In case you weren’t already aware, we are currently living through the centenary of the so-called revolutionary decade in Ireland, 1913-1923. As such, since 2013 there has been a raft of new books, articles, special issues, editions, tv programmes, documentaries produced providing new angles on this period of Irish history. Given that we are only into the third year – and into what for many will be the biggest year – of these commemorations, it can seem a little overwhelming and a little off-putting. While over many years now, but especially in the last three or four years, the history of the Irish involvement in the First World War has undergone a huge revolution – not least thanks to the growth in genealogy – it can be difficult for those of us not from Dublin to feel especially attached to the Easter Rising except as part of a national narrative we’ve been fed since our school days.
Recently, I have had genealogy give me an unexpected rebirth of interest in the Irish war of independence period, from 1919-1921. It has generally been a marker of my work as a professional historian to not be interested in the ins and outs of military conflict. I have typically sought the social angle of wars and conflicts in Irish history. I decided recently to undertake a major, if largely personal, project: tracing my family tree. With my social historian’s instincts, I unexpectedly found myself researching armed conflict in Waterford. More than that though, it has given me pause for thought about the nature of history and genealogy – their differences and their similarities.
Approaching Genealogy As A Historian
As someone who studies, researches and writes social history I have always had a funny relationship with genealogy. As someone who by Irish standards as an unusual name I’ve always wanted to know the story of how my family, the only Toms’ to ever have lived in Waterford that I’m aware of, came here. And to know where they came from.
On the other hand, the thought of spending hours and hours – years really – on slowly filling out a family tree seemed almost a kind of madness. Names and dates. Endlessly. As I trained to be an historian, the idea of providing all of this detail but having it devoid of contextual detail went against every fibre of my being. History is not names and dates. That’s a chronicle and that’s fine as far as it goes. A family tree might tell me the names of every living soul I’ve been related to.
But, I thought, it doesn’t tell me much about who they were. The kind of lives they lived. The world in which they lived. As a social historian, this is of vital importance to me. To know these things is to know why the people in your family tree might have married the person they did. Why they might have had as many or as few children as they did. Why there were infant deaths or long lives. But recently, I decided to start my family tree. Finally, I feel I have the time and energy to do so. It turns out that as a process, it is not tedious but compelling. After all, as Terence M. Punch has written, genealogy done well, like history can answer complex questions like “Was the family essentially a biological or an economic unit, or did this change from place to place, time to time, and if so or if not so, why did the evolution follow the patterns it did?” (Conrad (ed.): 2006, 134)
Elizabeth Shown Mills has written that genealogy, by showing not what people died of but rather what they lived of is an important bulwark against those historians who fear multiculturalism. Indeed, done properly, genealogy and family history can be a part of social history in the information age. As Shown Mills writes genealogy has the potential to remind us that “None of us can harbor prejudice against another group of people when we realize that, with the very next document we find, we could be a part of them.” (Shown Mills, National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 2003, 277)
And indeed, as some have noted, there are in fact certain common causes that both genealogists and professional historians share, not the least of which is widening access to the increasing amount of archives and records now available digitally. Such things were things I had rarely given much thought to before.
But, now building my family tree, I am intrigued especially by the, as it were, new members of the family. Those whom I never knew even existed. Connections and lives that tell me something about life in Ireland’s past that my other research only hinted at. One such figure was John Patrick Toms.
New family, new-found interest
Before I began working on the family tree, what we knew about our unusual last name was this: The first man in our family to be called John Toms – there have been many more since – did not come from Ireland. We thought he came from Scotland. However, the statistical likelihood is that he came from Cornwall and Devon. In the hunt for him, I found his grandson. John Patrick Toms appears on the 1911 Irish census. He lived in Kinsale with his father, John (brother of my great-grandfather, George) and his mother Margaret. His father was a coastguard. In 1911 he was 10 years old. The intriguing thing about this boy was that he, unlike both of his parents, was listed as being born in Scotland.
As it turns out, he was. Neither his mother or father appear on the 1901 Irish census. Instead of Kinsale or their home of Tramore, Co. Waterford, they were in a small village on the Isle of Bute in Scotland: Kilbride. Here they lived with several others in the coastguard’s residence. Young John Patrick was just a few months old at the time. This young boy was born at a pivotal moment in Irish history. His story is emblematic of the period. Born in Scotland to two Irish parents, one of whom worked for the Royal Coastguard, John Patrick Toms would grow up in Kinsale and later Waterford at a time of huge social and political change.
In 1912, a year after they appeared on the census in Cork, John Patrick’s father died. He and his mother Margaret move back to Tramore, Co. Waterford. There they lived with Alice Toms, his grandmother, in her home on Queen Street. Just two short years after this move, and when John Patrick was only thirteen years old, the world went to war. So too, did Ireland after a major split took place in the Irish volunteer movement that had emerged. The vast majority of Irish volunteers listened to John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party’s encouragement to join the British Army as a show of loyalty to a United Kingdom that was set to grant Ireland Home Rule. In Waterford, the majority signed up because there were few other employment opportunities that might otherwise feed families. Waterford, for a place of its size, had a remarkable volunteering rate for the British Army during the first world war. Young John Patrick must surely have looked on imagining the adventure.
The war, and Irish involvement in it, did not of course yield the desired results for the Irish people. Instead its legacy was one of death. It meant a lifetime of invalidity for many wounded but still living. The Ireland they returned to had been radicalised by the experience of the war and the prospect of conscription. It had been further radicalised by the holding off on Home Rule as emergency powers and the war preoccupied the House of Commons. So too did a botched rebellion in Dublin.
When John Patrick was a fifteen year old, the failed and largely unpopular Easter Rising took place. It’s consequent impact on people was far greater than its immediate impact but for impressionable young men men like John Patrick it was one more example of a militarised world in which he lived but in which the action always seemed to take place elsewhere. This was to remain the case until 1919 and the outbreak of the war of independence. Now 18, John Patrick, the Scottish-born son of coastguard would be able to take part.
In 1920, John Patrick became a member of ‘D’ Company of the 5th Battalion, Waterford IRA, 1st Southern Division. The IRA’s biggest engagement in the Tramore area during the war of independence was the Pickardstown ambush. A group of around 50 volunteers took part in the ambush. As Nicholas Whittle, director of elections for Sinn Féin in 1918 put it in his Bureau of Military History Statement, this action was “the first major action in our Brigade area and I had long looked forward to it.” The ambush was undertaken because
At this stage [January 1921] there were only four rural police stations still occupied by the RIC in the brigade area – Portlaw, Tramore, Dunmore East and Passage. Portlaw could be ruled out since a military relief force could come from either the city or from Carrick-on-Suir. Waterford Harbour severely restricted possible withdrawal routes from the vicinity of Passage or Dunmore East – a key consideration in the event of an ambush plan going wrong. This left only Tramore as a possibility for a feint attack. (McCarthy: Decies 2006, 180)
The outcome of the ambush was not good for the local IRA. Here’s McCarthy again:
The British forces had suffered only two minor casualties. One policeman, Constable Bryant had been slightly wounded during the feint attack on Tramore Police Barracks. One soldier was slightly wounded during the firing at the ambush site. The IRA discovered this when the wounded man went to a solicitor’s office to register a claim for compensation. The clerk who took the details and who discussed the ambush at length with him was Dennis Madden – East Waterford Brigade Intelligence Officer! In this, their first major operation, the East Waterford Brigade had suffered a major defeat. The City Battalion had suffered three casualties out of twenty men engaged and the Dunhill Battalion one while inflicting only two minor wounds on the enemy. The questions now were how would the British forces follow up and how would Paul rally his men for further action. (McCarthy: 2006, 185)
While I have checked various Bureau of Military History witness statements for a potential mention of John Patrick, I have so far found none. However, given the sheer number of men involved in this operation, it is unthinkable that he was not involved. Despite this setback, the Waterford IRA continued to fight despite the fact that, as McCarthy’s work has shown, Waterford’s IRA suffered from a lack of strong political acquiescence in turning a blind eye to their activities and poor financing.
When a truce was declared between the IRA and the British government on 11 July 1921, a roll call was taken of IRA men around the country. According to records held in the Irish Military Archives, in the roll call provided by Jack Walsh for the East Waterford IRA, John Patrick Toms (listed simply as John Toms) was then a prisoner in Portobello Barracks in Dublin.
When a truce was declared and the Anglo-Irish treaty signed in December of 1921, Ireland was divided. John Patrick Toms, from his prison cell, like the majority of former IRA members, surely took the news as a sign of progress. This we can infer from the fact that on the 5th June 1922, just three weeks before the outbreak of the civil war, John Patrick presented himself and joined the 2nd Southern Division of the National Army, popularly known as the Free State Army.
He would serve in this force for two years. At first he was an infantryman, but was later reassigned as a military policeman in Dungarvan in 1922. His occupation when he joined up was labourer, putting John among the ranks of the many ordinary men who made up the bulk of the IRA’s membership. His time in the new Free State Army ended on 22 March 1924.
As the Irish Free State changed to Éire and then the Republic of Ireland, John Patrick continued to live in Dublin. He married Agnes Mulhern of Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal in 1938, and had three children between 1939-1950. He was predeceased by his wife Agnes in 1981, when she died suddenly. John Patrick, like many Irishmen of his generation, brought up in a militarised atmosphere, locally, nationally and internationally, when a chance came to join the fray, he took it. When that same chance presented itself again as civil war broke out, he again took the opportunity.
The story of John Patrick Toms is, of course, just one among hundreds that I could potentially tease out from my family tree. Each one would in its own way, teach me something about the social history of Ireland at a given moment in time, from a given perspective. However, John Patrick Toms’ case is also instructive in a number of ways about how some ordinary people make the historical record and how others do not. As such it is instructive also about the value of records and the reliance in both history and genealogy on paper records.
While most people will probably have their birth or death recorded somewhere, few enough people leave behind the kind of paper trail which John Patrick did. This is worth bearing in mind because, in contrast, his wife, or his mother, by virtue of their lack of interaction with some aspect of state bureaucracy – be that the courts or some other thing – on account of being women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Ireland, have left less of a trace. Nonetheless, there own stories are as valuable as that of John Patrick’s. As such, we are left at the mercy of what those in the past thought worthy of recording. Many of the people in my family tree will have been illiterate, or perhaps able only to read. Thus their chance to put down anywhere their experience outside of official records is largely absent. Finding them, telling their stories, while difficult, accounting for their absence from the written record of the past, is also imperative. We are still a long way from recovering many in our past from the ever present condescension of posterity.