My Auntie Jo's chicken-box opened up a world of joy

A box full of precious memories has proven priceless as John Arnold retraces his roots
My Auntie Jo's chicken-box opened up a world of joy
One of the photos from the chicken-box, showing John Arnold's aunt Jo and his father Dan, around 1918

I THINK I mentioned Auntie Jo’s ‘box under the bed’ before. It’s one of those strong brown, cardboard boxes made in Killaloe, Co Clare, used long ago for the transportation of day-old chickens by bus or train.

More than likely, this particular box was used to bring the little birds from Whittaker’s hatchery in Cork to Bartlemy.

There’s no date on it but I presume it’s from the 1940s because by then Johannah Arnold, or Auntie Jo as we called her — others knew her as Josie — was in her thirties and ‘at home’ on the farm with my father Dan and her parents.

My mother ‘married in’ here in 1952 and Auntie Jo and her mother, my grandmother, lived on in the house.

I was just two when my granny Arnold died in 1959. I think I can remember her but maybe ’twas just that I heard people speak of her.

My father died in 1961, leaving a widow with five young children. Mam reared us and ran the farm, assisted by her Twomey brothers, Auntie Jo and Paddy Geary, who was with three generations of our family as a farm labourer.

By all accounts, Auntie Jo could have been married, but as they used to say ‘things didn’t work out’ in the end. She was a diabetic for many years and suffered a fair bit from the ailment. Maybe because she was single, though she never drove, she was great to keep up contact with relations of both her father Batt and her mother Nora, who was what we called ‘an Oldcourt Barry’.

Auntie Jo knew the seed, breed and generation of so many of our cousins and names like Ring, Barry, Ivis, Sheehan, O’Regan, Scanlan, Batterberry, Daly, Dooley, Cotter and Linehan were always in her conversation.

I remember her telling me that when she was young — she was born in 1911 — and on holidays with relatives in Castlelyons, that the older people spoke Irish when matters of grave importance were to be discussed, so that the content of their colloguing was not understandable to young ears.

My late father had a great interest in photography and developed his own ‘snaps’ — many of greyhounds and local people still exist.

Well, Auntie Jo must have had a similar interest in photographs because in the chicken-box were about 170 photos dating from the 1890’s right up until the 1960s. She died in November, 1974, the year I did the Leaving.

She’d often taken the box from under the bed to get a particular picture. It might have been her Uncle Seamus in Bristol, a Daly in the Bronx or a Ring cousin in Australia — someone might have died or maybe a distant relation home on holidays wanted to see their ancestor as pictured decades previously.

Luckily enough, a year or two before she died we spent an evening at the room table going through the entire contents of the box. As well as the photos there were ‘In Memoriam’ cards, newspaper cuttings and other odds and ends.

Anyhow, this particular evening we set about numbering the various pictures. I then wrote the corresponding numbers on a double page of a copy-book. About 20 of the photos stumped her but she put a name or names on 149 different individuals or groups.

Talk about luck — if I hadn’t spent those few hours that evening with Auntie Jo at the room table, most of those faces looking out in sepia and black and white would remain just that: faces in a cardboard box.

Also, before she died, my father’s only sister did a rough family tree for me. She knew who her grandparents on the Arnold and Barry sides were. These were my great-grandparents, Daniel, Johannah, John and Mary. That was back in 1974, 45 years ago. In 2019, Daniel Arnold, Johannah Scanlan, John Barry and Mary Ring were and are the great, great, great grandparents of my grandchildren.

I think the box from under Auntie Jo’s bed and a neighbour and relation Tom Scanlan got me started on tracing relations. Tom was a farmer, a mystic, a brilliant local historian and an inventor and engineer.

Last Monday night, I watched a TV documentary called The Man Who Wanted To Fly on RTÉ. It concerned a Cavan farmer, Bobby Coote, who, in his eighties realised a lifetime’s ambition and flew a micro-light aeroplane. The programme could have been made back 30 years ago about Tom Scanlan — the big difference being Tom built his own plane! He was a mechanical genius and, despite plenty invites, I now regret that I never took ‘to the air’ with Tom.

He knew my father well as they were kindred spirits in regards to inventing and making labour-saving farm machines and generating hydro-electricity back in the 1940s.

Tom was also passionate about relations and the importance of knowing ‘where one came from’.

It must be more than 40 years ago that he thought that his father’s grandfather’s brother was the father of my great, grandmother! At the time I thought ’twould take a terrier to trace that but in time, and after much research, Tom’s lineage was proved to be absolutely correct.

Tom and his brother Martin are buried in Old Clonmult Cemetery, in the same ‘ground’ where my great grandmother Johannah Arnold, nee Scanlan, was interred in August, 1909.

So, over the years, I developed a great interest in the hobby of tracing relations. To be truthful, it came at me from both sides!

Apparently, my grand aunt Lizzie Twomey, who married Den O’Keeffe, could trace for Ireland. Though she died in 1957, the year I was born, her influence remains with me still.

When I think back over the years now, I marvel at how things have changed in terms of the information available. Everyone regrets the amount of information lost in the Four Courts Fire in 1922 but no good crying over spilt milk. We still have a vast array of sources and in recent years there has been a huge change in Government policy that is a boon for amateur genealogists like me.

In the past, secrecy seemed to be the official policy — ‘keep ’em in the dark’. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. The 1901 and 1911 Census Returns were the first steps on a road that has continued to widen. Since they were made available, a huge surge of interest swelled up in family history, and the compilation of family trees, both here in Ireland and for those of Irish descent all over the world, gathered pace. In the last few years, the Irish Genealogy project has opened up vast treasures — all available free of charge.

Readers will know that I abhor the popularity of all these so-called ‘social media’ outlets, apps, yokes and all that publicity-seeking nonsense. They are the definite down-side of modern media technology. The flip side of all that crap, however, is the massive tranches of amazing information dating back in some cases to the 1700s which is now freely available online.

I type with just one finger, yet in a few hours I can unearth serious information — so can anyone else with a little guidance.

One evening last week, I got a call from a man trying to trace the burial place of his great, grandfather who died in 1918 — and if I could ‘go back’ a bit on his tree. We’re not certain still of the whereabouts of the grave but I found the birth of a Michael Cloran in Co. Clare in 1812. This was the great, grandfather of the man who died in 1918!

Now, one has to be very open to all kinds of information coming to light — the Good, the Bad and the Ugly as they say! For instance, I saw that at the Rathcormac Petty Sessions (District Court) of May 6, 1873, my father’s grandfather, Daniel Arnold, was fined one shilling and one shilling expenses for ‘the Crown’ for not having his dog licensed! Ever since we make sure to get the Dog Licence in plenty time — what do they say- ‘Once bitten twice shy’!

Do you know, if Auntie Jo hadn’t shown me those pictures all those years ago, maybe I’d have no interest in growing family trees. Thank-you so much Johannah Arnold; born 28:3:1911 to Batt Arnold & Nora Barry; baptised on 29:3:1911 by Fr James Moore PP; Sponsors Daniel Arnold & Margaret Linehan; Confirmed on 28:5:1924 by Bishop Robert Browne; died November 18, 1974, aged 63.

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