Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: Genealogy

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have a job that I love. I’m even luckier that this job allows me to indulge in old obsessions and follow them in new directions. Lately I’ve been happily stuck up to my eyes in crime records, the UK National Archives newest records release to be exact. It’s been like revisiting old friends but I’ve been particularly excited to find the missing piece in a puzzle I’ve been grappling with for years. Regular readers will know that I’ve been working on the case of 19th Century murderer William Bourke Kirwan for years now. He’s brought me in a whole new direction professionally, not least this change of job and this long, long in the writing book (which is still long in the writing but I’m getting there).

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the case so here are the basics. In September 1852 Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye. They’d been staying in Howth for some weeks and often spent the days out on the Eye where he would sketch and she would read or swim. Maria was a strong swimmer. She loved the water. But that night when the boat came to pick them up Kirwan was standing on the foreshore alone. He hadn’t seen his wife for hours, he said. He’d looked a bit and called but she hadn’t answered. What to do? Where could she be? There was a search as the night drew in and eventually they found her. She was lying half in in the water in a place on the island known as the Long Hole. She was dead. The trial was a bit of a shambles. Kirwan’s mistress, a key witness, did not appear when she was called in evidence. Proof that Maria had lately discovered the existence of the mistress and a second family mere weeks before her death was never produced and the defence called medical evidence that no murder had been committed. One of the most eminent medico-legal experts of the day told the court that Maria had gone swimming too soon after her lunch. It was indigestion that killed her, not her husband. I’ve written an account of the full trial here, here and here by the way, if you want more detail.

Despite all the digging I’ve done on Kirwan and his women there have always been gaps in the story. It’s hardly surprising – this case is more than 160 years old. Although I’ve more documentation for this case than I’ve had for the more recent cases I’ve written about. One piece of the story was illusive though. I’d always known that Kirwan had been as determined as Joe O’Reilly to clear his name but hunt as I might I could not find any of his petitions. I’d presumed that they hadn’t survived despite tantalising breadcrumbs that I’d found along the way. So imagine my excitement when I idly keyed in his name in work and hit “Return”. I’d expected to find documentation about his journey through the prison system. If nothing else, 19th Century British bureaucracy was comprehensive to say the least. What I did not expect to find was his words. They had been lost. I knew that.

But there it was – his petition. Again, even though I was excited to find it, I expected to find departmental correspondence, rather than Kirwan’s own words, his own handwriting. I work daily with copies of three of Kirwan’s sketches pinned to the wall. He was a moderately successful artist, although the examples of his work I’ve seen suggest a rather naive talent at best. I’ve written about the collection of his paintings held in the National Library of Ireland on their blog here. I’ve always suspected that they say more about the public fascination in the murder rather than his artistic reputation. But I know those paintings very well by now. I know that there are some I’d doubt were by him at all. I know there are some that I’ve no doubt were by him. I photographed those sketches from every angle, I’ve shots of each and every signature, every doodle on the back of random pages. I’ve studied them as if they could let me see into the mind of the man who made them. That’s one this this case is missing after all those years in the courts. I can’t see Kirwan in the dock. I can read accounts from the hacks who were there and I can read the words of his evidence but it’s not the same. I can’t see him in the in-between moments, the moments at rest, unobserved. I can’t watch him sneaking a cigarette or talking to his family. I can’t watch him arrive. The pictures are the closest thing I have to that. I’d say they were something similar to whoever bought them, whoever was the reason that they ended up in the National Library collection.

I’m so used to deciphering his doodles that I’ve grown rather familiar with his hand. I know the pressure he put on the paper when he wrote, the way he looped the W and K in his name, even when writing his initials. Flicking through the results in the National Archive results I saw those same loops. Here it was, after years of searching, here was the murderer’s appeal. When I was working in the courts it used to be a standing joke that the prisons were always full of the innocent. You will seldom get a killer who admits what he has done. Once they’ve plead not guilty why would they? So it’s hardly surprising that Kirwan harks back to the “insubstantial” evidence of his case. I’d found rumours over the years that Kirwan had capitalised on his previous life as an anatomical draughtsman, familiar with doctors and death, by finding work with the prison doctor. Sure enough in his appeal Kirwan claims leniency in recognition of his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak at the Bermuda penal colony where he was being held.

Kirwan petition clip 1

He had also, wisely, not argued for the right to rejoin his mistress but instead pleaded to go to his children. In fairness to the man, he does seem to have been a doting father. I’ve a sketch over my desk I’m pretty sure is one of his daughters and it stands out among the pictures in the collection, to an extent that it’s easy to read affection into the precision that captures the tilt of the head.

Kirwan petition clip 2

I’ve stared at so many examples of 19th century handwriting over the past few years but Kirwan’s hand is unmistakable. He writes with speed and flourish. You could almost read an impatience there, perhaps an arrogance. Certainly his appearance in court was with a swagger that marks him out among wife killers. There aren’t many who would argue their case so fluidly and articulately – although I’d still very much doubt that he argued then as an innocent man. His petition is full of the same swagger, especially in his signature –

Kirwan petition clip 3

It appears that despite his fluency and flourish Kirwan wasn’t at all successful in his appeal. The rest of the correspondence suggests that the Irish authorities would have been happier if he had been discretely disposed of when the Bermuda camp was broken up. It would have been better if he had been “lost at sea” rather than returned to Ireland. It’s apparent that Kirwan did return though. Various accounts within living memory of the case describe his life at Spike Island prison in Cork. Apparently he painted murals on the walls of his cell. It was years before he got his wish in the end. This petition was written in 1862, ten years after the murder. It would be another 15 before he would see release. Contemporary accounts describe a broken, elderly man who paid one last visit to Ireland’s Eye before leaving for America (and presumably his children). How did they receive him? That’s a story for another day.

Excerpts courtesy of The National Archives from the Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection on www.findmypast.ie

A Question of Identity

Colin-Rieley-Feb-15

My father, Colin Rieley with his bearer and his older sister in India in the 1930s

I’ve grown used to not fitting in. That’s not a plea for sympathy or a “poor me” just an expression of the status quo. I moved to the west of Ireland from London in my teens. Even though I’ve now lived most of my life in Ireland, even though I care very deeply about what goes on here, even though I have dear friends and family here, even though Ireland is my home, on some very basic level I will always be an outsider. Those formative years in London shaped me in a way I just can’t change. They shaped my sense of humour, my political leanings, my values – my reticence. A million little things that make me who I am.

Over the years, on days when that cultural gap felt a little too wide, I thought at lot about where I’d come from, where my family had come from. Having an Irish surname has always been a bit of a double edged sword. One the one hand it proves the fact that I have some Irish roots, on the other hand – it’s spelled wrong. I get corrected all the time on that. Everyone knows how you spell “Reilly”.

So a few years ago I decided to find out where the Rieley came from. Find out where those Irish roots actually were. How hard could it be?

Now, I had some experience of genealogy. My first job after leaving school was working for the Sligo Family Research Society and helping people find their relationship to Yeats. I knew there were one or two issues with the Irish records but I didn’t think I’d have to go back that far. As far as I knew I would have been able to play on the Irish soccer team – not because I can kick a ball of course, but because my grandfather was born here. I knew that my dad had been born in India – that’s him on the left in the picture at the top of this post – but I remembered a story my mum had told me about him applying for an Irish passport at some stage but being told the records had been lost in the Four Courts fire. I knew my grandfather had been born at the end of the 19th century so I didn’t think I’d have much difficulty finding him in Ireland.

The best laid plans…

I started to look for my grandfather and almost immediately hit a brick wall. Apart from one marriage record I couldn’t find him anywhere. I ordered a copy of certificate and found out his father’s name and the fact that he was a bank manager but apart from that, there was nothing. I decided to go back a step and try to find my father’s birth record so I turned to the records of the British India Office and the East India Company, as well as the records painstakingly transcribed by the group FIBIS, the Families in British India Society. With a crash the wall came tumbling down. I found my dad – and my grandfather – and my great grandfather. They were all born in India, and married in India and died in India until my grandfather took wife and children back to England. The more digging I did the more people I found, great sprawling branches of people – all of them born and bred in India. I was back to 1820 and had yet to find anyone who had been born in Europe. I was puzzled with what I found. How had I got it so wrong? Was I misremembering?

Over the years I kept digging as more records found their way on line. I started to discover what jobs people had and time and again, when I did further research, I found that these were typical jobs for Anglo Indians. Could that be a reason why I had heard nothing about this Indian past? Why the Four Courts fire seemed so convenient? Had my family tried to “pass”?

I knew that to be considered Anglo Indian the Indian generally passed down through the maternal line. These were the children of Indian women who had children with European men. Could one of the women in the records have been Indian? The names really do not help.

My best bet is that she was the Sophia who married a Patrick Rieley in Madras (now Chennai) in May 1819. She had grown up in the Female Orphan Asylum. Patrick was a teacher in the Free School. The children who went to both the male and the female orphan asylums in those days were often the children of Indian mothers and fathers from Europe. The fathers’ would leave and the mothers would have no way to look after their children – so they would leave them at the orphanage, where the church tried to turn them into useful members of society. I can’t find Sophia’s birth record so I don’t know for certain, but along with everything else this is what fits. It explains a lot, looking at that sprawling tree. It explains why my grandfather’s brother Terence, who ran away to sea and went to America, would tell the Federal Census that he had been born in Ireland. It also explains perhaps, why he wrote on his draft registration for the First World War, that he was a citizen or a subject of India. It explains why they were such a close knit family, never moving far away from each other, intermarrying – because they were “that” community – neither one thing or the other – both.

My theory is that young Patrick Rieley left Cavan or wherever he was from, having grown up with talk of rebellion. He would have heard stories of 1798 and 1803. He would have perhaps had contact with some of the progressive education reformers around at the time. People like Maria Edgeworth, who thought that Ireland’s troubles could be eased if only the children were taught well and taught together. Perhaps young Patrick thought that he could do something good with that education, that he made his way to India. A generation before he arrived, a teacher at the free school had pioneered the method of peer education known as the Madras system. This system of pupil teachers revolutionised teaching in places with a shortage of teachers. Perhaps Patrick wanted to be part of that legacy.

Whatever reason Patrick went to India for – if indeed he was the one who went there – he started a fascinating history. It’s been exciting tracing all those different branches and there’s a lot more work to do. I’ve only found out the direct line. I still don’t know if any branches of the family stayed, if any are still there. I find it hard to understand why anyone would hide such a story – but of course there were, there are a lot of reasons why people choose to do the things they do. This was not and is not a particularly tolerant world.

When I was very small, even before we moved to Ireland, I was still used to looking different. Every now and then I would get asked where I was from, because my face didn’t fit the standard British model. Over the years, I’ve been told my colouring came from Spain, or the Celts, or the Baltic. Perhaps the reason for the dark hair and sallow skin actually goes back to Patrick Rieley. I never did find those Irish roots but I’ll keep digging. Maybe some very early records didn’t get burnt in the Four Courts fire. It’ll be fun looking anyway.

© 2019 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑