As we sat down to fill out our census forms, I thought about how long my family has lived in this county.
Last Sunday was a special night. I had spent the day in the sheepfold tending to newborn lambs and working the land as we know it. I had walked the fields of the home farm and our various plots of land in Kilnacarrow and Clonfin, looking out for sheep, cattle and horses. They are the animals I share my life with now, their seasons are my seasons now. February not only marked the beginning of Celtic spring, but also the start of the lambing season. March was manure season and in April the stocks are brought to the fields according to the age-old ritual of agriculture.
Sunday evening was special for many reasons. It was the day I took two lambs to the field, the day I signed my latest book, and the night we closed the census. It took a lot to get us to this census night. Many years I would not have been here to be counted. I had lived in Australia and Canada and in America for a short time, but this past Sunday I realized that I had come to rest in my native town of Longford for the time being. My wanderings were driven by work and romance, and it was perhaps fitting that on census night I found myself the wealthier of these trips as my wife was filling out the form beside me. She came from Sydney four years ago to be here. We noted that her ancestry via Saigon made her perhaps the first Vietnamese woman to be included in our local census forms, that 100 years from now when the family looks up who was here they will read her real name and wonder what she is history was.
The census is a night of stories, not only because of the much-discussed time capsule element, but also because of the knowledge of which families stayed in those townlands, the joys and sorrows and wonders they experienced.
Censuses in other countries give insight into what that place was like, which families lived where, and tell us what people were doing. In Ireland this is not the case, for the 1861 and 1871 censuses were destroyed. Most of the documents from 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were also destroyed in a fire in the State Archives in 1922 at the beginning of the Civil War. So the question is, what has our race been through? We may never really know, and many emigrants were denied knowledge of their ancestors.
Before we sat down to fill out our census form, I looked up the 1911 census. It’s one I’ve looked at many times over the last few years as I’ve been writing memoirs about my life and wanting to know my place in the world. As I went back through time, I saw that the head of the family back home was Anne Reilly, aged 75, a widow who experienced the famine as a young child. There are no records of our family histories from that dark time. In doing so, I must rely on the words of writers and reports of the time – for example Maria Edgeworth, who chronicled the crowds that passed through Edgeworthstown in the east of the county. Edgeworth would die in 1849 after seeing the population decimated. If we go back to the time of Anne Reilly’s childhood we see that there were 100,000 people in Longford; today there are just over 40,000. There are the spirits of around 60,000 people that haunt these streets and fields.
Looking further at the census records, I see my grandfather’s name, John. He was 12 years old and is listed as a scholar and he can read and write. His brother Mike is 10. Maybe it was because hearing Anne’s childhood memories, but these boys would both fight in the Revolutionary War, Mike a top gunman and John in Secret Service.
There are still stories in the family about their time in the war and its aftermath. I am named after my grandfather because he died a few days before I was born. I would have loved to have spoken to him about that time, what prompted him and his brother to volunteer to fight and what actions they saw. I never saw a photo of my grandfather until I was in my 20s and living in Canada when my grandmother sent it to me.
There is so much history in this 1911 census form, but as I wrote Sunday night I thought maybe there was a big story in our form too. The family we want isn’t here yet, but I’m almost going to be my great-grandfather’s age when he became a father, so it’s not too late in that regard.
The nation we are building now is very different from that of my ancestors, a free nation, a prosperous nation with prospects.
There are problems in this country, but there are also solutions. There will be a wealth of stories to tell in this count of the great pandemic. None of us will know them all, but in the light of the future, as journalists and scientists and students look back, I hope that we have overcome this generation’s challenges, from climate change to affordable housing. The world was about to be thrown into a great war in 1911, and we too are living in a time of war—several wars and it is unclear how they will end. Some things in human nature don’t seem to change.
I hope our name lives on in this country. It took a lot to stay here but it was worth it.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/a-night-to-reflect-on-my-familys-history-and-the-wonders-that-will-live-on-after-me-41531727.html A night to reflect on my family history – and the wonders that will live on after me