In true McClarey fashion, Another Mother’s Child-the first book in the trilogy will be written last.
Long Road, Many Turnings the Collins-McCann-West family saga, will now become the half-way marker. After that book had been published a return visit to the small Irish town of Drimoleague in West Cork gave inspiration for this prequel, which is rich in mystery, tragedy and hope.
This is a creative record of my experience, which forms the trigger for Another Mother’s Child.
( Some names have been changed)
It all began in my cousin’s house in Drimoleague, with a roll of surplus wallpaper, it’s back covered with lines and names and dates and crossings out, annotated in different colours, laid carefully over the table, under the window to catch the best light. Eagerly, perhaps even somewhat rudely, I leant right across as soon as I spotted her name- Kitty Cahalane. Mistakenly, it had her and someone called George recorded as the children of a woman called Ellen, whom I believed was one of Granny’s sisters.
‘No’ I shook my head, confident but trying to be more gentle, hoping my earlier rudeness had been overlooked ‘ I’m sure that’s wrong! We need to change that one.’
‘Granny was Ellen’s sister, so she needs to be moved to the line above. No idea who George is though.’
It was when I was asked for my family tree that the confusion grew, mixing our family names, relationships and connections to the wallpaper tree. A third tree was brought to the table, an older version, and we became a copse, with straggling branches, trying to find connecting pathways in between.
We ran our fingers over the names, some familiar, others newly discovered, while we also got to know each other over tea and homemade cake. It was a best china event and rightly so. My husband sat back, enjoying the hospitality, comfortable in an armchair by the door. He preferred the sunshine on the rich green landscape outside, rather than the growing copse, which was threatening to reach plantation size, indoors.
The room had filled with a flurry of connections. I suspected that quite a lot of shouting would have taken place in those families. They descended on us like friendly, chatty ghosts and when we couldn’t see our tree branches anymore we agreed that the four of us should decamp to meet our ninety-year-old cousin, who was living alone on the homestead where Granny was born.
We headed out in the hire car through cheerful, pleasure-giving sunshine, our mood reflecting the day. The route narrowed as we travelled out of town and I was entranced by the heavy hedgerows laden with montbretia and fuchsia. The vibrant clashing of orange and purple brightened the roadside and my heart was beating fast anticipating the conversation ahead and excited by the prospect of the approaching visit.
We turned into a narrow lane, an unmade road with a line of grass running down the centre, bumping and jolting slowly before coming to an abrupt stop at an informal opening, which would have been a front farmyard. I tumbled out of the back door, and there it was – a two storey whitewashed wreck of a farmhouse. Faded and peeling paint revealed the original red of the battered wooden door, itself tilting ajar just enough to appear to be inviting in the weather and small creatures.
All the others disappeared into a more modern farmhouse just to the left of the old building, which was the home of the elderly cousin, Joe, living alone within yards of where he was born.
I stood for a moment longer in the hot sunshine, smelling the hay and a soft sweet mixture of farmyard and honeysuckle. This was how it must have been for Granny, living in this remote, beautiful place with her brothers and sisters. She had often told me how she used to run home from school, barefoot, over these very fields They were beautiful but surely too rugged for a child’s small foot.
Turning my back on the warmth of the day I walked eagerly through the rusting iron gate up the path and into the house, my eyes taking a moment to get used to the shade inside. I was all set to ask for Joe’s memories, hoping to learn how the family had lived.
Gerry and Eileen had arranged chairs so we could face the old man whilst asking questions about the family. We were introduced. Loudly. Several times. Then my husband, struggling with the unfamiliar accent, went outside to take photos, whilst I eagerly took the offered chair.
The old man greeted me warmly, taking my sweaty anxious hand in his, which was reassuringly dry and no less firm than my own. Unfazed by all the attention, he seemed content to answer the relentless questions we threw at him. Many dusty photographs, newspaper cuttings and faded Mass cards were presented.
Old people, young people, American people, but not a glimpse of Granny.
‘So,’ I asked, during a brief lull in conversation,’ I’d really like to know how many brothers and sisters she had.’ I looked up enquiringly, seeking approval from Gerry and Eileen, they knew him well and I didn’t want to be pushy.
‘That’s Kitty Cahalane.’ Gerry clarified, I felt that was my permission granted.
‘They were all born here, in that old house across the yard, every one of them, like me.’
‘Do you know how many were born there? Granny and who else?’
‘Well there was Ellen, the eldest, then ….’ and he reeled off a list of names, none of whom sounded familiar to me, finishing with ‘Timothy, he went to America and became a millionaire, so did Marie of course’
‘What, become a millionaire?’
‘Ah no, she married a police chief, in Milwaukee. A widower with a son. George I think they called him.’ A chill quivered inside my gut as I heard that name again I listened ever more closely to Ellen’s story now.
‘Came back a couple of times. I remember my uncle took her in the horse and cart to the station once in the bad snow, they thought she might not get back at all. It was very unusual to return in those days, don’t know why she did.’
‘But what about Granny, Kitty, why did she leave?’
‘Ah well, there wasn’t room for her see, when my father married and brought his wife into the house. That was 1916 and the newlyweds would have to run the farm and farmhouse and look after the old people, no more room, so off she had to go. It was a great chance for her, an opportunity we would call it.’
I did a quick calculation. She was fifteen or sixteen, her year of birth is unclear but I think it’s 1900. How frightened she must have felt, leaving this tight-knit community and making her way alone to London, two years before the end of the war.
Gerry got to his feet, grimacing as I heard his knees creak, I saw him stoop over a drawer stuffed with what appeared to be official documents.
Joe didn’t seem to be tiring, but still, I worried about him. ‘Would he want a cup of tea?’ I asked, hearing my voice sound hard and scratchy, broken glass amid the velvet soft West Cork tones around us.
I was reminded not to step over the boundaries. The old man had been looking after himself for many years now and no one would suggest going into the kitchen.
I was getting frustrated. No more information was forthcoming and although it was fascinating and endlessly kind, I preferred to be outside looking at the landscape and feeling her presence in the warm soft air.
So I wandered around outside, joining my husband, letting the long grass pleasantly brush against my bare calves. We found ourselves talking quietly, as though in a church, calm and unperturbed by anything we had heard.
Then Gerry came towards us, stepping cautiously over the rutted yard; a messenger, with tidings in his hand.’ Look ye now at this Mary, ye’ll read something of your granny here.’
Eagerly I took the offered document. It appeared to be a copy of the 1901 census.
Carefully completed in elegant handwriting, by “an enumerator of the baroncy”, a list of those present in the house that night.
My eyes were drawn to the last entry Kitty O’Brien granddaughter 6 months
Looking up at Gerry, my eyes asked “what does this mean?” I had no words.
‘I think your granny was a baby born into this family. A child of one of their own girls. Which one we wouldn’t be sure now and why they gave her the name of O’Brien, maybe they thought the girl, would marry the father.’
That was the first step along an unexpected road.Leading me to America and back again… Would you like to start reading the trilogy now? Just click one of the links on the Long Road, Many Turnings page. Its paperback direct from me or ebook from Amazon, you choose!
Now Ive learned so much more about my ancestors, my great grandmother and her much loved younger brother in particular. I’ve found I have relatives in Milwaukee who have provided me with even more surprising information about the family, I can’t wait any longer to develop the story. I will disappear for a while but do keep checking, I’ll be back with more later.
Well, that took a while! I’ve just been to America, New York to be precise where my research led me to visit the Ellis Island Museum. This is a fabulous resource and archive sharing pictures and experiences of immigrants into what was dubbed ‘The island of hopes and tears’. It certainly gave me an insight into the journey and the experiences of immigrants at around the same time as my great grandmother,the main character in the story.
I even found the ships manifest of her entry and learned some fascinating details which confirmed an unlikely account given by an elderly relative back in Drimoleague! No spoiler!!
To be honest,after walking through the exhibits I experienced an overwhelming sense that the Americans had viewed the immigrants as a valuable source of manpower and had treated them rather better than I had expected.They were given three meals a day, healthcare and an interpreter for every language.
The tales recounted by the interpreters were no less impressive. Many of them were creative in translating, providing the immigrants with the best possible opportunity of being accepted and in many cases financing those without the necessary cash to allow admission ( $85). The majority of the immigrants were Poles, Czechs,Jews and Italians. There were very few Irish, and I was surprised by that,as listening to the folklore of Ireland,with its history of mass emigration to US and tales of ‘ American Wakes’ one would be forgiven for assuming the majority to have come from Eire.
I sat in the great assessment hall, with its lofty ceiling and highly polished wooden floor and I could see where the hopefuls would have queued for many hours. I wondered how they might feel, those anxious hopefuls. They would perhaps have had to use all their savings, borrow from family and resign themselves to possibly never seeing their homes again. But still they must have been fearful about the risk of being retuned. I did wonder whether it was so different to the fate facing immigrants today?
And then I decided to wait no longer. I would do the entry test and see what happened. So I took a test, inputting my great grandmother’s details and I was rejected! But she was a creative woman and of course the details had to have been somewhat creative also. I think she would have made a good novelist if she had had the chance.
But what chance did she have? Perehaps next year you will read the book to find out.
New Years Eve 2019.
Sometimes you get a stroke of luck and it seems I got one today!
A couple of hours on the familysearch website elicited the record ( Milwaukee City Census 1920) of a George Clarkson of Milwaukee living in a multioccupied house with his wife Helen Clarkson and brother in law Timothy Calahan. So who is Helen Clarkson? She can’t be George’s first wife because then how would Timothy be brother in law, when he is in fact Ellen’s brother? Now could Helen possibly be Ellen? So I learn that Helen applies for a passport in 1922. With heart racing I click the link and see the application.
It is true and there is a photograph.
Some of the details on her application are a surprise.She names her spouse as George Clarkson, not Thomas Clarkson and he was born in Ireland ( news to me, but confirmed by his records on a familysearch site), and her birthplace Drimoleague leaves me in little doubt that we have the right Ellen. Again, the date of birth is a little flexible (8th Jan 1879), Old Dan recorded it at 1874 and she claimed it to be 1877 and on the 1920 Wisconsin census she admits to 1880. A woman after my own heart!
She requested a six months temporary passport to enable her to visit relatives in Ireland in 1922, sailing on the Cedric in May of that year. ‘Old Dan’ records her mother’s death as July 1922,which might have given her the reason to travel back although another entry on the family tree reports her mother having died in 1927. Hey Ho…
Anyway, onto the photograph. Half in shadow, she remains an enigma we will probably never fully understand. And it isn’t the photograph of a fourty year old woman. Which makes me wonder? But then again, she has always been somewhat flexible ! So here it is at last. I think she looks like our family and whether it is herself or not, the search has to end somewhere and so I’ve decide to adopt this image in memory of my great grandmother, Ellen Cahalane, Ellie Calahan, Helen Clarkson. God Bless Her.