Since it was St. Patrick’s day this week I thought I’d write up a small fragment of my family history, as revealed to me by various frantic episodes of digging in electronic archives over the past decade or so. Unfortunately, I’ve not always been very consistent in terms of saving copies of relevant records, so I’ll do the best I can and will endeavour to fill the gaps as I go along. I’ll create a coherent family tree and link it here at some point, as well as the other supporting documents I have.
So, a little piece of my ancestry is Irish. I lived with my grandparents growing up, and my grandad self-identified as half-Scottish, half-Irish – even though he was born and bred in Wales. Cardiff, to be precise. His name was Malcolm, though a lot of people called him Alec. This was because he was said to resemble his own father, whose name was also Alec – Alexander, really. A lot of people in the family were named Alexander for generations going back – even the women, who had feminine versions of the name. My mother, for instance, whose name is Allison. And then her cousins that I’ve never met, Alexandra, Alexa, Alexis, and so on. But my great-grandfather Alexander was Scottish, so he doesn’t properly belong to this story.
My grandad’s mother was full Irish – her name was Bridget – although she too was born in Wales. She was the youngest of, I think, four children, and the only one to have been born in Wales. The rest were born in Galway, and the whole family migrated to Wales in time for the 1891 census . Bridget died in 1974, the same year I was born. So I never met her. My grandad used to say: ‘she was no slouch!’ – by which he meant she had a sharp mind. He looked at me knowingly whenever he said this. She was a catholic, and lots of the cousins were catholic too, but my grandad wasn’t catholic and there was no religion in our household at all. I don’t know why. He didn’t say much about God, but he had a theory that humans had come here from another planet hundreds of thousands of years ago. If you’d met him, you’d have been surprised that he thought this as he was very plain-speaking – some would say he was too plain-speaking – and wasn’t at all fanciful. Occasionally it’s occurred to me that maybe he was right.
His Irish-born grandmother, Mary, died in Cardiff in 1925. I remember him talking about this episode, as he was just a kid at the time of her death – six years old. They’d laid her body out in the house. I’m not sure if he said exactly how this made him feel, but it obviously left an impression. A strange sense of awe, perhaps. Later I would find the single line record in the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths, testifying to Mary’s death, and then the death certificate to match; died Cardiff, 15th November 1925; aged 70 years; cause of death chronic bronchitis and myocardial degeneration. Now she was from Galway. I don’t know too much about her, but I know that for some years after she became a widow she had a house in Port Talbot, and let rooms to a pianist and a Russian acrobat.
Her husband and my great-great grandfather, Michael, died in 1894. He was older than her. As far as I can tell, he was probably born around 1840 – possibly as early as 1836 – in, or near, Causeway in County Kerry. The reason I’m unclear as to his precise year of birth is because of various conflicting records; given that he would have grown up during the worst privations of the Famine, it’s likely that he didn’t know for sure exactly how old he was. His death certificate in 1894 puts him at 54 years old, suggesting his birth to have been around 1840. Records from the Kerry town of Tralee – around 15 miles south of Causeway – show that he enlisted in the army in August 1857. He is described as being 17 years and 7 months old, as being 5′ 5″, with brown eyes (no mention of hair) and a ‘fresh’ complexion. It’s interesting to note that this record from 1857 marks that his enlistment into the 88th Regiment comes after his discharge from the Kerry Militia. However, there is also a record from the same year of a 19 year-old Michael Ferris being sent to Tralee Gaol for this offence: “Having Enlisted In The 88th Regt Not Being Dischd From The Kerry Militia”.
In May 1854, there is another record of a 16 year-old Michael Ferris sentenced to one month’s Hard Labour, again at Tralee Gaol. This time the offence was: “Leaving His Employment being an Indentured Apprentice”. It’s hard to imagine that these records don’t all pertain to the same person, which would push his birth year back to around 1838. The only plausible birth record I can find for a Michael Ferris is one from 1836, where in Dromnacurra (Causeway) a Michael Ferris is born to Dermot Ferris and Mary Hanlon. Despite the date discrepancy, this ties in with a later marriage record that gives Michael’s father’s name as Dermot (or Jeremiah – in Roman Catholic churches, names were often latinised, or whatever the priest considered to be latinised. Dermot and Mary Ferris are in some records shown as Jeremiah – and even Demetri – and Maria).
Now, if I were writing a book about this I’d spend a good deal of time looking at histories around the information gleaned thus far. For instance, that Kerry was one of the counties worst-affected by the Great Famine which peaked between 1845-1852. So whatever happened to Michael during that time, we can place our bets that it wasn’t a period of carefree fun and plenty as far as he was concerned. At the time of writing I’ve done only very cursory investigations into conditions at Tralee Gaol, so will update as time permits. As a point of interest, the offences listed alongside Michael’s in the prison records mostly comprised of theft, assault and even rape, so it seems to me that imprisonment at such a young age for such – as far as I’m concerned – inconsequential misdemeanours as leaving one’s employer while indentured, or enlisting in the army before an official discharge, seem both harsh and unfair. Nonetheless, after his gaol-time Michael did enlist in the 88th regiment – one that, years later, would become known as The Connaught Rangers.
The next section, where I detail Michael’s army career, is here.