“My father has always been interested in our family history.” As the words left my mouth I felt the twin emotions of slight embarrassment that comes with denying ownership of your actions and concern that this wasn’t sufficient reason to explain my presence in the small, and normally locked, cemetery in Milltown Malbay, Ireland. The two gardeners accepted this explanation without question and volunteered to help me search, even refusing to be deterred when they found the grave from the photo I had been proudly waving about (in the hope that it would prove to them that I, and not just my father, was interested in the endeavour) was actually the grave of one Moira White, rather than the Margaret Anderson I had been expecting. After a long and seemingly futile search around the small graveyard the gardeners eventually ‘remembered’ they had to move on to their next job.
Despite my interest in learning about the past I’ve never really been that concerned with my own family’s history, instead preferring to read about ancient Greece and Rome. When my father asked me if I could go to Ireland and see if I could find out more about his great, great, great grandfather I agreed to go, not due to any burning curiosity on my own behalf, but simply to help my father out. Three weeks later I found myself (delayed) at Stansted Airport catching the 10pm flight to Shannon in County Clare.
The next morning I awoke to a lovely day (yes really) and full of the joys of doing a good deed on a sunny day I made my way to Ennis, the town where my great, great, great grandfather enlisted for the army on 2 Feb 1825 and rather more importantly, in the context of my trip, where the ancestry centre for County Clare is located. It was at this point that I started to realise that I was woefully underprepared for this trip as all I knew was
- My great, great, great, great grandfather’s name was David Anderson, as was his son
- He enlisted in the army on 2 Feb 1825 (even this wasn’t true as I now know that it was his son who enlisted)
- His wife was buried in the Church of Ireland Cemetery in nearby Milltown Malbay
- He ran the Atlantic Hotel in Milltown Malbay
When I presented this meagre collection of facts to the man at the heritage centre, I was met with what felt like a barrage of questions; “do you know which regiment of the army? Where was David Anderson born? What was his wife’s name? What year did she die?” After my fourth shamed-faced “no, I’m sorry, I don’t know” he looked at me rather pityingly, handed me a microfiche all the obituaries from the Clare Chronicle from 1800 to 1825 and the newspapers from January to February 1825 and wished me luck. Rather unsurprisingly, this proved somewhat futile, the US was at war and the Irish were enlisting in mass to join the fight, so only promotions were recorded in the papers. While I did find the obituary in the Clare Journal of 19 June 1815, its simple message was “Mrs Anderson, wife of the proprietor of the Tepid Baths.” Slightly deflated I decided to make my way to Milltown Malbay and see if I could more details from Mrs Anderson’s grave.
I had been told that Mrs Anderson was buried in the town’s Church of Ireland graveyard and I wouls need to get the key to the graveyard from a nearby pub. As I drove into Milltown Malbay, past at least 10 pubs, I started to realise that this might be a lot more difficult then I was expecting. After a couple of false starts (who would have thought there was more than one church in a small town in Ireland) I found the graveyard and my luck was in, as the gates were wide open, as the gardeners were taking advantage of the drying weather and mowing the grass. Eventually, I found the grave in question and after a (not so) quick sprinkling of flour I was able to find that Mrs Anderson’s first name was Margaret, but unfortunately little else.
I imagine I must have looked a little bit strange, a tall out of towner, haphazardly splashing flour all over a grave, and the legs of my black jeans, stopping every now to swish around a pastry brush and to take photos. However, this did not deter the little old lady who had come to check on the gardeners and with the famous Irish friendliness she introduced herself to me. Upon hearing what I was up to she told me I must talk to the local historian and proceeded to give me her phone number and offer to take me around to his house.
I won’t go into too many more details but over the next 12 hours I came to appreciate just how friendly the Irish are; the owner of the Armada Hotel (a modern Hotel built on the site of the old Atlantic Hotel that my ancestor used to manage) spent half an hour telling me everything she knew about the Atlantic Hotel; the little old lady came unsolicited to the hotel and then drove me to the local historian’s place, who then spent the next hour telling me everything he knew that might be of relevance.
I also found it a very pleasant experience exploring a place that I knew was a large part of my ancestor’s life. I took the chance to walk around the small and very scenic settlement and beaches of Spanish Point, the place where the Atlantic Hotel was. It was very reassuring to me to think that here I was 200 years later, trying to find out about my ancestor.