We all have need to some degree to find out who we are, where we come from. The success of programmes such as ‘Who do you think you are?’ and ‘The house that made me’, help people search their antecedents. Viewers watch as lives from the past unfold. Their stories might be poignant, tragic, heartbreaking, sad, productive or joyful.
I feel a strong connection to some of my ancestors that my sister and I have uncovered through genealogical research. We trawled through the Internet and the library; through census records then onto Church and village records as far as our finances could take us. Obtained copies of birth, death and marriage certificates. Waded through anomalies of age, name spellings, relationships and stories. Traced photographs, books, newspaper cuttings, microfiche files, and spoke to as many relatives as we could who could still remember. We went to graveyards and cemeteries looking at badly eroded headstones, or slabs. It was on off chance that we went to St Luke’s Church in Formby where we believed some of our ancestors might be buried having lived in the area. We had some information about their lives, none of them easy ones.
We walked through the old grounds over wet grass, scraping dirt off the stone so that we could read the name and the date and any dedication. Bingo! We found a tribe of Kirby’s going backwards to Alice: she was a washerwoman of 88 years old when she died. Her husband, William, (who died when he was in his early forties) and a couple of children who had died before her were buried within spitting distance of her grave. It was to Alice that I felt this strong connection. I closed my eyes and felt that if I could reach out my hand, I could touch her. I felt that if I concentrated hard enough I might see her. I traced her steps and found the stone cottage that she lived in with her daughter.It was still in use with white painted walls and pretty window boxes; a home.
I wrote a brief memoir in 2003 and I’ve included it below under the title ‘Touching the Past.’
Other research had us finding ancestors on the poor list or in a workhouse which were deeply upsetting. The child of one man was called Damaris and we found a second child of that same name to the same man. Further research and we discovered that the first Damaris had died aged about ten months old. There were so many snippets of stories that told me the men and women of yesteryear, regardless of political or religious dogma; regardless of inequality; regardless of war and famine, were just trying to live their lives just as I am today.
My family and my ancestors are spread out. I have moved around and have lost any deep connection to any area.
But the community of Ballinacree live with their history every day. Last night was the launch of the Ballinacree Heritage Room in the Community Hall. It has been several years in the making but the artefacts are now housed in a climate controlled room. A 100 year old banner takes pride of place. It was made for the Ballinacree Drum and Pipe band more than a century ago. It has been treasured throughout the years with various people from the community ensuring its care. The heritage room was crowded so I didn’t take photos. Maybe next time.
I am sure some of the population have moved on but last night there were people who had lived there all their lives. The continuity of history. As the priest said when he blessed the building that if you look at the archive photographs around the room and then look at the faces of the children you can see the likenesses – the past in the future.
That hall has persisted through the decades and has been a focus for the community; a place where so many of the village residents have passed through, maybe from when they were children and sat in the bench desks to learn their first times table. The walls proudly displayed faces from the past and the history of the area from the Norman landscape to the present day. A table was laid out with sandwiches and cakes for the large number of people who arrived, and a separate table beautifully presented for the Minister and her entourage. The children’s pipe band was on stage and then young competition dancers gave a demonstration of their skills at traditional Irish dance. They wore simple black clothes but there was a colourful and intricate dance costume on display at the back of the hall.
If I have wrong information about names and dates, be sure to let me know and I will make the changes.
TOUCHNG THE PAST
A memoir about a search
The graveyard grass was sodden. Rainwater seeped through my boots as I squelched my way down the rows, reading one monument after the other. Simple or ornate, the headstones were grief, carved in a moment of time.
I had begun my journey by asking questions of my parents, and those older relatives I knew; or by digging through family memorabilia to seek out photographs, certificates or a name on the fly leaf of a brown paper-bound book. They all liked to talk about their youth and walk me through their memories, those relatives I spoke to, and I gathered their experiences like flowers and pressed them between the pages of a notebook, each page a petal of history.
I trawled through cemeteries to the areas my ancestors will inhabit forever. The headstones gave me names, dates and places that I could trace through censuses and parish records. They were paper people whose names were ink scratches. But they lifted themselves from the page and morphed into human beings as their stories unfolded. There were Rosemary and Richard who married in the Anglican parish church of St Nicholas’: but they both lied about their age being under 21 years, and they were both raised as Catholic. I discovered the birth of Damaris Kirby, to Henry, way back in time. Eighteen months later another Damaris was born to the same Henry. The first had died aged ten months and against the entry was a note that Henry was a pauper of the parish. Did he breed a long line of paupers, I wondered, when the same names came up on a workhouse register decades later?
I carved their faces from my imagination, blurred images that I could almost see.
I never found the apocryphal family bible. Had there been one? Was it thrown out in the bin bags taken from old Thomas’ house, its relevance ignored or dismissed by the house clearers? Bachelor Thomas lived little more than a skip from where I grew up and I never knew him. But through his letters I discovered that my paternal grandmother had nine other siblings. Where had they gone? Why were they never spoken of?
There were hundreds of trails, like veins spreading through mist, and the one I am following leads me here, to the churchyard of St Luke’s in Formby where so many of my ancestors lived before the industrial Diaspora. To the back of the cemetery the headstones lie flat. I see they are overgrown with grass and lichens. The letters are worn but my heart skips a beat when I think I can make out the letters R B Y. I squat and scrape away the dirt with my trowel: Alice Kirby.
I know a lot about her: that she was born in 1766 and died aged 88 years; I know when her husband died, what he did; what she did, where she lived, where her ten children lived; and that she bore her last child aged 44 years.
I saw her house were she took in laundry. Her height and build and the expression on her face is forming in my mind. If I close my eyes and stretch out my hand, I am a whisker away from touching her.