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A glimpse at Ireland in 1911

How I found my family in the 1911 census

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A glimpse at Ireland in 1911

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.

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