Micheal O’Sullivan (1838-1889)

A Dying Trade

Patricia Candler, UK

My story begins on a hot summer evening in rural Wiltshire, in about 1950. Occasionally, then, travellers’ wagons passed through the village.

“Probably from Salisbury way – making for Devizes” I was told.

On this particular evening one of the travellers knocked at our door. He asked, in an Irish accent, whether we needed any cooking pots or kettles or baths mended – anything metal at all. My mother thought for a few moments, then produced a couple of saucepans from a cupboard for repair. When he had gone, my mother said she felt sorry for them. “They must have walked a long way in all this heat and the children were looking tired and dusty. We’d better let them draw water from the well – I think some washes are in order tonight!”

A real gypsy caravan with a horse! My imagination ran wild. I knew my father was Irish and had come over from Dublin with his brother when he was a small boy.

“Do you think they are any relation to us, Dad? I wonder which part of Ireland they come from – why don’t you ask them?” and I bounced up and down with impatience.

My father didn’t share my excitement.

“Ah well – careful now – after all, we don’t really know anything about them, do we? Come along inside now, we mustn’t stare at people.”

Having been paid a couple of shillings for repairs to the saucepans, the travellers drew water from the well at the back of our house and went to the overgrown lane beyond the railway arch, where they parked for the night. We never saw them again because they moved on very early next morning.

Half a century later, when I began to make family history enquiries, I was glad I had seen these tinsmiths passing, because I discovered that some of my ancestors had taken up the occupation. It was a dying trade even in 1950 and I can’t remember any others coming to the village. My cousin and I were told very little about our ancestors. Our grandfather had died in 1937 before we were born. What we knew had been picked up by our curious young ears from time to time when the family met. Patrick remembered hearing about someone called Lawrence, who had a shop, and who we correctly guessed was our grandfather’s brother. My sister heard that our great grandmother had wonderful long dark brown hair. Other things were what I came to call “double hearsay,” such as remark about an ancestor marrying a Spanish lady, and that there was a title once. I know my mother shared my curiosity and she would make a wry smile at any of our speculations, especially at the idea that the family had any wealth! Just one thing seemed clear, and my father and his brother were certain of it: many ancestors had been soldiers. Our great grandfather was Michael O’Sullivan and he had been to Africa and was in the Zulu War in 1879. This tale interested me and I thought it should be possible to verify it and learn more at the National Archives at Kew, although I did not know which regiment Michael had joined or whether he had any medals. I was amazed when I discovered that there were indeed thousands of soldiers with the names Sullivan and O’Sullivan in the British army since 1800 and even more had joined the Royal Navy. It made my own few years in the Women’s Royal Army Corps seem insignificant. I did learn quite a lot – more than I ever expected – about my great grandfather at Kew and from other sources – and tried to put the facts in order.

Michael O’Sullivan was born in Newmarket, Co. Cork, near the town of Kanturk in September 1838, the son of John O’Sullivan and Honora Mullane. I realized that he and his brother Patrick, born in 1835, would have been very young at the time of the great storm of 1839, when many people throughout Ireland were made homeless, and Michael would have been aged about seven in 1845 at the beginning of the famine. He spent his childhood in humble rural surroundings and probably did not go to school, but the family appears to have avoided the workhouse, although times were hard. He joined the South Cork Militia as a teenager and in 1856 was enlisted into the 15th Regiment of Foot. After his enlistment he was posted to Dublin and then to Gibraltar, so he must have hoped for more warm climates and adventure. It could have been the start of a long career, but tuberculosis changed all that. He had problems with his left leg and the trouble quickly spread, so he was sent to Chatham and the military hospital. The surgeon was very concerned about him and the decision was made to amputate the leg above the knee. A few details were recorded on the army papers indicating that he would not be able continue his hoped-for military career. A friend who goes to medical museums tells me that the most likely anaesthetic would have been ether, but undoubtedly Michael spent most of February and March 1858 in hospital. He was discharged with a small pension, which he would receive in Ireland at Fermoy. There seems to have been some delay in granting the pension and there was a remark in the margin of the documents “Not the effect of military service”. It was true that he had not been on a battlefield, but his ill health had begun since enlistment. He could have contracted tuberculosis in Ireland or Gibraltar and was leaving the army with a disability. Tuberculosis was quite common throughout Europe in 1860 and if he had not been in the army, where the amputation could be performed promptly, the disease would soon have worsened and proved fatal.

Surely my great grandfather could not have served in the Zulu War in 1879 with this disability? I wondered how the story about South Africa had originated. Perhaps it wasn’t Michael, but some other member of the family who had been to South Africa. It was difficult to tell, or even make a fair guess about that, because there were at least six men called Michael Sullivan in the Zulu War although one of them was born in Tralee in 1847 and served in the 80th Regiment. That soldier had been at Ntombi River and at Ulundi. Perhaps my great grandfather had heard about him and told younger members of the family. I discovered that a tinsmith called Michael Sullivan was aboard HMS Inconstant in Simon’s Bay, South Africa on 3rd April 1881, the night of the 1881 British Census, and he had been born in 1860 in county Cork in the diocese of Cloyne. Could he have been a relative? Was the ship in that part of the world in 1879? I read books about the Zulus and searched in the National Archives whenever I had the time. I recalled an occasion when I was at school, in a history lesson, when I was the only pupil who had heard of the South African Wars or the Zulus. Many thousands of English soldiers served in South Africa during the reign of Queen Victoria, so it would appear that most of my class mates had not talked to their grandparents about the past. I had always enjoyed history and was ready to look up anything that puzzled me. I would go the extra mile in pursuit of mysteries.

Aged 20, Michael returned to Cork city with his wooden leg. He needed to find some kind of work to supplement his pension and did not return to relatives in Newmarket. It was not easy for him to travel anywhere, and those with little money had to walk. It would have been a considerable effort for him to go to the post office and make his mark in order to receive the pension. I made no progress with my enquiries about him until I went to the Family History Centre (LDS) at Hyde Park Chapel, London. Although Michael had suffered a terrible ordeal and set-back in life early in 1858, he married my great grandmother, Mary Nagle, on 11th August 1858 at the R.C. church in Carrigtwohill, quite near to Cork city.

Church records did not show the names of parents of the bride and groom but there were two witnesses, John Price and James Power. I’ve often wondered if Mary had been a nurse. I expected that she would have been born in Carrigtwohill, but this does not seem to have been the case. I wrote to the priest at Carrigtwohill, but he was unable to find any children of the marriage in his baptismal register. “Perhaps they moved on quite quickly” he suggested. I searched the Internet for sources of information and plagued catholic priests with enquiry letters for several years. I hoped I wouldn’t cause annoyance by applying so often. Many priests have busy parishes and not all have a clerk to help them with paperwork. I imagined them going down into the crypt and wiping the dust from old volumes. Those who replied were very kind and one began by telling me that he had little time for genealogies. In the next paragraph he gave me three very good pieces of information. Then he concluded: “As I say, I don’t have much time for ancestors and I hope this helps”. I returned to the LDS Centre and continued my efforts by looking through reels of microfilm. I had to guess the names of Michael and Mary’s children, except one, because my cousin had remembered Lawrence. The young couple moved to Midleton, where William (1859), Mary (1861) and John (1863) were baptised. Margaret was born at Clonmoyle, just before the family moved again to Millstreet. Lawrence, (1868) John (1870) and Jeremiah 1872 (my grandfather, who had an urgent conditional baptism), Patrick (1874), Richard (1876) and Catherine (1878) were all born in Millstreet. On seeing these details, my cousin exclaimed “Ten children? Michael doesn’t sound much like an invalid to me!” Margaret’s birth certificate showed that Michael was “Pensioner of the 15th Regiment of Foot” and I was lucky to be able to see full details of the certificate at the LDS Centre. Michael was described as “Tinsmith” or “Tinsman” on the later certificates. Unfortunately Margaret died in 1870 at the age of four, due to hydrocephalus, only a few weeks before John was born, but her birth certificate details made the connection with Michael’s short military career and disability. Michael was always the informant at the register office and he made his mark, as he did on the army papers, so evidently he did not learn to read and write. This was a pity, because a sedentary indoor clerical job would have been better for him. A tinsmith’s work entailed quite a lot of hammering and bending metal, but he would at least be his own boss. The child named John, born 1863, had probably died, but I haven’t attempted to find his name in the death indexes yet. The family had a fixed abode in Millstreet for more than twelve years and I was able to check this when I went to the IGRS library and looked at the famous O’Kief volumes. It was so helpful to be able to access the books easily, without filling in a form.

There was another move, about ten miles northwards to Newmarket, later, and probably in about 1880. Perhaps Michael’s parents were infirm and needed help or perhaps work prospects seemed better there. Railways were being built and there may have been employment for tin-plate layers. I hoped they had not been evicted from their cottage, as many were at this time. As the children grew up, they would be able to help their father – he really needed a horse and cart to search in the villages for items to mend, and there was the chore of getting peat for the fire, but I expect Michael and Mary kept the home going by sheer hard work, because they had only the most basic amenities. I can recall for myself just how cold a house can be without central heating and the hassle of drawing water from a well on a frosty morning when the ground was slippery near the windlass. Men walked long distances in search of work and my mother’s father walked many miles in Dorset, too. If times were hard in England, you could almost guarantee that they were worse in Ireland.

According to my research at present, it seems that only one of Michael’s sons, Lawrence, became a tinsmith and he had a workshop in Kanturk. The 1901 Census shows that there were 580 tinsmiths in Ireland and in the 1911 Census their number had reduced to 564, so the trade may have died out more gradually in Ireland than in England. I found out more about Lawrence quite by chance – he was a strong Irish Nationalist – my discoveries always came in a different order than I expected.

Michael died in November 1889 of pneumonia, having been ill for three weeks, at the age of 51. The Meteorological Office recorded a very wet, cold autumn. My search for his death certificate was quite a marathon. I searched the death indexes from 1878, the year Catherine was born, through to 1900, looking for any Michael Sullivan from the locality and of the age that would fit, then applied for copy certificates of those I thought most likely to be my great grandfather. Michael did not live to see his sons Jeremiah and Patrick enlist and one wonders if he would have encouraged this. A few years later, his children went separate ways, some to Killarney, some to Tralee and the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

My great grandmother was still living in Newmarket in 1894. I know this because she was recorded as next of kin on my grandfather’s attestation papers in that year. A few weeks ago, I thought I had identified Mary in the 1911 Irish Census. It was possible – although that Mary had moved to a small village near Killarney. She was a widow, the age recorded was credible but she was unable to read and write. I was cautious, because many of the Nagles were educated and some in the professions. She could have taken over a small farm. After all, she had done much else! I have been unable to find her grave, in Killarney or Newmarket, so expect it will be a long time before I am certain by how much she survived her husband – there are so many women called Mrs Mary O’Sullivan in south west Ireland! I only met a few of Michael and Mary’s hundred descendants. We had no photographs of our great grandparents. As my sister Eileen said “It makes you feel cheated not to have known them”.


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