|The Yank (James) Kenny and his wife Mary|
From the start I was enchanted by the house and I wanted to know everything about it. Questions were spinning round and round in my head. Who built it? When? Had it been a happy house? Had children lived here? Why had it been left to get into such bad repair?
Early on when we were cleaning out the house I had found an old bag on top of a wardrobe. Inside the bag was a brown envelope, containing documents headed ‘Land Registry of Ireland, Register of Freeholders’. These documents showed Mary Kenny as the owner of the property and burdens due to the Irish Land Commission, dated 18th March 1920. They also showed the ownership of the lands changing to the Doyle family, namely Charles and Elizabeth Doyle in 1945.
I asked Brendan, the gardener from Ardagh if he knew who had built the house or if he had ever heard of Mary Kenny. A few weeks later he phoned me, very excited, he had news. An old lady, once married to an uncle of Brendan’s, remembered people talking about James Kenny. She said he was a yank. He had built the house after he returned from America. This was the first mention of the Yank.
At a guess I was pretty sure the house had been built in the eighteen hundreds, possibly after the famine. I wanted to narrow the date down better than this. My first port of call was the Ordinance Survey Office. I wanted to check any available old maps to see if the house was on them but when I called it was almost lunchtime and I was told the system goes down over lunch. However I did get a web address where I could pay online to view the first edition Ordinance Survey maps. On these maps I could pick out the site of the house. The old buildings in the yard were shown but not the new house.
My next port of call was the map library at Trinity College Dublin. Here there were maps dated later in the eighteen hundreds. But yet again there was no sign of the new house on these maps. However they suggested I check the records at the Valuation Office in the Irish Life Mall.
I called on a friend, Jim, who is interested in this kind of research to help. We spent a few lunch hours in the Valuation Office. Once we knew the town land we were able to locate the area on the maps and in the records books. This was very exciting. The Records showed the rates were paid by Patrick Kenny up to 1867 when James took over. Mary Kenny (widow) took over payments from 1891 at which time James must have died. There was also a later entry showing Mary’s name scratched out and replaced by James, probably a son, in 1938. But the most exciting entry of all was for 1884 when the records showed the rates on the house had gone up from £1.15.0 to £4.10.0—and in the column was an entry ‘New House’. Staff in the valuation office explained that this entry did not mean the house had been built in that year, only that it had been built prior to 1884. Often notification of a new house would be delayed to avoid paying the extra rates. Still I had narrowed the date down to between 1867 and 1884.
One evening I phoned Brendan, the gardener from Ardagh. I hoped he could recommend someone with a High Mac who might do some work around the site for us. Brendan was delighted to hear from me. He had lost my number. He told me he had found someone who loved the house as much as I did. After discovering a link between the Yank and a family living in the village, he had called to visit them ─ they told him the Yank had a Grandson. He gave me a phone number and said I was expected to call.
That first phone call was very exciting. The Yank’s Grandson was called Gerard. He sounded lovely. He lived in Glasnevin, in Dublin. He remembered so much about the house and the family who lived there. He had spent many happy summer holidays there with his mother and brother. He told me his grandfather, James married local girl Mary Ward after he returned from America. Mary was only seventeen when she married the Yank. They had eight children, two girls Mary (Molly) and Gertrude and six boys, James, John, Tommy, Frank, Patrick and Bill. The Yank died around 1891 leaving Mary with a young family to rear on her own. She lived until 1934. James and John continued to work the farm for another ten years. But when John died leaving James alone on the farm he decided to sell. In 1945 James sold the farm to Charley and Lizzie Doyle and he moved to Cabra to live with Mary (Molly) and her family. Molly was Gerald’s mother. The family lost track of Gertrude over the years and the other boys all ended up in America. Gerard and his brother Seamus were the only grandchildren. None of the rest of the Yank’s family had any children.
Meeting Gerard was a real bonus. I had never expected to come face to face with the Yank’s grandson. One evening after work, Theresa my daughter and I called out to visit him. He was delighted to meet us. He had photos for us to look at and to my utter delight he had a small brown photo of his grandfather and grandmother, James and Mary. Here in my hand was a photo of the Yank. It brought his whole story to life for me. Gerard had never met his grandfather. He had died well before Gerard was born. But he remembered his grandmother and told us at age seven he had attended her funeral. He had very fond memories of his uncle James and the farm and house. Every summer he visits his friends in Ardagh and he always goes out to see the old house. He had been there in August and had seen the new roof. He promised to visit again next summer.