6 April 2011

Captured in Libya

Over recent months many of us have watched the events unfolding across North Africa, thought of the places mentioned, and stopped to remember their meaning for our family history.

Suez Harbour, 16 Nov 1940
W H E West Collection
Seventy years ago today my father, Private Wilfred West of the Royal Corps of Signals, was captured in Libya – at El Mechili (also known as Fort Mechili).  He had arrived at Suez in November 1940.  The events surrounding his capture were described by his Commanding Officer in a letter to my grandmother: ‘In our recent withdrawal, I had kept behind with me a small party of men, of which your son was one.  I had, of course, picked my best men to stay with me, as one does in a crisis.  We withdrew at night, and I brought up the rear of our small convoy.  It was very dark, and the roads were blocked with traffic.  No one dropped out behind me.  I can only conclude that the party he was with, went on ahead, and losing their way in the darkness, were captured by a German patrol.  He was a good worker, and I always relied on him.’ 

My father, along with hundreds of other new Prisoners of War (POWs) arrived at Campo Prigionieri di Guerra (PG) 78, Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona on 15 May 1941, having travelled with hundreds of other men via Derna, Benghazi, and an Italian transit camp at Capua (Campo PG 66).  The two groups of Allied generals captured during the same battle (6-8 April 1941), were transferred to Villa Orsini on the southern outskirts of Sulmona.  They were sorted into huts of 42 men, and each allocated a single iron folding bed with sheets.  They proceeded to organise themselves into ‘combines’ – a group of approximately six men – who for the next two and a half years would share their rations, Red Cross parcels and private parcels in order that they would survive the times ahead of them.  Waves of men continued to arrive throughout 1941, necessitating the replacement of the single beds with wooden, immovable bunks, thereby doubling the numbers in each hut to 84.

Rations within the camp varied throughout the war and were supplemented by Red Cross and private parcels which usually began to arrive soon after coming into the camp – as soon as family and friends had an address – for example, those who arrived in May 1941 parcels received their first private parcels in September.  The numbers and types of parcels varied over time and could be irregular: a feast or a famine – in the month of May 1943 over 8000 private parcels were received.  However, when the parcel shortage corresponded with an Italian national ration cut of 60 per cent in March 1942, desperation was in the air and many diaries record the harsh experience of hunger and the loss of weight experienced by the prisoners.

As early as April 1943 rumours were rife throughout the camps about the fortunes of war: repatriation, battles and even the possibility of going home.  There was jubilation with the announcement of the Italian Armistice on the evening of 8 September, and many prisoners left the camp over the ensuing days.  Within a fortnight of the armistice 327 British and Commonwealth ex-prisoners had reached Allied lines.  However, the majority of them were soon recaptured by German soldiers and returned to their camps, before their ultimate transfer to Germany and Poland for the remainder of the war.  Many of those who survived, did so only because they were housed, fed and guided by dozens of extremely generous Italian people, at enormous risk to themselves.  Indeed, many Italians were killed, deported or made destitute as a result of helping the prisoners of war.

Wilfred West, 1946
W H E West Collection
My father had travelled south through the Apennines for six weeks with a companion, dressed as a shepherd.  On 27 October 1943, a cold and wet day, they were challenged by two young German soldiers near Lago di Scanno and recaptured.  They were taken back the 75 kilometres to Campo PG102 (L’Aquila) where they were transferred to a train bound for Germany.  On 10 Nov 1943 they arrived at Stalag VIIA at Moosberg, north of Munich, which was their base camp until General Patton’s troops liberated the camp on 29 April 1945.  Victory in Europe (VE) day was a truly happy day as they arrived in England and home to their families.  The next months and years were a time of adjustment in many ways: emotions, food, return to jobs after years of comparative idleness, illness, rehabilitation and the final demobilization from the army.

Today many children and grandchildren of former prisoners of war are trying to discover the stories of their ancestors ‘missing years’.  As the prisoners have lived in the shadow of the camps, so too have their families lived in the shadow of their wartime experiences, spoken and unspoken.

© 2011, Maureen R West
All Rights Reserved

27 March 2011

Mary Maguire, an Irish ‘Fearless Female’

This biography has been written in response to Lisa Azlo’s ‘Fearless Female’ challenge for 27 March 2011: ‘Do you know the immigration story of one or more female ancestors?  Do you have any passenger lists, passports, or other documentation?  Interesting family stories?
Mary Maguire Dolan and Margaret Dolan, 1898
Shattuck Farm, Andover, MA
There has been much written about Irish migration to North America during the nineteenth century, and increasingly, the twentieth century.  However, an under-examined part of this migration is the crossing and recrossing of the North Atlantic by individuals who maintained significant links on both sides of the ocean.

Ordnance Survey of Ireland, Co Cavan Townland Index

Mary Maguire was the fourth child and third daughter of Hugh Maguire and Kate Melanaphy of County Cavan, Ireland.  Mary was born in Aug 1857, in the townland of Stranamart, located on the road between Dowra and Blacklion in the northwest of County Cavan, on rolling land between Benbrack and Cuilcagh mountains.  The River Shannon rises to the south of the townland, flowing in a south-westerly direction towards Lough Allen. 

Maguire Family Tree
Examining the Maguire family tree, it would appear that Mary, like her parents and the majority of her siblings, never left Ireland: she was born in Stranamart, married in Killinagh church, and died in Cavan Hospital.  But her life is far more complex.  The date of Mary’s initial arrival in the United States is not known, however, in 1880, aged 22 years, she was living and working as a servant in the household of Edward Shattuck and his wife Josephine, in Winchester, Middlesex, Massachusetts.  The pioneering Shattuck family arrived in America at the time of the Pilgrims and were known to employ Irish servants and farm workers regularly for long periods of time: Michael Steinitz in his 1981 ‘Report on Documentary Research: Shattuck Farm, Andover, Massachusetts’ notes that ‘Irish names appeared frequently in the Shattuck Account Books between 1850-60, sometimes simply as “Dennis” or “Patrick”.’

Mary returned to Ireland on a family visit five years later.  Cathal (Charles) Dolan, who had married into land in Derrynatuan townland, was looking for his third wife.  Mary’s American work had provided her with a dowry and she married Cathal on 16 February 1885 in Killinagh parish church.  During the next 10 years she bore seven children in Derrynatuan.
Dolan Family Tree
In 1895 Mary returned to America to work for Edward and Josephine Shattuck, now living at the Shattuck Farm in Andover, Massachusetts, on River Road in the West Parish, Andover, on the southern banks of the Merrimack River.  The farm had been established in the early eighteenth century, on land initially owned by the Abbot family, before passing to the Shattuck brothers who transformed it into ‘an efficient, large-scale dairy and market gardening operation’.  Mary had left the children in the care of Cathal’s widowed mother, Margaret Dolan - her youngest, Kate was an infant.  When Margaret Dolan died in 1897, Kate, now 2 years old, was severely burned when she fell into the hearth.  When Mary returned to Ireland to make other arrangements for the children, she arranged for her elder sister, Rose Durkin of Corleckagh Lower, to provide ‘supervision’ of the Dolan household.  Mary returned to Andover with her eldest daughter, Margaret in 1898.  Margaret joined her mother working for the Shattuck family, even though at 12 years old she was underage and was required to be in school.

Mary and Margaret Dolan returned to Ireland in 1906 as Charles was very ill with rheumatic fever.  Having brought him back to health, she decided ‘he needed discipline’ and arranged for him to return to the Shattuck Farm with her.  Mary, son Charles (19 years), daughter Rose (13 years), and their cousins, John (14 years) and Rose Durkin (7 years), left Derrynatuan in April 1907, travelling from Blacklion to Liverpool, where Mary became ill and was hospitalised.  The youngsters boarded the SS Cymric (White Star Line) on 10 May 1907 in Liverpool, England.  Awaiting them in Boston was their sister Mary Ann who was already employed by the Shattucks, having possibly arrived in America in 1905 with her cousin Patrick Durkin, with whom John and Rose Durkin went to live in Lynn, Massachusetts.
Family Migration Patterns
By the time of the 1911 Census of Ireland Mary Maguire Dolan had returned to Derrynatuan, where she remained.  She was present for her youngest daughter Kate’s wedding in the Glangevlin church to Peter Mick Dolan of Derrylahan in 1918.  The family papers speculated that she may have been working in England, and it is possible that she did spend time there but I can find no further record of her working for the Shattuck family, or of being with her three children in America.

Mary’s daughter Rose returned to Ireland in 1920 after working for the Shattuck family in Andover and New York and in the Lawrence textile mills.  When she married Charles Cornyn from the Dolan home on 7 February 1921 her mother Mary was present.  Mary died of pneumonia on 4 July 1922 in the Cavan Hospital.

Mary Maguire is one of the 10 percent of return migrants from the period prior to 1920, but her frequent journeys across the Atlantic may be considered as exceptional in this period.  It would appear that she probably made the ‘conscious decision to emigrate’ that Donald Harman Akenson described in his 1996 book The Irish Diaspora: A Primer.  She was part of a chain migration of interconnected families from the townlands of north-west Cavan to the area surrounding Lawrence, Massachusetts from the 1860s into the twentieth century: Maguires, Dolans, McGoverns, and Rourkes.  These networks remained paramount: Mary and her children took her niece and nephew to America in 1907; her daughter Mary probably travelled to America with her cousin.  The networks in Derrynatuan and the surrounding townlands are also important: Mary’s mother-in-law cared for the children from 1895-97 and her elder sister Rose Durkin from 1898, including having John Dolan living with her and her own large family at the time of the Irish Census in 1901.

Mary’s subsequent visits back to Derrynatuan in 1898 and 1906 were precipitated by illness and the need to care for her children: the death of Margaret Dolan; Kate being burnt in the hearth; the illness of her eldest son; and the potential marriage in Ireland of her daughter Margaret.  This knowledge of the family situation suggests that Mary was in regular correspondence with her family in Derrynatuan and with the Shattuck family in Andover.  Unfortunately no letters survive.

Mary and her daughters were among the 70.4 percent of Irish women who were employed as servants in 1900.  How Mary became an employee of the Shattuck family is not known.  However, the presence of Mary Doland [Dolan] in the household in 1870 suggests that she may have been introduced to the household through family connections from Ireland.  This working relationship continued for at least 26 years and extended to Mary’s children until 1920.

Any recording of her reasons for the decisions she made have not survived to this generation.  Among her own generation she was remembered as ‘a smart lady’.  While other members of the Maguire family were reputed to be a ‘wild bunch’, she was remembered with affection and admiration.

Mary Maguire Dolan’s experience of crossing and recrossing the North Atlantic challenge our understanding of the migration patterns of Irish women who travelled to America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  As always, when the record of individuals is more closely examined the global patterns and sub-patterns are shown to be more complex than the history that uses ‘official’ records would initially seem to be.

In conclusion, I would like therefore to pose some questions: is Mary’s migration experience exceptional in her time; or is it a reflection of a wider pattern of migration that will become more evident as historians examine the individual stories of increasing numbers of women who moved to, and between, continents during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?  Or is it more a precursor of the migration experiences of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and many others, as they moved between Ireland and Great Britain in the period between 1940 and the 1980s?

  1. Mary Maguire is one of my maternal great-grandmothers.  This biography was previously part of a paper I presented to the 13th Irish–Australian Conference, Irish Spaces: Homeland, Asylum, Empire, Diaspora, on 28 Sep 2004 at the University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: ‘The North Atlantic Motorway: Crossing and Recrossing from Ireland to America’.
  2. This story is based on family papers and stories collected by Mary J Levesque (nee Dolan), the eldest daughter of Charles Dolan and Ellen Menihane (1914-1999).  Between 1964-1982 she visited the valleys of Glangevlin and Killinagh parishes in County Cavan several times with her mother and daughter, to collect the stories and genealogies and undertake research in the Dublin archives.  After I visited her in September 1987 she collated all her material into the family trees that are in my collection and wrote the narrative of my great-grandmother and grandmother Mary Maguire and Rose Dolan that forms the basis of this blog.  I am greatly indebted to her as much of this information is now unknown in the parishes of Glangevlin and Killinagh.
  3. I am indebted to the Andover Historical Society, of Andover (MA, USA) who provided me with important documents to collaborate the family stories: Michael Steinitz, ‘Report on Documentary Research: Shattuck Farm, Andover, Massachusetts’, Massachusetts Historical Commission, 1981; and The Townsman Directory of Andover, Mass for 1899 and 1904.
© 2011, Maureen R West
All Rights Reserved

26 March 2011

A Genealogical Journey

Welcome to my blog where I intend to explore my genealogical roots: connecting to the past, through research in the present, and sharing the knowledge for the future generations.

My journey began alongside my father, Wilfred West, in 1970 when he received two letters from the USA: one from Dorothy Anne West, a grand-daughter of James West and Sarah Ann Richardson, who had migrated from the English Fens to the United States in 1865, eventually settling in Lake County, Ohio; and the other from Randy Reynoldson, a descendant of Robert Reynoldson and Mary West who had migrated from Wisbech to Canada, before settling in Plum Creek, Nebraska in 1872.  My father responded with what he knew – quite a lot as it happened, which is no doubt why his English based family had provided everyone with our address in New Zealand.

The following months were busy as Dad compiled all that he knew, drew huge trees, and corresponded with his new found cousins, sharing the knowledge gained during generations on both sides of the Atlantic, and being distilled together in the Southern Hemisphere.  All the while I sat and watched, listened and absorbed, and began my lifetime genealogical journey (and obsession).

When Dad died in 1981 his papers, letters, photographs and charts were passed to me and I have continued to research our family history ever since.  The journey has taken me around the world, to England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, the United States of America, and Australia; and through the internet to many other places as well.  I have contacted many members of my extended family and to them I owe many debts - for without their knowledge I would not have been able to undertake this research.  Their generosity of spirit and hospitality is much appreciated.

I often wonder what my father and his cousins would make of the family research world of today: from their world of writing letters, hand drawing charts and waiting (and waiting) for a reply before the cycle began again, to that we inhabit today - where writing an email often gets an almost instant reply; all our data goes into a research database and it draws the charts; those longed for records can be accessed on the desk in our own home; and we can even attend seminars from other parts of the world in our own lounge (or bed if it is too early in the morning or late at night).

I hope that my periodic blogs will inspire you to continue to do your research and provide you with some entertainment along the way.

I will leave you with a thought for the day: 'To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain a child' (Cicero, I Caesar).

© 2011, Maureen R West
All Rights Reserved