Sunday, April 29, 2012

Imagining a Parish and its People

I keep trying to imagine, and by this I mean to fully imagine - with smells, sounds, sights and the very feel of it - what life must have been like for the young Thomas Jackson born in 1841, the man who became an eminent banker in Hong Kong. 

Who did he run into in his walks around Creggan Parish where he grew up? Who visited his parent’s house and farm? How did they get there – walking, horseback, or in a horse-pulled cart? Who did his parents owe money to, and why? How did life work for a family with a Church of Ireland father and a Presbyterian mother – which people described then as a mixed marriage.

There is little in the written record to flesh this out. One of the most fertile sources is the church records. True, they may be dull as dishwater, and in this case they are sadly incomplete, but with the advent of the internet, hyperlinks, and the generosity of strangers, it is possible to tease out an amazing amount of information. That is, if you can afford to put in the time in the first place.

Interior of Creggan Church. Sir Thomas Jackson Memorial window is at the front.
 I have made several trips to the Creggan Parish church, and I hope to make another a year from now. Thomas Jackson’s father’s family had belonged to this church for at least four generations. It is a small Church of Ireland church in a region where most were Catholic. Most Sundays in Thomas’ time, the pews supported the posteriors of only a few dozen souls.His mother also took the children to the Presbyterian Church at Freeduff.

My husband was part of a similar rural congregation in Rosedale, near Agassiz in BC. His Mennonite family emigrated from Germany in 1951 as indentured farmers, and had yet to learn English. Everyone in the congregation was related to him. As a child, he knew full well that it was one thing to have the eyes of God on you at all times, it was quite another matter to have the eyes of this congregation. They knew your misdeeds right down to the last jelly bean. They also knew of your accomplishments, although it was usually the darkness that their collective eyes were drawn to.

A century earlier, when young Thomas scampered around the graveyard after prayers, as he no doubt did, one of the best hiding places was inside the enclosure where the Johnstons were buried, a stone wall that abutted the railed enclosure of generations of Jacksons.  I do not know whether the choice of a railed versus stone is meaningful, but the location of these two families, cheek by jowl, is. They had arrived in the region about the same time, had leased and bought land, often one from the other, and had intermarried. The difference was the arc of their financial success. 
Late November afternoon - Jackson & Johnston enclosures at Creggan graveyard. 2010.

Thomas’ g-g-g-grandfather was the one who had lost his earlier family lands, probably in Carlow or Wicklow, in a card game. His descendants were equally unlucky, although not noticeably at the card table. The men had a habit of dying while their children were young, leaving widows to run the farm. The Johnston families did not suffer this fate on a regular basis, and as result became well entrenched and well financed landlords. The grave enclosures of these two families, side by side, amount to a familiar tale of rural life. One family prospers; another fails. Hard work only takes you so far.

To get to this church, young Thomas walked over a bridge that spanned the Creggan River just behind the church. The original wooden bridge had been built by his great-grandfather, David Jackson, one of these Jackson ancestors who had died an untimely death. Back then, church tithes funded a mix of purposes that today are more usually the natural turf of a property owner, or else some level of local government. Back then, the wardens of Creggan Parish managed a range of public improvements, including this bridge which like many contracts today, went over budget. We know about this, thanks to the church records. It is recorded that David Jackson agreed to build the wooden bridge for £3, but in 1790, a year later, he came back cap in hand for a further £3.17.9. Plus ├ža change, when it comes to bridge contracts.

View of Creggan River from the bridge behind Creggan Church.
 On my most recent foray into the Creggan Church records, I recorded as many of the collateral names of people related to this Jackson family as I could, hoping to build a more fully fleshed picture of their interrelationships. I am sure that if I knew the half of it, young Thomas would turn out to be related to virtually everyone that warmed the pews in his day, but at least the names that I have noted so far is a start.

Fortunately, a few mysteries have also been solved by this work. For starters, I had a hunch for quite some time, but couldn’t quite prove it, that the COULTERs who lived at Mounthill, and then Shortstone were related to the ones who lived at Silverbridge. Now, I have them neatly like ducks in a row, and have posted a family tree that illustrates just how they are related. There are still other clumps of COULTERs in Armagh and Louth who hail from Dorsey and Annavackey, as well as Carnbeg, so there are still stones to be unturned before we can be sure how all of them inter-relate. Even so, the similarities of faith, geography, social class and naming patterns all amount to a pretty compelling smoking gun.

I am particularly curious about the Carnbeg COULTERs, although they probably did not attend Creggan Parish Church. One of them, Joseph Arthur COULTER, a mere six years older than Thomas, had an amazing life – that is, if the records written a few years after he died are to be believed. Apparently, he accompanied Lady Franklin on her last expedition for her husband Sir John Franklin. That trip was in 1857, and was commanded by Francis Leopold McClintock of Dundalk on a yacht called The Fox. McClintock had a crew of twenty-five on board, as well as seventeen Arctic veterans, and he names them all in his 1908 version of the trip. Unfortunately, there is no mention of this Joseph. 

Another bit of Joseph Coulter’s life that also proves allusive is that he supposedly served a stint as Deputy Governor of Vancouver Island. You would think that if he did, then he would show up in the BC Archives, but no cigar. My best bet when guessing which Lieutenant Governor he may have served under would be Hugh Nelson (1887-1892).  Nelson was born at Larne, Co. Antrim. Such appointments usually had more than a whiff of patronage about them. 

Sometimes even the most dogged researcher can be fairly skilled as both hunter and gatherer and still emerge empty handed, at least in the short run. This is where I really appreciate an approach to writing described by Ursula K Le Guin. She has what she calls: The Carrier Theory of Fiction. You gather up all the bits that appeal to you, just as a wise elder or a magpie might do, no matter whether they are feathers or bits of bark, or records of events and people, and you tuck them into a bag. If you are a medicine man or woman, or even a writer, the contents of this carrier bag becomes over time ever more magical as a result of the proximity of its contents. The whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

There is no reason that Le Guin’s notion couldn’t also be applied to creative non-fiction. Personally, I like the way that it matches my own idiosyncratic process of finding and collecting as I try to sneak up on the truth. Perhaps my blog site and website are a digital equivalent of the traditional carrier bag, and by sharing the contents, the power of the magic expands. It is with that notion in mind that I often post absolutely chaotic pages such as Ruminations on early Creggan Church Records. The best that I can call such pages is organized ignorance or if I want to feel a bit more important, my carrier bag.

In this latest piece, Ruminations on early Creggan Church Records, I am trying to figure out the connections between JACKSONs, MASONs, JOHNSTONs and JONES. The links that connect to this pursuit are beneath.

I always appreciate hearing from others if they notice that I am way out in left field, or at very least in need of correction. Heck, like a small boy hiding amongst the gravestones, I also appreciate hearing when I have done something right. 

Speaking of mistakes, and with the life of young Thomas in mind, I wonder what he might have thought of the stained glass window erected in his honour that has pride of place as the main window in the church. It has him born at  Urcher rather than where he was actually born at Aughavilla, Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim. I can't be totally sure, but he was enough of a rascal, I think it would make him laugh.


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