Friday, January 28, 2011

The Voice of Patrick Flynn

On my recent trip to Ireland, I made a last minute plan to drop in at Liscalgot in South Armagh to see Seamus Cumiskey. Before I had left Canada, he and I chatted on the phone several times about a diary, and a set of old family pictures that had recently been found, many of which were likely to be of people who interested me.

For years before this visit, I had also hoped to meet Mary Cumiskey, Seamus’ grandmother and the author of The Famine in Creggan Parish, as well as more than half a dozen articles in The Creggan Journal. Our interests overlapped, her writing was lucid and accessible, and since she lived in the area that I was focused on, she likely knew all sorts of stories that it could take me a life-time to understand, and I would still never get right. Unfortunately, every time I visited Ireland, Mary was somewhere else, like Italy. She may be a decade and change older than me, but this never stopped her from gadding about.

This time, when I arrived at Liscalgot - which also happens to be the home of Mary’s son and grandson - there was Mary herself having a cuppa in the kitchen. Our chat turned to this and that, but kept coming back to her most recent publication, Creggan Charter School 1737-1811.

Surely, it is worth the airfare to head out to Ireland just to buy a copy of Mary’s book, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board will definitely thank you for taking the trouble to get there. You won’t find her books on the Internet, but they can be purchased from The Creggan Local History Society, at the ChairdinĂ©il Ă“ Fiaich Heritage Centre in Cullyhanna, and okay, you can probably order copies by email: – but that is nowhere near as much fun.
Mary Cumiskey - November, 2010

Later in the day, I visited Mary at her home, bought a copy of her book, and since then have read it three times. Not only was my 5th-great-grandfather the first schoolmaster at the Creggan Charter School when it opened in 1737, but he and several other family members ran it until it closed. Not that their part in it is an item of great pride amongst us, as you will soon see.

Before I climb on my high horse and look down on my ancestors, I do recognize that every age has its own arrogance and blindness. The powerful have always drawn lines in the sand that serve their own enrichment. In our time, the impoverished peasants who make our food, clothing, electronics and such, labour out of sight, out of mind in far away countries. A few hundred years ago, the rich did not have the luxury of distance to pretend that all their gains came as a result of their own merit, but their social beliefs accomplished the same end.

One such belief held by the powerful in 18th C. Ireland was that Protestants were destined to rule and Catholics were to be kept out, kept down and never more shall reign. This is not so surprising when we recognize that the separation of Church and State had yet to be realized in any practical way in Europe, or even America for that matter. At the same time, Presbyterians and other Dissenters, since they swore allegiance to neither the Pope nor the Church of England, were considered as neither Catholic nor Protestant and were therefore treated as neither fish nor fowl – they could lease land, to a point; make money, somewhat; but rule, absolutely not.

In this context the Charter Schools were started by a confluence of the most zealous of the Protestant landlords, bishops and such to educate Popish orphans in the Protestant faith and thus reclaim them from that gross ignorance and error wherein they are involved. This stated purpose served the local church wardens and school masters well. They could continue to pat themselves on the back for their good deeds in funding and running the schools, while at the same time reaping the rewards of the harvests and products produced by the children’s labour.

The little that I know about the early history of my Jacksons is that they had arrived in Creggan sometime before 1737, and that George Jackson became schoolmaster of the Charter School on the heels of losing the family lands in a game of cards, or at least so the story goes. His eldest son George was the next schoolmaster, but he didn’t last long.

Thanks to Cumiskey’s research, I have learned that soon after his appointment, George jr. was charged by James Johnston with immorality involving James’ daughter, Rose. From the family trees that I have, it seems that not only was this James Johnston one of Board Members of the school, and a warden of Creggan Church, but he was also probably related to the Jacksons by marriage. The family seats of these two families in the church, as well as their plots in the graveyard were cheek by jowl. This may go a long way to explaining why the next sighting of George jr. is when he shows up as a lawyer in Dublin.

The next son, David then took over, but he didn’t live at the school. This unusual arrangement was agreed to, possibly because the locals knew the reputed temper of his wife, Margaret Bradford. A move from Urker to Liscalgot would have been over her dead body, which would have been a reasonable stance for her to take, given that the couple had three young children to care for, and the school buildings were no great shakes when it came to warmth and sanitation.

Interestingly, David Jackson’s will makes no mention of his role as a schoolmaster, even though documents at Trinity Archives reveal pay chits that would indicate otherwise. His will describes him as both a farmer and maltster, and he owned several leases with their per annum revenue, and/or potential for farming at Cashill, Averinmore, Tullyagallaghan, and Cullyhanna. His level of well being was in marked contrast to the lives of the children in his supposed care.

An unscheduled inspection of Creggan in Sept 28, 1781 revealed children in rags, many of them barefooted, the beds extremely dirty and the house in general, dirty and in great disorder... Things did not improve, at least according to an 1787 report.  By then the buildings were in ruinous conditions,  the privy was inaccessible in Consequence of Puddles and Flashes of Water settled all about it and conditions were so bad on account of the fireplace not working properly and the over-crowding in a 22’ X 15’ sleeping room housing more than ten boys, that most of the boys now labour under severe colds.

Cumiskey dedicated this book to Patrick Flynn, a student who in May 1810 spoke out about his treatment. Amazingly, his cry for help was heard. By December 19, 1810, the schoolmaster was instructed to send all the boys to another school. In 1811, the Creggan Charter School was closed. Patrick Flynn is a voice that deserves to be heard today. So is Mary Cumiskey’s.

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