Ellen’s shoes drummed on the damp cobblestones as she walked along the street, her black eyes sunk into her pale face. William’s small hand was in hers, the other clutched a piece of bread.

“Well, look here, ‘tis yerself, Ellen, out of gaol. And with young Willie, too.” The familiar lilt of her friend’s Corkonian accent hung in the mist of the early morning air.

Ellen’s dark hair flicked as she stopped and looked behind her. “And in no rush to go back again, Moses.”

Several days before, her one month’s sentence over, Ellen Purcell stepped through the doorway of Cork City Gaol into the open and freedom. The nail-studded oak door announced her release with a bang as she stepped beneath the site of past hangings, the fatal drop. She shuddered at the thought.

Now Moses Murphy stood at the entrance to a long, narrow alley, unseen on Ellen’s initial pass. Wisps of brown hair reached under his flat cap toward dark brows. Moses was almost 20 years older than Ellen; they were friends, especially since she became godmother to his daughter, Angelina. Seven years ago Ellen stood in Carey’s Lane Chapel, the church of the central parish of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s and proclaimed her Catholic faith on behalf of the baby.

With a furtive glance for any eavesdropping shadows, Moses motioned Ellen into the lane. They were alone, apart from two small children who sat in a doorway further in where no sunlight ever reached, even now, approaching the summer solstice. The youngsters gnawed on Iicked-clean bones, likely scavenged from the nearby rubbish pile Ellen saw. She wrinkled her nose as its foul fingers extended to the street.

It was 1848 and a common sight these days. Ireland was in the throes of the catastrophic Great Famine. The starving rural poor streamed into the city in search of work, food, or a ship to deliver them from their peril. Cork was Ireland’s main emigration port, and those unable to afford the fares crammed into the slums of the city’s lanes and alleys.

Once Ellen moved from the main thoroughfare, conspiratorial Moses said, “I know where we can get some lead.”

Ellen furrowed her brow and gave him a cautionary glare. “I don’t want to hear about that stuff. What do you think got me in trouble? Anyway,” she said, inclining her head toward William, who chewed on his bread and peeked from behind her skirt, “watch what you say. Little big ears here.”

Moses looked at William. “Hey there, Willie. Do you want to see my finger tricks?”

The four-year-old nodded with a shy smile.

With a deftness that amazed Ellen, though she had seen it before, Moses bent the flexible joints of his two forefinger tips backwards, pulling them with the adjacent fingers to form a circle. William laughed at this double-jointedness, trying to manipulate his fingers likewise.

“More,” he said.

“All right, last one.” Moses turned up the tips of his fingers on one hand, and with palm up, crawled his hand, spiderlike, along William’s arm. The boy shrieked in delight.

Repositioning his fingers, Moses said, “Now, you go play with those lads over there while I talk to your mammy.”

William walked over to the scrawny urchins. He tore his bread into pieces and offered each a chunk, that they grabbed and shoved into their mouths.

Moses resumed his conversation with Ellen. “It’s from a store in Rochford’s Lane. Your job is to wait on the other side of the wall while I go up on the roof. A lad will pass the stuff over to you. You need to be ready for it, so it doesn’t make a noise on the cobbles. Joe and Paddy will take it to the houses.“

“I told you, I won’t be going to that prison again. My boy needs me. Your children depend on you, Moses.”

“Well, I don’t care if I go back,” Moses said. “‘Cept it would be my two in the workhouse again. Them people are dying in the hallways. Pitiful, it is. ‘Tis a wonder my poor mites survived on that cabbage and turnip slop. And the pathetic Indian corn stirabout they serve is only fit for animals. Peel’s brimstone, all right.”

Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, had Indian corn first imported in 1846 to ease the starvation caused by the potato crop failure. The local mills couldn’t grind the dried kernels enough as they were much harder than the Irish corn. Unpalatable and indigestible, the new diet triggered severe bowel complaints.

Sale of Indian Corn at Cork 1846
Sale of Indian Corn at Cork 1846

Moses went on, “And the bloody flux is a terrible sickening on them.” He was a widower, and the Cork Poor Law Union institution for paupers was the only place for his children when he was helpless to look after them.

Widowed herself, Ellen couldn’t bear to be apart from William. He could not survive without her, or she, him.

“True,” she said. “The food is better in gaol than the workhouse, but I’m afraid they’ll transport me the next time. You’ve been to gaol twice already and hardly been out three weeks, yerself.” She called to her son, “Come on Willie, we be going.”

Moses touched her arm and whispered, “The trick, Ellen, is not to get caught.” He persisted with his plea. “Kelly is back from the west. It’s worse than here. They’re eatin’ nettles and weeds from the side of the roads. The hovels are full of the sick and dying – no floors or furniture for comfort. A miserable sight, he says. And they’re saying the blight is back.”

Skibbereen by James Mahoney
Skibbereen by James Mahoney

“Mick will give us tuppence a pound,” Moses continued as he pulled a penny from his pocket.

Ellen stepped back, reaching out to William as the boy came up to her. “And where’d you get the likes of that?”

Moses ignored her question. “How’d you like a few of these, hey Willie?” The boy’s eyes widened. To Ellen, Moses said, “Think on it. I can always ask one of the other girls, but I care for yer, Ellen. You’re as good as family, and I be tellin’ yer, there’s got to be over fifty pounds of lead on that roof.”

At that moment, a clatter heralded the approach of two wagons escorted by a troop of Dragoons and a force of constables. The vehicles carried, on their way to Dublin, the latest prisoners sentenced to transportation. The rumble on the cobblestones reverberated beneath Ellen’s shoes.

“Annals of the Famine in Ireland, in 1847, 1848, and 1849.”
Windele, John. 1839. Historical and Descriptive Notices of the City of Cork and Its Vicinity: Gougaun-Barra …

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: Ellen Fitzgibbon (abt 1823-1898)
Spouse: John Purcell 
Spouse’s Parents: ?
Surnames: Purcell, Fitzgibbon, Bennett
Relationship to Shelley: Ellen is Shelley’s great, great, great grandmother

  1. Ellen Fitzgibbon (abt 1823-1898) great, great, great grandmother (3x great grandmother)
  2. William Patrick Purcell (abt 1845-1879) great, great, grandfather (2x great grandfather)
  3. Isabella Purcell (1875-1936) (great grandmother)
  4. Walter Henry Bennett (1896-1934) (grandfather)
  5. Father
  6. Shelley

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Eloquence at the Eisteddfod

     “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
     But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

     A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
     Over the face of the leader came;

     The nobler nature within him stirred
     To life at that woman’s deed and word;

     “Who touches a hair of yon gray head
     Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.


            Barbara Frietchie
            by John Greenleaf Whittier

The voice of my grandmother fills my head, accompanied by visions of ‘soldier’ children marching around the kitchen table, broomsticks over their shoulders.

I’m not sure if this is an actual memory of my older brothers wielding the broomsticks, or if it is the memory of a story told. The story would have been of earlier times and the children, my Dad, my uncles, and their cousin.

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The Crossing

Bob heard the roar of the water well before he saw it. Was this yet another barrier between his sick father and the Cooktown Hospital? Then, as Bob and the others approached the banks of the Laura River, the heavens opened. The men carried Jim the last few yards through a terrific downpour. He was lying on the stretcher Bob had found at the old, deserted hospital at Maytown.  As if the rain wasn’t enough to dampen Bob’s spirits, his heart sank when his eyes confirmed what he’d heard. Sweet, gentle Laura, usually so quiet and placid, was filled with flooding water and awakened. Animated, she became an angry she-devil, gathering small trees and bushes in her arms to bring them along for the ride. How would she treat Jim when it was his turn on the water? 

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Signals at Sea

This  carries on from a previous blog post – Crossing the Line

The visit from King Neptune was a welcome interruption to the routine of the previous four weeks for those aboard the William Money. Richard and the other emigrants gained their sea legs, and life settled into a schedule of domestic chores.

Wednesdays and Saturdays, if fine, were reserved for washing. Wet clothes and linen draped over every available surface and hung from ropes strung between the rigging. Richard thought it looked like the rag fair selling secondhand clothes that he had seen in Plymouth.

On Sundays, the captain created the perfect place for the church service on deck. He fashioned a reading desk by draping the Union Jack over the harness cask and hiding its usual purpose, which was to soak the daily salted provisions. It was here he delivered the prayers of the established church to passengers and crew, who were seated on barrels  and boxes. The numerous Methodists on board had their own, separate prayer meetings on Sunday evenings and sometimes on Fridays as well. Richard and his family were Anglican. They had the choice of the service on deck, or the Methodist prayer meeting with their Cornish brethren. Continue reading

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Crossing the Line

“Please, Mother, pleease.” Richard tugged at Ann’s arm hoping it might encourage her to change her mind. Ann, scraping the porridge pot ready for washing up, pulled her arm away from his grip. Mary Ann looked on, hoping for a positive answer. Richard’s new friend James Thomas was nearby, also anticipating Ann’s reply. 

“No, you got absolutely soaked last night in that foolish nonsense. ‘Tis a wonder you haven’t woken up with a fever. Lord only knows what could happen to ‘ee today. You could come back bald as a coot.”

The previous night, Richard had been on deck with James, driven there by the warm, oppressive air below. The days and nights were getting hotter. Some passengers resorted to dragging their straw mattresses onto the deck and sleeping there in their clothes. 

As they stepped in amongst the temporary beds of other passengers, Richard and James pondered on what they’d seen during the day. 

“What do you suppose they are going to do with all that stuff?” Richard asked James.

His friend shrugged. 

The actions of some of the crew mystified them. The sailors had been gathering dresses and wigs from below and storing them in the fo’c’stle. Razors, lather and pill bottles joined the booty. When the boys stole glances at the stash in the sailor’s den, the secretive crew chased them away. 

“Ain’t nothin’ here for you.” Continue reading

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Sea Legs – September 1848

He moaned with the latest pitch and lurch of the ship as the odours of hundreds of bodies, damp bedding and water closets imprisoned him in his bed. Nine-year-old Richard Grenfell had never felt so ill. He lay there, staring at the bunk overhead and fixed his gaze on a knot in the timber. Yet, still his body detected movement, a conundrum that made his stomach heave. Perspiration gathered in little beads on his skin. His mother, Ann, wiped his forehead with a damp cloth, and Richard managed a feeble smile. He rolled onto his side. Beyond Ann, his two younger brothers played, unaffected by the tilt and rolling that distressed him.

Four-year-old Nicholas usaw Richard looking at him, and with a few wobbly steps to counter the ship’s action, he was at his brother’s bedside. “Be ‘ee sick, Dickie?” He put his hand on Richard’s clammy arm. Richard nodded, but the slight movement threw his balance into confusion. Continue reading

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Denis Bennett in Liverpool

Patrick stood open mouthed. After a time he managed to say, “Oh that is so pretty. I wish I could buy that for Ma.”

Denis smiled.

John laughed, a wisdom bestowed by his extra six years. “Oh yeah, that would look lovely, sitting on the box in the corner of our room.”

Patrick pouted.  “Well I’m going to shoe horses like Bernard when I get bigger and have enough money to buy Ma a silver tea set. It will have writing on it, just like this one. It will say ‘to Ma from Patrick.’”

Denis smiled again. “Come on boys, we should be getting back to yer mammy. You can tell her about the tea set, Paddy. That will be almost as good.”

They left the store window. Patrick’s shoulders drooped, his arms were limp at his sides. He barely managed a glance at the Town Hall, situated at the head of the quadrangle of the Exchange Buildings.

“We can go and see Nelson first,” Denis added. A slow smile brightened Patrick’s face, and he managed a small skip as he moved towards the Town Hall. Continue reading

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Crossed Paths

Denis Bennett stepped out the door of the Old Fort Tavern onto the cobbles of Bath Street and into the dank air. Dark, dreary air that, with one brushstroke, coloured the Liverpool canvas grey. Denis turned up the collar of his coat against the biting north-east wind that licked the waters of the Mersey into short, sharp waves. A forest of ships’ masts stood above him, piercing the fog as it dispersed above the walls of Prince’s Dock.

Ships, that Denis had hoped he would be unloading that day. He had managed only two days work in the past week, earning seven shillings. It wasn’t enough; a guinea and his family could live in comfort, but work was scarce. That morning, after waiting with the other porters and hoping for a day’s work, he’d been rejected again. How to tell Hannah?

Liverpool Docks

Liverpool Docks

It wasn’t his intention to stay long at the tavern, but Paddy Kelly was there after finishing up at Clarence Dock. Kelly told Denis a grim story of famine refugees; a steamer had spilled out another miserable flood of 250 desperate souls from Dublin. Continue reading

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Tasmania to the Transvaal

The change room at the Western Mine could hardly contain those assembled. With much hand shaking and back slapping, the group of men wished their two colleagues the best of luck – give it to them warm, stay alive and come back to us. There was a call for quiet, moderating the din. Mr Deakin spoke on behalf of the mining company, and collective silence filled the room, interrupted only by the occasional murmur of approval when he voiced the admiration for the volunteers. He then presented a silver pipe to Maurice Keys. And to Victor Peers, a gold medal, a fine piece of local workmanship made by Mr Wathen of Main Street.

The two were members of the Zeehan Rifle Company, part of the Tasmanian Volunteer Rifle Regiment, who responded to the call for infantrymen. Three others from Zeehan were also selected. Australia’s colonial governments sought volunteers to fight for Britain in their war with the Boer Republics. It was 1899, Continue reading

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The Search for my Irish Bennetts

“It’s those Bennetts, again…still,” I said. There may have been a swear word in there as well. Chris had asked how I could spend so much time on my iPad, with the occasional swipe at the screen and tap tap at the keyboard, or ponder over papers, spread out across the table. Those Bennetts have been the main focus of my family history research over the past 3 months, spurred on by a windfall in records that are now available.

Francis Bennett, my great, great grandfather, has led me on a merry chase over the years and there is still much I want to find out about him. Continue reading

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