Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: The Spirit of Dublin

The ever present flower ladies
'Living Statues' busking on Grafton Street
There is always plenty of live music on show.
Tourist travel options: the old and the new
Click on images to view larger versions.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Anointed with tears: One man's recollection of the long ago loss of a brother

Last November I wrote about my discovery of the records of my mom's brother Thomas, a brother who died almost three years before my mother was born. Mom had a photograph of Thomas, but beyond that knew nothing about him. His life was never spoken of, until my mother asked the question that had long been weighing on her mind, 'we had another brother, didn't we?'. The information gleaned from documents informing the passages of his life and his death do little to tell us of the mark Thomas made on his family, so when I was once again in Ireland I decided to ask my family members about him.

The story I was told made me realize that no matter how long each of us spends on this earth, no matter how small a footprint we make, we matter to someone. People hold their loved ones within their hearts, although decades may pass in which some names are never uttered.

It is a strange thing to hear the recounting of one man’s long ago loss of a sibling, a loss which conveys such fresh sadness that it belies the passage of over eighty years. It is as though the recollection brings us back into precisely that place and that moment in time, and there is an intimacy in the story which makes a listener feel like an interloper.


On the day their parents returned home without baby Thomas, there were no questions from the Ball children, although the elder among them longed to ask their mother and their father what had happened that afternoon. Instead, as she always did, Mary Ball began to prepare a simple evening meal for her husband and the little ones she still had. She leaned heavily into the table while her hands quietly completed their task, chopping cabbage, peeling potatoes, and slicing small rashers of bacon.

Little Gerard joined her at the table, standing steadfast next to his mother, pocketing himself into the folds of her long skirt, his tiny hand gripping tight to her apron. He could feel her body trembling, and almost swaying, as though she was rocking a baby to sleep. She would not utter a word. He looked up to see heavy tears silently streaming down her beautiful face. He gently tugged on her skirt and his mother gazed down at him, causing those tears to fall ever so lightly onto his forehead and down over his nose. Letting them dry where they anointed him, he would not wipe away those tears. They were the mark that told Gerard his baby brother Thomas was dead. He did not move away from his mother, but stood there silent and stock-still until she was ready to hang the cooking pot over the fire.

That night, tucked away warm and safe in the room he shared with all of his siblings, Gerard wept quietly, a little boy with no idea about how he could solve his mother's deep sorrow, but desperately wanting to do so. Gone was the tiny wooden cradle which once sat on the floor next to his bed.



Friday, November 16, 2012

Small Lives: Photographs of Irish Childhood 1860-1970: Book Review

This extraordinary book, edited by Aoife O'Connor features photographs drawn from an exhibition curated by her, and presented in the National Photographic Archive of the National Library of Ireland (NLI). The book takes us on a journey through one hundred and ten years of photographs chosen from collections held by the NLI, and includes many images previously unpublished.

Children from all walks of life are featured, in images showing them at work, at play, or at prayer. O'Connor juxtaposes images of children from the highest ranks of privilege with those fated to the lowest rungs of poverty, giving us insight into the very different kinds of lives lived by these little ones. Particularly moving is an image of children in the workhouse. The filthy conditions and desperate faces stand in marked contrast to the calm repose of wealthy children pictured on the very next page of the book. In their lace trimmed clothing, seated in a garden for a family portrait, they look as though they haven't a care in the world.

Some of the photographs in the book were taken in studios, while others are candid shots. Both methods of presentation offer insight into the way in which children have been perceived and presented in Ireland over the course of these one hundred and ten years. I highly recommend this beautiful book.

Check out a collection of 'Small Lives' images on the National Library of Ireland Flickr page to view a sampling of the sort of photographs featured in the book.

Consider putting together a 'Small Lives' exhibit of those on your own family tree. Here is a collage of a few images of little ones from my family tree, along with an early photograph of yours truly.

Click on images to view larger versions.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A portrait trimmed in black crepe: William Francis Pell: 1891-1915

The Pell surname is a relatively new one on the maternal side of my family tree. The name emerged during a conversation I had with my mother back in July of 2011. Mom recalled her many childhood visits with the family, whose surname she felt sure was Pells. Visits to the home of the Pells, with her father Patrick, were something which my mom and her siblings excitedly anticipated. Mom did not recall the precise nature of the connection between her family and the Pells; however, she did recall some details about where they lived. In particular she remembered a portrait in a beautiful dark wood frame with a small ribbon of black crepe encircling the rim. The portrait hung above a side board in the front room of the Pell household; it was a photograph of a handsome young man in uniform about whom no one ever spoke.

While conducting research in Ireland, I discovered the surname is Pell, not Pells, but the error is understandable, since a visit to the family was probably preceded by the explanation, "We're going to visit the Pells." In a child's mind, one Pell becomes all Pells.

William Francis Pell was born in Dublin Ireland in the Autumn of 1891. He was the second born child, and first born son, of Teresa Early and John Pell.  Teresa Early Pell was the youngest sister of my maternal great-grandmother, Jane Early Ball. At various times in the late 19th and early 20th century, the two sisters and their respective families lived together. William's cousin, my grandfather Patrick Ball, was six years old when William was born. The Pell family in total appears on the 1901 Irish Census; William is notably absent from the 1911 Irish Census.  One might assume he was already serving in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, but I have not yet found evidence to support such an assumption.

Unfortunately, not much remains of the World War One record of young William, aside from his medals card, an entry in Ireland's Memorial Records, and a photograph of his grave.  I do know that upon enlisting William served in the rank of Private, and his gravestone attests to the fact that he held the rank of Lance Corporal when he was killed, so one may assume that his short military career was a fine one.  Just as William Dunne (paternal tree) did serve, William Pell also served in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers; his regimental number was 8328. William Pell was killed in action on 7 January 1915. He had only just celebrated his 23rd birthday.

I do not know how well William Pell and William Dunne knew each other, if at all. Their families were not yet connected, and would not be for some forty years to come. However, in an extraordinary coincidence, both of these men are interred in Prowse Point Military Cemetery in Belgium, two among a total of only two hundred and twenty-five interred. Their graves are only a few yards away from one another.

According to his medals card, William Pell was awarded the 1914 Star, the Victory Medal, and the British War Medal.  The card bears the telling phrase 'K. in A.', the benign way of noting that he was killed in action. The medals card also states his qualification date as 9 October 1914.  Since this date is just three months before his death, one can presume the medals may have been sent posthumously to his family. At the time of his death, the Pell family was still living in the home into which William was born, at 23 Liffey Street, Kilmainham, Dublin. Although there is no slip of paper bearing the signature of his mother or his father for receipt of those medals at their door, I wonder what that day was like when those medals arrived, and just when was it that the Pell family added the ribbon of black crepe to the portrait of their young man?

Prowse Point Military Cemetery, Belgium.  Site of the graves of William Pell and William Dunne.

William Pell's Medal card.  National Archives UK.

The Book of Ireland's Memorial Records under glass in St. Patrick's Cathedral Dublin.
Pell, William. Reg. No 8328, left column, third from top.
Click on photographs to view larger version.
Unless otherwise credited, All Photographs Copyright©irisheyesjg2007-2012.
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