Setting out on a long journey

Tim the tree surgeon gets started on the task of removing all the foliage from the family grave.
Tim the tree surgeon gets started on the task of removing all the foliage from the family grave.

THE tree surgeon has removed all of the foliage on the Feeney family grave. He was unable to remove the stumps of the bushes and shrubs that have taken root on the grave over the decades that have past since anybody last visited it.

We discussed the possibility of burning them out. On reflection, we thought it probably for the best if we left well alone. Perhaps a slowly smouldering fire on top of a grave isn’t what a visitor to a churchyard expects to encounter.

We retrieved the urn, which was lodged between the tangled knots of the stumps. It was surprisingly heavy, and took some effort to prise free.

The funeral urn turned out to be a grave ornament hosting nothing more than a frog
The funeral urn turned out to be a grave ornament hosting nothing more than a frog

I was hoping that it would contain the ashes of my “missing” grandfather, Edward Feeney. But it turned out simply to be a substantial grave ornament, probably made of alabaster, and home to nothing more than a surprised frog.

The vicar of St Barnabas, who happened to arrive just as we were clearing away the leaves, twigs and assorted detritus, said he was quietly relieved that it wasn’t Edward’s funeral urn. I understood his point of view, but would have liked to have made more progress in my search for his last resting place.

Still, the inscriptions on the plinth have given me definitive dates for the deaths of my great-grandfather and his wife, as well as three of their children. The Celtic cross above the plinth that carried their names looks splendid.

The Celtic cross revealed in all its splendour (above). A detail from the carving on the front of the cross (right)
The Celtic cross revealed in all its splendour (above). A detail from the carving on the front of the cross (right)

imgp6669Which raises another interesting question. In the UK census of 1911, completed shortly before he died, my great-grandfather was listed as a night watchman at a coal mine. His children were labourers or domestic servants.

So clearly the Feeneys were not a family of means. And yet the family grave is quite substantial, more ornate than most of its neighbours, and in a prestigious place at the entrance to the churchyard.

So how could my great-grandparents afford such a monument? Could it be something to do with the fate of their son, Thomas Henry, who is buriedĀ alongside them?

My great-uncle Thomas Henry was killed in a mining accident. Could his fate help to explain how the family of a poor Irish immigrant could afford an apparently expensive grave?
My great-uncle Thomas Henry was killed in a mining accident. Could his fate help to explain how the family of a poor Irish immigrant could afford an apparently expensive grave?

He was a coal miner who was killed in an underground accident in 1914. Is it possible that the colliery owner paid for the cross and plinth? I must admit that it seems unlikely. I was not aware that mine owners were notorious for caring about the lives, let alone the deaths, of their workers.

Changing the subject (bear with me), I have started reading ‘Sweet Caress’ by William Boyd. The female narrator, Amory Clay, says in the opening chapter: “who wouldn’t want to travel back in time and encounter their parents before they become their parents?”

This strikes me as questionable. But, perhaps that urge is what subconsciously lies behind the current interest in researching our family histories?

If so, then Amory shortly afterwards has a salutary warning: “All family histories, personal histories, are as sketchy and unreliable as histories of the Phoenicians.” (As an aside, this reminds me of one of the themes from the last novel I read – Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks – the selectivity and therefore unreliability of our memories of our own lives.)

Anyway, I have no idea if the history of the Phoenicians is unreliable. If there is a historian in the house, please advise. I asked The Current Mrs Feeney to Google them, and apparently they were a Semitic people living along the coast of what is modern Lebanon.

Which is a long way from a Welsh churchyard, but just goes to show how you can end up in unexpected places when you set out on this family ancestry business.

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