Earlier this year I made a return trip to the birthplace of our grandfather James Gallagher in Mulnamina, near Glenties in County Donegal. Our grandfather never knew any of his 14 grandchildren as he had died before any of us were born, yet he loomed large in our lives as we were frequent visitors to his family home, where his elder brother John and his youngest sister Maggie lived for all of their lives and who always had a warm welcome for us.
This was a place of wonder to us growing up, and we loved to visit on warm summer Sundays. Uncle John and Aunt Maggie had never married and were the last surviving members of their family of ten siblings. Situated on the side of a hill overlooking the Gwebarra Estuary, the house was well sheltered from storms and prevailing winds. There was no running water and no electricity and the kettle hung over the open turf fire on a crane. Soon after our arrival a fresh cake of bread, made in a flat oven with embers on top of the lid,was produced for our tea. There was always a choice of homemade jams too. We piled in on a form at the table (no chairs at the table, only forms) and loved eating the fresh bread covered with beautiful jam, while sitting there in the flag floored kitchen with the lovely scent of burning turf.
Our car was parked at the bottom of the lane, as it was not possible to drive up the steep hill, so we ran up the rest of the way. We ran across in front of the house next door, through the gate and into the warm kitchen to announce our arrival, and then away out again to explore. There were a few outhouses – a turf shed, a cow byre and a hen-house that I remember, a dog who slept in a fabulously fashioned stone kennel, a beautiful pale donkey and a long path that wound up the hill to summer pasture where the cows grazed and where white heather grew. White heather was said to be ‘lucky’ and Aunt Maggie would send Uncle John with us up ‘the mountain’ along the well-worn cattle path in search of it. Sometimes we found some, sometimes we didn’t, but we always enjoyed the search! And on every visit we implored Uncle John to go up with us, just to look for some.
In later years we learned that this was the house of our great grandparents, Daniel and Isabella Gallagher. As children it never occurred to us that anyone other than the people we met had lived there! So, who were they and what could we discover about them?
Daniel Gallagher son of John Gallagher of Mulnamina and Isabella nee Mulloy, daughter of John Mulloy of Strasallagh, Glenties were married on February 2, 1874. The Roman Catholic marriage register shows that they were first cousins. Dispensation had been granted in respect of 4th degree of consanguinity to enable them to marry in the church. The witnesses were Conal and Bridget Gallagher.
Daniel and Isabella had 10 children.
Ellen, born December 2, 1874 in Strasallagh. (I wonder if Isabella went home to her mother, as was the tradition in Ireland, for the birth of her first child)
John was born August 19, 1876 in Mulnamina, the place of birth of all subsequent children)
Ann born Jul 18, 1878
Mary born on June 4, 1880
Bridget arrived on June 1, 1882
Catherine born May 22, 1884
James born March 15, 1886
Sarah born September 28, 1888
Rose born August 12, 1890
Margaret born December 28, 1893
The next reference to them we can find is on the 1901 census, which can be seen here. I remember the extraordinary emotion of seeing our great grandfather’s beautiful writing and his signature on the census return, when I first laid eyes on it a few years ago when the Irish census became available online. We can see that the elder two children, John and Ellen are not at home on census night, and that the family spoke both Irish and English. The household return shows that they had a 2nd class thatched house with three rooms and 3 windows plus 3 out buildings – a cowhouse, a fowl house and a piggery.
Ellen, Mary and Bridget are absent on the night of the 1911 census, which can be viewed here. Annie has been married for a year and is now Brennan. We don’t know if she was still living at home or possibly returned to her mother to give birth to her first child, or simply visiting. In this census we learn that Isabella had 10 children during 38 years of marriage and that all are still living. The house is still thatched and a barn has been added to the outhouses.
The house had been slated at some stage, and I certainly do not recall it being thatched, but it is still the original house with its three windows, one in the kitchen and one in each of the two bedrooms. The kitchen was in the middle of the house with the bedrooms at each end. It is odd to think that many were born here, that all of them lived here, and that some of them died here – here in this wee house that we knew so well.
The little house is now unoccupied and is gradually disappearing under encroaching foliage. The first view of it as I reached the gate was so familiar and the fuchsia bushes were looking splendid on what was a very wet day.
Unfortunately I was not able to get even the length of the house as the vegetation was too dense and as I was alone I did not want to risk having a fall.
It is strange to think that when we played here as children we had no idea in whose footsteps we were walking nor of the family history that had unfolded here. We walked in the same yard and same fields and paths where our great grandparents had walked and worked and loved and laughed. We had played in the same places where all of our great aunts and great-uncle and grandfather had played, where they did their schoolwork by candle light or by the light of a tilley lamp, where they collected apples and eggs, and heard the sound of badgers and spoke in Irish and English. And we did not know that we were walking on paths made smooth by our ancestors.
The next references to our great grandparents and their family are to be found in death records. Four of those who lived here, also died here.
First was Isabella who died on 16 November 1925, almost 92 years ago. She was 76 years old and had been in poor health for a few years. Cause of death was chronic bronchitis and heart failure. Ellen’s husband Andrew Mc Dwyer was present at death.
Only 9 months later, their 6th child Kate died on 2 September 1926. She had suffered from TB and cardiac failure for several years. Her brother James, our grandfather, who was then living in Carrigart, was present at death. Her death may well have been expected if he made the journey back to Mulnamina in her last days. Kate was 42.
Daniel died on July 16 1929 at the age of 87, after only a short illness of influenza that developed into pneumonia. He died after 5 days. His eldest son John was present at death.
Many years later on February 26, 1966, Uncle John died just five months short of his 90th birthday. The cause of death was cerebral thrombosis and senility.His nephew Danny O’Donnell was present at death.
These four coffins made their last journey back down that lane that we loved to run up. The tragedy is that we do not know where Isabella, Kate and Daniel are buried as it seems no-one thought to ask. It is very strange also that neither my father nor his siblings remembered these grandparents, although the eldest Aunt May was 12 years old when Daniel died. John is buried in the new graveyard in Glenties with Maggie who died in 1979 in Dungloe hospital.
Our father, his sisters and brothers had no idea who their Gallagher Grandmother was, not even her name. They ‘thought’ she may have been Doherty from Lough Finn. They seemed to know nothing about her at all, in spite of the fact that as youngsters they spent summer holidays in Mulnamina. I recall our father asking one of his first cousins, Bella Brennan, if she had any idea who she was and she didn’t know. The subject often came up about who she might have been, but she remained a mystery woman. Fascinating now in hindsight as at least four and possibly five of her grandchildren were named Isabella after her! I am absolutely delighted that my own 6-year-old granddaughter Isabella, proudly carries her great great great grandmother’s beautiful name. I hope she would be pleased!