On the Trail of an Irish Colleen, Part 1

Colleen, definition (Irish): a girl or young woman. Colleens are typically known for their beauty and mysterious ways.

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Nellie Hynes, my mother, was the one who got away. Of all her siblings, she was the one who didn’t stay at home in Ireland, but struck out on her own, looking for a different life. And of course she found it in Scotland, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Part of my recent trip to Ireland was all about trying to find out more about her childhood and youth in County Mayo. I’d heard that there were old photos and of course I hoped that there would be some of her as a child or young woman, maybe a wedding photo of her parents, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. Pictures of her nieces and nephews growing up – I shared some of those with you in my last post – some of her visiting Ireland in later years, but nothing from her childhood or adolescence. And there were none of her siblings either, or anything going back to the previous generation – I suppose it would have been unusual for photography to have featured in the life of the rural West of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. I was tantalised by mention of a blue album containing older images, including supposedly a wedding photo. But it couldn’t be found and I had to resign myself to the possibility that it never would be. You can be sure that if those pictures ever do emerge, you’ll see them here first!

So, what to do? Nothing for it but to follow in her footsteps. The first port of call being the family farm in Davros, County Mayo (location for the high tea I told you about last time). The farmhouse was called “Na Liomai Ard”, which is Gaelic for “Tall Limes”, but the name seems to have fallen into disuse, and in fact the limes themselves were cut down years ago – there’s a lot of moss growing on that stump.

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Behind the stump you can see a dry stone wall which I like to think was one the young Nellie would help her father mend when she was a child. I don’t know who repairs the walls now – the farmland itself is rented out and it’s only the house and immediate grounds that are still occupied by sister in-law Phil. Below to the left is the house as it is today, all spruced up, and on the right an old aerial photograph which is probably closer to the home Mum would have known. It’s worth noting that in those days there was no inside toilet. You can see that this was before the trees were cut down.

Mum seldom talked about her past when we were growing up – she preferred to look to the future. But my sister Mary recalls, “I remember many times in the last 20 years, sitting with Mum in our garden, talking about her story and her family and about Dad. Perhaps the green grass and countryside brought it back to her.” It was these memories that Mary lovingly captured in a marvellous booklet which was distributed at her funeral.  In the absence of photographs I can do no better than to quote here the evocative word pictures Mary paints of Mum’s life at home in Davros. (With permission – slightly abridged).

“Ellen Hynes, was known to everyone as Nellie. She was the second of four children and described her mother, Margaret Morris, as a gregarious, ambitious person, while her father John Hynes had a creative, sensitive character. Growing up on the farm, Nellie loved to help her father repair the stone walls, look after cattle, plant hedges and help her mother bake the bread daily for the farmhands and the family.

She was musical and said she was very close to her father, a very fine fiddle player who always carried his fiddle in his pocket and would be found playing the traditional tunes sitting under the trees on the farm. The Hynes house was filled most evenings with all the neighbourhood folk holding a ceilidh, which in those days included recitations of legendary stories and poetry, tales of folklore and fairy-folk and discussions of history and news as well as the traditional music. Young and old contributed. Nellie would sit for hours in the evenings, loving and absorbing these traditional gatherings, and would herself sing a Gaelic song or recite a poem.”

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Some facts and figures (garnered from old diaries, notebooks, records): – John Hynes and Maggie Morris married in 1919, and had four children, though there might have been more if Maggie’s first pregnancy (twins) hadn’t sadly ended in miscarriage due to a fall. They went on to have Kathleen (1921), Ellen (1923), Patrick (1924) and Mary (1925). When John died in 1954, the farm, as is still largely the way in Ireland, went to the son Patrick (Pat). To be fair, there’s probably not a living for more than one family on the land, but putting my (occasional) feminist hat on, I can’t help wondering why it should always be the boy that gets the land? Anyway, Pat married Phil and they brought up their family on the farm. Kathleen, Nellie and Mary all eventually left home and married.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s get back to Mary’s memoir:

“As she grew up, Nellie was a very sociable person and she loved to attend as many social and family occasions as she possibly could. There was plenty of social life in the surrounding villages in the form of dances, markets and church socials, as well as her own home being the hub for ceilidhs for the local community. The roads were almost car-free in those days and she would bicycle far and wide with great freedom.”

“Nellie enjoyed school and performed very well there, proving to be a highly intelligent girl with plenty of drive. She developed her lifelong interests in literature, history and languages from her earliest days at school, where at that time all subjects were still taught in both Gaelic and English with a strong emphasis and pride in the great Irish literary tradition, culture and history. When she was about 15, an aunt offered her the chance to go with her to live in Chicago where many of the Hynes family had settled before, but it was decided that she would not go.”

In fact I think it was Nellie’s Morris relations, her mother’s family, who had emigrated to America. There are some colourful tales about their exploits, but they’ll have to wait for another time. In the meantime, let me show you Cloghans (An Clochan) National School which Mum attended as a young scholar.  A plaque has the date 1860 on it. I got a good shot of the rear of the building, but as you can see there was too much undergrowth to get a good one of the front, so the lower view is captured off googlemaps. If you’d like to “stand” in the road yourself, send me a request by email and I’ll forward the link to you.

Next door to the old school is its modern replacement. There was a dedication ceremony, I think to mark its 50th anniversary, in the sixties, which is shown in this next photograph. Look at the middle of the row of adults standing behind the children. See that tiny little old lady wearing the dark hat? That’s Mary Varley. She was headmistress in the old school for many years, and taught my Mum. She was also Mum’s aunt – I think John Hynes was her brother. She would have been in her eighties in this picture.

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It’s been a bit strange telling this story without Mum there to ask when I’ve wanted to check my facts. In episode 2 I’ll get to the part where she left home to find her fortune. One thing that’s clear to me so far is that although it sometimes seemed as if she had left her past behind without a second glance, she manifestly held these memories close to her heart throughout the decades. In her final days when she talked about “home”, she didn’t mean the West End Glasgow flat that she had made her own for 50 years, but her childhood home, her beloved Davros.

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Travel broadens…

… I was going to say the mind, but considering the associated meals out, incidental cups of tea, snacks on the train, plane or whatever, it would probably be more accurate to say that travel broadens the beam! This is on my mind because I’m on the move right now – a mini tour of relatives in London and Ireland. I started this post on day 4 of the County Mayo leg of the trip, a place I’ve not been since 1969, though it’s my mother’s family home. She visited her homeland quite a few times in the years after my dad died in 1981, but somehow we daughters never did, other than the aforementioned family holiday in the sixties.

So I’ve finally come over to try and retrace her footsteps, starting at her sister Mary’s house, where Mary (92) still lives, cared for by her daughter Marian. Here’s Mum (left) on one of her visits, chatting with sister in law Phil, and then cousin Marian  (“don’t be silly, of course you must come and stay with us”), sitting at the self same table, chatting with me (the picture of me didn’t come out).

Catching up with the relatives has involved limitless kindness and hospitality on the part of these lovely cousins of mine, so warm and welcoming, and ready to ignore decades of neglect on my part. There seems to be something about family ties, especially in a friendly place like Ireland, that you can always rely on. Calling at the family farm in County Mayo turned out to be more than just a quick visit – Auntie Phil had other ideas: cosy fire in the living room, high tea laid out on the kitchen table, and –  surprise, surprise – more cousins; Marian, Sarah and Ann, who had “just popped in” . And then came the piece de resistance – this little suitcase absolutely crammed full of old photographs, which engrossed us all for the next several hours…

Here’s just a small selection, mainly from the fifties and sixties, of Phil and Paddy’s family snaps. Paddy was my mother’s younger brother, and he and Phil had three daughters, mentioned above, and a son, John, who now lives in England. The top left picture is of Phil and Paddy’s wedding day.

And of course Marian in Tuam also unearthed a fine collection of photograph albums, chronicling HER family over the years. It would be too confusing to start reciting all the names here, so I think I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves, except to say that the first photo is of Marian on her mother’s knee.

I love the way these rather faded old photographs seem to reach out to you directly from a lost era. But I suppose I’d better bring you more up to date with a couple of pictures from a family wedding (Marian’s daughter Denise). Don’t they all scrub up well?

It’s a bit overwhelming to catch up with quite so many relatives, so many lives, all at once, so I think it would be best not to leave it several decades before I come back again.  And I would also do well to remember that visiting relatives in Ireland is definitely an exercise in going with the flow – whatever thoughts you might have had of being very organised and self-sufficient and independent simply fade away in the face of such boundless hospitality.

I’m not sure if it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive – passing through Stansted Airport, as I did for the first time last week, just about knocks all hope out of you, a truly ghastly experience, only surpassed by the appalling Charles de Gaulle in Paris. So what with that, delayed trains, carting luggage up and down stairs in the Tube, I think I’m probably more a fan of actually arriving.  However I do agree with the author Mary Anne Radmacher: “I am not the same, having seen the moon shine from the other side of the world.” Now that rings true. I will never forget travelling to China five years ago and watching the sun slowly rise over the curve of the Earth as we flew towards the morning from Europe to Asia. That kind of experience makes a long lasting impression. “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”  Gustave Flaubert.

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Travel does change you, if you let it. It might be the spectacular once-in-a-lifetime trip, such as that fortnight in Shanghai, or the apparently more modest excursion to somewhere that captures a little corner of your heart and stays there long after you’ve returned home again – it’s great to occasionally be cast adrift from the normal, familiar routines, to see different sights, think different thoughts, be open to different cultures. That’s when travel really does broaden the mind, changes your perspective, creates lasting memories. As John Steinbeck observed “People don’t take trips, trips take people”.

 

Clutter … or Treasure?

Did you get a home-made card this Mother’s Day? And will it sit proudly on the mantlepiece for a few days before getting tossed in the recycling? … or maybe be displayed on the fridge door for a couple of weeks or months? … or does it join a whole collection of artwork and wee notes and cards carefully preserved for posterity? If I tell you that the above card was made for me around 30 years ago and that Daniel will be 40 next year, I think you can guess which category I fall into!

As it turns out, from the point of view of the family historian (as I now have the temerity to call myself), these tiny trifles are like golddust. For example, here’s a little letter from Theresa, a cousin of mine in Inverness, sent to her Aunt Beatrice (my grandmother) in 1931.

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And a drawing of “The wee Pickles” (John, Mary and Donald) from the back of one of my dad’s letters to his mother, as described in my previous post, again in 1931.

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I am so glad that these little handmade documents have survived the years; there is something almost unbearably touching about handling these relics of the past, and feeling that the love that went into their making, giving and receiving still survives to this day, even when the people are long gone.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have bouts of clutter clearing. Bouts? It’s continuous!  I’m currently going through boxes and boxes of my mum’s remaining letters, papers and photographs, looking for the small gems among all the clutter. On the whole, my mum kept EVERYTHING – it all meant something to her and more often than not, some card or letter will be preserved in its envelope marked, for example, “from Tia in London, keep safely” or “To Dad from Eleanor for Father’s Day ’79. Very precious”. You see what I mean? It makes it almost impossible to toss anything away!

Actually, my solution for the moment is to parcel up all these various mementos and return them to the original senders – that way, my sisters, children, nieces and nephews can make the decision as to what should happen to them . I’m sure they’ll be delighted with that. And by the way, I have no idea who Barry Kiernan is.

You know, it’s very random what survives and what doesn’t, so in a way I’m glad to have this surfeit of stuff to sort through, as it’s better than not having anything at all from a particular era. Which was the case when I was telling you about George and Beatrice and how they met sometime before 1920. George, of course carried on after Beatrice died in 1932, eventually married again and had more (many more!) children. But that’s a story for another day. For the moment, let me tell you a memory that has been passed on to me, which will perhaps explain why I’ve not been able to find any artifacts from that decade when they met in Ceylon, or perhaps even on the boat home.

These are the words of Pat, widow of George’s son, Sandy;

“When George knew he was dying, around 1961/2 he bade Sandy fetch a tea chest and emptied the shop safe – it was huge – into it. He stood over Sandy while chest and contents were burned in the back yard.”

Aaagh!

It’s generally agreed that George’s last word on his deathbed – and remember this is 30 years after she had died – was “Beatrice”.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me as to just how the photos I have of Beatrice and the family, and the childrens’ letters, somehow survived this bonfire. My sister Mary thinks that perhaps some female relation – possibly one of George’s sisters – might have kept them when Beatrice died and then passed them on to our Dad at some point. Whatever the truth is, we can only be grateful to her for this act of preservation.

So, I kind of hope that despite the technology we have at our disposal nowadays when it seems we can document and share our lives almost as they happen, people will still find delight in discovering the odd home made card or gift or souvenir that has been squirreled away in a shoebox, only to be unearthed years later, after the items – and possibly the people associated with them – have been long forgotten. You never know – these simple keepsakes, not necessarily having any monetory value, might become cherished family heirlooms, like this service button owned by my cousin Pauline which is the only memento she still has of her father (my Uncle Donald).

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