Tuesday 23 July 2019

Honouring a pioneer

Kathy Cleary Price traces the tragic but inspiring story of her great grandmother Jane Fairthlough from Drogheda, who was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston in 1864

Just about two centuries ago in the town of Drogheda, Henry Fairthlough and his wife Mary welcomed a daughter whom they named Jane. Ahead of her lay what should have been - at least by early 19th century standards - a life of wealth and privilege, since Henry was a prominent Drogheda citizen. Research shows that he was a magistrate, barrister, and owner of much "quality land,"

For Jane, however, that life never came to be. Instead, in 1864, at the age of 46, she would die of heart failure in a Boston room, be buried by her daughter in an unmarked grave, and, with the passage of time, presumably be forgotten. But Jane is not forgotten.

Jane Fairthlough is my second great grandmother. And she is the third great grandmother to my cousins Hildi and Jack. For the three of us-and perhaps other descendants--she is a woman much admired, and about whom we yearn to know more. A woman who left her country behind. A widow who crossed the Atlantic with four young daughters to seek a better life, and arrived in Boston most likely at the start of the American Civil War. A woman who does not appear to have found a better life. It is also possible that she may have been my first immigrant ancestor.

The story of how Jane's life veered so sharply from its intended course is as old as time. At the age of about 15, she fell in love with "the wrong man." What we know of these events stems from a family story written by a great granddaughter back in the 1950's, and subsequently buttressed with increasingly solid genealogy research.

As the family story tells it, Jane met and subsequently married a man named Patrick Brown on March 29, 1833 in the parish of Stamullen. When Henry Fairthlough heard rumors of the marriage, he confronted her and asked if it were true. When learning that it was, he disowned her on the spot and she never saw her parents again. His objections reportedly stemmed from his belief that the once prosperous Browns-who had fallen on hard times-- were promoting the match for the Fairthlough wealth. In addition, the Browns were Roman Catholic, and it appears quite possible the Fairthloughs were not.

Deprived of Jane's family wealth, the Browns reportedly gave the newlyweds a house and some land, as was the custom then. Over time, Jane produced four daughters. First came Mary Ann (my great grandmother) in 1834. Then Rose in 1836, Ellen in 1840, and finally Elizabeth (Lizzy) in 1844. A son Patt, arrived in 1847, but most likely died soon thereafter.

At this point, the timeframe becomes a bit murky, given the dearth of records relating to the Browns and to Jane's immigration. What is known is that Jane was eventually widowed and left with her four daughters. The family story suggests that the family was not cordial to her and life became increasingly unpleasant. Her decision to emigrate would support this conclusion.

Thus, at some point, Jane somehow got the money to bring her daughters to America and try to start a new life. While there is no way to know whether Jane ended up regretting the decision to leave life in Drogheda, she most probably ensured a better life for at least three of her daughters. Tragically her eldest, Mary Ann, (my great grandmother) became a victim of domestic violence and was buried with her mother in June 1874. (Mary Ann's children, including my grandmother Sarah, were raised in New York by her sister Rose.)

And in an interesting twist, daughters Rose and Mary Ann married immigrants in the Catholic Church and identified as Irish on the U.S. Census. Ellen and Lizzie however declared themselves English, and married Protestants who were American-born and from more "socially upscale" families. Along the way, however, there was tragedy, hard work, and of course lots of children.

This story may not at first glance seem particularly unique or memorable. She was after all just another girl who fell in love "with the wrong man." And, yes, she was just another immigrant. But my other immigrant ancestors came with spouses and siblings and could reasonably be viewed as typical. Jane made a difficult and couragous decision, but failed to live long enough to see the results-- not even the arrival of her first grandchild.

But decisions have consequences, and Jane's decision contributed to new generations of Americans of whom I believe she would be quite proud. She had granddaughters who were incredibly strong and succeeded in raising their children in difficult circumstances. To mention just a few, she had a great grandson and a second great grandson who became presidents of major corporations. Another great grandson was a New York City police officer and one became a lawyer. A second great grandson joined the U.S. Secret Service and protected our vice-president, and a 2nd great granddaughter who will soon celebrate her 101st birthday And a fourth great granddaughter recently earned her doctorate in chemistry. Jane's descendants today are in New York, Florida, California, Vermont, and who knows where else.

By all means, it would have been easy to forget Jane, and she no doubt would be surprised that did not occur. But Jane's grave in Brookline, Mass.-which she shares with daughter Mary Ann-recently acquired a stone that was blessed by a local priest. Daughter Mary Ann's picture is on Facebook and ancestry, and at least some of her descendants speak of her often.

And Henry Fairthlough's decision had consequences as well. When he disowned his young and presumably rebellious daughter on that day in 1833, he gave America a gift. Surely, a consequence my third great grandfather did not anticipate.

Kathy at

Drogheda Independent