The ‘Red Letter’ that was Read

Andrew Galwey, UK

The letter that fell on the mat should have been red, but it was not. It should not have been read, but it was. It arrived with several others in our Christmas Mail, so that slight errors in addressing were overlooked in our haste to learn which of our friends had kindly sent Seasonal Greetings this Year. We were also anxious to ensure that ‘we had sent them a card’, before it was too late. So the small discrepancy in the initial, E. instead of K., was entirely and unintentionally overlooked by my wife, Kathleen. Otherwise, the letter to Mrs E. Galwey, 12, Viewfield Park, Belfast, was correctly addressed in all respects, including the less usual spelling of our surname. So, my dear wife opened and read it.

Meanwhile, while attending to my share of the same correspondence, including several ‘Accounts Rendered’, my attention was urgently sought. A mumbled protest that ‘I’m trying to read………’ was ignored. The letter of interest was read to me: ‘My dear Evelyn, I cannot let the wonderful occasion of your 90th Birthday pass without offering Sincere Congratulations, Best Greetings for the Happiest of Days and All Kindest Wishes for a Bright and Healthy Future……’ followed much more in the same vein, finishing with: ‘I am off to Vancouver this week to spend Christmas with Margo and her family, so I cannot see you before the Festive Season. As soon as I get back…… etc., Happy New Year……etc. Your Very Good Friend, Laura McWilkins.

There was a short pause while we looked at one another and digested the content of this thought provoking communication between two people who were, at first sight, total strangers to both of us. I forbore from making the obvious comment. My Dear Wife does occasionally refer to the passage of the years, but the grand score of nine decades was, as yet, much too far off to contemplate with immediate interest. She subjected the pale cream envelope, now damaged beyond reasonable repair, to almost forensic examination with intense concern and dismay written across her face. Suddenly decisive: ‘Well Dear. What are we going to do about this?’ Noting the plural but still trying to remember how much we had been quoted for a set of garden furniture, offered at ‘Give-Away Prices’, that seemed to bear little relationship to ‘Balance Owing’ on the ‘Account Rendered’, lying on the table in front of me now. (Who in their right mind, other than us, buys such items at this time of year?) I made my usual unsuccessful bid to buy time: ‘What do you mean, Dear?’

The Documents in the Case were spread in front of me, while the situation was explained in terms suitable for comprehension by a young, but not very intelligent child, or even a husband. ‘We should never have opened this!’ Again the plural. ‘We cannot do nothing.’ My already framed response was rebutted before utterance: how well My Dear Wife understands me! ‘This is a ninety-year-old! This Birthday is Special! These Greetings must be sent to her!’ Kathleen’s own mother was, I thought, eighty-nine and so there were ominous warnings and clues about the forthcoming year. Just then it seemed best to store the information away for future contemplation. The letter on the table was carefully inspected by both of us in turn, stimulating no useful inspirations but allowing us to defer further comment while options were appraised. Meanwhile, I maintained a tactful silence. I did notice that, without explanation, other than one of those ‘looks’ that replace words between long-wedded couples, both letter and damaged envelope ended up on the pile of papers that ‘were to be dealt with by Andrew’.

Contemplation of the ‘evidence’ available did not advance my plans. ‘Well, Dear, as far as I can see, we don’t know the sender. Though I do agree that we apparently share a relatively uncommon surname with the intended recipient. But we don’t know her. We might, of course, try to work out who is this Laura McWilkins, though she is away just now. Have you any idea how we might find her?’ This produced only a shake of the head. Re-examination of the blurred postmark suggested ‘Belfast’, so no helpful clue there. A little bit later: ‘I think that Marjorie Brown has a friend called Laura’. Pause. A questioning look from me. ‘Marjorie usually goes to England for the New Year’, a suggestion that seemed to be confirmed by the subsequent unanswered phone call. So, I hoped, that might end our involvement, at least for now. The topic lapsed during morning coffee. After which, I returned to my (optimistic) attempts to review our finances, with the hope that we would emerge solvent after the annual ‘Winter Trade Fair’.

Later, after dinner, the ‘Letter Problem’ resurfaced. ‘I’ve been looking at the telephone directory’. Statements do not (always) require answers, so I did my best to look interested. ‘I found three Galweys are listed, who spell their names like us. I think you should ring them and ask them if they know ninety-year-old Evelyn. Then we send on the card, with an apology, and that clears up the problem. Our consciences will be clear.’ (Again the plural!)

‘If you think so Dear. But don’t you think that the call would be better coming from a woman? It is, after all, your name too.’ The prospect of ‘cold-calling’ a stranger with such a odd request: ‘Do you know an aged Evelyn?’ filled me with apprehension. How could one open such a conversation? ‘No! It’s much better coming from you. It is your family. They might be some kind of relations of your…….what is it……Uncle? Hill…something?’ The telephone book, open at ‘G’ was placed in front of me ‘Why don’t you start now? Get it over with!’

Within my family Great Uncle Hillier had been referred to by elderly relatives at intervals during my childhood but always in a vague and indecisive manner, with always a hint of ‘not in front of the child’. I was aware of few details about his life, though it was obvious, even at my tender age, that he was a ‘Bad Man’. My two elderly Great Aunts, Hillier’s sisters D and M, had been reared in the Victorian Tradition that transgressions were not forgiven: Once a Sinner, Always a Sinner. There was a story, I learned later, that after the funeral of their Mother, Hillier had been in the same house as his sisters, D and M, and pleaded to meet them, but was refused. The rebuff took place in Dublin and, this unconfirmed history continued, then or soon after, Hillier was encouraged to ‘move away’ (banished might be a better description). The siblings never met again. I knew my Great Uncle had settled in Portadown and, although Hillier was long since deceased, our family believed that his family still lived there. We had met people who knew of Galweys in that area but, despite a few feeble attempts to make contact over the years, these approaches had never been successful. The split in the family had been absolute: the mores of the Victorian era had remained in place for some sixty years, over three generations. No one now knew anything about the original reasons for the family division. Remaining effectively unaware of each other’s existence, we lived only about twenty miles apart!

Memories of my youthful visits to Great Aunts D and M remained clear in my mind as excursions into a bygone age. The two Old Ladies, invariably dressed in black, relieved by mauve or purple in the fashion of the times, occupied the largest seats, on either side of a blazing coal fire in the Withdrawing Room. The walls were decorated with the valuable, or possibly only expensive, china collection amassed by D. My parents were always too well aware of the damage to these antiques that could be wrought by one small but lively boy. The tropical temperature was maintained by ‘Poor Kitty’, a skivvy of indeterminate age whose job it was to lug heavy scuttles of fuel up the steep stairs that occupied a large part of D’s Victorian house. In between these tasks, Afternoon Tea, including Delicious Delicacies, were brought to refresh those of us who had lounged inert on the sofa for, what seemed to me, endless boring hours. In those days the elderly became much Older, and Venerable, than they seem to be now that I have reached a comparable four score of years.

The other vacancy in my childhood, only consciously noticed later, was the total absence of a paternal Grandfather, D, M and Hillier’s brother. He was never mentioned. Apparently a ‘Badder Man’ than Hillier! He was so thoroughly and effectively expunged from the family memory that he simply did not exist and never had! Subsequently, I learned that Grandpa Robert was possibly(?) a ‘Remittance Man’ – receiving a small income from the family but only while he remained well outside the country! (Later research revealed that the latter years of his life were spent in Australia.) This was the Victorian solution to Family Scandals: a one-way excursion abroad. The ‘sins’ involved were never clear to me but a clue, since supported by genealogical research, was that he and Grandma apparently never married. This would certainly fit all the facts and is entirely consistent with the Victorian Treatment meted out by his Victorian Siblings!

So, with these thoughts lurking in the distant recesses in my mind, I picked up the phone, still unsure about how to present my query, and dialled the first Galwey number……’Yes?’ A female voice. ‘Err…..This is a rather unusual phone-call’.

A bad start! I expected the phone to be slammed down, possibly with some angry comment…..but No. ‘Oh. Perhaps you’d better explain.’ Distinct interest was apparent.

I outlined my query. ‘That sounds interesting, I wish you well. I don’t know an Evelyn Galwey in our family. No one of ninety either. Can’t help. Byeee!’ She had disconnected.

The second number followed a similar pattern….pleasant but ‘Sorry. Don’t know anyone.’

‘Third time lucky’, I thought as the last available number was dialled. This again started similarly but after giving a negative reply: ‘I’m 82 and don’t know much about these things. Perhaps you should ring my daughter-in-law, she might be able to help you. I’ll give you her number….she’s ex-directory……’.

The fourth conversation was quite different. ‘I know of no Evelyn Galwey but I wonder if you might be related to my family? You said your name was Andrew, were you born in Dublin? Do you know of a Hillier in your family?’

‘Yes! Yes! We are related! How wonderful!’ By this time, all thoughts of Evelyn and the problem of The Card had been forgotten……contact across the schism in our Family had finally been achieved! A very attractive prospect for us, both K and I having unusually few close relations.

‘Hillier was my late husband’s grandfather. We have often wondered why the family disowned us. Now that we have made contact, at last, we must arrange to meet. We have no reason to quarrel, we don’t even know each other. But……perhaps we can work out together the reasons for these old family troubles. When Christmas and New Year are over, you must visit us and you will meet as many of the family here as possible.’

‘That’ll be a real treat. We’ll look forward to meeting you.’ So, after having confirmed phone numbers, exchanged greetings and farewells, I returned to reality with a bump.

‘Well? What was the point of all that? You didn’t achieve much!’

So, it was my fault. ‘Don’t you understand……we’ve made contact with my long-lost relations. Our long family feud could be healed after decades. We’re invited to Portadown after the Festivities and we are to meet lots of people who are Galweys’.

‘If we ever hear from them again.’

But this was far too pessimistic. The ‘cousin-in-law(?)’, who we subsequently got to know as Jean, was as good as her word. We were invited to a sociable supper, a ‘family gathering’, on a Saturday early in January. Arriving after dark, we were ushered into a house already containing a large number of people. Introductions to our many relations followed: everyone was indeed related to me in some way, many as in-laws. There were twenty-two names to remember, spanning four generations with ages ranging from 2 to 82. I thanked the eldest (Granny Flo) for her thoughtfulness on the phone in enabling this welcome contact to be made. We spent a very pleasant evening enjoying the company of our ‘new’ relations in the convivial festive atmosphere of their generous hospitality. Truly an occasion to remember. Before the party finally dispersed, one cousin, Loraine, told me that she had identified me as a relative before I had even got out of the car, from the way I drove. (And No!, I did not run into any cars belonging to my new cousins!)

Since that truly memorable evening (Thank You, Jean, our hosts Jeannette and Andrew, and indeed everyone), the contact and friendship has been maintained, indeed grown over the last eighteen years. Much time has been spent in discussing the ‘sins’ of our forefathers but their failings have never been satisfactorily identified. That knowledge has died with the individuals concerned and is unlikely now that the ‘truth’ will ever be known.

But in another respect, knowledge of about our family has grown through collaborations that have extended our joint Family Genealogy. ‘The Portadown Branch’ was (apparently intentionally) omitted from a set of publications documenting the Galwey Family History (presumably as a result of Hiller’s misbehaviour). To rectify this unacceptable gap, several family members have contributed towards researching the family past. Now, several years later, a much extended Genealogy has been published, based on extended research involving many individuals. The result shows that the Family is much larger and more widely dispersed across the globe than any of us had suspected. The story of compiling this Genealogy is too long to be recounted in full here, but, for anyone interested, a copy, including some background information can be downloaded (free) from the Boston Public Library at:

Of course, the above most satisfactory healing of our family rift (even if its origins remain obscure) was not the objective of my original telephonic efforts. Consequently, our well-meant intention to return Laura McWilkins’ card, with apologies, remained unfulfilled. However, a visit to Marjorie Brown after her Christmas absence confirmed she did know Laura McWilkins, ‘who had recently been to Vancouver to stay with her daughter Margo….etc.’ K at once wrote a fulsome apology for opening the letter in error and the card was returned. No reply was ever received and so the identity of the elusive Evelyn still remained a mystery to us.

Sometime later, discussing this still unresolved conundrum with a neighbour, who had lived in the house opposite ours from a time long before we had moved into Viewfield Park. Suddenly, looking satisfied, as someone who had solved the problem, she said: ‘That’s Evelyn Monaghan! She must be around ninety now. She lives in No. 2, around the corner. She’s the widow of the well-known Mr Monaghan, the surgeon. I guess that Laura had forgotten her name, knew it was a town in Ireland and found Galwey instead of Monaghan in the telephone book. So your almost correct name and address appeared on the envelope.’ That sounded a reasonable explanation, accounted for the facts and, not knowing the lady, we accepted it as the most probable explanation of the events that we were ever likely to receive.

The pity is that Laura never knew the chain of events that resulted from her laughable error. Indirectly, it healed a deep family rift by bringing together many people who have now enjoyed friendship for decades. Subsequently, recognising the unwarranted omission of the family living in Portadown from our Genealogy, steps were taken to bring our Family History up to date. This materially contributed to the initiation of research which eventually led to the much enhanced document now available to our wider family and provides an improved starting platform for future Galwey genealogists.

Note. The names, or initials, of Galweys mentioned above are correct but the identities of all other persons have been changed to protect their privacy. Otherwise the events described are as remembered by Family Members.


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