Monday, June 27, 2011

Have trod, have trod ...

After three days spent decoding old deeds from Ireland, the poem God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins sprang to mind. The deeds had taken me hours to transcribe and annotate, all the while squinting at sometimes fuzzy and indistinct script. At the end of each day, my eyes were on fire, and my back approximated the posture of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.The lines that came to mind:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

Okay, I know that Hopkins was talking about men who earned their living by toiling at trades linked to the soil, but I totally felt myself to be one with them as my eyes were definitely bleared, and smeared with toil.  And maybe I should also mention, I was  getting a little bit crabby towards the end of each day.

From the collection of Nigel Dickie - easy to read except for in the folds.

So what do I have to show for this last binge of document transcriptions? As usual, not much. This is the kind of work that is advanced by inches. The point of doing it is to lay out all the knowable pieces on a table, in my case a pool table. Until I do this, I have no way of knowing which essential pieces are missing.

Naturally, it also helps to know the limits to what is knowable. In some cases, records have been burnt, lost or chewed beyond recognition by various varmints. In the latter category, one of my favourite examples is the story of the guy who ate a better part of the Bastille records to save dozens of prisoners from execution. The reasons for the documents that I seek having gone missing is usually more mundane. They were binned.

This last batch of deeds came to me from two sources – each of them about equidistant from where I nest on the face of the earth: London for the first half of them, and Australia for the second.

In October of last year, I received an email from Nigel Dickie, a young man living in London. Like James Joyce in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, he had a list of where he fit into the picture. Joyce’s young man situated himself geographically:

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Clongowes Wood College
Country Kildare
The World
The Universe

Nigel’s version indicated where he stood in the universe by way of his ancestors, starting with himself, and then his father, grandfather and so on back to Robert Dickie, the father of James Dickie who lived in County Louth 1771-1835. What Nigel did next was also brilliant. He had recently been helping out with cleaning out his grandmother’s house in Belfast after her death, and had come across some really cool items dating back to 1789 when Charles Coulter of Rochdale Co Louth Senior leased 20 acres of land from the McCormicks. Then he sent photographs of them to me. At least these deeds were not destined to become amongst the thousands that have been binned.

It has taken me almost a year to get back to them, but I have finally transcribed many of them, footnoted them and posted them to my website. They contain significant facts that help to answer some questions raised by a family in Burnsville, Minnesota who contacted me in the past year about the alleged murder of a long ago James Charles Coulter. This James' father had leased some of the land mentioned in these deeds, and as the family story has it - he may have been murdered on account of a dispute over this property. The Minnesota folk are waiting for the death certificate of James Charles Coulter to arrive in the mail. The supposed cause of death will potentially be quite revealing, although at this point it seems as if the land was probably rightfully owned by the family that was suspected of the murder, hence the key supposed motive for the murder evaporates. I have already posted what is known about this John Charles Coulter story. 

What these deeds have to do with my Sir Thomas Jackson story is that many of the people mentioned in Nigel’s deeds were either closely related to Thomas, or were family friends. The deeds are one of the clues that have helped me to understand more about the social circles he moved in as a son of tenant farmers growing up just outside Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh in the mid 1800s.

In connection with this latest set of deeds posted to my web site, I mentioned Australia. I had mentioned Wendy Jack from Australia in passing in an earlier blog, but she deserves more of a mention than that. I first connected with her in 2003 when she had free time, and even better - she had research skills that vastly exceeded mine. Time and again, I would ask her a question, and then a fifty page email would arrive in my inbox giving me more information than I could ever have dreamed possible. We finally met in Ireland in the spring of 2009.

The half dozen deeds from Wendy that I added last week-end – because they complemented the work that I had just done on Nigel’s deeds – were ones that she had done while we were in Ireland. I just hadn’t got as far as taking them the next step – making sense of them, and incorporating them into the wider picture.

So here we all are - me in Roberts Creek, Nigel in London and Wendy in Australia – and all of us together assembling the bones of what is becoming a truly fascinating study in local history -  in rural Ireland. I love the Internet.

I wonder what Gerard Manley Hopkins would have thought of all this. I think I will give him the last word:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!

NOTE: There are too many deeds to link to them individually in this blog posting. I suggest looking for the ones added June 25th & 26th, 2001 at What's New.

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