I have always loved stories. One of my very earliest and treasured memories is of my grandfather Gerald Digby reading to me, a wide eyed four year old, as I snuggled up beside him in bed each morning when he and Gran came to stay with us.
Story telling is as ancient as human habitation of our planet, it is what we humans do, and have done for as long as we have been able to communicate. Story telling is essential to our forming connections, connections to place and people, to imagination and ideas. It is a way of knowing and sharing your heritage, and through this having a stronger understanding of self. You have only to watch the TV show, Where Do I Come From? to see the importance to each individual as they gain answers to this question. My own mother-in-law did not find out where she came from until she was in to her 70’s, when she not only discovered her heritage, but met 3 sisters she never knew existed, and saw a photo of her birth mother for the first time in her life. To witness her joy was one of those unforgettable moments in my life, and still brings tears to my eyes.
I was born in Australia, a country whose first peoples have a culture that is, at 60,000 years, the oldest continuing culture in the world, maintained through story telling, passed down through generation after generation. Stories form connections between people through time, they form connections with place, with earth, sky, water, mountains and forest. It is through story telling that we accumulate knowledge, sustain spirituality and gain wisdom, all of which enrich us.
Ireland, too, has a long tradition of oral story telling, one which is being celebrated across the country through Heritage Week. I am enormously honoured to have been asked to be part of this celebration, and thank Caitlin Browne in particular for inviting me. Not only am I thrilled to be part of this celebration of culture, but to finally come back to Ireland. After nearly 30 years.
For nearly twenty years I have been collecting and collating information and stories from my family's past, much of it from Ireland. It has been like creating a huge jigsaw, gathering the pieces and finding a place for them between and connected to others. Little pieces of a story that seem to have no relevance can, months or even years later, unexpectedly become a gem that forms a link between seemingly unconnected parts of a story, or links to another person out there who also shares some aspect of your story.
I have had many experiences that illustrate this. I will give you one example, not from my grandfather Digby’s Irish side, but my grandmother’s whose family, the McKees went to Australia from Kilkenny and Tipperary. It is a touching and beautiful example of a family story making a connection that filled a gap and healed a heart.
McKee family members sailed to Australia, first one brother with his mother, wife and three children in 1840, then the other, a widower with three children in 1856, after spending time in America where his wife died. My great grandfather Charles McKee eventually took up farming land in central Queensland around 1904 with his wife Annie and seven children – and where they had three more children. Charles and Annie were great believers in education for all their children, boys and girls, and so erected a timber schoolhouse and employed a governess. At some stage the local Anglican Minister sent to the McKees a man named Fred Langston who was dying from cancer and wanted to spend his last days in the bush. He was accompanied by two of his sons and while their father camped out the young boys joined the McKee children in the school house. Fred died in 1911, but the boys stayed on with the McKee family until adulthood when they went off to make lives of their own.
Like many people, over the years I have made entries to various genealogical websites, sharing information as well as seeking it out. One day, some ten or so years ago, I received an email from a woman saying she had seen my entries about the McKee family on a website, and although she wasn’t family, she wondered if I may be able to help her. Her father, it transpired, was one of the sons of Fred Langston who grew up with my family, but the only part of the story his daughter was ever able to extract from her father was that his father had died when he was a boy. He must have mentioned the McKees, for the name was familiar to her, prompting her to contact me. The circumstances of her father’s life and her grandfather’s death were a mystery she had been trying to solve for years, and despite searching all death records, cemetery records and anything else remotely plausible as a lead, she had no success, just dead ends. She was particularly desperate to find her grandfather’s grave, and was there, she asked, anything in my McKee records that might help?
As I read through the message the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my scalp began tingling. Fortunately I was fairly quickly able to find what I was looking for. Firstly were notes of a conversation with my grandmother, Frances McKee, about her life growing up on the property that not only included the story of Fred, but, in addition, there was a crudely hand drawn map and beside “creek” and not far from “Road” a rough square. Written beside it were the words GRAVE (LANGSTON, POSSUM SKINNER DIED TB). (TB, as we later discovered, was incorrect). Not only had the whereabouts of Frederick Church Langston’s resting place been found, but also some of his story. You can well imagine how relieved and thrilled his grand-daughter was to have finally solved the mystery of his death, and to read the story of her family’s time on the McKee property.
This experience and others like it, have reinforced my commitment to sharing my stories, for they are not just mine, but belong to anyone whose life is enriched by anything the information in my care might add to their story.
I have been extraordinarily fortunate to become the keeper of the documents for our family. The Digby collection I was entrusted with is quite remarkable in its breadth and depth, particularly given the fate of so many Irish records in the past. I come from a long line of hoarders. Handed down through the generations of our family was a treasure trove of primary source material, not just from Ireland but continuing on after Everard Digby’s arrival in Australia in 1881, and through to the 1960’s with letters from Mrs Elizabeth Gillooly and Mrs Elizabeth Smyth and others from Roscommon to my grandparents, Gerald and Frances Digby (he being Everard’s younger son).
In these letters memories from the past as well as current news was exchanged, maintaining connection both between the two families that began who knows how many generations ago, and between present and past. Mrs Gillooly wrote:
As I write in the parlour I see the daffodils in bloom on the lawn…they were sown by the Digby family many years ago and never failed to bloom since.