Oh what a tangled web

NOBODY told me things would get this confusing.

If you’ve been paying attention (and who could blame you if your mind had wandered, in these exciting times, from the task in hand) you would recall that I set out on this family history project with the intention of discovering exactly from where in Ireland my particular branch of the Feeneys originated.

Accepted family knowledge was that it was my great grandfather, William Henry Feeney, who emigrated from the emerald isle to Wales. Once I started searching old census returns, however, it quickly became obvious that narrowing down the search would be trickier than I’d anticipated.

Old William Henry had, at various times, recorded his birthplace as Belfast, Dublin, and Trimley. Initial searches had failed to turn up any evidence that he had been born in any of these places; and there was no such place as Trimley in the island of Ireland in any case.

I sought help by joining a family history forum run by the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? team. My first post produced some interesting results.

Firstly, an Army Regimental Board meeting at Pembroke Dock on January 14, 1870, agreed to discharge No 829 Private Henry Feeney of the 36th Regiment of Foot, because he was no longer fit for active service (the poor bloke had suffered and then aggravated a hernia while on Army duties). Private Feeney, 27, told the Board that he intended to work as a labourer and reside in the Pembrokeshire town of Tenby after leaving the Army.

Secondly, William Henry Feeney (my great-grandfather) married Elizabeth Protheroe at Pembroke Register Office on May 10, 1870. The 27-year-old bridegroom was a labourer residing in St George’s Street, Tenby.

Thirdly (and scandalously), the Tenby Observer newspaper of October 13, 1870, reported that Henry Feeney, a labourer, was a defendant in Police Court, charged by Thomas Protheroe Junior with assault.

Are the soldier, the bridegroom, and the defendant one and the same person; viz my great-grandfather? The circumstantial evidence – the ages, the town of residence, the Protheroe connection – seemed compelling.

How then, to explain this: Private Henry Feeney’s discharge papers state his place of birth as the Parish of St Helen’s, near Ipswich. Is it possible that my Irish ancestor was actually a son of Suffolk? But if that’s the case, why did he say on successive census returns that he was born in Ireland?

Oh, and one more thing. You know I said that there was no such place as Trimley in Ireland? Well, there is one in England. It’s called Trimley St Martin, to reveal its full splendour. And guess where in England it is?

That’s right; Suffolk. About midway between Lowestoft and Ipswich, to be precise.

Oh William Henry, what a tangled web you appear to have woven. Where did you come from really? Who were you really?

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.

A clue in the burial records

img_1103JACQUI and I were back in St Barnabas churchyard in Waunarlwydd yesterday. We had arranged to meet a tree surgeon and talk about starting work on restoring the Feeney family grave we discovered the previous week (see “Where is Edward?” below).

We agreed a fee to cut down and remove all of the bushes that have totally obscured the grave. They include hawthorn, holly and rhododendron, and must have been growing for decades.

We were joined at the grave by the St Barnabas churchwarden – who turns out to be a cousin of mine through my paternal grandmother’s family line. He came with the church’s complete baptism and burial records.

These confirmed that the grave contains my great-grandparents, William Henry and Elizabeth Feeney, and their children Thomas Henry, Mary Jane and Margaret Ann. But he brought with him another intriguing clue in the search for my grandfather’s resting place.

The church has a burial date for my father’s father, Edward Feeney, but no record of a plot number. This indicates that he was not buried with his parents and siblings in the family grave, or with his wife, Beatrice Ellen, in her grave elsewhere in the churchyard.

But while I was pulling aside branches to show my cousin the ornately decorated front of the Celtic cross on the Feeney grave, Jacqui spotted something. On top of the middle of the grave, right at the heart of the tangled knots of branch and foliage, there was a ceramic urn.

Could this contain Edward’s ashes? We shall, hopefully, be able to answer that question when the tree surgeon has opened up the graveside for closer inspection next week.

 

 

Where is Edward?

A glimpse of a decorative rail led to an exciting discovery
A glimpse of a decorative rail led to an exciting discovery

“HEY, Jaq” I called out to my wife, “I think there’s a grave underneath this tree.”

The Current Mrs Feeney and I were standing in a quiet Welsh churchyard. We were looking for my grandfather, Edward Feeney.

My decision to start researching the Irish side of my family history had been made in unusual circumstances. The British public had just voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The Daughter Who Left (but returned) was unimpressed by the prospect of losing her right to freedom of movement in the EU. There was the possibility, however, that her Irish ancestry would enable her to get an Irish passport, which would allow her to remain an EU citizen.

All I had to do was establish our Irish roots. It was something my father had never talked about. He, like his father Edward, had been born in Wales. It was Edward’s father who had emigrated from Ireland.

But when? And from where exactly? Those were the questions I set out to answer. I signed up to the Ancestry subscription website, and made progress.

I found out that William Henry Feeney, my great-grandfather, had married Elizabeth Protheroe in Pembrokeshire in 1870. By the time of the 1881 UK census, they had moved to a house in Fleet Street, Swansea. The census returns for 1891, 1901 and 1911 show a growing family living at various addresses in the village of Waunarlwydd, which is where I was brought up.

But those same census returns only confused the issue of William Henry’s own early life. They recorded his birth variously as 1843 in Dublin, 1841 in Belfast, or 1840 in Trimley (or possibly Frimley).

Online searches of all of these variations produced nothing. There was no record of a William Henry Feeney being born in either Dublin or Belfast in any of these years. As for Trimley/Frimley, it appeared that neither of these places even existed in Ireland.

In the meantime, however, I had established that my grandfather had five siblings, including a brother called Thomas Henry – the same Christian names as my own father. When I discovered that the elder Thomas Henry was a coal miner who was killed in an underground accident just months before my father was born, it seemed reasonable to conclude that my father had been named in memory of his recently-departed uncle.

Unable to make any further progress in my search for my great-grandfather, I decided to come back a generation and find out more about my grandparents.

I knew that my grandmother had died in childbirth, and subsequently my father had been raised by two maiden aunts. I thought it was very probable that Edward and his wife were buried in St Barnabas churchyard in Waunarlwydd.

And that is where Jacqui and I were on Friday. It is not a very large churchyard, and we decided the simplest thing would be to split up and walk up and down on either side, checking the inscriptions on the gravestones.

Jacqui set off, but something made me turn back towards a large bush that was growing in front of the first row of graves. Just visible beneath the thick foliage was what looked like a rail, and a decorative piece of metalwork.

I called over to Jacqui, and went to have a closer look. On the other side of the bush was a slender Celtic cross, sticking out from the branches that totally obscured the grave below.

A Celtic cross was poking out of the foliage
A Celtic cross was poking out of the foliage

I scraped the leaves away from the plinth at the foot of the cross. I read the words “Thomas Henry.” I twisted a branch back to see more: the name “Mary Jane Feeney” appeared. That was the name of one of the aunts who had raised my motherless father.

“Jacqui, this is it! It’s the family grave!”

My great uncle Thomas Henry Feeney was killed in a colliery accident. My father was given the same Christian names.
My great uncle Thomas Henry Feeney was killed in a colliery accident. My father was given the same Christian names.

I plunged further into the bush, twisting to see if there was anything written on the rest of the plinth. One side said “Elizabeth” – William Henry’s wife’s name. The other side said “Margaret Anne” – the second aunt.

Elizabeth was William Henry's wife. They married in Pembrokeshire in 1870.
Elizabeth was William Henry’s wife. They married in Pembrokeshire in 1870.

With some effort, I managed to get far enough into the foliage to scrape away the branches covering the front of the plinth. It said William Henry Feeney. I may be no closer to knowing where my great-grandfather came from, but I had found his final resting place, together with his wife and three of his children.

The grave of my grandmother, Edward's tragic wife Beatrice Ellen,
The grave of my grandmother, Edward’s tragic wife Beatrice Ellen

There was more to discover. Further into the churchyard we found the grave of Edward’s tragic wife, Beatrice Ellen. The inscription on the stone revealed that she died on December 26, 1914, twelve days after giving birth to my father, at the age of 24.

Imagine Edward’s anguish that Christmas Day; his first-born son in his arms, his wife slipping towards death before his eyes.

Beatrice Ellen died on Boxing Day 1914 - twelve days after giving birth to my father
Beatrice Ellen died on Boxing Day 1914 – twelve days after giving birth to my father

But here was a strange thing; there was nothing to suggest that Edward’s remains were also laid to rest here. And there was no mention of him on the family grave we had found.

So where is he? It is too late to ask my father (who never became close to his own father after the dislocation of his childhood.)

We will have the family grave restored. Perhaps there are clues hidden there, waiting to be uncovered.