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.