Saturday, 14 January 2017

Great-Granduncle John Byrne: Putting a face to the name

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I must say, I agree. Nothing quite brings your genealogy to life faster than finding a picture of a long-gone relative. And, this week I received a photograph of my mother’s granduncle, John Byrne. 

John was a sailor. He worked as a merchant seaman, serving as second mate on voyages between Britain and Ireland. In September 1918, towards the end of World War I, the British Merchant Marine introduced sailor identity books.

John’s identity documents describe him as being 5 feet, 5¼ inches in height, with brown hair and blue eyes. He had his initials ‘JB’ tattooed on his left arm, as well as a woman’s face and clasped hands. His wife, Margaret Byrne of 31 Jane Place, Dublin, was listed as his next-of-kin. The identity book also contained his photograph. 

John Byrne (1885-1930), Jane Place, Dublin
John Byrne (1885-1930)

According to his youngest daughter, John loved the sea. Tragically for him, however, as a young man, he went blind. He knew his ship so well he continued to work afterwards, concealing his sight-loss from his shipmates. No one suspected he couldn’t see. Then one day, someone left a trap door open on the deck and John fell in. John lost his job. The poor man missed the sea so much he was said to have died soon afterwards of a broken heart.

And, it was true. On 15 January 1930, John died of cardiac failure, having been ill for a month with congestion of the lungs. He probably suffered from a condition known as congestive heart failure, where the heart, being unable to pump effectively, truly was broken, even medically speaking.

See more about my great-granduncle John Byrne, here.

Source: Merchant seamen’s records for John Byrne of 31 Lower Jane Place, Dublin, held at the Southampton City Council Archives, England; Family knowledge about John Byrne’s loss of sight, recalled by his granddaughter. Copy death register, John Byrne, 1930, General Register Office.

Photograph from the Merchant Seaman Identity Certificate, 1918-1921 (form CR10), Southampton City Council Archives.

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Sad story. And having this gentleman's photo in addition to the outline of his life makes him a real person.

    1. True, it seems tragic Marian, especially when you consider his wife and six daughters left behind.

  2. What an amazing story about hiding his blindness. Such bravery and dedication are to be admired.

    Do you know the significance of the tattoo? Is it symbolic?

  3. I don't know the specific significance of his tattoo Wendy, though I read somewhere sailors often had them done so they'd be more easily identified should they be 'lost at sea'.


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