It was a `shame` about my granduncle Kieran Claffey of Bloomhill County Offaly: explorations in family history and a sad legacy. By Padráig Turley

With the recent publication of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the notion and concept of shame is very much in the news. Shame is a negative influence that is so powerful that it can destroy and ruin lives. It can have appalling consequences. It can be public or private.

Shame guilt and apologies. The county council apology this week for things past Offaly Independent 20 3 2021. The council’s record on tuberculosis prevention was good with a central dispensary opened at the back of the county infirmary in June 1916. Dr O’Regan had been appointed to the prevention campaign in 1912 and four years earlier Lady Aberdeen had visited the town in support of her personal campaign.

Public shame is easier to deal with, for example the Government`s handling of such and such a problem was shameful. This is easy to handle as the Government is a distant entity, and their nonfeasance or apparent nonfeasance can be punished at the next election.

However personal shame is much more traumatic and can have devastating consequences. We have seen over the last forty or so years a series of scandals all of which had catastrophic effects on very innocent victims. When we look at these `scandals` from today`s vantage point it is hard to understand how the particular activity involved could have caused the outrage they did. It is difficult to understand that what is today accepted as quite normal could stigmatize an individual to such an extent that their lives were ruined and indeed that such ignominy could attach itself to an entire family.

However, the story I wish to relate is a simple enough tale, where a totally innocent condition had to be hidden. The person I wish to talk about is my grand uncle Kieran Claffey. He was one of twelve children born to Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery, who were married in Shannonbridge in 2nd January 1853. They were farming folk who lived in Bloomhill near Ballinahown.

Patrick Claffey of Bloomhill died 1889

Sometime back I started to research the genealogy of my family. As everyone knows, it is vital to work on one`s family tree while folk from earlier generations are still about. I started on the maternal side that is the Claffey branch, and fortunately I got there in the nick of time, for as I set about this task my mother was still alive. She herself was born in 1914, but fortunately she was able to recall, not without a little difficulty, the names of the twelve children of Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery. She did not have any dates of birth so that was a job I had to work out in due course.

The children of Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery were Mary, Patrick, Bridget, James, Katie, Annie, Elizabeth, Mike, Margaret, Ellen, Rosaleen and Kieran. While she did not have precise dates, she was able to give me outlines as to how they all fared out in life which helped me fill in the blanks.

Annie Claffey died 1907

Mary had married a Stephen Duffy from the Big Bog on the 5th August 1882 and had a family but died young, Patrick lived his life out as bachelor, Bridget and Katie remained unmarried all their lives, James emigrated to the U.S.A. where he married an Armagh born lady Minnie Jackson on 9 September 1919 in Manhattan, but did not have a family, Annie married Patrick Gaffey also from Bloomhill 9 May 1889 and emigrated to the U.S.A. where she had a family, Elizabeth married Michael Daly, described in Marriage Certificate as living in 2 Chapel Avenue, Irishtown, Dublin but his father is a farmer so presumed moved to Dublin for work, on 31 January 1906, but did not have a family, Mike (my own grandfather) married Elizabeth Molloy  from Parkwood near Moate on the 11th February 1914 and had a family of three, Margaret married Patrick Mooney from Doon but did not have a family, Ellen emigrated to the U.S.A. where she married James Hynes from Clonaskra on the  11th May 1889 having a family of two girls, Rosaleen who married John Egan from Cloniff on the 18th May 1893 and had a family, and finally Kieran.

Kieran is the person I am concerned with here. My mother`s knowledge of Kieran was that he emigrated to the U.S.A.  He worked as a lumberjack and he was killed. The story she had was that he was living in Chicago. One night there was a terrible storm. As he was going home some roof tiles on a four-storey building came loose, falling from the roof and tragically killing him as a result. She did not have a memorial card.

With this amount of information I set about compiling the Claffey family tree. While it took a little time I was able to track them all down with the exception of Kieran. I was able to trace the families of all of them and indeed recently via Facebook I made contact with the descendants of Annie, social media does have a plus side.

However Kieran proved elusive. As to his birth, I discovered he was baptised 2nd September 1855 in Ballinahown, his sponsors were James and Anne Flannery. I searched all the shipping records, especially from Liverpool and Queenstown now Cobh but drew a blank. I found the sailing records of all the rest of those who emigrated. I typed his name into numerous search boxes, My Heritage, Geni, Family Search, Ancestry and others drawing blanks everywhere.

In this regard it was interesting to note than Kieran`s sister Ellen Hynes seems to be the one to organize the travel of her siblings. She herself crossed the Atlantic a number of times. As well as helping siblings she assisted other cousins and neighbours to cross the Atlantic.

Ellen Hynes had two daughters, these she sent home to her family to be raised in Bloomhill. One can only imagine her feelings as she left them behind in Bloomhill. I am not sure what circumstances caused her to do this. She eventually returned to Bloomhill in 1924 where she lived until her passing in 1937. She had settled in Hartford, CT, where in fact all her siblings first put down roots in the U.S. I asked my aunt if she could throw any light on the matter. She had the exact same story as my mother, believing he had been killed in a storm in Chicago.

I searched all the newspapers, here in Ireland but particularly in Chicago but found nothing. I tried Hartford in case he had gone there rather than Chicago. This was puzzling as a death in such circumstances would surely be newsworthy. I checked the register of deaths in both Chicago and Hartford but nothing turned up. I consulted the U.S. census returns, and in particular for those two cities but there was no sign of Kieran.

One evening I was chatting with the late Stephen McNeill about my conundrum. Stephen had a great interest in Bloomhill, and indeed was working on a project on the area at the time of his untimely death. He said to me `what if Kieran never emigrated?` This was something I had not given any thought to as my information seemed so certain.

Stephen McNeill centre, a great family history person. This picture 1979 at the opening of Bank of Ireland Tullamore new branch. Different times in every way. Stephen died in 2016.

So with nothing to lose, I went on to www.irishgenealogy.ie to have a look. Bingo/shock horror, I found that Kieran had died in Ireland. He died on 15th August 1887 in Bloomhill, described a male, bachelor aged 31 years, a farmer. However the cause of death was the most interesting. It was set out as `Decline, one year`. The Decline was of course an euphemism for tuberculosis (TB). This was clearly a cause of great shame at that time, and indeed much later. This must have led to a `silence` about the reason he passed. Certainly by the time the next generation came on the scene the story of his emigration to the U.S.A. and death during a storm had been established. My mother had no doubt about it.

Fortunately at the time of my discovery my aunt Annie Claffey (Sr Monica in religion) was still alive. I put my discovery to her, she was surprised and confirmed the story she had always been told, that he had gone to the U.S.A. and died in a storm. I enquired from cousins, most of whom knew little or nothing about him, and most certainly I found no one who knew he had died from tuberculosis. The poor man passed into eternity under a cloud.

I do not have a photo of him. I know when he was baptised. I know he was the eldest child of Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery. I noticed that on the registration of the births of his siblings Katie (1870) and James (1972), he registered the births and is described as being present at birth. I feel this is unlikely, I would imagine he was sent into Ferbane to register the births. He would have been in his early teens at that time. So that is all I know of Kieran Claffey.

There is a headstone to Patrick Claffey and Anne Claffey (nee Flannery) in Clonmacnoise, erected by Ellen Hynes (née Claffey), I guess the returned `Yank` with a few dollars.  A few years back I had the details of all twelve children carved on the side of the headstone. So at least with this little incision Kieran is noted somewhere.

This of course brings us back to shame. I recall back in the early fifties in the west Offaly area, when some unfortunate contacted T.B. folk would avoid their house. I remember as a child being told to avoid certain houses for that reason. When I came to Dublin in the mid-fifties I can recall during the polio epidemic a similar stigma attaching to families who had the misfortune to be visited by that particular scourge.

Claffey memorial at Clonmacnoise

This is a sad reality of life, that shame can carry such a large stick.

One would not associate GBS with the tragedy of shame or guilt

One is put in mind of the character Tanner in the G.B. Shaw play Man and Superman holding forth `Yet even I cannot wholly conquer shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us, ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our income, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins` In the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People we see the character Dr Thomas Stockman shamed and held up to ridicule for advocating the correct course to take against the mob. In Rodin`s statue Eve after the Fall we see shame at its pinnacle, representing the genesis of all shame.

It truly is a shame that my grand uncle`s story could not have come down to us unaltered, as all his siblings have.