Monday, August 25, 2014

Castle Means Crises

There is an odd phenomenon surrounding the perception of castles. Likely, we owe it to the fairy tale existence of our opulent times, in which we prefer to believe everyone lives happily ever after, all life long. Castles, however—at least the real ones, not the ones played on TV—were designed as military strongholds, complete with gates, towers, and structures meant to fortify inner chambers. And these devices were not built for mere romantic notions; they were called to use many times during defensive crises.

Right in the midst of County Kerry, Ireland—the very place we’re examining as we consider our ancestral heritage of the Kelly and Falvey families from that location—there were a number of castles. And, apparently, the crises to accompany their use.

Taking time to gain perspective on the history and geography of County Kerry, in preparation for our trip there, gives context to the family history I’m trying to absorb through years of genealogical research. While there is no way I can reach back to the ancient people and times of County Kerry’s earliest days, it’s informative to gain that general perspective.

Apparently, the pre-Gaelic people living in this southwest tip of Ireland themselves invaded the area in early historical times. These invaders were known as the “People of Ciar.” Ciar was the legendary founder of the original tribe—himself son of a legendary king of Ulster—and the anglicized version of his name provides the source for the name of this county: Kerry. Ciar, incidentally, meant black or dark brown in old Irish, and is still used as a word in modern Irish to signify someone with a dark complexion.

For whatever reason, County Kerry has come to be called “The Kingdom,” though it certainly has seen many changes in its geopolitical standing from century to century. Through the years, the history of County Kerry was tumultuous enough to warrant the use of such fortifications as Ross Castle—one which, though embattled since its fifteenth century establishment, is still standing today.

More pertinent to our own family’s history there—at least as far back as I’ve been able to push my research—waves of rebellions and wars devastated the area, once home to both fertile valley farmland as well as the highest mountains on the island. Native lands confiscated from original clans were transferred to ownership by “planters”—English settlers moved into the county.

Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the gradual impoverishment of the area saw conversion to poor tenant farmers who increasingly became reliant on their potato crop—that recipe for national disaster we now see so clearly in retrospect. County Kerry was so hard hit by the Great Famine, and the great flow of emigration began—a stream of exiting people which continued through “recent times.”

What is interesting about the details of this emigration is that the Kelly family—that of John Kelly, his wife Johanna Falvey Kelly, and their several children—didn’t leave their home during this initial phase of the Great Famine. Nor did they wait until the impetus of the Land War of the 1870s and 1880s. They somehow decided to make their move just before that latter trouble. Why did they choose to leave at the time they did? They had made it through the worst of the famine. What had provoked them to make such a choice to leave? Perhaps it was the dynamics underlying the instigation of that troubled time, in which tenant farmers became strident about receiving more reasonable terms from their landlords.

The land John Kelly farmed was in the civil parish of Molahiffe, which, according to one map, seems to have been situated roughly in the middle of the county. The particular townland in which John Kelly was tenant farmer was named Lisheennacannina—a word sounding as magical as our modern concept of castles. This townland, one of nearly three thousand in the county and comprised of 366 acres, was situated at the southern tip of the parish of Molahiffe (number 32 on this map).

There were, of course, many woes more that the county residents experienced in the years after our Kelly family left home. The twentieth century brought with it a war of independence, and then a civil war. The bitterness of these conflicts seemed centered within the boundaries of this particular county at times—even times after the calling of a truce to hostilities.

The peaceful ambience of such famed natural beauty as that of the Lakes of Killarney—Johanna Falvey Kelly’s reputed place of origin—belies the turmoil of County Kerry’s history. While I have no way of knowing why John and Johanna Kelly chose to remove their family from their homeland in the midst of such a history, there surely had to be some compelling reason for their choice.

Photograph: Ross Castle in Killarney, County Kerry, in Ireland, circa 1890; from Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. If only you were famous, the staff of "Who Do You Think You Are" would find a handy dandy journal written by some obscure neighbor of the Kellys who would provide the clue to why your family left. I wonder if there are any local histories written by minor writers available in a library in Kerry. Will your organized tour include trips beyond Dublin? (Sorry, I've forgotten.)

    1. No, Wendy, the organized tour is strictly devoted to research in the libraries and government offices in Dublin. However, that will not keep us fearless tourists from organizing our own tour. We plan on doing quite a bit of exploring on the western side of the island for twice as much time as I will be devoting to the books in Dublin. Obscure neighbors of obscure family members notwithstanding, I'll keep your suggestion in mind, and keep an eye out for the chance mention of our Kellys in any local history books. One never knows...

  2. Interesting information about castles!

    I know next to nothing about Irish history---do you know how literate the common people even were during that time of your ancestors move? That will certainly impact the type of documentation you will be able to find.

    I envy those whose ancestors were quite educated as there seems to be a much greater abundance of material both written by them and about them, as is also the case of those with money, which makes sense since those two tend to go hand in hand.

    1. You're right about that literacy issue, Michelle. I know for one ancestor, that is the case, for he signed his Declaration of Intent with a cross. While I don't know about this Kelly and Falvey family, I feel fairly certain they didn't have any neighbors or relatives who kept extensive journals on their day to day activities!

      Apparently, in class today, my daughter went on a field trip in County Cork which included a couple castles--similar, in fact, to this photo. It looks like there will be a few on our trip, as well. While we, today, find castles enchanting, I suspect they reveal a level of turmoil in our Irish ancestors' lives that we need to take into account--even if they were mere tenant farmers.

  3. You are going back into the "dusty" times - 1329?? 1580s?? Wow!

    I'm thinking the one would need to hope that one of the relatives held a prominent position in the church.. if they were going to get mentioned.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...