This weekend the 2011 census of Ireland was taken. The 1911 cenusus (now online), taken one 100 years ago, has allowed millions to trace their Irish roots just like Robert Sullivan.
I had no reason to wonder about the year 1911 when I entered Waterstones in Cork City to buy a book with the gift token my thoughtful neighbor, Betty, had given me.
I settled, after much browsing in that wonderful world of words, on the fine work on Tom Crean, Antartic explorer, written by Michael Smith.
At home I sat at the kitchen table, radio humming in the background, and had an initial flick through the pages of the beautiful photographs which make the book irresistible.
There is a great deal of reference to 1911 all through the work, as it was a defining year in Crean's life; it being a year of frantic preparation for the Scott race to the South Pole.
Suddenly, my attention was altered to the radio, where a woman was recounting her delight in discovering on the internet her family details contained in the 1911 census.
My morning had the effect that I felt I had no choice now but to further investigate the year 1911 for myself.
Beginning the search in the 1911 census
Making a beeline to the laptop, I simply googled "1911 census" and it magically appeared.
I enjoyed the momentary excitement of possibly discovering some details of my own clan, having grown up when the difficulties of 1950s Ireland left little time for harking back to even an even more frugal era.
The census was conducted on April 2, 1911, and the moment I began my Bantry search, I was aware of entering, in a very real way, the lives of those who lived in the place, almost 100 years ago.
The comprehensive digital compilation makes it child's play to follow, and soon I was transported to the old town, where the actual census forms, filled out by the "head of household,” are on display at the touch of a button.
The street names are all listed, so all one has to do is click on the road you know is relevant.
By now I felt my throat drying up at the prospect and privilege of being the first family member to look upon the handwriting of my grandfathers, one of whom, my father's dad, I had never heard anything about.
Did he even live in their home, I wondered? My own father, never one to speak much of his childhood, only ever told me his name was John.
I knew they lived on Church Road, and was astonished to learn they were not listed there. Dad had told me he was born there, so how could this be? Disappointment.
Nothing for it now but to go through the streets alphabetically, all 54 of them. Far from this extra work being a chore, it was a delightful experience.
My day was spent in the company of all the people of 2 April 1911, in Bantry town, who for that one day on the 10 August 2009, visited my house, and shared with me their intimate family details.
The mystery of why some held an “unmatching” name to their parents or siblings are innocently laid bare, for example, and when the name of Molly Sutton had a thin line drawn through it, and replaced with another surname, we know a closely guarded secret is being shyly admitted to.
Nicknames I remembered from childhood came to mind upon coming across a family associated with the mischievous addition. Nicknames were never friendly, I recall, and were more of a slur.
But they are fondly brought to mind now, many years removed from when they were a barb meant to be painfully stung by.
All those long ago old ghosts and friendly shadows are still everywhere around me, and I welcome them, not ready for them to leave, and hoping they'll stay.
These were people whose own family members would have been close to the history of the Famine, and indeed many of those listed had themselves survived its horrors of hunger and disease, as children.
Finding my grandfather
I had arrived at “K” in the list of streets, and came across "Knocknamuck" (Hill of the Pigs), and chuckled at the idea of the relentless ribbing for anyone who lived there.
This area is part of Church Road, which is on a hill, but as can be imagined, someone took offense at being saddled with such a hilarious address, and it was quietly abandoned over time. One never hears the name now.
It was here on the hill, when I clicked on the surname Sullivan, that my dearly departed made themselves known to me.
I was quite stunned at that precise and precious moment, and to my surprise my first reaction was to shed a tear upon reading my grandfather's name. He was someone, after all, and here he was.
He was 50-years-old and he could read and write, it said so there on the carefully filled out form. And he was a "general laborer.”
I felt proud to read his own fine handwriting. He was alive at a time when despite hardship and deprivation, great importance was placed on being educated in the three Rs.
His wife, Mary, was 44, and I remember her coming to live with us for a few years when she was very old, and she died in 1954.
She was from Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, and I love the idea of having “double” island blood in me. She could read and write, too.
They had four sons, Connie, who was 12, my father, John (Jack), 11, James, nine and Michael, eight. They were down as "scholars" and could read and write, also.
Well done, lads.
O'Sullivan vs. Sullivan
I must add here that my search began by looking for O'Sullivan, and when this trawling was unsuccessful, I included Sullivan in my quest.
My father never used the Ó in his name, but all of his four children have Ó Sullivan on our birth certs.
I feel this came about because of an unspoken command to be seen to be Catholic, and the Ó holds this strange connection.
There was no such pressure in my grandfather's era, apparently, and I now have the evidence Sullivan was indeed our official name. The census tells me they were all Roman Catholic.
Incidentally, and for no other reason but in a kind of deference to my own father, who died in 1978, I have taken to signing my name Sullivan for the past two years. Lovely to now find out it is my real name. Important.
My father and his brothers were involved in the independence struggle in the Bantry area during those terrible years. Little could they have known, as they sat around the kitchen table as young boys while their father signed the form by tilly lamp or possibly just candlelight, that their country and indeed their lives, would reach such turmoil but a decade later.
Jack, and two of his brothers, Jimmy and Michael, went to Canada after being on the losing side of the civil war, and Connie remained at home, even refusing his old IRA pension, in protest.
So sad to see one's family so torn and hurt. He drank too much and died too young.
My uncles never returned from Toronto, died and are buried there. My plan is to visit where they and my father lived in Toronto to see the places and addresses which are familiar to me from letters sent home.
I will be, if I live until 2010, the first of the family to visit my uncles' graves.
Researching my mother's side
My father came home to Bantry in 1945, having married my mother, Margaret (Dolly) Lynch, also from Bantry, in England, to where he had arrived from Canada in 1943.
I was born in 1949, the year my mother's father, Robert Lynch, died.
So now I was searching for Robert (Bob) Lynch. More mystery.
Couldn't find him either, initially, at his known address on Farmers' Lane, off the Glengarriff Road, in Bantry.
I'm off again, and once more beginning at letter “A” of the street alphabet.
I had only arrived at “C” when he popped up, as a "boarder" at the home of a family in number 4, Chapel Street.
I quickly established it was him because he was the only Robert Lynch in Bantry and was listed as a “baker.”
I knew from my mother he was very proud of his profession. Back on track.
The head of household at the address was also a baker, and he wrote my granddad's name as "Robart.”
A spelling mistake, obviously, yet so exciting to learn so much of that one night of a century ago. It was like being right there with them, so close did it all feel.
Could Bob Lynch have been working there that night, baking bread for the morning with his colleague, or was he off gallivanting when he ought to have been at home filling out his own census?
His details as "boarder" (term used if one is in someone else's house on census night at a certain time, according to accompanying notes),are that he was 23-years-old and was married with one child of a year old. He could read and write and speak Irish and English.
The child was my uncle Jerry, and my mother and his other sister and brother were not yet born.
Because he was not at home, his own census form was not filled out, I suppose owing to fact the head of the house was absent. (Feminists take note.)
Bob Lynch, like the Sullivans, was involved in the "Troubles,” and once for his pains was sent in handcuffs to an internment camp at Ballykinlar, County Down.
A patriotic endeavor
This document, discovered and pored over until often five o'clock in the morning, is a joy to possess, and while it would be unwise to consider that long ago period was some kind of golden era in which to have lived, it is indeed a treasure, and brings local history alive.
The undertaking of this labor of patriotic endeavor by the compilers is highly commendable.
This is who I am - who we all are - the children of courageous grandparents, who must have sometimes felt, as we all do, that life and its difficulties had become so hard to cope with.
Yet they went on, because they knew they must. Time doesn't change the way we are emotionally attached to our bloodline, and should we wish to express gratitude to our forebears, then a fleeting thought warmly felt, suffices.
I am so glad to have been involved in unearthing the little gems of family information which are available at the click of a computer mouse.
There is no lovelier joy as I approach the twilight of my own life, than to meet with my long dead family members, and to find them forever young.
It is a rewarding and moving experience to discover the nearness of those who have gone before us.
It is indeed as if they are only in the next room, and if we call out they will hear us.