WHERE TO FROM HERE?
When I came to the end of my last post I wondered if I should write a conclusion to the whole series. Maybe something on the Earl Grey Irish Famine orphans’ contribution to Australia. Was H. H. Browne correct in his assessment? Were the orphans of little use, and ‘distasteful’ to the majority of colonists ? Or did they make an valuable contribution? Along with convict women, they became ‘mothers to the Australian character’? However, if they are set in context beside the c. 9,000 single Irish females who immigrated to New South Wales in 1840-41, the 5,000 who came to South Australia in the mid 1850s, or the 70% of female government assisted migrants to Victoria in the 1850s, we might gain a more realistic picture of where they stand. This is not to deny the orphans their unique position as destitute famine refugees. Nor the particular hardships they faced. To do this might require me going back over everything,– to reorganize, rewrite, polish, and rewrite again. Maybe a publisher would be interested in a small print run.
But then I remembered what I’d written in earlier posts (4, 13 and 19) about histories of individual orphans. Could we reconstruct their experience at local level in Ireland and match it with the same detailed local history in Australia? Could we put together life histories of individual orphans, maybe even inter-generational family histories? Or compare their experience in different regions–the Illawarra and Hunter Valley in New South Wales, around Ipswich in what was to become Queensland, the goldfields of Victoria or Clare Valley in South Australia, for instance? And what do we do with the ‘lost’ souls, the Mary Littlewoods or Georgina Mulhollands or the Mary Ryans we cannot find? http://wp.me/p4SlVj-p7 outlined some of the problems we’d face.
How to tell the orphans’ stories raises all sorts of issues: properly navigating copyright issues and acknowledging one’s debt to others; how best such family histories might be integrated into a larger historical context. I particularly liked the way Kay Caball wove orphan family histories into her Kerry Girls. Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre put information about individual Red Rover (eary 1830s) women into an Appendix in their Fair Game (Anchor Books, 2010). Doing something similar would only enhance my little history of the Irish Famine orphans–should I have the talent or the energy. But don’t hold your breath. I wouldn’t want to trespass on people’s privacies.
One work I’ve lately been taking inspiration from, is the delightful Common People by Alison Light (Penguin, 2015). Let me try to understand why. It’s a book that shows me just what family history can be, maybe even should (?) be like.
I’m a sucker for good writing whether it’s Ames talking to Jack Boughton at the end of Gilead (Marilynne Robinson); or a black crow and Morrigan at the end of Gun Street Girl (Adrian McKinty); or whether it’s lyrical writing, full of pathos, or hard-headed, clear, honest and direct as it is in Common People. Here’s how Alison Light writes about the death of her great-grandmother Sarah Hill, in Netherne Asylum, in 1911.
“The Register of deaths confirmed the information on her death certificate: she died on 18 June from ‘exhaustion’ after sixteen days of mania…
There were far more questions than answers. ‘Mania’ is deemed a ‘mood disorder’, generally characterized as a state of wild, feverish elation, a hyperactive state of restlessness and often irritability, which leads to sleeplessness. But in the nineteenth century ‘mania’ was an umbrella term…In fact nothing about Sarah’s mania or her death ‘from exhaustion’ could be taken for granted. If she died of heart failure after a fortnight’s frenetic activity and no sleep, she was also likely to be near starvation. Those who were raving were hard to feed, words pouring out of their mouths so that they could take nothing in. Might Sarah have survived in a private asylum in her own comfortable, quiet room with the special care of the best doctors…? As with her sojourn in the workhouse as a child, the adult Sarah had arrived in a public institution at perhaps the worst time in its history.” (pp.166-67)
Her transparent, in your face, honest presence throughout the book is a real breath of fresh air for someone like myself who was trained to distance oneself and write history essays and theses in the third person. We were taught objectivity may not be achievable but it is always worth striving for. Laudable aims, I’m sure. Yet Alison Light’s presence–she’s everywhere–makes her work very personal. It gives a piquant sharpness to her book which makes it interesting to readers other than her immediate family and like minded ancestor hunters.
“I…hoped that my speaking voice would anchor the reader as we moved through time (p.xxiv)…I find that her people had long been on the move (19)…I need a larger-scale atlas as William travels back into his childhood (19)…In the wake of my father’s death I took to tinkering about in the Portsmouth Record Office (70)…I feel tender towards those who refused to conform…cocking a snook…at squire and parson (117)…If anywhere can claim to be my ancestral home it is the workhouse. Somebody in every generation fetched up there (233)…I now know that nothing about a graveyard can be taken at face value (252)”.
What lifts her book to a wider audience still, is her self-reflection, and examination of why so many people research their family’s past. A reader must be made of stone not to stop and think about her ‘meditations’.
“My first instinct in writing Common People was to find the people who had been missing from my past. I wanted…to rescue them…from sheer oblivion (p.xxv)… When my father was very ill with cancer, I went in search of his mother’s grave. It was an odd, possibly morbid thing to do. Family history begins with missing persons—missed in both senses of the word. But when do we register an absence as a loss? (p.11)…Family is never one organism but fissiparous, endlessly dividing itself. In a family tree everyone seems connected, but in life families ‘fragment’…People want to know where they came from but they also want to know where they could have gone and why their branch of the family did not go there (93-4)…Genealogy has long fostered grandiloquent forms of family romance and been a source of reassurance to antiquarians, cranks and snobs…humble aspirants elevate themselves…believing there was once a family pile or manor in the past…If the creation of a nation rests on its ‘foundation myths’, family legends too, handed down the generations, are also the stuff, like dreams, of which we make ourselves (130)”.
Can you see yourself in any of this? Common People is full of such reflections challenging readers to ask themselves what exactly do they want, and why?
What appeals to me most of all about her book is how she does her damnedest to put her family into historical context. She is willing to cast her net widely, not only into nooks and crannies but over the big-picture historical context, as often, and as much as she can. Sure, in any family history there are dead-ends and blind alleys and people you’ll never really know but if you merely want a family tree, lives shrunk between dates in brackets, you’re missing the sweetest thing of all.
Any family history worth its salt will go further and ask questions about ‘economic forces’, politics, religious and social conditions, and the like. Alison Light invites us to take ourselves into ‘history’, with its different interpretations and debates and argumentative soul; make our family members more than ‘singular’ and unique but representative of something larger. Her book is also about working-class Britain ‘on the move’ during industrialisation in the nineteenth century; her ancestors act as ‘intermediaries between the living and the dead’ charting an unglorious story of poverty throughout much of the twentieth as well. (Many of these phrases are hers. I do them less than justice).
We may regret that we don’t have the same wealth of resources at our disposal in Ireland or Australia–not the same access to census data, or county histories, or a tremendously rich array of local social histories, as Alison Light had for Common People. But don’t despair. I’m sure there’s plenty we can use. I’m not the best person to ask about this. Maybe others can make some suggestions?
I was pleasantly surprised when I had a quick look at my books, a library that’s been brutally downsized in recent years. I’d consider myself a very limited Australian historian but look what I found…some brilliant histories of ‘localities’,
Grace Karskens, The Rocks. Life in early Sydney, Melbourne U.P., 1997,
Don Watson, Caledonia Australis. Scottish Highlanders on the frontier in Australia, Vintage, 1997,
Mark McKenna, Looking for Blackfella’s Point. An Australian History of Place, UNSW Press, 2002,
a couple of fascinating ‘primary’ sources,
J. S. James, The Vagabond Papers, ed M. Cannon, Melbourne U.P., 1969,
William Kelly, Life in Victoria 1853 and 1858, Lowden, 1977,
and a couple of others you may need more than once,
G. Blainey, Black Kettle and Full Moon. Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, Viking, 2003 and
Gerald Walsh, Pioneering days. People and innovations in Australia’s rural past, Allen & Unwin, 1993.
I’m sure there are plenty more. Your local librarians, local historians and Archivists will be only too pleased to help you. See for instance two recent ones I mentioned in an earlier post, Libby Connors, Warrior, Allen & Unwin, 2015 and Tanya Evans, Fractured Families. Life on the margins in Colonial New South Wales, UNSW Press, 2015. Tanya with the help of family historians skilfully recounts the history of Jane Kelly per Digby in chapter five.
And what if we approached from a different direction? By travelling in the footsteps of the people you’re interested in? Here’s a link to Peter Higginbotham’s great website.
Go to Ballyshannon workhouse or whatever is left of it today and make your way to Dublin’s North Quay. Then, since there is no longer a boat to Portsmouth, take the ferry from Rosslare to Holyhead. You are experiencing a similar route to the one your orphan ancestor took. I travelled on that ferry a few times many, many, years ago. I’m not sure what it’s like today.
And in Australia, it may be impractical to travel as orphans did with Surgeon Strutt, by cart, over Razorback, southward to Yass and Gundagai. But you get the idea. Take the journey nonetheless.
Go to the workhouse ‘your’ orphan came from and travel to Dublin or Cork. Follow her footsteps as much as you can after she arrived in Adelaide, Sydney or Melbourne. It’s an experience worth having; you are trying to relive her ‘history’. Is that too crazy? I’m sure you will have other and better ideas. Perhaps you’d share them?
I travelled to a distant town
I could not find my mother
I could not find my father
I could not hear the drum
Whose ancestor am I?
(Edward Brathwaite, The New Ships in Masks, Oxford U. P. 1970)
My thanks to the late Lionel Chapman for the family photograph at the head of this post. It has Johanna Kelly in a wedding photograph in 1907.
A link to the contents of my blog http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE