Sailors, Servants, and Strangers: Norwegians in the 1901 and 1911 Irish Census

Recently I set about exploring people of Norwegian origin on the 1901 and 1911 census. As you can probably imagine, when the census was taken, the vast majority of Norwegians who showed up on the census were not actually resident in Ireland at all, but crew members of boats and ships docked in Ireland on the night the census was taken.

These included people like 16 year old Lars Larsen, one of three apprentice sailors of that age, docked in Belfast.

belfast ship 1901
A ship with Norwegian and Swedish crew docked in Belfast in 1901, when the census was taken.

In total, there were 296 Norwegian men in Ireland in 1901 when the census was taken. Most of them based in Belfast, Larne and Dublin. Not all were sailors however. Some were most likely the sons of sailors. Take John Wellington, born in Norway, according to the census but living on Strand Street in Malahide and working as a boat builder. He is listed along with his wife, Margaret, from Co Dublin and a nephew, Christopher Farrell.

Or consider Olaf Haaland, married to Margretta J Haaland, daughter of John Giffard of Rathmines, a man who lists his occupation as “Dividends”. A large family, who appear from their internationalism (another daughter is married to a London man) and their address, to have been fairly well-heeled. Olaf was not the only Haaland then living in Dublin. Sixty-five year old Lars Olsen Haaland, a Scandinavian interpreter, lived on Lower Leeson Street with his two daughters, Bertha and Marie. Bertha was a shopkeeper at a chandlery, and Marie worked as a book keeper at the Singer sewing machine shop.

Another unusual family was the Stromsoe family in Queenstown, now Cobh, Co. Cork. Fredrick was a naval store labourer married to Cork-born Mary Ann with whom he had five children. The Stromsoe family werent alone in settling in Ireland in these years. In 1911, we find the Gulbransen family in Belfast. There is Ahavoh Gulbransen and his wife Elizabeth,  both Belfast natives. Ahavoh’s father Paul Fredrick, 78, and born in Norway lives with them. Son,  like father, lists himself as a watchmaker.

At the house of eighty year-old Agnes Warden in Sneem, Co. Kerry there were among her large retinue of servants (14 in total), four Norwegian men: Andreas Williamson, 43, a sailor and carpenter; Ernst Christiansen, 30, also a sailor by occupation; Conrad Christiansen, 25 and presumably Ernst’s brother who was a carpenter and Peder Johannesen, 37, and also a carpenter.

While there were in both years more men on the censuses from Norway thanks to sailors on board ships, the women who lived in Ireland from Norway were by and large young, presumably unmarried women who worked in domestic service of one kind or another. We’ve already seen the daughters of Lars Olsen Haaland,  but therec was also girls like Anna Ganda Berger send,  a 22 year old from Stange, Norway who worked as a cook for the Couser family in Armagh.

Or the Ganserod sisters who worked in a house on University street in Belfast. They worked for Anna Hunter, a 52 year old school principal.  The sisters,  Anna and Elisabeth, were 23 and 19 years old respectively. Anna, the elder of the two, had duties including being cook while Elisa was listed as a house maid.

The Wellwood family of Pottinger Co. Down had Sigrid Christiansen, 23, working as a nurse and domestic servant for them.

However, it wasn’t just young Norwegian girls employed as domestics by irish families, as the case of Nicoline Engelsen Lund illustrates.  Lund, 50 at the time of the 1901 census,  was one of four servants working in a house in Whitechurch, Kilkenny. The head of the house was Mabel Bryant, a 30 year old with a newborn son.

As ever, such discoveris raise as many questions as they seem to provide Anderson.  Through what networks were these young women in their twenties finding work in Ireland as domestic servants being key among them?  Is it sheer coincidence?

And what to make of the various Norwegian and part Norwegian dailies this cursory research brings to light? So small and scattered were they that they could scarcely be said to form a coherent group in Ireland at the time. And yet, one must wonder to what extent they maintained links with Norway as a country as it, a few years before Ireland,  became independent?

Perhaps the only thing that can be said for certain at present about these apparently anamolous Norwegian enclaves is this: between the sailors, servants and strangers to Ireland it is clear that there was some networks between the countries which are now perhaps lost to us. It is a reminder,  healthy and not a little timely, to recall that Irish life is as much a part of the world of the North Sea as it is a product of the Atlantic world. Indeed much the same point is made by Daryl Leeworthy in his work on Cardiff’s Norwegian Sailor’s Church.  It is a reminder to us that Ireland’s  historical interactions with the outside world see us not confined to our antagonisms with Britain or our emigration to the USA.

There are other stories we can tell about early twentieth century Ireland that frame us differently. An Ireland where Norwegian girls came to work as domestic servants, where interpreters lived and brought up their families, where our docksides were enlivened with the conversation and camaraderie of Norwegian and Swedish  sailors.


Story of Waterford’s first Jewish wedding in 1894 to feature alongside Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition

I am delighted to say some of my research on the history of Waterford’s Jewish community will feature as part of an exhibition at Waterford Institute of Technology’s Library for the month of February. Below are full details of the exhibit:

Ulster University and the National University of Ireland Galway are pleased to announce a partnership with Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) which will see the Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition being brought to Waterford. Representations of Jews in Irish Literature will be launched by poet Simon Lewis, who has recently published a collection of poetry Jewtown. Lewis was the winner of the Hennessy Emerging Poetry Prize and runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 2015. The exhibition will be hosted by WIT for the month of February and will feature a complimentary display of materials relating to Jewish culture and identity including an exploration of the lives of Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jacob Lappin, the first Jewish couple married in Waterford on 14 November, 1894.

The exhibition is the first major output of a three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which charts the representations of Jewish identity, culture and life in Ireland from medieval through to modern times. It examines the portrayal of Jews in the literary record alongside the contribution of Irish-Jewish writers to Irish literature and celebrates this unique hyphenated identity.

A Jewish wedding takes place at the Waterford Courthouse in 1901. Source: wikicommons.

Mr Kieran Cronin, Developmental Librarian, WIT, welcomed the collaboration: “WIT is delighted to be partnering with Ulster University and the National University of Ireland Galway to bring this illuminating and pioneering exhibition to the south east of Ireland. We share the curator’s vision that the exhibition works best when accompanied by primary local artefacts which shed light on Ireland’s Jewish history, which has largely been overlooked.”

“The WIT Libraries’ research into Waterford’s Jewish history has also opened up an exciting collaboration with San Francisco-based Valerie Lapin Ganley, producer of the documentary ‘Shalom Ireland’; to narrate the fascinating story of her great-grandparents’ wedding in Waterford in 1894.” This will include artefacts relating to the couple in display cases including copies of the wedding invitation and marriage certificate amongst other documents that can be found. Having a very successful debut in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin on 30 June 2016, the travelling Representations of Jews in Irish Literature exhibition toured a number of key venues during the year including Armagh Public Library, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Coleraine Town Hall and the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Principal Investigator for the project, Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, Registrar and Deputy President of NUI Galway, commented: “The exhibition is testament to the fact that Irish literature reveals a cultural diversity that goes far beyond narrow stereotypes, and I would encourage everyone to come here and see for themselves what such diversity has meant in Irish literature.”

Director for the Centre of Irish and Scottish Studies at Ulster University and Project Team member, Dr Frank Ferguson also said: “This is a very significant project for Irish literary studies and one which shall make a major contribution to our understanding of the history and the cultural expression of Jews in Ireland. It is marvellous to see the interest that the project has already gained since its first official launch last summer and we are very pleased to be partnering with Waterford Institute of Technology to allow the exhibition to travel to the South-East.” The launch is due to take place at Waterford Institute of Technology on Wednesday, 1 February 2017.

The exhibition and launch are free to attend but booking is required. Those seeking further details and to attend the exhibition in February and its launch on 1 February should contact Peggy McHale by email or by telephone at: +353 51 302877 and email:

Representations of Jews in Irish Literature Exhibition – Waterford Institute of Technology will run for the month of February and will be launched on Wednesday, 1 February, 2017 at 6pm.

Decies no.72 Launch


Over the weekend while visiting my home in Waterford, I spoke at two events. The first was Booze Blaas and Banter as part of the Imagine Arts Festival hosted by the Waterford Council of Trade Unions. The second event, also part of the festival, was the launch of the newest issue of Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society‘s journal, DeciesI spoke alongside Tom Hunt and The Knotted Chords, a Waterford two-piece who provided the music. Here is an edited text of my short talk:

I want to talk briefly tonight to you all about some thoughts I have been mulling over for a while and of which the article on family history in the current issue of Decies is a product.

The article has been a long time in the making. It began its life as a series of blogposts I wrote on my own blog, the sidelines of history, and evolved over time and thanks to Cian’s encouragement into what is in the journal as we have it before us. In the article I make case studies out of several people in my family who I learned about while doing my family tree over the past year or so. I tried to look at their lives and explain them in relation to more well-known themes from Irish history: the history of the revolutionary decade, from the view point of labour and also emigration history. I wanted to do it in part because I wanted to share what I thought were interesting stories from my family that have helped me to learn not just more about myself and my family but have taught me something about those major historical themes.

Among the ordinary people we often find the most extraordinary stories. A long time ago, in an interview I did for a local paper, I said that it was important for me that people should recognise themselves in their history and I still believe that. The world has enough – and will continue to have – the histories of kings, and generals, of the wealthy and the powerful. What marks the era since the middle of the 1900s as unusual is the interest we can take in the history of people like us – ordinary people who lived in and help make their own times extraordinary. We must not lose sight of the fact that this is an unusual and revolutionary turn in the focus of history. We must continue to write and research about the lives of ordinary people who may not have changed the world in the way we normally understand that idea – but who in their own lives and their own experiences of the world have something valuable to teach us about their time and about our own time. It is imperative, especially in the climate of the world at present, that the stories of ordinary people are not swallowed up, simplified, spat back at them and ignored.

As someone who is currently describing himself as a recovering academic, I have begun to think more and more about the function of history outside and beyond the academy. History for most of us is a deeply personal thing. There are often gaps between the personal histories we carry with us from our families and the official version of national or local history as we learn it in school. History is not just written by the winners, it usually written by those who can write. And those who can write, traditionally have been those who have had power. The battle is not always a literal one, but it is always a vital and a real one.

The great bulk of people crop up almost nowhere in the historical record. The powerful have a tendency to write about themselves and as long as history belongs to the powerful then our own, more common histories, will continue to be ignored and forgotten, yet more victims of the condescension of posterity. Of course, as my own article highlights, this is changing slowly but it’s a change we must be careful to to nurture. As anyone who has dipped their toe into the vast world of family history and genealogy can tell you, in our age of recording and tabulating – going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century especially – it is easier to find your relatives than ever before. The vast explosion in websites like ancestry and others like it has aided this process greatly as does the general process of the digitization of records like birth, marriage and death certs.

But if we are serious about genealogical history, about family history, being more than a mere pastime for people – if we want our personal family narratives, the ones which complicate and contradict the official strands of the historical record, to count for something then we need these things to be written about. We need to teach people more than how to simply find the name and birth and death date of their great-great-grandmother. We need to teach people how to think about the lives these people would have lived – to think more about the choices people were forced to make in the course of their lives so that you have ended up in this place and time in your life. Inside all of our family histories lurk the very things that drive “serious” history. If all the world is indeed a stage, and all the men and women in it merely players than we must give greater consideration of the roles they played. For it is the ordinary people of the world, who have and always will outnumber the powerful and the privileged, who have done most to shape the world even as they are told they have done the least.

So, here is my hope for my article – that by reading it, those people who research their own family trees and their own family histories will stop not when they have stretched back to their four-times-great-grandmother, and say the family history is complete. Instead, I hope my article will encourage people to ask questions about why their great-grandmother gave birth to twelve children only six of whom survived or why it was their great-grandfather went to work abroad for a decade or any number of the things which happened to these people as they lived their lives in their own times. Only by answering those questions can we really begin to write our own histories. Only by writing our history can we claim some power over the narrative. Only with the power that comes from knowledge of our own complicated version of the past can we begin to question the version of history which can look so unlike the one we experience.

George Toms 1870-1911

George Toms logbook 008
George Toms’ picture postcard from his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.

Doing family history is all about patience, and oftentimes luck. Occasionally something will fall into your hands that helps to flesh out a part of the family story. Recently, I was lucky enough to be given the Continuous Certificate of Discharge of my great-grandfather, George Toms. This document, issued by the Board of Trade, gave a description the seaman who owned it, along with details of the ships he sailed. This means that for the ships George Toms sailed on we have the following information:

  • The name of the ship, its official number, it’s port of registry, and its tonnage
  • The date and place of engagement
  • The seaman’s rating
  • The date and place of discharge
  • A description of the voyage (usually destination)
  • The signature of the Master
  • A report for character for a) ability and b) for general conduct

That means we now have a much clearer sense of the life he lived and who he was.

Born in Tramore, Co. Waterford on July 25 1870, by the time he was 5, George’s father had died. When he was just seven, his brother William, only ten years old also died. We know very little of his life from the age of seven until he was 29. At 29 he had a brief run in with a local RIC officer and was charged with public drunkenness, and fined 1s 6d at the Petty Sessions Court. Within a year, he was married to my great-grandmother, Sarah Kelly. The same year that George got married – he was married sometime between July and September of 1900 – is the same period after which we have his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.

According to the details of this document, George was 5’4 in height, with blue eyes and brown hair. His complexion is described as being fair. As was the norm in those days for sailors, George had two tattoos. Marcus Rediker in Outlaws of the Atlantic notes: “the original purpose of the tattoo was deeper than decoration: many a sailor wanted a telltale mark on the body so that in the event of catastrophic death he could be identified and properly buried.” One, on his left arm, with his initials GT, and another, on his right arm, of a harp and shamrock – both signifiers of his Irish identity, and together with his initials, undoubted aids for identification in the case of drowning. The culture of tattooing among sailors is generally said to stretch back to the 18th century, and, was particularly strong as a culture among sailors in Britain in the 19th century – the same culture of which George was a part. Rediker places tattooing into the wider culture of the sailor’s yarn, saying of tattoo symbols, like the heart “could prompt tales of loved ones back at home, while a liberty cap, pole, or tree could elicit a political rant bout ‘liberty’, a favourite theme among sailors in the age of revolution.” As well as identifying him as Irish, George’s harp and shamrock may well have elicited similar yarns about Ireland.

According to his certificate of discharge, George sailed a good deal between November 1900 and April 1905. According to this document, his first engagement was aboard the Eugenie, a London registered ship. He was engaged to work on the ship at Newport, Monmouthshire in Wales, and was listed as being AB, or an able seaman, which meant he probably had several years previous experience of working aboard ships. He would sail aboard the Eugenie to the Black Sea, returning on new year’s eve 1901, disengaging at Penarth in Glamorgan, Wales. Aboard the same ship in the course of the same journey, he made a trip to Malta, starting out from Penarth on 4 January 1901 and returning to Newport on 25 February 1901.

George was engaged again three months later again at Newport, this time aboard the s.s. Bona, on which he would travel to both the Mediterranean and the USA, returning 10 months later on 12 March 1902 to the port at Liverpool. The s.s. Bona turns up in the Port of London Medical Officer’s annual report, as having two cases of Enteric fever (Typhoid), on June 2 1902, a little under three months after George was disengaged. That year had seen a huge “war against the ship rat” according to one newspaper. According to the Medical Officer for January of that year in the Port of London with 2,293 ships inspected, there was some 7,626 destroyed. The danger of the diseases borne aboard ships making their way away around the ports of Britain and Ireland was a serious one, and one more of the many dangers faced by men like George while engaged in this difficult, laborious work.

SS Hypatia on the Clyde.png
The s.s. Hypatia, one of the ships on which George sailed during the period 1900-1905.

After another two month spell, George was engaged aboard the s.s. Hypatia, sailing out of Barry in Glamorgan, and bound for the Cape. It returned to Barry on the 28 July 1902. George was not to sail again for almost twelve months out of Britain.

On 6 July 1903, he was engaged aboard the s.s. Harmodius out of Liverpool and was bound for Rosario in the Santa Fe province of Argentina. Lying 300km north-west of  Buenos Aires on the Paraná river, the Port at Rosario began operating in 1852. George returned to Liverpool on 17 November 1903, and would not sail again out of a British port for over twelve months.

The Port of Rosario in Argentina as it looked in 1910. source: wikicommons.

He may have returned to sailing in December 1904 on account, in part at least, following the birth of his and Sarah’s first son, my grandfather, John earlier in 1904. And so it was he left once more from Barry in Glamorgan, this time aboard the s.s. Peareth also bound for Rosario, returning after five months to Bristol on 1 April 1905. This is the last trip recorded in this Continuous Certificate of Discharge. Although it was probably a matter largely of formality, in his Continuous Certificate of Discharge, George received stamps of “very good” in his Report of Character, for all of these journeys. This Report of Character covered both ability and general conduct. After returning from Bristol, George lived and worked out of Waterford, and both he and Sarah had four more children, one of whom, named George, was born in 1905, but died in his first year of infancy.

SS Peareth.jpg
The s.s. Peareth, the last ship George sailed according to his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.

George Toms himself would die at a young age, not long after he turned forty-one. On 19 December 1911, while working aboard the s.s. Reginald, this experience sailor fell from the deck while securing the covers of the on-deck cargo, and drowned before he could be rescued from the river. He was buried by Thompson’s of Waterford, in a walnut coffin, in Tramore where he had been born for a cost of £6 10s. It is ironic perhaps that this sailor, who had been far and wide aboard many ships, should drown not in waters remote from his home, but in the river that runs out to sea so close to where he was born and his family lived.

John Patrick Toms, 1901-?: History, Genealogy and Commemoration

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.

The Irish in Prague: The MacNeven family

William James MacNeven.
William James MacNeven.

The connections between Ireland, Prague, and wider Bohemia are legion. This has been brought home to me thanks in large part to two publications: The Irish Franciscans in Prague, 1629-1786 by Jan Parez and Hedvika Kucharová, published earlier this year for the first time in English and Ireland and the Czech Lands: Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture, edited by Ondrej Pilny and Gerald Power, and published last year (I reviewed it on the blog a while ago here).

Earlier today, while enjoying a coffee at Barriqáda wine shop and café on Moskevska, I was reading the latest issue of History Ireland. In it there was a short piece on William James MacNeven, one of the leaders of the United Irishmen in 1798. It appears MacNeven’s family was one of those which had gone to Bohemia, to the Habsburgs, as a means of surviving in a Catholic milieu following the introduction of the Penal Laws in Ireland. So, we learn that young MacNeven, in the words of George R Ingham

was sent to live with his uncle, who, as one of Maria Theresa’s personal physicians and head of the medical school of Charles University, had been made a baron, living in a baroque palace and summering in a castle… It was there [in Prague] that the young MacNeven gained the easy sophistication that he would demonstrate in America, where his many élite friends included Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. (History Ireland, September/October 2015, p.17)

William James MacNeven, according to the Dictionary of Irish Biography entry on him written by CJ Woods, “attended classical and medical colleges in Prague (admitted to study medicine 15 January 1781) and went on to complete his medical studies and qualify in Vienna (2 June 1785).” His time there in the company of his uncle, in Woods’ words, saw young William James drawn into a scientific circle to which his uncle belonged. His uncle was William Hugh MacNevin-O’Kelly, who lived from 1713-1787. MacNevin-O’Kelly “who owned a very fine house in Prague and a castle at Srutsch (Zruc)” was a significant figure in the history of the medical faculty of Charles University in Prague. An Imperial court physician to Maria Theresa, the entry on MacNevin-O’Kelly also written by CJ Woods’ in the DIB, is worth quoting at some length:

{MacNevin-O’Kelly] was appointed director of the medical faculty at Prague with authority above even the dean’s (16 November 1754), which enabled him to introduce innovations, in particular obstetrics, bedside clinical teaching, regular practical dissections, a chemistry laboratory and a botanical garden; he was promoted to full professor (1754) and began lecturing in pathology (1755). MacNevin-O’Kelly continued the practice of facilitating Irishmen wishing to study medicine at Prague.

His influence on his students was important: Jacob O’Reilly became an expert on Bohemian spas; Peter MacKeogh played a part in the development of the Prague botanic garden; Johannes Mayer founded the Bohemian Academy of Sciences. MacNevin-O’Kelly had a large medical practice among wealthy Prague families and his house was frequented by high society. On his father-in-law’s death (4 November 1767), he inherited his castle and estate at Srutsch (Zruc), about 100 km south-east of Prague, and a few days later was raised to the rank of liber baron of the empire (17 November). In 1770 he had the architect Johann Ignaz Palliardi design a magnificent baroque mansion for him in Prague, later known as Palacky’s House because of its associations with the nineteenth-century Czech historian and nationalist. Having retired from Charles University in 1784, he died in Prague on 9 February 1787.

The MacNeven/MacNevin family were not unusual in their choice of Prague and the Habsburg Court as a destination, even if, the Irish contigent “comprised an almost negligible percentage in the Estates community of the Czech Lands” according Jiri Brnovják [1]. Negligible numerically, perhaps, but it is evident that the MacNeven/MacNevin family had a not insignificant role in the life of Bohemia through their association with the court and Charles University.


[1] Brnovják, Jiri, “The Integration of Irish Aristorcratic Émigré Families in the Czech Lands, c.1650-1945: Selected Case Studies”, in Pilny and Power (eds.), Ireland and the Czech Lands: Contacts and Comparisons in History and Culture, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014, pp.55-85.

Soccer in Munster: Launched!

soccer in munster

Last week on Wednesday 10th June, friends, family and colleagues gathered with me to launch my book Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937 now out from Cork University Press. It was a brilliant night and as good a launch for the book as I could have hoped for. I wanted to share with people who weren’t there the few words I got up to say on the night, as it was important to me that I got a chance to say these things. So find below an edited extract of the speech. To one and all who came on the night, my sincerest thanks!

Anyone who knows me, knows how these things usually go when it’s my turn to say a few words. Usually, I downplay things with self-deprecating humour. Usually I underplay the significance of an event, or an achievement. But tonight, I’m not going to do that – though it’d put me more at ease. I’m not going to do the usual routine tonight because tonight is not just about, or even just for, me.

To be self-deprecating tonight, to downplay this achievement, would I think be a great insult to each and every person who helped to make tonight a possibility; to every person stood in this room to support me and this publication. Yet, I also don’t want simply to rehash the acknowledgements page in the book, because that would be trite. And lazy. This occasion demands an awful lot more than triteness or my laziness. Tonight indeed occasions something both more reflective and celebratory.

Sport matters. It matters hugely to me. It matters hugely to millions of people. Soccer matters. To me and to millions. Yes it’s a commercial behemoth that appears to have overtaken and sullied much that is good about sport. Yes it means FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and the deaths of thousands in Qatar. But soccer is so much more than FIFA and the Premier League. Like Nye Bevan, born into the British Labour party that he was, I was born into soccer. My earliest memories are intimately tied up with it. My family memories, my family folklore – everywhere within those, soccer is somewhere present.

Ever since I was young then, soccer has been a part of culture as I understood it. But this didn’t seem to always be the case in Ireland. And soccer’s place in Irish society in my lifetime is vastly different to its place in Irish society in the lifetime of people I knew, I know, have never and will never know. Nonetheless, as I think my book shows, it was present for them – central, in fact – it was a mark of outsiderdom in the greater story of Ireland. That never seemed right to me though. It never rang true. My family memories and family folklore were long testament to that. No sporting organisation, as far as I could ever see growing up, had a monopoly on being at the centre of community life, of community bonding and building in Ireland. In my world, soccer did just as good a job of making communities where none existed as any game played in Ireland. Sometimes it even did it better.

But I don’t want you to think this is some uncritical celebration of a sport I love. On the contrary, it is important to take a clear-eyed view of any historical subject matter. A huge portion of the problems that beset domestic soccer in Ireland today can trace their roots back to the period my book covers. The period from 1922-1937 was perhaps a golden age for senior soccer in Ireland. Through a mix of mismanagement, avarice and a lack of forward thinking, the success of those years were not a foundational basis for the continued growth and success of the game. Instead, as it has been in the past decade with clubs folding thanks to declining gates, crumbling infrastructure, and speculative ownership, so too was it in the 1930s – a missed opportunity in other words. Yet, the success of the supporter’s trust movement in recent times in Ireland, so brilliantly exemplified in this city by Cork City FC’s FORAS Trust, suggests that the future may well be brighter in this regard.

So, since I was a teenager developing my interest in history academically – my interest in the gap between the breadth and variety of lived experiences of ordinary, working-class people in the past and national narratives that rarely accounted for those – I have wanted to write this book. Finally now I have written it. I hope you here tonight and people who come across it on the shelves of bookshops and libraries will, by reading it, take from it the message that people create their own world, their own culture, their own amusement, their own lives and histories, and by reading it affirm that I’ve done a good thing in writing it. That I’ve added to our knowledge of this country; of its people and their lives. That it was not, in the words of JB Priestley saying that ‘these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.’ Soccer is much more than twenty-two men on a field kicking an inflated pig bladder. It is, and was, a central part of the lives of many Irish people. I hope my book, arguing why that is the case will, in your hands and in your minds, account to much more than the paper and ink it is printed on but will help you see our past a little differently – with a little more colour and a little more community.

If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so directly here from Cork University Press.

A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. Continue reading “A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929”

Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford

In popular representations of Irish culture, few things are more celebrated, while all at once, shrouded in mystery than our death rituals. Between removals, wakes, masses and burials, there is scope for rich tradition and variation in seeing off our dead. Famously of course, the Irish wake has taken on something of a life of its own, immortalised in song and story, from Finnegan’s Wake to Johnny Jump Up, two songs where the life-giving properties of whiskey are extolled in raucous fashion. Continue reading “Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford”

My house in history, 1882-1945

For the past number of years, I have lived on Friar Street in Cork. The row of houses, according to a foundation stone near my door, were built in 1882. Inspired a little by the MyHomesPast project in Britain, I decided to take a look at the history of my particular house since it was first built. Using old street directories and the online censuses of 1901 and 1911, I found an interesting story of several different families.

One of the earliest mentions I can find of my current house comes from the Guy’s Cork Directory for 1893, which lists a man by the name of John Driscoll as the occupant, making him more than likely the first resident of the house. It is difficult to be sure just who John Driscoll was, since by 1901, he had moved, and in the immediate vicinity there were three John Driscolls living on James Square, St. Finbarr’s Terrace and Tower Street.


According to the 1901 census the family living in my house were the Pollocks. The head of the family, William, was then 40 years old. Originally from Newry, Co. Antrim, William was a book binder by trade and at that time he was one of about roughly forty or so  people plying their trade with the bookbinders in the city. He was a member of the Cork Typographical Society and later the Cork Trades Council.

His wife, Kate, who was nine years younger than her husband, was originally from London. They married some time in 1892.There were then four children in the family – one girl and three boys. Jane, the eldest of the children was then 6; William, the next child was 4, with the two younger boys, John and James, aged just 2 and 1 years old respectively. William’s religion was listed as being Church of Ireland, although his wife Kate was listed as being a Catholic. As a result, all four children were also being raised as Catholics, as was the custom then in Ireland.


Ten years later, there were new residents in the house.  This time, the residents were the Hawkes family. In 1901, the Hawkes had been the next door neighbours of the Pollock family. In 1901, Richard Hawke, an iron moulder, was forty-three, just three years older than his neighbour William Pollock. The changeover had taken place some time between 1901 and 1907, since according to the Guy’s Cork Directory for 1907, Richard Hawkes and his family had already made the move next door. Richard’s wife was Catherine, then 36 years old. They had two children, two daughters: Annie who was twelve and Gertrude who was just six, the same age as neighbouring Jane Pollock. Some time in the interim, tragedy struck the Hawkes family, and Catherine had passed away. Interestingly, in the new segment on Return Form ‘A’, where the details of the length of the marriage and the details of the children produced by the marriage could be entered, the figures seem to have been entered initially, only to have then been scratched over so as to be illegible.

Richard’s two daughters still lived with him and Annie, now 22, was apparently unemployed, although her younger sister Gertrude was working as a dress maker, while Richard (now apparently 56 – possibly to avail sooner of the new pension which had been introduced in 1908) was still working as an iron moulder.

The Pollock family had moved only a number of streets away, to a house on Mary Street. Intriguingly, William Pollock was now listed not as a member of the Church of Ireland, but rather as a Presbyterian. By 1911, their had been an addition to the Pollock family, four-year-old Gerard. The two eldest children, Jane and William, were working by then. Jane, 16, is listed as being a draper’s shop girl, while young William, just 14, was also apprenticed to a draper.

Future Years

Richard Hawkes was still living in the house on Friar Street in 1925, according to Guy’s Cork Directory for that year, and the house was valued at £6. His old neighbour, William Pollock, was also still living at his house in Mary Street, a house according to the same directory valued at some £19, although this house was in fact one house split into two, an early sign of its later life as a tenement building in the 1940s. By 1930, however the house on Friar Street was in the hands of one of Richard Hawkes’ daughters, since Guy’s Cork Directory for that year lists the occupant as Mrs. Hawkes, who was still residing in the house by 1945. As for the house in Mary Street, William was still listed as the principal occupant in 1930 although the house was in the hands of William’s daughter Jane by 1935, suggesting that like his old neighbour Richard, he too had passed away and a chapter of the history of my house on Friar Street had come to an end.