Tuesday 6 December 2016

'It's truly amazing what you can discover'

Graham Clifford meets genealogy enthusiast Paul Brady who looked at old family photographs and decided to find out who they were, unearthing rebels, revelations and even a mysterious disappearance

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

The Brady bunch: ‘Every black and white picture intrigued me,’ says Paul. ‘I kept asking myself, “Who are these people, how are they related to me, what did they do in life?”’ Photo: Colin O’Riordan
The Brady bunch: ‘Every black and white picture intrigued me,’ says Paul. ‘I kept asking myself, “Who are these people, how are they related to me, what did they do in life?”’ Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Thomas Burke, in centre at the back with arms crossed, with Republican comrades taken around 1921.

Amid the confusion, Edward Brady's superior approaches and tells him to make this telegram his last. It's Easter Monday 1916 and the GPO, where the 30-year-old is employed in the telegraph office, is being taken over by Padraig Pearse and the rebels.

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Around the same time as Edward departs his place of work, a building which would be unrecognisable within a week, a young nurse called Elizabeth 'Lillie' Burke is preparing to enter.

Later in the week, her services will be badly needed as the Helga begins to shell the building on Sackville Street. Elizabeth (née McGinty) is a member of the Cumann na mBan central branch and during Easter Week she'll do her best to save lives and tend to the wounded rebels. On Friday of that week she ferried wounded men to Jervis Street Hospital, evading capture.

They wouldn't have known it at the time but a century on, Edward, who went out one door of the GPO, and Elizabeth who came through another that historic week, would be tied together in Paul Brady's family history.

Edward is his grandfather - Elizabeth his Great Great Aunt.

"It's incredible really and the more I learn about my family's involvement in Irish society and politics at the time the more intriguing it is. Like some of my mother's ancestors would have lived in Dublin tenements while the Bradys, my father's side, had large houses with servants. It's incredible now to think there was such a gulf between them," explains Paul from his home in Dublin.

In recent years he has attempted to build his family tree with special attention to those who left their mark. He's perused census records, visited graveyards, enlisted the help of a genealogist, sought information from extended family members and used an online site to assist in his quest for more information.

One man in particular stands out. Thomas Burke, Paul's Great Great Uncle (brother of his Great Grand Father) served as a member of the Volunteers' C-Company at Jacob's Biscuit Factory during the 1916 Rising.

Thomas was a brother to Elizabeth and also to Annie, who was leader of the Drumcondra branch of Cumann na mBan, and to Jimmy who was the fourth member of the one family involved in the Rising.

"We knew that there was a link between Thomas and 1916 but it was only when I really started to look into it that I learned how extensive it was. It's amazing to think that four members of this same Dublin family risked so much for what they believed in at the time," explains Paul.

In his possession, Paul now has a picture of Thomas, presumably taken in the years that followed the Rising when he was still heavily involved in the struggle for Irish independence, which shows him and a group of comrades posing with revolvers in hand.

The legend of his Great Great Uncle grows. With the help of a cousin, Eimear Burke, who Paul only met for the first time in the last month at Glasnevin, a fuller picture of Thomas is forming. Paul explains:

"At the end of January, my brother Declan got married and at the wedding I was talking to my parents, John and Marie, about trying to find direct descendants of Thomas Burke. Low and behold a few days later Eimear gets in touch with me through Ancestry.com. She is the grand-daughter of Thomas Burke and has been able to tell me more about his life," says Paul.

In his possession is a copy of a letter written by republican, politician and former President of the FAI Oscar Traynor. Written in 1936 it confirms that Thomas Burke was a prominent republican and Traynor paid tribute to his comrade saying, "I can testify to his courage and coolness on all occasions."

Indeed as Burke attempted to evade the onrushing British soldiers at the end of Easter week, he was wounded. An account given in a witness statement acquired by Paul Brady reads:

"When the surrender was decided… it fell to my duty to gather the men from the various positions of the main building. In one of the positions I came across a young volunteer, later Commandant Thomas Burke of the 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, leaning on a shotgun and in floods of tears. Feeling that he required some heartening I spoke to him, and, much to my surprise, was turned on with the bitter retort: 'I came out to fight, not to surrender.'"

Before Paul reads these words aloud, he pauses. He warns me, "I find it hard to read this passage. They're very powerful and emotive words, bear with me."

Given the massive contribution his ancestors played in the Rising, it's very understandable that this year's commemorations to mark 1916 were especially poignant for him and his family.

It was after taking on a family project four years ago that Paul, who owns a petrol forecourt business in Dublin, began to delve fully into his past.

"Our family were always great at taking pictures but they weren't filed as such. I thought I'd get them all together and scan them so we had an online copy in case anything happened to the originals," he explains. What started off as a bit of DIY archiving soon snow-balled.

Paul continues: "Every black and white picture intrigued me. I kept asking myself, 'Who are these people, how are they related to me, what did they do in life?' After I'd scanned all the relevant pictures my parents had, I started asking other relations for their pictures and it went from there."

A devotee of the Who Do You Think You Are? TV programme, where celebrities trace their roots with the assistance of experts, Paul took down the name of a researcher after one such programme.

He contacted Julia McConville from UCD's School of History and Archives, and she was able to piece Paul's family tree together compiling two reports in 2013 which opened so many doors. So intrigued was Paul that he recently considered taking a year out to focus on filling in the remaining gaps.

While Paul was able to connect his lineage on his mother's side there was a parallel quest - one linked to a tragic and heart-breaking story.

"My father wanted to trace a living relation with the Brady name outside of his direct family. His help on this journey has been huge and he discovered so much as well," explains Paul.

It was when Paul's grandfather, Edward, was a child living in Cork city that tragedy was to strike the Brady family.

"My grandfather's father died at the end of the 1800s and it seems that soon afterwards his mother sent him to stay with her family in Killarney while she left on her own for New York. She would never see him again. From the day she left on the boat for America there was never any communication from her as far as we know. We simply don't know what happened to her," says Paul.

He continues: "I've spent a lot of time searching records trying to find what happened to Lizzie but so far haven't been able to get the answers. Did she take on a new life using her maiden name? That would be the holy grail for me - to find her final resting place and discover what became of her."

Perhaps one of the most sensational discoveries was actually made by Paul's father John when he went to the Navan County Council Offices hoping to find out about Bradys who lived in the area as far back as the 1700s.

To his delight he was showed a copy of the 1811 census which contained details of his ancestors. A partial census, rather than a nationwide one, it was one of few to have survived from the entire 19th Century.

The original census returns for 1861 and 1871 were destroyed shortly after the censuses were taken. Those for 1881 and 1891 were pulped during the First World War, probably because of the paper shortage. And the returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were, apart from a few survivals, destroyed in 1922 in the fire at the Public Record Office at the beginning of the Civil War.

For Paul's father John to have traced his relations via this census was needle in the haystack stuff… and it got better. The present day Bradys located and visited the graves of the Navan Bradys of two centuries ago in a small rural graveyard.

In Cork, too, Paul and his father located the final resting place of ancestors and with every passing season another nugget of family history gold is discovered.

Paul found out that his Great Great Great grandfather, Edward Brady, had a brother (Sir) Francis Brady who was a successful lawyer in Dublin and went on to become the Chief Justice of Newfoundland in 1847 and then went on to be knighted by the Prince of Wales.

Indeed Francis' father, a Catholic, had to swear allegiance to the King to allow his son study law at the staunchly Protestant Trinity College Dublin. Other siblings who'd go on to achieve acclaim in the world of apothecary and medicine also took advantage of the loophole.

On his mother's side Paul also traced and found the graves of his ancestors, the Tyrrells, who lived during famine times in Blessington, Co Wicklow.

"It's been such a hugely interesting and satisfying experience building the family tree, finding out who I am I suppose and about where I come from," Paul told Review this week. "I'd strongly advise people to try and find out more about those faces in the old pictures - because once you start asking questions you might well be amazed by what you find out."

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