Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “Kerry”

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.


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.




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

According to Keith, Mary Needham

“was one of ten children in the Needham family that lived in the south of Ireland. Her father was a captain in the coast guards and her mother died early (is it any wonder after so many children)…”

Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kenmare River 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lackeen Point new station

This picture can be found on the Kenmare Chronicle Facebook page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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:


The beach at Rossbeigh, west of Killorglin


Part of the road around the Ring of Kerry


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.




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.


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


My daughter, Hanna, and I stayed just outside Killarney for two nights last week, in a B&B we found in Muckross Road. Muckross House and the ruined Muckross Abbey are popular tourist attractions nearby but we did not visit them. We were able to see Muckross House from the other side of the lake. We had stopped for a walk in Killarney National Park, following a track down to a place called The Meeting of the Waters, where the three lakes of Killarney meet. We caught glimpses of the stately home on the return to the car.

There is an old cottage there called Dinís Cottage, apparently a tearoom in the not too distant past but now closed for business. According to one website, Dinis Cottage dates back to the 1700s. John Christopher Hickson (JCH) mentions the place it in his book, Notes of Travel, which describes his visit with his daughter Alice in 1893:

We landed at Dinish Island and had tea in the cottage where the Queen once dined on her visit to Killarney. We performed the feat of shooting the rapids, and through the old Weir Bridge, past the Meeting of the Waters, where fisherman were plying the fly, past Eagle’s Nest Mountain and Innsfallen Island; landed and inspected Glena Cottage, another halting place of Victoria when visiting there, and landed at Ross Castle after a most enjoyable and delightful day. (Hickson J, Notes of Travel 1893, p36)

We didn’t “shoot the rapids” (which are rather mild as far as rapids are concerned) but a small boatload of tourists did pass by while we were walking along the stream behind Dinis Cottage. It seems the same activities have attracted tourists for at least the last 120 years.


The Old Weir Bridge at the Metting of the Waters

In fact we saw far less than JCH did on his trip, but he was in Killarney for two weeks and we were there only for two days. We didn’t get out on the lake at all, and our mode of transport was a car loaned to us by friends in Dublin, rather than by “jaunting cars” – which JCH mentions repeatedly in his book. I had been a little mystified by what exactly a jaunting car might be, until we arrived in Killarney and discovered to our delight that they are still readily available for hire in the city centre in order to get to any number of destinations.


Jaunting car near Ross Castle

Hanna and I drove one evening to Ross Castle, which had just closed, though we were able to walk around it and bask in the warm evening sunshine on the lakefront. JCH describes his visit to the castle briefly in his book:

We arrived at Killarney at midday and were met by our old and dear friends Mr William Martin and his family… Together we visited the ruins of Ross Castle on the shore of Killarney Lakes, where once were quartered the troops of Cromwell, and from the top of which a fine view of the lower lake can be obtained; through Lord Kenmore’s domain, a beautiful and romantic spot; the beautiful ruins of Muckross Abbey and the sweeping lawns and embowered shades of Muckross House. (Notes of Travel, p34)


Ross Castle in the evening sun

Killarney is still very much the tourist town, and having now been there it is easy to understand why. It is a beautiful place, set at the foot of the Killarney Mountains, much of which is now contained in Killarney National Park.


Killarney Mountains

More of JCH’s recollections:

We climbed Mangerton Mountain and saw the Devil’s Punch Bowl, and at Torc Mountain we sat and listened to the music of the waterfall. The heather, the mountain moss and turf were mingled and blended, and the views were charming. The landscape is something that must be seen to be understood. The green fields, the dark woods, the bright water…

Our friends organised a picnic in honour of our visit, and we drove in jaunting cars to the Gap of Dunloe. Leaving the town of Killarney we passed neatly trimmed hedges of hawthorn, rich meadow land, and fields of waving corn, and coming to the foot of the mountains we were met by a number of country men with horses or mountain ponies which they hire for the trip over the hills… We travelled as far as we could in our jaunting cars, having the eighteen ponies following in cavalcade…

We lunched at the foot of the Gap, where the echoes were grand; a small lake rested peacefully beside us, and the cliff towered above us, where the mountain cloud rested… Near here still stands the cottage of “Kate Kearney,” and occupied by one of her descendants, but we did not come under the spell from “the glance of her eye.” (Notes of Travel, pp 34-35)

On another trip we will go up to the Gap of Dunloe, though it is unlikely we will use ponies. There is a narrow winding mountain road that is passable with ordinary cars nowadays. Perhaps we will see Kate Kearney’s Cottage then; this time we satisfied ourselves with buying Kate Kearney’s Fudge, readily available form any one of dozens of tourist shops around Ireland.


The road leading off to the left leads to the Gap of Dunloe

Post Navigation