Dear Thomas: A Letter To My Ancestor

Dear Great-Granddad Thomas,

Although it’s been over a century since you were born, so much has changed it’s hard to believe. I’m happy with how far society’s come in terms of rights and votes, but I do envy the simplicity of the olden days.

I’m a genealogist, so I’ve tracked your journey across the globe through a variety of different records. Though I still don’t know much about your childhood, and that’s why I’m writing this letter. Before you took those brave steps into the unknown by coming to Britain where you knew nobody, you were a strappy lad in the little village of Finuge on the south coast of Ireland, and I want to find out more about that.

Great-grandfather Thomas in 1925.

In 1911 you were already seeking your next adventure as a barman, learning your trade in one of the main Listowel pubs that still stands today (then the Forans’, now the Shamrock), but the rest of your family was living in House 29. I know your mum had her fair share of tragedy before you were born in 1891, but I’m glad she found happiness again with her husband of 40 years and went on to have nine surviving children, including you. As I’ve noticed from the other families that lived nearby, others were not so lucky.

Your family had a farm and inhabited what was termed a third-class house. That status was defined by the number of out-offices and farm buildings you had, if the walls were stone or wood, if the roof was slate or thatched, and the number of rooms and windows. Your four siblings, parents, two nieces and a nephew had crammed into three rooms, with one stable and one cow house to keep you all going.

Finuge seems to have been a thriving village back in the day. Though your parents were not alone in owning a third class home – 12 other families did too – there were lots of neighbours who could afford the upkeep of a second class house (16 in total); one, Hanora Treacy, even boasted the only first class residence, with seven out-offices and six rooms.

So I’ve taken a look at some of the information from the 1911 Irish census about the village of Finuge and interpreted the data through my eyes to see what else these documents – House and Building Return and Out-Offices and Farm Steadings Return, as well as the Household Return – can tell me about your lives.

Here’s the direct link to my visualisation: http://cf.datawrapper.de/kIUq7/1/. (The data I discuss below is based on my interpretation of the information provided by 40 Finuge families in the 1911 census.)

I was quite surprised at the number of independent women 100 years ago. As I’ve demonstrated in my graphic above, they were in charge of eight out of 40 households in Finuge (just one of these eight was not a widow) – a total of 20% – which is somewhat shocking when I compared it to the similar number of the villagers who said they couldn’t read or write: 17.5%.

I was certainly not expecting those two figures to be proportional; it seems that most illiterate Finugians were in their 60s and 70s and the majority were female. Women clearly didn’t have much time to tackle their struggles, particularly when they were tackling the duties of the day as the perfect mother and wife.

The likelihood of a child surviving into adulthood was good. However, according to my calculations from census figures, 34 children died out of the 196 who had been born to these families. While this does mean that 83% survived, the untold heartache no doubt remained forever with those who had suffered losses of both children and spouses. Like your mother, several women in Finuge had been widowed quite early in life, and thankfully many had lots of familial support to help them.

Just over half the population of the village was making its living from farming – closely followed by labouring – at this time, demonstrating the sheer dependancy of a substantial number of people on their land, crops and animals. Many families continued this tradition for generations, like Thomas Sheehy in House 28. He has taken over the farm from his 99-year-old father William, who is listed as a “retired farmer”.

A quarter of Finugians had two or more occupations in the family, such as road steward Michael Regan in House 39, whose son was a labourer and whose daughter was a dressmaker. You yourself, Thomas, took a different path through your bar work, and later by opening your own bakery, instead of taking over your father’s farm, a decision I don’t believe you ever regretted.

I know you must have been proud of your heritage and where you came from. Ireland was always calling you home, even when you were far away. Through the 1911 census and what I’ve learned from my analysis of the data it provided, I’m now able to picture your youthful life in Finuge and the kind of people you were surrounded by.

From your great-granddaughter,

Marése

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