Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “ireland”

Tim Fenian

TN 1865 letter p2What about this great breaking out in Ireland, is it doing any injury to ye in Kerry? I hope the next letter that you will write to me, that you will let me know all about it. (Letter home, November 6, 1865)

So wrote young Tom Needham, 14 years old, from HMS Narcissus, a British frigate off the southern coast of the USA, toward the end of 1865, and about half a year after the conclusion of the American Civil War. What had he heard, I wonder, about the political situation in Ireland? What was “this great breaking out” that was causing him so much concern for his family back in County Kerry?

I believe he was talking about the Fenian Movement, which had its origins in America in the 1850s amongst Irish ex-patriates, men (and women) who had left their homeland because of famine, economic hardship, or political persecution, many of whom had fought on one side or the other in the American Civil War. These so called “Fenians” talked of raising a force of Irish-Americans to return to Ireland to assist a rising against the English and establish an Irish Republic.

However, there was no similar organisation of rebels in Ireland planning such a rising until a certain James Stephens, an engineer from Kilkenny who had fled to Paris after an earlier “rebellion” in 1848, returned to Ireland in 1856, determined to raise just such a movement amongst the common Irish. Stephens became the leader of an organisation that he called the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which became commonly known, together with its American counterpart, as “The Fenians.”

Why Fenians? They took their name from a legendary group of ancient Irish warriors (the Fianna) of the second and third century. The term Fenian became popular in the mid nineteenth century as the name of the association that Stephens and his American counterparts formed, but has persisted even into modern times as a label for anyone opposed to British rule in Ireland (see the Wikipedia article for uses of “Fenian” in popular culture).

The Irish Fenian movement was most active in the 1860s, when our Needham ancestors were exiting Ireland, and in 1867 there were minor uprisings in different places around Ireland including Kerry. However, these were short lived and universally unsuccessful in achieving any change in the status quo. The significance of the 1867 rebellion was more in what it said about the discontent of a growing part of the Irish population than in any military victory. The movement continued to exist in various forms up until the First World War, and after the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, it evolved gradually into the IRA.

The IRB was from the start a secret society. It represented a change in thinking from earlier movements for Irish liberation in that it accepted, even promoted, violence, or armed rebellion, as being the only realistic way of achieving freedom for Ireland, as opposed to the diplomatic negotiation that had characterised earlier movements like the United Irishmen in the 1790s and Young Ireland in the 1840s. Because it was secret, no-one really knew who was a Fenian and who wasn’t, except, of course, those that had joined up. In the small communities of rural Ireland, however, many knew who was involved, though they may not have willingly given that information to the authorities in Dublin. As always happens in such times, the authorities had their spies, and there were double agents who worked for both sides and sometimes came to violent ends.

Ireland was divided into those who supported the Fenians, and those who didn’t, and it was not entirely easy to predict who would be on which side based on either their religion or their heritage. Even some people of Anglo-Irish heritage, and some Protestants in this predominantly Catholic country, supported the Fenians. The Catholic Church was officially opposed to them. Apart from the newspaper published by the IRB itself (The Irish People), the press was also generally opposed to the Fenians (see this article from the Irish Times), and the police force (Irish Constabulary) was tasked with rooting out the revolutionaries and arresting them.

I have wondered at times what our Irish ancestors thought of all this, and whether any of them were involved in this revolutionary movement. The Fenians were strong in Kerry, to which many contemporary sources bear witness:

One of the few places Stephens discovered an existing revolutionary organisation was in the Skibbereen-Killarney-Kenmare area of south-west Cork and south-east Kerry, where O’Donovan Rossa had founded the Phoenix Society to keep alive the desire for an independent Ireland (Pádraig Ó Concubhair, The Fenians were Dreadful Men, p.19).

However, with their English roots, it seems unlikely that the Hicksons or the Needhams were part of the movement, even if the Hicksons had been in Kerry for over three hundred years. Our Hickson family were related to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Kerry, even if only distantly, and John Christopher Hickson’s writings contain no suggestion of sympathy for the Fenians. His older sister, Susan Hickson, who was as far as I can tell the first of his family to migrate to Australia in 1853, married John Hume, another Kerry emigrant, who, prior to himself migrating in 1855 at the age of 30, had been a policeman in the Constabulary. He left, however, before the revolutionary feelings in Kerry had evolved into Fenianism, even before James Stephens had returned from Paris where he had fled after the 1848 rebellion in County Tipperary.

The Needhams were still more “English” than the Kerry Hicksons. George Needham, though as far as I know born in Ireland, was the son of an Englishman. His wife, Susan Carter, was also English (according to the entry for her son, Benjamin Needham, in the US Census for 1910). George died in 1862, five years before the Fenian rising in Kerry in 1867. But in his earlier life he had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and was, as such, part of the British establishment which so many Irish saw as the enemy. The Needhams, like the Hicksons, were in a sense part of the “middle class” of southern Ireland, neither aristocracy like some of the Hickson’s distant relatives, nor the rural poor. Though they very likely understood Irish, their home language was English.

But none of that mattered to Tom Needham’s shipmates, who took great delight in teasing the young Irish lad. In another letter home to his older sister Belinda, from the gunboat, HMS Linnet in 1866, he reassures her:

I hope you never fretts about me because I am as happy as a king. On board the ship one of them calls me Tim Fagan and another Tim Fenian, they gets on chaffing me and I pretend to speak Irish to them and I do make them wild. O there is no coming over me on board a ship. What about the Fenians there? There is great talk about them, the Americans are killing a great many of them… (Letter home, 26 August 1866)

Afternote:

While exploring the Internet for information about the Fenians, I found an article from a local newspaper from a town near to where we now live, Maitland. It is dated 16 May 1867 and contains a copy of The Fenian Proclamation. It seems this statement had been sent out to newspapers all over the world, to raise awareness and support for the Fenian cause in Ireland. Following is a copy of the proclamation, as archived on the Australian website, Trove. The feeling of injustice that lay behind the Fenian movement is easy to discern as the following excerpts show:

Our rights and liberties have been trampled on by an alien aristocracy, who, treating us as foes, usurped our lands and drew away from our unfortunate country all material riches. We appeal to force as a last resort… unable to endure any longer the curse of a monarchical government, we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour. The soil of Ireland, at present in possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people and to us it must be restored. We declare also in favour of absolute liberty of conscience and the separation of Church and State. We intend no war against the people of England; our war is against the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields…

1867 Fenian Proclamation

Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 – 1893), Thursday 16 May 1867, page 2. National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18718311

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“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

Dingle, the family seat

John Hickson, Notes of Travel, published 1893, page 41:

From Valencia we returned along a road overlooking the sea through Killorglin, and regretting exceedingly that we could not remain and enjoy a day’s salmon fishing in the Laune, we went on to Tralee, the chief town of the county. By rail we went to Dingle and visited The Grove, the old family seat of our ancestors…

The road between Valencia and Killorglin is exceedingly beautiful in places. Hanna and I drove it in the other direction. Here are some shots:

rossbeigh-beach

The beach at Rossbeigh, west of Killorglin

ring-of-kerry

Part of the road around the Ring of Kerry

skelligs-near-valencia

The Skellig islands off the coast near Valencia

The next day we drove on to Dingle, where we arrived late in the day and stayed at a B&B just outside town. We ate dinner in a pub, and wandered the streets. The next morning we continued our exploration of the little town and even tried to find the location of The Grove, which disappeared many years ago. The closest we could find was a housing estate by the same name at the start of the road up to Conor Pass, which we ascended as rain closed in and the clouds came down on the mountains.

dingle

Dingle

the-grove

The Grove is now a rather ordinary housing estate.

John Hickson and his daughter Alice took the train from Dingle to Dublin, eastward across the whole country. But we drove northward instead, into County Clare, where we saw the famed Cliffs of Moher, then on to Galway the next day and finally back east to Dublin, from where we departed back home to Sweden.

“The old family seat of our ancestors”

The Grove seemed to occupy a significant place in John Hickson’s memory. Though he had never lived there, he made time in 1893 to visit. I have wondered what that means. Did they actually knock on the door and talk to the Hicksons who were living there in 1893? He doesn’t mention them by name, which he surely would have if they had stopped even for a cup of tea. I suspect John’s agenda with that little detour on their world journey was to impress on Alice an aspect of her identity of which she was barely aware – that she was connected to the landed gentry of Kerry, and came from noble roots.

But why was that important to John? He had left Kerry and Ireland behind 23 years earlier, starting a new life in Australia. What was the relevance of such connections in the new world that he had made his home and his future?

I suppose it was partly because of the desire all of us have to know who we are, which seems to depend so much on where we have come from. John was born the last child in a relatively modest family from a small town in the back locks of rural Ireland. But unlike his father, a tradesman turned shopkeeper who died in obscurity in the USA five years after he had migrated there late in life, John had made good in his adopted land, and had become wealthy and respected. John was interested in family history, and ancestry, because it helped him understand who he was, and the Anglo-Irish gentry was perhaps a part of his family teee that he wanted to revive, which enhanced his standing in the new world, and which he wanted to pass on to his children.

Furthermore, it may have been part of his strategy in getting Alice to see the unsuitability of a marriage to Richard Byrne, a young man recently arrived in Sydney from Kerry, for whom Alice had fallen, head over heels. Richard’s older brother, George Byrne, was married to John niece, Suzie Hickson, but as far as John was concerned, the Byrnes were from a social class that was below them and his aspirations for his own daughter were higher than that. I am assuming that John knew George and Richard’s parents in Kerry before he left, but he never mentions them in his book as friends, and I have wondered what kind of relationship he had with them. It seems fairly certain they were dead in 1893 when John and Alice came to visit.

In 1893 when he and Alice visited, The Grove was still in the hands of a Hickson, but it soon passed out of their lives. I have written a little about the Hicksons and their houses in a previous blog. But the web of relationships of Hicksons in Kerry in the nineteenth century remains a mystery to me, and until I have sorted that out I will not know how John Hickson was related to The Grove and its occupants. How far removed John Hickson was from his wealthy and influential relatives is a mystery. There were other large houses occupied by Hicksons in Kerry, but John only mentions The Grove.

The Grove, Dingle

The Grove in Dingle, from Anthony Hickson’s Hickson website

I suspect that when he went to Dingle with Alice they simply saw the old house, but that they did not go in. If they had John would surely have mentioned it in his book, but he makes no more than the above passing mention of the “old family seat of our ancestors.” Perhaps there was no-one at home at that particular time. Or perhaps he had never really known them.

The Grove would eventually fall into ruin and is said to have disappeared during the 1920s, very possibly during the Civil War when many of the big houses of Kerry were destroyed by angry young men, a vital sign of the demise of the Anglo-Irish ascendency in Kerry. John Hickson would return to Britain in 1911, 1913 and 1926. Whether he visited Kerry on each of these occasions I am unsure, but had he been there in 1926 he may well have been witness to the downfall of The Grove. What became of the Hicksons who remained in Ireland is unknown to me, and whether there are any still in Kerry I have been unable to ascertain.

There is no doubt that Dingle is a very beautiful part of the world, as is much of Kerry, along the Wild Atlantic coast. Nowadays tourists flock to Dingle for its picturesque beauty, its cultural heritage, especially the music, and its activities, from dolphin watching in the bay to beach and hill walking. But 150 years ago when the Hicksons were taking their leave from this lovely land the conditions were very different and the opportunities offered by the young colonies on the other side of the globe were attractive and enticing. It was so that our Hickson ancestors came to Australia. But John Hickson could never quite get Kerry out of his mind and kept going back there, keeping the spirit of Ireland alive in his heart and attempting to impart it to his children.

dingle-from-conor-pass

Looking back over Dingle from the Conor Pass

Templenoe to the world

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. Anyone who has been born and reared on an island will understand the sense of restraint which filled my boyish heart. Thus all my youthful pranks took a seaward turn. If my father deprived me of a boat, I launched the pig trough into the heavy breakers. If he hid the oars I made a pair of garden shovels answer the purpose. When all means of rowing failed I made a sailboat with the sheets from my bed. No punishments, no remonstrances from my gentle sisters could subdue the wild passion that constantly drove me into the deepest “perils of waters!” (Needham T. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, p.6)

Kenmare Bay from Templenoe jetty

Thomas Needham (1854-1916) went to sea when he was 13. His father had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard in his younger days, so seafaring was in the family. George Needham knew the perils of the sea, and especially the wild Atlantic. He died, however, when Thomas was a young boy, and in exasperation over what to do with him, his older siblings allowed Thomas to fulfil his longings and sign on to a ship as soon as he was old enough.

He left the shores of the Kenmare Bay in 1867 to explore the world. After many adventures he came back eventually to Ireland, but his family had all gone. They had migrated to America. He followed them, and once there became a strong Christian believer. He spent his life as an evangelist, in the time of DL Moody, one of the greatest American evangelists of the nineteenth century. Thomas became known as the “sailor preacher.”

Templenoe, where Thomas grew up, is hardly noticeable nowadays as you drive along the forested road from Kenmare to Sneem. There is a sign to Templenoe jetty and following the dirt road through the trees brings you to the banks of the Kenmare Bay, where the photo above was taken. It was a calm and sunny day when we were there, the waters of the bay still, the sky blue above the mountains beyond the bay.

The old Church of Ireland which the Needhams attended, and where Thomas’s oldest sister, Mary, and William Hickson were married in 1858, was closed up and for sale when Hanna and I were there in late August this year. I wandered through the churchyard and spotted the name Needham on one headstone, but it was clear that most of the Needhams had departed. The Church of Ireland was a lot stronger in the nineteenth century, and many of the old churches are now shut or converted to homes or restaurants.

The minister of the Templenoe church was a member of the local Anglo-Irish gentry in the area. The Rev Denis Mahony lived at Dromore Castle, which we did not see, but which still stands on land now owned by the Irish Forestry. He was a keen “proselytiser” according to Wikipedia, which made him unpopular with many of the local population, who were mostly Catholic. The Needhams were, however, Protestant, and The Rev Denis Mahony was also their landlord, according to the Griffith valuation of 1851, so they presumably had a good relationship with him, and were sympathetic to his evangelistic fervor. In 1861 his son Richard Mahony was instrumental in the outbreak of a Christian revival in the area, which was to have a lasting impact on the world and our family.

Richard Mahony’s best friend, FC Bland, of the neighbouring Derryquin Estate, near Sneem, was also deeply involved in this revival, which seemed to have affected the Needham family, as well as many other Kerry Protestants. Thomas Needham was only seven when the revival broke out and was more interested in boats, but his older brother, George, was 15 at the time and was profoundly changed by the revival. He too later became a well known evangelist in North America: in 1901 a newspaper article from Cambridge Massachusetts reported, “Mr Needham owes his conversion to the great religious revival that swept over Ireland in the year 1861.”

1861 was also the year that my great grandmother Susie Hickson, the first daughter of William Hickson and Mary Needham, was born in nearby Killarney. Her parents, who I believe had met one another when William lived in Sneem some years earlier, were also affected by the revival, possibly through an association with FC Bland, though they were living in Killarney or Killorglin during the revival years. Like many of those affected by the revival, they became Brethren, and this legacy was passed down to my grandmother (Susie Hickson’s daughter Gertie, born in Sydney in 1899) who grew up in the Brethren church in Sydney, Australia.

Gertie, to her parents’ dismay, married an English immigrant (my grandfather, George Simmonds) who was Anglican, but as a sort of compromise they raised their three daughters, one of whom was my mother, as Baptists. Though my mother also married an Anglican, a streak of non-conformism has run through my family ever since the Irish revivals of the 1860s (and the Scottish revivals of the 1840s) and created a longing even in me which has made me look beyond the “Established Church” for a spiritual pathway through life.

Templenoe Church in the ninteenth century

Templenoe Church, now closed and for sale

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