evictions wrote of the sufferers: ‘The truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers and religious conferences not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’ Many found no resting place till they reached the backwoods of Canada.
Some decades later, a Sutherland newspaper reminisced about the ‘noble band of godly men born and brought up in Strath Naver, parish of Farr, a district eminent for years, during the latter part of the last century (eighteenth) and the beginning of the present, as the residence of a number of pious, well educated and intelligent Christians.’
(Lennie T, Land of Many Revivals, 2015, pp.199-201)

A picture emerges of the inhabitants of these remote Highland valleys: there were certainly “peasants” among them, but there were soldiers too, and educated people, and they were people of faith. This was the fruit of religious revival, but such a spiritual richness was apparently not evident to the landlords who owned the land on which the people lived. These landlords were quite happy to clear them away for their own economic reasons, justified by some misinformed idea of “progress,” in which the wealthy were more interested in money and ideology than in people. They saw the inhabitants of their lands as too numerous and were worried that they might have to be supported financially from the landlords’ own pockets, something that until then had never been necessary since the “peasantry” were self sufficient and in fact paid rent to the lairds. The landlords did not see the people as intelligent, educated, loyal or pious, but rather as a potential burden that stood in the way and which needed to be removed. Hence the Clearances.

In another place or time the people may have revolted, taken up arms to defend their homes. Indeed it would seem that this was what was expected by many of the aristocracy. They had seen what had happened in France, and what was even happening to a lesser extent in England, and they expected armed resistance. They did not understand the transformation that had taken place in so many Highland hearts. Despite small disturbances the evictions were mostly a peaceful affair, and though the people appealed to their lairds’ reason and compassion, when they were met with stony indifference they usually accepted the judgements of their “superiors” and left quietly. As Lennie quotes, ‘the truly pious noted the mighty hand of God in the matter. In their prayers… not a solitary expression could be heard of anger or vindictiveness.’

Such a submission to ‘the mighty hand of God’ is frowned on in our day and age, seen as naive and foolish. Resistance is seen as the just way to proceed. But our ancestors lived in a different age, and the people of the Highlands were influenced by a different ethic and worldview. They interpreted what was happening in the context of God’s sovereignty. They didn’t understand why they should be caused to suffer, but they believed in God, and were comforted in their knowledge of his love. They did not interpret their suffering as a sign that God had deserted them or was punishing them, though they were well aware of their own failure to live up to His standards. They did not understand their suffering, but they accepted it, and saw his hand at work.

The result? The gospel was spread around the world, especially to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, countries which so many descendants of the Highlanders now call home. My own ancestors were not among those who were forced to leave, but rather left the Highlands of their own accord. But they too carried with them the spiritual heritage of the preceding two hundred years in the valleys of the Ross-Shire Highlands, a fierce commitment to God which has survived down through the generations. My grandmother’s name was Winifred Urquhart Ross – her names bearing witness to her ancestral origins in Ross and Sutherland. The man she married, my grandfather, came from a somewhat less “religious” family, with its roots in Germany and England. Before he met Win, he had already been influenced towards faith by a couple with whom he lodged in Lithgow, NSW, during the First World War. Here is what my father wrote about that time:

     Dad’s first job that I know of was in the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, but he was called up for military training in early 1918. The War ended in November 1918 just as he was about to embark for overseas. Presumably he returned to his job in Lithgow, but left at some stage to attend Technical College where he later became a teacher in Engineering Trades Drawing at Ultimo Technical College in Sydney.
While living in Lithgow, Dad was greatly helped by Mr. and Mrs. Goodes, with whom he probably boarded. They were a godly Christian couple, and would have been mainly responsible for adding a Christian dimension to his life which the rest of the Holford clan did not have. Sadly none of his siblings had any interest in the Church.
Through his involvement in the Anglican church he also became acquainted with the Robinson family (also of Scottish ancestry). Bradley Robinson was the Rector of the church, and he was married to Gertrude, the eldest daughter of the Ross family of Mosman. He got to know Winifred, a younger sister of Gertrude, who visited the Robinson family from time to time.  It happened that Dad’s father was living in the same street (Raglan St.) as the Ross family, so the friendship with Winifred strengthened until they became engaged and eventually married on December 20, 1925 in St. Clements Church, Mosman.

So the fruit of the revivals in Scotland, of the preaching of great men of God like the Rev John Macdonald of Ferintosh and many others which resulted in “the most peaceable and virtuous peasantry in Britain,” has come down through the generations, and spread itself around the world, and has even affected me, though I fear sometimes that I take more after the rather more irreligious Holford clan than the Rosses of Gledfield. But I too have found my way to a faith in the same God that inspired that Highland family, and at least some others of their descendants. So I cannot help but be inspired by the descriptions of those exciting times, and long to see them come again, not just to the Highlands, but to the little corner of the world where I find myself now. Here is another sample, an account of the ministry of James Kennedy of Aberfeldy, recorded by his son, John Kennedy, and quoted in Tom Lennie’s book:

     [Many came] every Sunday, fifteen to twenty miles, to sit under him in Aberfeldy, though they had to start at four in the morning to do it. The sight of these pilgrims travelling in carts, on horseback, and even on foot – the old men clad in homespun and often wearing the Highland bonnet, the old women wearing the snow white ‘mutch’, and carrying sprigs of sweet scented ‘southernwood’ as well as white handkerchiefs and the beloved Psalm-book in their hands – was by no means lacking in picturesqueness. Reaching Aberfeldy long before the hour of service, they were hospitably entertained at breakfast by the villagers. Then they streamed into the plain little chapel, and the worship began… As soon as the church was emptied the manse was crowded… Many of them did not get home till midnight; but the way, though long, was made cheerful with ‘songs of Zion’ and with talk of what they had heard in the morning.”
(Kennedy, Old Highland Days, quoted in Lennie T, pp.210-211)

And a final description, written by a Rev David Campbell a native of Glenlyon, recalling Kennedy’s ministry there in 1816. He had seen Kennedy

     stand almost knee-deep in a wreath of snow, while at the same time it was snowing and drifting in his face all the time he was preaching, and the people gathered around him patiently and eagerly listening to the fervent truths that proceeded from his lips… “Ach gu phi a-comhdhunnadh” – “But to conclude”! – when he came to that, his voice faltered, his eye brightened, and you would think he was as it were rushing between men and death, or plucking them out of the fire.
(quoted in Lennie T, p.210)

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