A selection of my mother’s paintings of Ireland.
My great-great grandparents Patrick and Mary and five of their six children, immigrated from Ireland in 1846 during the Potato Famine. I’ve blogged previously about my Irish roots and a visit to an Irish Graveyard, but today’s post will be about a letter from Ireland.
They came in a party of twenty or more but lost three relatives from typhus on the way over. While in the quarantine station, more of the passengers started to get sick so they decided to jump ship, losing one teenage son in the Quebec bush in the process, who was never found. They later traced him to northern Ontario, but he had moved out west before they could get word to him.
Their 14-year-old son John (my great grandfather in his old age, sitting in the chair) had stayed behind because he had the chance to go to school with the overseer’s son, an opportunity too good to pass up. He came two years later through New York and an uncle was sent to pick him up. A family story tells of the letter that was sent from Ireland about his expected arrival.
In the spring of 1847, their second year, a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were. He informed them there was a letter for them at a post office near the river, presumably word of where and when their son John was to arrive. Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it. The country was all wilderness then, with no roads, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swampy areas to walk across. When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it on to another hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river trail to that post office, where they told her that they hadn’t known of any settlers with that name, so they had forwarded it to a larger port to the north. Mary walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter, although it’s unlikely she could read it as she signed the land deed with an X. It began to get dark and Patrick became worried that she had not returned home. He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in town. All told she had walked over thirty miles to get the letter! Having already lost one son in the bush, she must have been overjoyed when John finally arrived safe and sound.
While admiring Mary’s strength and determination to be reunited with her son, what has always struck me about this tale is the sack of flour. In my uncle’s genealogy notes, he writes it was a fifty pound bag, surely an exaggeration as when I tried to hoist a 25lb bag at the grocery store I could barely budge it off the bottom shelf.
Admittedly, I am neither robust nor strong, but Mary in the photo above doesn’t exactly look like an Amazon woman either, so I assume that must have been a wee bit of blarney!
In the early days when the land was sparsely populated, grist mills were few and far between. They were usually located on the banks of a fast flowing river or stream and and powered by a water wheel. I took this picture of a flour mill display at a history museum last summer.
Note the cotton flour bags and the heavy grist-stone.
While large grist-stones were associated with commercial mills, many farms had their own smaller grindstones for grain or sharpening instruments. (My brother kept ours from the farm). Once settlers had harvested their grain, they then had to grind it by hand using a mortar and a pestle or a pair of grindstones placed on top of one another, both time consuming methods.
So for Mary to be able to buy a bag of ground flour at a mill in town must have seemed the height of luxury, an endeavor well worth the effort involved in lugging it home. When we toss butter, milk, eggs and flour into our grocery cart, we forget how much of our ancestors time was spend just obtaining the simple necessities of life, although I do sometimes think about this family story when I pull out the flour from my pantry to do some baking.
Today we’re going to make Irish soda bread. There are many versions of this bread, some are more scone-like with white flour, sugar and raisins, and some are like the denser darker brown bread traditionally served with orange marmalade at breakfast, but I’m going to experiment with something in between. As I’ve never made any kind of bread before, wish me the luck of the Irish.
Irish soda bread was popular in Ireland as it could be baked in a covered skillet over the fireplace, and did not require an oven or yeast like more traditional breads. It relies on the chemical reaction between the sour milk/buttermilk and the baking soda instead of yeast. Here’s the recipe.
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 3/4 cups all-purpose white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 (level) teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
1 2/3 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon oats
I made one small change – as I only had self-rising white flour with the salt and baking POWDER already added, I cut the salt back to 1/2 tsp. The baking powder didn’t make any difference, it just made it rise a bit more.
Heat the oven to 425°F (215°C). Mix together the flours, salt and baking soda in a large bowl. (NB: make sure the baking soda is a LEVEL teaspoon otherwise the bread may taste funny and/or turn green!)
Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles bread crumbs. (I did not take a picture here, as my hands were too messy. Those food network divas must have their own photographers!)
In a separate measuring jug, whisk the egg and buttermilk together. The egg is optional but makes the batter richer so I added it. Pour 3/4 of the liquid into the centre of the dry ingredients.
Using your hands mix the flour and liquid together to form a loose dough. The dough should be soft, but not too sticky. Add more of the liquid as needed, but try not to overwork it.
Turn onto a floured work surface and bring the dough together into a round shape about 1 1/2 inches thick. (Again, no pictures but I used my new glass kitchen board, new as in found in the basement cleanup. For someone who doesn’t cook that much I seem to have a lot of kitchen stuff).
Place formed loaf on a baking sheet dusted with flour. Brush a bit of the left over liquid on the top of the bread and then sprinkle the rolled oats on the top. This gives it a nice rustic-looking appearance.
Now for the most important part. Using a sharp knife, score the bread by blessing it with a deep cross on top. Then poke a hole in the four quarters of the bread to release the fairies and stop them from cursing your bread. Do not skip this last step, unless you wish to incur their wrath!
Bake for 15 minutes at 425 F in order to give it a nice crisp crust, then turn down the oven to 400 F and bake for 30 minutes more. When done the loaf will sound slightly hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.
As I’ve never made anything with buttermilk or whole wheat flour before I have nothing to compare it too, but I was very pleased with the way the bread turned out – the rustic taste, appearance and ease of preparation – and would definitely make it again. I was especially keen on the part about the blessing and the fairies as I like a bit of folklore with my baking.
Serve warm slathered with some chilled fresh butter and enjoy! Goes great with potato soup, but we’ll save that for next year, as we’re already over 1400 words. (It was nice the next day too, served with jam).
Now, we’ll have a wee small toast to John, using his own crystal decanter and glasses. I think he’d like that it’s whiskey imported straight from his old homeplace, Leitrim County.
Maybe another thimble or two…
For those who don’t drink, I experimented with this no-alcohol low-calorie version of an Irish Coffee, adding an ounce of Skinny Syrup, Irish Cream flavor, to a mug of hot coffee and topping with a squirt of low-fat whipped cream from a can. Magically delicious!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Their son John below, sitting in the chair, aged 80 yr in 1912.
the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula (the only sunny day), and the Cliffs of Moher. Readers of my long-winded posts might find it hard to believe but I bailed out of kissing the Blarney stone.
The medical me was horrified at the unhygienic aspect, especially considering my general lack of immunity to foreign germs, plus the thought of reclining backwards over the parapets at that height was not exactly appealing. (see picture under Wikipedia link)
It was September and the weather was gloomy – it rained every day. If it wasn’t raining, it was overcast. (I forgot to put film in the camera, thus missing a whole role of dull gray skies). Central heating was mostly non-existent. I was cold all the time, and wore both of the Irish sweaters I had bought in Dublin the first week.
It poured on the Cliffs of Moher and I got thoroughly soaked, then the bus broke down and we sat for hours waiting for a mechanic to arrive. It was a scary drive back to Cork in the dark with no headlights. Fortunately, my very kind B&B owner met me at the station, as she wondered why I hadn’t returned at 6 pm as planned. She turned on the bedwarmer/electric blanket and after I had a hot bath, brought me tea and cookies, while I sat in bed writing in my journal about my dreadful day. I guess you could say Ireland is where I first started to write, as I kept a travel journal and wrote in it at night if there was nothing else to do. Although it was easy to meet people in the B&B’s, I wasn’t much of a party person and there are only so many pub/Celtic music nights you can handle over a three week period. Reading back over my journal entries, they’re not half bad.
It was a very foggy morning as we drove out into the countryside and all I could see were hawthorn trees and piles and piles of rocks, swirled in an eerie mist. It was the most desolate place I’d ever seen, and I kept thinking no wonder they left. The west parts of Ireland around Connemara by the sea are rocky but picturesque – but this was just plain bleak. When we got to the church, it looked like a new modern church, right there in the middle of nowhere.
An old priest answered the door. His eyes were red and rheumy and he looked hungover, but he opened the church so I could take some pictures. He told me the church had been built in 1840, (so perhaps my ancestors had worshiped there), but the records only went back to 1855 because of ‘the fire’. There were a few Patricks and one John listed in his old book but the dates weren’t right. The church had been renovated in 1970 and there were about 700 people in the parish. We certainly hadn’t passed any houses so the parish must have taken up a large area of the countryside. (We hadn’t passed any cars either, so perhaps I could have driven on the right side of the road).
When I went back to the car the driver had fallen asleep, so I woke him up and we drove down to the church cemetery which was about a mile down the road, just outside a small village which consisted of a pub, a store, a few houses and a school. The church graveyard was at the site of an old monastery (Fenagh Abbey) which originated around 500 AD and held the ruins of two churches which dated from the 15th century.
There were some newer tombstones, most with the o spelling, a few Patricks and Johns, and lots of crumbled old stones which were impossible to read. I wandered around for awhile taking pictures – it was a strange experience being in the place where your ancestors might have stood and could be buried. The atmosphere was certainly mystical.
Patrick and Mary’s parents, being too old to travel, had stayed behind, and I assume John must have stayed with them when all the others left. Maybe they died in the famine and so he had no choice but to leave a year or two later. They probably wouldn’t have had a proper burial place as in 1847, the worse year of the famine, corpses littered the roads and fields and there was no one left to bury them, nor any coffins to be had. Tombstones were only for the rich.
I recently read a book by John Kelly, The Graves are Walking, which details the horror of that era of Ireland’s history.
The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John KellyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars A scholarly well researched history of the Irish Potato Famine, this book is an important but disturbing read, especially for those of Irish descent.
Having read it, I’m having difficulty with the decision of John being left behind, but then they left in Sept 1846 when the potato crop had failed but before the worst of the famine hit, and if it was John’s decision to stay behind and go to school, then perhaps 14 then wasn’t the child it seems today. Someone must have paid for his passage and put him on a ship to New York, the poor survival rate on the coffin ships to Canada being well known by then. (NB: there is also a Famine Museum in Roscommon Ireland, a tribute to the national disaster).
When I went back to the car the driver had dozed off again and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up so I wandered around some more, snapping pictures. Finally I had to rouse him as I had to catch the train to Dublin. The fog had burned off by then, so I could see more of the countryside on the way back, poor rocky land, the odd house, a few cows and sheep here and there. It was September which would have been harvest season if they had been able to grow anything, even potatoes. We passed a small lake, perhaps they fished?
Certainly, it was a surreal experience to visit the land of your long lost ancestors. Now that we have Ancestry.com and numerous online resources, and personal genealogists who will do all the searching for you, I might go back some day, with a more specific plan in mind. For it has certainly occurred to me, that possibly I wasn’t even in the right place. A few years ago, a distant relative in California contacted me. He had tried to do further research and came up empty-handed. There are so few records, that I may have to remain content with my “lost in the mists of time” experience.
A friend brought me back some souvenirs from her Irish trip last year, a Leitrim County flag and a miniature bottle of whiskey, which my leprechaun is enjoying here.
In the thirty five years since I was there, Ireland has prospered, every small town now a picture of tidy charm. Her photographs were gorgeous, but then cameras have improved too. Sensibly, she went in May and had two weeks of solid sunshine and balmy weather. The clerk in the tourist shop inquired why would you want a souvenir from that place – nobody lives in Leitrim County. Well my ancestors once did. I placed the flag on Patrick and Mary’s tombstone in our church cemetery, as I thought they might enjoy the fact that a great great granddaughter was thinking of them and their old homeplace. I hope their Irish eyes were smiling down on me.
A few weeks later, the flag was gone, blown away by the wind, or removed by the priest or grass-cutter, someone with no respect for the past.
Genealogy websites are full of facts, names and dates, some accurate some not, but what makes genealogy addicting are the stories that make these people come to life. Often these stories are only of interest to the family members, but even if you are not a big fan of history, viewed in the broader context of the immigration issue, it might be worthwhile to record one family’s struggle to survive, for we all came from someplace else. The Irish potato famine (1845-49) was a national tragedy. One quarter of the Irish population either immigrated or died from starvation or disease. I think of my Irish ancestor’s story whenever I read of newly arrived immigrants struggling to start over or the desperate migrants escaping on those overloaded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, for this kind of crisis is still going on all over the world. (see postscript)
A few thoughts on my Irish roots, but first a bit of family history….
The phase the homeplace (the name of my blog), is self-explanatory to country folk. While you may own several farms, the homeplace is the one where your home is, or the original homestead. I grew up on a hundred acre farm which had been settled in 1849 by my Irish ancestors who had immigrated from Leitrim County just before the worst of the potato famine. My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary,
and four of their six children arrived in Canada penniless in October of 1846 with an original party of twenty or more, having lost three on the coffin ship on the way over and one teenage old son in the Quebec bush when they decided to jump ship in the St. Lawrence River during the cholera quarantine. I have a record from the National Archives of Canada, dated Oct 16 1846, for the three brothers who had to borrow one pound for water transport from Port Toronto to where they settled. My great grandfather John, who was fourteen at the time, stayed behind in Ireland because he had a chance to go to school with the overseer/landlord’s son. He came a year or two later on a ship through New York. An uncle, the single one of the three brothers, was dispatched to pick him up, although he had little recollection of the journey other than it was a long way along lots of water. His mother Mary, walked thirty miles along Indian trails through the bush to the nearest post office to get the note telling them when and where he was coming. It was late October when they arrived here, and the Indians helped them build a hut, otherwise they never would have survived the first winter. Several years later they bought the homeplace farm – for poor Irish tenant farmers to own land was a dream come true. They prospered, and John married Ellen a schoolteacher in 1870 and they had nine children.
My grandfather, who I never knew as he died before my parents were married, inherited the farm, and is the second from the right back row. The only one in the picture I ever met was my Aunt Bea, the one with the glasses standing on the far right, as she used to come visit the farm when I was a young child but she died when I was eight so my memory is vague. I have inherited my mass of frizzy hair from the Irish clan, we all have lots of hair, as well as their deep set eyes. It is interesting to see the resemblance and family traits down through the generations. I first started doing genealogy in 2003 when I was between jobs and had lots of time, searching paper records mostly, as there was little online then. Someday I’ll join Ancestry.com and pick up the trail again. My father never knew his grandfather so all I have are some notes from him and my uncle, and of course the family stories. (The homeplace was sold and the house and barn torn down twenty years ago after my dad died. My mother painted it in 2005 from an aerial photograph, which is the picture on the blog home page and below).
Many of us have these family stories passed down through the years, and of course there are also gaps in the tales – missing pieces. A favorite past time of genealogists is conjecture, which is a way of filling in those gaps. Some things I have always wondered about. How did they make the decision to stay or go, or was it made for them? They left late in the year when it was evident from the potato blight that the crop had failed. Did they have to pay their own passage or did the landlord pay it for them? Who did John stay with when he was left behind? His grandparents had elected not to make the journey as they were too old, but how did Mary and Patrick feel about leaving their parents behind? How hard it would have been to say goodbye, knowing they would never see them again. Did they die during the potato famine as the worst year 1847 was still to come? Who paid for John’s passage when he came later? Presumably by then people were aware of the bad conditions on the coffin ships, so perhaps that is why he came through New York. And how did Mary feel about leaving her child behind? I read somewhere that the Irish Catholics were not permitted to be educated, so was the golden opportunity to stay and finish school such a rarity as to justify what must have been a difficult decision. Or maybe 14 wasn’t considered a child back then and would it be any different than sending your 17-year-old off to school today? It must have been devastating for Mary to have lost her oldest son in the bush. They heard rumors that he was up in northern Ontario but by the time they got word to him he had moved on out west. (I might have a whole other set of relatives in western Canada, or the US as borders were fluid back then).
My uncle had an interesting story about Mary in his notes. In the spring of the second year a surveyor came through the woods and inquired who they were. He informed them there was a letter at a community along the river for them, presumably word of where and when John was to arrive. Mary, reportedly a tall robust woman, set out walking to collect it. There were no roads then, just a blazed trail with trees felled across the swamp land to walk on. When she got to the post office six miles away, they told her they had sent it to a hamlet four miles south, so she walked along the river to that post office, where they told her they had not known of any family by that name so they had sent the letter on to a bigger town to the north, so she walked along the river to that town and finally got the letter. She must have been overjoyed to finally get the letter, although it is doubtful she could read it as she signed the land deeds with an X. It began to get dark, and Patrick became worried that she had not come home. He set out along the trail and encountered her carrying a big sack of flour on her head which she had purchased in the town. All told she had walked about thirty miles to get the letter! I sometimes think of this story when I’m sitting at my little farm table (1870), which is my computer desk. Could they have ever imagined a future world of instant communication, Skype and email?
And what about John, how did he feel about being left behind, separated from his family and witness to all those people dying. Were his grandparents still alive when he left? Was he all alone on the ship or traveling with people he knew? Would he have been worried that he wouldn’t be able to find his uncle on the docks in New York, or that he wouldn’t show up at all. By the few accounts we have, in his later years he was a gruff old man (and he looks gruff in the picture), but is that the gruffness of poor health and old age or from damage to one’s psyche at a young age? Were the conditions on his ship any better than on the Canadian ships?
For an understanding of the conditions on the coffin ships, check out…..Famine Diary by James J. Mangan, a first person tale of the journey, based on Gerald Keegan’s diary. (Goodreads link) A must read for anyone of Irish descent, it is a disturbing account. There is such a memorable description of the hunger of the potato famine, that to this day, I can not stand to see a scrap of potato left uneaten on a plate without thinking of the heartbreaking descriptions in this book. Although their tenant farms were small, an acre of land could grow enough potatoes to sell and to keep ten people fed over the winter, but when the blight hit, there was nothing to sell or to eat. (Another good book is The Coming of the Irish to Canada – Flight from Famine – by Donald Mackay).
And what about that tale of jumping ship? Is it even plausible? My uncle’s notes say the ship hit rough weather and head winds and took six weeks to cross the Atlantic. Ships fever broke out and three of their party died, but which three? Whoever they were, their burial would have been at sea. They arrived at an island in the St. Lawrence for quarantine, most likely Grosse Isle. It was a requirement that all be in good heath for several weeks before proceeding to the mainland, but the immigration post on the island was grossly understaffed, so there were many ships lined up in the river waiting to unload. First one got sick, then another, and time began to pass. Finally, they arranged to be smuggled to the mainland from where they promptly disappeared into the bush to avoid the authorities. This is how they lost their son, as there would have been no way to find him. But how did he get separated? Did some of them elect to swim over? Or did they bribe someone to row them over, seven of the fourteen were children, two young babies, so that is more likely the case. Is this any different than the migrants now on the boats in the Mediterranean? You take your chance for survival, for you and your children. How did they eventually get to where they settled? They had to apply for a loan of one pound (National Archive record) for water transport, so we know they were broke, and even if they had any money they would have had to pay the smugglers. I was only able to account for 14 people on the journey, all descendants from the three brothers, plus the 3 who died, so who were the others and did some of the party remain in quarantine. Why did they come to the area where they settled? Someone in Ireland knew where to send the letter re John’s arrival so they must have had some idea of where they were going to settle, unless they sent word back home after they were here. I have tantalizing tidbits about a relative who might have been here already, but I have been unable to trace it further like so many dead ends in genealogy. Genealogy is like a jigsaw puzzle you try to piece together, but sometimes the pieces just don’t fit. So many unanswered questions…I would like to be a time traveler for a day to fill in the blanks.
When they arrived here it was October and winter was soon upon them. The advertisements that went up about Lower Canada depicted it as having abundant food and game and a tropical climate, so they arrived with bare feet and straw hats, unaware that Canada had snow. The Indians helped them erect some kind of hut to get through the first winter.
They didn’t know the countryside was covered in forest and the drainage poor until they arrived. They were frequently sick from drinking stagnant swamp water. They spent the next year clearing enough trees on higher ground to erect a house and permit the planting of crops. The local Indians were friendly and played a major role in showing them how to survive, although they never knocked prior to entering, so when the men were all out in the fields an Indian would walk into the house and scare the womenfolk, as they had heard many stories of scalping. (My apologies to the indigenous people but those were the fears at the time). My uncle’s notes say that at first, they would gladly have returned to Ireland, but after a few years they moved to a different site, (the homeplace), with better soil and drainage, and things improved rapidly to well above what they would have had in Ireland. They were land owners, and at least there was plenty of food to eat. I can trace their increasing prosperity through the agricultural census, so many acres cleared, bushels of corn and wheat, livestock owned. Eventually they must have had enough money to have their pictures taken, the pictures are tintypes, probably from around 1865. By the early 1900’s, John and Ellen had wallpaper and crystal and monogrammed silverware in the old farmhouse.
I still have the crystal bowl in this picture, in fact I have several of these bowls from the attic, family heirlooms.
My mother used to make potato soup when we were growing up, which was basically a bland affair of mashed potatoes, milk, a bit of onion for flavor, and salt and pepper. It was my father’s family recipe, and upon retrospect, that was probably what they ate back in Ireland, nothing fancy. We thought it was good at the time but had nothing to compare it with. I still love potato soup but have moved on to more flavorful varieties. It’s strange but I don’t remember eating potato soup at all when I was in Ireland in the 1980’s. I had tacked a few days onto a trip to venture into Leitrim County, which was off the beaten tourist path. After spending a few days viewing microfilm at the Dublin library, I took the train to Carrick-on-Sharon, as I was not brave enough to drive on the left, with all those white cross marks on the road pointing out where tourists had been killed. I’ll leave that story for another time, as it is long and involves a hired driver not a day under eight-five who kept falling asleep at the wheel, and a foggy cab ride to a churchyard lost in the mountain mists in what I am sure must be the most desolate part of the country. (see March 2019 blog – A Visit to An Irish Graveyard). It was a surreal experience, but I could see why they left, nothing but rocks, and not picturesque rocks by the sea like in Connemara. How could they ever have farmed such poor land? Sometimes it is better to make the decision to leave for hope of a better life. Some day I would like to go back and rent a cottage for a month and see if I can find any long-lost kin, as the priest had gruffly remarked that the area was polluted with people of my surname.
My father would always call me on St. Patrick’s Day and say, “Top of the Morning to you,” and I would answer, “and the rest of the day to you!” It’s a great day to be Irish, but even if you’re not, I hope you enjoy some green beer or Irish coffee.
Quote of the Day: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” (from plaque on the Statue of Liberty)
Song of the Day: That’s an Irish Lullaby – Bing Crosby – music link
Over in Killarney, many years ago
My mother sang a song to me in tones so soft and low
Just a simple little ditty in her good old Irish way
And I’d give the world if I could hear that song of hers today
Postscript: For those interested in reading more about the very complicated issue of the Mediterranean migrant crisis I recommend two books, Cast away: true stories of survival from Europe’s refugee crisis, by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, a journalist, which chronicles the journey of several individuals and families, and Tears of Salt by Dr. Pietro Bartolo, a physician’s story of the medical treatment of the refugees on an island off the coast of Italy. Both are excellent reads.