The scrap of blue grey paper had been retrieved and held in my aunts hand like an old shopping list. It looked as though I was in trouble for something. “It was in the clothes drawer...” (in a bedroom I never went into) “ ..and your father said I should give it to you.” Now 12, I was entrusted with a bit of old writing paper - such responsibility? On the paper was an instantly recognisable tree. Not very big and not my tree. Very puzzled I asked why would I want it and my aunt pointed to the name, Tadg, at the bottom of it and said, “ That is your grandfathers family”. My grandad Tim had died when my father was two and a half, so, there was little recollection of him. My aunt was a little older but with few memories as the grandfather was away a lot of the time and his name was Tadg or Tim.
Many years later and I had got my parents boxed in with questions about the family they could not answer. My mother became passionately engaged in the recent history of Ireland’s struggle for independence and joined my father and I in an intriguing quest for family history and the culture of Ireland. Eventually my mother read about one of many Irish / English skirmishes written by an ‘Old Boy’ involved in these matters. It mentioned a Tim Crowe. The story of Tim/Tadg Crowe (my grandfather) being a member of the original IRA came out. Eventually we travelled to the monument of the ambush in Solohead. On the Solohead monument are eight names one of them Crowe. The ambush went wrong, a soldier died and the whole thing became a difficult mess. The men fleeing for their lives. It turned out to be another Tim Crowe according to the men who lived through that era.
However, because of this great and mounting family interest, my grandmother was forced to reluctantly reveal the truth amongst a great many tears. She was naturally reluctant to talk about her dead husband who left her widowed at a young age, no financial support, with two young children of two and four but there was another reason, my grandfather was involved in the IRA and so was she.
My grandmothers reluctance was also due to the fact that even 50 years later people would not say much about events of those times. There were a spectrum of different views about the freedom of Ireland, no single ideology held sway but there were enough hard liners to force violent action. In fact there had to be an amnesty to the Old Boys of the original IRA to reveal the true events so that they could receive pensions as ex-serving, army of liberation, soldiers. They were vulnerable to not only English soldiers but those at odds, within Ireland, of a violent strike for freedom. These witness statements are available online and searchable at the bureau of Military History - see links.
My grandmother received her service medal (Cumman na mBan - women were not generally involved except as couriers for information weapons food etc.). At this time there was no one famous in the Crowe family and this fame / infamy was great for me and my family history at the age of 13. However, my parents and grandmother clammed up tight about it in case the incident, originally kept from my father for the same reason, caused me to join up there and then! A lesson in Family History, you may not be told the truth!
On a brighter note my grandmother personally had met and knew President DeValera before his famed position. Although she then disagreed with the President’s position on the partition of Ireland she was given the Cumann Na mBan Service Medal by DeValera himself. I tell you, everyone knows everyone else in Ireland?
So, how did my grandfather die? Well the story was that he had drowned near Skibbereen, Co Cork whilst hiding out in his brothers house - an RIC policeman! (Irish people were never clear cut about separation and Home Rule, people were caught in all kinds of odd situations). So, where was the grave? Another deafening silence, eventually broken after many of my grandmothers tears had fallen, causing her to remember what was painfully buried with her husband. I was not allowed to go on the visit to the graveyard and I only found it myself in October 2019! I do have a cutting given to me by my grandmother that appeared of the newspaper. There was an inquest but all the papers for it have gone after a given time period, now there are only cuttings.
The Famine Graveyard
One of the big issues facing anyone researching 1800s Ireland is the Hunger Years of 1845 to 1850. The death, disease and decimation of almost 50% of the population of Ireland and our research is dramatic and profound but the effects on the people and life in Ireland can not be imagined. As a child I became aware of this issue and asked questions about it but never had a clear answer. No one knew or was prepared to say much. Later, one afternoon, after a family lunch, it was the subject of conversation and I asked my question again. First, there is the question of being helpless. The Irish were too poor to help themselves let alone other families. Added to that, the British government withdrew support for the aid it started to give because the Irish were seen as troublemakers and rebels. Wealthy landlords sometimes helped but there is a limit to what, the few who tried, could do, when more than 1 million were about to die of hunger (1 in 7 of the population) - and the diseases that come before hunger takes you away?
My grandmother for the second time in my life had tears in her eyes with the tales she knew. She knew I was interested and now, of an age where I should not be shielded from the truth. My immediate family line appears to have been lucky in some respects that they avoided the worst. One of the discussion points was that, on the local headland to the bay there was a famine graveyard and that no one knew how many people were interred. Years later I cycled across from the ferry to visit my family and paid a visit to the Famine Graveyard. It wasn't very clear, hidden until you arrived on top of it and I had a shock. Apart from being smaller than expected it was incredibly plain. A patch of ground, with concrete bollards linked by metal bars around and a small plaque. That was it! For a major event in Ireland and a rich catholic church, it was so small and insignificant. Anyway, after a time to appreciate what must have happened and that Ireland did not want to revisit this time. I sat and started to sketch the view of Dungarvan bay in panorama below but stopped and burst into tears and sobbing. Everything I had been told came flooding to me literally.
It also taught me a lesson, that my grandmother was two generations removed from the folks who experienced the famine and despite being a tough lady she was upset and that tradgedy had now passed another two generations to me. We have to remember these things because there is a lot to learn but we also need to move forward, using the impetus of these events to make sure it does not happen again.
On a brighter note, the present generation has now renovated the site and made it much more a positive place. Also, if you visit Ireland and wonder why you get mash potato with fried potatoes or offered extra potatoes after a meal where your ribs are spreading out in front of you, then you will now have a reason for it! One of the worst things you can say about a person after visiting their home, is that you left hungry........ I have tales for that another time! :)
On my Irish grandmother’s side of the family (their surname is English!) the claim to fame was her brother, Father Tom Francis English. He was a priest and his parish was in Spokane, Washington State. He had a car and a camera and there were photo albums of indigenous ‘Red Indian’ reservations, many friends and parishioners, giant Redwood trees and general Americana.
Was this my rich 'American Uncle'? Educated, he was reputedly a bright star, he was sent to a religious college in the States, where he furthered his future. Many years later I was surprised to be given a book, roughly A4 in size that was the year book for his college. No one had ever mentioned this book before! It didn’t have too much to say about him, except that he was happy to give an opinion on something – sounds familiar in my family! Turned out he had shares in an American silver mine too - well it was a mine but the silver was hard to find!
Letter from America
I have a first Air Mail edition of the trip over the pond. Mail used to take weeks and this was the first air delivery.
Letter from America 2
Another surprise came even later when I was given a letter, originally sent to my grandmother from her sister, Gertrude. The letter had an American stamp! Exciting, I used to collect foreign stamps. This sister of my grandmother, also living in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, had travelled out to America in the 1930’s to be housekeeper for her brother (Father Tom above). She wrote of the trip from Chicago on the train, the black porters, the Rocky Mountains, snow and 'Indian' reservations. All strange for someone coming from Ireland at that time and written on headed paper from a large hotel in Spokane, a line drawing of the hotel was in the heading. A little gem! Now I knew I was becoming an archivist and that I had to get the message to a wider audience. These were not my gifts they were for everyone involved.
Never know what you are going to find once you start digging in the silver mine?
Seamus Crowe Website2021