Discovering our grandmother, Mary Friel

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Our Grandmother Mary Gallagher née Friel (Image thesilvervoice. Date unknown)

Our grandmother Mary Friel died many years before any of her grandchildren were born. We knew about her, as when we went from Carrigart to visit the many relations in Fanad in the next peninsula, a visit to her grave at Massmount was part of the itinerary, and was either the first or last port of call. Discovering her has taken a lifetime, as information about her is so scarce, and that is due in no small measure to the fact that she died so young, also her name is not recorded on the family headstone. Thoughts have turned to her now as we are about to commemorate the centenary of the birth of her eldest child, our Aunt May, and so I tried to piece together the story of her life. So who was she? What do we know about her?

Mary Friel was born on May 22 1882, the 2nd youngest of 8 children of John Friel, Carpenter, and Annie nee Coll of Pullid in Fanad. In 1896, her older sister Hannah or Nora, died at age 22 of consumption, or ‘phthisis’, which of course was Tuberculosis.  It must have been heartbreaking for the 14-year-old to stand at the grave of her older sister at Massmount graveyard.

Some five years or so later, the 1901 census has three of the Friel sisters residing at a shop in Balloor, Fanad owned by John Friel – possibly their father or another relation.  Older sister Katie, a seamstress aged 22 was the head of the household, with  Susan aged 19, a shop assistant and 17 year old Mary, also a seamstress. We see that all three girls were bilingual. By this time oldest sister Unie (born January 1871)  was married and living at Araheera with her husband John Friel and two of their children plus an extended family of in-laws.

1901 Census – 3 Friel sisters in Baloor Fanad

The second son of the family and one of only two Friel boys, Arthur (known as Art), joined the priesthood and in 1911 we find our grandmother Mary, together with her youngest sister Annie living with him at his home in Tangaveane, Graffy, near Glenties County Donegal. Art, Mary and Annie were close in age and presumably shared a close relationship. (The census form is filled out in the Irish language). It would not have been unusual for the sisters of a priest to act as his housekeepers.

1911 census – completed in Irish

The next event that I have been able to verify is the marriage of Mary and our grandfather James Gallagher on September 26 1915. They would have met because Fr. Art was the curate in the parish in which our grandfather had lived and worked as a school teacher. Fr Art, or Uncle Art as he is referred to in our family, officiated at their marriage in the church of Edeninfagh, Glenties and youngest sister Annie was one of the witnesses.

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The marriage photograph of Mary Friel and James Gallagher 1915.

Last summer for the first time I visited the church in Edeninfagh and found it quite emotional to be standing in the same place where they all gathered to celebrate the marriage. The church is in the hills of Donegal in a very quiet location.

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Edeninfagh Chapel in the misty hills of Donegal

The interior of the church, where our grandparents made their marriage vows.

Our grandfather was now teaching at Templedouglas National School in Glenswilly, so Mary would have moved there with him.  When expecting their first child, Mary, as was customary, returned to her mother’s home to give birth in May 1917. Again her youngest sister Annie was called upon to be godmother to their eldest child, our Aunt May.

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James Gallagher and Mary Friel with their firstborn, Mary Isabella Gallagher in 1917

Our aunt Eileen and our father Gerard were both born in Glenswilly in 1919 and 1921 respectively. The next location we have for them was at Ballyheerin, Fanad  where our grandfather was the local school teacher and it was here that they welcomed their next two sons Sean and Jim, into the world in 1921 and 1923.

Ballyheerin – the house with the slate roof in the centre of the picture, partially hidden behind the field, where our grandparents lived and where Sean and Seamus were born

In 1925 our grandmother experienced the loss of her mother Anna Friel, nee Coll and the following year in 1926, her father Sean (John) died.  In November 1928 her youngest sister Annie passed away at the tragically young age of 43, leaving a young family. These sorrowful events must have been very hard for our poor grandmother to endure.

The Gallagher family with their 5 children moved to Carrigart at a date that I have not yet established, but probably in the late 1920s,  when our grandfather became school principal at Mulroy National School. Our father used say that they looked at Ballyhogan House as a possible rental when they moved to Carrigart, but that his mother (always referred to as ‘Mama’ by all of her children) felt it was too far from the village and so they moved into the house at the top of the street, probably belonging to Mary Anne Maguire, proprietress of the Carrigart Hotel at the time.

Information and anecdotes about our grandmother are few and far between which is astonishing in itself. Aunt May, the eldest in the family told me that she was an excellent seamstress and made beautiful quilts, including one that had the rising sun as a centre piece. With hindsight I have a vague recollection of such a patchwork quilt on my bed when I was very young, but it is only in recent years that I have come to appreciate that I actually lived in the same house where our grandparents had lived and indeed where our grandmother died.  Apart from possibly the quilt, I have no memory of anything about them in the house, no photograph, no belongings, no memories at all.  Aunt May also told me that she and her mother used go to ‘the spout’ outside Carrigart village to collect buckets of fresh spring water.

Mary became ill when the children were quite young and according to our father, she spent a lot of time with her brother Fr. Art who was then a curate in Falcarragh. The curate had a housekeeper and could presumably look after his sister in her illness. Dad said he remembered visiting ‘Mama’ at Uncle Art’s house in Falcarragh and that they could only see her for a very short time as she was very tired.  She seems to have been there for a long time, but young children do have a different perspective of time. He recalls that they were upset that she could not go home with them. According to our neighbour, Mrs Duffy, our grandmother had undergone surgery for breast cancer in Dublin some time before she died. It was she who told me many years ago that she had breast cancer.

I once sat in on a discussion between most of Dad’s siblings and they all recalled being taken to her sick-bed in Carrigart one by one to say kiss and say goodbye to her. I cannot begin to imagine the trauma for the children, nor indeed for a mother having to go through such a deathbed scene. They all recall her saying/asking ‘what will become of poor little Seamus’ who was her youngest child, then only 6 years of age.

Aunt May told me that she herself  was a daily Mass goer and she remembers well on the Saturday morning arriving back home from Mass to be told that her mother had died. This was July 25 1931 and the children were then aged, 6, 8 10, 12 and 14 with Aunt May being the eldest.

The death certificate, which I only recently acquired, shows the cause of death as ‘Carcinoma of the liver, following amputation of breast. (9 months)’. It is very possible and highly probable that our grandmother suffered greatly during her illness. The limitations to pain relief almost a century ago do not bear thinking about. Her death must surly have come as a great relief to older people that her suffering had come to an end, but her children were bereft.

Obituary August 1931 – no mention of the five children!

When our grandmother died the old graveyard in Carrigart was full and the new graveyard had not yet been acquired, so her body was returned to Fanad to be laid to rest with her older sister Nora, her mother and her father, just yards from the grave of her youngest sister Annie. Aunt May seems to be the only one of the siblings to recall the funeral, so perhaps the others remained at home. She told me that after the funeral they went to a nearby establishment for a meal and it was here that she saw and ate baked beans for the first time in her life!

It was this grave that we visited every time we visited the many relations in Fanad. The inscriptions were in Irish and it never occurred to me then that her name was not on the memorial. The grave was opened again just a year later as her eldest brother Francis died in August 1932. His name is transcribed below that of his parents, followed by his wife.  A son of Francis and his wife are also buried here.

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The Friel Grave at Massmount Graveyard.

In recent years our father and his brothers had a plaque placed on the grave in memory of their mother, but it remains my wish to have her name inscribed on the headstone with her sister, mother, father and brother. At the time of writing Mary Friel has great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren. I like to think that they and their descendants would like to know about her. This is all we know.

As our father would often say..’Poor Mama ….God Rest them all’

 

 

 

 

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7 Comments

Filed under Family History, Ireland

7 responses to “Discovering our grandmother, Mary Friel

  1. It would be lovely to get her name on there not only for you but for future generation who may come looking for her once more.

  2. I’m sure you’ll find a way. I hope you are able to fill in in more of your grandmother’s story, but you already have discovered quite a lot. She certainly hasn’t been forgotten.

  3. This reminded me of my impression and feelings toward my grandfather who died many years before I was born. I’ve only seen one picture of him and I read a letter he sent my grandmother from the Pacific in WWII. Based on this, I imagine that he would have been a wonderful, fun-loving grandfather and I wish I could have met him.

  4. Great research there Angela, sticking together the fragments to reconstruct your grandmother’s story. Most of our ancestors are now gone without trace and without anyone having recorded even the basics of their lives. It’s a sad story but no doubt there were many happy and carefree times in Mary Friel’s life which aren’t so easily captured.

  5. A beautiful testimony to a tragic lif. It must have been so hard to leave her babies behind, but thankfully, as well as sadly, it was more common then than now,p. I was struck by the fact that both our grandmothers had mastectomies around the same time. My grandmother was more fortunate though and lived to 1952 so I got to meet her, and have distant, fond memories.

  6. Pingback: Aunt May: A life well lived. | A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND

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