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Ireland in My Blood: Discovering Our Ancestral Irish History (part one)

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

I am a bit embarrassed to say that I have yet to do a recap of my trip to Ireland from October 2017! So this is way overdue. And the time has come to document this phenomenal trip to my ancestral home. Here is a link to a brief blog post for the setup of the trip.

Many things developed after I initially booked my trip in February that same year and completed the post above. I will focus this post on the 2nd leg of our trip which was centered around my genealogical and ancestral discoveries.

What did I know?

I knew which of my ancestors (my great grandmother Ida Mae's grandfather William C McMullen) was the first generation in our family to make way from Ireland to Canada during the potato famine. The family came from Kilkenny, Ireland, in which I was able to find that information within This led me to focus in on splitting the trip into two parts - sightseeing Dublin to start us off, then onto our genealogical research. The trip, due to budget and timing would only be about a week, so time would be limited. Because I knew they were from Kilkenny, I found an adorable historic cottage in a little town called Kells where I had also seen that name pop up a few times during my research. I hoped that by being in Kells, I might find some relationship to that village and my family, but if not, at least I was in the general area of Kilkenny to use this cottage as a hub for venturing out to do research. I essentially booked it on a whim. It would be the most idyllic Irish countryside escape I've been looking for... thatched roof and all.

What I didn't know?

I was struggling to put the pieces together - burial sites, occupations, generations further back, maiden names of wives in the line, origins of our name, why the constant spelling variations, etc. My many times great uncle, who also was part of that first generation to migrate from Ireland, was a well known writer and Canadian historian (John Mercier McMullen), however many of the excerpts of his writings were more about life in Canada as opposed to his Irish descent, even denying his rich Irish blood in some extent. Through a forum in Ancestry, I decided to pose the question to the world hoping someone out there might know more about my family and their Irish story. Sure enough, I connected with a very distant cousin who happened to be the head of the McMullen clan. He had the answers I had been looking for all along and more.

He also cleared up why my great uncle John M didn't write much about his Irish roots when I asked if he knew where I could obtain copies of his writings. It was common that once settling onto new land, the need to assimilate was important to the family's success and prosperity in this new place. This is sadly true even to this day. His advice below was very telling to the nature of John M's writings...

"What I would not do, is participate, forward, promote or sanction the information contained in John Mercier McMullen's bogus sketch. While it contains many useful pieces of information, the entire story has been filtered to eliminate our actual Irish heritage and establish a theme John M found more attractive to the community he was pursuing in Canada at the time. Written when all of his siblings were deceased, it was not accepted or published by any male descendant McMullen, then or to this day. It was published by a maternal great granddaughter unaware of its controversial content. Since advised, I believe it has been removed."

A Magnetic Pull to My Ancestral Home

The most shocking detail of them all? It just so happened, that the cottage I had booked on a whim months earlier, was actually owned and lived in by my five-times great grandfather and his family. John William McMullen (b.1779) was a business man and developer in the village of Kells where he flourished. He settled with his small farm and mercantile business in the quaint village of Kells, which at the center of this idyllic landscape is a grain mill, which he was involved with developing, and the ruins of Kells Priory which is a beautiful historical gem. He leased a property from close friend and business partner, where...

"On this property he erected several stone dwellings, a barn, other out-houses, an orchard and garden, all sheltered from the North wind by the huge wall of what was thought then to be part of an ancient Danish Fort." - excerpt from McMullen family archives

This perfectly matches the Mill Cottage in Kells in every detail. The cottaged stayed in the Mullins family until the 1960s (spelling variation of McMullen - spelling would change to remove the Mc/Mac during periods of religious reformation or political shifts to either show or deny allegiance to the Crown).

Here are photos I captured of this perfect little stone and thatch cottage. It still operates as an Airbnb although has changed owners since I was last there. I highly recommend staying here! It was a great hub to then venture out to the south-eastern portion of Ireland.

Once we settled into the cottage, I wanted to take in the village and walk the paths that my ancestors walked. Directly across from the cottage is the Mullins Mill built in 1782, which today operates as an art/culture center and cafè. The small mill is nestled against the Kings River, so a gentle rushing of water can always be heard. The bridge with several arches is somewhat rare in construction and has become an icon of the area.

Next was to walk through Hutchison's Mill (built at the same time as my family residing there, so it is believed John W was involved with the construction and/or operation of this mill. When I was there in 2017, the mill was just going through a sale to be developed and renovated into apartment flats. Today, there are some available via Airbnb. Here is one that is available for rent.

From there, I kept following the Kells Loop trail to end up at Kells Priory. This site is one of the largest and most impressive medieval monastic sites in Ireland. The priory is nestled to King's River which hugs the village of Kells and streams next to my family cottage. Sheep can be found accompanying you on your walk through the priory, which was actually appreciated on my part as I was walking along in the damp cold through this somewhat eerie skeleton. This site was disestablished in 1540 when it was surrendered to James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormonde, in which that family line is also associated with my family over several generations.

I was able to locate the burial site of my family at a small churchyard, St. Kieran's Church. I brought some flowers to the final resting place of John W McMullen (d.1857) and his wife Mary Ann Mercier (d.May 1854), daughter Anne (d.Feb 1856), as well as son George (d.1893) and his wife Jane. The family maintained a business but saw much decline throughout the period of the great potato famine. Many of the children (my direct four-time great grandfather William C was the first to migrate) left their homestead in Ireland to settle in Ontario Canada, leaving behind father John, mother Mary Anne, sister Anne and brother George. Another child, James, was a vicar and resided on the Isle of Man and in Edinburgh.

Daughter Anne had struggled with her health after catching influenza. She had moments of getting stronger, but eventually her body lost the battle. In 1854, her father wrote to his son...

"Anne continues very weakly, she has been confined to her bed this 8 weeks and was confined to her bed last spring for 2 months more. George went to see her last Saturday week. She is getting a good heart though very weak."

Then in February of 1856, he wrote to his son a final time as his own health started to further deteriorate with his rheumatism. He attempted many times to hear from his son, but was left without answer. It breaks my heart to think the John W didn't get the closure he wanted so badly from his son John M before his death in 1857.

May 7th 1856

My dear John this is the last letter you will ever receive from me as I have lost the use of my right hand, they say it is rheumatism. I received a letter from James and another from George Richard... I am surprised you did not answer the letters I wrote to you of your mother's and sister's death. I hear you are very independent, what ever I suffer I won't trouble you as I hope shortly to be above the frowns of fortune and have an independent fortune where my wants will be all supplied. May the good God bless and keep you and dear Sarah and children. For my part I never let a day pass without praying for you, Sarah and children. There is a great mortality through this country, Kate Walsh is dead and many others. Give my best regards to Sarah and children and the good God bless you all, your affectionate father.

                                                                                         John McMullen

In these letters and many more, John W detailed his efforts to give his wife and daughter grand funerals they so deserved, no matter if that meant he would be broke himself. His son James erected a wall monument at his own expense in honor of his mother, Mary Ann. I made it a mission to find these headstones so that I could pay my respect. Being able to locate their final place rest just across the priory and field from the family cottage, meant the world to me and was the most touching moment of the entire trip.

Without going into extensive detail, as I easily could since there is just so much information to share about all of the facts and stories of my ancestry, there are a couple more sites we visited linking to my family.

See, my five times great grandfather John W McMullen was married to Mary Ann Mercier. The Mercier's have a long line in France through the paternal side - lots of fun stories in that line too. However, her mother was a Colclough (Coakley).

Tintern Abbey was established and built in 1200, and of course after the reformation and dissolution of the monasteries, it was then seized and converted to a private home in 1536 to Sr James Croft. In 1562 Tintern Abbey (Wexford) was given to Anthony Colclough who was a soldier of King Henry VIII of England, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1581. So, here I have an ancestor that was a follower of the crown and was a privileged member of society, who actually was a closeted Catholic (noted in private family archives) - of course if that was known widely then, they would have surely been executed. So, publicly he was a prominent leader within the Church of Ireland (COI).

A little over 200 years later during a major uprising against the throne in 1798, a Colclough family member (John Henry Colclough) was captured and tried and executed for treason. Between the span of 1575 until the end of the revolts, the Colcloughs always made sure at least one of their living sons any any point publicly abided by the faith and politics currently in rule in order to maintain their property. Several family members over the 300 years of history had played important roles in the rebellions against the throne while maintainting their position in general society.

The abbey stayed in the Colclough family all the way until 1965. The last member to live at Tintern was Lucey Marie Biddulph Colclough who donated the abbey to the Irish state in her old age and recognizing the deteriorating state of the property and ruins. For 25 years, restoration work took place and is now a beautiful museum.

Here are a series of photos I took at the abbey. The gardens were beautifully kept but also showed their maturity, surrounded by the wild Irish countryside.

Their tea room on site had delicious cakes and tea to enjoy. A perfect treat while we were out and about and needed a pick-me-up.

The final part of this section of the trip leaves us off at Dunbrody ship. This is a wonderful exhibit and home to a replica of the exact ship that migrated hundreds of Irish to the Americas during the great potato famine. I highly recommend that others visit this site to experience for themselves what it was this journey would have been like.

Here is a link to their webpage for more information.

My ancestors that decided to make their journey to Canada would have come over on a ship just like this one. For many, they may have not even survived the trip due to malnutrition, a weakened state due to the famine, or disease. I am very thankful and have great appreciation for the sacrifice my four-times great grandfather William Colclough McMullen had to endure to make this journey with his family.

That's it for my Irish story for now. I will post part two shortly with the details about the sightseeing we took part in Dublin and surrounding areas. Stay tuned!

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