Monday 20 May 2019

Life, love and death in the Mariners' Parish

Her grandfather was rector at Mariners' Church in Dun Laoghaire. The Church of Ireland population has virtually disappeared since then. Crime author Julie Parsons set out to find out what happened to the people of the parish

Dun Laoghaire parishoners: Ethel and Rowland Crossley on their wedding day.
Dun Laoghaire parishoners: Ethel and Rowland Crossley on their wedding day.
Canon George Chamberlain
Julie's parents, Elizabeth and Andy Parsons I

When I was a little girl I lived in New Zealand in a house by the sea. I looked out at the dark blue Pacific Ocean. It lapped at the sand at the bottom of the cliff. The summer sun was warm on my back. My skin was brown and tasted of salt.

My mother looked out at the same sea. But she saw the grey-green of the Irish Sea. She saw the granite walls of the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire, the salt-water baths where she spent her summers and the spire of the Mariners' Church, where her father, Canon George Chamberlain, was the rector. She saw Home. And she missed it with a deep abiding pain.

My parents had emigrated to New Zealand in the dark days of 1947, the coldest winter of the century, as the world struggled to recover from the horrors of World War II. Both my mother and my father had taken part in the fighting. My mother had joined the WRNS, the Women's Royal Naval Service, and my father, Andy, from Greystones, was a doctor in the British Army. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, but was badly wounded and never fully recovered. The Ireland they came home to was a bleak and hopeless place. Their wartime experiences had set them apart from those who honoured Ireland's neutrality. New Zealand offered hope, sunshine, a new life. The reality was different. Crippling homesickness, virtual exile from family in those days when a phone call was a rarity and a letter, written on a flimsy airmail form, sealed with a lick of saliva, took at least two weeks to arrive.

The dark blue Pacific claimed my father in 1955 when I was four. A mystery, his body never found. My mother was forced to stay in New Zealand for seven more years until he could be declared dead. On her own with her four children, she often took refuge in her memories of growing up in the Mariners' Parish in Kingstown, as she still called it, although its name had been changed to Dun Laoghaire in the 1920s.

Canon George Chamberlain
Canon George Chamberlain

"Tell us about when you were a little girl," we would chorus and she did. The huge church by the sea. The choir with its paid tenor, Triphook Dawson, and Mr Swanton, the organist whose feet danced across the pedals. The rectory in Adelaide Street next door where the Chamberlain family, the Canon, his wife Elsie, my mother, Elizabeth, her sister Jean and her brother Harry, lived. My grandmother's At Home days when the ladies of the parish put on their hats and white gloves and came to drink tea and eat cake in the upstairs drawing room. And my grandfather, known to some of his flock as "the black death" for his stern demeanour. He walked the East Pier every day, a familiar figure with his hat, his stick, his pocket watch. My mother loved him dearly. And she loved the Mariners, the church, the rectory and the people of the parish.

In 1963 when the seven years were over, we returned to Ireland. It was still my mother's home, but it wasn't ours. Secular New Zealand was no preparation for Catholic Ireland. The bells proclaiming the Angelus three times a day. Holy statues everywhere. Crucifixes, Sacred Hearts, the Virgin Mary with her blue robes and crown of stars. The Mariners' parish had dwindled to a handful and soon the church would close. My mother still talked of the "old days" when life was good in Kingstown. But it was easy to see what the census figures confirm. The Church of Ireland population had dropped dramatically in Ireland from nearly a quarter of a million in 1911, to just over a hundred thousand in 1961. As my mother got older she retreated more and more to those secure childhood memories. And as I listened to her stories of the way life used to be, I began to wonder: What had happened to the people of the Mariners' Parish? Where did they go?

I determined to find out.

I made my way to the Representative Church Body library in Churchtown, where hundreds of parish records are kept. There I found 48 families who, between the years 1900 to 1939, had got married in the Mariners and had their children christened there too. These I decided were my Mariners' Families and these were the people whose lives I wanted to trace.

As I poked around in what were described as the parish's "loose papers", I found something else as well. A description in the parish magazine dated June 1916, of the arrival of the troops who came to put down the Easter Rising; The Kingstown people, rich and poor, vied with each other in trying to make the troops comfortable and showing them every possible kindness. Many of the men had come over at such short notice minus their kit bags and their pay and it well behoved us to come to their help in their hour of need... the Misses Bell and Mrs Mitchell organised a tea for some 250 of the troops in the Royal Marine Hotel and it was gratefully appreciated... our company of the Boys Brigade and the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were most useful in running messages, etc all through the crisis.

A different world, this world of the Mariners' Parish 100 years ago. So what more might my Mariners' Families tell me?

Julie's parents, Elizabeth and Andy Parsons I
Julie's parents, Elizabeth and Andy Parsons I

But first of all, how to find them. I picked up the phone book and there I found many of the names of my chosen families, and I wrote to them. There was a deluge of replies. Most were from people who had no connection with the Mariners. And many described a situation which I realised was extremely significant.

One man emailed me: "Unfortunately I believe that my family fell out of favour with the main branch of the family in the middle of the 19th century due to a marriage to a biddy."

He was not alone in his experience. Others explained that because of marrying a Catholic the family had divided. As I found more of the Mariners' families - some still living locally, others who had emigrated, the importance of the Ne Temere decree, issued by the Roman Catholic church in 1907, became clear. Ne Temere was an attempt to regulate marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics. Permission to marry was needed from a priest and the non-Catholic partner was required to endeavour to raise any children from the marriage as Catholics. Many Protestants considered this a coercive measure. It had a huge effect on their lives and the choices they made.

As one woman told me; "You'd only go to the dances organised by the C of I or Methodist, Presbyterian... it wasn't that long after Ireland became independent and the Protestant community here was very fearful for a long time. I mean there was a civil war which my parents lived through and there was definitely a fear that we wouldn't survive and that if you married a Catholic, you automatically had to become one and your children all became Catholics."

Another woman put it this way: "My own sister, she was doing a line with a very nice Catholic fellow... and they went out for two years and then of course, at that time it was a terrible thing for a Catholic to marry a Protestant, so they broke it off. It just wasn't on."

And a man now in his late seventies, remembered: "The Ne Temere decree created a siege mentality among the Church of Ireland community. I caused a bit of a stir in my teens because I dated a Catholic girl from the swimming club a couple of times but both sets of parents put a quick stop to that."

Another woman who married a Catholic told me that her own family were accepting of it, but her husband's family were not happy. She described how her children when they were born were all, as she put it, "whipped off straight away to be baptised and of course I was the worst eejit when I think back".

My family was not immune to the effect of Ne Temere. My mother had told us that when she was a teenager she had fallen in love with a boy who was a Catholic. Her mother took a strong line. She was forbidden to see him. The young lovers wrote to each other, but his letters had to be sent secretly to her best friend. My aunt Jean, often spoke of "people like us". It was a barely coded reference to those with whom, even in the 1960s, we should not socialise.

South County Dublin was a different kind of place in the years before World War II.

One of my Mariners' family members spoke about it this way: "Dun Laoghaire was very much a Protestant community, I remember going on holidays to Clare, and their mouths were nearly dropping, you'd think they'd never met a Protestant, whereas in Dun Laoghaire you were used to it, it was a larger community, right down to Greystones."

Churches everywhere you looked. Protestant shops, Lees, McCulloughs, Murdochs, Hanegan and Shackleton. It was a world which in many ways seemed unchanged. The post boxes in Dun Laoghaire might have been painted green over the Imperial red but if you look closely you can still see the crown and the lion and unicorn peeping through. So what had happened to my families when Ireland became independent, what did their parents and grandparents make of it?

One respondent said to me: "There was talk of times before Ireland gained independence and how good things were under English rule for the Church of Ireland community... I feel that my parents' generation kept a Union Jack in the attic in case things might change back to the 'good old days'."

And another commented: "They thought it wouldn't last."

The late Audrey Drakeford, nee Stephens, widow of Bill Drakeford, from Clarinda Park, said referring to 1916: "I remember my mother saying that when the Rising started most people regarded the guys in the Rising as a lot of gangsters. They really had no respect for them and they didn't want to have anything to do with it and then later on when the British took all the ringleaders and shot them, when they did that it was the biggest mistake they ever made."

And finally, one woman replied: "Independence? They didn't really notice it."

But the Monsells, of Mulgrave Terrace, noticed it. In 1904 Clarendon Monsell married Maud Neville in the Mariners' Church. They had four children, all christened there too: Clarendon, William, Fortescue and Meriel. Clarendon senior was a civil servant. In 1925, after independence and the civil war, the Monsells, Maud's family, the Nevilles from Bray and their friends the Crawleys, linen people from Rostrevor, decided to leave Ireland.

According to Fortescue Monsell, his father was determined to remain loyal to the British government and he refused to work for the rebels. He was therefore forced to retire early on a reduced pension.

They moved to Muswell Hill in London, where Clarendon got a job in the British civil service.

The family adapted to their new life. I have spoken to Clarendon's granddaughter, Meriel. She said: "My impression was that the family always considered themselves to be Irish. They retained their Irish accents. My grandmother Maud Neville frequently spoke to me of Ireland and her youth sailing in Dublin Bay. My father, also called Clarendon, was steeped in Irish culture and had many books by Irish writers - Shaw, O'Casey, Joyce, poetry by Yeats. He was unhappy about the partition of Ireland although not unsympathetic to Irish independence."

Of course many of the Mariners' people, emigrated, like my parents for the same reasons as their Catholic neighbours - lack of opportunity, lack of work, escaping from a society which was inward looking, and whose economy could no longer support them.

But there was one woman who left because Catholic Ireland couldn't give her what she wanted. In 1918 Ethel Knight, from Crofton Road, married Rowland Crossley, a sergeant in the Signals Corps of the British Army based in Dublin. They had four children but this was a marriage which was unhappy in the extreme, so unhappy that Ethel could bear it no longer. She wanted a divorce.

Divorce was technically legal in 1935, but within two years De Valera's constitution would ban it outright. He had already shown how the Catholic church would inform his thinking on sexual matters. In 1935 the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed. This deemed it unlawful for any person to "sell, expose, offer, keep for sale, import or export any contraceptive". The penalty was a fine of £50 and/or imprisonment for six months.

Ethel wasn't going to be forced to stay in her unhappy marriage. So, in 1935 she and her children, the oldest aged 15 and the youngest aged four, took the mail boat and went to London. She knew no one there, had nowhere to live, and no means of support. Her family and friends begged her to stay but she was determined to go. She wanted her freedom from her husband, and a new life for her children. Her late daughter, Liz Whitehouse, told me their story.

When they got off the train in Euston station, each child holding a suitcase, they didn't know where to go. Ethel walked the streets until she found a flat. But what were they to live on? Ethel was very musical and could play the piano well. So she went from pub to pub, until she got a job as a pub pianist. When war came in 1939 she still did not go back to Dun Laoghaire. As the Blitz raged across London, the family was bombed out of four flats. Liz and her brother were evacuated to the countryside. It was hard, and often the families who took them in did not treat them well. But they survived. And Ethel had never been so busy. As Liz said, "the phone never stopped ringing. Everyone was having parties, and they all wanted Mum to play for them. You never knew when it'd be your turn to die."

After the war Ethel and her children often came home for holidays. Her large Dun Laoghaire family welcomed them with open arms. But London was where they lived now. London had taken Ethel in and she never forgot it.

Some of the Mariners' families didn't go to the ends of the earth the way my parents did. They just went up the road to Northern Ireland. Like Alan Knight, who graduated from Trinity College in 1954 and went to live there soon afterwards.

Alan told me the story of his grandfather, Andrew. Andrew lived in Clarinda Park with wife Lily and their four children, Richard, Herbert, Albert and Florrie. On July 7, 1921, Andrew, an inspector on the Dalkey tram, was at work. Two men boarded his tram. They were followed by a policeman who asked Andrew who were his last passengers. Andrew pointed them out. The men were arrested as members of the IRA. That evening Andrew didn't come home. Two days later, a boy herding cattle on Castlepark Road outside Dalkey village, found a man's body under a hedge. He was wearing the uniform of tram inspector. He had been shot through the jaw. The post-mortem report stated: A jagged wound, the jawbone fractured, the gum lacerated. The carotid artery and jugular vein severed. Death due to shock and haemorrhage due to gunshot wounds. A statement made to the Bureau of Military History by Patrick Mannix, of the IRA, alleged that Andrew Knight; was a very active anti-IRA man, supplying information about IRA activities to the British Military.

Alan Knight said his grandfather was a loyalist, but not an informer. After Andrew's death, his neighbours and in-laws, Edwin and Annie Farrell, left Dun Laoghaire immediately and went to Belfast. It is easy to imagine the shock and fear that reverberated through the small tightly-knit Church of Ireland community which lived then in Dun Laoghaire's streets and squares and who worshipped in the Mariners. After his murder, Andrew's widow, Lily, got on with life as best she could. Richard, Andrew's son, was, according to Alan, surprisingly lacking in bitterness. No one was ever held accountable for Andrew Knight's pointless murder, although there are those in Dun Laoghaire who claim to know the name of the killer.

The Mariners' Church is now the Maritime Museum. It has its place in modern-day Dun Laoghaire. Its people are scattered across the world, but some still live locally. They remember Canon Chamberlain and his family with affection. They also remember their way of life - the church, the school next door, the dances where they went to meet their own kind, those whom they could safely marry. It is a way of life which has now largely disappeared.

My mother died six years ago. She had struggled to hold on to her true self against the tide of dementia which threatened to wash it away. This year we have commemorated the Easter Rising. In 1966 when on its 50th anniversary the Protestant community was virtually invisible, no one wanted to hear what the Mariners' parish magazine in 1916 had to say. Now we can celebrate my mother's life and those like her. The Mariners' parish lives on in the memories of those who loved it. Potent memories worth preserving for us all.

Julie's new thriller The Therapy House will be published next spring.

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