Irish ancestors

1  Elizabeth Rawdon HastingsThe Countess of Moira

I’ve got Irish ancestors. Quite a few, begorra (by god). And I’m learning more about them. What this really means is I’m learning more about European and Australian history. These were subjects I dozed through at school, so there is quite a lot to find out about. Actually, many people, even most people, have Irish ancestors. I’m not saying Indians, Arabs or Africans have Irish ancestors, but you never know. It’s possible. Ireland’s biggest export, they say, is people.

From the 16th to the 19th century the English murdered, tortured, slaughtered, sold into slavery and executed as traitors as many Irish as they could lay their hands on. They introduced martial law into Ireland, and invented the gulag system of terror and detention so popular in the 20th century with the Chinese and Russians. This was the transportation system to Australia. They exported all of Ireland’s plentiful food supplies to England and left the Irish to eat potatoes, not a very nutritious diet. Then when the potato blight destroyed the crops in Ireland in the 40s and 50s of the nineteenth century, they left the Irish to starve in their millions. Biological warfare was introduced as well, as cholera and typhus raged unchecked throughout the country. The English, no matter what they said, didn’t like Irish (that of course is the English ruling class: they didn’t like the English working class much either).

So many Irish left Ireland. “All right”, they said. “If you don’t want us, we’ll go elsewhere”. About 100 million people around the world (outside Ireland) claim Irish descent, half of them American. This led to a lot of famous folk songs, like The Leaving of Liverpool, about the parting of families (not to mention the songs about the ‘troubles’, like The Patriot Game or The Rising of the Moon).

What makes my education interesting is that finding out about the life of an ancestor puts a ‘face’ on history. It’s not about movements and revolutions, but people coping with difficulties and surviving as best they could. You have to hand it to the Irish. Persistent folk. They fought and drank and swore and lied, but death was often just behind them.

Although I’ve written about some of these folks before on this site, here is my attempt to condense and update the information, as well as talk about some new people I’ve found out about. Please don’t think I’m an expert in Irish history (not even in Australian history).

2 Sackville street 1760sSackville Street Dublin 1760

Davises of Dublin

One ancestor who may well not be, in the sense he may be an ancestor only through adoption, is Joseph Davis. Joseph was born mid 18th century, about 1760, in Dublin. He became a fairly prosperous tradesman, a cutler, located in the cutlers’ district of the city, in Crane Lane, just south of the Liffey, perhaps inheriting the business from his father. Joseph met a woman called Mary Bassford and married her about 1780, and had six children with her, four surviving into adulthood. Mary was quite an influence on him. She was the daughter of Joseph Bassford and Mary Fitzgerald. Her mother worked for Elizabeth Hastings, the Countess of Moira, a very powerful English peer. The Countess was close to the peer who eventually became the leader of the Irish rebel forces in 1798, Lord Edward Fitzgerald. She was interested in Methodism, and in Irish culture and political liberty, interests the English government frowned upon but could do nothing to stop. Joseph and his wife absorbed both these influences.

By the 1790s Joseph had joined the Society of United Irishmen, a group which aimed to use political lobbying to influence the British government to grant more freedom to Ireland. But they included a more militant faction as well, and when the English would not respond, or did so later with the Act of Union, which made Ireland more, not less, subservient to England, revolution broke out. An army was formed and centred in Wicklow, another in Wexford, south of Dublin, near the Bristol Channel. Joseph travelled south and campaigned for the United Irishmen, and was briefly a member of the rebel army  in Wicklow. But in Dublin martial law had been declared. The English, terrified by the example of revolutionary France, were not taking any chances. They resorted to terrorism. Homes were burnt, women raped, and anyone resisting was killed or arrested as a traitor. To preserve his family Joseph thought it best to surrender to the English in 1797. He had been put on a list of 80 ‘traitors’ formally exiled by the King, George III, and sought a mitigated sentence. Hanging, drawing and quartering was the process handed out to traitors.

Joseph was given a summary trial and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. He was then ill with a stomach tumour, and incarceration in a rotting war ship called the Lively in Cork harbour, without adequate food and clothing or shelter, let alone medical attention, didn’t help. His sentence was likely to result in death, for many convicts died on the voyage. It was tragic for his family, whom he would never see again unless they managed to find passage money. His youngest child had been born while he was in prison, and he had never seen him. But Joseph survived. He took ship on the Minerva to Australia 1799, and remained out of the surgeon’s hands during the voyage. In Australia his skills as a cutler were valued, and he was employed to make surgical instruments for the new Sydney Hospital. He never saw his family again. They died, or drifted apart. Joseph became a sceptic, a Freethinker, and temporarily renounced Methodism. His experience had suggested that god did not take an immediate interest in his faithful servants. Eventually Joseph met another woman, Ann Calder, a Scotswoman transported for 14 years for stealing some clothing. Joseph and Ann had a family, six children, five of whom survived, most migrated to New Zealand. Two of his sons, named after Irish rebel leaders, became interpreters and negotiators for the Maoris. And several of his family also became fervent Methodists.

3 1798 rebellionThe 1798 rebellion, pikes against cannon

The Pikemaker of Birr

Although the Davis families came to Ireland from Wales (probably during the reign of James I when Protestants were welcomed to displace Irish Catholics), there were many Davises in Ireland by the 18th century. William Davis, born in Birr in Offaly about 1765, was an innkeeper who was caught up in the ’98 rebellion. No details of his early life have been discovered, but by 1798 he was in Wexford, where he was promptly informed on to the British and arrested. William was then in his early 30s. He was suspected of helping to make pikes for the rebel army, for that army went to battle armed only with pikes, short spears, against the English, who had both musketry and cannon. The English slaughtered the Irish forces, most of them after they had surrendered, and raped their women. Whether William was guilty of making pikes we will never know, for no trial or investigation was ever made. The English were arresting, executing or exiling anyone suspected of involvement in the insurrection (including prominent politicians and peers). But William was known ever after as ‘the Wexford Pikemaker’, and became a famous name in Australian history.

Sentenced to life imprisonment, William sailed on the ship Friendship 1799, and in Australia he endured the psychotic cruelty of the overseers the transportation system encouraged, in William’s case, an Anglican clergyman Samuel Marsden. Marsden targeted men for being Irish, hence rebels, and Catholics, hence rebels, and enforced the belief of the system that this rebelliousness had to be beaten out of the prisoners and they subdued with terror. Marsden ordered several sentences of 200 lashes for William, with the cat of nine tails, a whip with bits of barbed wire woven into the tips which ripped away the flesh and exposed the backbone. Many died from the treatment or from subsequent infection, for convicts were often not given medical attention.

William served his sentence. He worked as an inn keeper, leased land in Sydney’s Rocks area near Circular Quay, and prospered. In 1809 he married an Irish convict Catherine Miles, transported for seven years for stealing clothes. The couple found favour with the liberal Governor Macquarie, who desperately needed reliable settlers to help develop the colony. William acquired land, some on the western plains and some around the region of the Rocks in Sydney. By 1810 he was a relatively wealthy man, in 1814 he received an absolute pardon from Governor Macquarie. About 1812 he adopted two children, Joseph and Elizabeth, mentioned in the records of the Sydney Orphan School as “children of Mr Davis”, and William as their “parent or guardian”. The adoption is part of William’s testimony in a 1834 court case against Joseph, in which he says he met him when he was three years old (Joseph was therefore born 1809). This makes it likely these were two of the children of Joseph Davis the cutler mentioned above, whose son Joseph was born 1809. In an 1828 muster of settlers a Mrs Young is mentioned as part of William’s household in Harrington Street, The Rocks. Earlier that year Elizabeth Davis married William Young in Harrington Street, the ceremony performed by the Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang. The Youngs sailed for New Zealand with their family about 1831.

William was a fervent Catholic, and he gave much of his wealth to support the Catholic Church in Australia. It was at times a proscribed faith, many Governors seeing Catholics as rebels against English rule. At one time Catholic priests were banished, and William took charge briefly of the consecrated host used in celebrations of the mass. When he died William left land and money to the Church, and it was his foundation that allowed the building of St Patricks Church in the Rocks area of Sydney on land he owned there. Shortly before his death William bought more land, and died the equivalent of a millionaire. His will gives instructions for the care of three children of the Joseph he had adopted (Joseph was by then deceased), and his heir was a 21 year old grandnephew, John Davis of Birr, son of William’s nephew John, a successful Dublin coach builder. Within 15 years young John had been stripped of his wealth by unscrupulous lawyers and family members, and he died bankrupt aged 40 in 1861.

4 Carlisle Bridge Dublin 1760View of Dublin from Carlisle Bridge 1760

Fairbrothers of Dublin

The Fairbrothers originate from Huguenot refugees from France some of whom became Quakers in London, and migrated to Dublin in the 1690s. The Huguenots were skilled weavers, and introduced the craft to Dublin. George Fairbrother was born to a weaver, Henry Fairbrother and his wife Alice, in 1803, in the weavers’ part of Dublin, in Poole Street, south of the Liffey level with St Patricks Cathedral and not far from Weavers Square. He was the youngest son. There were quite a few Fairbrothers, probably all related, and most weavers. The area known today as Fairbrothers Field was a tenters field, where the fabric was stretched out on tents or hooks. This was owned by George’s family, and he had every prospect of working and thriving in the family business.

But on 10 December 1824, aged 21, George was tried and convicted of stealing lead, probably from a church roof. This crime is still going on today, as lead prices are high and churches all use a lot of lead on roofing. In George’s case it resulted in a sentence of seven years transportation to Australia. We have no idea if he really did steal the lead, as trial was made on information given by a paid informer. George sailed on the ship Sir Godfrey Webster 13 May 1825 from Cork, arriving Sydney 16 January 1826. He was sick much of the voyage, with a kind of dropsy caused by malnutrition. Rations on convict ships were often rotten, spoiled goods sold by unscrupulous retailers who knew there would be no complaints. George was put on assigned labour, and by 1831 he had earned his pardon.

George was now entitled to return to Dublin and take up the family business. But could he? The weaving trade had come upon hard times in Dublin. It was rigidly restricted to Protestants. The ’98 revolution had damaged it badly, and its success in earlier times bought high tariffs to protect the English industry, so much material became unsellable. The weavers had to diversify to stay alive, and the Fairbrother business may have been affected. George never returned home. He stayed in Australia, and in 1843 he married a convict girl from Dublin, Mary Smyth. Just what his adventures were between 1831 and 1843 is not known. The couple had five children, and Mary had been transported with an illegitimate baby named Mary Jane, whom George adopted.

Some time in 1852 depression began to take its toll on George Fairbrother. He made several attempts to hang himself, and once tried to cut his throat with a razor. We have no idea what pressures he was under nor if his attempts were rational. He meekly acquiesced when his step daughter, or his wife, removed the razor from his hand or loosened the rope from his neck, but told them they would one day find him dead. This they did on 18 September 1853, hanging from a tree from a leather belt. He was 50 years old. To go from such good prospects to a menial job in distant Australia, separated from his family, must have been a cruel blow. One can only admire the great majority of convicts who bore up and continued their lives.

George’s wife was left with five small children aged six months to eight years to look after, and a 16 year old girl. In 1855 she married again, and her family prospered, leaving her with 30 grandchildren.

5 Cork 1760View of Cork 1760

The Knowles Waters of Limerick and Cork

Many people know about the Great Hunger that raged 1840-50 in Ireland, caused by the loss of potato crops to a fungus, which left the whole population without food of any kind. In the early 40s the whole of Europe was in an economic depression, and there was no surplus foods that could be sent to Ireland to help. Worse was to come. From 1841 to 1854 typhus and cholera swept the country, killing almost a million people. Of course medical attention was inadequate, and malnutrition and unhygienic living conditions played their part in the spread of the disease. Records show a huge rise in infant mortality, and the experience of many families was to watch as child after child died before the parents succumbed themselves. Many emigrants died on the voyage to a new home, or shortly after arriving there.

John Waters was a farmer in Limerick, a prosperous one who was later described as a gentleman. In the early 1800s he married a Susanna Knowles. The couple came to Limerick town with their family, which included three sons, Edward, born 1826, William, born 1827, and Robert, born 1829. All three of these sons were given the name Knowles as a second name. (Knowles can be of English origin, among the many Protestant families that came in to dispossess the Catholics in the 17th century. It can also be an anglicised form of a gaelic clan, the O’Tnuthghail Sept of North County Kildare. I have no information about this particular Knowles family, other than that they belonged to the Church of Ireland).

By 1851 the parents, John and Susannah, were dead, and the family scattered, perhaps fleeing infection from cholera. First to go was Robert Knowles Waters, who took ship to Australia as an assisted emigrant. Robert travelled on the ship Duchess of Northumberland in 1850 and arrived in Moreton Bay January the following year. In 1852 he married a girl he’d met on the voyage, Mary Ann Davis, a grand niece of William the Pikemaker, mentioned above. Robert went straight to the Monaro as a gold prospector, found nothing, and then became a policeman. He performed an act of heroism in 1857 when he risked his life to rescue a couple whose horses and carriage had been swept away in a flooded river. He then became a gaoler, and then left the position to move to Parramatta and work as a shoemaker, where he promptly went bankrupt. However Robert kept going in the trade until at least 1886. In 1901 he died at Parramatta. He and Mary Ann had eight children, six surviving. He was close to his ‘cousin’, James  Gammel, also from Limerick and also in Parramatta.

Robert’s elder brother Edward Waters moved first from Limerick to Kerry, where he worked for a Mrs Newman at Flesk Priory at Killarney. There he met and married a soldier’s daughter, Mary Ann Christie, also employed by Mrs Newman, in December 1847. Edward joined the army and worked as a drill instructor stationed at Cork, and ended up at Mallow in that county. Deaths from cholera had begun to rise by the 1860s in Mallow. Edward and Mary Ann had four children, and, in 1863 he and his family sailed for Australia along with his brother William on the ship Western Ocean.  In 1874 he moved to New South Wales and lived in Newtown, until his death in 1904. His elder daughter Mary Ann married a well known journalist, Eugene Keily, and ended up in Toowong Queensland.

The third brother William also moved from Limerick to Cork. In 1846 he met and married a Cork girl, Ellen Walsh. The couple had a total of ten children, all but two of them born in Cork, and some died there, perhaps of cholera. In 1863 they sailed to Australia with Wiliam’s brother Edward. There is an indication that  William might have worked in mining in South Australia for a time, but he settled in Victoria, in Hotham where he died in 1883. With political oppression, disease and starvation behind them, and the goldfields of Australia before them, you can see why the move was made, no matter how traumatic.

6 Shannon LimerickThe Shannon at Limerick

Gammells of Bruff

Limerick had a thriving textile industry, and Limerick lace a market in Europe. The ’98 rebellion, and the Hunger in the 40s, damaged that industry as it did much else in Ireland. In between came a severe epidemic of cholera. All this disrupted the business, and life, of a well off weaver of Bruff in Limerick, John Gammell, some of whose children were also involved in the textile trade. One of these was Bridget, a dressmaker, another a son, James, born 1815. James found it expedient to move to nearby town Tipperary, where he married a farmer’s daughter, Margaret Downey, sometime about 1835. James’ sons disclosed on the death of their parents that James and Margaret had had 10 children. As only five children were born after the couple moved to Australia, there must have been five children born in the later 1830s in Tipperary, of which no trace remains. This probably means they died, and as cholera was raging in the country at that time, this could be the cause of their deaths. Losing the first five children must have been traumatic, even in those days of extensive infant mortality.

James and Margaret took sail for Australia on the ship Jane Gifford in 1840, along with James’ sister Bridget. Both John Gammell, James’ father, and William Downey, Margaret’s father, had died by that time, and their mothers soon after. In Australia the Gammel family moved west to Parramatta, where development had created many opportunities for new settlers. James was still involved in Irish affairs, and contributed to Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association (repeal of the 1800 Act of Union). In Parramatta he joined with his brother John to form a blacksmithy, in Ross St in the north of the town. James’ brother John is a shadowy figure who in 1853 married a certain Ann Levey, had a daughter the following year, then suddenly died in 1854 without a mention or sign of an inquest. James’ sister Bridget married a Richard Edwards, a Bristol ex-convict who had amassed property in the district. James and Margaret had five further children, one of whom married a son of the George Fairbrother mentioned above. James established a network of personal and business contacts in Parramatta, and eventually became quite prosperous. His youngest son, another James, became an inn keeper, and by adroit management became a gentleman, a man of independent means. James and his family throughout their lives were devout Catholics, and contributed money for the building of the first St Marys Cathedral in Sydney. Now they all rest at peace in the north Parramatta cemetery of St Patricks.

7 DublinersThe Dubliners

My realisation

It took me some time to become aware of this background. Like many who research family history I concentrated first on government records, names, dates and relationships, all the research involved in building a family tree. It turns out the century 1760-1860 during which all these ancestors lived was full of events I had no idea of. I realised that my ancestors emigrated while suffering from trauma and terrible ill health. They were refugees, not just names and dates.

Louis Pasteur started the practice of immunisation against contagious diseases, and demonstrated the germ theory of disease transmission, in 1885. Before that, nobody had much idea how diseases spread. In Ireland during the mid century when cholera and typhus raged unchecked, it was explained in terms of a ‘miasma’. Hygiene wasn’t practised, open sewers were the norm, chamber pots were emptied into the streets, water was scarce, and keeping wounds clean and antiseptic unknown. In politics Ireland and England fought for many years, practising mutual terrorism, until very recently indeed. Along the way, lots of lives were lost.

The Irish emigrated, because it was unendurable to live at home. Many had lived in the same area for hundreds of years, as people did before the 19th century. But before they left they had had relatives, sons and fathers and brothers, arrested, sometimes on trumped up charges, and never saw them again. Women were raped, children died in their thousands. Nothing could have been worse for parents than to watch their children starve to death. Cholera would have been a mercy, quicker. Food could only be had by theft, and theft all too often led to execution or transportation. All through the 19th century the crime rate rose in Britain, and slums expanded. The seamy side of the Industrial Revolution destroyed thousands, perhaps millions of lives. But the Irish emigrated. They tried again, sometimes with a delusion they would return wealthy to their homes and loved ones, many to take disease with them and die lonely and apart. Remember that next time you hear an Irish jig or reel. When I think of that endurance I feel proud to have Irish ancestors.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


3 thoughts on “Irish ancestors

  1. love your blog, I have been researching my family history for my sons on their late fathers side. they are direct descendants of Edward Fitzgerald Davis – younger brother of Charles Oliver Davis. and reading your very interesting and informative blog. I’ve realised Catherine Miles is also their Grandmother, through her daughter marrying Joseph Davis, whom of course is their grandfather. I would love to hear from you

    1. I too am a direct descendant of Edward Fitzgerald Davis youngest son of Joseph Davis. He married Mere Kaimanu Anderson in New Zealand. They had 7 children, daughter Elizabeth married James Hally of Cambridge NZ, my great grandparents.

  2. I have Irish ancestors, too, and I learned and retained Irish history by following their journey. I returned to Ireland to walk the same streets, which was a powerful experience. When we research our roots, we are telling the “people’s history”–stories that may not be told otherwise.

    Well researched narrative!

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