Caherea and The Family of Thomas Griffin & Mary Clohessy: 1821-1961

Comments by Paddy Waldron at the book launch

Templegate Hotel, Ennis, 23 Jun 2018, 3p.m.-6p.m.

Thank you to Noel Hill for the musical entertainment.  I understand that he is related by marriage to some of the Griffins, but we will have to await a book on the Hill family for the precise details.

Tá fáilte romhaibh go léir, go h-áirithe roimh na daoine a tháinig anseo go Condae an Chláir ó Baile Átha Cliath agus áiteanna eile don ocáid seo.

Gabhaim buíochas le Conal faoin cuireadh a thug sé dom labhairt libh anseo inniú.

Comhgairdeachais leis and le na comh-údair eile a chabhraigh leis san obair fada seo.  Conal tells me that he has been working on this book for five long years.

It was right at the end of that period, just two weeks ago yesterday, that I got an e-mail from my friend Ciara Breathnach, who is the course director of the MA in History of Family at the University of Limerick, telling me about this book and book launch, and suggesting that I would be an appropriate speaker here today, to put this book into the context of the wider ancestral story of the Griffin family, the Griffin surname, genealogy in general, the local history of County Clare and the history of the revival of the Irish language.

You can decide when I have finished if she was correct.  She and I have a private joke about what she calls "hairy molly questions" that I have asked after her lectures, but she has got her own back on me today.

Ciara draws a significant distinction between History of Family, as taught at UL, and Family History as practiced by less academic types like myself and Conal and his co-authors.

Surname history might be viewed as yet another different field of study, nowadays mostly associated with the examination of mutations on the Y-chromosome, mutations which are passed from father to son like the surname.  As you probably know, only men have Y chromosomes; women have a second X chromosome instead.

Up to a fortnight ago, all that I knew about Caherea is that in recent years it had one of the more ridiculous collections of speed limits that I have come across - 50km/hour on the long straight stretch of road alongside the Griffin farm; 50km/hour around the dangerous bends to the west; and then 100km/hour outside the new(ish) National School further west.  Actually, it still has ridiculous speed limits, as the limit around the dangerous bends is now 100km/hour.

I knew a little more about the Griffin surname than I did about Caherea.

Griffin has long been a prominent surname in the town of Kilkee, where I spent all my childhood holidays and where I am still a regular visitor from my home at the other end of the county in Killaloe.

Some of the descendants of the Caherea Griffins too still holiday in Kilkee - one of the contributors to this book was there only last weekend and was introduced to me, via telephone, by a mutual acquaintance.

This year we are celebrating the centenary of votes for some women in parliamentary elections.

The introduction of County Councils in 1898 brought votes for some women in local elections.

Some of the first women elected under the 1898 reforms were members of the Kilkee Town Commissioners, incorporated in 1901 under the 1854 Town Improvement (Ireland) Act.

Mrs Anne Bruce and Mrs Amy Griffin were among the first 12 Kilkee town commissioners elected in 1901.

Amy Griffin was born Griffin here in Ennis in the mid-1850s.  She grew up mostly in Kilbaha, where she is remembered as a poet, painter and diarist.  Her best-known poetic work is The Five Pilots, and her diaries were brought to national attention by her greatniece Rachel Burrows on Sunday Miscellany.  Amy married the widowed Dr John Griffin, who was about 12 years older than her own father, in Kilkee in 1883.  They were probably distantly related to each other.  She was widowed by 1886.  By the time she died in 1910, she was chairman of the Town Commissioners.

There is an unproven tradition that both Amy and her husband descend from the Griffins of Glaunalappa in County Kerry.

Another unsignposted townland on the Ennis to Kilrush road, at the far side of Lissycasey, is Kinlea, which you may know from the roadside chocolate shop established there in recent years.  The Griffins of Kinlea House also claim roots across the estuary, in their case in Shanagolden in County Limerick.  They also claim a close relationship to a better-known Griffin author, Gerald Griffin, best known for fictionalising the story of the Colleen Bawn.  Mary Hester née Griffin from the Kinlea family gave Conal a lot of help with this book.

By coincidence, in 1908 the writer Gerald Griffin's niece, Miss Geraldine L. Griffin, was also elected to the Kilkee Town Commissioners, which thus had two female Griffins among their number a decade before Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the national parliament in Westminster or Dublin or wherever.  In 1911, Geraldine Griffin was involved in the movement for the founding of an Irish College at Carrigaholt in memory of Eugene O'Curry.

There was a third Griffin family living in Kilkee while Amy and Geraldine Griffin were on the town commissioners, and that family have a very different story of the origins of their surname (and their Y chromosome).

James Griffin, known as Séamaisín Sheáin Phádraig, died in Kilkee at an advanced age on 28 May 1906.  In the census just over five years earlier, he said that he was 88 and his death certificate and his tombstone both say that he died at 93.  His son Seamus Mór Ó Gríobhtha said that his father was 96 when he died.

Of course, he died before the introduction of the Old Age Pension in 1909 and the establishment of Hallmark Cards in 1910, so he lived in an era when most people neither knew nor cared when they were born, and even if they knew, might not want to admit to the truth.

Nevertheless, this is just one example of the challenges and difficulties of compiling an accurate family history, whether from oral and written family traditions or what Conal described to me as the "scribbly bits" passed down from her ancestors; from online and offline official records; and/or from DNA analysis.

Family historians quickly learn that some family myths like fake news become enshrined as fact, while other facts fade rapidly from family memory.

I can date one of my early encounters with the Kilkee Griffins back to a precise date almost 40 years ago - Monday 23 October 1978, and my mother's funeral mass.  I was only 15, but I was already an avid genealogist, and I had cross examined my mother at length about her ancestors, of whom she knew very little.  As I read the reconstructions in this book of the lives of the seven Griffin siblings from Caherea, I was reminded of how I neglected to cross-examine my mother on her own early life.

Somehow my mother had become a member of the Dominican Third Order.  When she first moved from Mayo to Dublin to work in the civil service, she may have lived in a residence for innocent country girls somewhere around Henrietta Street, which may have been run by the Dominicans.  I remember childhood visits from Brother Augustine and other clergymen, who were probably Dominicans.

In any event, the Dominican Order sent a priest to concelebrate her funeral mass.  He introduced himself to the family before the mass and apologised that he hadn't known my mother.  His name in religion was Fr. Hilary Griffin.

I have never believed in the theory of six degrees of separation.  It's much less than that.  As an example, it didn't take Conal and myself long to figure out that he worked with my first cousin in Aer Lingus, or that his father-in-law Charlie Murray did his Leaving Certificate in the same year as my father, 1934, so that his results appeared (well above my own father's) in the printed lists in my family archives.  Having worked in academia at the time that anonymous marking was introduced and having seen how the mania for so-called data protection has hampered genealogical research in recent years and especially in recent weeks thanks to GDPR, I hope that revealing that information wont lead to a visit to my house by the Data Protection Commissioner with a shredding machine.

Similarly, it emerged before my mother's funeral that the strange Dominican priest was from Kilkee, son of Seamus Mór Ó Gríofa.  While he never knew my mother, probably having been in Lisbon while she was involved with his Dominican colleagues, his family and my father's family were intimately acquainted.

Thankfully, I don't have to spell his name - his father appears to have spelled it with two Ls (see his letter reproduced on page 80), but his nephew who edited the "cúntas ar chlann Uí Gríofa", spells it with one L.  Another challenge of family history.

Those who changed their names on entering religious life are another bugbear of the family historian.  I was delighted to learn from the same letter that Fr Hillary was originally called Seanán, after the local patron saint, St. Senan of Scattery Island (where Mícheál Ó Gríofa never taught, despite a family tradition to the contrary).

On that one and only, sadly memorable, occasion when I met Fr. Hilary, I was already familiar with other members of his family.

My grandmother was from just outside Kilkee, and some of her half-sister's daughters and their sister-in-law had worked in a dress-making business run by Fr Hilary's mother.

Fr Hilary's brother Paddy was in the Irish army and was an enthusiastic fisherman as were my younger brothers, so I met him occasionally fishing for mackerel at Dunlickey Castle near Kilkee.

I had it in the back of my head that Fr. Hilary's father, Seamus Mór, was friendly with my grandfather, who worked in the Post Office in Limerick and in Dublin, but who had no connection with Kilkee until he met my grandmother in Limerick.

I never committed the details of the connection between the Waldrons and the Griffins to writing, and now anyone who could remind me has passed on.

I couldn't find Seamus Mór in Kilkee in the 1901 or 1911 census - and I still haven't found his marriage record or birth records for his four sons and one daughter.

But a lightbulb finally went off in my head when I got to page 194 of this book and realised that Seamus Mór also worked in the Post Office, as a linesman, presumably on telegraph lines, as he was born six years before the invention of the telephone.

His 1955 death certificate confirms that he was a retired P.O. Engineering Official.  The death was registered by Dr. Thomas O'Dea.  By coincidence his son James O Dea was the last man to invite me to address a family gathering here in Ennis, the O'Dea Clan Gathering last month.

Likewise, my childhood recollections were that Séamus Mór was, like his distant cousin Mícheál Ó Gríofa, strongly associated with the Irish language.

In the small hours of yesterday morning, I found obituaries of Séamus Mór and of his son and namesake, another Dominican priest and yet another Seamus.  The son's obituary confirmed that Seamus Mhor O Gríobha worked hard for the revival of the Irish language.

It is worth reading this extract from the obituary of the father published in what was then The Cork Examiner on 6 Oct 1955:

"He was the oldest native Irish speaker in the district and was also a well-known seanachaidhe and folklorist. One of the first men in Clare to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, he had the confidence of such men as Seán Heuston, Cathal Brugha, Seán McDermott and Peadar Clancy. He served from an early age until he retired in the Post Office Engineering Department and was responsible during the War of Independence for having six rifles carried to Carrigaholt, West Clare, for the use of the local Volunteers [That incident may be mentioned in some of the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements]. Born in the West Clare Gaeltacht area, he was a native Irish speaker and was responsible for the holding of numerous feiseanna and Irish classes in Clare over a long period of years. With Brian O'Higgins and Seán O Muirthile and a few others [including his namesake Miss Geraldine Griffin, not mentioned in the obituary] he was responsible for the establishment of the now famed O'Curry Irish College, Carrigaholt, of which he was a trustee."

Despite recent problems with the local fire safety officer, that College still operates as a memorial to both Griffin families.

The obituaries confirm that the Ó Gríofa family are buried together in a family plot in Kilfearagh outside Kilkee.  Luckily I photographed the tombstones on a visit there on 3 July 2009.  The fact that all the inscriptions are as Gaeilge in the sean-chló, through which the older members of the audience will have learned Irish, might explain why they are missing from the transcriptions made in the mid-1980s and available on the Clare County Library website at clarelibrary.ie.  The man in charge of that transcription project, George Harratt, was born in England to a Clare mother, so probably had very little Irish.

Given Mícheál Ó Gríofa's prominent role in the revival of the Irish language, I think I should say something here about the modernisation of the language in the 20th century.

The Ó Gríofa family were still able to find a monumental sculptor able to use the sean-chló right up to the most recent burial in the family plot in 2001.

De Valera chose Mícheál Ó Gríofa to translate his constitution.  Later Dev supported the stance on standard forms and spellings taken by another man with West Clare roots, Tomás de Bhaldraithe, my father's double first cousin, when he compiled the authoritative English-Irish dictionary in the cló Románach in the 1950s.

This was despite opposition from traditionalists among the civil servants in the Department of Education.

The official elimination of the sean-chló was completed by the Caighdeán Oifigiúil, published under the supervision of Seamas Daltún, chief translator in Dáil Éireann, and married to another de Bhaldraithe, my auntie Kit, parents of Conal's former Aer Lingus colleague Antoin Daltún.

Most of you will be familiar with Dev Óg, the Galway Teachta Dála Éamon Ó Cuiv, grandson of Éamon de Valera.

His paternal grandparents were Shán Ó Cuív and Shuván ní Chuív.  If you want to see just how little standardisation there was in the spelling of Irish when Mícheál Ó Gríofa was active in the Irish language movement, search for their 1911 census return, where you will have to spell the name C U I-fada V.

Future genealogists and those digitising records from the early years of the Irish Free State will face unprecedented challenges when records such as the 1926 census are released, as nobody knows how many of those enumerated in 1926 followed the example set by some of the Ó Gríofas in 1911 by completing the census return in Irish.

As a member of the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, I had the opportunity to lobby both Éamon Ó Cuív and Jimmy Deenihan on the subject of the 1926 census.  The 2011 programme for government included a commitment to make a minor amendment to the Statistics Act to allow the immediate release of the 1926 census.  This was over-ruled by civil servants in the Central Statistics Office, who clearly have more power than their counterparts had in Dev's time.  The 1926 census remains subject to a hundred-year rule.  How many transcribers familiar with the sean-chló will be around on 1 January 2027 and when subsequent censuses are released to genealogists?

It was only on the 12th of January this year that I was given a copy of the Cúntas, which I circulated among some of my fellow local historians in West Clare, who have been struggling to make sense of it.  I didn't realise that my good friend Paddy Nolan had been independently circulating it to Conal and others, who have struggled even more to make sense of it, since Conal's copy is missing the initial page of explanatory notes.

The Cúntas is the account of the family history as spoken by Séamaisín Sheáin Phádraig, later written down by his son Seamus Mór, later again rewritten or typed by his son Fr. Hilary, and finally digitised by his nephew, yet another Séamus, Séamus Francis Griffin of Bolton in England.

One of the more intriguing parts of the Cúntas is the account of the surname origins:

"As far as I can gather there was a tradition often mentioned when I was a child that the first Griffin of our line was a Welshman – or supposed to be – who had been shipwrecked on the West coast of Clare, somewhere near Miltown Malbay. I don’t know when. He married and settled down in Annagh about a mile South of Miltown Malbay.  Part of the remains of the family mansion is still there."

Edward McLysaght does say in his book "Surnames of Ireland" that some Irish Griffins are of Welsh origin, i.e. that their original surname is Griffith.

There are currently 369 members who have made their Y-DNA results public in the DNA Surname Project for those whose surnames begin with G R I F F at griffdna.org.

We need just one of the many living male Griffin greatgrandsons of Thomas Griffin and Mary Clohessy (or of the Kilkee Griffins) to sign up for the DNA project in order to enable the experts to determine whether or not they come from the same lineage as the other Clare Griffins who claim Kerry or Limerick origins rather than Welsh origins.

I actually wonder if Griffy, which appears in a lot of the early Caherea records, was the original Welsh name and Griffin the original Kerry name.

There is a donation box here today to cover the printing costs of the book.

If there are surplus funds, perhaps Conal could be persuaded to use them to pay for Y chromosome analysis, which costs between 129 US dollars for the basic analysis up to over 500 US dollars for the most sophisticated analysis.

The Cúntas leaves the precise relationship between the Kilkee and Caherea Griffins as vague as it does the surname origins.  Conal started out with a book on the descendants of his grandparents, and then wisely confined this book to the descendants of his greatgrandparents.

The challenge for whoever takes up the mantle next is to go back to the previous generations, whose names are merely guessed at or left blank on the tree on page 41.

The family whose history is recorded in this book was just one of several Griffin families in Caherea in the early 19th century.

In the Tithe Applotment Book of 10 Apr 1826, there were already five Griff* occupiers in Cahirea.
Michael & James Griffy, with a Y, in Cahirea East Upper, and three other Griffees with a double E:
Denis Griffee, James Conlon & Patt Gavin, Cahirea East Upper
Griffee     John in Cahirea West Tubber/Toberaniddeen
Griffee     Malachy           Cahirea West     Clondagad     Lismorrice

In Griffith's Valuation in 1855, the combined effects of the Famine and the redrawing of townland boundaries by the Ordnance Survey had reduced the number of Griffin occupiers in Caherea from five to three, namely Malachi Griffin, Thomas Griffin and his subtenant John Griffin.  The records in the Valuation Office in Dublin, which are still offline, will provide valuable clues about the descent of their landholdings through the generations.

Like Thomas, Malachy had a son James who became a National School Teacher, in Tonlegee.  Unlike the teachers in the Caherea family and many other National Teachers in County Clare and elsewhere, that James did not marry another teacher.  The subject of teachers marrying teachers deserves a book of its own, and indeed has one, dealing with a famous case in Fanore.  It had never occurred to me until I read in this book about John McMahon from Kilrush, husband of Brigid Griffin, that there were National Teachers in Clare who had married TWO fellow teachers.

I also assumed from my study of teachers that women teachers were exempt from the laws that saw other professional women like my own mother fired for getting married.  So I was surprised to read on page 196 of the government decision which forced ALL married teachers to retire early.  If there was such a decision, I very much doubt that it applied to male married teachers.  But that is almost the only minor error that evaded Conal's very diligent proof-reading.

Conal's next challenge might be to produce a book on Malachy Griffin of Caherea and his descendants similar to this book on his neighbour Old Tom.

For now, all that remains for me is to declare this book officially launched, insofar as one can launch a book which will not be sailing out into the local bookshops.