Monday, March 13, 2017
Family History Day 2017
This was an absolutely great day. The contributors were erudite, entertaining and illuminating. The day was full of interesting material, serious as well as humorous.
I am so glad for Máire's sake as this has been her last "history day". She has hosted two a year, one for family history and one for local history, and the quality has always been terrific (I have to declare an interest here as I contributed to five of them since 2008, so you can take my remark as applying to the rest of the programme.)
So it's down to business.
Hilary McDonagh kicked off with an interesting and tight presentation about where to find records relating to children in the system. She covered a myriad of sources and I would love to see the presentation, or at least the list of the sources, published online.
Some people may remember my reference to post death photography in the context of the recently published book "Grave Matters". The idea being, whatever about the adults in a family, there may not have been any photos of the younger people in the period up to their death. In that case, some families had photos taken of the recently deceased child, sometimes posed to look as near alive as possible.
Hilary took this one step further, so to speak. A family of children lined up like steps of stairs (or for my older audience a poster of growing up on Fry's cocoa) where the youngest child was actually dead but propped up in place. Really weird.
Well, you never really know what to expect at these sessions and talking to Hilary it emerged that she is currently living in Orwell Gardens where I lived in 1950-54. We were able to swop names of families, some of whose descendants are still living there.
I think she was a bit put out when I said the Gardens had become gentrified since my granny's day but she did volunteer that some house there was valued at €800k at the height of the boom. The granny would be turning in her grave up in St. Paul's, of which more later.
Pádraig Yeates is well known as a historian of the social and labour aspects of the revolutionary period. And he didn't disappoint.
His subject on this occasion was the widows of the revolution. Not so much their political contributions in the post revolutionary period but the parsimonious and bureaucratic way they were treated when it came to awarding them a pension.
One poor lady was seventy before the matter was resolved to her satisfaction. She was offered a pittance on the grounds that her late husband had not been an officer in the revolutionary forces and her lawyer advised her to refuse all offers until she was finally vindicated. In the interim she was not able to support herself and had to decamp to England to live with a relative.
While stories like this are shameful, it is great that original sources are now being released and digitised so that we can appreciate the real story of what happened then.
This process has been gaining momentum in recent years with the release and digitisation of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, the Bureau of Military History witness statements and now the papers on pension claimants.
Frank Whearity took us off on a different tack entirely, regaling us with the story of the firm of George Watt Ltd, known as Soho Engineers and located in Bridgefoot St.
Frank would know all about that as he worked for the firm in the later period of its existence.
He started with an extensive genealogy of the Watt family, relating the branch which came to Dublin to that of James Watt, improver of the Newcomen steam engine. It was James Watt who patented a new process, bypassing the crankshaft, to turn the piston movement into rotary motion, enabling the dissemination of his modified steam engine which made an enormous contribution to the the powering of the industrial revolution. Well George was a sort of a cousin a few times removed.
The firm prospered up to 1979 when it underwent a significant expansion, but a mere two years later it went bust.
Frank worked a monster lathe on the premises and was also sent all over the country to fix and install machinery. He had some hilarious stories of his times with the firm and I hope he writes them up somewhere.
James Robinson then took us off on another tack entirely. He has been following up his own family history for decades and has written a book on it - 300 years of Robinsons. But he has also written a monograph a year on some related aspects or background.
He got an MPhil from Bolton St. DIT for a thesis based on much of the material in his book and all this stuff is on his nicely laid out website.
Lynn Brady is the resident genealogist in Glasnevin cemetery and she took us on an extensive tour on how to chase up your relatives there. She took us through developments in the cemetery's record keeping and showed us the limits of what's available and how best to access it.
Given current events, there was a lot of interest in the Angels Plot and she clarified that it was not confined to full term or premature babies but also accepted miscarriages later than 24 weeks.
John Gibney is Glasnevin Trust Assistant Professor in Public History and Cultural Heritage. He took us through some of the history of the cemetery and also illustrated recent efforts to restore the original garden cemetery concept where much of the area had become unruly and overgrown.
He is particularly interested in historical outreach, involving schools and the public at large.
There was a conundrum at the end which wasn't quite solved. The cemetery is non denominational and accepts people of all faiths or none. It has also accepted suicides down the years.
At the Q&A it was queried whether or not it was consecrated ground and it appears that it is. I think there is something of a contradiction there and no doubt it can be pursued on another occasion.
My direct interest is my grandfather who was fished out of the Liffey in 1918 and is buried in St. Paul's (I told you I'd come back to it). I had been taking consolation in his presence in St. Paul's on the assumption that it was consecrated ground and that he would not have been accepted there if there had been any question of suicide. But in the light of what John says I'm now not sure where I stand.
Meanwhile a great time was had by all. Thanks Máire and all the best in your retirement. Keep up the researching and the writing and remember, in the words of Voltaire, il faut cultiver son jardin.