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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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)
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.