Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The French Horn

One of the greatest thrills from doing family history research is that occasionally what goes around, comes around. Over the last couple of years I have been corresponding with a cousin of my wife's, Paddy Nolan, on a shared part of our family tree concerning the Giles and Nolan families of Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. I've been sending finds at this end to Paddy, he's been reciprocating with finds at his end, and together we have achieved a lot in unravelling the shared part of our respective family stories.

As a part of this, some time ago Paddy sent through a photograph of my wife's father, Paddy Giles (1926-2001), which depicted him in the uniform of a Local Defence Force volunteer playing with the Carrick-on-Suir Brass Band (originally the Carrick-on-Suir Brass and Reed Band). The LDF was a local defensive group set up to prepare for the possibility of an invasion during the Second World War, known in the Republic of Ireland today as the 'Emergency', as Ireland was neutral throughout. It was an extraordinary find, not just because it was the first time we had seen him in an LDF uniform, but more so because we did not know he played an instrument. Front and centre though, Paddy sits there in the image with a French horn. This is the picture...

Last November, there was a further development. Following the recent passing of their brother, Midge (Eugene), Paddy Nolan and his brother Pierce (top photo), who still resides in Carrick, had been in conversation about the family history research being compiled, and during their conversation came across the above photo. It transpired that Pierce had in his possession the very same French horn that Paddy Giles once played in his youth.

Paddy Giles was in the LDF and the band for a couple of years, but when he left (after the war, to join the RAF), the French horn was duly passed to Pierce as Paddy's successor. Pierce continued to play with the band for just under a year, before he too eventually left. At that point the French horn left Pierce's possession, and that was seemingly that - until a happy venture at a recent local auction in the town saw Pierce purchasing the instrument once again. During their discussion, Pierce had indicated that he would like to give my wife the instrument that her father once owned and played - if ever we were in the Carrick area, we could pop in to pick it up. Needless to say we were absolutely delighted!

Last weekend, we were indeed once again in the area, and arranged to meet up with Pierce. We had a wonderful conversation with him about Carrick in the past, the role his grandfather had in establishing the brass band in the first place, and confirmed that Paddy Giles' father was also involved with the band in earlier years, though to what extent we have still to establish.

But there was more... Pierce sat us down beside his computer and promptly showed us an extraordinary collection of photographs from his family's past, including both Giles and Nolan members. The highlight was a photo of Paddy Giles as a child, believed have been taken in approximately 1942, marching with the LDF in a parade through the Main Street of Carrick-on-Suir, possibly as part of a recruiting drive. Patrick C. Power's book, Carrick-on-Suir Town & District 1800-2000, notes such a parade on St Patrick's Day 1941 (p.315) - it may well be the same parade. At this stage Paddy was not playing an instrument, but was merely shadowing one of the members as he learned the ropes. The following is the image...

This cropped detail of the picture shows Paddy, marching behind Pierce Nolan's father Henry (Harry) Francis Nolan, carrying the band's sheet music for them - the French horn itself can be seen in the image also, on the far left, with the gentleman with the mop of hair looking down as he plays it:

I asked Pierce how he knew that the French horn purchased at auction was the same one? The answer was simple - the instrument was partially damaged one day when Paddy Giles dropped it on the Main Street! The dent that it left was of a unique shape, and it was this that Pierce recognised instantly at the auction.

Later in the evening, Claire and I returned home, after thanking Pierce for his generous gift. In the house of Paddy's widow, my mother-in-law Pauline Giles, several of Paddy's grandchildren were present, including my sons Calum and Jamie. An instrument is for playing, and so we allowed them each to try to get a note from it!

The French horn is now very tarnished, and we will seek advice now on whether it should be cleaned and restored, or left as is, before doing anything further with it. But the experience was absolutely extraordinary, and one for whom we are forever indebted to Pierce Nolan, and to his brother Paddy.

Family history does not get much better than this.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Chasing the Chaseley back from Brisbane to Largs

I've previously blogged how in 2010 I was able to visit Paton Street and Bell Street at Brisbane's Kangaroo Point, within the Australian state of Queensland. Paton Street was named after my four times great aunt, Helen Paton, who emigrated with her husband David Bell in 1849 to Queensland on board the Chaseley, one of a series of ships arranged by the Reverend John Dunmore Lang to take Presbyterian settlers to Australia, with the enticement of land for cotton plantations that was soon discovered to be non-existent upon their arrival. The blog post is available at

The connections to where I now live here in the North Ayrshire town of Largs and the Australian city of Brisbane are very deep - Brisbane itself was named after the local Brisbane family, with Thomas Makdougall Brisbane the first governor of the colony (and later city) that still bears his name. The Reverend John Dunmore Lang was also a local man, born near Greenock in 1799, just up the road, but raised in Largs as a child - a memorial to him is still to be found in the town today.

It transpires, however, that there is yet another connection. Yesterday whilst returning along the A78 from Greenock, I discovered that there was a small enclosure on the outskirts of Largs named after the vessel that carried my four times aunt down under. Chaseley Gardens is not a large place by any means - but it is another hidden link to a story that most Largs folk today will have little knowledge of.

The world keeps getting smaller - and Australia ever closer!

Friday, 7 February 2014

A Hungarian's story on a cruise

Every so often I have a conversation with someone that just literally blows my mind and makes me realise how grateful we all should be for small mercies.

I am currently on board a cruise ship in Australian waters, where I am participating as a speaker in a genealogy conference being run by Adelaide based firm Unlock the Past ( It’s the fourth day of a 10 day venture, and at breakfast in the main restaurant on the boat you are never seated by yourself, you are always allocated to a table with others from various walks of life. Thus I found myself seated beside a lady who had migrated to Australia 51 years ago from Hong Kong, and another who had made it to Oz from Hungary over 50 years ago.

The Hong Kong lady shared what may be a typical migration experience for many, a seventeen day trip by cargo boat on high seas, fascinating in its own right. However, the lady from Hungary was just extraordinary. She mentioned at one point how she had been in Budapest as a child during the Nazi occupation, and had witnessed all sorts of horrors. I asked her if she had also been in the country during the 1956 uprising against the Russians, to which she responded she had – “I was more under the table as a student than out there, but I did see it with my own eyes”. She talked about how her future husband and herself had managed to escape from the country, noting her last memory of her homeland as being the site of three Russian soldiers trying to warm themselves by a fire – “those poor boys” – a site that confirmed that her country was suffering yet another occupation.

This woman had made it to Australia with little English, but was soon able to gain a job as a lab technician. Some 15,000 Hungarians made it to Australia at this time to start a new life. She’s led a full and wonderful life in Oz since, but I asked her if she had ever returned home. She confirmed that she had just a few years back, at which point I asked if she still recognised the place. “Of course, it was still my home, though much has changed”. Her abiding memory was that under Nazism Hitler had allowed many buildings to be damaged or destroyed, whilst under the Russians there was no money to restore them. Now they were all shining restored examples of a former era before such occupations. When I further asked if she had been able to meet anyone from her former days in Hungary she explained that she had managed to track down an old student friend, and had renewed their friendship. With family though, the experience was a mixed one: “I have a cousin still there, but I think she always resented that we were able to get out, and so refused to meet up with me. I did meet her two daughters, however, and it was wonderful to finally realise I had family once again in Budapest.”

There were some painful memories, however. She attended a museum to the Holocaust on her own – a German friend from Australia did not wish to go, she had experienced many painful memories from her own time there and did not want to relive them. When the Hungarian lady duly went alone she noted in the corner of the room a small cabinet that contained a small amorphous lump of material that she could not make out. She asked the attendant what it was – “It turned out to be a series of leather headbands that Jews wore, which contained prayers, worn when praying at certain times of the day" (NB: I think these are called tefellin). "When the Nazis removed these leather bands before their owners were exterminated, they were all tossed into a pile – this was the pile. I started to cry. A museum attendant asked if I was OK, I could only say one word – no.” Her own regret about her trip back to Hungary was the attitude to the Jewish community residing there today – “My country is still the most anti-semitic in Europe, it is very sad”.

There was a light ending to our conversation (I should add our whole table was riveted to this lady’s recollections by now!). She asked where I was from, and I mentioned I was Irish but now lived in Scotland. She happily recalled visiting a friend of hers in Stirling many years ago. “The weather was glorious, but the following day we went to Glasgow, where the weather was just like Armageddon”. To much laughter I had to point out that for someone who had survived both the German and Russian occupations, and the 1956 uprising, to describe Scottish weather of all things as ‘Armageddon’ was extraordinary! This woman’s story is certainly one that I won’t be forgetting in a rush.

Travel certainly broadens the mind.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A legacy of foster care

As previously noted on this blog, my mother Cherie McKeown (prev. Paton, ms Graham) passed away on November 28th 2013. In her life she raised four children of her own, but beyond this, whilst living in Wolverhampton and Manchester in England, she became a temporary carer to many others from some very disturbed backgrounds. Over the course of a decade, she helped almost forty children as a foster carer.

Last month, the CEO of Swiis Foster Care, Tim Notchell, sent a tribute to her husband Jim about her work with them. He stated that "Cherie was immensely respected by our Foster Care team and was a wonderful example to everyone of how love and compassion could change the lives of even the most vulnerable of children for the better... Cherie epitomised everything that we endeavour to achieve within Swiis and we are extremely grateful for work you have undertaken for all of the children you have cared for over so many years."

In his concluding comments he added that: "I hope that the legacy that Cherie has left to all the children you have cared for so long offers you some degree of comfort, the difference that you made to the lives of so many children will I am sure never be forgotten by the children themselves. Cherie will always be fondly remembered and highly cherished by the staff of Swiis."

In Mum's house she had a "wall of fame", on which she placed a picture of each of those children she had tried to help. For privacy reasons I have deliberately reduced the size of the picture to protect their identities, but the wall was equally a testament to her work as a foster carer.

Monday, 9 December 2013

RIP Mum: Charlotte Harper Graham 1950-2013

On Thursday November 28th 2013, my mother, Charlotte Harper Graham, better known to everyone as Cherie, passed away at the age of 63 after a battle with bladder cancer. Married first to Colin Paton (my father) and subsequently to Jim McKeown, my mum was one of those rare people you find in life: someone with a mad sense of humour, a deep sense of charity, an inner strength that carried her through when the chips were down - and huge hair! Sadly she was diagnosed with bladder cancer in May of this year, and despite a valiant fight against the tumour, it was one battle that would ultimately get the better of her. In her last moments I was seated beside her in her house in Manchester, telling her about her two grandsons and their latest school achievements, and I watched as she slipped away peacefully before me.

Mum and brother Billy in Carrick
Mum was born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland on 29th June 1950, and was named after her grandmother Charlotte Harper Graham (nee Montgomery). Her mother was Martha Jane Elizabeth Watton Bill Smyth, a doffer from the mills of Belfast, and her father Ernest Graham, a boilermaker from the city. She spent most of her childhood in Carrickfergus, but as a wee girl in the early 1950s she spent some ten or eleven months in South Africa, where her father had gained work on a construction project, although was forced with her family to leave suddenly as apartheid legislation and its opposition intensified.

When quite young Mum's parents separated, and she was then raised by her mother alongside her siblings Edna, Billy, Michael, Nicole and Mark. She attended Sunnylands Primary School until 1961, and then Carrickfergus Intermediate Secondary Modern School, where she stayed until 1966. She was always proud that in her last year at school she came first in her class with English, Maths, French, History, Geography, Science, Domestic Science and Religious Education, and throughout her school years she loved playing netball for the school team. As a teenager Mum was a member of the Girls Brigade at Joymount Presbyterian Church, which she attended every Tuesday night for five years, until she turned 14, whereupon she left and joined the Girl Guides.

In Salia Avenue, Carrickfergus
In 1966, Martha moved the family to 12 Salia Avenue in Sunnylands, Carrickfergus, the first house for the family to have central heating installed, which was necessary because my Uncle Mark was severely disabled. Mum had many fond memories of Mark, stating that he was the only subject in their lives that the family never fought over. One of Mum's greatest regrets was not being able to join the Queen Alexander's Nursing Corps, within the Royal Navy, as she was needed at home to help with Mark. Aged sixteen she took a job at Simpson's Drapery Store on West Street in Carrickfergus, where she sold wool, buttons etc, working five days a week, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with Wednesday off. After three years working in the shop, she left and took up work in Belfast's prestigious Robinson Cleevers store, on Royal Avenue. However, when the Troubles started up in 1969, she quit the job, finding that Belfast was too dangerous a place for her to work in.

Wedding day, 1969
In 1969, a couple of days after her close brother Billy emigrated from Ireland to Melbourne in Australia, Mum married my father, Colin Paton, a submariner, at Joymount Presbyterian Church. One of her funniest memories from the day was after they had subsequently all gone for a meal at the Coast Road Hotel. My grandmother Jean was about to wash my father's shirt, when Mum stopped her, telling her that she was now Mrs. Paton, and it was her job!

Just three weeks after the wedding Mum had to relocate to Barrow-in-Furness in England, where my father was posted, setting up home at 5 Torridge Drive, a three bedroomed house in the town's naval accommodation area. She took up work at a sewing factory in Barrow, and then at a men's drapery shop, but soon found herself pregnant with me. She returned to Carrickfergus to be looked after by her family, and I was duly born in late 1970.

Mum, myself & brother Colin in Helensburgh
As a family we then moved to Helensburgh in Scotland, another naval posting, where my brother Colin and sister Dawn soon arrived in due course. One of the funniest (and slightly alarming!) stories concerning my mum and myself occurred here. On one occasion Mum took me shopping with her, and whilst doing her messages she went into a butcher's shop. She parked her pram, went inside, bought her messages, left the building, got onto a bus and made her way home. Forgetting one thing, of course - me! When she got home, she suddenly realised what she had done, and in a mad panic, made her way back into town, to find me outside the shop where she had left me. (Talk about suffering from abandonment issues!)

As a family we relocated to Plymouth, another naval posting, where my youngest brother Robert was duly born. Not long after, however, her relationship with my father began to deteriorate, and by 1978 the two decided to separate. My youngest brother and sister went with her back to Carrickfergus, whilst my father retained custody of myself and Colin. Not long after we also returned to Carrick.

Mum lived initially in North Street, in a flat over a butcher's shop, and then in a house at Rosebrook Avenue, and gained work in a chip shop in the town. The split with my father had been quite a messy affair, and a consequence of that was that we were initially not allowed to visit her, despite Mum living about a mile or so from us. But nothing was going to stop me from meeting my mother! On a couple of occasions I met up with her and my two youngest siblings in secret for picnics - on one of these occasions, thanks to a late newspaper delivery for my paper round, I was late for our meeting at Legg Park, and by the time I got there she had gone. I ran all the way up to her street and caught up with her just before she reached her house - we ended up having the picnic in her living room.

Glenfield 1999
In the early 1990s, Mum moved to a house in the Glenfield estate, and became an enthusiastic member of the Church of the Nazarene, where she worked as a youth leader in the church's Caravaners organisation, teaching children on week nights and then taking them away on annual camps in Northern Ireland. It was here that a true friendship was formed with Violet Chestnutt - two peas in a pod!

Mum continued to work hard in her chip shop in Sunnylands, and fortunately by the time I had become a teenager any such prohibition on visiting her was set aside. Each weekend when I finished my paper round job, I would pop in and get one of her legendary pastie bap suppers, and would regularly visit her at home. It's fair to say my parents still had their issues between them, but a consequence of that was that for many years, to keep both of them happy, I would eat two Christmas dinners on Christmas Day, and two Christmas puddings. Life was tough!

In Oz
When I gained a place in 1991 on a degree course at a university in Bristol, for which I received no grant or fees funding in the first year (long story!), Mum gave me an envelope a day before I got the ferry to England, which was stuffed with £200. Mum's earnings were limited, and she had full time care of two of my siblings, but she had still been scrimping and saving hard for months to try and give me some help. Very grateful for this, I promised that at some point after I graduated, I would send her to Australia to see her brother Billy as a way of saying thanks. In the summer of 1998, I finally sent her on her way to Melbourne, where she had a ball for three weeks, attending barbecues, sight-seeing, and just plain catching up with the whole Aussie experience. She brought me back a pair of Aboriginal sticks as a souvenir - I still haven't a clue what they are supposed to be used for!

Mum's and Jim's wedding in 2002
The trip was quite a life changer for Mum, for no sooner had she returned to Ireland than in June 1999, she decided to move to Wolverhampton in England to start life afresh with her new partner Jim McKeown, whom she married a few years later at Beckminster Methodist Church in the city. She settled in Bristol Street, across the road from my sister, who had been to university in Wolverhampton. Whilst here she and Jim decided to take up foster caring with the Swiis agency, and between them over the next decade they raised over thirty six children for the agency, with some children in long term care, and others on a much shorter term basis.

Mum became a granny for the first time in 2000 with the arrival of my first son Calum, and again four years later with the arrival of Jamie. It's safe to say she spoiled them rotten! In 2006 she and Jim moved north to Manchester, where they continued to foster children for Swiis. A wall in her house here recorded every child she and Jim raised through a series of portrait photos - in every one of them there is a smile.

At Colin's wedding - clan matriarch!
In May 2013, Mum learned that she had advanced stage bladder cancer, but was determined to fight it. She went through a course of radiotherapy to try to reduce the tumour before its removal, but it was a fight against time which took its toll. In the summer her spirits were kept high by the arrival of a third grandchild, my brother's daughter Pippa, and even as her health declined she was adamant that she was still going to Colin's wedding in Portsmouth in October, which she did. On board HMS Warrior, Coin and Mel married, but my mother was equally the belle of the ball, proudly watching as they exchanged vows.

A couple of weeks later I went with Mum to Christie's hospital in Manchester where we learned the disastrous news that her cancer was by now terminal. Even then she was determined to fight it, and we planned to have a massive family get together at Christmas, which she was looking forward to immensely. Sadly her health declined very quickly, before she passed away on November 28th.

Mum had a sense of humour without parallel, which she passed onto us. When she had a minor heart attack in 2002 I visited the hospital ward where she was based with a balloon saying "It's a boy" on the side. Half the hospital wished her well on her heart issues, the other half congratulated her on her new arrival - she laughed all the way back to the house at that one! She was also occasionally gullible, and we always played on that when we could - on her first Oz trip, she had to change flights in the Middle East, and I convinced her that in transit at the airport she would have to wear a veil, as that was the culture. The sight of her practising with a tea towel on her head in her kitchen at Carrick will stay with me forever! You always knew when you had got her - she would suddenly tut and say "Och, son!", before laughing at being caught out again.

Mum was there for me when I came into the world, and it was an honour for me to be with her in her final moments. I love you loads Mum - Claire, the boys and I will all miss you dearly. xxx

Mum's 63rd birthday in June


Sunday, 20 October 2013

The 1949 Solemn League and Covenant

Between 1947 and 1950, some two million Scots signed a Solemn League and Covenant to demand a devolved Scottish Parliament within the UK - that's the signatures of some 40% of the population, with the 1951 census for Scotland noting that the Scottish population was 5.1 million.

The Covenant, or petition, was dismissed by British Prime Minister Clement Atlee as an irrelevance, but it does survive to this day. Part of the petition is held by the National Records of Scotland under GD1/1215, with the catalogue entry noting that 

Mr Ian Hamilton QC deposited this item with the Scottish Record Office (now the National Archives of Scotland) in April 1998. When first signed, the text had been hung on the wall of the Covenant Association Office in Glasgow and was accessible to the public. It was subsequently removed for safekeeping before being deposited in the SRO.

The rest of the Covenant - the overwhelming bulk of the petition - is held at the National Library of Scotland ( Again the NRS catalogue entry states the following extraordinary story about its survival:

The main body of signatures, except the 160 on the first page, is now in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh (their ref: Acc5492). They are contained in thousands of separate sheets and were placed there in 1970 by Dr Winifred Ewing who had rescued them from a Rutherglen builder's yard.

The signing of covenants in Scotland, in recent history at least (the concept is actually biblical), goes back to 17th century Presbyterianism and the defiance of the population against Charles I's attempts to further introduce episcopacy into the Scottish church (his father, James VI, had already attempted to get things underway on that front). In genealogical terms, one such Solemn League and Covenant from 1912 has been fully digitised and made available online - signed by the Protestant population of Ulster and Ireland (and many worldwide countries, including Scotland and England), the descendants of Scottish and English planters who actually feared home rule for Ireland, the thought being that "Home Rule is Rome Rule". It can be searched and viewed online at

The Diomhair (Secret) programme written by George Rosie for BBC Alba tells the extraordinary story of the Scottish Covenant movement of the 1940s, with the first part available at (and embedded here):

[Following parts are available via links on the right side of the YouTube screen after part 1 has completed.]

The 1912 Ulster Covenant signatures are online - what a great genealogical resource the 1949 Scottish Covenant signatures would be to see also.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Great English tourist attractions - and Stonehenge

Last week I had the great pleasure to travel down to England, ostensibly to attend my brother's wedding in Portsmouth, and to meet my new niece for the first time, but also to catch up with family in Manchester, Yatton and Bristol. Along the way I took in a few touristy sites - here's a quick summary of what I got up to!

My brother Colin is ex-Navy, so his marriage to Mel Warner took place on board HMS Warrior ( at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard ( The weather was just glorious (the only day it was!), making it the perfect occasion. I hadn't twigged that I had actually been aboard the Warrior over a decade ago (whilst on a recce for a TV series) until I stepped on board, at which point I also recalled having previously visited the Mary Rose as it was being conserved. I sadly never got a chance to visit the new Mary Rose Museum or the National Museum of the Royal Navy, but if they are as well maintained as the Warrior, they'll be well worth a visit at some point! For the Warrior itself, there's a virtual tour online at, but here's a few pics also:

So bottom line - if you're looking for a wedding venue, HMS Warrior is definitely one to consider - and if you're just looking for a day trip, ditto!

The day after the wedding we visited Salisbury Cathedral (, and saw an original copy of Magna Carta (, a 13th century document that curbed some of the powers of monarchy (under King John) and which underpins the English constitutional legal system, which later spread to many of the colonies of the British Empire. This was not in fact the first time I'd seen an original copy, I once viewed a version of the document in the United States (I think in Philadelphia), but this had a better interpretation centre. Of course, we weren't allowed to take pics in the room where the document is on display - so here's a few pics of what we were allowed to photograph!

Be advised on a visit though that you are advised to make a "suggested donation" as an entry fee, with specifically laid out rates. I was tempted to ask what would happen if I made a lesser donation, but fair enough, it was an extraordinary building, and well worth the fee, sorry, donation!

Which brings me to Stonehenge... ahem! Without a doubt, Stonehenge is one of England's most extraordinary monuments. Having once worked on an archaeology series for the BBC, I'm only too aware of the extraordinary ritualistic landscape around Stonehenge (and similar sites such as Avebury). But it has to be said, Stonehenge is by and large the worst tourist attraction I have ever visited in the country. We had to pay for a family ticket costing more than £20 to get in to see it. The attraction itself was superb - despite the pouring rain! - they certainly don't build 'em like they used to. But where was the history of the site? Where was the interpretation centre? We were glad to visit the site to say we had done it, but also swore never to go back. A serious disappointment from what should be one of the jewels of the English tourist establishment, instead of the tourist trap that it actually is. 

Finally, we visited family in Yatton and Bristol, and took our boys to three key areas - the Clifton Suspension Bridge, somewhere I know only too well having spent a good while in the past walking over it every day to get to university! - the first flat that Claire and I shared in Totterdown ("this could be Totterdown or anywhere, Redland or St Pauls, cos Totterdown is anywhere, anywhere but Knowle"!!), and the ASDA store where Claire and I used to work in in Bedminister, where we met in 1995.

A great trip down - but last pics go to my Mum and niece Pippa. My mum's bravely fighting bladder cancer just now, but managed to get to the wedding in Portsmouth - and Pip was just a wee star!

Normality now resumes...!

UPDATE: Just read that a new visitors centre is in fact under construction at Stonehenge - see About time - just a pity it wasn't up and running when we were there. *sigh*