B is for Ballykelly, Broadford and Backrow, Bothkennar

I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. My theme is a genealogical travelogue or a travel genealogue (I’m not sure which).

B is for Ballykelly in Broadford (Co Clare) in the parish of Kilseily

Ballykellytownland is the home of my great-great grandmother, Mary O’Brien from Co Clare. Unfortunately I have no evidence of how long the family had lived in Ballykelly as there are no traces of the family in early records (found so far). Despite Mary’s extremely common name I was able to find her place of origin thanks to oral history linking families in Ireland, the US and Australia, and by tracing her sister’s records in Australia….all of Mary’s said merely “Co Clare”. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Broadford a few times and to visit the actual farmland where the O’Briens lived and worked.

The view from the former O'Brien land at Ballykelly on a typically "soft' Irish day in March.

On the first visit, decades ago, Broadford was shrouded in fog, and the general response to my enquiries was “it’s up there” pointing into the hilly distance. While enquiries at the local shop, owned by O’Briens, directed me to visit elderly parents, that proved to be fool’s gold despite their kindness in trying to help me…they were not my family. It took another visit, and assistance from a missionary priest with whom we’d bonded, to be taken to meet the family who had inherited the farm. Paddy had inherited it after my 2xgreat uncle’s family had died. He and his wife were extremely generous and showed us the property –up a muddy dirt “goat track”, as we call them in Australia. It was a thrill beyond words to stand on their land and look out at the magnificent view Mary had known every day of her young life, until she emigrated with her sister Bridget.

B is for Backrow farmhouse in the parish of Bothkennar in Stirlingshire (Scotland)

Backrow farmhouse Bothkennar in 2010.

The story of my first visit to Bothkennar is the opposite to the Ballykelly one. My young daughter and I dutifully followed the maps to Bothkennar and stopped to enquire at the store/post office if they knew where Backrow was.  I could hardly believe my eyes and ears when they pointed and said “That’s it, over there”. We took the short road ahead and parked on the verge to look at the house where my great-grandmother Annie Sim, had lived as a young woman and where generations of her family had lived, stretching back many, many decades. At the time it was looking a little run-down in parts but had substantial enough outbuildings and large fields.

Staring proud across the road from Backrow were the kirk, school and kirkyard…only a few steps to the venue for all life’s major events…and no escaping the minister’s eye. I took a photo (the old fashioned kind) and would you believe that this was on a roll which did not come out….Murphy’s Law at work. On the next visit I made sure I did a sketch as well as take a photo! I’ve never yet worked up the courage to knock on the door and ask if I can see the property but I’ve promised myself that next time I’ll write in advance and beg admittance.

As always, click on the photos to see them as a larger view.

52 weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Week 7 – Historical documents

Amy Coffin of the We Tree blog, in conjunction with Geneabloggers, has a new series of weekly blogging prompts for 2012 and the theme is 52 Weeks of Abundant GenealogyWeek 7 – Historical Documents: Which historical document in your possession are you happy to have? How did you acquire this item? What does it reveal about your ancestors?

I have few actual historical documents though my family archive holds many copies of historic documents from archives or registry offices. My grandmother’s Scotch (sic) education book and my grandfather’s original, oversized and much stuck-together, birth certificate are valued originals but they are not the pivotal historic documents on which my family history turns.

There are two historic documents (of which I hold copies only), which broke through “brick walls” and enabled me to pinpoint my ancestors’ home place. Without them I’d never have been able to trace “Mary O’Brien from County Clare” or George Kunkel from Bavaria.

Their marriage occurred at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Ipswich, Queensland in 1857. The church’s marriage register is the only place where I’ve ever found George Kunkel’s place of birth documented: the details are not on the official civil registration. Without that church document I’d never have known where George was born and never been involved in researching his fellow emigrants from Dorfprozelten. I wrote about this document discovery in the 2011 Australia Day meme hosted by Shelley from Twigs of Yore.

You might imagine that finding “Mary O’Brien from County Clare” would have been nigh on impossible without some substantive clue. She doesn’t appear in any shipping record I’ve searched (and believe me I’ve searched a lot, the old-fashioned way as well as the new). Oral history gave me her sister’s name and married surname. I then ordered Bridget Widdup’s death certificate which gave me her place of birth and confirmed Mary and Bridget as siblings. It was then possible to search the Kilseily parish registers, Broadford, Co Clare, in person and on microfilm. This confirmed the links by virtue of the rich oral history I’d been given. I wrote more about finding Mary O’Brien here.

So these two documents, one a church register entry and the other a civil death registration, have been documents critical to my overseas family history. It really doesn’t matter at all that what I hold are copies, not originals, as I’ve personally sighted both.

52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Week 5 Life experiences: Finding Mary O’Brien

Amy Coffin of the We Tree blog, in conjunction with Geneabloggers, has a new series of weekly blogging prompts for 2012 and the theme is 52 Weeks of Abundant GenealogyWeek 5’s topic is Life Experiences: Sometimes the challenges in life provide the best learning experiences. Can you find an example of this in your own family tree? Which brick wall ancestor are you most thankful for, and how did that person shape your family history experience?

This gorgeously framed photo of Mary O'Brien was given to me by my Sydney cousins.

This is a tricky one and after some reflection I decided on my ancestor Mary O’Brien from County Clare.  Why? Well for two reasons really. Firstly, with a name like that from Clare, you’d have had more chance of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack and secondly, her own life experiences gave her the fortitude to make her new life in Australia.

So how do you solve a problem like Mary O’Brien from Co Clare? I’d have to say that to a large degree I got lucky. I’d been doing my family history less than 12 months when I sent out a barrage of letters to people with the Kunkel surname in and around Toowoomba. What’s Kunkel got to do with it? You see Mary O’Brien, an Irish lady, married George Kunkel, a proud Bavarian and also a strong Catholic. Luckily for me, the Kunkel surname is an unusual one and my father always said anyone with that name in Australia was related…not 100% correct as it happened but about 97%.

Anyway, by pure chance one of my letters went to an unknown cousin who had close links to the surviving grandchild of Mary & George Kunkel and after they’d spoken to her, got in touch with me. Before long we’d organised a meeting in Toowoomba…it was the strangest feeling to find myself amidst a group of equally tall strangers who were really 2nd or 3rd cousins. Anne Kunkel, the granddaughter, was by then in her mid-80s and steadily going blind but her memory was as sharp as a tack. She quickly told me the family tree, who was whom, where they lived, and where they fitted in. She confidently knocked on the head that George and Mary had a daughter Elizabeth, but did have one called Louisa….one and the same person as it turned out.

During a few visits over the coming year or two, we met up again and Anne filled in gaps for me about her grandmother Mary O’Brien, telling me she came out to work for a sea captain, that she had a job lined up “before ever she got here”, that she was 16 when she left Ireland and was six months at sea. Despite the fact that Anne thought two of her sisters, Bridget and Kate, came to Australia with her, I have proved that Kate came later but have never found Mary and Bridget’s immigration records. Anne also knew the names of Mary’s siblings who stayed behind in Ireland.

Anne couldn’t remember Mary’s place of birth but thought it was something like Longford. She did however remember the name of Mary’s sisters in Australia including Bridget’s married name of Widdup. Mary’s death certificate hadn’t obliged me with anything more than the usual “Co Clare”. Luckily her sister’s death certificate was more helpful and named Broadford as her place of birth though mixing up the parents’ names. It also enlightened me that Bridget had spent a year in Queensland and the rest of her Australian life had been lived in New South Wales. This tends to support the story that Bridget and Mary arrived together. The benefits of tracing siblings!

Another of Anne’s historical gifts was the name of family members in Sydney. Through these cousins I was able to combine their personal knowledge with archival and other research to confirm the links in Australia and Ireland.  Through them, too, I was able to link up with some of Mary’s sister’s descendants who live in the USA.  The triangulation of the family names in the record sources meant I could pin down the family in the townland of Ballykelly in the Parish of Kilseily, Broadford, Clare.

I’ve never regarded oral history as one of my strong suits so I’m eternally grateful that Anne Kunkel was the perfect interviewee, clear and accurate in her responses in ways that could often readily be verified in the official records. Her closeness to her grandmother as a small child meant that she had kept these stories close to her heart through all those years, to pass on just before her own death. But her gifts didn’t stop there. She also provided me with stories of their farm and the day to day life (she, her brother and her parents had come to live with the Kunkel grandparents in their old age). The stories of George Kunkel preparing his sausages and the ways of the farm are treasured parts of our family history. Without Anne Kunkel’s gifts, her grandmother would have remained just another Mary O’Brien from Co Clare, never to be distinguished from her many compatriots of that name.

Mary’s own life experience and stamina

Mary O’Brien was born around 1834 in rural Clare. She would have been about 12 when the Irish Famine decimated its people. Because the parish registers only start in 1844, there is no record of Mary’s birth, nor that of any siblings born before that time.  Catholic registers don’t usually record deaths and the Church of Ireland records, which did sometimes include all burials, no longer exist, so there is no way of knowing how many of her family may have died, though if they were typical perhaps as many as half would have fallen victim through this terrible time. What is clear from the registers is how the marriage and baptism rates plummet during the Famine.

Mary’s survival will no doubt have given her a high level of immunity to illness, as well as the strength as an adult to persevere when life’s challenges may have seemed insurmountable. She was a country girl, used to hard work and few frills, and life as a pioneer demanded all the skills, courage and stamina she could bring to bear. In her old age she was able to travel by train to Sydney to see her daughter and her sister’s children. I wonder did she ever meet up with her sister Bridget again after they parted in Moreton Bay in the 1850s? No one seems to know. Although she herself couldn’t write, the families plainly knew where each was, and must have kept in touch somehow. Perhaps her husband, who could write, had been able to keep them connected. Sadly no letters survive from their life in Murphys Creek, either in Australia or Ireland…at least as far as I can determine. How strange then, to meet with the inheritor of the O’Brien land in Ballykelly and both be astonished at our mutual knowledge of the family.

The power of oral history and personal knowledge! Oh, yes, and someone, somewhere has photographs.

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History: Week 35: Weddings

The topic for Week 35 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Weddings. Tell us about your wedding. You may also talk about your future wedding, the wedding of a relative or shape this question to fit your own life experience.

Having talked a little about my own wedding under the Fame topic, my thoughts turned first to the prickly issue of religion which affected many weddings in earlier generations. Unless the couple had the same religious affiliations there were often fallings out over family members who would not attend a wedding in another denomination’s church, no matter how close the relationship; families that split asunder over “mixed marriages” and the like. Fortunately, in my view at least, those issues are much less likely to cause family disputes in the 21st century.

My thoughts then turned to the marriage of my ancestors George Kunkel and Mary O’Brien over 153 years ago. He was from Bavaria and she was from County Clare, Ireland but both were Catholic and presumably this was a critical factor for them.

If I could have a magic time machine, these are the questions (among many others) that I’d like to ask them about their wedding and marriage:

This 1910 wedding of one of George & Mary's grandchildren was held at their home at Murphy's Creek. George & Mary are the elderly couple on either side of the flowergirls. Photo kindly provided by a family member from this branch.

  1. Could you both understand each other[i]?  Was George’s English good enough to communicate effectively? How and where did he learn English?
  2. Why weren’t Mary’s parents’ names and her place of birth put on the marriage record at St Mary’s Ipswich, Queensland? Did George even know this information at the time?
  3. Why didn’t the priest, who was Irish, have more interest in documenting Mary’s records?
  4. How did you meet? Was it at work? (He was a servant and she was a housemaid)
  5. Were you sad that no family members could be at their wedding?
  6. Did you write to your families afterwards to let them know? Who wrote to Mary’s family as she could not write?
  7. What was Mary’s relationship to her bridesmaid/witness, Sarah O’Brien?  My research suggests that Sarah was probably the daughter of Daniel and Winifred O’Brien who arrived from Tipperary in 1853 on the Florentia.  George and Mary had continuing links with this family over the years. Might they have been related however distantly or did they come on the same ship? (To this day I can’t find Mary’s immigration, or indeed George’s).
  8. Mary’s sister Bridget had been in Queensland for a year after arrival but married her English non-Catholic husband in or near Albury circa 1860. This couple are separated in death, in different denominational parts of the Urana cemetery. How did Mary feel about this mixed-religion marriage and did she feel sad when her sister moved interstate?
  9. George’s witness, Carl Wörner[ii], was another of the Dorfprozelten emigrants. Carl had been employed to work for John Ferret who owned properties on the Downs as well as Ipswich. Was Carl simply in town in time for the wedding or was he actually working there, if so he was lucky not to suffer the isolation of shepherding on  a distant property? Although living not far away from them in later years he never witnesses another family event. Why?
  10. Did Mary & George enjoy setting up home in Ipswich in those early years and being part of the town’s growth?
  11. Did Mary miss George when he travelled afield for work eg on the Taloom goldfields and possibly the railways?
  12. Were they proud to see all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren before their deaths? The evocative photo above represents only a small fraction of their descendants in 1910. George and Mary were in their late 70s at the time.
  13. Their marriage lasted 58 years until George’s death in 1916 amidst WWI anti-German hysteria. Were they happy years? Had their culturally-mixed marriage been a success?

Questions reflecting a 21st century perspective admittedly, but nonetheless I’d love to know the answers.


[i] A friend we knew in PNG used to say “He knew no Dutch, I knew no Italian, so we made babies”.

[ii] His name is indexed as Mosrins or Blomai in some records. The Dorfprozelten local historian promptly identified it as this immigrant.