US Civil War ‘Widows Pensions’

d’oh

A month back, in my enthusiastic review of Claire Santry’s new book (which, by the way, is now seriously outselling my own on Amazon – D’Oh), I mentioned a record-set she highlighted that I was only vaguely familiar with, US Civil War widows’ pension applications.

Irish-Amercian recuitment poster

I’ve now had a good root through them and they are truly extraordinary. Pensions were not just paid to widows, but to any dependents of those who died for the Union side in the US Civil War – elderly parents, those taking care of orphans, dependent siblings, anyone who could show that the death of the soldier had imposed financial suffering.

Why should they be especially useful for Irish research? Huge numbers of Irish emigrants fought in the War, by some estimates as many as served in the British Army in World War I. Most were Famine emigrants, some were post-Famine chain migrants and quite a few were recruited in Ireland specifically to fight. They all died in their tens of thousands.

New York Irish Brigade 69th Regiment

Getting a pension wasn’t easy. The Army Veterans Administration was the mother of all bureaucracies and the hoops to be jumped through were mind-boggling, with files ranging up 200 pages and decisions often taking more than a decade. Which is good news for researchers. Marriages, births, service histories, dependent relationships – all had to be authenticated, usually by multiple sources, giving precise dates and places, and often with eyewitness affidavits from friends and neighbours.

Because almost all the soldiers were first-generation emigrants, many claimants were actually still in Ireland and many of the marriages and births reported are Irish, in some cases reaching as far back as the early decades of the nineteenth century. This is particularly useful because large numbers of emigrants left from Western counties – Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Galway – for which few early parish registers exist. I’ve already come across a marriage in Achonry parish in 1828, with townland addresses. That’s four decades before the start of the surviving Achonry registers.

Lord Leitrim’s notice to quit

The files are even more useful for fleshing out family stories. Take the case of Unice and John Coyle, living in the townland of Muineagh in Clondavaddog, Donegal, parents of Hugh Coyle who died on June 24 1864 in Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp. Their application went through the US Consul in Derry and included letters from Unice giving painful detail of their circumstances and health, even attaching an original ‘Notice to Quit’ from the notorious Lord Leitrim. They got $8 a month. God bless America.

The only online access to the files is on fold3.com, a site set up by Ancestry.com and, unsurprisingly, not covered by an Ancestry.com subscription. At least they’ve taken the chance to rethink the ridiculously clunky Ancestry search interface. Fold3’s is clean, intuitive and fast, making it simple, for example, to pick out all files that mention a particular Irish county.

For a detailed case history using the files to reconstruct the social history of Cruit Island in Donegal, see Damian Sheil’s excellent blog. Damian has also done maps of the locations mentioned in the files for Britain and mainland Europe, but not for Ireland.

Hmm. There’s an idea.

What a Recent Survey Told Me

A recent episode of RTE’s “The Week in Politics” once again left me frothing at the mouth. This time, though, it wasn’t the politicians. As a bit of light relief, RTE had invited a geneticist and a political scientist to discuss the results of their study into the connection between genetic inheritance and political allegiance. Worthy as that sounds, what they were actually looking at was the hoary old chestnut about Fine Gael being Anglo-Norman and Fianna Fáil Gaelic Irish. Unsurprisingly, they found that FG supporters were indeed marginally more likely to have Anglo-Norman roots.

                    Ed Gaelick, insurance specialist

But how did they discover this? They tested politicians’ surnames, of course. This is the point where I turned purple. Exactly what scientific test did they perform on the surnames to determine their level of Gaelickery or Anglo-Normanosity? Did they carefully take swabs from the insides of the surnames’ cheeks? Did they culture the surnames in their lab?

The truth is that Irish surnames are utterly unreliable as markers for cultural inheritance. Yes, ‘Fitzgerald’ sits at the other end of one particular spectrum from ‘O’Brien’. But what about a venerable Fianna Fáil Kerry surname like ‘McEllistrim’, “Son of Alastair [Fitzgerald]”?  Or the apparently impeccably English ‘Higgins’, from a diminutive of the understandably widespread peasant name ‘Hick’. Which in Ireland can be an Anglicization of either Ó hUiggín, from Uiggín, Gaelic for ‘Viking’, or Ó hAodhagáin, grandson of big ould Hugh. Put that in your political science petri dish and smoke it.

President Michael D. …Viking? Hick? Red Hugh?

Before they are anything else, surnames are words, embedded in language and mutating under the pressure of history like all other words. Maybe, once upon a time, they started out as badges of tribal identity but those badges have long been distorted beyond all reliability by the twists and turns of Irish history and individual Irish family histories. Reducing them to a quick political litmus test is just plain dim.

Leo Varadkar receiving his orders from Henry ll

The real joy in the programme was seeing the scathing scepticism of the Fine Gael politician they asked for a response, none other than the delightfully-monikered Leo Varadkar. His people came over with Strongbow, you know.

 

The real lesson is that scientists are only marginally less likely to peddle bunkum in return for publicity than non-scientists. I read that in a recent survey.