Saturday 28 May 2016

A storm in a teacup

In 1906, ‘Ma Power’, Granny’s foster-mother, got into trouble with the authorities and faced prosecution by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Board of Guardians of Balrothery Poor Law Union. It was all a big storm in a teacup really, but the whole sorry saga was recorded in the minutes of the Board of Guardians and provides my only insight into Granny Lena’s life in foster care.  

Following her father’s death in April 1895, Lena O’Neill and her elder sister Joan, the two babies of the family, were placed in foster care with Mary Power in Malahide, Co. Dublin. Lena’s older brothers and sisters were less fortunate and ended up in various orphanages and industrial schools across Ireland.

Presumably, their mother was unable to provide for them, despite working as a musician and despite her remarriage to Thomas Ellis. All I know is, at some point between their father’s death and the 1901 census, the unthinkable happened, and Mary Agnes O’Neill/Ellis lost her children to the care of the state (and the church). And, even though the Victorians documented everything, until now, I’ve found no record of the family’s plight during this time.

The fuss with Ma Power kicked off in March 1906 when Miss Boylan, the Inspector appointed under the Infant Life Protection Act, carried out her first home inspection visit in Malahide. Miss Boylan complained to the Board that Mary Power, Yellow Walls, refused to allow her to inspect the children stating that she had received instructions from the nuns of St Bridget’s [sic] Orphanage that no person should be allowed to inspect the children, the ages of the children were 12 and 10' [the same ages as Joan and Lena].’

Miss Boylan further reported ‘Mary Power, Yellow Walls, has four nurse children. The home has only two apartments, a room 10 x 15 feet and a kitchen. The Inspector points out that this woman keeps 7 dogs, and states that she had great difficulty making an inspection as the woman at first refused to allow her to do so.’

The Board then ordered ‘Copies [of the report] to be sent to the convents and orphanages from which these children were sent out to nurse, also to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Board’s solicitor (Mr Early) to take proceedings against Mrs Power...’

Obviously, having seven dogs wasn’t an offence under the Act, for the solicitor wrote back to the Miss Boylan seeking ‘sufficient particulars to enable him to decide what proceedings should be taken against Mrs Power.'

And, somewhat strangely, the Superioress of St Brigid’s Orphanage replied stating ‘Mrs Power of Yellow Walls has not been on their staff of nurses for the past 3 years.’

In any case, Miss Boylan soon had a change of heart for her next monthly report to the Board was far more conciliatory in tone. She said on revisiting these people they apologised for refusing an inspection in the first instance as they were not aware the Guardians had appointed an Inspector under the Infant Life Protection Act, and they promised to facilitate her in the discharge of her duties in the future.’

And with that, the Board ordered all prosecutions to be withdrawn.

There's lots of interesting information in these minutes that I’ve yet to digest, but more than anything else, I’d dearly love to hear what Ma Power and Granny Lena had to say about Miss Boylan and the complaint to the Board. I can imagine it was not complimentary. They probably thought she was an interfering old busybody.

Source: Balrothery Poor Law Union, Board of Guardian’s minute books A119 - A120, October 1905 to September 1906, accessed on Findmypast.

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday 21 May 2016

Ma Power

Today, I’d like to remember Mary (Leahy, Radcliffe) Power. Mary was a mother to so many different generations of my family – my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my grandmother – but few people alive today have ever heard of her. According to my Aunt Maisie, she was known in the family as ‘Ma Power’.

In January 1869, soon after my great-grandfather’s first birthday, his mother died suddenly. Michael Byrne and his baby brother Thomas then went to live with their Aunt Mary. Mary became the only mother they ever remembered. She never had any babies of her own, yet the sound of children at play always filled her home.

Born Mary Leahy about 1842, Mary first married Christopher Radcliffe in 1866 and moved to his home village of Malahide, Co. Dublin. Christopher died in 1873, leaving Mary alone with the two boys and the following year, she married Michael Power. Over the subsequent decades, Mary Power continued to take in and care for children in need.

The 1901 census shows her, as a widow of fifty-four years, caring for five ‘orphan’ girls between the ages of six and eighteen years. Helena and Johanna O’Neill, the two youngest, may have been with Mary since their father died in 1895. Helena was my grandmother, later marrying Michael Byrne’s eldest son, but she could have been as young as three months old when she first arrived in Malahide. Perhaps this was when Mary acquired the name ‘Ma Power’.

In March 1903, Michael Byrne’s young wife Elizabeth died of phthisis (tuberculosis). Elizabeth's father, James Mahon, having watched his only child waste away before his eyes, was spared the final agony of seeing her die and passed away himself a month before her. At the age of only thirty-five years, Michael suddenly found himself alone in the house they had all shared, caring for his four young children.

Michael never remarried. I’ve often wondered how he managed to raise four children on his own and at the same time hold down his labouring job. When their mother died, they were all too young to take care of themselves. My grandfather, James Byrne, was only nine, his brother John was eight, their sister Margaret was six and the baby of the family, Michael, was three years old.

Neither Michael nor Elizabeth had any surviving siblings, so there were no aunts or uncles to offer assistance. Michael had no other relatives in the area at all, apart from his Aunt Mary. So, it must have been Mary who stepped in again and helped him raise his family. She lived just a few minutes’ walk up the road. 

And, there is some evidence this was the case. The 1911 census shows Mary’s grandniece, Margaret Byrne, staying in her home. You could argue it was only for one night, but it was probably a regular occurrence, suggesting the close relationship between them.
A modern picture of Ma Power’s house,
where many generations of my family spent their childhood

Mary Power died early in 1919, and although she did not leave a written will, at least none I could find, the Byrne family were her heirs. According to family lore, her house was left to my grandfather. He may have inherited it directly from Mary herself, or indirectly from his father. Either way, following Michael Byrne’s death in 1927, his daughter Margaret and her husband Peter Dignam moved into Mary’s house. There, they raised their family and spent the remainder of their days.

Mary Power was also fond of dogs, particularly terriers. Some years she kept as many as four dogs and was usually one of the first people to visit Swords courthouse each year to purchase her dog licences.

That’s not a lot to know about my great-great-grandaunt, a mother figure of such importance in my Dad’s family, but it’s a start.

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday 14 May 2016

His first family

If you’ve been doing genealogy for any length of time, you’ve probably already uncovered some family secrets. Occasionally these secrets are still shocking, even today – like bigamy, for example – that would probably still cause a stir.

There are no skeletons in our family closet, at least none I’ve found. And, maybe I wanted to liven things up a wee bit. Maybe, I just wanted to make some family skeletons dance. So, perhaps it was wishful thinking, when, for a brief moment, I wrongly suspected my great-great-grandfather of this woeful crime.

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance

John Byrne married Mary Markey in Dublin city in January 1860, a couple of weeks after their daughter Mary was baptised.[1] No further record of the family was found in Dublin. So, when John married my great-great-grandmother, Alicia Leahy, in the city, in January 1867, I assumed Mary had died - without having any more children. This was not the case, though.

While searching for what might have happened to their daughter, Mary, I came across another son, James. James Byrne was born on 16 August 1864 in Athgarvan, a small village near Newbridge in Co. Kildare.[2] John was from Athgarvan originally, so, after his marriage, he must have taken his young family home.

Four years and eight months separate the births of Mary and James, suggesting there were probably more children. And, the Newbridge Parish registers revealed a son Andrew was baptised on 24 August 1862 and a son John on 16 August 1863. The family’s address was recorded as ‘Kingstown and Athgarvan’ in 1862 and ‘Monkstown and Athgarvan’ in 1863.[3] Presumably, Mary lived in Athgarvan and John lived in Monkstown. He lived in Monkstown when he married Alicia, so this made sense.

Then, I searched forward in the baptism register and began to wonder just how long John and Mary were married. It was getting close to the time John met Alicia in Dublin. On November 1865, fifteen months after James was born, they had a daughter - Mary Anne Byrne.[3]

I admit; I held my breath as I searched forward once again. But, no more children were found. I probably owe a huge apology to my great-great-grandfather, but I did have a few reasons to fuel my suspicion:  

First, when John Byrne married Alicia, he incorrectly claimed to have been a bachelor, even though he was married to Mary for six years and had a bunch of kids with her. What was that about?

Secondly, Alicia did not live with John during their marriage. She lived in Kingstown, when he lived nearby in Monkstown. Add to that the fact John and Alicia lived in Co. Dublin, when John’s first family were in Co. Kildare!

Finally, until very recently, I knew nothing about my great-grandfather’s family or where he came from. That in itself was strange in the little village of Malahide, Co. Dublin, where Michael Byrne married my great-grandmother, and where everyone knew everything about their neighbours. So, I already half-suspected there was something to hide in my great-grandfather’s past.  

But, I was wrong. John’s first wife died in Athgarvan on 28 December 1865, a year before he married Alicia. Mary died of lung congestion after a six-week illness. John was with her at the time, and registered her death.[4]

I do feel sorry for John Byrne; he buried two wives before he reached his twenty-eight birthday. I wonder how many of his children survived, or did he bury most of them too. And, I wonder if my great-grandfather knew, or at least knew of, his (half) brothers and sisters. 
Genealogy Quick Tip:
Don't trust the index. If you know the Irish parish where a marriage or baptism likely occurred, always check the registers on the NLI website.  The transcriptions contain numerous errors and the identification of surname variants is not yet sufficiently comprehensive to be reliable. As a result, none of John Byrne and Mary Markey’s children were found using the Catholic Parish Registers on FindMyPast or Ancestry. Yet, all the baptisms were recorded.

More about John Byrne's origins: Escape to the Country.

[1] Church records, Parish of St Nicholas, 1859-60,
[2] ‘Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620-1881’, FamilySearch, citing Irish Civil Records. 
[3] Newbridge Parish baptism register, microfilm 04209/06, Andrew Byrne, p. 8; John Byrne, p. 13; Mary Anne Byrne, p. 23, NLI
[4] Copy death register (Mary Byrne, Naas, 1865), General Register Office.
Image adapted from one on Pixabay.

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday 7 May 2016

Our ancestral playground ~ The Curragh, Co. Kildare

Sepia Saturday invites bloggers to share their family history through old photographs.  Their theme image this week features a shepherd holding a sheep, while his sheepdog looks on. I don’t know if any of my ancestors had sheep, but the picture reminds me of the Curragh (pronounced Curra), in Co. Kildare. The Curragh is an area of nearly five thousand acres of mostly flat open plains, near where I now live. Shepherds have grazed sheep there, for centuries.

Sheep on the Curragh, Co. Kildare

The Curragh is situated less than a mile from Athgarvan Cross, where my Dad’s Byrne family resided throughout much of the nineteenth century. Sadly, there are no surviving old photographs of them to share, so I recently recreated some my own.

I go for regular walks on the Curragh with my own sheepdog, Molly. We love being out under the big open skies, where the sweet smell of the gorse permeates the air and birdsong carries in the breeze. Ok, more often than not, we’re met with a stiff chilly wind, but it’s the sunny days I remember best. 

Little has changed in this landscape in a thousand years or more. It looks just like it did in my ancestors’ day.

The Curragh, Co. Kildare

And, now that I know my great-great-grandfather, John Byrne, was born so close to the Curragh in 1841, it’s easy to believe this was his playground too. I can imagine John and his brothers and sisters playing soldiers on the plains, hide-and-go-seek in the woods, and making their dens in the undergrowth. Perhaps, I now too walk the very same paths they once took.

The Curragh, Co. Kildare

When I told our neighbours, whose families have lived in the vicinity for generations, that I walk on the Curragh, they were delighted to share their recollections of the area. These are the very same stories once told my ancestors, even if they are not remembered by my family today.

It was not always a happy place. When the 1798 rebellion against British rule met with defeat in Co. Kildare, an amnesty was declared and the rebels were asked to surrender their arms at an area called Gibbet Rath, on the Curragh. More than 1,000 local men gathered and handed over their weapons. The soldiers, under General Sir James Duff, then opened fire on the unarmed crowd. 350 men were murdered. So far, I’ve only traced my Byrne lineage back to the 1830s, so I don’t know if they played a part in the rebellion. One thing is certain though - a massacre on this scale left a lasting impression on all the people of the area.

Throughout the centuries, the Curragh plains have often been used for military training. Even today, the land belongs to the Irish Defence Forces.

The Curragh, Co. Kildare

My favourite story about the Curragh features Donnelly’s Hollow. This was named after Dan Donnelly a once famous Irish bare-knuckle boxer who beat the prevailing English champion, George Cooper, on that very spot in 1815. Cooper was the favourite to win. Donnelly was given no chance. 20,000 people came from far and wide and packed into the hollow to watch the fight, and against all odds, Donnelly won.

Monument to Dan Donnelly, Donnelly’s Hollow, the Curragh, Co. Kildare

The series of footprints leading from the base of the monument to the top of Donnelly's Hollow are most unexpected. They are said to have been made by the man himself, as he left the boxing ring on that famous day. I was fairly sceptical myself, although I wouldn’t admit that out loud in Kildare. Supposedly though, from soon after the fight, people were keen to step in his footprints, causing the lasting impression. I can testify to watching numerous children walk the footsteps in the recent past, so, if they've been doing this consistently over the centuries, perhaps their provenance is genuine. ;-)

Donnelly’s footprints, Donnelly’s Hollow, The Curragh

Two hundred years later, my neighbour still tells Donnelly’s story with a sense of pride. Some of my ancestors were surely among the 20,000 who attended the event. John’s father, Andrew Byrne, was only a boy at the time. Maybe he was too young to attend. Nevertheless, he certainly joined in the celebrations afterwards and probably told the story of that day for the rest of his life. Perhaps, both he, and later John, also walked in Donnelly’s footprints. 

Join the Sepia Saturday crew here for more stories and photographs  - Baaa!

© Black Raven Genealogy