Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading Irish History

How we tell a story depends on where we stand. Policemen investigating a crime scene know all too well how this can affect the outcome of a case. It is complicated. The observational evidence can’t avoid being shaped by the values of the witness. In fact, our values determine more of what we are able to both see and remember, than we might care to admit.

This is as true for countries as it is for individuals. In 1978 in Quebec, the licence plate slogan was changed from La Belle Province to Je me souviens.  The origin of the phrase is often attributed to a speech in 1895 by historian Thomas Chapait: Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories. The obvious question is: yes, of course, but remember what?  

Changes in our lives can shift what we notice. When my children were young, my husband and I pretty much lived off the economic grid, outside of the usual North American market economy. We did this by choice. We wanted to protect our creative freedom to write what we chose to write, without having to fill an unnecessarily large rice bowl for the family. We had already built our own house, but now we also grew our own vegetables, canned, smoked and froze food for the winter, sewed our own clothes, butchered our own meat, and did whatever else it took so we were free to do what mattered most to us.

I have always been a newspaper junkie, but during those years I gave up my daily habit, even though I still had access to them. A friend would save up her papers and every two weeks or so, she would give me a great swat of them. At the time, a serial killer was in the news, and his story was in every edition. It changed how I read about him, because I read the news all in one clump, and yet the pieces had been written to be digested in daily doses. Often a news item on a Wednesday would give a certain tilt that was then rejigged by Saturday. In some instances, even the facts changed. My old pattern of the daily reading of the news would not have revealed this.

As our family’s fortunes improved, I resumed my former addiction, and returned to reading the daily Vancouver Sun. Being even more omnivorous, I also subscribed to the weekly Financial Times as well as to a communist weekly. I think it was called The Pacific Tribune. When I read them, deliberately side by side, what engaged me was being able to read about the same events from two such utterly divergent perspectives. It became evident that neither of them was totally right nor totally wrong. At least from where I stood.

This experience has shaped how I now read history, particularly Irish history.  When I read one book that has a Protestant tilt, I often try to follow it with one that has a Catholic tilt. Or vice-versa. Mix ’em up. It helps to do one right after another, while I can still recall the specifics of each perspective. It becomes like reading two weeks of newspapers in one sitting.

This way of reading also reminds of something said by an old jazz musician friend of mine, Mart Kenney. He had a hot band called Mart Kenney and The Western Gentlemen, the hottest band in Canada in the pre WWII years, and he played with all the big shot jazz men of his era. Once he told me that Duke Ellington said, There’s only two kinds of music. Bad music and good music.  He meant that it didn’t matter whether the music was classical or jazz, opera or folk. The same is true with writing. No matter where the author stands at the start, no matter what he or she sees, what I look for is solid research, clean writing, and an honesty of the soul.

Two very different books that I read in this past week met these criteria.

The first is by Charles Foran, The Last House of Ulster is a book that I read once before in 1995, when it was first published. This was also the same year that I went to Northern Ireland with two of my brothers for the first time as an adult. I was butt ignorant with respect to Irish history, and am still playing catch up. Except for being Canadian, Charles Foran  and I could not have inherited a much different place to stand with respect to Irish history. I come from an Irish family whose roots were predominately Protestant and Presbyterian. His family stood in the shoes of the Irish Catholic Diaspora . His book is his riveting tale of various visits he shared, between 1979 and 1992, with a Catholic family of two parents and five adult children, who lived on the fault lines of the Irish religious divide in Belfast and paid the price. Foran has a pitch perfect ear for dialogue and telling detail. Towards the end of the book, he sums up what he sees coming next, much of which has amazingly come true:

Northern Ireland remains, to a great extent, the old province of Ulster: one-fifth of an Atlantic Island. It is a homey, homogeneous place where faces are familiar and distrust of outsiders nearly equals that shown towards the adversaries. A place where, in certain minds, the very lack of differences between people somehow makes highlighting these distinctions seem all the more urgent. A divided household, in other words, but a single household still. The moment of truth for the ceasefire may come when a document is put forth that obliges the occupants of the various rooms to acknowledge that the future, if not the past, will need to be grounded in equality and power-sharing. Legislated equality; constitutional power-sharing. Put more bluntly, family members will have to agree to lay aside conflicts and share a common table. They'll have to listen to each other. They will have to show mutual respect.

This quote is a good jumping off point for the second book, Ascendancy to Oblivion by Michael McConville, a writer who studied history at Trinity University, and went on to serve in Yugoslavia and Italy in WWII, and then became a diplomat, retiring in 1977. His book was published in 1986, and like Foran’s book, there are a few aspects of Irish history that have since been revisited and rewritten. For example, they both have the same example of Cromwell’s atrocities at Drogheda, which current historians are backing away from.

McConville’s writing benefits from his wide range of experiences in not only Yugoslavia and Italy, but also in Malaya, Ceylon, Haiti and Canada. He himself has been an actor in the rooms where the sausage factory of political compromise does its work, and this perspective shows. When I read books like this, I usually keep a stack of post-it-flags at my side, so I can readily identify the parts that I really liked, or the parts I want to revisit. This book ended up with so many flags sticking out the side of its pages that it looked like a porcupine. I can’t possibly do it justice in the space of a piece written for a blog.

One quote struck me, from Arthur Kennedy, a public servant born in Cultra, Co. Down in 1809. His connection to my Silver Bowl story is that he was the governor of Hong Kong, serving at the same time as Thomas Jackson held the reins at HSBC. Both men worked to raise money for relief funds for famines in Ireland and India, and given each of their backgrounds, it is easy to understand why. Long before Kennedy served as governor of Western Australia, Vancouver Island, the West African Settlements, Hong Kong and Queensland, he served as a Poor Law inspector in County Clare. Reflecting back on a long career of public service, for which he was knighted, he said:

There were days in that western country, when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the days’ work, that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.

Another Anglo-Irishman, Arthur Wellesley, is better known as the Duke of Wellington, the defeater of Napoleon. He also held a seat in the Irish House of Commons as the member for Trim, Co. Meath, and talked about Irish landed proprietors who spent their time ‘brawling and balling in London” and “amusing themselves in clubs in London or Cheltenham or Bath or on the Continent. With respect to the problems of Ireland, Wellesley complained that they expected the solutions to be found anywhere except in the pockets of the Irish gentleman.

McConville is careful not tar all Anglo-Irish with the same brush, after all the two men quoted above were also Anglo-Irish, and there were many more like them. He is crystal clear about the effects of the worst of them and the price that Ireland had to pay for their actions. At the same time, he expresses some pride in his heriatge, and the contributions of the Anglo-Irish to architecture, to judicial and governance structures, and to the eventual overthrow of the corrupt landlord system of land ownership.

Ireland, more than many countries, is a land of conundrums. These two books together give some sense of the range of this. I am grateful for both of them.

PS. For those readers of my blog who live in BC, Charles Foran will be reading at  the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. I already have my ticket. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nature, Nurture and Family

I can trace my family back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable.
W.S. Gilbert. “The Mikado”.

Wikipedia -Creative Commons
Every generation has had its own version of a hung jury or mistrial when it comes to the debate of nature versus nurture. As I mull over the roots of my own family tree, I often ponder where the balance between the two might lie. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. There are strengths and weaknesses on both side of the equation.

For example, my great-great grandmother was slim as a young woman, and then a bit more padded in midlife, and then stout - as she would call it - later in life. Me too. Is that nature or nurture? Were both of us born with this combination of a somewhat slowish metabolism, an ever-hungry appetite, and the inability to turn down food whether we need it or not? Or is there something in how we were raised that has lead the two of us to eat more than what would be best, and/or to move too little? Is lack of will a moral issue or a genetic legacy? Where do we look to sort this out?

It is obvious when I look at family pictures where I have inherited my brown eyes, my mouse hair, and my ankles, the latter being one of my better features. It is also obvious when I look at photos of my grandfather, who died before I was born, that he holds his body exactly the same way that my younger brother Martin does. They each have the same tilt of the head, and a slight slouch. Me, I always walk around with my hands in pockets, same as Grandma Brown. A cousin and I laughed when we realized that we each squint into the mid distance with a closed left eye when the day is too bright for us. Somewhere, somehow, this is all written down in our DNA.

The image of the double helix may be a useful image for envisioning more than just a picture of DNA. Maybe it is also how the dance between Nature and Nurture works, never quite coming together, but also never moving any further apart. Epigenetics, the study of what turns the effects of genes on or off, has recently added a third element to the mix. Not that this is entirely new. Long before scientific tools were available to study this, philosophers and poets had come up with something like this with respect to the issue of free will. So I guess this means there are least three dancers: the first being what is written down in our bodies in our DNA map; the second being the influences of our culture and people and events in our life, and the third that is a born out of the interaction between the first two.

I have my own personal mixture of anecdotal stories combined with a cobbled together layman level of science.

One anecdotal picture of how the world works with respect to the nature/Nurture balance struck a chord with me back in the mid 1960s. At the time, I roomed with a widow who had two grown up, adopted children. Her ancestry was Scots, but the daughter’s ancestry was Ukrainian. The daughter hadn’t been told about her ancestry until she was an adult. That was how it was often done back then. When she was a young child, she painted Easter eggs with the same black, red and white patterns found in the Ukrainian tradition. No one had ever showed her how. She just knew. They were the only kinds of eggs that she did. She also embroidered pillow covers with remarkable skill and intricacy, and once again she used the same shapes and colour palate of her unknown to her ancestral tradition.

The second story that resonates with me is often cited in books on family systems theory. It involves an experiment done with two groups of mice, the mammal of choice because in no time at all there can be half a dozen generations through which generational changes can be observed. At feeding time, the first group of these mice was exposed to low level electrical shock. Not enough to put them totally off their food, but enough to set up the conditions of anxiety. The second group, lucky them, enjoyed their feed without interference. In the intervening five generations, nothing out of the ordinary was done to either group of mice. The results? Five generations later, the descendants of the first group continued to display anxiety at feeding times while the offspring of the second group did not. To me, this explains a lot.

Finally, and this one is kind of fun. Charles Siebert, a poet, journalist, essayist, and novelist, wrote an article five years ago for the New York Times where he talked about researchers exploring whether the ranges of personalities that are part of the human condition are peculiar only to humans. What about other animals? Personality theory for humans uses five aspects as a measure. It’s a simple yardstick, and like many human yardsticks, it is probably no coincidence that we also have five digits on each hand. The five psychological categories are:

  • Openness
  • Neuroticism

Well, lo and behold, dozens of studies confirm these same kinds of personality variations in all sorts of animals: rats, guppies, fruit flies, monkeys, sea gulls, water striders, stickleback fish and so on. Even more intriguing, other studies are also starting to paint a picture that herds of cows, flocks of birds and such not only display a similar range of introvert/extrovert, playful/serious, risk taking/security minded and so on as humans do, but that they also display these characteristics in roughly the same proportions.

The tentative conclusion at this point is that that there must have been some evolutionary advantage to all sorts and conditions of men as the Bible would have put it. That, and that when we think of ourselves as homo sapiens, lets also not forget that we come with some pretty old hard wiring in our DNA. Also, we are also all herd animals. We always have been, and always will be.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Facts and Theories.

Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory---let the theory go. Agatha Christie.

First of all, I want to start with thanks. Mike is one of those RAOGK –Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness people who makes notes of deeds in order to help out total strangers such as myself. We finally met in person on Sunday March 20th and spent a delightful couple of hours in the Vancouver Public Library, the two of us decoding bits of old deeds on microfilms that he had ordered in from the LDS library. It takes skill to decode the handwriting and many of the arcane legal machinations of the 18th & 19th centuries, but Mike has much of it down pat.

Recently, he sent me some of his transcriptions that mentioned land dealings of some of the JACKSONs in Ireland in the late 1700s. He has also sent them on to be uploaded on Nick Reddan’s site, and in a few weeks – when I can get to them -  I will also post them in an updated version of my deeds chart. For now, I just want to illustrate how I work with deeds, such as these, to make, dismiss, or verify family connections.

Two more points.
  • Although these examples are all connected to JACKSONs, the same process helps in lots of family detective work, no matter what name you are following. I do the same thing with COULTERs, OLIVERs, BRADFORDs and a great swat of others – all of which you can find on my web site.
  • Secondly, I had initially thought that I would use examples from all the of deeds that Mike recently noted for me, but it would take up way more space than most people have patience for in a blog post. For now, three examples will have to whet your whistles.

NOTE: Geek alert – this rest of this post is directed at moles such as myself who scuttle about in archives.

I had already assembled some information about the JACKSONsof Co. Down They are the line that connects – somehow – to President Andrew Jackson. The deed dated 1789 Oct 31,mentions a Samuel JACKSON who would likely be related to John JACKSON (1639-1716) & Janet JACKSON (abt 1641-1695) of Ballyskeagh, Co. Down – possibly a grandson. Here’s what the deed says: To enable Letitia ORR, spinster daughter of Mary & John ORR to make valid title of lands (not named) unto Samuel JACKSON  for ever, Mary ORR (widow of John ORR late of Killyneather, dec'd.),  James ORR, Mary ORR (wife of James ORR) Letitia & Mary ORR, spinster daughters of John & Mary ORR quit their claim; and annunities on sd lands will be transferred onto other lands of William Bruce ORR.

This next deed from November 22nd 1788 has shed more light on the HENRY family who married into the JACKSONs of Lisnaboe, Co.Meath, and later of Ballybay, Co. Monaghan, and then of America. It makes me curious if this is the same line of HENRYs who married into the DONALDSONs and COULTERs of Co. Louth and Armagh. Alexander HENRY is particularly interesting. For more on these JACKSONs, see also: http://farrell-family.org/

1788 Nov 22. While marriage sett had upon death of John HENRY, Alexander JACKSON, linen merchant, Clon_illan, Co. Monaghan receiving equal part of estate of John HENRY of Broomfield, Co. Monaghan for 5s ster John HENRY grants his part of Alexander HENRY of Richardstown, Co. Louth, eldest son of John HENRY & William HENRY, 3rd son of John HENRY, Thomastown & Littledickin, Co Louth, then in possess of Anthony McDERMOT & Zacharia MAXWELL subject to charge of sd sum of £300 (see Alexander JACKSON) in trust, for use of John HENRY , forever.
Anthony McDERMOT & Zacharia MAXWELL were in possession of lands of Thomastown & Littledickin, Co Louth as granted by John HENRY to Alexander & William HENRY in trust.
 As to other children of John HENRY, Alexander JACKSON agrees to waive benefit in lieu of £300 to be pd on John HENRY's death, and grants Alexander and William HENRY for 5s ster lands of Clo[nw?]_illan, Endso and B[ow]elk, MON in trust for sev'l uses & for £90 jointure for Mary JACKSON or £60 for Mary JACKSON on death of Alexander JACKSON.WITNESSES: John HENRY the younger (presumably the second son of John HENRY sr.), Linen Merchant of Lisnagoan, Co. Cavan.

I was also just sent this picture of John HENRY's home from a reader, Roisin, in Dublin. She sent it as a result to a post I recently did to a Monaghan rootsweb list. She also added more background: The Henry family was English, came to Ireland and farmed a large collop of land( a number of townlands) on part of the Bath estate  in Co. Monaghan somewhere in the area along the N2 between Carrickmacross and Castleblayney and close to the Armagh border. I just don't know what townlands were included in his ownership.  This estate was given the name of Broomhill after his own home in England. Over the years the word became corrupted to Broomfield. There is_ no townland named Broomfield._ but there is a Post office of the name and also the Catholic church is now known as Broomfield.....years ago the church was known as  Taplagh as it was built in that townland. I am enclosing a picture of the house when it was sold about 10 years ago. This is what remains of it as it was derelict for a number of years. . I know that the Henry family was linked in with the Johnstons of Aughnamullen. I totally love how we all learn so much in this new inter-connected world. Thank you Roisin!

Much of the early history of what I have grouped together and called the Quaker Jacksons is based on pretty far flung conjecture – too far flung even for me to accept in a leap of faith. The most niggly parts of it have to do with claims that the Irish Quaker line connects the JACKSONs of Mountmellick to the Killingswold Grove JACKSONs of Yorkshire. On my web site, I have depicted the tree going back to Richard JACKSON (1505-1555) of Yorkshire as many pedigrees claim, but have added serious caveats for much of the early evidence. Hopefully, I do not lead the innocent astray.

Another line of Quaker JACKSONs, who do not yet click into the first group of JACKSON Quakers, are connected to Strettell JACKSON, a Quaker based in Co. Cork. Various aspects of his line of JACKSONs are worth our attention, but one thing that stands out for me is the connection between his line of JACKSONs and the JACKSONs from Fanningstown, Co. Limerick and Duddington. Another thing that intrigues me is that his family was alleged to have come from England and settled in Cork in the early 17th Century – at least according to Portraits of Eminent conservatives and Statesmen, with genealogical and historical memoirs. Henry Thomas Ryall, London. 1836.

For those of you whose eyes have not already glazed over, there is way more detail concerning the JACKSONs of Co. Cork – seven pages more. To make it easier to access, I have posted all of it on my web site.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Knock Knock – Who’s There?

Knock Knock.
Who’s there?
Sharon who?
Sharon share alike.

I made that joke up when I was about eight years old, and thought it was drop dead hilarious until I was about twelve. It came to mind recently when I was following a debate on the Fermanagh-Gold list at Rootsweb on the pros and cons of sharing genealogical research.

Sharing, has always been our family way. I can take no credit for the fact that I am pretty open handed with what I have. None. It is sort of our family’s default setting. Other families seem to come with a default setting of holding their cards tight to their chest. That’s just how it is. We all work with what we’ve got.

My mother would often go to the freezer to take out the roast for the Sunday dinner, only to find that it was gone because my father had given it to a family down on their gums. In my early twenties, I shared my cars the way my father shared roasts. My first car was a black Austin Westminster which I bought for $400 when I started my first full time job at the YM-YWCA. I loaned it to a teenaged brother, and it ended up in a cornfield in Chilliwack with a blown engine. Mind you, it wasn't all bad, This brother and a buddy of his found a second hand engine, rigged up a hoist and installed it. Still, after another friend drove my next car, a Fiat, through axle-high floods on Highway 1 on his way back from California, I quit sharing my car with such abandon.
Mine was black with red leather seats. I couldn't believe my good fortune.
Photo from Wiki

Apparently, this phrase about sharing first came into being in 1719, when Daniel Defoe put the words into the mouth of Robinson Crusoe: He declar'd he had reserv'd nothing from the Men, and went Share and Share alike with them in every Bit they eat.

Last October, I was sitting in the hospitality suite at The Granville Island Hotel, yakadoddling with a handful of writers including DavidMitchell, Kathleen Winter, and Genni Gunn. We were talking about what we choose to share on the web and what we don’t. None of them shared research for their books on line. This makes total sense to me since they are all fiction writers. Who wants to get two thirds of the way through a great tale only to get scooped by someone who hasn’t done the leg work? It is bad enough when a story is in the public domain, and two writers pick it up at the same time.

My own work on my current project is different. I suppose it is conceivable that someone could scoop me on my book about Sir Thomas Jackson, but it isn’t likely. As Genni Gunn said, You have faith that you will tell the story your way. If someone else uses the material, they will tell a different story. Exactly.

More to the point, The Silver Bowl is a story that could never have been told if I hadn’t proceeded as I have. Over the past eight years, I have transcribed hundreds of deeds, wills, letters, and other sundry bits and have made literally thousands of postings to my web site along with scanned photos of people, places, maps and more. There are now about 6,000 people per month who click on to this material, and every month a few of them get in touch with me and add to what I know. I already talked about some of that in my piece in this blog, My Web Feet – Quack, Quack

The arguments against sharing family research seem thin to me. The ones that I have heard are:

  • Someone will get credit for work that I did. Personally, I don’t see how that takes anything away from me. So far, when I have seen my work used without credit, people have been happy to include a link to the source when I bring it to their attention.
  • Big corporations will make money off it. In my case, this is probably true, but I benefit also from the platforms they provide. When they do make money, they are not taking any rice out of my rice bowl, so I am good with that.
  •  I have spent huge amounts of time and money to create this material. People shouldn’t just take it. I can certainly attest to how much time and money it takes to do this kind of research. I have spent close to ten years on the work, and several thousand dollars in travel. At the same time, I didn’t set out with a goal of making money from my web site. I deliberately chose a format that has no ads, although from everyone I have spoken with about ads on websites, they are more bother than they are worth. For freelancers such as me, books and research are really no way to make money. I would do better being a greeter at Walmart. My book Some Become Flowers won awards and sold decently, but earnings from both royalties and prizes didn’t top $10,000 – and yet the book took a full year to write. My next book will likely earn more, but then again it has taken ten years so far, and there will be a couple more to go before it is done.
  •   The rest of their research is garbage and people will believe it all when mine gets mixed in with theirs. The old saying, garbage in, garbage out covers a lot of what is on the internet. If a reader is not prepared to sort the gold from the dross, then that is on their head, not mine.

That being said, a few guidelines about sharing family research material do make sense to me.

  •  Don’t include material on living people, unless that material is already in the public domain.
  • Check and double check to make sure you have your ducks in row before you post.
  •  Give credit where credit is due.
  • Reply to inquiries as soon as you can.
  • Fix mistakes as soon as you can.
  • Indicate where a fact is only a possible or probable fact when it is in the slippery zone.

For a closing line, I can’t think of anything better than Tom King’s line from The Dead Dog CafĂ© Comedy Hour: Stay Calm, Be Brave, Wait for the Signs.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Riff on Eileen’s Lunar Cake

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone. L-R: Sharon, Angela, Stacia
Last night, The Sisters of Mercy – which is what the three of us call ourselves - were cooking a meal at Roberts Creek Cohousing. While we were setting up the plates and cutlery and such, I chatted with David Roche, a recent friend and performance artist who also lives here.

Others know David as a long time activist, humorist and the author of The Church of 80% Sincerity . His book has a wonderful premise: You can be 80 percent sincere 100 percent of the time, or 100 percent sincere 80 percent of the time. It's in that 20 percent area where you get some slack and you can be yourself. Anne Lamott wrote the forward to his book, which gives you some idea about how cool he is.

In the Common House kitchen yesterday, David & I were in our 100% sincere realm, which was pretty easy because we were talking about how much we cherish the tools in our kitchen that friends have given us. At home, I always think of Vanessa, Sabrina, Kinga, Eileen, Bonnie ... and so many others. If I went through my kitchen, and named each gift and who gave it to me, it would fill this page. Some of these friends, like Ross who gave me a special measuring cup, are no longer alive. It is an ongoing gift to me that he always comes alive again as I measure oil and fresh lemon or balsamic vinegar to make my salad dressing. In the Cohousing kitchen, my home-away-from-home kitchen, I always think of David when I slice with the knife that he and his wife Marlena donated. Recently, my youngest daughter donated a sieve for use in this kitchen. More smiles. More abundance.

Recipes are like that too. This one is from my friend Eileen, and comes from a time when her four children were all young. It was a time when the two of us were often frazzled beyond belief. The recipe became a keeper because it is one of those fast and easy desserts which is best served with whipped cream – which always pleased whichever child was afoot and more than ready to lick the beaters. It is also a great answer to what to do with rhubarb, which is beyond abundant in our gardens at this of year.  

But enough of all this lah de dah. Lets get practical. 

To make this cake, I use a 13” by 7” buttered Pyrex dish, and a pre-heated oven temperature of 350 F. I cook it for about 35-40 minutes, depending on which oven I use. One cake cuts nicely into 15 portions (or fewer pieces if you are feeding teenaged boys).My directions are sparse, and assume you know how to bake a cake. If you don't, you still can't go far wrong.

2 times
1 times
To Do
1 c
½ c
Cream butter
2 c
1 c
Blend butter & sugar
2 tsp
1 tsp
2 c
2 c
Mix dry ingredients & add – alternating with buttermilk
2 tsp
1 tsp
1 tsp
½ tsp
2 c
1 c
Alternate with dry ingredients
4 c
2 c
Chopped Rhubarb
Toss rhubarb in flour & add to above
2 T
1 T

On top of unbaked cake
½  c
¼ c
Cut in small chunks & scatter on top
1 ½  c
¾ c
Brown Sugar
Blend and sprinkle over top
4 tsp
2 tsp

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Web Feet – Quack, Quack

Morgan still has the same tilt of his head when he explains computer-related things to me.
When it comes to computer savvy, most people under the age of twenty are native speakers, the next cohort have absorbed it like a second language, and then there are those in my age bracket who can only manage the computer-equivalent of pidgin-English. Fortunately for me, my friend Morgan - I have known him since he was born - taught me how to design a web site, Thanks to his help, I published my first post, on July 15, 2003. An article on Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, it would end up being one of very few posts that would not be focused on the story of the Silver Bowl. 

Margaret Bradford died in 1874 and missed out on the Internet.
My initial idea for a web page started with my obsession over a particular silver bowl. When I was growing up, all that I knew about it was that it had been given by an Emperor of Japan to one of our ancestors. There were supposedly two more matching bowls, as well as a tray and candelabra. Their whereabouts was unknown.

On July 15th, 2003, I also posted a story about The Pirates and Mrs. Dare of Singapore. Days later, people responded. This amazed me. It still does. Over the next several years, I learned that the Far East had been a magnet for dozens of Ulster-Scots in the mid 1800s. Most of them were young men in their early 20s, sons of tenant farmers, men who had just made it through the most recent famine. In spite of the fact that they had little in the way of money and professional education, they soon became key players in international banking – in particular with respect to the bank that we now know today as HSBC.

One of the most famous of these young men - Thomas Jackson - my great-great-uncle, became knighted as a result of his accomplishments. It turned out, however, that he wasn’t the actual recipient of this bowl. It was his younger brother, David, the one who was usually in the shadow of his older brother. Ironically, according to at least one family member, David Jackson drunk was a better banker than Thomas Jackson sober. If that was true, then David was one hell of a banker.

My web site connected me to dozens of family members from all over the world including places as far removed from each other as Zimbabwe, Scotland, England, Ireland, Japan, United States – and more. It turned out that Wendy Jack from Australia had copies of a family tree that I also had, thanks to great-aunt Blin, although we are so distantly related that it scarcely bears mention. For a while, the two of us emailed almost daily, and gradually pieced together the links that connected her family in Australia, with mine in Canada, and both of them with family in Ireland and the Far East.

On the other hand, one of my attempts to meet people through the magic of the internet should have resulted in a slammed door. It started with the fact that my father had visited Gilford Castle as a child in the early 1920s. Because of this, I wondered if descendants of his cousin, Mollie Wright, still lived there. The BT directory had a C. Wright of Gilford, and going from the papers I found after my father’s death, I figured that this was probably Christopher Wright, a grandson of Mollie. Putting two and two together, I wrote to Christopher, and included a photo of the silver bowl and the outline of what little I knew. A week later I received an email from his half brother, James. Apparently, Christopher had died in unhappy circumstances some years earlier. Once I got over this, I let the next bit sink in: We noticed from your website 'the silver bowl' that it looked remarkably similar to a piece that we have in the house.... My mother has sent a letter to you asking you to come and stay here at Gilford Castle.

Indeed, this was the second of the three bowls. Two down, one to go.

I hit another bit of pay dirt when I was invited to stay at the home of a relative in an out-of-the-way rural corner of England. He supposedly had a cache of letters that my great-great-grandmother had written to her son, Sir Thomas JACKSON in the mid to late 1800s. I had first learned about the letters at the HSBC archives in London. They had been found in a bog in Ireland in the early 1960s, but no one had seen hide or hair of them since. My husband, who used to write about scams, thought it was a total crock.

I hope I haven’t brought you down for nothing, said my “cousin” as he handed me a medium-sized tin box. Not only were there seventy seven letters in the box, but also dozens of deeds and other documents dating back to the late 1700s. Even better, it turned out that his wife was an ace fly-fisher and cook, so our lunch included the best, freshly caught trout that I have ever tasted in my life. Since then, I have succeeded in tracking down the third silver bowl. It is in Bangor, Co. Down at the home of a cousin who is an even more precious find, another one of those who has become a friend for life.

The only downside that I can see to maintaining a web site, such as The Silver Bowl, is that it takes an indecent amount of time to assemble the facts, transcribe and annotate documents, and then organize material, format photographs, and then to post the whole mess. And then there is the ongoing need for corrections and updating. Thankfully, I keep getting heads up from readers to alert me when I have gone astray.

Still, it is more than worth it. Doors have been opened to stories that could never be discovered any other way. Professional historians are taking note. In a future post, I will share how some of this material has had a profound impact, for example the story of a woman left as a foundling in the early 1940s who found out as a result of my posts that she is a descendant of Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne.

For now, I just want to celebrate Morgan, and thank him for taking the time to get me up and walking on my web feet.

Quack, quack. What comes next?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Stories from the Graves

In loving memory of John Fingal Smith. Born Prince Edward Island 1846, died Cranbrook, BC 1936. A faithful lover for 18 years and a devoted husband for 31 years.
The story connected to this grave has crisscrossed my life for several decades. In the late 1960s, I had a job filing government publications at UBC's Woodward Biomedical Library. One of the pamphlets that caught my eye featured a cover photo of Mrs. Fingall Smith. I had frequently heard her name in family stories, and had often wondered if she could be real. In our family when a story included a person with such a name, who knew? A key element, in my father's version of her story, was that Mrs Fingal Smith was President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Society of BC. This fact agreed with the contents of the pamphlet.

In the early 1900s in the town of Cranbrook, my grandfather, Thomas Jackson Brown, and his brother Robert, were renowned for the quality and quantity of their dandelion wine. My grandfather would get it started in the springtime, and then leave it in glass carboys for several months. In the years between 1912 and 1919, he was often away from home for long spells working as an engineer supervising the repairs to the CPR tracks and bridges. Brother Robert was a bachelor, working as a CPR agent at Crows Nest, and he visited often. He usually got his socks darned by my grandmother when he did. They would be so worn out, she would tell us, they could have served as spats.

One time, Thomas Jackson Brown arrived home after a lengthy absence, and discovered that the latest batch of dandelion wine was a bit fushionless. He added a bottle of whuskee.His brother Robert, on a separate visit, had come to the same conclusion. With neither brother consulting the other, each had added a bottle of whiskey. 

Many months later, Mrs. Fingal Smith visited, a visit that was not out of the ordinary. After all, she lived nearby on 14th Avenue, near Baker Street, and even though she was a generation older than my grandmother, they shared a love of music. They often took turns playing on my Grandmother's piano, brought over from her family home in Co. Down.

On one of these visits, Mrs. Fingall Smith declared that she was feeling a touch liverish. My grandmother, without thinking, proffered her usual solution: Would you be after having a bit of tonic, then

After a small tot of the much-fortified dandelion wine, Mrs. Fingal Smith put one hand on her chest, and announced, I can feel it doing me good. The various versions of the family story are not in total agreement about the final tally of glasses, but they do agree that after a while Mrs. Fingal Smith said she was starting to feel quite queer.  Something odd seemed to have happened to her legs, and her head, and everything was suddenly spinning.One of the nearby children was immediately dispatched to fetch Mr. Fingal-Smith, who arrived post-haste with his horse and carriage to cart his dear wife home. 

That was the sum total of what I knew about Mrs. Fingal-Smith until the spring of 2003, when I was at the provincial archives in Victoria. A record of the enigmatic inscription on her husband's grave made me curious enough to visit the graveyard in Cranbrook. Could this inscription be for real? A faithful lover for 18 years and a devoted husband for 31 years? Initially, I had read this with my late 20th century sensibilities, guessing that the couple had ceased being lovers after eighteen years of marriage, but I could not have been more wrong

Adelaide Bailey was born in San Francisco in 1857, the first-born child of Benjamin Bailey and Sarah Margaret Paterson. The family was swept into BC on the wave of the gold rush and consequently young “Addie” grew up in Yale, a small town in the Fraser Canyon. By age seventeen, she had qualified as a school teacher and subsequently taught in Fort Hope, Yale, Lytton and Fort Steel.

She was a young, tall, angular woman when she taught at Fort Steel, and John Fingal Smith lived in a house in the next block to her cottage. In no time at all, he was smitten, likely by her physical fearlessness, her lively intelligence and her forceful personality. It is said that he made porridge every day for breakfast, and took a hot bowlful of it to her every morning. 

Teaching was her passion, and Addie knew full well that if she married John, she would have had to give up her career. The fifteen live children that her mother gave birth to may also have had something about her decision to defer marriage. Regardless of what the reason may have been, when Addie was forty-seven years old, and well past her child-bearing years, she and John finally did get married in 1905 - after an eighteen year courtship. 

Marriage did not turn Adelaide into a slave to convention. Before their marriage, she had been known to come to school with one buttoned boot, and one laced book, oblivious to the disdain of at least one fashion-conscious  pupil. After her marriage her fashion sense extended to wearing feather boas. She was also known for frolicking with twelve year olds in the Cranbrook pool, where she belatedly learned to swim. She was in hot demand with teen-agers who took turns squiring her around the ice rink. 

Her opinions were as firm after her marriage as they were before. If her husband had to play the bagpipes, which apparently he did, then he had to play them outside the house. History is silent about the opinions of the neighbours. It would seem that Adelaide sided with Oscar Wilde on the matter of bagpipes: Thank god there is no odour. After waiting for eighteen years to be able to marry, having to have his bagpipe playing relegated to the outdoors was probably a small price for John Fingal Smith to pay.

Thirteen years after the death of her much beloved husband, Adelaide Fingal Smith moved to the Coast, and died in 1949 in the company of her sister, Mrs. Sinnot of White Rock. She was buried in the Surrey Centre Cemetery, where the inscription reads: Susan Adelaide Smith 1847-1949.

It may be that our family story is true and that my grandmother did get the teetotalling President of the Christian Temperance Society quite drunk, but what is equally interesting as well as more important is that Adelaide Fingal Smith lived her entire life as a progressive and independent woman. She was one of BC’s finest pioneering teachers. She not only had a successful career, but also found love in her life, and lived to enjoy it on her own terms. I raise a glass to her, of water, perhaps.