Eyeballing the ancestors

In the course of digging into family history you find yourself examining many documents but nothing can compare with gazing into the eyes of the past. Old photographs of people are fascinating. It’s not just the clothes. Faces confront you full on since in the 19th century most commercial photographers and their clients were concerned more with likeness than with art.

The people in the photo alongside are Catherine and Zeno Sloan, one set of my Irish great-grandparents and seven of their nine children (the youngest, Annie and James, were yet to be born). My grandmother – Katie to the adults of the family, and whom I remember as a small elderly woman with grey hairy sausages trapped in a hairnet ­– is the little girl smiling and wriggling in the front row.

My father provided the key to the picture, and the date, 1880, and thus the first of my questions:

• how did he know who was who and when the picture was taken?

When I was young my father showed little interest in his family history but in his last years, inspired or perhaps driven by my mother’s researches and writings around her own family, he unearthed his teenage sketches (he had a great gift for drawing, as indeed for music) and began to frisk his remaining relatives for memories. Of course, as most of us do, he came to this too late. His grandparents and parents’ generations had gone (even his aunt who had lived to be 113 though he had, fortunately, taped a chat with her in her late 90s).

By the time we children, living in the Highlands of Scotland, met our Irish grandparents they were living in Belfast. Very occasionally they visited us. Our equally infrequent visits to them involved a cramped car trip down across Scotland to Stranraer, luggage roped to the roof, anti-sickness chain dangling, and then a carrot-munching sea journey over to Larne. Otherwise, we knew that long-dead Great-grandfather Zeno ‘had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland’ and that they all seemed to be teachers. His name intrigued.

Back to the photograph:

• how did my father know it was taken in 1880? I don’t know, perhaps he extrapolated from the apparent ages of the children. I would also very much like to know why it was taken. A family group. There is another family group taken at about the same time which marks the silver wedding of my Edinburgh-based Chisholm great-grandparents. Why was the 1880 photo taken? It does not look celebratory, was it perhaps to send to other members of the family? If so, why and to whom…. where…

What became of those solemn children laced so tightly into their boots? I am gradually learning more since their descendants are people whom I sporadically email as I try to dig back further back. Electronically, we put our heads together and share our frustrations, small triumphs and speculations. I/we need to find out more about Zeno and in particular about Catherine, the mother in the picture, but also, before, then and later, a school-teacher, head mistress of a National School in Dungannon. My father, in the memoir he put together, said nothing about her origins. When I asked one of his cousins she had a vague feeling that her grandmother came from Thurles in Tipperary (and she turned out to be right about County Tipperary at least).

Back to those children, dates as my Father entered them in a family tree in 1991:

William (b 1868) went to America, Chicago, as a young man, the only one of this generation to become part of the diaspora (why Chicago?)

Richard (b 1870) became a minister whom I remember carrying out the mass christening of my siblings when my grandmother discovered that all but one (me, the eldest) of her visiting grandchildren were unhallowed

Daisy [Margaret] (b1871) taught alongside her mother, married a shopkeeper, and died in her 40s leaving two small children

Mary (b1873) unlike her sisters, did not become a teacher but before her marriage went to keep house for her minister brother

Isaac (b1875)  died unmarried

Katie (b1877) my grandmother, who had married another teacher, taught throughout raising five sons, addict of ‘nice stories’ and narrator of improving verse (‘She did not say to the sun goodnight/ Tho she saw him there like a ball of light/ For she knew he had God’s time to keep/ All over the world and never could sleep.’)

Frances (b1879) teacher and ardent pianist, married another teacher; she suffered from anaemia and had to eat raw liver (ugh!)

As my father noted, two were as yet unborn:

Annie (b1883) trained as a teacher, was widowed for 70-odd years and lived to be the oldest person in the UK

James (b1881) father of my father’s blond musical cousin who vaguely remembered the connection with Thurles, was a county surveyor who inspired my father to become a civil engineer, and thus to make the journey from Ireland to dam-building in the Scottish Highlands, and thus to me.

More later…



Filed under History

12 responses to “Eyeballing the ancestors

  1. Caroline Stewart

    Oh I am so glad you writing all this down now. Well done! More more…

  2. dont know why I have just found this – I thought I was following and that lack of posts was because none were there.
    yes, more please! write it all down. did you get the others photos? if you know who they are would be nice to see them.
    cant type properly due to leaving fingers in the way when van door closed!
    K xx

  3. Liz Wilson

    Interesting to hear about the family. Do you think there is any connection to May Sloan, a survivor from the Titanic from Belfast? Could be a cousin. Just a thought.

  4. I have a copy of this photo. One of my cousins spotted this and I was glad to see someone recording this sort of thing. I am a grandson of Richard Sloan – the one with parting in the middle. I have an extensive family tree in my computer and I’d like to update the Wilson connection some time. Can you send me your email address to dave@maclurg.com and I’ll send you what I have of he Wilsons and you can fill in gaps for me.
    We do have a May Sloan in our tree but it is not the Titanic survivor.
    I’d be happy to exchange any family information with anyone.
    By the way, who are you? I couldn’t see your name anywhere on the blog.
    Dave MacLurg

  5. Alastair Hamilton

    Zeno is my great great uncle. My mother was a Sloan I have information about the Sloan family which I would like to share.

  6. Alastair Hamilton

    Zeno is my great great uncle. Would love to share our family history

    • Anthony Cooper

      I have been fascinated to come across all the references to Zeno Sloan. He is also my great great uncle. Would be happy to share family history.

  7. Terry Shawe

    My son has married a girl whose G G Grandfather was Zeno Sloan, through to the McKay family. Thank you for publishing the family history and I would love to learn more

  8. Debbie smith

    Just found this! I am granddaughter of Annie. My dad was Tom Scott. Would love to contact and find out more about the famiy

  9. Anthony Cooper

    Some further information to clarify my earlier entry: Zeno Sloan’s younger sister was Eliza Sloan b.9.9.1839. On 9.9.1859 she married Alexander Fairley b.1817. They both ran a farm in Killylea, Co Armagh. They had several children one of whom was my maternal grandmother Caroline Ethel Fairley who married John Condy, a school teacher. He died in November 1939 and his wife died in 1945.

    Alexander Fairley died in August 1883: thereafter Eliza ran the farm. My mother recalled visiting her grandmother who believed children should be seen and not heard. My mother told me that Eliza drove full milk churns weekly in her pony and trap to the local market. Eliza died on 21st November 1921.

    Zeno and Eliza’s father was William Sloan of Grangemore. I believe he married his housekeeper, Margaret Slevin. Any information on William would be very greatly appreciated.

    My mother died in 2011 at the age of 106. She knew several of Zeno and Eliza’s siblings and was particularly friendly with Zeno’s wife Catherine: my mother called her “Aunt Sloan”, and from time to time went to tea with her. When my parents married in 1934, Aunt Sloan gave them a fine linen table cloth, which I now have.

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