Saturday, 19 November 2016

Carrie’s rural memories have a certain Irish lilt

Robby McMahon
The great thing about people’s memories of the past is how they often open the doors to further research. This is what happened when I received an email from Carrie Browne-Carey whose memories of a rural childhood in the townland of Lurgan in County Offaly recalled a celebrated Irish ‘lilter’ named Robbie McMahon.Carrie began by recalling her childhood in the 1950s in the hilly townland of Lurgan which lies near the border of Offaly and Westmeath, close to Clara and Moate:

“In a small townland like Lurgan, everyone knew each other very well and we visited one another’s houses regularly. I spent a lot of my life in the house of the Conways and also with the Stone family. When my brother and I were small children our Dad went to work in Dublin and our Mother would sometimes go and stay with him. During this time we stayed with the Stone family.”
“I was very young but I do remember enjoying my stay and loving a dog they had called Lucy. Mrs Stone baked her own bread as did her daughters, but there was one cake that I can almost taste yet. They called it a sweet cake but it was just like a white soda cake with sugar in it and it was gorgeous.”

“Another thing I enjoyed was, they nearly always had a pet pig and I always made sure to be there in the evening while it was small to feed it with a bottle and then sit with it on my lap for ages.”
Carrie also remembered that very often local people would have musicians and singers performing in their own homes, especially if there was a special occasion.   

“Mrs Stone had three daughters and two of them, Kitty and Liz went to work in Dublin. It seemed a long way away at that time.  Liz only got home every summer for two weeks holidays and I looked forward to that time so much.  Liz was such a lovely girl. I then remember Kitty got married to Eddie in Dublin and when they came back from their honeymoon, there was a big dance as I remember in their barn in Lurgan.  It was such an exciting thing for me as a small child. There was music, dancing, singing and I remember doing Irish dancing, though it was simple as I was very young.  Everyone went across the yard to the house for the tea.”
“As I got older I remember a musical family by the name of O'Reilly came to our house and also to the Stone residence and there would be a sing-song and dancing instantly. I remember on one occasion Liz was home on holiday and friends of hers called, I happened by chance to call in. I was very glad I did as one of the men was called Bobby McMahon from Spancil Hill in County Clare. Bobby was a man we heard singing very often on radio and of course his special song was Spancil Hill. He was also a great lilter. He would lilt Irish dance tunes and make it sound like a musical instrument, one tune that is still in my head is the Mason's Apron, he did a great job on that one. Anyway on that evening of course we got him to lilt and that started the dancing. We were doing a half set and I was dancing with him. Now I was only about 9 or 10 years of age so when it came to the basket swing, my feet were lifted off the ground and I kicked the lid off a skillet pot and it broke in two halves! I nearly died but Mrs Stone said “go on dancing, never mind it”. She had bad arthritis so she loved people to go in and party!”

Carrie’s wonderful recollection of live music in the farmhouses of rural Ireland are both reminiscent and captivating. Whilst many of us today are familiar with the musicians who entertain us in bars and clubs, the idea that this tradition was preceded by musicians performing in the humble parlors and barns of people’s rural homes is evocative of days-gone-by. Carrie has also educated me for one on the Irish tradition of lilting through her real-life memory of one of its greatest exponents, Bobby (aka Robbie) McMahon.
I have often heard the expression ‘the lilt of the Irish’ which refers to the characteristic rising and falling of the voice when speaking, the pleasant and gentle accent of many parts of Ireland. It is also used to describe the good humor of Irish people, or a certain cheery outlook I am certain we are all familiar with. But I had never heard of the traditional singing form of lilting, apparently most common in the Gaelic speaking areas of both Ireland and Scotland.

Lilting is music made by the human voice which creates the rhythm and tone of musical instruments with much diddling and jigging - if lyrics exist they are often nonsensical. Lilting may have originated in tough times when musical instruments were not available – though many dispute this theory because it did not develop in other peasant cultures under similar constraints. Whatever its origins, the energetic and compelling rhythms of lilting, accompanied by hand clapping, foot stomping and drumming of the table made it ideal for Irish dancing.
Robbie (or Bobbie) McMahon was born in County Clare on 11 December 1926 and became well known as an entertainer on Irish radio. McMahon composed his own songs as well as singing traditional favorites. As Carrie pointed out, he is best known for his rendition of the beautiful ballad Spancil Hill which earned him the title of King of Spancil Hill. Robbie first sung the ballad at age 16 in the cottage of Moira Keane and in the presence of the nephew of the song’s author Michael Considine.

Robbie McMahon lived all of his life at Spancil Hill where he continued to farm and also continued to entertain in pubs, bars and, yes, rural cottages right up until his sad death in 2012. A film was made about his life called Last night As I Lay Dreaming.
Thank you to Carrie Browne-Carey for her enlightening email and for sharing her memories. 

 

Dorothy’s family connection to Wexford history

Father John Murphy
History is never far below the surface in Ireland and ordinary conversations will often reveal extraordinary connections with notable people and important events of the past. This is what happened when Wexford resident Dorothy Kenny (nee. Walsh) told me recently about her ancestor Father John Murphy.

Dorothy and husband Seamus are Wexford born and bred; they have raised their five children, Aoife, Doireann, Sinead, Conor and Sarah-Jo at Monamolin near Gorey. Both played for Wexford based GAA teams, Dorothy told me:
“Both of us played for Buffers Alley. Seamus played both hurling and football for 'The Alley' and was Chairman for 10 years steering the club through a major building development project. I played camogie for Senior Wexford and won an All-Ireland in 1975.”

Like many from the ‘model county’, both Seamus and Dorothy have family connections going back to the 1798 rebellion. Whilst this event took place over 200 years ago, it had a profound effect on an otherwise peaceable and very rural county and every Wexford family was affected, often in very traumatic and brutal ways. It is therefore not surprising that there is still a strong tradition of oral history dating back to 1798 in the county.

Dorothy told me that her family were descended from the sister of Fr John Murphy who played a leadership role in the 1798 rebellion. We therefore attempted a search to discover the connections between Dorothy’s family and John Murphy. This is a slightly unusual way of doing family history research, as one normally starts at the current generation and slowly works backwards, discovering ancestors along the way. However, in this situation we started at two different points in time and set out to fill in the gaps in between.

John Murphy was a Roman Catholic priest born at Tincurry, Wexford in 1753. He was executed by British soldiers at Tullow, County Carlow on 2 July 1798. John was a tenant farmer’s son from a big family, his brother Patrick was also killed in the 1798 Rebellion at Vinegar Hill. He also had a sister, Katherine, who married John Patrick Walsh. The parents of John Murphy were Thomas Murphy and Johanna Whitty.

John Murphy was educated in a hedge school by a local parish priest and grew up speaking Irish and English. He was described as a splendid horseman, excelling in athletics and handball. Following his ordination, Fr John Murphy went away to study at a Dominican college in southern Spain in the 1770s. Returning home five years later, Fr Murphy was made curate in Kilcormuck, better known as Boolavogue, where he had a thatched chapel.

Fr Murphy was initially against rebellion and actively encouraged his parishioners to give up their arms and sign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. However, on 26 May 1798 he gathered with a group of local men to decide how to defend themselves against the brutality of yeomanry patrols. That night Murphy’s group encountered the burning down of a local family’s cabin and a confrontation took place which ended with the killing of two of the yeomen. That night the Wexford Rebellion started with Fr John Murphy leading it alongside other local United Irishmen leaders.

Through the next month, Fr John Murphy led a growing army of poor Wexford tenant farmers against the might of the English army. Initially armed only with pikes and pitchforks, Murphy’s ragged army of rebels defeated well-armed militia and yeoman with cavalry at Oulart Hill, Enniscorthy, Wexford town and Gorey. From a few hundred men with pikes, the rebel army grew quickly to a force of 10,000. But with reinforcements from England, including German mercenaries, the rebels were badly defeated at Arklow and at Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy. English retaliation was brutal, wounded rebels were shot or worse and more than 30,000 Wexford people were killed in the five week uprising. Father Murphy and a man named James Gallagher were captured in the Blackstairs Mountains and taken to Tullow where they were summarily tried, found guilty of being rebels and sentenced to death. Both were hanged in the market square in Tullow. The yeomen cut off Fr Murphy’s head, put it on display on a spike and burned his body in a barrel of pitch. Fr John Murphy is remembered in the Irish ballad Boolavogue.

Our search to discover Dorothy’s line of ancestry back to Fr John Murphy began by identifying her father Edmond Walsh’s family in the 1911 census living at house 12, Effenorge, Tinnacross, Wexford. The family included Edmond’s parents Aidan and Mary Walsh (Dorothy’s grandparents). The family were also recorded at Effernoge in the 1901 census. It is well known that Irish census records become more difficult to find for the 19th century, but increasingly we find church baptismal records for that period are available to view online. Using these records we could identify the baptism of Dorothy’s grandfather Aidan at Ferns in 1853 and the baptisms of his siblings. The beauty of a baptismal record is that it also names the parents, therefore taking us back another generation.

Another useful source of records is the Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850s which tells us that a farmer named William Walsh was occupying 70 acres of land at Effernoge at that time. Finally the Tithe Applotment books of 1824 show two separate tithe payers named William Walsh residing at Effernoge. It would be fair to speculate that they may be a father and son. The Tithe Applotment books move us much closer to the generation of Fr John Murphy and the 1798 rebellion. William Walsh senior of the Applotment books could feasibly be the same generation as Father Murphy or, more likely, his mother may have been Katherine, the sister of John Murphy who married John Patrick Walsh. Incidentally, Effernoge is close to both Boolavogue and Tincurry and there was also a farmer named Michael Murphy recorded at Effernoge in the Tithe books of 1824. Whilst we need more information to confirm these connections, I can’t help feeling that we are there or thereabouts in plotting the line between Dorothy and her 2 x great grandmother Katherine Walsh (nee. Murphy).

Thank you Dorothy Kenny for sharing this interesting family connection to the momentous events of 1798. If any of our readers have further information to offer, we would be very interested to hear from you.

Monday, 24 October 2016

The wall of the Jewish Ghetto


My hopes of finding tangible clues to the origins of the Blumberg family in the streets of modern Warsaw were naive to say the least. The Jewish ghetto of Warsaw was totally destroyed by the Nazis towards the end of WW2 and few Jewish people in Poland survived the terrible holocaust. This small section of red brick wall is all that remains of the Jewish area which was rebuilt by the post-war forces of occupation, Stalinist Russia. For poor Poland it was out of the frying pan ...into the fire.

In the Jewish cemetery at Lodz there are many great monuments to the wealthier Jewish merchants and industrialists of prosperous times in the 19th century. The owners of great linen mills and manufacturing factories which gave Lodz the name of 'Manchester of Poland'.

There is also a large section of the cemetery known as the Ghetto Fields, which contain hundreds of more humble graves in uniformed rows. On each stone are inscribed the names of family members spanning three or more generations. Each name from each family begins with their date of birth, anything ranging from the 1860s (grand parents and even great grandparents) to the late 1930s (babies and small children). Then there is the year of each person's death. All death dates fall between the years of 1939 and 1945. For most families, all individuals of all generations died in exactly the same year.

Few mourners come to this part of the cemetery to leave rocks and pebbles on the graves of the Ghetto Fields in the Jewish tradition. No one is buried under these humble monuments and no one survived to mourn.

My visit to Poland

Pete Millington with author and photographer Wlodzimierz Malek in
the Jewish cemetery at Lodz 
I recently visited Poland on a trip relating to my work and stayed in both the capital Warsaw and in the second city of Lodz. Before going to Poland I had been doing some research into the Polish Jewish ancestors of my American brother-in-law Mike. The family were named Blumberg and they lived in San Francisco for many decades from the beginning of the 20th century.

Early US records, such as the family's arrival in Canada on a ship from Liverpool, followed by their appearance in the 1910 US census had initially led me to believe that the Blumberg family were Russian Jews, but in later records they said they were from Warsaw in Poland. A little bit of reading of Polish history taught me that large parts of Poland were occupied by Russia during the 19th century and that they created the first Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, decades before the Nazi invasion in 1939.

Further research showed me that the Blumbergs migrated from Russian-occupied Poland in the 1890s but went firstly to England where they attempted to build a new life in London's East End, still well known today for its large Jewish population. Here the Blumbergs (who already had two children) had two more daughters which included Mike's grandmother.

My personal mission in Poland (when I had some free time from working) was therefore to try to find out a little bit more about the origins of the Blumberg family. My research included visiting the amazing Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw and also seeing the only remaining section of the wall of the Jewish Ghetto. I also visited the Jewish cemetery in Lodz and an old train station and museum close by at Radegast.

In the cemetery I quite randomly met an old Polish gentleman named Wlodzimierz Malek who is the author of several books of local history about the city of Lodz. One of his books is The Historical Jewish Cemetery in Lodz which contains pages of fantastic photographs of the tombs and monuments in the cemetery plus photos of the train station at Radegast. 

Below are some of my own photographs of Radegast, which was the station from which the Nazis transported tens of thousands of Jewish people from Lodz to the concentration camps of occupied Poland.           


Radegast train station at Lodz

The trucks used to transport Jewish families to their deaths

Every truck was packed full with innocent human beings

Part of the museum at Radegast is this recreated gas chamber and
chimney - a very powerful experience to walk through

Nie zabijaj - thou shalt not kill

An over powering sense of sadness and disbelief at human inhumanity
haunts this train and its carriages

The work and writing of Ernest Clephan Palmer

Whilst researching my sister-in-law Rachel Palmer's ancestry I came across the life and work of her Great Grandfather Ernest Clephan Palmer, a London based journalist and investigative author who set out to debunk fake spiritualists of the early 1900s. His mission brought him into the company of such notable personalities as Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and the legendary escapologist, Harry Houdini.     

Ernest Palmer with the support of his friend Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in solving the Oscar Slater case. He was interested in psychical research and spiritualism, he was a friend of the psychical investigator Harry Price.

In his book The Riddle of Spiritualism (1927) Palmer carried out a serious investigation into the claims of spiritualism and came to the conclusion that most mediumship and phenomena observed in the séance is the result of fraud. However, he believed telepathy to explain some cases of mental mediumship. He wrote there is no scientific evidence for the spirit hypothesis in mediumship but there remained many unanswered questions and it would be precipitate to dismiss it entirely

One of the mediums who Ernest Palmer investigated was George Valiantine who claimed that spirits of the dead would speak during séances through a trumpet which floated around in a darkened room. On examination of the trumpet after the séance, Palmer discovered ‘a great deal of moisture’ inside the mouthpiece of the trumpet. Following  Palmer’s investigation, Valiantine was proved to be a fraud by the Scientific American who  tested his claims that the trumpet floated independently by secretly rigging his chair to an electric light in another room which lit up every time he stood up. During the test, the light signal was  activated every time there was trumpet activity, showing that Valiantine was leaving his chair under the cover of darkness to speak into the trumpet.
 
Arthur Conan Doyle
On another occasion Ernest Palmer’s friend and co-researcher, Harry Price, also caught out George Valiantine by showing that Italian words attributed to the spirit of the late composer Luigi Arditi during a séance were actually word-for-word matches lifted from an Italian phrase book.

It would be interesting to know more about the relationship between Ernest Palmer and Arthur Conan Doyle. The famous author of Sherlock Holmes was a longstanding believer in spiritualism, even falling out with the American magician Harry Houdini who performed illusions for Doyle in his home, explaining his own trickery to make the point that most magical phenomena was pure illusion. But Doyle refused to believe that Houdini’s illusions were tricks and not due to supernatural powers, even when the trickery was explained to him by the famous magician.

Even Houdini’s death was the source of speculation and conspiracy theory connected to his pursuit of debunking mediums and psychics. The magician was killed after an incident at Houdini's dressing room in the Princess Theatre in Montreal when a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen whilst the magician was reclining on a couch having broken his ankle in a stage act. Witnesses said that the onslaught from Whitehead was meant to test Houdini who allowed the first few punches before objecting. Houdini did not seek medical help for some days and eventually died from acute appendicitis on 31 October 1926.

Harry Houdini 
As recently as 2007 Houdini's grand-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the American courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini's body, to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by spiritualists. Worthy of  a Sherlock Holmes case in itself, the mystery continues to this day.

In 1922 Conan Doyle also fell out with Harry Price, a skeptic and friend of both Harry Houdini and Ernest C Palmer, after Price accused the spirit photographer William Hope of fraud. Hope was well-known for his photographic plates which featured images of spirits, usually imposed behind or next to other subjects who had posed in Hope’s studio. Conan Doyle accused Price of writing “sewage” about spiritualism and led a personal attack on him which Price claimed went on for years.

We can therefore surmise that Ernest Palmer may also have been a friend of Harry Houdini as well as Harry Price, as the three men are cited together as ’debunkers of fraudulent mediums’. In his role as a ghost buster, Houdini often attended séances in disguise accompanied by a reporter, I wonder if this was ever Ernest C Palmer?      

Ernest Palmer’s three published books were:

The Solitary Blackbird (1954)
The Young Blackbird (1953)
The Riddle of Spiritualism (1927)

Sorcha Nic Diarmada and the role of women in 1916

The marriage of Annie McCluskey and Patrick McDermott - Dublin 1907
Patrick's sister Sarah (Sorcha Nic Diarmada) is seated lady in round white hat on left

Something which has always interested me about Irish history is the prominent role of women in areas including literature and the arts, religious life, science, political leadership and, specifically, the early 20th century struggle for Irish independence.

Such is the influence of women in Irish history that the country itself has from ancient times been personified as female with names such as Erin, Roisin Dubh and Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Poets from Yeats to Heaney have developed the idea so successfully that it seems more powerful than being merely a traditional metaphorical representation and speaks of deeply rooted cultural and spiritual values.

Countess Markievicz was undoubtedly the most celebrated female leader of the 1916 Rising, described as a charismatic revolutionary, a politician, suffragette and socialist. Markievicz was one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position, as Minister for Labour in the Irish Republic from 1919-1922.

But we should not overlook the fact that Markievicz was the best known of many thousands of Irish (and Anglo-Irish) women who were active in the 1916 Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. I was reminded of this fact recently by a correspondent on Ancestry, a gentleman named Mike McDermott whose family settled in Yorkshire in the 1860s because Mike’s great grandfather, also Michael McDermott, had to leave Ireland under suspicion for his “Fenian activities”.

Mike’s grandfather Patrick McDermott married his grandmother Annie McCluskey in Dublin in 1907. The connection with my own ancestors was through the McCluskey family, Annie’s father Nicholas McCluskey was a close friend and political ally of my great-great grandfather John McDonnell, a blind basket maker and founding member of the League of the Blind (a trade union of blind people). McDonnell and McCluskey were both elected Poor Law Guardians in the North Dublin Union and used their position to campaign for better conditions for poor and disabled people in Dublin. Fresh information from Mike indicates that Nicholas and John were more than just lifelong friends and co-conspirators, but relatives - as there were a number of cousins named McDonnell on the wedding photograph of his grandparents, Patrick and Annie.

But how does this connect to the role of women in the 1916 Rising? The McDermott family originated from Leitrim and Mike’s family share ancestors with Sean MacDiarmada (McDermott), a signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read by Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin. But a much closer link to this momentous period of Irish history was through a sister of Mike’s grandfather, Sarah McDermott (Sorcha Nic Diarmada), a teacher born at Normanton in West Yorkshire in 1878.

Sarah was one of the ten children of Michael and Mary McDermott from Glenkeel in Leitrim. Her father had settled in the north of England shortly after the unsuccessful Fenian Rising of 1867. Neighbouring Lancashire had become a hotbed of Fenian activity in the 1860s with the infamous prison van attack in Manchester in 1867, which was followed by a prison bombing in London. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in1858 and it was reported that within a few years every city in England had IRB units. Sarah and her siblings may therefore have grown up in an area of Fenian support but also within the wider trade union culture of the industrial north of England.

After training as a teacher in Leeds, Sarah went to live and work in London where she became active in the Irish community and in the movement for Ireland’s independence. Many years later, in 1954, she provided a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History about her involvement in the Cumman na mBan, the Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation formed in 1914 and led by Countess Markievicz.

The archive of the Bureau of Military History (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/) is a rich online source of personal testimonies from people who were directly involved in the history of the fight for Irish independence from 1913 to 1921. The great thing about this archive is that it is not just about ‘the usual culprits’, but includes detailed memories from ordinary citizens – the lesser known foot soldiers and activists.

Sarah McDermott’s testimony follows her involvement in cultural activities, such as organising concerts and cèilidh dances as Social Secretary of the Gaelic League in London to purchasing and smuggling arms to Ireland in preparation for the 1916 Rising. She also describes the activities of groups like the Irish Ladies’ Distress Committee who were widely involved in sewing and collecting garments for people in Ireland affected by the War of Independence.

What these memories highlight is the huge involvement in Irish independence of people in England and in particular of women. Sarah was eventually arrested in London by British detectives working in collaboration with the Government of the Irish Free State on doubtful charges of conspiracy. She was transported to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in a group of 10 female and 90 male prisoners arrested in England, most of whom were later released. During her confinement Sarah was ill-treated and assaulted by prison staff and soldiers and after her release in 1923 she was indemnified by the British Government to the figure of £600, the highest amount paid to a woman in this group of prisoners.


I wish to thank Mike McDermott for telling us about his ancestor Sarah McDermott, the radical teacher from West Yorkshire. 

Carrie’s rural memories have a certain Irish lilt

The great thing about people’s memories of the past is how they often open the doors to further research. This is what happened when I received an email from Carrie Browne-Carey whose memories of a rural childhood in the townland of Lurgan in County Offaly recalled a celebrated Irish ‘lilter’ named Robbie McMahon.

Carrie began by recalling her childhood in the 1950s in the hilly townland of Lurgan which lies near the border of Offaly and Westmeath, close to Clara and Moate:

“In a small townland like Lurgan, everyone knew each other very well and we visited one another’s houses regularly. I spent a lot of my life in the house of the Conways and also with the Stone family. When my brother and I were small children our Dad went to work in Dublin and our Mother would sometimes go and stay with him. During this time we stayed with the Stone family.”

“I was very young but I do remember enjoying my stay and loving a dog they had called Lucy. Mrs Stone baked her own bread as did her daughters, but there was one cake that I can almost taste yet. They called it a sweet cake but it was just like a white soda cake with sugar in it and it was gorgeous.”

“Another thing I enjoyed was, they nearly always had a pet pig and I always made sure to be there in the evening while it was small to feed it with a bottle and then sit with it on my lap for ages.”

Carrie also remembered that very often local people would have musicians and singers performing in their own homes, especially if there was a special occasion.  

“Mrs Stone had three daughters and two of them, Kitty and Liz went to work in Dublin. It seemed a long way away at that time.  Liz only got home every summer for two weeks holidays and I looked forward to that time so much.  Liz was such a lovely girl. I then remember Kitty got married to Eddie in Dublin and when they came back from their honeymoon, there was a big dance as I remember in their barn in Lurgan.  It was such an exciting thing for me as a small child. There was music, dancing, singing and I remember doing Irish dancing, though it was simple as I was very young.  Everyone went across the yard to the house for the tea.”

“As I got older I remember a musical family by the name of O'Reilly came to our house and also to the Stone residence and there would be a sing-song and dancing instantly. I remember on one occasion Liz was home on holiday and friends of hers called, I happened by chance to call in. I was very glad I did as one of the men was called Bobby McMahon from Spancil Hill in County Clare. Bobby was a man we heard singing very often on radio and of course his special song was Spancil Hill. He was also a great lilter. He would lilt Irish dance tunes and make it sound like a musical instrument, one tune that is still in my head is the Mason's Apron, he did a great job on that one. Anyway on that evening of course we got him to lilt and that started the dancing. We were doing a half set and I was dancing with him. Now I was only about 9 or 10 years of age so when it came to the basket swing, my feet were lifted off the ground and I kicked the lid off a skillet pot and it broke in two halves! I nearly died but Mrs Stone said “go on dancing, never mind it”. She had bad arthritis so she loved people to go in and party!”

Carrie’s wonderful recollection of live music in the farmhouses of rural Ireland are both reminiscent and captivating. Whilst many of us today are familiar with the musicians who entertain us in bars and clubs, the idea that this tradition was preceded by musicians performing in the humble parlors and barns of people’s rural homes is evocative of days-gone-by. Carrie has also educated me for one on the Irish tradition of lilting through her real-life memory of one of its greatest exponents, Bobby (aka Robbie) McMahon.

I have often heard the expression ‘the lilt of the Irish’ which refers to the characteristic rising and falling of the voice when speaking, the pleasant and gentle accent of many parts of Ireland. It is also used to describe the good humor of Irish people, or a certain cheery outlook I am certain we are all familiar with. But I had never heard of the traditional singing form of lilting, apparently most common in the Gaelic speaking areas of both Ireland and Scotland.

Lilting is music made by the human voice which creates the rhythm and tone of musical instruments with much diddling and jigging - if lyrics exist they are often nonsensical. Lilting may have originated in tough times when musical instruments were not available – though many dispute this theory because it did not develop in other peasant cultures under similar constraints. Whatever its origins, the energetic and compelling rhythms of lilting, accompanied by hand clapping, foot stomping and drumming of the table made it ideal for Irish dancing.

Robbie (or Bobby) McMahon was born in County Clare on 11 December 1926 and became well known as an entertainer on Irish radio. McMahon composed his own songs as well as singing traditional favorites. As Carrie pointed out, he is best known for his rendition of the beautiful ballad Spancil Hill which earned him the title of King of Spancil Hill. Robbie first sung the ballad at age 16 in the cottage of Moira Keane and in the presence of the nephew of the song’s author Michael Considine.

Robbie McMahon lived all of his life at Spancil Hill where he continued to farm and also continued to entertain in pubs, bars and, yes, rural cottages right up until his sad death in 2012. A film was made about his life called Last night As I Lay Dreaming.


Thank you to Carrie Browne-Carey for her enlightening email and for sharing her memories.  

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Latest update to my book about the history of the Whelan and McDonnell family of Dublin

 
Sarah McDermott
 
I must thank a gentleman named Mike McDermott who contacted me through this blog to tell me he is a descendant of Nicholas McCluskey, who was a close friend and political ally of my 2 x G Grandfather John McDonnell the blind basket maker of Bolton Street in Dublin. Both men were Poor Law Guardians and used their positions to campaign for better and fairer treatment of poor people generally in North Dublin and blind people specifically in the late Victorian and Edwardian era.
 
I have written and blogged fairly extensively about John McDonnell and often pondered about the close relationship between McDonnell and McCluskey.
Mike has filled me in with a fantastic amount of information about the McCluskey family and their marriage to the McDermott family, through his grand parents. It seems that the McDonnells may even have been cousins to the McCluskeys, though this has yet to be evidenced more fully.
Mike has also given me some great stories about the political life of his McDermott ancestors, including the fact that his family shared an ancestor with Sean McDermott, one of the signatories of the Proclamation of Irish Independence, read out by Patrick Pearse at the Post Office in Dublin to launch the 1916 Rising.
Another closer ancestor, indeed Mike's grandfather's sister was a woman named Sarah (or Sorcha) McDermott, a radical republican and suffragette who supported both the 1916 Rising, the Irish War of Independence and the anti-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War.
I have subsequently updated my study document about these families (on the side of my maternal grandmother) which can be viewed on Calameo at this link:
The updated information is from page 91 to 104.
I will also blog the various sections of this story in the coming days. 

 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Coming soon to this blog


I have been a little bit neglectful of my blog recently, mainly because I have been pre-occupied with research and with writing and creating more of my online documents about different branches of our family tree.

To recap, my name is Pete Millington, I was born on 25 December 1961 (yes on Christmas Day). My parents (Geoff and Joan) were working class Brummies. Just to explain, Brummie is a slang colloquial expression for a person from Birmingham UK, a large industrial city in the English West Midlands. The region is synonymous with metal bashing and manufacturing trades, but also for William Shakespeare, Cadbury's chocolate and the steam engines that drove the industrial revolution. 

Both of my parents have a fair bit of Irish Catholic genes. I have four sisters and one brother. I'm married to Theresa (also of Irish ancestry) and we have three teenaged children.

I took up genealogy about 20 years ago, although really I thought of it more as collecting stories as my family, like many others I would guess, had a great tradition of passing on oral history from one generation to the next. In fact, my fascination with family stories was started for me as a child by my grandmother who told us stories about her life in India in the early 1920s. For me then, genealogy is about collecting and conveying stories, or narrative, just as importantly as it is about adding ancestors to my tree.

I'm intrigued by the coincidences and random moments of inspiration which occur in family research, I'm not a very religious person but I do often feel a strong sense of ancestors leading one in the search, I hope that doesn't sound too weird though I am certain that other family researches will relate to that sense of the past speaking to us. The past is another land, as someone once wrote, and travelling through the past is truly a wonderful journey to go on from time to time.

So, now I am recommitted to my blog (famous last words) ...what's to come?

Earlier this year my sister Alison married an American named Mike Cipriano and I began a quest to trace Mike's tree for him and his brothers. This has pre-occupied me for some months and I finally finished the project (well for the moment) in August 2016 in time for their family reunion. So I will start to blog that research soon, but in the meantime you can read the full document by clicking the relevant link in the right hand column (under Calameo publications).

It really was a fantastic journey for me as I learnt all about the migration of southern Italians (Cipriano and many other Italian family names) from the port of Naples to New York in the late 1800s and early 20th century. On Mike's mother's side there were the Bregg family who were the archetypal American settlers of the 18th century who travelled across the mighty new continent,  laying down their roots and taking part in all those momentous battles of American history. For the first time in my family research.... cowboys!!

In amongst the Breggs I discovered a branch of Mike's family named Elliott who were Ulster Presbyterians, the frontiers-folk of the 1700s who took part in rebellions and battles before laying down their own roots of American respectability. There's also some fascinating insights into American Deaf culture in there too, which was something we weren't expecting to find.

Also on Mike's mother's side were the Blumbergs of San Francisco, originally poor Polish Jews from Russian occupied Warsaw who went to the States via London. I am certain this must have been a common experience for tens of thousands of American Jewish families.

I've also started some research into the Palmer and Parsons families of the south coast of England. This is the family and ancestors of a sister-in-law of mine here in England, Rachel. Again, some fascinating stories here, such as Rachel's great grandfather, a London based journalist who set out to debunk the spiritualists of Edwardian England and America and ended up falling out with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but earning the respect of Harry Houdini. That story is coming real soon to the blog.

There are plenty more stories in the pipeline, on the Irish side of my family I have recently learnt of a family connection to a rebel leader who signed the 1916 Proclamation of Irish Independence. On my wife's side of the family there are leading rebels in the 1798 insurrection in Wexford, including the priest John Murphy who led the rebellion. Plus loads more to come.

If you want to read my research please click on one of my books in the Calameo format.

If you think we are related or have any kind of connection, please email me at

millies@blueyonder.co.uk

Thanks for reading!    

 

Vintage adverts from the south coast of England



A marriage proposal by Royal Navy telegram


What we are mainly interested in are the snippets of information relevant to the Palmer family history. He refers for instance to a visit before the war to his brother Peter’s home, Bush Cottage in Hillingdon with his parents and there are similar reflective insights into the family life of the Palmers, such as this diary entry made on 9 February 1940:  

" I have passed the time on watch lately dreaming of our days at Minsmere and on the Broads. The pre-breakfast bathe, breakfast. Then the peaceful visit to Dunwich, eagerly visiting the Post Office to call for letters; another bathe and lunch, followed by an afternoon reading and asleep; then – and this I remember particularly vividly for some reason – tea of bread and jam and excellent cake in rather a hurry, whilst Rip (the dog) stood by miserably, knowing that   we were going to play golf and not take him for a walk. I remember the golf so vividly too – every hole and so many incidents. It was a perfect holiday. How I would love to do it all over again. How I would love too to go on the Broads again. I wonder if we ever shall?"

Ibid. Palmer, John / 2002
John also recalls the first time he saw his wife-to-be, Mary Ellyat:

" I well remember joining Clematis, having completed the course at King Alfred. I was told to report to Swansea where she was building. I set off to Paddington Station where my parents also came to see me off. Inevitably it must have been a distinctly sad occasion for them. By extraordinary chance we met on the platform one of the Cambridge contingent – John Ellyatt – who was there also with his parents and his sister, Mary, then at school at Sherborne with special leave. We met again later when she was a boating Wren in Plymouth. Her brother and I duly reported to the Naval authorities at Swansea only to be told that no such ship was there. Finally, after some research, it was established that she was in Bristol. "

Ibid. Palmer, John / 2002
In October 1941 John was to meet up with Mary again and their relationship began:

" We went into Plymouth for a boiler clean when John Ellyatt’s sister was a boating Wren there. I had met her on Paddington Station as a schoolgirl from Sherborne. It was too good a chance to miss. I asked John Ellyatt if I might take his sister out for the evening. ‘I wish you would,’ he said, and so it   started. "
John Palmer

Throughout the rest of his diary Sir John Palmer gives no further detail about the wartime romance between himself and Mary Ellyatt, perhaps he felt it was too personal to share in a published book primarily about Naval experiences during WW2.  
However, he does finally tell the tale of their wedding in February 1945 and how he apparently proposed the wedding date via a Naval telegram:

" It was while I was in Amethyst when we used to come into Plymouth periodically that I felt I just could not wait any longer to propose to John Ellyatt’s sister, Mary, the boating Wren, then a Petty Officer, whom I had first met when in Clematis but had had very little chance to see thereafter. It was inevitable that when I had the chance to see her more I would want to persuade her to marry me. And so indeed it was. As soon as I got back to Amethyst again one evening just before we were due to sail with another convoy across the Atlantic, I managed to get the message to her on her boat (which follows and which I found she had kept).
 
" The following morning when we were just beginning to leave the dock, Mary appeared on the dockside, waved to me and held her thumbs up. Amethyst left Plymouth with me a happy man.

Mary Ellyatt

" We then agreed, miraculously, by correspondence which we managed to exchange that we should aim at a wedding when we came into Liverpool for our next boiler clean. Mary knew that it usually took four or five weeks to take a convoy out and to bring one back and had managed to alert her parents to the probability of a decision to fix the actual date as soon as we got back to Liverpool. It was indeed when we next came in that I sent her the telegram which follows. Somehow her parents had managed to be prepared for it, guessing at the sort of date. It was enormously kind that so many officers and ship’s company, including Scott-Elliot and the Captain of Hart, should have managed to come to Shaldon that Monday in February.

" The banns had been read while I was away. We were married in St. Peter’s   Church at Shaldon. We had three days’ honeymoon, the last a night in Birkenhead. We sailed in the morning. I was wearing some fur-lined boots which Mary had given me. As we passed the Royal Liver Buildings, Ninian Scott-Elliot spotted them as we stood on the bridge and said, ‘I suppose that is what marriage does for you’. All I can say is that they were mighty useful in the cold of the North Atlantic. Mary had by then returned to her Wren duties in Plymouth as coxswain of a boat based in the dockyard at Devonport. There then followed further convoys across the Atlantic. It did not occur to Mary or to me that we might in Amethyst be overcome by some disaster, and that I would not return. The European war ended. It was then that I was appointed to the staff at Dryad, finally being demobilized in March   1946. They had been remarkable years. "
Ibid. Palmer, John / 2002


John Palmer’s proposal to Mary Ellyatt via a Naval telegram
 

John Palmer's wartime memoirs (continued)


John Palmer is called for an interview at Oxford
in regards to his application to join the Navy
 
John Palmer joined the Royal Navy with five other Oxford students on 9 September 1939. They were joined by another six recruits from Cambridge University a few weeks later, one of whom later became his brother-in-law.

According to John, his brother joined the army and spent the whole of the war at Bletchley. Sir John comments, “after the war he went to Cheltenham. It is    noteworthy that I still did not know what he was doing and still did not ask him. Sadly he died when only fifty-four”.  

John names his brother in his book as Peter and sure enough a Peter C Palmer (“Pip”) is listed in Bletchley Park records as having served there between 1942 and 1945 in Hut 3 and Block D(3) as an Army Adviser and in Block F, Newmanry. His rank was Army, Int Corps, Capt.

It seems that Peter was some 8 years older than John. His birth is indexed in the last quarter of 1912 at St Pancras, London. Mother’s maiden name Sapey. He married Marie Rose Theresa Egan at Westminster in the late summer of 1950 and for some time lived in Washington before being made a CBE. In his book John Palmer provides a brief but intriguing anecdote about an American associate of his brother Peter who was made an Honorary KBE:

"Again when I met him after my brother’s early death, he made no reference to his work, but he did show me his KBE in his study. I remember his wife coming into the room and remarking how unlike him it was to be talking to me about it, to which he replied that it was the first chance he had had. He would not have shown the award to anyone else because they would have asked him how he had got it, which he would not be prepared to tell them.

Ibid. Palmer, John. 2002

Peter C Palmer became a Vice Chairman of GCHQ in Cheltenham and a strong candidate for Chairman. He died on 28 November 1963 in Gloucester. The Details of the administration of Peter C Palmer’s Will are listed in the National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations). His address was Woodlands Cranham, Gloucester. The Administration took place at Exeter on 28 April 1964 to Marie Rose Therese Palmer, widow, and John Chance Palmer solicitor. £13865.
 
Details of the administration of Peter C Palmer’s will are listed in the
National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations). 28 April 1964.
 
At the start of his book, Sir John Palmer gave a brief synopsis of his diaries and his service in the Royal Navy during the war:

"For most of my time I served in three ships – a corvette, a frigate and a sloop – I kept a diary which I still have, recording life in the corvette (Clematis) and the frigate (Exe). In the sloop, Amethyst, I have the records of where we went, but, as the Navigating Officer, there were additional responsibilities and consequently rather less time to keep a diary. I do, however, still have the Navigating Officer’s Notebook in which I worked out all the sun and star sights in order to establish our position when we were out of sight of land.

Ibid. Palmer, John / 2002

The diaries make fascinating reading, a combination of long periods at sea searching for enemy convoys and submarines punctuated by short but fierce incidents of conflict which bring home the realities of war on the ocean waves. The sudden and dramatic loss of vessels on either side with the tragic and generally huge loss of human lives and it’s impact on those skilful or simply lucky enough to survive to fight another day. John Palmer tells his story with respect and dignity, sometimes a certain sense of vulnerability and fatality, but never triumphalism.