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.
Peter Noone’s father attended the funeral – it was 2 miles long … all the tenants were there and all the relations…so Gerry can rest assured that all his people are buried together in Aclare.
(Aclare church was built by Mary’s grandfather, my g-g-g- grandfather, Charles Hawkes.)
Current news was exchanged from both women:
Mrs Smyth is in hospital. She loves to think back to the happy days she spent at Drumdaff.
We are so thrilled to learn of the Digby grandsons…
It was in the 1990’s, with the death of my uncle, Michael Digby, that I became the keeper of the Digby archive, documents from Ireland that span over 300 years, all sorts of written history of my mother's paternal family. Last year I gifted these back to the archive here in Roscommon. I had used as much as I could for my own research and story telling, and after moving from a dry to a humid climate eight years ago, felt concern for the damage they might endure in such conditions. It was always my intention to return them to their rightful home, it was just a matter of it being the right time.
Parting with the collection took quite a period of adjustment and acceptance. I never considered them to be mine to keep, for, just like one’s children, there comes a time for them to leave. Even when the carrier came to collect them, I was feeling pangs of regret. As I watched him wrap them carefully in acid-free tissue paper and place them in a box, I had to give myself a talking to… But now I am so happy they are here. Not only am I relieved of the responsibility of caring for such precious items, but more importantly, I am so thrilled that they are contributing to the knowledge of the history of Roscommon, accessible to those whose stories are included in them, and making important connections in the country of their birth.
Any of you who have read through any part of my website Digbystories.com,will understand what interests me above all else are the stories, the personal and human side of the lives of my ancestors whose descendants have led to me and my wide and wonderful family, or whose lives have been intertwined with those ancestors of mine, through both choice or circumstance.
The basis of stories on my website is primary sources, the Digby archive with memories saved in the form of letters, poems, diaries, postcards and photographs. There are also the official documents - wills, rent records, marriage agreements, hand drawn maps and many more that provide verification of stories told.
These precious items travelled, though I know not when, from Ireland to Neutral Bay, a northern suburb of Sydney, where they lived in the cottage home, Suramma, in the care of my great grandparents, Everard and Edith Digby. Consequently the documents passed through two generations and settled for some time inside their home, a battered tin trunk, at the back of my uncle’s farm shed in northern New South Wales, before travelling to rural Victoria and in to my the care.
The stories are much more than a personal journey of just the Digby family, for they reflect the experiences of many others from generations past, many of whom were the forebears of families who may well be represented here today, and many others still living in these parts, across Ireland, or, like my family, spread across the world. . I might mention that I have with me some indexes of names from the Digby archive. The first is Drumdaff Conacre from 1817-1818. There are names from the rent books of 1901 – 1904. And there is an index of all the names from all the documents with the document referenced, including letters and petitions, lease agreements and maps. They are here for your perusal if you wish.
Personalised stories have the power to bring the reader closer to a person, place or event, thus making connections stronger and more meaningful. There are many examples of such writing in the Digby collection. In amongst the more formal evidence of lives lived, are letters from the outside looking in, letters from Mrs Elizabeth Smyth, nee McDermott, who lived on the Digby estate as a child. In them she recalls, in full colour, the life of her family and many other tenants as well as of the Digby family who lived in the Big House, Drumdaff. Their names appear in such records as tenancy books and letters of request for lower rent for example. Many names appear throughout Mrs Smyth’s recollections, in all probability a great number familiar to you, names of families she writes of:
Noones...Cory...Tracys, Brennans, Gilloolys, Nelson, these were all tenants, they went to Ballagh school...while our side of the estate went to Derrane school.
There are extraordinary recollections about the Digbys from others, one on the death of Everard’s brother my Great-Uncle George who succumbed to typhus in 1894. George was a doctor and set up practice in Main St, Roscommon. (photo. When George died the local school teacher, a friend of his, wrote a memorial poem which he had all the students learn by rote. Many years later, the mother of Pierce Carlos (husband of Kate Brennan, a name previously mentioned by Mrs Smyth) recited it, while her son wrote it down, then sent it to my grandfather in Australia. Mrs Carlos must have had quite a memory, as, by my reckoning it would have been about sixty years on. Here is what she recited.
George Digby is dead and the places that knew him once will know him no more. His premature decease at the early age of thirty-eight is another striking proof of the dreadful uncertainly of human life. Standing beside his open grave breeding, rank, high professional skill must now be left out of the consideration, though all were his. But a few short months ago no-one doubted a happy future for a gentleman so respected and beloved. May the green sod rest lightly on his ashes in the lonely graveyard of Aclare.
When this memory of George Digby is placed alongside other anecdotes about him, a real person begins to emerge, not just a name and a few facts. This childhood recollection of Dr. George is from Mrs Lizzie Smyth.
In my time he used to visit his home and treated me for an ulcer under my ear, and when he had finished gave me some grapes because I didn’t scream – what a memory, and I was only 10 years.
And a third one, also from her:
I have another memory of my brother Michael (a year younger than I) helping turn out the cows after milking. I was about 7 years and while waiting in the yard Dr George came through with the coachman who was leading a young horse and when the Dr turned to Michael he said "Hello snotty nose" and the child got so offended he ran for a yard brush standing against the wall to hit the Dr. I felt angry and threatened a good thrashing for he being so bold as to stand up to the Dr. but the Dr. only smiled and said, "You are a brave lad and you'll go far". How right he was for that bold child was manager of the "Empire" race track in New York at the age of 30. He got a clerkship in the Roscommon newspaper at the age of 13 and seven years later went to the U.S.A.
To read anecdotes such as these allows the reader to develop a relationship with the subject, be it positive or negative, which in my experience allowed me to get to know my relatives and develop connections with them. Of course you always hope you will like the people that emerge from the pages, though it is not always so, but this is the risk you take and you have to prepared for that when you set out on this journey of exploration.
Lizzy Smyth also provides us with wonderful descriptions of Roscommon people:
Mick Noone was an honest hard-working man; he and Pat Curley never shaved their full beards; Pat Curley's was a ginger hue and he trimmed it occasionally but Mick's was a "drab" mousy colour & a huge size. My father didn't wear a beard full, it was side whiskers called "Parnell" fashion. He read a good deal...I often saw neighbours come and get his advice on signing official papers or write letters, some of those people never went to school. He often wrote poetry on current events and I remember the Editor sending him a note saying "Send us something rollicking on the elections?
Lizzie also gives us detailed and fascinating information on their day to day lives:
My father, Edward McDermott, had 7 pounds a year, a free house, two acres to till and provide vegetables for us and free turfary where we got plenty of turf; then we had free grass for two cows and their offspring. We had enough vegetables to feed a pig and by adding the surplus milk he was ready to kill in 4 or 5 months, and what lovely bacon. We also had 20 or 30 geese, my mother hatched and reared chickens and when fit for the table the Digbys bought them - they were such a small price, only 8d. and 10d. each
There are wonderful descriptions of recreational activities:
We used to fish for small trout when we were children and as many as twenty little boys and girls gathered at Drumdaff front gate of Curley's on Sunday to learn Irish dancing from the older children...give me the old fashioned fun we had in Curley's when all we youngsters met and learnt to dance Lancers and Quadrill 8 reels. The Curley boys played the violin and taught my brother and I; it was the "Mecca" for the Digby's maids when the excuse came to draw water ... so many children meeting outside Curley's and the violin & the accordion playing.
Lizzie wrote also about local landmarks such as Hicks’ mill, where, when she was a child, farmers came with their oats, wheat and barley. Local men were employed there to do mill work, for which some would cut and dry turf from the bog to keep the “kiln” heated to dry corn before milling. In a later letter written in 1964, she ponders on the disappearance of that way of life.
The Mill wheel is silent, no farmer sowing corn to grind and the river flows on with nothing to do. Now the local farmers go to the meal stores in Roscommon for their supplies.
These are just a few examples of what is available in this rich collection of letters from Lizzie Smyth, for which we owe her our deep gratitude. Her stories bring alive the past so vividly, painting clear pictures of people and places of times gone by, people who lived their lives in Roscommon.
I began my first forays into family history with research on my other Irish family, the McKees. It involved a lot of background research and included contributions from many family members. At that stage my computer skills and knowledge were very limited but I wrote a book. Like all first attempts I found small errors that took on greater importance than they deserved, and layout I would now change. Nevertheless, It was of great interest to the family – fortunately a large one – but after all of them had bought copies, I still have a box of books taking up room in a cupboard at home.
When I began transcribing the Digby documents I realized pretty quickly that some other format was needed. A very computer savvy friend introduced me to a couple of websites that provided formats which have ended up as digbystories.com. But there was one component that gave me a great deal of trouble in that I could not find the right format.
Amongst the treasure trove in the old trunk were over 100 letters written by Everard’s wife, Edith Digby, during World War I to her son Gerald, my grandfather. Gerald, his brother John and their father, all served overseas during the duration of the war, leaving Edith living alone for the first time in her life and the only way she could stay connected to her three soldiers was through letters.
It took many months to transcribe them and when I had done so, to ensure they were in sequence. This proved to be a challenge as my Uncle Michael was a stamp collector and had removed not only many of the stamps, but along with them the dated postmarks. And many of the letters were only partly dated – Thursday 25th, or undated.
Then the editing began. This was a huge job but it seemed that no matter what or how much I cut out, I could not get them into a form that read easily and which I was happy with. I am not sure how many editions I had in the end, but it just didn’t work - it didn’t flow, it was hard to keep track of individuals and families. I sought professional advice but to no avail and finally I put it aside in deep despondency. It was a great disappointment as I believed, and still believe strongly that this is an important story to tell, the war from the perspective of a woman forced to live an unimagined life for the duration of the war, a life filled with hard work, anxiety, grief and longing.
It was my son who came to my rescue, suggesting I write an historical novel using the letters and the stories they contained as a basis. I tried, but I failed this too, but from my attempts came the idea of a journal. Finally, finally, I was happy. I grouped letters, each group to equate to one journal entry, spanning maybe one month or two, sometimes more, especially when there was a gap in time, for not all her letters arrived at their destination, some going down at sea and others just disappearing among the thousands of mail items sent from families all over Australia. As much as I could I used direct extracts from the letters, but of course, in a different structure that was not always possible. I was, though, confident with staying true to her voice which I had become so familiar with. After all those years, for by this time it was years, we had an intimate relationship, my great-grandmother and I. The end result is on the website, its title a quote from Edith, “A Terrible Time for Mothers”.
You never know, though, what will ensue from your efforts, particularly if they are in the public domain. Through having public access to the memoir I have connected with people I never knew of, some of them family members of other major characters in Edith’s story, and some, like Fred Langston’s grand-daughter, complete surprises. One of the important people in Edith’s life through the war years was a young man named Joe Makinson. I don’t buy the newspaper very often these days, but as luck would have it, on one of the days I did, I came across a eulogy for a well-known scientist named Rachel Makinson. I mentioned this to my cousin, who told me she had worked with a Bob Makinson, and through some detective work I found him on the Linked-In site. This led me to Joe’s nephew, and we eventually met when I flew down to Sydney from Brisbane. We spent a lovely day exchanging stories and not only did I go home with a photo of Joe, the first time I had seen of him, but to my astonishment, in a large brown paper envelope I found letters from my great-grandmother to Joe, written during the war.
Through every word spoken as we stand on the cliff top, part of my mind is always on Gerald. I am dimly aware of the sun warm above us and the sparkling blue ocean stretching back across the harbor to the city but my mouth is filledwith the metallic taste that comes with fear. I dare not speak of it in case I break down, not only for my own sake but those of my friends. Despite their bright smiles they must feel as I do, especially Annie, as it is her son and mine, Colin and Gerald, best pals, who are going off to war. And for Gladys it is her dear brother. I cannot stop my heart pounding, no matter how hard I try to distract myself by throwing questions at them. Can you see it yet? Do you think they will be here before dark?
With each hour that passes I feel increasingly anxious, my mind turning back to when the war broke out. I think of my dear Everard on his way back to Ireland last year after his sister Mary died in Dublin… To think he was in the Suez Canal when this war began…Now he has signed on with the army in England, and is trying to get to the front. I dare not think of it, but pray they will not let him near the firing line at his age… when Gerald gets to Egypt both our sons will be at the war. Surely that is enough for one family… I was suddenly jolted from my thoughts by a cry from Gladys, Look! Look! A ship. They’re coming! … We dared not take our eyes off it…I pray we will be able to see them as we think, though never say, that this may be the last glimpse we have of our beloved and precious boys. The listing ship lumbers its way towards the harbor entrance but it is not until she is almost through the Heads that we see the red bandanna Colin and
Gerald are madly waving from the stern. We wave madly back, laughing and crying as we make great flourishes of farewell with the tablecloth, leaving our picnic scattered across the rocks.
There are many ways of presenting your family stories for public scrutiny, and I must say that the website has been most successful in reaching out across the world. I would like to share another with you that is much more intimate - one that I have had some success with. (photo of book) This, I guess, you might call a summary of some of the people in my family. It uses a form of printing called oil release and involves a photocopier, scissors, a glue stick, a spoon or small lino-printing press, photos and a small amount of text. The cover is from an old deconstructed book I bought in a charity shop and I have photocopied the inside pages of a book Everard Digby won as a matriculation prize in 1874. On one side is Edith Digby’s family, beginning with my three-times great grandmother and the other Everard’s, starting with the two-times great grandparents. The families come together in the middle with Edith and Everard. For anyone who is interested I have compiled a brief information sheet on the process. Other than making a book you might consider mounting and framing them in various ways, such as pairs or singly or make cards. They make lovely presents that family members might love to have as a keepsake.
Yet another consequence I would never have dreamt of has come to me through someone reading my website. I have been approached by a small theatre company based in Melbourne, proposing that together we develop a performance piece based on Edith Digby’s journal, A Dreadful Time for Mothers. They came across it and were so deeply moved by Edith’s story they sought me out, we talked, met for a planning day, and so the process has begun. It is incredibly exciting, for Edith’s story will be told in public forums, hopefully as a travelling show. I am to be involved in its development and production, so all this waiting for me when I get home. Who would have thought???
Now, to come back to the theme of Heritage Week: “Sharing Stories, Making Connections.” The fact that I am standing here, in a place my ancestors called home since the early 1600’s, connecting with wonderful people from a wonderful country, says it all really. When I began this journey more years ago that I care to remember, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine what it would lead to. Although I never met my great grandparents, I now have a strong relationship with them, made so by all the evidence I have of their lives and the people they were. It broke my great grandfather’s heart to leave Ireland, for he wrote much about his longing for the place he loved best - he is my connection to Roscommon, and for that I owe him much. Over his grave in Sydney is a memorial to his roots, a Celtic Cross, a fitting symbol.
Goorev ma hagot