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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.

 

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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

Sneem

dsc_1989

Sneem Bridge

While driving around the “Ring of Kerry” with my daughter Hanna in late August this year we passed through the colourful little village of Sneem. We had driven “the ring” counterclockwise and therefore came from the Atlantic coast where we had delighted in the beautiful coastline that passes the Skellig islands and Waterville, and all the little rocky coves and sandy beaches around the seaward end of Kenmare Bay. It was evening. The drive around the Ring had taken a lot longer (and we had left a lot later) than expected and we were due back in Killarney for a concert later that evening, so we didn’t stop, driving onward along the northern side of the inlet to Kenmare and then north over the winding road back to the big tourist town on the other side of the mountains.

We went back the next day, driving in the other direction, because I wanted to see a little more of Sneem. I have been interested in the village because of its place in our family history, of which I first became aware when I read Don Robinson’s notes about John Christopher Hickson (JCH):

Some part of his boyhood was spent in the picturesque village of Sneem, on the wild rocky coast of Kerry, where he had Needham relatives.

Later I had got a copy from my father of the book JCH had written after returning from his world trip in 1893, which he embarked on with his twenty year old daughter Alice. On that journey he returned to the places where he had grown up, which he had left when in 1870 he, like the rest of his family before him, had emigrated from Ireland. In Notes of Travel, JCH writes:

[We] drove by jaunting car to the little village of Sneem [from Kenmare], which lies hidden by the headlands and rocky promontories of the wild coast of Kerry. To a stranger this district would appear barren and deserted, but to some of my acquaintances it is a veritable garden of Eden, and the remembrance of early days of innocent childhood clings with a perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose. Here we visited the village church where once I worshipped and was taught in Sunday School; and on the green bank outside, sloping to the river, I saw the monuments of those whom I knew and revered, but who have gone to the “bourne whence no travellers return.” Unpretending and insignificant as this village of Sneem is at present, there have gone forth from the ranks of those born within its limits men and women who have been a credit to the land of their birth, and who have made their mark in the political, military and social history of the age. (Hickson JC, Notes of Travel, p.40, published 1893)

John Hickson, it is clear, lived in Sneem for some part of his childhood. But he was born on the other side of the mountains in Killorglin. So why did the Hickson family live in Sneem, and when?

Why?

Don Robinson says that the Hicksons had Needham relatives in Sneem. It is unclear from his notes what he means. However, of interest is the fact that Richard Hickson’s wife (John’s mother) was named Mary-Anne Carter before she married, while George Needham’s wife was named Susan Carter. Were they related – sisters, or cousins? Mary-Anne was 16 years older than Susan. Both died relatively young, Mary-Anne in 1853 at the age of 51 and Susan in 1856 at 38. If they were sisters then the Hickson children and the Needham children were cousins. More research is needed here. But a relationship between these two Carters might go some way to explaining the Hickson’s connection with Sneem, since George Needham and his wife and many children lived in Templenoe, very close to the larger village.

There is a fascinating book about Sneem that I picked up in a little souvenir shop when we were there. It is called “Sneem, the Knot in the Ring,” by T.E. Stoakley, published in 1986. Chapter 7 relates the history of the Bland family, who were the local gentry during the years that our forebears were associated with the area. The Blands were an Anglo-Irish family who had lived in Kerry for over a hundred years. Their estate was called Derryquin and the house they lived in, built in the first half of the nineteenth century (and only one of several Bland residences in the area) was called Derryquin Castle. It stood majestic on the shores of Kenmare Bay a few kilometres south east of the village.

derryquin-castle

 

Stoakley describes the estate in his book as follows:

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. (Stoakley TE. Sneem, the Knot in the Ring, p.77)

This last sentence caught my eye when I read it, because I knew that William Hickson, who was John’s oldest brother, was, like his father, a “nailor” – a manufacturer of bolts and nails. I remembered how puzzled I had been by this occupation when I first saw it recorded on William’s marriage certificate. I had never heard of such a trade. Could it be, I wondered as I read these words in Stoakley’s book, that William Hickson and his father had been employed on the Derryquin Estate as nailors? This could have been the reason that they lived in Sneem. But it does not cast any light on exactly when they lived there.

When?

John Hickson was born in Killorglin in 1848. He was the youngest in the family, in which seven children survived to adulthood. The oldest was Susan, born in 1832. William, his big brother was born in 1833, so was 15 when John was born, and presumably at that stage ready to start an apprenticeship. So the family could have moved to Sneem any time after John’s birth, and William may have learnt the manufacture of nails on the Derryquin Estate.

The Hickson family’s life during John’s first fifteen years, can be divided into three five year periods divided by significant life events:

  • 1848 John Hickson’s birth
  • 1853 their mother Mary-Anne Hickson (Carter) died age 51. John was 5 years old. That same year the first of the Hickson children, Susan, who was 21, migrated to Australia. Two more sisters Mary and Ellen migrated two years later in 1855.
  • 1858 William Hickson, the oldest son, married Mary Needham in Templenoe Church. John was 10 by this stage.
  • 1863 Two more of the Hickson children, Kate and George, migrated to Australia. John was then 15 and presumably leaving school.

But in which of these five year periods did the family live in Sneem?

Another clue to times and places is found in a poem John wrote many years later, in Australia on the occasion of the twentieth birthday of William and Mary’s first child, Richard, recalling his birth in Killorglin. Here are the first five stanzas from that poem:

The day was advancing, the bright sun was pouring
Its beams through the leaves of the Elms in the Grove,
The lark which the morn had seen loftily soaring,
Had descended to guard the soft nest of it’s love.

The fair Laune was following in majestic splendour,
The trout replied brisk to the angler’s fly,
The reeds in the distance rose brighter and grander,
All nature seemed pleased that last day of July.

O’er the field the light breezes of midsummer softly
The meadows and bright corn whispering wooed
Midst their shade undisturbed sang the Cormeraks gaily
And the Cuckoo’s note rang loud tones from the wood.

Mid such scenes of such beauty and fullest enjoyment,
This baby was born with tribute to pay
I have spared a few moments for mental employment,
To con a few lines for his twentieth birthday.

As a child in his cradle I rocked him to slumber
Oft his bright chubby form I have nursed on my knee
But as boy our firm friendship was riven asunder,
For early he crossed o’er Atlantic’s blue sea.

It is clear from this poem that Richard was born in Killorglin. William and Mary, and presumably William’s brother John and their father were all probably living in Killorglin by that time. My records indicate that their second child Suzie was born in Killarney in 1861 (though whether that means they were living there I cannot say), and I have no record of where their third child, Mary-Anne (who was always called Lizzie) was born (I believe in 1863). The last two lines of the fifth stanza refer to William and Mary’s migration with their three children to America in 1865.

Are we any closer to knowing the time of the Hickson’s sojourn in Sneem? If John’s “innocent childhood” was up to the age of five, it would place them there in the years between 1848 and 1853, the year that John’s mother died. The trauma of her death may well have precipitated a move. But it is not impossible that they remained there after 1853, and that John started school in Sneem, even if he finished in Killorglin.

The “fragrance of a withered rose”

John Hickson remembered Sneem with nostalgia, something that is clear from his book: “the remembrance of early days of innocent childhood clings with a perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose.” This is interesting knowing that the Irish potato famine had ravaged the area in the years from 1845 to 1852, during the latter years of which the Hickson’s were probably living in the village. Sneem suffered greatly along with the rest of Ireland.

Sneem Church

Church of the Transfiguration

 

The church (Church of Ireland) where the family worshipped still stands, though it is somewhat changed from its condition in the 1850s: it is called the Church of the Transfiguration. Hanna and I peeked inside its quiet interior and stood in the same churchyard described by John in his book: and on the green bank outside, sloping to the river, I saw the monuments of those whom I knew and revered, but who have gone to the “bourne whence no travellers return.”

The Bland family of Derryquin has a family vault in the churchyard. There is at least one Bland commemorated on the inner walls of the church. The Bland family were very likely a significant part of the Hickson’s life while they were in Killorglin. However, Derryquin Castle has long since disappeared, as has the family who owned it. The main surviving “big house” of the Bland family is called Parknasilla and is today a luxury hotel on the shores of Kenmare Bay. What happened to Derryquin and the Blands?

The spiritual legacy of Sneem

By the beginning of the 1860s, Stoakley explains in his book, “Ireland was passing through the difficult years of the land agitation, and it was inevitable that the fortunes of the Derryquin Estate should decline.” (p.78) However, in 1861 there was an unexpected development in the area that possibly hastened the demise of Derryquin. It was the year that William and Mary’s second child, Suzie, was born (in Killorglin, Killarney or Sneem – I am unsure which). In Kenmare, some twenty kilometres east of Sneem, a religious revival broke out, resulting in the formation of a group within the Protestant church whose members were usually known simply as Brethren. Richard Mahony, the Needham family’s landlord, who owned Dromore Castle near Templenoe, was converted to their beliefs.

Richard Mahony was best friends with Francis Christopher (FC) Bland; the Bland’s estate bordered his. FC Bland, the son and heir to the owner of Derryquin, was, through his friend, also persuaded by the revival. To explain what happened Stoakley in his book quotes FC Bland’s obituary:

It was in the year 1861, and while busily engaged in the improvement of the estate and the condition of the tenants thereon, by building, road making, draining, that the revival broke out hard by in the meetings held by his dear friend and neighbour the late Mr Richard Mahony, of Dromore. Becoming anxious about his salvation, in the presence of numerous conversions among his acquaintances, he [Bland] consulted the Rev Frederick Trench, of Cloughjordan, the well known founder of the Home Mission, and from him received the strange advice to begin preaching, and, as he said, “in watering others you will yourself be watered.” (Stoakley, p.77)

FC Bland followed his advice and became a travelling evangelist, and later an advisor to the famous American evangelist, D.L. Moody. This meant that in 1863, when his father died and Francis inherited the estate, that he was unable to deal directly with the problems the estate was experiencing. Stoakley describes this in a mildly disappointed tone:

For several years while the revival was at its height he [FC Bland] travelled around Ireland on a preaching campaign. He then turned his attention to England… It was the worst possible time for a landlord to absent himself from his estates… In his preoccupation with the salvation of himself and his fellow men, the owner of Derryquin was unmindful that his estate itself needed its own kind of salvation. It is clear from his obituary that he considered his estate as merely an “earthly inheritance”; the duties he had been called upon to perform were on a higher plane. (Stoakley, p.78)

FC Bland played an important and influential role in the spiritual revivals of Ireland, England and America in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. But his neglect of his own estate may well have hastened its decline. Eventually the estate would be sold and in the troubles of 1923 the castle was burned, becoming a ruin that eventually was demolished. Today there is no sign of the old house, the site of which has been swallowed up by a golf course in the grounds of the Parknasilla Hotel.

The Hicksons had almost certainly left Sneem by the time the revival broke out, and I have nothing in my possession written by John to suggest that it had any kind of strong impact on him. However, his older brother William appears to have been affected, as was William’s wife Mary. Mary’s four youngest brothers (who were growing up in Templenoe) all became evangelists. William and Mary probably became Brethren, and their beliefs and practices continued into the next generation. Their daughter Suzie, born in the year the revival broke out, would eventually marry another Irish migrant from Kerry, George Byrne, in Australia many years later. They were staunch members of the Brethren church in Sydney, a fact that profoundly affected their family life, in a way that caused Suzie later came to regret. But that is another story. Susie was my great grandmother, but she died long before I was born.

This Brethren influence thus became in some ways the most important legacy of Sneem in my family. It may not have had much effect on John, but it certainly affected William, and through him his daughter, Suzie, and her children, among whom was my grandmother, Gertie Byrne (later Simmonds).

I have mentioned the fact that Suzie Hickson married George Byrne, another migrant from County Kerry, and that they followed the Brethren path in their beliefs. George had a younger brother, Richard (Dick) Byrne, who came out to Australia a good many years after (early 1890s). He too grew up in Kerry and though he was not even born at the time of the revival, is likely to have been influenced by the Brethren movement. I suspect George and Richard’s parents may have been Brethren. After his arrival in Sydney Richard fell in love with John Hickson’s eldest daughter, Alice, and they planned to marry. John refused to give them his blessing, however, and forbade their marriage.

I have long wondered why John Hickson disliked Dick Byrne so much and I have elsewhere suggested some possible explanations. Another theory is that Dick was too religious for John, which may have been a result of a suspicion that John Hickson had for the non-conformism of the Brethren. John himself was a staunch Anglican in Sydney. Alice, as a result, was not allowed to marry Richard, though many years later after both their respective spouses died they did in fact marry, by then in their early seventies, much to the annoyance of John Hickson, still alive and opinionated and by then into his nineties.

Sneem

The village is now a picturesque little place on a wild and beautiful coast. The Sneem River tumbles through the middle of the town, spanned by an attractive bridge. The houses are painted in many bright colours and tourists flock to the village in summer, providing it with a good deal of its income. But Sneem has not always been as picturesque as it is now. During the Famine (1845-1852) a traveller described it as a “poor, dirty village.” This was about the time the Hickson’s lived there. In the mid-nineteenth century it was a small place, in 1851 boasting a population of only 359 which had risen by 1861 to just 406 (Stoakley, p.18) The bright colours of the houses for which the village is famous, and the attractive village greens, only began to appear in the first quarter of the twentieth century, so at the time John Hickson lived there it was a bleak and colourless place. By contrast, according to Stoakley, in more recent years “many have expressed the opinion that it is the most attractive village in Ireland.” (p.20)But small and dirty and colourless as it may have been to some, to John Hickson it was a place of “perennial freshness like the fragrance of a withered rose,” even if to a stranger it may have appeared “unpretending and insignificant.” And whether JCH was in favour of, or opposed to, the religious enthusiasm that resulted from the revival there seems little doubt that the effects of that revival, good and bad, were felt around the world through not just the ministry of FC Bland, but also of the changed lives of William Hickson and his wife Mary, in Australia, as well as Mary’s extended family, the Needhams, in America.

 

 

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The colours of Sneem

Places in Kerry – family origins

Our Irish forebears originated from County Kerry, in the South West of Ireland. A number of places in Kerry are significant in the family story: Killarney, home of the Byrne family, Killorglin, home of the Hicksons. Templenoe, home of the Needhams. Sneem,  a few miles west of Templenoe, also gets mentioned in old records, and I suspect was the home of William Hickson after he married Mary Needham. A place in Dingle, The Grove, is said to be the ancestral seat of the Hicksons.

I have never been to Kerry but it appears to be an very beautiful part of Ireland. Today it is a popular tourist destination, with its famous motoring route – the so called Ring of Kerry. Skellig Michael, an island off the coast of Kerry, recently made millions of viewers around the world aware of this part of the world, when it was featured in the latest Star Wars film.

Kerry selection 1901

Extract of a map published on David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Ireland SW 1901

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.

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