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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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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)

 

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

“My dear sister…” November 1865

A letter home from a young sailor, an Irish boy on a British ship, in 1865:

Addressed to “My dear sister..,” this letter was probably written to Belinda Needham, Tom’s older sister, the one of his five sisters to which he seems closest. A transcript follows the images.

TN 1865 letter p1
TN 1865 letter p2

Nov 6th 1865
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well. How is it that you won’t write to me? How is Willy and Ben, are they quite well? How is George getting on? When did you hear from him? How is Aunt and Uncle John getting on? Is Johnny with Uncle always? I suppose he is a great carpenter now. Did Georgy knock off going to school yet? I suppose he is a great scholar now. Is Ben always with the Parson? How is dear Willy getting on? Does he go to school now? If he do, stick him to it, because he shall want his scholarship. I goes to school for a few hours on board and I am very glad to go. My dear sister if the Lord spares me and you, I hope I shall see you in two or three years time.

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus(2). Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. You shall have my likeness. I cannot get it this time my dear sister. I was in a good deal of ships since I left England. I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there.

I am quite well and happy thank God. What 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. How are the Dromore meetings getting on? Is Parson Jullings always in our old house? How is Mary and William getting on. Are they quite well and Richey. Is the midge in Kenmare always? When I will go home I hope I will get in her the way that I will be near you my dear sister. I have got no more to say at present. I hope you won’t be fretting about me, because I am quite happy and have very good times.

Your affectionate brother,
Thomas Needham

The letter provides a glimpse into Tom’s family, his home tracts in southern Ireland, and historical events in the wider world. It tells us something of what occupied Tom’s mind in the years he was at sea as a teenager.

Tom had joined the British Navy when he was 13, in 1864. His mother had died 6 years previously when Tom was only 7, and his father passed away in 1862, leaving the family without any parents. However, Tom’s oldest sister Mary, the first born of the family (and my great great grandmother), was 19 when their father passed, and there were four other older sisters to provide some maternal care for the family, particularly to the three youngest, who were all boys. Tom, Ben and William, were respectively 11, 9 and 6 when their father died, leaving them all orphans.

It was Tom’s fascination with the sea and his wanderlust for places beyond the green hills of home that led him to sign on to a British ship in 1864. The hard reality of life at sea was, however, a shock to his young mind. He had grown up in a loving and God-fearing home, surrounded by a close and caring family. He was thrust out into the wide world amongst hardened, cynical ruffians, subject to the demanding discipline of the British navy, the most powerful fighting force in the world.

When he wrote this letter, the first of his of which I have been given a copy (by Scott Anderson, Tom’s great great grandson), he had been at sea for possibly a year and a half. The green hills of county Kerry were a distant and cherished memory. His longing for home and family is implied in the opening lines. A life dominated by ships and the sea is evident as he relates something of his experiences since he left Ireland. He writes of his impressions of the new world that he was experiencing, and wonders about the political unrest in Ireland, news of which had reached him even half a world away, and which troubled his 14 year old mind.

I found myself reflecting on this letter, and researching the times in which Tom lived to try to get a grip on his early life, and the result was a long article which I have decided to divide into three blogs which will follow this one.

Tom goes to sea

I was very excited toward the end of last year to receive a comment on my blog from Scott Anderson, a descendant of Thomas Needham:

I am the great, great, great grandson of Thomas Needham, my grandfather was Thomas Needham Sitler, my uncle John Needham Sitler, who is a Presbyterian minister. I have my copy of ”From Cannibal Land to Glory Land”. I think most of our clan lives in South Carolina, that’s where the book comes from. I’m going to try and go to Kenmare at some point. We are a small family now, I would like to know how many cousins we have…

My Uncle has the Needham Family bible, which we had repaired about 8 years ago, it has the family tree in it and is quite fascinating. Funny how the Apple does not fall far from the tree. My Uncle is a minister, my grandfather was a sailor as is my son, both in the US Navy. Like you we also are wanderers, some of us moved back to Europe, my mother lives in Mexico.

Needham bible 2

Family marriages 

 

Needham bible 1

Family Bible

A few months later he wrote:

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I have the Sitler Bible which is the Bible of the family Beatrice Needham my great grandmother married into, I have taken some photos of it (see above). Better still my uncle has given me the original handwritten notes and diary of Thomas Needham when he was a cabin boy, during the voyage. I will need to take them over to the university to have them photostatted since they are in poor condition.

TN rolled notes

Tom’s letters

Thomas Needham was the younger brother of my grandmother’s grandmother, Mary Needham (who became a Hickson after her marriage). Mary and William Hickson, from County Kerry, Ireland, migrated in 1865 to the USA and then later in 1877 to Australia. There were at least 10 children in the Needham family, who lived on the shores of Kenmare Bay on one of modern day Ireland’s most loved tourist routes, the so called “Ring of Kerry.” Mary was the eldest, and Thomas the third youngest, so there was a big gap between them, Mary old enough to be his mother. Indeed, as their mother died when Thomas was quite young, his older sisters took on much of the responsibility for raising Thomas and his brothers.

TN book 0 cover

Book published around 1900

As a boy Thomas was obsessed with the sea and ships. He dreamed of what lay beyond the waters of Kenmare Bay, and longed to see the world. At the age of 13, in around 1864, he signed on to a ship in the British Navy. Many years later, using his letters and journal as a reminder of the journey he had travelled, he wrote a book about his adventures at sea, called From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land (written around 1900). It can be read online here. He begins his story:

An unconquerable passion for the sea shaped the whole course of my early life. No wonder it was so. I was born by the ocean; on the shores of Kenmare Bay in the South of Ireland, not far from the beautiful lakes of Killarney, with their echoes, their legends and their weird fascinations. The sea was to me as toys and amusements. But more than that it was the boundary and limit of my world. I knew that beyond that vast expanse of water, were great cities and strange sights. I longed to see these things for myself. (p.6)

Finally on board, a 13 year old recruit to the harshness of the British Navy, Tom realised that reality did not quite match his dreams. He wrote:

Here I was in a new world. Not the free world by any means that I had imagined lay beyond the shores of Kenmare Bay. I was under discipline and restraint. Wickedness and hard heartedness such as I had never even dreamed of in my loving Irish home now became my meat and drink. A green boy and a battleship brought together! (p.9)

Using Tom’s book, and the letters that Scott has so kindly shared with me, it has been possible to gain som glimpses into Tom’s early life, the people and events that shaped his life. They give a fascinating glimpse into the life of a teenage sailor in the British Navy in the 1860s. In the coming weeks I will try to write an account of that time using these two sources, the book and the letters.

Tom's ship

Tom was later transferred to a merchant vessel

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