Ready Money

A Timely Warning to Young Couples

“So, my dear Katie you’re going to be married soon? Well, I hope that you have made a wise choice.”

“O yes, uncle,” I answered light-heartedly, “I certainly have made a wise choice, for Henry will make me perfectly happy.’

‘Oh,” Uncle Joe smiled pleasantly and mischievously asked, “What has he got?”

It was typical of Uncle Joe to set me an unexpected question that would make my face redden with embarrassment, and in my most calm voice, I answered, “What has he got, Uncle? Sure, I have no idea about what you mean.”

“I just want to be sure that he has sufficient income to look after you, and what sort of position will you occupy in local society?”

“Henry has his business, and a good one it is!” my mother interrupted abruptly and emphatically.

“And he is so clever, he’s sure to get on fabulously,” I boasted, for I was eager to assure Uncle Joe that as far as my future was concerned everything was looking good.

“Of course, Katie, that success will also depend on you a great deal,” Uncle Joe replied rather gravely. “A man’s wife has a great deal of responsibility in ensuring the success or failure of her husband than you would suspect. It is often said that ‘a careless, extravagant, and bad wife is the greatest curse a man can have in his life, while a good wife is a great blessing.'”

“Yes, uncle; O yes,” I agreed while I glanced towards my mother, who I saw was smiling at his opinions with a little expression of scorn.

‘You make sure you take care of his pennies, and you’ll find his pounds will take care of themselves,” Uncle Joe smiled. “Beware, Katie, that you never get into debt, for its the easiest thing to do and the devil of a job to get out of. Just you take my advice, lady, and live well within your means, and always pay ready-money for things.”

“Yes, of course, Uncle,” I assured him. “I know you are right in what you say, and Henry is so careful with money, I am sure he has the very same ideas.”

“Well, just you keep it in mind, yourself. Don’t despise an old man’s advice, buy nothing that you can’t afford, and always pay ready-money.”

I can recall that conversation with my Uncle Joe so clearly, for it took place just a few weeks before my marriage. But I will admit that, at the time, his words did not strike home so forcibly as they did afterwards for, at that time in my life, my mind was totally filled with other matters that were of more interest to me. After all, Uncle Joe was an old man, and the amount of his wealth had always been kept under wraps. Nevertheless, Uncle Joe lived quite comfortably, owning a small property on the outskirts of Belfast, upon which he had built for himself a pretty, yet grand, house where I had often spent many happy childhood days. It must be said that he did show me special affection, possibly because I was the only child of his much loved, only brother, who had died when I was still a child, leaving me to the sole guardianship of my mother. Unfortunately, there had never been much love lost between my mother and Uncle Joe and, over the years, the division between them deepened. As a result, when invitations to Uncle Joe’s home, known as ‘Knocknaree’, were sent to us my mother invariably refused to go and only allowed me to attend after the greatest efforts of persuasion. But these visits provided me with some of the most enjoyable memories of my childhood. I would run through the hay-fields and the clover-scented meadows, and I would explore the marble-slabbed dairy, with its rows of basins that brimmed with frothy golden cream. Many afternoons I would sit with Uncle Joe beneath the shady old cedar-tree that stood in his fragrant garden and listened to his stories. He would also accompany me on the long garden walks, listening attentively to my childish conversation about things that were meaningless to anyone but me. Those were happy days, on which the sun always seemed to shine and banish all signs of gloom, protecting me from the world and its cares.

Sadly, I had not seen so much of Uncle Joe since I had grown up. This was due in part to the deep dislike my mother bore for him, and partly because my life had begun to rotate around a young man called Henry Allinson, who was aged twenty-six and five years older than myself. He was well situated financially, having an interest in a first-rate city business, and he was a popular young man with an irreproachable character. As for my situation, I was a penniless person until my mother died and, therefore, I was quite taken aback by my good fortune. Henry, being well-liked by the other partners in the business, would undoubtedly do well for himself and our start in married life appeared to be fairly promising. When we were married, Henry and I took a short honeymoon that, I was to learn afterwards, was not cheap and for which Henry had taken no opportunity to save some of his income. This news had made me feel a little uneasy but it was too early in our wedded life to argue about it and I comforted myself in the belief that we would live a quiet life once we were settled, which would allow us to make up for this little extravagance shown at the beginning of our lives together. We had already decided that we should live in Belfast and have a house of our own, which excited me with visions of being fully employed furnishing and adorning it just as we wished. The house, however, had yet to be chosen and this became our first main objective, followed closely by a desire to occupy it as soon as possible.

Over the following weeks, we must have spent a small fortune in hiring transport to view various prospective homes until we finally found the one we wanted. It was well situated in relation to the city centre, had suitable privacy from the main road, and was an excellent size of a building. It was, however, unfurnished and the rent required was very high, which frightened us. This was, by no means, a grandiose building though it was commanding the rent of one. The size was, thankfully, an advantage since it would not require much furniture and we decided that we would only require two maids, all of which would help reduce expenditure. Delighted with our choice we enthusiastically agreed with the house-agent to undertake a seven-year lease. Yes, we were young, inexperienced and innocent in these matters and were also beguiled by the tempting offer of having no security deposit to pay. But we also consented to make any repairs that were necessary and signed the agreement that very same day.

Neither Henry nor I had any knowledge about furnishing a home, nor did we have any experience of the problems that might occur by investing in cheap materials. Thinking ourselves to be clever we drew up two lists of furnishings to make price comparisons and sitting down with paper and pencil in hand we made an effort to calculate how much we would have to spend. During our calculations, I remembered Uncle Joe’s advice and suggested that we should not go beyond an agreed amount. Buying only what was necessary, and pricing these from the books, we agreed on an amount, and Henry decided to borrow a little more than this amount on monthly terms until it was all repaid. Overjoyed with our own prudence we set out to purchase what we needed. But when we got to the shop we had decided to do business with, we discovered that the things we had chosen appeared to be less than what we thought they would. By adding a little more money here and there we decided the overall cost would not be much higher than that which he had calculated, but the furniture we bought would be much prettier and suit our home much better. Adding this, adding that, and unwisely listening to the shop assistant’s advice our purchases had grown and we were not fully aware of what we had got until it was in the house with our newly employed domestics. But, even as the furnishings arrived there arose new needs, and hardly a day passed without some new demand being made with which it was impossible to do without. Eventually, all purchases were made and put in place, leaving us only the bill to be sent to us for payment. As I looked at all that we had got I was frightened to think about the bill, while Henry comforted himself in the belief that the total would not go over the amount we had calculated. You can imagine how we felt when the bill finally arrived and showed that we owed twice as much as we had calculated. We were totally taken aback at the amount of money required for delivery charges, for which we had made no calculation and were quite unprepared for.

After the first shock of receiving the bill, we immediately thrust it aside, comforting ourselves that it would all be paid in good time, and continued with our lives. We were newly married and friends were calling upon us, and we were also obliged to return these visits. It was a busy time and engrossed in the life that lay before us it was easy for us to banish disagreeable things from our minds. However, although I believed my own house to be perfectly furnished, I realised just how imperfect it was when I saw the homes of new friends and acquaintances. I began to see deficiencies that did not truly exist and went to different shops to purchase new items on account. But the problem of furnishings was not all there was. Henry’s position in business obliged us to entertain customers, contacts and partners of his business. Such entertainment was not cheap and neither were the clothes and accessories required to maintain an aura of wealth and fashion among such guests. This was the way things continued and after two years of married life we found ourselves hopelessly encumbered in debt, and recovery appeared impossible. It was almost impossible to put a finger on the cause of the extravagance, but it was certainly obvious that we were living far beyond our income. The bills seemed to arrive in a never-ending stream, and every day we were sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of debt. Then, to add to our on-going difficulties our child arrived and we set up a nursery, which cost us a considerable amount of money. As a mother it was would have been impossible for me to accept my child being badly dressed, and could never have taken the child into public unless it was in the sweetest and freshest of clothes. So we endeavoured to ensure that the child got only the best in clothes and accessories. Yet, despite the growing bills we mysteriously managed to keep ourselves afloat, and as a strange, careworn expression grew across Henry’s face it became obvious to me that he was harassed and worried. Although his business was fine, there were bills that needed to be paid and difficulties arising that he could not quite see the end of.

To all outward appearances, Henry and I seemed to be a very prosperous couple and living in a house as elegant as any other in the area. There were countless small trifles scattered throughout the house, which I had bought here and there but never paid for them. Some of the shopkeepers had not held back in their efforts to persuade me to buy many of these and, therefore, I didn’t think I had a real duty to pay for them. Yes, my conscience troubled me and from time to time a sharp pang of guilt would shoot through me, and many times I wished that when we first set up a home that I had had the sense to insist Henry to keep within our income. By this time, however, it was too late and all my hopes and prayers rested on some good fortune coming to us. Henry had high hopes of his partners promoting him to a position with an income that would see us much better off than we were. It was this hope of promotion that kept our spirits up and we felt particularly hopeful when Mr Torrens, the senior partner, decided that he would come to our home for dinner. Mr Torrens was a peculiar sort of man, who rarely left his own home, except to go to the office, and we knew that something important was afoot. We wanted to impress the man favourably, of course, and this caused us to launch ourselves into further debt. So much depended on the success of his visit that we decided no expense would be spared in entertaining him and I planned an exquisite meal served in the Russian style with each course brought to the table sequentially. The large dining table was set under my close supervision and when everything was completed I had the utmost confidence that Mr Torrens would be suitably impressed. Unfortunately for Henry and the meal I had prepared, Mr Torrens came to the house, ate very little and in silence, leaving the house without saying one word on the subject upon which our hopes were pinned.

Just over a week after the dinner, we heard that the promotion had, in fact, been given to one of Henry’s juniors, whose name had never before been mentioned. We were terribly disappointed, having counted on the real possibility of our situation being improved. Then, when our anger had reached its highest point, Uncle Joe suddenly walked in. The man had never been in our house since the day we were married, but it was a great surprise for him to leave his beloved ‘Knocknaree’. He made a point of telling me that he had a sudden urge to see his favourite niece and his new grand-niece, and that alone was the reason for his journey. He was only going to stay for the day and intended to return to his own home that very evening. I loved my Uncle Joe deeply and under normal circumstances would have been greatly pleased to welcome him to our home, but his visit had been badly timed. Despite his presence, my mind was only filled with great disappointment for Henry, and our troubles were now becoming too serious to ignore.

“You have a beautiful house, Katie,” said Joe. “Sure, I had no idea that Henry was such a rich man.”

“Did you not?” I replied with a nervous laugh.

“Aye, Katie, I am really pleased to see you so comfortably settled,” smiled Uncle Joe. “This room here must have cost you both a pretty penny, but I am sure you have a wee nest-egg put away somewhere.”

“Oh, it isn’t very much,” I answered him, referring to the room though I knew he would think I was referring to the nest-egg.

“It doesn’t matter how small it is, Kate. There is still plenty of time to add to it.”

It was at this moment that the door to the room opened and the maid delivered an ominous-looking plain manilla envelope into my hands and told me that the person was waiting for an answer. Quick as a flash I answered in the usual way under these circumstances and said. “Tell them Mr Allinson is out, but he would call with them in a day or two.”

Despite my best efforts to look indifferent, I could feel Uncle Joe’s eyes on me and I could feel my face begin to redden. I was almost certain that he had realised the truth of my current situation, but lunch was announced and we all went into the dining room. As we entered I was horrified to see that the maid had set the table with some of our best china, and though I knew she had done so with the best of intentions, I knew that Uncle Joe would not be impressed by such a show of grandeur. Nevertheless, he noticed the setting and politely expressed his admiration. “Where did you get that figure?” he asked as he pointed toward a particularly ornate china centre-piece. “It must have been  very expensive.”

“What?” I replied unemotionally, “It was not very expensive. At least I don’t think it was.” But even as I answered him I felt a painful throb in my heart, reminding me that the figure was not even paid for at that moment. After this I found the entire visit by my uncle to be both stressful and unpleasant, and it was with great relief when I bade him goodbye and was, once again, alone in my home. I had deceived him into thinking that our life was good when all the while I only wanted to put my arms around him and confess the financial mess we had made of our life. As I watched him leave my home to return to ‘Knocknaree’ my heart yearned to be going with him to the peace, quiet and happiness I had always experienced in that place. But, little did I realise that our struggle was just beginning and we just seemed to sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of debt. The deeper we struggled the deeper we got and all our efforts to drag ourselves out of the quagmire were in vain because we had ignored the ‘golden rule’ at the very beginning of our life together – to live within our means and pay ready cash. We had a lovely house, fine clothes, jewels, and plenty of ‘friends’. But we were totally miserable and overwhelming debt stared us in the face in whatever direction we turned. Moreover, we became increasingly anxious as to how long we could keep our creditors at bay and avoid being shamed. Henry’s position in his business depended solely upon the pleasure of the senior partners, and if they discovered his financial embarrassments, it would undoubtedly have serious consequences to him. Such a thing might make the senior partners consider that they would be justified in taking steps to remove him from the business, rather than just warn him of the danger of his position. Every waking moment of the day I prayed that we could begin again so that we could act differently and avoid our current experience.

There were times when I wanted to confide my troubles to my mother but did not dare to. Henry was a great favourite with her because she regarded him as being prosperous, but if she discovered his misfortunes she would not think of him in the same light. I could not bear that to happen because I knew that I was equally, if not actually more to blame than Henry for our predicament. It suddenly became clear to me what the meaning of Uncle Joe’s words were, as well as his warning that a wife can make or hinder her husband’s success. If only I had insisted at the beginning on living within our means all would have been good, but now every day brought another disturbing and threatening letter. Every ring of the doorbell would make me jump, and the sound of a man’s voice talking to the maid made me tremble with fear. Then, one summer’s evening, Henry and I were sitting, planning all sorts of wildly impossible schemes to get out of our predicament when Henry finally said, “We have held off the final reckoning for a long time now, but I think the day is just around the corner, Katie. And I don’t know what we are going to do.”

We worried about what our friends might think when our financial difficulties would be exposed. But, not for one minute, did we contemplate that they were already contemplating our fall and had been for many months. They wondered how we could afford to entertain so well and privately condemned us for wasting money, despite the fact that they were the beneficiaries of that spending. Neither did we even imagine that Mr. Torrens had not been impressed by our surroundings as much as hoped he would. He had left our home, knowing Henry’s income and disappointed that his valued employee had married a woman with so little sense and judgement. Mr. Torrens was completely aware of the embarrassment that would occur if Henry had been promoted and, therefore, the senior partners decided to promote and increase the wages of an employee whom they thought had a better understanding of money matters. It was clear, then, that it would only be my mother and Uncle Joe who would be surprised about our fall from grace, but we sat on in our lovely room knowing that we would have to sell off everything we had, leave our beautiful home, and begin again from scratch. Henry’s position, we were aware, was seriously damaged and that we could never hope to regain the same position in society that our own stupidity had caused us to lose, and we could not avoid that reality.

Great anxiety continued in the days that followed as I wrote to my mother and told her how hopelessly and desperately we were overcome by our financial difficulties. I still worried over what she would say, and what Uncle Joe might say. In my grief and embarrassment, I locked myself away from the world and never thought that I could face the world again. then, a knock came to the door and, after a subdued call from me to come in, I was surprised to see that beautiful, friendly face of Uncle Joe. He immediately enfolded me in his arms and said softly, “My poor wee Katie. I only heard your news this morning and I came straight away. Cheer up, Katie. Things can’t be past mending, and I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t come to help.”

Sitting with Henry and me, he listened attentively to our story, which we told truthfully and did not try to justify our conduct. Then, when all was confessed, Uncle Joe wrote a cheque for the full amount of our debts, which were quite substantial when everything was taken into consideration. It saved us from any disgrace, and it prevented Henry’s dismissal from a job that would eventually bring us an income that we could only have dreamed about. On the advice of Uncle Joe, we sublet our home and moved to a less expensive house in a less fashionable locality. At the same time we sold all those useless things that had cost us so much and had become so hateful to me. Now we started again with a small but certain income and armed with a lot more wisdom. We still visit him in his home, but mere words cannot describe how thankful we were for his kind and generous help and we have never forgotten his wise words – “Never buy what you can’t afford, and always pay with ready cash.”

To all young people who are about to marry, you may be doing so with the best intentions to be frugal. But how many young couples do we hear about who fall into bad times rather than the happy times due to them? Too frequently these hard times are caused by their developing of a heedless disregard for the future consequences that await them for ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’. The need to show-off can lead to an extravagance that might cost a young couple years of misery to redeem, and there will not always be an ‘Uncle Joe’ to help. It is much better to begin ‘house-keeping’ by showing a modesty that is in proportion to your means; to furnish if need be, gradually; and from time to time add what can be reasonably afforded..

Sex and the Famine

Recently, I was reading through several books on the ‘Great Famine in Ireland’, or ‘Genocide for those who prefer to think of it that way.  I read about Mayo, Sligo, Galway and West Cork where the men women and children died in their thousands during the ‘Great Famine’ in towns like Skibbereen and Ballinrobe. But, among this list should be numbered a coastal town in County Clare that is located in the south-west of the county, near the mouth of the River Shannon. This is Kilrush and there were few places, except for those named above, that suffered more severely from a combination of eviction and famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Reading an article by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy, both lecturers in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, which was published in a recent edition of “History Ireland”, heightened my interest in all areas of life affected by the Famine. They pointed out that Kilrush was renowned for something that I had never thought of before.  The area became noteworthy for the apparent surge in illegitimate births that occurred over the twenty years after the ‘Great Famine’. According to reports, by 1864 these illegitimate births accounted for at least ten per cent of all births that were recorded in the baptism register for the Catholic parish of Kilrush.  Both Gray and Kennedy point out that this was a remarkably high proportion for mid-Victorian Ireland, especially when one considers that prior to the ‘Famine’ the ratio was barely one percent in most years. Their conclusion was that the spectacular and sustained rise in recorded illegitimate births might suggest that there was a radical change in sexual mores in this County Clare town and its surrounding area. The surprise in these statistics lies in the fact that this occurred in the west of Ireland, which is generally considered to be the one region of Ireland were morals were high and, therefore, there were very few illegitimate births.

The article’s authors questioned the possibility that the ‘Famine’ and the associated evictions were likely causes for the surprising rise in illegitimate births. They suggested that it was possible, that in all the tragedy and suffering experienced by the people of Kilrush and its environs during those years of ‘Famine’, that sexual morals may have been forced to disappear by circumstances. With starvation rampant, surely it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some women felt it necessary to barter their bodies for food, a roof over their head, or money to help their suffering.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that food shortages in a male dominated society can also open numerable opportunities for the sexual exploitation of women by unscrupulous men. In many cases there were many who became pregnant and were comfortable to declare that their husbands had abandoned them to sail for America, or other destinations. In more normal times, the alleged father would have most certainly been dragged to the altar and obliged to honour his responsibilities. These days, however, were far from being normal times. The collapse of the Irish peasantry’s potato-led economy, the decimation of family, the breakdown of communal support, and the beginnings of mass emigration made abandonment of responsibilities a strategic alternative for the restless and rash-minded males. For these women, in such desperate times, the ability to bring social pressures to bear on such men was not easily accomplished. The vulnerable and too trusting women, especially if the family and community support network had been lost because of death or emigration, were left to bring up the child alone in conditions that were not good for continued survival.

From the records it appears that illegitimacy in Kilrush rose considerably during the ‘Famine’, as well as during its immediate aftermath. The effects of the ‘Famine’, however, were only short-term rather than long-term in nature, which suggests other possible causes for the rise in illegitimate births in this area. One possible answer could be the fact that Kilrush is a port town, which are often associated with prostitution and illegitimacy. Furthermore, with the rise of coastal holidays during the Victorian era, the town became the gateway to the growing holiday resorts of west Clare, such as Kilkee on the Atlantic coastline. The authors of the article, Gray and Kennedy, quote a visitor to Kilkee complaining that the resort was “infested by a number of unfortunate women, who disturb the inhabitants and visitors at night”. This must have been a most enjoyable attraction to some of the visitors to the town because, despite a public condemnation from the pulpit of the Catholic Church, the infestation continued unabated. It is reported that two of these unfortunate ladies from Kilrush, were assaulted by the local priest as they plied their trade. The priest, however, was arrested and was subsequently fined one shilling and costs for his pains. There are also suggestions that the sex trade in this area was being supplemented seasonally, to coincide with the tourist trade, by prostitutes from Limerick city.

The increase in the incidence of illegitimacy suggests that this can only be a small part of the story as to why it occurred. There is, of course, the speculation that Kilrush, and the area surrounding the town, had within it a “bastardy-prone sub-society”. Research suggests, however, that of the 211 mothers recorded as giving birth to children outside wedlock in the quarter-century after the ‘Famine’, only eighteen per cent were bearers of more than one illegitimate child. The article gave the example of a woman called, Mary Giffin, had illegitimate children baptised in August 1858, August 1861, September 1863 and September 1868. A certain Margaret Byrnes is also mentioned, whose illegitimate children were baptised in June 1859, March 1861, August 1863 and May 1865. These examples, however, were more the exception than the rule and most single mothers did not repeat the experience of bearing a child out of wedlock.

The explanation put forward by Mr Gray and Mr Kennedy is much simpler than any of the preceding suggestions. Taking a more detailed examination of the Catholic baptismal register for Kilrush parish revealed that approximately sixty per cent of births for the period 1850–75 were to women from the workhouse. But, the Kilrush workhouse served the entire union and not just the parish of Kilrush. When these workhouse births were excluded from the statistics, then the numbers that could be attributable to Kilrush were reduced to the more normal levels expected in a town situated in the west of Ireland. From these results, then, the inflated levels of illicit sexuality in Kilrush after the ‘Famine’ appear to be due to a quirk of registration rather than from any radical shift in the sexual behaviour of Clare men and Clare women. But, the result raises wider questions about the validity of parish register information on illegitimacy.  This is true, not just for Ireland but for all those societies where the institutionalised provision of welfare might affect the recording of illegitimate births.

What kind of life did these unmarried mothers, who increasingly used the workhouse, live? The answer is not clear to us since the indoor relief registers for Kilrush, which would give some detail of the individual lives of unmarried mothers, have not survived. The indoor relief registers for the Rathdrum and Shillelagh Poor Law unions have somehow survived, and they provide a touching image of unmarried mothers and their children. While some of these women appear to have merited only a few lines, there were others who were more regular visitors. Mary Donnelly, was a 22-year-old servant from Arklow, who was admitted to Rathdrum workhouse on 16 August 1850. She was heavily pregnant when admitted and she gave birth to Thomas on 6 September, leaving the institution with the child ten days later and does not appear to have returned to the workhouse.  A certain Ellen Power entered Rathdrum workhouse on 18 February 1851, as a homeless 24-year-old charwoman. Her daughter was born on 27 March 1851 and taken from the workhouse without her mother on 8 August 1851.  Ellen subsequently left the workhouse on the 14th of that month. Another young woman called Eliza Ashton, a 22-year-old servant, arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850, and left again a week later. Then, on 6 October, Eliza was admitted into the workhouse as a patient and less than a week later Thomas was born. Both mother and child left on 26 October, Eliza does not appear to have returned to the workhouse again.

While some unmarried mothers left little trace in the workhouse record, there were others who made many appearances in those records. A woman called Eliza Geoghan, a 25-year-old garden worker, used the Rathdrum workhouse 23 times between 27 August 1850 and 2 June 1862. During that time her son John was born on 21 December 1850, with mother and child subsequently leaving the institution on 24 February 1851. Both entered the workhouse again, however, with John being removed on 24 June, a month before his mother left. While nothing more of John is recorded, Eliza returned to the workhouse, pregnant again, on 19 February 1854, and Dennis was born just over a week later. Both mother and child left the workhouse on 23 June 1854, but they were to enter the institution three more times between June 1854 and April 1856. Unfortunately, during their last visit, beginning on 23 September 1855, Dennis was to die on 9 April the following year. Eliza appears to have left only 9 days later, on 18 April 1856 but returned many times, spending the winters of 1856 and 1857 there, though she gave birth to no more children in the workhouse. It appears that most of the time she lived within the electoral division of Dunganstown East, only changing her residence to another townland twice. On her last two visits to the workhouse, however, she was most probably homeless and suffering increased destitution. She was mostly described as a ‘servant’, but also a ‘garden worker’ and, on what was her penultimate visit, she was said to be ‘infirm’ and apparently unemployed.

Yet another example of the multiple user was that of Jane Allen, who was to use Rathdrum workhouse on 34 occasions between 17 September 1850 and 13 March 1863. She was a twenty-six years old servant, who first arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850 and gave birth to her son, John, on 19 October. John was subsequently taken away on 6 June 1851 and Jane left four days later. While nothing more is known about John, we do know Jane was to have three more children: Eliza (30 July 1852), born in the workhouse, Ellen (1856), born outside the workhouse, and James (8 September 1861), born in the house. During these years Jane is known to have stayed in Dunganstown South or Dunganstown West electoral divisions, though she did occasionally change townlands. It is also known that sometimes she and her children would stay for several months. On other occasions they would  stay only a matter of days. Although during her earlier stays in the workhouse Jane was referred to as a servant, for most of the times that stayed in the workhouse she was described as a ‘charwoman’. More interestingly, it seems that her marital status changed during the period, for example she was registered as being single for the period up to February 1861, then she is described as ‘married’ during her stay in February/March 1861, but on her next admittance, in August 1861, she is described as ‘single’ once again. Her children were admitted as ‘deserted’ in March 1861, leaving in June 1861, but the family was reunited in August 1861. They were to enter the workhouse five more times after this and, on each occasion, Jane is described as married. Her marital status can be said to be confusing during these years and one must wonder if she was not in fact a deserted wife, or perhaps intermittently so.

Stories such as these help to give us a much clearer picture of the perilous existence that faced an unmarried mother at this time. To some the workhouse was viewed as a resource in the constant battle against poverty, especially among the peasantry, including unmarried or abandoned mothers. We can, therefore, say that to some extent the unmarried mother did have some support, but in mid- and late Victorian Ireland this support system was of an extremely restricted kind. Throughout rural Ireland the life that faced unmarried mothers was one of desperation.  They faced religious, family and community hostility, as well as an unsympathetic and sometimes punitive system of welfare provision. Those who were known as ‘bastard-bearers’ were generally ground down between the actions of society and the state although, to some extent, their Unfortunatelysituation may have varied within the urban and industrialised Province of Ulster

Little is known of the fate of the illegitimate children born during this period. But, Gray and Kennedy give us the case of Eliza Pearson, who was aged four-years when she was discovered at the door of ‘Shillelagh’ workhouse and was deserted by her mother, Anne.  Eliza was taken into the workhouse on 19 June 1850 and left on 10 April 1856. Another child, Thomas Dwier, who was aged five and described as a ‘bastard’, was admitted on 29 February 1852. His mother had been transported and had left him ‘destitute without food’ and, in fact, is one of the very few instances where a male illegitimate child is mentioned in the records available. There is, however, no record of his departure from the workhouse. Finally, Bridget Nugent was nine when she was deserted by her father and as a deserted bastard, she had no friends or home. She was, therefore, admitted on 10 January 1851 and did not leave the workhouse until the 28 July 1855.  

It has surely not gone unnoticed that unmarried and pregnant women suffered stigmatisation and degradation under both the workhouse system and in the larger society, men appear to have largely escaped notice or sanction. The Thurles union replied to a circular from the ‘Poor Law Commissioners’, concerning moral classification, by condemning the unfairness in gender terms of a system that singled out female morality in the workhouse. At the same time the Thurles Union pointed out that no classification in this respect has been made at the male side. It is a fact that there are few clues as to the unmarried mothers in Kilrush, whose names are contained in the parish records. It must be said that even less is known about those shadowy but potent figures of males who had set women on a downward course to vilification, destitution and disgrace.

It is an irony of the history of the Irish workhouses that they could have become places for ‘immoral behaviour’, despite the rules and regimentation that governed these grim institutions. In the minutes of the Kilrush union for 1853 it is revealed that the master and the matron of the workhouse had been accused of immorality. The accused persons were, however, later acquitted. According to the rules and regulations of the Poor Law system, women and men were to be strictly segregated within the penal institution of the workhouse. But in 1853 the master reported, no doubt with some concern – ‘I beg to report to the board that Mr Nolan the resident apothecary informed me on Sunday last that a pauper woman named Kate Quinn who has been in this house for a long time was pregnant. On enquiry it would appear that a pauper man named John Griffin who is also in the house for a long period is the father. Kate Quinn left the workhouse on the 15th inst. Griffin also took his discharge on the 17th inst.’

As expected ‘The Poor Law’ guardians were not amused – ‘It is much to be regretted that such an evil should have occurred, and the guardians conceive that there must be much neglect on the part of the officers in charge’.

The workhouse system itself was the subject of much criticism, and it certainly bore down heavily on its inmates, both in terms of physical hardship and stigmatisation. But, we must also recognise that it also furnished a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival in an increasingly hostile moral climate of later Victorian Ireland. There appears to be a tradition within Ireland of labour exploitation and repression, and sometimes outright cruelty, in various societies like the workhouses and the later Magdalene asylums, that were run by Irish Catholic nuns. In pre-independence, or post-independence, Ireland it is evident that society would ensure that there was no easy way out of the trap of unmarried motherhood.

N.B. If you should wish to read more of the work of P. Gray and L. Kennedy the following books are available –

‘Famine, illegitimacy and the workhouse in Western Ireland’, in A. Levene and P. Nutt (eds), Illegitimacy in Britain (London, 2005).

Also L. Kennedy’s study,

‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850’, Continuity and Change 14 (3) (1999).

The Speed of Light

Jimmy Joe was not exactly a young man though he would be much aggrieved if you honestly considered him to be old. The youngest of three sons he had lived at home all of his fifty years and now, with the passing of his father, the home place belonged to him. Although many who knew him never considered him to be “the sharpest knife in the box”, Jimmy Joe had done well for himself and was now a Clerk of Works for the Housing Executive of Northern Ireland. But, Jimmy Joe had been a Clerk of Works for the past eight years and it certainly appeared that he had risen through the ranks to the highest level he was ever going to achieve.

Now that his father was dead, Jimmy Joe was preparing to marry the love of his life, Nellie Maguire. She too was mature in age but still held some of the beauty that had first attracted Jimmy Joe almost thirty years ago. He could clearly recall the night that he plucked up the courage to ask Nellie for a dance at the weekly Ceilidh that was held in the local parish hall. It was something of a shock to the system when the popular Nellie Maguire agreed, not only to a dance but to allowing Jimmy Joe to escort her home when the Ceilidh ended.

Jimmy Joe & Nellie

Nellie was a natural blond with her long, yellow hair flowing over her shapely shoulders like corn-silk. Her skin was as smooth and unblemished as the finest of porcelain. Her hazel coloured eyes warm and inviting, like those of a movie actress. There was not a man in the Parish that had not lost his heart to Nellie at some stage. She, however, was a woman who knew what she wanted and, so far, only Jimmy Joe had been chosen from among the many. There were those who knew them both at this time and said that the relationship would not last. “Sure she will never go mad, that one. She’s never in the same mind long enough”, seemed to be the popular comment at the time. So far the relationship had lasted almost thirty years, and now they were getting married.

Jimmy Joe was the shy and quiet type of boy that didn’t quite know what to say in the company of women. But, after they had been dating eighteen months he took his courage in his hands and asked her to marry him. She was thrilled to be asked, of course, but there were several things that Nellie needed to clear up before she agreed to his proposal. Her main concern at the time was what the living arrangements would be. When Jimmy Joe told her that they would be living with his father in the home place, Nellie emphatically said, “No!”

It was not, however, a total rejection. Nellie told him that she would marry him but only when his father, Old “Joe Boy” Marley, had passed away. “Joe Boy” was a well known local character and not very much liked by anybody because of the way he treated others. There were those who said that he had worked his poor wife to death, and that he had made her life such a total misery that death was a blessing for her. She had died only a couple of years before Nellie and Jimmy Joe had got together, and her passing appeared only to encourage “Joe Boy’s” bad habits, bad language and rude behaviour. “If you think that I would live in the same house as that ill-mannered old man, lifting and laying for him every day, and listening to his foul mouth, then you have another thought coming!” Nellie told Jimmy Joe bluntly. “He is an ignorant, crude, drunkard of a man and I would not be caught dead in the same house as him.”

Jimmy Joe was neither shocked or annoyed when Nellie told him that they would marry only when “Joe Boy” was dead. After all, thought Jimmy Joe, the amount of alcohol his father drank was bound to kill him sooner rather than later. He did not expect that it would take twenty-eight years for the old man to die. Nevertheless, only a month after “Joe Boy’s” funeral the church was booked and the invitations sent out for the wedding. It was, of course, the talk of the entire parish.

“I wouldn’t think its a ‘shotgun wedding’!” laughed Mary Jane as she served the customer from behind the shop’s counter.
“Still, it is all a bit quick,” Sarah Gill remarked.

“Quick?” exclaimed Mary Jane, almost choking on the word. “It has been almost thirty years in the making! Not exactly the speed of light, is it?”

The Little Grey Gossip

Soon after my Cousin Sarah’s marriage, we were invited to stay with the newly married couple, for a few weeks during the festive Christmas season. Away we set off with merry hearts, in the clear frosty winter’s air, and with the pleasant prospect ahead of us invigorating our spirits. We took our seats inside the first-class coach on the early morning train, which passed through the town of Ballyshee, where Cousin Sarah lived. I can say without fear of contradiction that there was never a kinder or more genial soul than Cousin Sarah, and David Daniels, her ‘Good Man’, as she laughingly called him. If it is at all possible, David was even kinder and more genial still. Their home was filled with kinds of comforts, and they were always delighted to see friends in a sociable, easy way. They believed in making visitors snug and cosy, though our arrival was only the first of what was to be a succession of such arranged visits.

The Wedding

These evenings were both very amusing and enjoyable, for Con’s presence would always shed radiant sunshine upon a gathering, while David’s broad and honest face beamed upon her with a loving pride. At our house, during those days of their courtship, for sober middle-aged lovers, they had perhaps indulged in sweet talk and pecking each other a little too freely when they were in the company of others. This would leave them open to criticisms from the prim and proper brigade, who wondered why Miss Constance and Mr Danvers would make so ridiculous. But now, with marriage, all of this nonsense had calmed down, and nothing like that could be seen, except for the odd sly glance, or an occasional squeeze of the hand. When we talked about those bygone days, we would joke and declare that engaged couples pairs were usually a pain, and that you could always spot such a couple in a big crowd!

“’I’ll bet you anything you like,” cried Cousin Con, with a good-humoured laugh, “that among our guests coming this evening, you’ll not be able to point out the engaged couple among them. There will be only one such couple, although there are plenty of lads and lasses that would like to be so happily situated! But, the couple I allude to are real little love birds, and yet I defy you to find them!’

“That’s a bet, Cousin Con!” we exclaimed, “and what shall we bet?”

“Gloves! Those fancy French gloves!” cried David. “You Ladies always use gloves to bet. But, I warn you that my Con is on a safe bet now.” David rubbed his hands excitedly, delighted with his joke, which he thought would be at our expense. We, however, were already thinking about our existing collections of fine French gloves, and looking forward to expanding the collections with half-a-dozen pair of particularly expensive samples from Con’s large collection. As a result we watched, with extra interest, the arrival and movements of all strangers to the house that evening, in the hope of detecting the lovers who were engaged.

There were mothers and fathers that came in, both old and middle-aged ladies and gentlemen, until all the drawing rooms were filled with some thirty people. We closely watched all the young people, particularly the manner in which they interacted and we discovered several innocent flirtations. But, we saw nothing that gave us the appearance of a loving and engaged couple. After a while, however, we established ourselves in the corner of a room to closely observe a tall, beautiful girl, who never seemed to take her eyes from the door leading into the room. Each time it opened to admit someone this beautiful girl would sigh and look disappointed if the person entering was not the person she wanted to see. We spent some time enjoying ourselves by making up a romantic scenario in which this girl was the heroine. It was during this game that a little woman, dressed in grey, and aged about sixty years, took a seat beside us and began a conversation. She asked us if we were admiring the pretty Anna McKenna, as she worked out who we were looking at so intently. We had to admit that we were, and the old lady told us, “Ah, she’s a good, affectionate girl. A great favourite of mine is sweet Anna McKenna.”

“She’s waiting for her lover, no doubt?” we suggested to her in the hope of getting some information about engagement. “She is an engaged young lady, of course?”

“Engaged! engaged!” laughed the little lady in grey, “not at all, God forbid! Anna McKenna is not engaged.” The expression on the little lady’s face after we made our suggestion, demonstrated how ludicrous our supposition had been in her eyes. We immediately admitted that we had no knowledge whatsoever in this matter and suggested that our mistake was made through our own ignorance. The encounter had, however, given us both the time to examine our new acquaintance more critically. As stated, this old lady was dressed in grey, which blended in beautifully with her grey hairs, braided in a peculiarly obsolete fashion, and uncovered. She wore grey gloves, grey shoes, and, above all, gray eyes, soft, large, and peculiarly sad in their expression. And yet, they were beautiful eyes, which redeemed her grey, monotonous appearance from being absolutely plain. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots, also had gray eyes. But, even she, the poor lady, did not have the same knowledge of others, past and present, as did this little unknown gossip in gray. But our attention was soon diverted, by the entrance of another person into the room, to whom Anna McKenna darted forward with a cry of delight and welcome. This new arrival was a slender, elderly gentleman, whose white hairs, pale face, and benignant expression presented nothing remarkable in their aspect, beyond a certain air of elegance and refinement, which characterised the whole outward appearance of the man.

“That is a charming-looking old gentleman,” we said to the grey lady, “is he Anna’s father?’

“Anna’s father? O dear, no! That gentleman is a bachelor! He is Anna’s guardian, and has taken the place of a father to her, for poor Anna is an orphan.”

The Bride’s Father

“Oh!” we exclaimed, and there was a great variety of meaning in our “oh!” We had, of course, read and heard of youthful wards falling in love with their guardians? Might not the fair Anna’s taste incline this way? The little gray lady had immediately understood our thoughts. She smiled knowingly, but she said nothing. Then, while we were absorbed with Anna and her supposed antiquated lover, the old lady moved into the circle, and presently we saw Anna’s guardian, with Anna leaning on his arm, exchange a few words with her in a whispering tone, as she brought them to an inner room.

“Who is that pleasing-looking old gentleman?” we asked our hostess, “and what is the name of that lady in grey, who went away just as you came up? That is Anna McKenna we know, and we know also that she isn’t engaged!”

Cousin Con laughed heartily as she replied, “That nice old gentleman is Mr Worthington, our poor curate, and a poor curate he is likely ever to continue, so far as we can see. The lady in grey we call, fondly, our ‘little gray gossip,’ and she is a darling! As to Anna, you seem to know all about her. I suppose little Bessie has been praising her up to the skies.”

“Who is little Bessie?” we asked her.

“Little Bessie is your little grey gossip. We never call her anything but Bessie to her face and she really is a harmless little old maid. But come this way, for Bessie is going to sing. They won’t let her rest till she complies, and let me tell you that Bessie singing, and Bessie talking, are widely different creatures.”

Widely different indeed! There was this little grey lady seated at the piano, and making it speak, while her thrilling tones, as she sang of  ‘days gone by,’ went straight to each listener’s heart. As for the lady herself, she was looking ten years younger! When the song was over, I saw Mr Worthington, with Anna still resting on his arm, in a corner of the apartment, shaded by a projecting piece of furniture. At the same time, I also noted the tear on his furrowed cheek, which he hastily brushed away. He stooped to answer some remark of Anna’s, who, with fond affection, had evidently seen it also, and was trying to dispel the painful illusion which memories of days gone by brought about.

At the end of the evening, we found the company was separating, and our bet was still unredeemed. The last to leave was Mr Worthington, escorting Anna McKenna and little Bessie, whom he tenderly helped with her shawl, no doubt because she was a poor lonely little old maid, and she sang so sweetly.

The next morning over breakfast, Cousin Con launched herself at us with the support of Mr Danvers. They both demanded that we should give them the answer to the task we were given, or else hand over our fine French gloves! After a great amount of laughter, talking, and discussion, we had to finally confess that the question had defeated us, for there had been an engaged couple present on the previous evening, and we had failed to discover who they were. It was not Anna McKenna for she had no lover. Neither was it the Misses Halls , or the young Barton boys. We had seen them flirt and dance, and dance and flirt indiscriminately during the evening, but they were not interested in any serious engagements.

Who would have thought that romance, that was now divulged, was actually true? We wondered how we could have been so stupid as to not have seen the answer immediately. These questions are very common when a riddle has been unfolded to provide a solution that you did not expect. It is so easy to be wise when one has the answer in their hand. Yet we cheerfully lost our wager and would have lost a hundred similar ones just for the sake of hearing the following tale, which is so far removed from what is expected that it proves enduring faith and affection are not so fabulous as philosophers would have you believe they are.

Bessie Prunty was nearly related to David Danvers, and she had been the only child of a talented but improvident father, who, after a short, brilliant career as a public singer, suddenly sank into obscurity and neglect. The poor man had suffered a total loss of his vocal powers, which had been brought on by a violent rheumatic cold and extreme physical and emotional exhaustion. When this misfortune occurred, Bessie had almost reached her twentieth year, and she was still in mourning for an excellent mother, by whom she had been tenderly and carefully brought up. The descent from luxury and indulgence to poverty and privation was very swift. Although Bessie had inherited a very small income from the will of her deceased mother, which was sufficient for her own needs, and even a few comforts, it was totally inadequate to meet the numerous demands, whims, and fancies of her ailing and exacting father. For five years, however, she battled bravely with adversity, stretching out their meagre income by her great efforts, although, because of her father’s helpless condition, and the constant and unremitting attention he required, she was prevented in many ways from employing her efforts to more advantage. That poor, dying man, when he had been in excellent health, had contributed to the enjoyment of the more affluent in society, and in turn had been courted by them. But now, feeling that he had been forgotten and was despised, he bitterly reviled this heartless world, which he had once unceasingly attempted fill with cheering and applause. To his bitter and disordered mind the possession of wealth became the goal of life and he attached inordinate value to gaining wealth, while he felt very bitter about his own comparative poverty. He loved his only child better than anything else in this world, except for himself. Naturally, he wanted to guard the child from the dreaded evil of a life of poverty. In his misguided efforts, during his latter days, he gained from her a solemn promise that she would never become the wife of any man who could not settle upon her a sum of at least one thousand pounds, without any strings being attached.

Bessie, was a happy and lively girl who had no intentions of suffering all the slights and privations that poverty brings to a person. She, therefore, saw no reason as to why she should not bind herself to this solemn promise to her father. Even after her father breathed his last, she said that she had made his worries about her vanish quite easily. Little Bessie half smiled, even in the middle of her mourning and natural sorrow, to think how small and easy a promise her poor father had gained from her, especially when her own opinions and views so perfectly coincided with his. The poor orphan girl was taken in by the mother of David Danvers, and she continued to live with that worthy lady until the latter died. It was beneath Mrs. Danvers’ roof that Bessie first became acquainted with Mr Worthington, and that acquaintance quickly ripened into a mutual and sincere attachment. He was poor and had no one to sponsor him, and he had not progressed much in the years since. There was absolutely no likelihood of ever having a thousand pounds that belonged to him alone, never mind a thousand pounds that he could settle on a wife. Of course, it is possible, that with all the chances and changes that come our way during our lifetime, Paul Worthington might eventually succeed to some wealth. There were, however, many twists and turns, as well as ups and downs between him and the opportunity of becoming rich. Paul, was not the type to push himself forward, or to gain at the expense of others, and little Bessie was like-minded.

Paul Worthington was very rich in something that money could not buy, and which cold not be quantified. He had a pure and devoted heart that held great love for one woman, but he bravely endured a life of loneliness and because of the circumstances in which he and his loved one found themselves. Such was Paul’s love that he did not see Bessie grow old and grey, because in his eyes, she never changed. She was, in his eyes, still a beautiful, graceful, and enchanting girl, who was his betrothed. On occasion he would leave his books, and his arduous clerical and parochial duties, just to gaze at into her soft eyes. Then he would press her tiny hand, whisper a fond word to her, and then he would return to his lonely home, where he would bury his sorrows in long bouts of study.

Anna McKenna had been sent to him as a ministering angel. She was the orphan and penniless daughter of Mr Worthington’s dearest friend and former college friend, and she had come to find a shelter beneath the humble roof of the pious guardian, to whose earthly care she had been solemnly left. Paul’s curacy was not far from the town where Bessie had fixed her resting-place. Most of those personal friends, who knew the secret of little Bessie’s history, also knew that she regarded Anna McKenna with special favour and affection, from the fact, that Anna enjoyed the privilege of comforting and cheering Paul Worthington’s declining years. Each of them spoke of her as a dear adopted daughter, and Anna equally returned the affection of both.

Those poor lonely people! They had known long and anxious years, separated by circumstance, and yet united in their bonds of enduring love! In my mind I pictured them at festive winter seasons, it their humble solitary homes; and in the height of summer, when song-birds and bright perfumed flowers call lovers out into the sunshine. They had not dared to rejoice during their long engagement and yet Bessie was a sociable creature, who did not mope or shut herself up, but chose to lead a life of active usefulness, and was a general favourite amongst everyone. They had never even thought about the possibility of them evading Bessie’s solemn promise to her dying father. To their minds, that fatal promise was as binding and stringent.

Little Grey Gossip

When we first met the little grey gossip, we had humoured ourselves at her expense. Now, however, we looked upon her as an object of interest, surrounded by a halo of romance, fully shared in by her charming and venerable lover. And this was good Cousin Con’s explanation of the riddle, which she told with many digressions, and with animated smiles, to conceal tears of sympathy. Paul Worthington and little Bessie did not like their history to be discussed by the younger generation, who scorned such things. For Paul and Bessie their sacrifice was so unworldly and very sacred, but they looked forward with a humble hope that soon they would be united for ever in a better place. It simply pained them terribly and distressed them to be made a topic of conversation.

If we had been telling fiction, it would have been easy for us to bring this elderly pair together, even at the eleventh hour. Love and constancy can make up for the absence of the one sweet ingredient that fades but is so beautiful, namely youth. But as this is a romance made in reality, we are compelled by circumstances to divulge facts as they actually occurred, and as we heard them from authentic sources. Paul and Bessie divided in their lives, are now laid side by side in the old church-yard. He went first, and Bessie changed her usual grey for more sombre clothing of a darker colour. But, that loving little soul did not remain long behind him. She left her property to Anna McKenna, and warned her against long engagements.

The last time that we heard about of Anna, she was the happy wife of an excellent man, who, fully complied with the opinion of the little grey gossip by protesting strenuously against a courtship lasting more than six weeks, and he carried his point triumphantly.

Baron of Sluggan

An Old Tale from the Annals of my Family

There was a time when every poor Irish peasant could tell you that he was the descendants of Chieftains and Kings, who were all beaten down by the vile English and had their lands stolen from them. Now, I am not going to tell you that my ancestry stretches back to one of the ruling families of old Ireland since I cannot trace my paternal or maternal line beyond ‘The Great Potato Famine in Ireland’, or as some would call it the ‘The Irish Genocide by the English.’ There are stories from days prior to the beginning of that terrible time that have been handed down but not earlier than the beginning of that century. It appears, after the failure of the ‘United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798’ the British Government decided to increase its military presence throughout the land. One area that saw an increase in the number of red-coated soldiers was the County of my forefathers, County Tyrone.

In the year of the ‘Union’, 1801, a certain regiment was ordered to Tyrone and was very soon dispersed over various districts of that County. One detachment was sent to be stationed in the townland of Sluggan, and their first impressions of that area were far from favourable. The detachment leader and his two assistants, however, soon discovered an Síbín (Shebeen), which was an illegal drinking place, where alcoholic drink was sold without a license and without having paid revenue to the government. This drinking den for the locals was based in the small, thatched cabin where the soldiers had been sent to be billeted. One night, soon after arriving, the three soldiers began to discuss the types of leisure-time amusement that were on offer, and they were quite quickly disappointed with what they found.

Under the instructions of their military superiors, the three men were not allowed to associate with the locals or get too friendly with them because of their rumoured rebellious nature. They sought further entertainment to keep them amused but, for them, there was no hunting, no shooting, no gaming, no horses to ride, no lively young ladies that they might flirt with. It should be understood, military men in those days rarely had an interest in literature, but books suddenly became very important to these men and, when they had read the few they had, they sent to the nearest town, which was quite a distance away, for more. Unfortunately, reading is not the sort of active amusement that young, healthy men truly yearned for.

One evening the three soldiers took a walk along some of the tracks and boreens of the district, and their faces soon brightened when they saw a local peasant boy, wearing a shabby hat, a torn coat, and a pair of britches that were held together by a single button and a rope belt. As he paraded merrily along his way, he was whistling a merry tune and, in one hand dangled two fine-looking trout in one hand. In his other hand he was waving a long ‘switch’, and he marched along the track with his curly red hair blowing over his bright, rosy-cheeked face in the fresh breeze. He was a picture of health and of careless happiness.

“Hello! My fine fellow! Where did you catch these trout?” asked the leading soldier.

“Now, your honour, in the small lake, just over ‘thonder’,” replied the boy with a smile, pointing back along the track

“’Thonder!’ Where the devil is that?”

“Do you see ‘thone’ hills? Well, just behind them hills there’s the lake with plenty of fish. By Jaysus, if I had but a decent fishing-rod, and something more sensible than a crooked pin!’

“Aren’t you a handsome intelligent boy! What are you called?’

‘Patrick McCoille, if pleases your honour.’

‘Well, Paddy, if you will show us the trout lake, I’ll give you a shilling.’

Paddy McCoille had heard of a shilling, but he had never yet seen one, so he was overjoyed at the prospects of getting one. He not only showed them the small lake but made rush-baskets to carry the fish they caught. He told tales to the three soldiers, sung them songs, and, by his good-humour and love of fun, very much enlivened their stay at Sluggan. He was happy to be at the centre of the soldiers’ attention and was happy to be doing anything for them that gained him a few coppers. Now, when the time came for the soldiers to leave the district, Paddy was genuinely sorrowful at their going. The soldiers decided that they could help the young lad by recruiting him as a boy soldier in the regiment.

In those days there was not much money in a family of Roman Catholic, Irish Peasants, and Paddy’s mother encouraged him to begin a military career as a fifer in the British Regiment. There he would get clothes, shoes, a bed of his own, and three good meals a day. When he was older, Paddy entered the ranks full-time and became valet to a Captain Chalmondley-Rowbotham.  Within months Paddy’s extraordinary intelligence and military bearing brought quick promotion to the rank of Sergeant. There was a war with France at this time, of course, and on two occasions he showed great courage and wisdom while leading a detachment of men in battle. As a result, Paddy was unanimously put forward for officer training and once again succeeded in gaining the promotion. Despite his rapid rise through the ranks, however, he retained the good opinion and friendship of all who had been former comrades.

It is said that Paddy was considered by many to be a handsome man and, as we have seen a very clever person. What he lacked in education he took advantage of every opportunity to improve himself. But no one is perfect, and Patrick McCoille became extremely ambitious and ever vainer. He came to a point in his ‘new’ life that he did not want to remain in a situation where his very humble origins were so well known, and he finally transferred to another regiment, where he soon became equally as popular with his new companions as he had been with his old friends. Eventually, however, war with France came to an end and Paddy’s financial status quickly fell below that which he had been used to. He needed a new life and he decided to use his long-held talents to help him seek out a fortune and further growth in his social status.

With the peace gained, Paddy settled himself in a town that lay along the north coast of France and began to seek a wife that would bring with her position and wealth. He did not have long to wait. Having become a fluent French speaker and his quick wits helped him greatly to open many doors which were closed the higher born, but less talented army companions. Before long, he met the widow of a wealthy hotelkeeper who, though twenty years his senior, gave him clear signals that all he needed to do was to propose. Whether this was a case of him being greedy or a real case of love, it is hard to say. Nevertheless, they married, and lived together for three years, during which he was both affectionate and kind to her. Then, when his wife died, she left him all that she had, which, although much less than he had hoped for, made up, together with his army pension, a reasonably good income.

Although this amount of income would have represented a mere pittance to most men, it was a fortune to such an adventurer. Armed with this money and his natural talents, Paddy set out for Paris, where he made a great impression upon a young and beautiful widow who held a high situation within French society, and very soon after they met the two were married.  One problem arose, however, during the nuptial preparations when the lady objected to his name.

McCoille!” she cried, (pronouncing it as M’ecole — My School); “I cannot allow myself to accept such a name in my social circle. It is demeaning!

Well, my dear, I am very sorry about that, but it is my name.”

Does your family not possess a title?

None,” said Paddy, who now insisted on being called Patrick.

What, then, is the name of your father’s estate?

Patrick’s thoughts turned to the small, thatched cabin in which he had passed his childhood. He recalled the pig that had once been a playmate before it was delivered to the landlord to pay the rent. He remembered his father, in his long, heavy coat, with a hay-band round his hat, and his mother, dressed in fluttering rags which so many of the Irish peasantry thought added smartness to their dress. After so many years he, perhaps, thought with regret of the warm, loving hearts that had beat beneath in their breasts, so fond and so proud of him. With quiet dignity, he told her, ‘Sadly, my love, it is no longer in our family.

But” persisted the lady, “you were born near some village, or in some place that had a name?”

“The townland of Sluggan was where we lived.”

Fantastique! That is just what is needed! You will call yourself the Baron de Sluggan!

“Call myself?”

Of course, and why not? I shall not object to being called ‘De Sluggan’”.

She accordingly had her cards printed ‘La Baroness de Sluggan,’ and her husband, who had a great love of his family name, now became known to all as ‘Baron McCoille de Sluggan’. One of these cards is preserved as a memento by one of my relatives and Paddy’s adventures are frequently repeated at wakes, weddings, and other family gatherings.