Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the category “Origins”

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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Munster: Kenmare River

Munster cover

Kathleen’s book, which her mother gave her in 1913

I found an old book on my father’s shelves. It is called “Munster, Pictured by Alexander Williams, Described by Stephen Gwynn,” and on the frontispiece in elegant cursive writing: “Kathleen Byrne. 1913. From Mother.” Opposite this inscription, on the inside of the cover, my mother has written her own name and address. Mum was Kathleen’s niece; the book appears to be one of the few items she inherited from her auntie.

Kathleen Byrne, born in 1886, was the oldest of five daughters of George and Susie Byrne. Her dad had arrived in Sydney from County Kerry, Ireland, about four years before she was born, though the exact date eludes me as does the name of the vessel on which he sailed. On arrival George became reacquainted with his childhood sweetheart, Susie Hickson, whom he had known back in Kerry, but who had migrated with her parents and siblings to Australia in 1878, when she was 17 years old. At the time of Susie’s departure from Kerry, George had been in the middle of his apprenticeship to a general merchant in Killorglin, so it was another 4 years before he could follow her. They married in 1885 a few years after his arrival in Sydney. Susie was 24, George 25. Kathleen, their firstborn, came a year later.

The book I have before me was given to Kathleen as a gift when she was 27 years old. She was still a young woman, but she never married, much to the disappointment of her parents. Neither did two of her sisters; when I was a child I knew them as the three spinster auntie, Kathleen, Frances and Isobel. In old age they lived together in a cottage in Springwood, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where we visited them from time to time. I never saw any of them after Frances died in 1974. Isobel was the next to go in 1980, but Kathleen herself lived to be 100 years old, finally passing away in 1986. I have a photo of her and various family members, including my mother, on her hundredth birthday.

1986 Kathleen age 100

Kathleen Byrne turns 100 in 1986. The group are nieces and nephews and their children, including my mother Gwen Holford, second from right and Keith Walmsley, far right.

“Munster” is fascinating to read, not least because of a few handwritten annotations in the margin and some underlined words scattered through the book. It is impossible to say whether these notes were made by Kathleen or Mum, since the handwriting does not resemble either of theirs in the front of the book. I suppose it is even possible that the annotations were made by Kathleen’s mother Susie. What is clear, however, is that for someone in the family certain passages in the book were significant. I have been reflecting on some of these scribblings. The first is about the Kenmare River, which is the subject of this blog. Future blogs will refer to other notes.

Munster, of course, is one of the four regions of Ireland, the others being Ulster, Leinster and Connaught. Kerry, which was the origin of most of my Irish ancestors, is one of the counties of Munster. The book is an account of the writer’s visits to that part of Ireland, but is not a travel guide in the sense of Lonely Planet, or Rough Guides. Kathleen never went to Ireland, but Mum and Dad did, after I had left home, around the time that Kathleen died. Mum is no longer alive to tell me about that trip, but I do remember some of the stories she told me on their return. My younger brother Peter, who was still at school at that time, went with them, and he remembers the journey vividly, as does my father, who is now 84. I am fairly certain that Mum had the book with her on that trip, and that the annotations in the margins guided some of her enquiries.

The first significant notes are on page 24 in a reference to the Kenmare River. The text of the book reads: “The south coast of Cork, from Youghal to the Kenmare River, is the pick of Ireland for yachtsmen… Endless is the succession, from Cork itself with all its lesser creeks and havens… Past Mizen Head, on the west shore, are greater bays, harbours, not for yachts, but for navies – Dunmanus, Bantry and the Kenmare River, whose northern shore belongs to Kerry, but which has a frontier certainly in Paradise.” The annotation, handwritten, referring it would seem to the underlined words, Kenmare River, reads: “Behind George Needham’s cottage, now a Police Barracks.”

Munster Kenmare

“Munster,” p24

George Needham was Susie Hickson’s grandfather. He and his wife had ten children, the firstborn of which was Mary, Susie’s mother. Mary Needham grew up in Templenoe, on the northern shore of the Kenmare River, “which has a frontier certainly in Paradise,” according to the old book of Munster. It is, as these words suggest, an area of extraordinary natural beauty, and forms today part of one of Ireland’s most popular tourist routes, the so called “Ring of Kerry.” The Kenmare River a deep inlet in the coast rather than a river, the hills on the southern shore being in Cork, while the mountains rising from the northern shore forming part of the Iveragh peninsula of County Kerry. The area is not only beautiful, but is also rich in history. Not least it was a smuggler’s haven, especially in the 1700s.

The Needhams were Protestants, and they were Anglo-Irish. George Needham had been, I believe, an officer in the British Navy. I am not certain as to whether he was born in Ireland or not, but I am fairly certain that his wife was English born. Although he eventually became the parish clerk in Templenoe, he had initially, after leaving the navy, been a captain in the Kerry Coastguard, based presumably on the Kenmare River. The Irish Coastguard had been established by the British government largely as a response to the smuggling that occurred not only in Kerry but all up the West Coast of Ireland. Because so many of the local population was dependent on smuggling for their livelihood (they preferred to think of as the “import-export business” rather than smuggling) the Coastguard was not a greatly loved institution, standing as it did in the way of business. George Needham, as a Coastguard captain, and English to boot, may not have been greatly liked. The attitudes to the Coastguard may have softened during the famine of the 1840s, when it was involved in the distribution of food relief, and once George had left the Coastguard it is possible that the locals may have thought better of him. But even as a parish clerk he was part of the English establishment, and that may have made it difficult for him.

Kenmare River chart

Nautical chart Upper Kenmare River

Here is a little of what the book “Munster” has to say about smuggling on the Kenmare River:

Here, as elsewhere, English settlers were brought in as lords of the land, with enormous power over the native Irish, whose loyalty still held to the representative of their old chiefs. The O’Sullivans were chiefs now principally in the extensive smuggling operations – and let it be remembered that under the laws made by England to crush out Irish trade, contraband was almost the one outlet for Irish commerce. If Irishmen wanted to export the wool of their sheep, the hides of their cattle, the meat they had salted, all this traffic was by law forbidden. Such laws make smuggling necessary and beneficent, and the O’Sullivans on the south of the Kenmare River, like the O’Connells on its northern shore, brought in their cargoes of wines, tobacco, silks and laces, and sent back ships laden with wool. With those cargoes went out too that other contraband, the supply of officers and men for the Irish brigade. The English landlord-settler was the representative of English law, and between him and the O’Sullivans conflict was certain… (pp31-32)

The story of how the English came to Kerry is a complex one dating back many hundreds of years, and contains much sadness and injustice. Suffice to say that the English colonised Ireland, as they colonised many other countries in the world in their pursuit of Empire, and were regarded as foreigners in Ireland, even if some families had been there for hundreds of years. The Hickson family, for example, which Mary Needham married into, had come over to Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth the first, and surely felt themselves to be thoroughly Irish. But English was their native language, rather than the Irish of many of the locals, and they were Protestants, whereas the majority was Catholic. Sadly the English government had been using religion as a form of oppression and control of the native Irish for centuries, so for many the Church of Ireland was seen as the religion of the Establishment, and Catholicism as the religion of resistance. That is, however, an oversimplification, since in many cases the most outspoken voices for Irish nationalism were Protestant.

Our distant Hickson ancestors had been landlord-settlers back in the 1580s on the Dingle Peninsula, further north in Kerry, but that was long in the past, and by the nineteenth century our direct Hickson ancestors were neither landlords nor landowners, but paid rent like other commoners in Kerry, and worked as blacksmiths (or more specifically, as nailers). However, they were not subsistence farmers, like the vast majority of the peasantry in Kerry, and that gave them some resilience when the famine hit in the 1840s. Neither were the Needhams gentry in any way, but like the Hicksons they were Protestants, and English, and as such part of a small minority in Kerry that was not greatly loved, though they enjoyed privileges denied to the majority.

Perhaps it was partly for this reason that, while George Needham and his wife both died and were buried in Kerry, most if not all of their ten children left Ireland in the turbulent times of the 1860s and 70s, migrating to North America. Susie, Mary Needham’s second child, who was born in County Kerry, in Killarney, was around 4 years old when her family departed for the USA. She was a Hickson, but her parents William and Mary, made the decision to go with the Needhams to America, rather than following William’s family, several of whom had already migrated to Australia.

Emigrants_Leave_Ireland_by_Henry_Doyle1868

Henry Edward Doyle, 1868, via Wikimedia Commons

The result was that Susie spent her childhood and adolescence as an Irish immigrant in America, much more influenced by her Needham relatives than the Hicksons. However, after 12 years in America her parents, at the urging of William’s family in Australia, decided to return to Ireland, and from there they migrated again, this time to Australia.

So Kathleen and her siblings grew up hearing stories from their parents and grandparents of their childhoods in Ireland, and Susie’s sojourn in America. Their maternal grandfather, William Hickson, died in 1899 when his grandchildren were still very young. Their grandmother, Mary (Needham), lived until 1916 so she too would have told stories of Kerry to her grandchildren, one of whom was my grandmother, Gertrude, born in 1899. Templenoe, and the Kenmare River, as the home of their maternal grandmother, would have loomed large in the childrens’ imagination of the Ireland of their forebears. The book Susie gave to Kathleen in 1913 would doubtless have been treasured by her as a reminder of her mother and grandmother’s birthplace. Stephen Gwynn, the author of Munster writes warmly of the Kenmare River:

Nothing else in Ireland is so perfect, to my fancy, as this long narrow sea lough between the two mountainous peninsulas, and having inland of it the full vista of those higher mountains which encircle Killarney’s lakes… Iveragh (the peninsula)… is bounded on the south by the Kenmare River, on the north by Dingle Bay, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean (with the Skelligs lying off in it), and on the east by Magillicuddy’s Reeks and the lakes of Killarney; which is set therefore in beauty and majesty and splendour and has interest and charm at every turn of every road…
The train will take you to Kenmare… From Kenmare the beautifully engineered road, which was a joy to man and beast till heavy motor coaches began to destroy it, runs along the north shore of the sea lough, and a few miles out crosses the Kerry Blackwater by the most picturesque bridge over the loveliest stream that anyone could ever hope to throw a fly in. A little further along is Parknasilla, the big hotel which has been built at a point where the coast breaks up into a number of wooded islets, with bridges connecting them, and meandering walks – well, nothing could be prettier. Then you go along through Sneem, getting into opener, wider country. (pp 33, 35-36)

Kenmare River 2

Looking south across the Kenmare River to the mountains of Cork. From a visit to Kerry 2016.

This was the country that our Needham ancestors called home, until the family broke up and departed for America in 1865 and the years that followed. Only the oldest of the Needham children, Mary, would end up in Australia. In Kerry, now, there is little trace of the family left, although I did spot the Needham name once or twice in the graveyard of the now boarded up Templenoe Church.

 

Reconstructing the Byrne family

I am descended from four Kerry families of the nineteenth century: their names are Byrne, Hickson, Needham and Ruddle. My maternal grandmother was Gertrude Byrne and her parents, both Irish born, were George Byrne and Susie Hickson. George’s parents were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle, while Susie’s parents were William Hickson and Mary Needham. My paternal grandmother was Winifred Ross. Her mother was Alice Hickson, firstborn of Kerry born John Hickson, brother of the aforementioned William Hickson. So Irish blood runs thick in my veins.

Unravelling the stories of these four families has been and remains a fascinating exercise. The Hickson and Needham family stories have come together relatively easily, due to written accounts from various members of these families, particularly John Hickson, and Thomas Needham. The Byrnes have been much harder, and the Ruddles are still largely unknown to me. The following article outlines my reconstruction of the Byrne family, and the sources I used to reach these conclusions, some of which are linked to the highlighted words in the article.

George and Richard Byrne

George, my great grandfather, was born in Killarney, on 22 July 1860, and was baptised in the Church of Ireland (COI) parish church at Aghadoe, a village outside Killarney on the way to Killorglin. Until recently I was aware of only one other sibling in his family, namely Richard, his younger brother, who was born about 10 years after him. George migrated first to Australia, I believe in 1883, and Richard some years later, though documentary evidence of their respective migrations has been hard to come by.

GeorgeByrne1

George Byrne, my great grandfather (1860-1929)

James and Hannah Byrne

A few months back I was contacted quite out of the blue by Barbara Fromberg, of Sydney, who had read some of my musings about the Byrne family on my blog. Barbara informed me that she was the granddaughter of another Byrne, James, whom she believed to be a brother to George and Richard.  I had never heard of James, as she had never heard of George and Richard, but she pointed me to a number of documents that showed her suspicions to be correct. She also made me aware of a sister Hannah, who appears to have been the first born in the family.

Aghadoe

Barbara and her husband had recently returned from a journey to Europe including Ireland, and it was she who enlightened me to the Aghadoe connection. She sent me a photo she had taken of the parish church of Aghadoe, where my great grandfather and his older sister Hannah were baptised. Aghadoe appears to have been the home of the Ruddle family, while the Byrnes seem to have come from Killarney proper.

Aghadoe Parish Church

Parish Church at Aghadoe, near Killarney (photo courtesy of Barbara Fromberg)

My daughter Hanna and I were in Ireland last year in August (2016) and did some family history hunting, but then I was totally unaware of Aghadoe and my knowledge of the Byrne family in Killarney was extremely vague. We visited Killorglin and Sneem and Dingle, which were important in the Hickson family story, and Templenoe, which featured in that of the Needhams. We stayed outside Killarney but on the southern side of the town near Muckross. I didn’t even know of the existence of Aghadoe, which lies west of Killarney, just north of the road to Killorglin, which forms part of the famous “Ring of Kerry” tourist route.

Kerry highlights 1883

County Kerry, with family places highlighted

Thanks to Barbara a picture of my great grandfather’s family in Ireland began to emerge. I now knew of four children in the family: Hannah born 1859, George in 1860, James 1866, and Richard, 1870. Together Barbara and I have tried to nut out the Byrne family of Killarney, but it has been a frustrating task, with many dead ends. The picture is still incomplete, and only some of my questions have been answered.

Questions about George and Sarah

George Byrne senior

George Byrne senior 1831-1872, (photo from Barbara Fromberg’s collection)

Sarah Ruddle

Sarah Byrne (Ruddle) 1835-1890? (Barbara Fromberg collection)

Who were George Byrne (senior) and Sarah Ruddle? Where did they come from, what were their own family backgrounds, how did they meet, when did they marry? Were they rich or poor, in what were they employed, what motivated them, what gave them joy, what were their hopes and dreams, what were their struggles? When and where did they live and die? Were there more than the four children listed above, perhaps some who died in infancy, which was such a common occurrence in the days before infections could be effectively treated with antibiotics? What compelled their children to migrate? Why didn’t they migrate themselves when so many of their friends were doing just that (including the Hicksons and the Needhams whom I have mentioned above)? What was it like in Killarney in the 1800s? There are many questions and I have only started to answer some of them, and of course there is a lot of conjecture and imagining in the process. I have only found a few objective sources to draw on which have provided a framework for thinking. The following are some of them:

Sources

  • Marriage record for George Byrne and Sarah Ruddle (1857)
  • Death record of George (1872)
  • Baptism records of Hannah (1859) and George junior (1860)
  • Birth record of Richard (1870)
  • George junior’s indenture when he began his apprenticeship (1871)
  • Marriage certificate for George junior to Susie Hickson (1885)
  • Marriage certificates of James (1891 and 1906)
  • Various photos provided by Barbara Fromberg, as well as those in my personal collection.

I should mention that my mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, a grandchild of George Byrne (junior), has also given me a good deal of information about his grandparents and their backgrounds, and his son Simon has provided some of the photographs. I hope that other documents will appear as I continue to search, but the ones listed above form the basis of my current objective knowledge.

Facts

From these documents I have deduced the following:

  • George and Sarah Byrne married in 1857 at the parish church in Aghadoe, near Killarney (Church of Ireland)
  • George Byrne (senior) was a nailer (a blacksmith, involved in the manufacture of nails)
  • George’s father was William Byrne, also a nailer (often spelt “nailor”)
  • Sarah Ruddle was a sextoness. A sextoness was a female sexton. A sexton is described as “a person who looks after a church and churchyard, typically acting as bell-ringer and gravedigger.” (Oxford Dictionary online). I don’t imagine that Sarah did much gravedigging, though her father Thomas Ruddle may well have done so, since he was the sexton at the same church.
  • Sarah’s father, Thomas Ruddle, was the parish clerk at Aghadoe
  • George was 26 when they married, which would give him a birth year of 1831. I have not located a birth certificate.
  • Sarah was 22 when they married, giving her a birth year of 1835.
  • They had, as far as I can determine, four children, being Hannah, George, James and Richard, the last three of which migrated to Australia.
  • George died on 30 October 1872 of prolonged bronchitis (his death certificate says 2 years). This would suggest that he may have had some form of asthma, or that he had chronic lung damage from exposure to smoke, or fumes, since he was a blacksmith (nailer).
  • George’s death record says his age was 47, which would give him a birth year of 1825, but this does not match with his marriage record, which gives him a birth year of 1831. I suspect that his age at death has been wrongly transcribed from the original death certificate, since a 7 can easily look like a 1. This would mean that he was actually 41 when he died.
  • Sarah was only 37 years old when her husband died. I have no knowledge of whether she ever remarried. However, she signed George junior’s indenture to a merchant in Killorglin in 1876 with the name Sarah Byrne. She would have been 41 by then.
  • Sarah was deceased in 1891, according to James’ first marriage certificate. So she probably died in her 50s (she would have been 56 had she been alive in 1891) though when and where she died is uncertain.
  • The family lived in Chapel Lane, Killarney, in 1870 (Richard’s birth record) and still in 1872 (George’s death record).

The fact that I have been unable to find various records is both frustrating and mystifying, notably a birth certificate for James Byrne. Barbara made me aware of a fire that ravaged the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, destroying many records. However, according to Claire Santry on her Irish Genealogy News blog-site all civil registration records survived that fire, and according to the Irish Genealogy website these Civil Records list births from 1864 to 1916, marriages from 1870 to 1941, and deaths from 1878 to 1966. Richard, born 1870, is there, but James, born 1866, is not. I cannot find any records for a marriage or death of Hannah Byrne, nor is there any death record for Sarah, who died in this period.

More children?

The first question that occurred to me was, were there more children? Hannah and George (junior) were close together, but then there is a gap of 6 years before the next child, James, and then another 4 years before Richard was born. Were there others in between, or after? To answer that required a bit more information about their parents, George Byrne senior and his wife Sarah Ruddle.

I knew nothing of George senior’s death until Barbara shared with me a copy of his death record, indicating that he died in October, 1872 in Chapel Lane, Killarney. He was, I believe, 41.

Having ascertained that George and Sarah Byrne were married in 1857 and that George died in 1872, I searched the databases on Irish Genealogy for Byrnes born in Killarney to George and Sarah between 1857 and 1872. However, rather than finding more Byrne children, I found less. Two of them – Hannah (1859) and George (1860) – are there in the church records. One is in the civil records – Richard (1870). But James is not there, and there are no other children of George and Sarah Byrne in either of these collections between 1857 and 1873. So if there were other children born between 1860 and 1870 they are either not recorded, or the records have been lost.

Why no birth certificate for James?

And where is our James? According to his marriage records (he was married twice after he had moved to Australia, in 1891 to Florence Ashmead and 1906 to Jessie Lawrence) he was born in 1866. As mentioned above, we cannot blame the fire in Dublin in 1922 for the absence of his birth certificate. His parents were fastidious in recording the baptisms of Hannah and George, which are available online. And Richard is there in the Civil Records. So why did James miss out?

Interestingly there was one other Byrne child born in Killarney during those years (1857-73), and curiously his name was was, in fact, James. But according to the register his year of birth was 1870, and his parents are listed as Edward and Catherine Byrne. Furthermore, though this James’ birth is registered in Killarney, his place of birth is listed as Scrahan, which is north of Killarney, closer to Listowel. His father, the “informant” for the birth, appears to have worked as an attendant at the Killarney Lunatic Asylum, and lived on the premises there. Presumably his wife, Catherine (formerly Barony) was resident in Scrahan, while her husband was working in Killarney.

So there was another Byrne family in Killarney at the time, that of Edward and Catherine Byrne. I have wondered if Edward and George Byrne (senior) might have been brothers, but I have not been able to confirm this. Did Edward and Catherine Byrne have other children, and if so, where are they recorded?

Thinking about the absence of our James from any birth registers, as well as the presence of this other James Byrne, it occurred to me fleetingly that they might be one and the same. Could Edward and Catherine’s son, James, have been “adopted” by George and Sarah out of some unknown necessity, and raised as their own? But his age is wrong. James son of George was by all accounts born in 1866, whereas James son of Edward was born in 1870, the same year as Richard.

I think, quite simply, that there must have been two James Byrnes in Killarney in the 1870s, but that while there is an existing birth record of one of them, the details of the birth of the other – our James, Barbara’s grandfather – remain a mystery. Only from his Australian marriage records can we deduce the year of his birth, and these same records clearly state that he was the son of George and Sarah Byrne, of Killarney.

Australian records

There are Australian records for George junior and Richard too, since both of them migrated to Australia, married and had families. George was my great grandfather on my mother’s side. Richard, oddly enough, married my great grandmother on my father’s side, but it was the second marriage for them both, when they were old, after each had other families. I have written about that unusual occurrence elsewhere. James I had no knowledge of until a few months ago when Barbara contacted me.

But the Australian records give few clues to the Byrnes’ brothers life in Ireland, only that they had come from there and who their parents were. What kind of relationships existed between these three brothers in Australia is unknown to me, and I have no-one to ask. What happened to their older sister, Hannah Byrne, is also a mystery. Did she migrate too, or did she remain in Ireland? Did she marry? Where and when did she die? There is more research to be done here.

Religion

James’ death certificate (1942) indicates that he was a member of the “Open Brethren” religion. I know from my mother (now deceased) and her cousin, Keith Walmsley (alive and well), that their grandparents (George junior and his wife Susie) were also members of the Brethren Church in Sydney. I am uncertain about Richard Byrne’s religious denomination, but I do know he worked for the Bible Society in Sydney in later life, which suggests that he had a Christian faith.

In 1861, the year after George junior was born, there was a religious revival in Kerry, the result of which was the formation of many Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the county, and I suspect the Byrnes were part of one of these. Their first two children, Hannah and George, were baptised in the Church of Ireland in Aghadoe. Sarah was a sextoness at the parish church there, and her father the parish clerk. Whether they left the Church of Ireland in 1861 at the time of the revival is uncertain. I have not found any baptism records for either James or Richard, but if they had transferred their allegiance to a Brethren assembly in the early sixties, then it is possible no records were kept.

Migration

The only migration record I have been able to find to date is that of George junior, who appears on a list of “unassisted immigrants” on a ship called the Sydenham, out of London, arriving in Sydney in 1883. It is not entirely certain that this is our George Byrne, since there are no details about him recorded on the passenger list. This was typical of self funded migrants at that time, in contrast to those who got government assistance, or who were sponsored by family or friends, whose details were usually well documented. As Robin Haines says, in Life and Death in the Age of Sail,

“Privately funded passengers, those better off travellers who sought no government subsidies to fund their passage, were not required to negotiate any bureaucratic turnstiles before embarking on their voyage to Australia. Consequently they are almost invisible in the official record, unlike those who travelled on passages provided by each of the colonial governments.” (Haines, R. Life and Death in the Age of Sail, 2006. p14)

The Sydenham sailed out of London, whereas our George was from Ireland. I have not been able to ascertain her route, whether she sailed to Ireland before heading south. I suppose it is possible that George travelled to London to embark, but this seems unlikely. This record is the only George Byrne I can find arriving in Australia at about the right time.

Exactly when James and Richard migrated is uncertain. James’ death certificate, kindly provided by Barbara Fromberg, indicates, a little cryptically, that when he died in 1942 that he had been “28 years in NSW and 47 years in the Commonwealth.” This doesn’t really add up, since his first marriage was in Sydney in 1891, which was 51 years prior to his death. So clearly he arrived in Australia before 1891, though exactly when and where remains a mystery. The same is true for Richard. The records may be there, but I have yet to find them.

Suffice to say that George and James appear to have left Ireland in the 1880s and Richard, the youngest of the three, possibly in the 1890s.

Summary

The Byrne family, as I know it thus far, was one of four children. George senior, the father, died while his children were still quite young and the task of raising them was left to his widow, Sarah. What became of Hannah is unclear. The three boys all migrated to Australia, George in 1883 when he was 23 years old, the others at uncertain dates, but James certainly before 1891 which was when he married for the first time and Richard before 1893, when he first appears in the Hickson family story (I have written of that in another blog). What became of Sarah, their mother, is also a mystery.

Near Killorglin

Near Killorglin, County Kerry (my photo collection)

 

Coastguard

I had a letter from my mother’s cousin, Keith Walmsley, a few years back. I had asked him what he knew about our Irish forbears – my great great grandmother (who is Keith’s great grandmother) was Mary Hickson, who came out to Australia with her husband William from Kerry in 1877. Mary Hickson was the eldest child of the Needham family of Templenoe, County Kerry. She was born in 1833. Her parents were George and Susan (Carter) Needham.

According to Keith, Mary Needham

“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)…”

Version 2

The captain’s daughter, Mary Needham (1833-1916), in later life

Lackeen Point Coastguard Station
I have not found any other documentary evidence that George Needham was in the Kerry Coastguard, but on examining old maps I discovered that there was a Coastguard station very close to Templenoe where the Needham family lived. It was situated at Lackeen Point at the opening of the Blackwater River on the northern shore of the Kenmare Bay. Surely this was where George worked in his early adulthood.

There was another station on the southern side of the Kenmare River at Kilmakilloge, across the water from Lackeen. Westward from Lackeen toward the Atlantic there was a smaller station at a place called White Strand in the vicinity of Daniels Island and further out still toward the ocean was a bigger station at Waterville. The best known coastguard station on the Iveragh Coast is the one at Ballinskelligs, west of Waterville. The ruins are still standing.

There is a website for Ballinskelligs which says something about the Coastguard station there. Of the Irish Coastguard in the nineteenth century, it explains:

The Coast Guard Stations scattered around the coast of Kerry were set up by the British Navy in 1821 to curtail and if possible end smuggling on the coast of Ireland which was losing a great amount of money to the King’s or the Queen’s revenue. From 1836 they were given the added task of stamping out illegal distilling for the same reasons, but without much success. Apart from the ship ‘Manpower’ they had 11 cruisers off the coast of Ireland…

The Coast Guard stations were part of rural life around our coasts. The stations flourished during the 19th century. The coastguards were finally disbanded in 1923. They were about 100 years in operation in the country. They were vitally important in the eyes of the British Empire, they were closely linked on the Iveragh Coast, at Waterville, Ballinskelligs, Portmagee, Valentia, Cahirsiveen and Kells. The Coastguards were known as “Na Fír Ghorma.” …

The Coastguards were mainly naval reservists, or men at the end of their service. They were good seamen, and highly capable of managing life boats, and were trained also in life saving. They also acted as recruiting agents for the British Army…

The Griffiths Valuation of 1852 lists George Needham as a parish clerk in Templenoe. So his days with the coastguard must have been prior to this. Although I do not know the exact date of George’s birth, I believe he was around fifty in 1852. One can wonder whether George had been in the navy before he was in the coastguard, or whether he was also a naval reservist. His son Thomas went to sea at an early age, and left a book and a number of letters that are still in existence, about his experiences in the British navy. I will write about them another time.

Kenmare River 1

The northern shore of Kenmare Bay, looking west from Templenoe pier toward Lackeen Point.

The Irish Coastguard Service
The website mentioned above explains more about the activities of the Coastguard:

Many ships were shipwrecked on the coast. The Coastguards job was to salvage anything valuable from the ships. Often the locals would outwit them and get there before them and hide their spoils and use the wood to repair their houses etc… There are many stories of shipwrecks and adventures.

I do not have any hard evidence that George worked at the Lackeen Point Coastguard Station, but family tradition said he was with the coastguard, and there is no reason to doubt it, and Lackeen Point is the closest to where George and his family later lived. The coastguard was not greatly liked by the local population, it being a representative of the British Government which was so resented by many of the Irish population. What is more, some of the locals must have been dependent on smuggling for their livelihood, and any authority that stood in their way was seen as the enemy. However, during the Potato Famine which began in 1845 the coastguard was involved in distribution of food relief, which perhaps redeemed them in the eyes of some.

There is a Facebook page devoted to the Kenmare Chronicle which has some references to a new coastguard station built at Lackeen Point built in 1863, the year after George Needham’s death. This was in response to a memo recorded in the House of Commons Reports from Committees in June 1860 (see Google Books here) which speaks of the poor condition of coastguard stations in Ireland at that time:

In many instances the coast guardsmen in Ireland are lodged worse than the cattle; cases have been reported where the rooms are in such a dilapidated state that the men have been obliged to thatch the beds, and this at a time when their wives and children have been lying sick in them, the sickness having been produced by the cruel exposure to which they have been made subject. (memorandum by Commodore Eden, re Public Board of Works in Ireland).

Lackeen Point new station

This picture can be found on the Kenmare Chronicle Facebook page

Some drawings of the new station at Lackeen Point (see above) and some information about what happened to it can be found on the Kenmare Chronicle Facebook page. One of the comments mentions that the fate of the station was sealed when it was destroyed during the Civil War in 1922 with the remains of the station later being dismantled and removed to be replaced by forest. Many of the coastguard stations in Ireland were destroyed by the IRA, as the Ballinskelligs website explains:

The Coastguard Station at Ballinskelligs was burnt down by the local IRA during the War of Independence. Most of the coastguard stations were destroyed at this time. The excuse was that they would become ready barracks for the British solders. The station at Valentia survived, it is now converted into holiday apartments. Kells Coastguard station also survived, it is now a private house. Cromane station is now a pub.

A possible biography of George Needham
George Needham was probably born around 1802. I am unsure whether he was Irish or English. I have almost no knowledge of his life, apart from the fact that he married Susan Carter, a girl some 16 years his junior when she was only 15, and that they together had 10 children, the oldest of which was my great great grandmother, Mary Needham. Susan was also English, according to an entry in the 1910 US Census for her son Benjamin Needham (one of Mary’s younger brothers). From Mary’s marriage record it is also evident that by the age of fifty George was a parish clerk in Templenoe.

One of George and Susan’s sons, Thomas Needham, joined the British navy in around 1864, when he was 13 years old. His parents were by that time both dead, as he mentions in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. Thomas’s love for the sea and ships may well have been something he inherited from his father.

A picture of George’s early life begins to take shape in my mind. I suspect he was English and went to sea as a teenager, in the great age of the British navy, following the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps around the age of thirty he left the navy and joined the coastguard, and was posted to Lackeen Point Coastguard Station on Kenmare Bay in southern Kerry. It is possible that he met and married his wife, Susan Carter, in England before he came to Ireland – they must have married around 1833, but their first child, Mary, was born, as far as I know, in Kerry.

George may have been in the coastguard for many years, though I have not been able to find a record of his service anywhere. Perhaps he only served for a few years, though what he did when he left is uncertain. At some stage he gained employment as a parish clerk in Templenoe, very close to Blackwater where the Lackeen Point Coastguard Station was located. Between 1833 and 1856 he and Susan raised a family of ten children. The first of these was Mary, born in 1833, the last was William, born in 1856, when George was 54 but Susan was only 38. Susan died the same year, leaving her 10 children motherless and her husband George a widower. However, by that time Mary was already 23 years old and doubtless played an important role in the care of her younger siblings, though the 1852 Griffith valuation suggests that she was not living in Templenoe at that time.

The Needham family was devout one, and were regular members of the Templenoe Church. They were Protestants in a predominantly Catholic community, their family roots English in a very Irish region. As parish clerk in Templenoe, George would have had close links to the local aristocracy, namely Denis Mahony of Dromore Castle, who was the Needham’s landlord and also a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, presumably vicar at the church which the Needham family attended. The Rev Mahony was a few years older than George Needham, but he died in 1851 to be succeeded by his first son, Richard Mahony, who was about 5 years older than George’s daughter Mary.

In 1858, two years after her mother’s death, Mary married William Hickson of Killorglin, whom she had got to know some years earlier when the Hickson family had been living in Sneem. Mary and William appear to have moved to Killarney after their marriage.

Three years later a Christian revival broke out in Kerry, centred on the Sneem-Templenoe area in which the Needhams lived, largely led by Richard Mahony of Dromore and his friend Francis Christopher (FC) Bland of the neighbouring Derriquin Estate. The revival resulted in the formation of Plymouth Brethren assemblies in the area, and it would seem that the Needham family, especially the younger children, was profoundly affected by this religious awakening. The four youngest sons of the family all became evangelists in North America later in life.

In 1862 in the midst of the revival George Needham died. He was around 60 years of age. A few years later his children began to disperse to the wider world. Perhaps it was for religious reasons. The Plymouth Brethren were regarded with some suspicion by much of the Kerry population. Or perhaps the Needhams just felt a bit too English for southern Ireland, even if all George and Susan’s children were born there. By the end of the 1870s there were no Needhams left in County Kerry. Most of the children ended up in North America. Mary and her husband, although first migrating to the USA in 1865, decided, after 12 years, to move further to Australia. Their first daughter Suzie Hickson, born in 1861 in Kerry, raised in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ended up in Sydney, NSW, where in 1885 she married a newly arrived migrant from Kerry, George Byrne.

George and Susie Byrne were my mother’s Irish grandparents.

ByrneFamily

George and Susie Byrne and four of their children (ca 1900)

Two nailors of Derryquin

William Hickson and George Byrne

I have known for some time that William Hickson (1832-1899) of Killorglin, who later migrated to America and then Australia, was a nailor. It says so clearly on his marriage certificate:

1858-marriage-hickson-needham-2

While looking through some records for George Byrne (1860-1929), who married William Hickson’s daughter Susie many years later in Australia, I discovered that his father, who was also named George, was also a nailor. It is recorded on George junior’s death certificate.

Death George Byrne:
July 28, 1929, Coast Hospital, Little Bay, Randwick
Late of 25 Cook Street, Lewisham
George Byrne, Clerk
69 years
Cerebral haemorrhage, Purpura haemorrhagica
Name and occupation of father: George Byrne, Nailor
Mother: Sarah Ruddle
When and where buried: 30 July 1929, Congregational Cemetery, Woronora
Name and religion of minister: William McFarlane, Brethren
Where born and how long in the Australian colonies, Killarney, Country Kerry, Ireland, 47 years
Place of marriage, age and to whom: Summerhill, 24, Susan Hickson
Children of marriage: Kathleen, Emily, Frances, William, Gertrude, Isobel. One male deceased.

This conflicts somewhat with a transcript of George’s birth record which I found through one of the genealogical search engines, which records his father as being a waiter:

Birth George Byrne:
http://churchrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/details/0b6ac10010627
Baptism 22 July 1860
Born 18 May 1860 Killarney, Kerry, Ireland
Father George Byrne, waiter
Mother Sarah

I have wondered what it means, that he was a waiter. Killarney today may be full of restaurants with waiters but in 1860 when George was born it was probably not the tourist mecca that it is now. I have wondered if he was a waiter in a large hotel, or the house of an aristocratic family, but finding the answer has eluded me. What I suspect is that George’s father was not a waiter at all, but a nailor, as the later death record indicates, and that the above record contains a mistake in the transcription. The Irish Genealogy website does not contain an image of the original church record and the two words nailor and waiter could easily be confused.

George Byrne (senior) of Killarney has been an elusive character thus far in my family history research. I have not been able to find the date of either his birth or death, only his marriage in Killarney on 24 February 1857 to Sarah Ruddle. However, assuming he was around 25 at the time, he would have been born around 1832, the same year as William Hickson.

So George Byrne (senior) of Killarney, was a contemporary of William Hickson of Killorglin, and they were both nailors. However, whereas William would leave Ireland in 1865 and migrate to first America and then Australia, George lived out his whole life, as far as I know, in Ireland.

The nail and bolt industry

What is a nailor? It is not a trade or profession that is familiar to the modern reader. However, nailors were in great demand in the days before the manufacture of nails and bolts was automated in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was heavy work involving anvils and hammers and furnaces, somewhat akin to blacksmithing. Here is a description from industrial England which I found at a website cataloguing old occupations (http://rmhh.co.uk/occup/n-o.html):

In the early 19th century, in the neighbourhood of Birmingham alone, 60,000 people – men, women and children – were involved in the hand manufacture of iron nails. They turned out something like 200 tons of nails, of numerous varieties and levels of quality, every week. Commonly an entire family would work together, confining themselves to a particular class of nail.

There were about 300 sorts of wrought or forged iron nails alone. Specific names suggest the uses to which they were put – deck, wheelwright, hurdle, mop, etc. Further terms such as rose, clasp, diamond, pearl and sunken describe the shape of the nail head; and flat, sharp, spear, needle and refer to their points. The terms fine, bastard and strong described their thickness.

The very finest quality nails were used for horseshoes; each nail required at least 35 blows of the hammer to draw it out fine enough to prevent it from cracking or breaking off in the horse’s hoof. Most nails required at least 25 blows of the hammer to form them. When the shank had been drawn out from the red hot rod to the required length, it was inserted into a heading tool, cut, turned and struck on the anvil. During this process, the bellows had to be worked several times.

The workers who forged the nails on the anvil were known as Nailors or Naylors. Each could make as many as four nails a minute – that’s up to 3,000 a day.

What has happened to the traditional nail maker has happened to many other classes of industrial worker, who have seen their crafts swallowed up by automated processes or superceded by new inventions.

A book published in 1989 about nail making in the Midlands is called “Glory Gone: the Story of Nailing in Bromsgrove,” by Bill Kings & Margaret Cooper (Halfshire Books, 1989/1999).

There is a short review of this book at http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GLOUCESTER/2010-05/1274520577:

‘Glory gone’ was the ironic comment of Bromsgrove’s last nailmaker on the area’s former staple trade. At its mid-nineteenth century peak it employed over three thousand people, 30 per cent of the population. Most of the physical evidence — the nailshops, cottages and warehouses — has long disappeared; but a visitor to the area one, even two, hundred years ago would have heard, seen and smelt the making of nails. This book tells the story of the hand wrought nail trade in the Bromsgrove area, examining the contrast between the prosperity of the sellers of nails, the masters and foggers, and the dreadful poverty of those who made those same nails, among them a high proportion of women and children. There is an account of the century-long struggle against low wages and the illegal truck system and a look at what nailers did when they were not toiling at the nailblock. Finally, there are short firsthand accounts recalling childhood days spent among nailers by four men and women who a decade ago were the last living links with the staple trade.

 

The Hickson and Byrne families

William Hickson married Mary Needham in 1858 in Templenoe, County Kerry (see marriage certificate). They were both 25. They had three children before migrating from Ireland to America in 1865. These Irish Hicksons were Richard (b.1859), Suzie (b.1861) and Lizzie (b.1863). The other three of their children, Sara, William and Charlie, were born in America, in the area near Boston where they lived. William worked, I believe, as a whitesmith. Then in 1877-78 they returned to Ireland for a short time before migrating again to Australia. During that short interlude in Ireland Suzie, my great grandmother, was around 16 years old. After moving to Australia I believe that William worked in his younger brother John’s timber company. The family appear to have been fairly well off. William died in 1899 but his wife Mary survived into the twentieth century and died in 1916 when the world was at war.

George Byrne married Sarah Ruddle in 1857 in Killarney. Their ages are not recorded on the marriage certificate. Information about their lives and family is scanty. I am uncertain of how many children they had, but I am aware of two sons who migrated to Australia: George (junior) was born in 1860 in Killarney (see above), and Richard around 10 years later in 1870. There were no doubt many others in between (and George junior may not have been the first) but I have no record of the others.

Where and when George and Sarah died and were buried is at present unknown to me, but I believe that George probably died before 1876, in his mid forties. I have a copy of a document recording George junior’s indenture to Roger Martin, a general merchant in Killorglin, in 1876. It is signed by George’s mother, Sarah Byrne, which suggests that his father was dead. George was 15 or 16 at the time and served Roger Martin for 5 years, after which he migrated to Australia. I suspect that Richard Byrne may have also been indentured to Roger Martin 10 years later, before he too migrated to Australia, but I have no evidence of this at present. I have previously written about a possible Richard Byrne-Roger Martin connection.

There are lots of commonalities in the Hickson and Byrne families. Both William Hickson and George Byrne (senior) were nailors. Both married around the same time – George first, to Sarah Ruddle, in 1857, and a year later William, to Mary Needham. Both couples appear to have been living in Killarney around 1860 and the years after that, since that is where William and Mary’s first three children were born, and where George and Sarah’s son George was born.

The two families were joined in 1885 when George junior, recently arrived in Sydney from Ireland married Suzie. George and Suzie Byrne were my mother’s Irish born grandparents. They had six children, five girls (one of whom was my grandmother) and a boy. George was a businessman and worked for IXL jams in Sydney. They were staunch members of the Brethren assemblies in Sydney.

The Brethren connection

It is this connection with the Brethren that fascinates me. The Hicksons and the Byrnes were both Protestant families in predominantly Catholic Kerry. In 1861 a revival broke out amongst the Protestants in Kerry, initially in the area around Templenoe where Mary Hickson (Needham) lived before her marriage to William Hickson. The revival resulted in the formation of Plymouth Brethren assemblies in Ireland. Mary’s family were profoundly affected by the revival – her four youngest brothers all became evangelists in North America, part of the spiritual awakening connected with DL Moody’s ministry. There seems little doubt that William and Mary were members of the Plymouth Brethren in Kerry before they departed for America, and that they carried this version of the Christian faith with them first to America and later to Australia.

George and Suzie Byrne, after they married in Sydney in 1885, raised a family in the strict traditions of the Brethren assemblies. The effects of this on their six children were not entirely positive – but that is another story. However, it indicates that George Byrne was almost certainly a part of the Brethren movement in Kerry prior to his migration to Australia in 1882. This in turn makes me fairly certain that his parents, George and Sarah, were part of a Brethren assembly in Killarney.

The two nailors of Derryquin

It is all conjecture, but all this leads me to the belief that William Hickson and George Byrne were friends in Kerry in the 1850s and 60s. They were the same age and were both nailors. William was from Killorglin and George from Killarney, but William lived in Sneem as a young man and it seems likely that he worked on the Derryquin Estate, near Sneem. I suspect his parents had taken the family there in search of work at the time of the Great Famine. William’s father was also a nailor. Although I have at present no evidence, I wonder if George Byrne also moved to Sneem during the late forties or early fifties. I like to believe that it was in Sneem and at Derryquin that William and George’s friendship was established. There is no doubt that the estate employed a number of nailors, as described by TE Stoakley in his book, Sneem, the Knot in the Ring:

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. (p.77)

William met his future wife in Sneem. Her name was Mary Needham and she was the oldest daughter of the Needham family of Templenoe, a village just a few miles east of Sneem toward Kenmare. William married Mary in 1858, but by that time, according to their wedding certificate, William was living in Killarney. Their first three children were all born in Killarney.

George actually married the year before William, in 1857. His wife was Sarah Ruddle, and church records show that they married in Killarney. Whether Sarah was a Killarney girl from the beginning or not is uncertain. I have little knowledge of George and Sarah’s children, but I know that they had at least two sons born respectively in 1860 and 1870, in Killarney. They were named George and Richard, and both would end up migrating to Australia, George in 1882 and Richard about 10 years later.

Both the Hicksons and the Byrnes seem to have been quite impacted by the Kerry Revival that broke out in Templenoe and Sneem in 1861, even if both young families were by that time living in Killarney. The two families may have been part of the same Brethren assembly in Killarney in the early 1860s.

Separation

But then William and Mary and their young family decided to emigrate, and were thus separated from their friends George and Sarah and their children, who stayed behind in Kerry. The Hickson children grew up near Boston in the USA while the Byrne children grew to maturity in County Kerry.

Then in 1877 the Hicksons came back. Sadly, William’s old friend George had died a few years before and Sarah was a young widow. How she fed her family I have no idea, though her son George, who was in the first year of his apprenticeship in Killorglin to the general merchant, Roger Martin, would have been helping pay the bills. But it must have been exciting for her to meet her old friends, William and Mary, and for the children of the two families to get to know each other. Three of the Hickson children had never seen Ireland before, and there were several Byrne children who had not been born when William and Mary had left with their little family in 1865.

Suzie Hickson was 16 when they came home, just a year younger than George and Sarah’s oldest son, George. I have a feeling that the seeds of a romance between George and Suzie were planted during that short sojourn of the Hickson family in Ireland, those few fleeting months before the Hickson family emigrated for the second time, this time to Australia. I suspect that it was in those months that George decided his future. He would serve his time with Roger Martin and support his mother and siblings, but then he too would emigrate. He realised that his destiny lay in Australia, with the girl who had captured his heart, his Irish-American-Australian sweetheart. But it would be five long years before he would see her again.

Sarah Byrne, however, would never see her friends William and Mary Hickson again. As far as I can discern neither William (who died in 1899) nor Mary (who survived until 1916) ever returned to Ireland, and Sarah never saw Australia. The two nailers of Derryquin had waved farewell to each other for the last time in 1865 when the Hicksons left for America. In 1878 their wives did the same, as the Hicksons sailed away again, for a new life in Australia.

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