History repeating

Picture: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

The humanities seem to always be under attack somewhere, whether through swingeing staff cutbacks in the UK or most emphatically now with Governor DeSantis’s “war on education” to enforce conformity of thinking across Florida universities that would actually reduce diversity and undermine academic freedoms.

It would be easy to simply state that both projects are driven by conservative authorities. It would be easy too to highlight that arts and humanities teach critical analytical and thinking skills that make for good dissidents, which historically, conservative authorities have not liked. So I won’t say that. I’ll say instead that the exposure to a wide range of philosophies (for want of a better word), critical approaches, and being trained in how to form arguments and spot bias are all huge and transferable assets that come with a humanities education.

Critical thinkers tend to suffer any time a government turns conservative and humanities subjects in universities take a hit if there’s a funding squeeze, as any academic working in a school of arts in this country can tell you from the last downturn.

I’m a historian, as well as a journalist and writer, and what’s happening in America alarms me greatly given how it is surely inevitable – particularly if DeSantis makes a serious run for the US presidency as anticipated – that a similar movement will bleed into Irish discourse,  One would like to think that it wouldn’t, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana said, sometimes misquoted as by Churchill as “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

History sometimes gets a bad rep as a subject that is difficult to study, full of dates and events. That’s an antiquated way of teaching and learning history. Dates are important, no doubt, but the emphasis long ago switched to how and why things happened more than simply when and who did them.

Some schools of thinking in history argue that the duty of a historian is to “tell it like it was”. EH Carr, back in the 1960s, argued that history (or history writing at least) was a sort of ongoing process between the events and the day of the historian. This is still an important point, because one’s understanding of and writing about the past can be shaped profoundly by one’s present, something which incidentally became a theme in my PhD. Other historians eschew that and focus on pure analysis. But there’s no point analysing something the reader (or listener) doesn’t know. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the converted and speaking into an echo chamber of perhaps a handful of people. Whatever the perspective, history is, rather than a dusty collection of ancient thoughts and events, a living, breathing thing that needs appreciation and even some nurturing.

Take a walk around and you’ll walk through history. If I walk through Cork city centre, for instance, I can see the house my philandering great great grandfather Michael Verling lived in with his first family, the quays where he loaded and unloaded cargo, the customs office where my (not philandering) great great grandfather Daniel Mahoney worked following his naval career. I can visit churches where my ancestors were baptised. For years I walked past all these things not knowing they were part of my own history. I’ve spent the last number of years reclaiming it, if that makes sense.

An extract from Daniel Mahoney’s naval record referring to his service in the coastguard from Hastings, England, after naval service in Crimea

They key point here is that, compared to four years ago, I actually know where my ancestors come from, and even that I have relatives hitherto unknown (and me to them) alive and well in Missouri. The analytical skills picked up from my training as a historian and journalist have helped me sift through the documentation. One might not immediately think of a genealogy project as history, but in this project alone I can show my family’s connection to the Crimean War, steam ferries up and down Cork Harbour, and the mining industry in Kansas and Missouri. These are parts of a wider story, a wider history, that of Ireland and its diaspora. Your family has its ties to history as well.

However, timelines and timespans can be lost on people (and to be fair it’s hard to visualise things). That said, a teacher of my acquaintance was recently tearing her hair out that so many of her students had no idea how long the human species had existed. The guesses ranged from 15,000 years to hundreds. Hundreds! It explains why my son, who is 9, asked me recently if we used horses to get around when I was a child. I’m not yet 40. I just feel old.

There isn’t a movement in history that hasn’t used, well, history to support itself one way or the other. There are sound reasons. Showing a tradition, for example. Drawing inspiration from the past is another. The problem is that a lack of historical literacy makes it difficult to understand when history is being co-opted for contemporary purposes – how some members of the current Sinn Féin lay claim to the anti-Treaty fighters who would not see them as successors? – and so don’t have the tools to challenge it. And it should be challenged as often as possible.

Michael Verling – man overboard

It’s not often that your ancestor’s death graces the pages of a daily newspaper, but this is how the then Cork Examiner reported the death of my great great grandfather Michael Verling in October 1886. There was a terrible storm across Ireland and Britain which resulted in a number of fatalities at sea, including two crew members from the same shipping company which were combined into one story for the Examiner.

For clarity, the relevant part for us here says: “The SS Upupa, belonging to the same [shipping] company, was the scene of the second fatality, which happened while the vessel was at sea, on her way from London to Plymouth, for Cork. During the story of the previous night some hands were at work on the forepart of the vessel, and amongst them was a man named Verling, formerly captain of the Erin, one of the boats of the Citizens’ River Steamers Company. A wave breaking over the steamer carried the unfortunate man overboard, and he was swept out of the sight of his companions in an instant. Under the existing circumstance it was impossible to rescue the man from his doom. He leaves a wife and several children to mourn his loss.”

This is the Upupa on the right, immortalised in rescuing the crew of a ship called the Clan MacDuff, though I have no idea if Michael was on board at that stage. I imagine the stormy conditions here were not a million miles away from the night Michael died

It’s interesting that it says “wife and several children” because that glosses over the fact that he had children with two women, and that he had married the mother of his daughter Mary (Minnie) after his first wife Martha died. There’s nothing in my family lore that says children from his first marriage lived with his second family – in fact one of his daughters, Catherine, appears to have been listed as an orphan in Haulbowline school (an island in Cork Harbour) while Michael was still alive. Michael was from Cobh, then Queenstown, so it’s possible she lived with some of his relatives because Cobh and Haulbowline are easily reachable by boat. Coincidentally, I grew up not far from Haulbowline.

Catherine Verling-Tracy with an unknown child (photo via my American cousin Mary)

This is her in later years, by the way, after she had moved to Missouri to live near some of her siblings and her mother’s kin. She appears to have been a bit of a badass and nursed a fierce rage for Michael and how he had treated her mother. He certainly had a severe drink problem though whether he had tamed it in later life I cannot say, only that Minnie is said to have spoken highly of him.

Whoever wrote the Examiner report had obviously spoken to people who had been on board the Upupa (my uncle heard his mother mention this name once while they were travelling on a bus and it stuck with him all his life; the ship itself later sank) because the details included about his death are not in the official log of sea deaths. This is it:

It says: “Knocked overboard. The strap on which the hatch blocked was hooked on broke & struck Verling, pitching him overboard”.

That’s it, the total official log of my great great grandfather’s death. The Examiner report is more poetic, if grim.

It says something about Michael’s reputation that it was important for the Examiner reporter to refer to his captaincy of the Erin, a steam ferry that travelled up and down the harbour and in particular stopped at Michael’s hometown of Queenstown. This was… a problematic captaincy. He was a very popular captain but ended up prosecuted for a collision, the details of which I’ve transcribed into a small book for family and which I will explore a bit in a later post.

O’Mahony and Verling children in Cork

Maura and Michael O’Mahony at Tonyville, High Street, Cork,

Meet Maura O’Mahony, my grandaunt. She’s here with her brother, my grandfather Michael, outside their house in Tonyville, Cork, just up the street from where their mother Minnie Verling lived at the time of her marriage.

Maura is about 4 or 5 here. My grandfather, who with the blazer, tie, and glasses looks well into his 20s, is actually about 17 or 18 we think. Maura was by all accounts his great favourite and he taught her to whistle, which she did all the time once she had mastered it.

Maura had Down syndrome. She was born in 1927 when her mother was 47 and her father 53, and she was probably the last of their seven children (I can’t find the birth date for one, Celia, which either means she was either born after 1921 – more recent birth records aren’t available on irishgenealogy.ie – or registered under a different name. I have found several of these incidents in my family tree).

Poor Maura died of scarlet fever in 1936 when she was just 9, in Cork Dental Hospital, at a time when scarlet fever, dyptheria, whooping cough and other illnesses were rampant. Because of the limit on what birth records are available I didn’t even know about her until my aunt referred to her while we were discussing other relatives. Even my father didn’t seem to know about her. Every now and then I like to make sure she isn’t forgotten.

She, alas, was not the only O’Mahoney (or Mahoney, or O’Mahony, the records alternate) from that family to die in childhood.

Her brother Daniel Joseph died in 1913 at the age of 3 of “hydrocephalus and exhaustion”. Heartbreakingly, the death record shows he died at home with his mother. He was their first child, and my relatives had not heard of him so I like to think I’ve contributed to research in that way. Hydrocephalus is a build-up of fluid in the brain and a child can be born with it – possibly because the mother was infected with mumps or measles while pregnant – or it can develop after birth. Either way it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the brain so I don’t like to think about what he went through. I do, though, like Maura, like to make sure he is not forgotten.

The death registration of baby Daniel, age 3

Daniel’s death, incidentally, is also the breaking of a chain. I can find Daniels in the family all the way back to the early 1800s, but after Daniel Joseph’s death I can find no more.

Child mortality also befell Minnie’s father’s children. I choose the words deliberately because Minnie (Mary) was born after an affair between her father Michael and a woman called Mary Madden. She was their only child, but Michael had had at least 11 with his wife, Martha Kenneally.

The many children of Michael Verling and Mary Kenneally

In many cases, I was unable to find a death registration, though I deduced that previously siblings had died because the names were reused. This seems grim, but it was a way of remembering the dead children. So Thomas William Verling, died 1868, is followed that same year by William James Verling. There are also a number of Marys in the family – Mary (Maria, 1863-67), Mary Kate (b. 1871), Mary Margaret (b.1873), and finally Mary (b.1875).

I did, and still do, think of them often. For if I don’t, who will?

When I did my initial detective work it seemed very much as if his entire line had died out (I could only find one child who lived to adulthood, Hannah, who dropped off the records after that) when his son Michael John died in 1882 in Cork Fever Hospital, now long gone. Until… an unexpected DNA match and message from Kansas City, where not one, not two, not three, but four of the missing Verling children (as they were to me at that time) had emigrated and built lives for themselves. They seem to have had in many ways a wild existence, which in itself befits the sort of wild reputation I can find for their father (a brute to Martha when drunk according to his daughter in the US, almost a saint according to his daughter Minnie). But more of that anon.