Thursday, October 30, 2014

Coaxing and Cajoling

There are ways to convince reluctant headstones from abandoned cemeteries to yield their secrets. While we weren’t equipped to do rubbings on our foray through the old graveyards of our ancestral townlands in Ireland, apparently my husband was still inspired to do some magic, just with his camera work alone.

Remember this headstone? The one on the far right, with the ivy gracefully ascending its side?

Headstones at Catholic church ruins at Castletown in the church parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick Ireland

When I first saw that photograph, I was sure I would never be able to figure out what it was trying to tell us. What I hadn’t realized—not, at least, until we returned home and I started reviewing all the material we had accumulated on our research trip—was all that my husband had accomplished during our visits to the cemeteries.

At the Castletown graveyard, which we visited after driving through tiny Ballyagran, the Catholic parish my husband’s Flanagan ancestors once called home, we had arrived at about four o’clock in the gloom of an impending storm. While I contented myself with wandering the paths between family plots, seeking any sign of our Flanagan or Malloy surnames, my husband was busying himself with his photographic duties. Wandering into the more forbidding corners where wimps like me preferred not to tread, he ferreted out the oldest and most impossible subjects for some of his portraits.

I’m not sure how he did it—perhaps the variations in lighting from the shifting clouds overhead worked to his advantage—but he was able to coax the words out of that one recalcitrant block.

1791 memorial to Timothy Sullivan erected by his son John at the Castletown Conyers graveyard near Ballyagran in County Limerick Ireland

Here Lyeth the
Body of Thimo
Thy Sullivan
Who Departed
This Life Octo
Ber the 11th ——
Aged 55 Years
May he Rest in Peace Amen

The only challenge I had now, after the assistance from this more revealing photographic angle, was to determine the year. I could see the last two digits were ’91—but which century was it?

As if he were prescient, my husband had anticipated this difficulty and arranged to take a close up shot of that segment of the headstone. Thankfully, the contrast was enough to tell: it was a headstone from 1791. Furthermore, it provided credit for the family member who had erected the memorial.

detail from 1791 Timothy Sullivan headstone found at Castletown cemetery in County Limerick Ireland

Erectd by his Son Iohn

I’ll assume that “Iohn” really meant John. While those two details won’t necessarily help any family-history-seeking Sullivans to make precise connections, it gives us a chance to add one sliver of information to the overarching body of crowdsourced knowledge aggregated at places like Find A Grave.

Besides, for a memorial to an Irishman born about 1736, it makes this the oldest still-legible headstone we’ve found on our own, so far, in Ireland.

Catholic church ruins next to graveyard at Castletown Conyers in County Limerick Ireland

Photographs showing the placement and details for the Sullivan headstone were obtained from the graveyard at the Catholic Church ruins in Castletown (sometimes called Castletown-Conyers) in County Limerick, Ireland. Photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

No Longer Speaking

Yesterday, in her blog, Genealogy à la carte, Gail Dever shared a press release she had recently received. From, it commemorated the crowdsourced website’s milestone of having uploaded one million headstone photographs.

While one million may seem like an immense number, when you extrapolate that number over the span of the worldwide task before us, you realize this is just a small fraction of what still needs to be done. Yet it is a worthy accomplishment.

In describing their mission, noted,
[I]t is becoming harder—if not impossible—to read the inscriptions these stones originally contained. By archiving the images and transcriptions, these important records are saved.

That thought—of the disappearance of once-readable headstone inscriptions—was not lost upon me when our family walked the graveyards of our ancestral heritage in Ireland this month. We snapped what photos we could of legible monuments, but stood, wondering, in front of mute reminder of that fact. Could that blank slate have once been the headstone commemorating our ancestor? Unless someone transcribed any record of those vanished inscriptions from a prior century, we’ll have no way to know.

headstones at the Castletown Conyers cemetery in the Catholic parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick

The ravages of time are not the only challenges facing these engraved records—whether in Canada or Ireland. Add vandals to that list—yes, even in a country like Ireland which boasts a relatively low crime rate—and the deterioration is accelerated. When I queried various online forums about the Castletown graveyard in County Limerick, someone shared a link to a 2011 article in the Limerick Leader concerning the “absolutely appalling state” of the Conyers family tomb there in which the human remains contained within two coffins had been scattered about the premises. The newspaper was reporting on the complaint made to the County Council by the witness to the desecration.

Standing, this month, with my husband in that quiet Irish graveyard—so far from any noise of traffic or neighborhood—it was hard to imagine such mistreatment happening in this bucolic location. Apparently, though, vandals know no limitations of borders.

The ruins of the churchyard confessed to us the ambience of the kindler, gentler ravages of time—only Time, which inevitably would sweep over all and make even the clearest announcements eventually mumble with weathered undulations.

Headstones at the Castletown Conyers cemetery in Catholic parish Ballyagran in County Limerick

The realization only galvanizes my resolve to bolster the cause of those dedicated to preserving these messages. "Etched in stone" may sound like a permanent solution, but even something as innocuous as drips of water leave their mark. I think of books I’ve seen in collections like the Allen County Public Library, where forward-thinking researchers from seventy or a hundred years ago went out and transcribed what records could be found in local cemeteries. I’m thankful for such projects. Now, those details copied onto paper are sometimes the only records left, when the stones that bore the originals have failed us.

Leaving the Castletown graveyard and the ruins of the Catholic Church once standing in its center was, for me, a melancholy parting. I couldn’t help think of those jagged shards of rock, barely clearing the ground, but obviously announcing that someone was buried in that spot. Could that have been our ancestor? Unless someone preserved that record on paper in a yet-undiscovered book, we’ll never know.

Headstones in the cemetery at Castletown Conyers in Catholic parish Ballyagran in County Limerick

Photographs, above, piece together a panorama of the headstones found within the ruins of the Catholic church once standing at the Castletown-Conyers graveyard in County Limerick, Ireland; photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Read But Not Understood

Depending on where we traveled in Ireland, we either predominantly heard English—although the variety of accents sometimes had us wondering—or a mix of both English and another language. That language, we assumed, was Irish.

You could see Irish everywhere. Many signs were printed first in Irish, then followed by English. And that would make sense in a young country still struggling to regain its own identity.

But “young” isn’t the term I’d have in mind when thinking about a language with a history like Irish. After all, in its primitive form, it had been inscribed in sites found throughout Ireland, as well as around the west coast of Great Britain, from as early as the fourth century.

On our very first day in Ireland, after we took the bus from the airport to the Dublin train station to complete our journey to Cork, the station announcements came over the public address system first in Irish, then in English. Reading them concurrently on the LED system at the front of the train while each Irish announcement was played was an interesting experience in matching the written word with the phonetics.

When we took our travels away from the cities and into the rural areas of counties Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry—especially in County Kerry—we began to see more signs of this language considered the native tongue of Ireland. And yet, when we walked the cemeteries, it seemed a surprise to encounter a headstone engraved in Irish rather than English.

Because I know very little about the Irish language, I have no way to understand what those headstones were saying. Of course, it is easy to presume the stones were announcing the name of the departed, along with significant dates and perhaps relationships.

With one readable headstone, I tried my hand at Google Translate. Though the program includes the option of translation from Irish, what I typed into the app yielded not much more than gibberish. Either I transcribed some letters incorrectly, or the system had some glitches, I reasoned, so I tried a reverse process. Guessing the word “Feabra” might mean February, I tried entering February in the English box in Google Translate to see what the Irish result would yield. Surprise: February in Irish is spelled Feabhra, not Feabra. Perhaps we were dealing with a dyslexic engraver. Or a poor speller.

If I were able to intuit some of the other words on the headstone, I might have guessed my way through—and found some more misspellings—but I’m afraid the Irish language still has me mystified. Still, judging by the patterns of the words, the stone served as memorial for three people, who presumably died between the twelfth of February in 1950 and the tenth of March, ten years later. Whatever the details, the record is still there for the world to read at the graveyard of Castletown-Conyers in the Catholic parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick.

1950s headstone engraved in Irish language found at Castletown Catholic church ruins in southern County Limerick

 Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Some Can Be Read…

Walking the church ruins of Castletown in County Limerick during our recent trip to Ireland, my husband and I came upon just the right conditions to capture some century-old engravings. Just before arriving, when we drove through tiny Ballyagran, the townland and Catholic parish from which my husband’s second great-granduncle William Flanagan had once proudly proclaimed his heritage, we encountered a typical brief Irish drizzle. By the time we stopped to ask for directions and drive further up the lane to the cemetery, the rain had stopped, but the sky was still gloomily overcast. Perfect, it turned out, for taking photographs in a graveyard.

While neither of us is related to the subjects of these memorials, just as yesterday, I want to share what we found. Maybe some others will find themselves led here through a fortunate exchange on Google and see these photos as beneficial for their own family history research.

Erected by
John McCann of Caherhennessy
In memory of his father
Bartholomew McCann
Who died 15th of July 1901
Aged 84 years
And of his mother
Catherine McCann
Who died 2nd of December 1885
Aged 74 years
May they rest in peace
Mary Bridget Biggane
Died June 9, 1949

Some of the headstones provide guidance in piecing together two or three generations of family trees. Some entries, however, introduce their own mysteries. How, for instance, is Mary Bridget Biggane connected to the McCann family? By the different appearance of the engraving of her name in comparison to the previous entries, it seems as if this addition is an afterthought. Could it be a married daughter? Almost an entire lifetime removed from her predecessors, perhaps it is more realistic to suppose she was a grandchild.

And yet, others here in Ireland go so far beyond the kind of expectations I’ve learned to have, coming from the perspective of someone used to wandering the cemeteries of my own country. Complete with dates and place names, some stones are an abbreviated family history in engraved format, preserved in one public place for all to read and know.

Erected by
John Chawke and his children
In sad and loving memory
Of his wife and their mother
Who departed this life
At Kilmeedy
April 16th 1913
Aged 72 years
John died Oct 19 1920
James Fitzgerald died March 3 1948
Bridget Fitzgerald (nee Chawke) died Feb 17 1962
Catherine Fitzgerald died Aug 1 1972
John Fitzgerald died July 5 1995

Photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sharing Someone Else’s Story

While we weren’t able to find any headstones confirming our family’s history when we walked the graveyards alongside church ruins of their home parishes in Ireland—not, at least, among the legible ones there—we did find several old stones which clearly showed their message. Some of them, as I later found out when scrolling through microfilm records when we stopped at Dublin, featured surnames that repeatedly appeared in parish documents.

Though these do not represent any surnames from my husband’s Irish roots, the least we can do is share what we found, in case anyone else is searching for details on these lines. The following photographs are of headstones found next to the ruins of the Catholic Church in the townland of Castletown in County Limerick, near the border with County Cork.

Some of these stones revealed family tales intertwined with the engraved names—some yielding details on many generations; some, like this one below, providing at least a snapshot of the family constellation back in the early 1800s.

1836 grave marker erected by Mary and John Quilty for Michael Quilty in County Limerick Ireland

Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Erected by
Mary Quilty + son John
In memory of her Husband
Michael Quilty
Late of Castletown
Who Depd life April 7th A.D. 1836
Ag’d 63 Yrs
May his Soul rest in peace Amen

Some headstones had lettering so clear, it was hard to imagine it surviving intact in such superb condition since the early 1800s. And it likely didn’t. This headstone, for instance, appears to have had the indentations left from the original engraving re-touched in black. Once again, the record provides not only a snapshot of the one deceased member, but also a group record of the family constellation.

Memorial for Deely family members buried at Castletown in County Limerick Ireland

Erected by
Dan Deely of Rusheen
In Memory of his Father
Wllm Deely Who Depd life
June 1st 1828 Ag’d 57ys Also his Mother
Mary Deely Who Depd life May 6th
1841 Agd 53 yrs And his Brother
Willm Depd life Augst 12th 1828 Agd 27 yrs
And his Belovd Wife Ellen Deely
Depd life March 14th 1862
Agd 57 yrs
May their Souls rest in peace Amen

Some stones didn’t fare as well—or at least, didn’t have anyone to look after properly preserving them through the centuries. This stone, possibly missing some details, still included the timeless request to share in the burden of prayer for those now departed.

Please pray for deceased members of Byrnes family of Castletown Conyers in County Limerick Ireland

Please pray for deceased members of Byrnes family

The most difficult ones to encounter in this search for our family were those which were near impossible to read. Could we be walking away from a stone marking the resting place of an ancestor, and yet not know it? Some, clear enough to make out the lettering, were obviously engraved in Irish, not English. Others were worn enough that it was next to impossible to determine which language was being used. And some, sadly, had ceased telling their story at all.

old headstone from church ruins at Castletown in County Limerick Ireland

All photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Back Home—Now What?

It is certain that Time never stays put while we’re out having fun. Just looking at the pile of mail accumulated in my absence is enough to convince me of that.

While I was away—admittedly, having the time of my life touring the homeland of my husband’s ancestors in Ireland—stuff I hated to miss was still happening. Jim Baker taught his brick-wall-smashing “Seven Strategies for Finding the Hard Ones” live at our local genealogical society’s monthly meeting, which I missed—and I was the one setting this one up! Attorney Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, made a rare West Coast appearance to teach an all-day seminar near my home—unfortunately just in time for me to head to Ireland. Apparently, nobody got the memo that I would not be able to attend, for none of these events was rescheduled for my benefit.

I did get the chance to catch one event, though: an all-day, hands-on DNA workshop sponsored by a neighboring genealogical society. Barely unpacked, hardly finished with that pile of laundry from our travels—not to mention, still digging out from under that avalanche of vacation mail—I’m spending the day today, spreadsheets in hand, peppering representatives of ISOGG with questions about why my husband’s and my brother’s Y-DNA tests don’t seem to match anyone else’s results. The ever-present question, “Now what?” will once again spring from my lips.

As if my husband and I weren’t travel weary enough, we will also be planning our next research trip. My mother’s gracious cousin in Florida has revealed her Southern-hospitality self in oft-repeated invitations to come visit her in the land of my maternal grandmother’s roots. This is a line that holds some historical significance for the state of Florida, as my third great-grandfather was a signer of the original Florida constitution. I have long promised myself I would research his life story further. Come this January, it looks like I will have that opportunity.

But what about right now? After touring the ancestral homeland of my father-in-law’s eight Irish great-grandparents, I’ve accumulated tons of notes and photographs. The main task is to decipher all that penciled-in chicken scratch of my own to see if I can connect any of the dots, and hopefully draw some conclusions about what I found. Sometimes during those three weeks, I found myself scribbling madly, just trying to take down all the details I was finding. Seldom was there time for reflection—it was full speed ahead, as long as I was where the repositories were. “Read through microfilms now, reflect on them later” had been my mantra that final week in Dublin. Now begins the pay-back time, when I need to make good on my promises.

Sometimes, schedules can’t be helped. Limited time at the Dublin research centers meant maximizing all available time to use the materials and documents there before closing hours. At the risk of discovering something I might have missed—with the possibility of no recourse but to return to seek more—I had to do what could be done while doors were open.

Whether any patterns, details or clues emerge, I can’t yet tell. Hopefully, what’s in these notes will guide me to my next step in researching this Irish branch of our family tree. Whether that does or not, though, I know I have two other projects awaiting my attention: three sets of DNA tests for three family subjects—and that number is soon to rise—and some serious archive time in Florida for my McClellan line in January.

What’s next? When it comes to family history research, it seems there’s always another project clamoring for attention.

Photograph: Bridge over the south fork of the River Lee at the entrance to the beautiful University College Cork campus in Ireland, where our daughter is attending classes this semester. Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.

Friday, October 24, 2014

When Your Story Touches My Story

Sometimes I can’t get a handle on how fast time flies. Granted, I was thick in the midst of research in Dublin last week, but right in the middle of it all—microfilms, census records, and property tax binders, oh my!—a thought suddenly occurred to me: what became of Donna Grescoe?

If you have been following along here at A Family Tapestry—for quite a while, in fact—you may remember the name Donna Grescoe from my series on my father-in-law’s letters home during World War II. I first ran across her name in a letter Frank Stevens sent home to his folks in Chicago, about one year after his post-Pearl Harbor enlistment in the Navy.

Knowing the surname Grescoe didn’t figure in the Stevens family genealogy, at the time I figured it was yet another mention of a high school girlfriend kindly dropping the brave sailor an encouraging line from home. Despite Frank’s genuine surprise at having received a letter from her, I somehow missed the value of that clue. Although friends, associates and neighbors can reveal hints to the observant genealogical researcher, I set this one aside as a case of an acquaintance too tenuous to lead to any further family details.

That was in 2011, as I worked my way through the piles of letters and memorabilia that had just been passed down to me from the Stevens and Tully families in Chicago. After transcribing the entire collection of letters written home by Frank Stevens over both his Navy enlistment and his subsequent Air Force career, I moved on to sort through the other resources the family had saved.

Because Frank’s mom, Agnes Tully Stevens, had once been a touring violinist, I wasn’t surprised to see concert programs tucked away in this packet of papers she considered important. But when the name Donna Grescoe resurfaced, I had to find out why her name kept appearing in our family’s important papers.

That’s what prompted me to find out who Donna Grescoe was: a child prodigy violinist who, with wholehearted community support, had been sent on scholarship from Winnipeg to study at a conservatory in Chicago. Because she was only eleven years of age at the time of her great adventure, she needed a place to stay during her year abroad. As it turned out, her home away from home was that of the Stevens family. Our family.

Working my way through Agnes Tully Stevens’ personal papers, I transcribed the program she had saved of Donna’s farewell recital in Chicago—which included a list of local benefactors who, along with support from her own hometown, had made her studies at the conservatory possible. My final post on the Chicago chapter of the young Donna Grescoe’s life described a children’s book written about her life. And yes, the book included the detail of Donna’s stay with our family.

As a follow up to these blog posts, there is a “rest of the story” that I need to include here. First, there was the wonderful surprise of a package I received from a Family Tapestry reader, Intense Guy, who with his research prowess had managed to turn up a copy for me of that 1951 book, The Little Magic Fiddler. Inside, there was indeed mention of Agnes and her husband Will, along with all but the oldest son of the Stevens family. Oh, how we wish we could have read aloud to our Uncle Ed author Lyn Cook’s description of each child as Donna arrived in Chicago and met her host family.

Every time I work on a blog post here, I inevitably research far more than I end up publishing. It was no different in working with these posts involving Donna Grescoe. I had found several old newspaper articles announcing her concert tours, reviewing her performances, and—as I advanced to current times—describing her more recent professional ventures. I did end up contacting a musician who was working closely with Donna, and in the process of exchanging emails, learned of Donna’s recent diagnosis of cancer.

That was in July of 2012, as I was completing my series of posts spinning off Frank’s mention of Donna’s letters to him. After that point, I moved on to other topics.

Until last week. Then—don’t ask me why this happened in Ireland while I was working on a totally different project—the thought popped into my mind, “Whatever became of Donna?” I Googled her name and was saddened to learn she had passed away not long after I had made that contact with her associate.

If you recall my mentioning Donna Grescoe in my posts during 2011 and 2012, you might be interested in reading the rest of her story. A brief obituary in her hometown Winnipeg newspaper, followed by guest book entries from those whom she had taught or benefitted, provides some personal reflections on just what kind of person she was. Another article from the city of her more recent residence in British Columbia provides a chronology of her life and career. A reflective piece by her younger brother, published in the Winnipeg Free Press, reveals details of career challenges facing a talented young woman making her debut in post-war New York City.

While I stumbled upon the story of Donna Grescoe only as a tangential detail in researching the history of our own family, her story somehow grew on me. Though not family, she represented a chapter in the life of my father-in-law—an acquaintance who, sharing a home with our family for almost a year, kept surfacing in the Stevens’ conversation and correspondence for years afterward. It isn’t often that a genealogical researcher can find details on her family between the covers of a children’s book. Nor does the average family’s history include time spent with individuals whose story can readily be gleaned from multiple newspapers and public records.

More than anything, though, I think this represents a case of “Your Story Touches My Story.” And knowing her story through that lens bestows that intangible sense of connection. It’s a trace of relationship that, though not familial, still confesses that mystical interconnectivity that broadly draws humankind together as family.
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