Saturday 25 July 2015

Genealogy Quest: The search for Maryanne…

Following the ancestral trail of Dad’s maternal grandmother, born Mary Agnes Donovan, is one of my favourite genealogy quests.  When she married Charles O’Neill on 19 April 1874 in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, Mary Agnes named her parents as John and Maryanne Donovan (deceased).[1] Her mother’s maiden name was not recorded in the marriage register (church or civil), hugely complicating the search for that side of her family.

My big question remains who was Maryanne?  All I know for sure is, she died of tuberculosis in 1873, aged about forty years, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.[2] But, I have a good theory…

… proving it is my problem.

Mary Agnes was likely born before 1864, when birth registration commenced in Ireland. Her baptism record has never been found. In the 1901 census, she claimed she was born in Dublin city in about 1862, though in 1911, she said it was about 1866.[3]

With her parent’s ill-health and early deaths, she may have married younger than usual, but it is highly improbable she was only twelve years old. This may have been the legal minimum age for marriage in Ireland at the time, but, even then, it was not socially acceptable for such a young child to marry. So, presumably she was born at least a few years before 1862. Chances were she was at least seventeen years old when she married in 1874, and as such born before 1857, if not earlier.

The following couple have been identified as the most likely contenders for the role of Mary Agnes’s parents: On 9 February 1851, in St. Mary Pro-Cathedral, John Donovan married Maryanne COYLE.[4] Their children, baptised in the same parish, were:

  • Thomas Joseph Donovan, 11 March 1854
  • John James Donovan, 18 November 1855
  • Thomas Laurence Donovan, 20 June 1857
  • Francis Donovan, 16 September 1858 
  • Catherine Donovan, 18 March 1860 
  • Teresa Anne Donovan, 18 May 1862

You see the gap of over three years between John and Maryanne’s marriage and the baptism of their first child? This leaves an ample window for the birth of Mary Agnes, though it means she understated her age by about ten years on the 1901 census - not that that was unusual.  But, Mary Agnes claimed she was a minor (less than 21) when she married Charles, meaning she must have been born after 19 April 1853. So, if this was true, and there is little reason to suspect otherwise, our window was short, maybe too short. Thomas Joseph would have been born within a year of her birth.

Poor Maryanne was pregnant for practically this entire ten year period, and the opportunity for the birth of Mary Agnes did not increase much over the years to 1862.

Yet, there are many other ‘coincidences’ drawing me to this family.

Maryanne seemingly stopped having children in 1862, frustratingly, two years before births had to be registered in Ireland. A civil birth register, not only would have confirmed the mother’s maiden name, but would have provided the father’s occupation. Our John Donovan was an upholsterer, a fairly unusual occupation, and if we could prove that this John Donovan was also an upholsterer, it would significantly increase the likelihood they were one and the same person.  

More next week…

[1] Marriage register, St Mary’s Pro Cathedral,
[2] Burial register, Glasnevin Cemetery, Glasnevin Trust.
[3] 1901 and 1911 Census, National Archives of Ireland.
[4] Marriage and baptism registers, St Mary's Pro Cathedral. 

Image Credit: ‘The Pro-Cathedral, Dublin’, George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday 11 July 2015

The Juggling Colleen

Everyone has heard the old saying about running away to join the circus… except, no one expects it to apply in their own family, and especially not in MY own family! But, that's pretty much what Elizabeth Wynne, a.k.a. Veronica Martell, did and she was my mother's second cousin.

It certainly wasn't something that was in her blood – at least not on her Wynne side. Her father, James Wynne, was an electrician. Her grandfather, also James Wynne, was a brush maker. And her great-grandfather, John Wynne, who was my great-great-grandfather, worked as a shop assistant. They were all ordinary people, living ordinary lives in their native Dublin city. So, how did they produce such an extraordinary, and talented, daughter?

Actually, Elizabeth had three younger sisters who also learned to juggle and followed her onto the stage. They all moved to London and trained with Jack Martell, the husband of their Aunt Moira. But, it was the eldest, Elizabeth, or should I say Veronica, who enjoyed the most success, or at any rate achieved the most mentions in the online sources available today. 

Like her sisters, Veronica initially worked the variety halls and cabarets in Britain and on the Continent. Her big break came in 1951 when John Ringling North, of the famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, spotted her at the China Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. Even though she had no circus background, he was so impressed with her act, he signed her up and Veronica joined the circus.[1] Her arrival was heralded in the New York newspapers that year, for example, in Brooklyn they said: 
‘Veronica Martell, a real beauty from Ireland, turned out to be a top-notch juggler, climaxing her act with a blindfold routine that seemed impossible, but the lady did it’.[2]

That season, Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Greatest Show on Earth, a romantic drama set in the Ringling Circus. Veronica played a small part, as herself, the Juggling Colleen.  They, somewhat surprisingly, scooped the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Story, competing against such movie giants as The Quiet Man and the western, High Noon.

Despite its Oscars, I don't think I've ever seen the movie. According to online sources, Veronica opened a short montage featuring an assortment of circus acts. She performed as ‘Ireland's Juggling Marvel’ to the old nationalist tune ‘The Wearing of the Green’.[3] There are some clips of the movie on You-Tube, here, but, unfortunately, Veronica doesn't appear in any of them.     

Elizabeth (Veronica) made her home in the United States. She met her husband, Robert Ziemski, while at the Ringling Circus in 1951 and they married the following year.  After their daughter was born in 1953, Veronica returned to the stage and in 1964, she appeared in a short Harold Baim documentary called Jugglers and Acrobats.[4] Some pictures of Veronica from the film are available here

More photographs of her, when she performed with the Ringling Circus, are available in the digital collections of the Milner Library at the Illinois State University, here.  I can see the Wynne family resemblance, especially to one of my glamorous aunts. Does anyone else see it too? (I cannot show the pictures due to copyright restrictions, but hopefully the links will work ok)

Veronica didn't have all the fun and her sisters enjoyed their share of the lime-light too.

Des O'Reilly, a drummer with an English pop band called The Puppets, remembers Christine Wynne, a.k.a. Christine Martell. In 1965, they did a three-month tour of Cyprus, North Africa and Malta for the British Forces. Christine played a stereotypical, drunken, Irish lass, juggling to the tune of ‘The Teddy Bears Picnic’. According to Des O'Reilly, she continually dropped the balls, such that they had to start and restart ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’ over and over again and he said ‘poor Christine, in her thick Irish brogue, would chastise herself for dropping her props!!’ He was thankful she wasn't a knife thrower, but it sounds like just a comedy act to me.[5] 

Moira Martell, born Mary Pauline Wynne in 1931, performed as the continental juggler, while Rita Martell, born Margaret Jane Wynne in 1934, became known as the youthful juggler. They also worked the variety circuits across Europe. All four sisters seemingly employed the same basic techniques in their acts. The programme for one of Rita's performances, in the Grand Festival of Magic show at the Scala Theatre, London, in 1954, reads:  
‘she has a brilliant act’ and ‘worked numerous routines with clubs, balls, hats, etc., and finally did the fountain of bouncing six balls whilst blindfolded!’[6] 

Sadly, the Martell Sisters have all passed away now. Veronica only died in February this year. Her obituary can be read here 

[1] The Billboard, 21 Apr 1951, p. 57, accessed on Google books.
[2] Brooklyn Eagle, 5 April 1951, p. 4, accessed on Fulton Postcards.
[3] ‘Many Acts’, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Circusmusic
[4] The Baim Collection.
[5] Des (A Musical Life).
[6] The Magic Circle presents a Grand Festival of Magic, Scala Theatre, October 4th to 9th, 1954: Programme
Image: Pixabay 

See also, the first episode of this story Showbiz!

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy