Saturday, 25 July 2015

Genealogy Quest: The search for Maryanne…

Following the ancestral trail of Dad’s maternal grandmother, born Mary Agnes Donovan, is one of my favourite genealogy quests.  When she married Charles O’Neill on 19 April 1874 in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, Mary Agnes named her parents as John and Maryanne Donovan (deceased).[1] Her mother’s maiden name was not recorded in the marriage register (church or civil), hugely complicating the search for that side of her family.

My big question remains who was Maryanne?  All I know for sure is, she died of tuberculosis in 1873, aged about forty years, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.[2] But, I have a good theory…

… proving it is my problem.

Mary Agnes was likely born before 1864, when birth registration commenced in Ireland. Her baptism record has never been found. In the 1901 census, she claimed she was born in Dublin city in about 1862, though in 1911, she said it was about 1866.[3]

With her parent’s ill-health and early deaths, she may have married younger than usual, but it is highly improbable she was only twelve years old. This may have been the legal minimum age for marriage in Ireland at the time, but, even then, it was not socially acceptable for such a young child to marry. So, presumably she was born at least a few years before 1862. Chances were she was at least seventeen years old when she married in 1874, and as such born before 1857, if not earlier.

The following couple have been identified as the most likely contenders for the role of Mary Agnes’s parents: On 9 February 1851, in St. Mary Pro-Cathedral, John Donovan married Maryanne COYLE.[4] Their children, baptised in the same parish, were:

  • Thomas Joseph Donovan, 11 March 1854
  • John James Donovan, 18 November 1855
  • Thomas Laurence Donovan, 20 June 1857
  • Francis Donovan, 16 September 1858 
  • Catherine Donovan, 18 March 1860 
  • Teresa Anne Donovan, 18 May 1862

You see the gap of over three years between John and Maryanne’s marriage and the baptism of their first child? This leaves an ample window for the birth of Mary Agnes, though it means she understated her age by about ten years on the 1901 census - not that that was unusual.  But, Mary Agnes claimed she was a minor (less than 21) when she married Charles, meaning she must have been born after 19 April 1853. So, if this was true, and there is little reason to suspect otherwise, our window was short, maybe too short. Thomas Joseph would have been born within a year of her birth.

Poor Maryanne was pregnant for practically this entire ten year period, and the opportunity for the birth of Mary Agnes did not increase much over the years to 1862.

Yet, there are many other ‘coincidences’ drawing me to this family.

Maryanne seemingly stopped having children in 1862, frustratingly, two years before births had to be registered in Ireland. A civil birth register, not only would have confirmed the mother’s maiden name, but would have provided the father’s occupation. Our John Donovan was an upholsterer, a fairly unusual occupation, and if we could prove that this John Donovan was also an upholsterer, it would significantly increase the likelihood they were one and the same person.  

More next week…

[1] Marriage register, St Mary’s Pro Cathedral,
[2] Burial register, Glasnevin Cemetery, Glasnevin Trust.
[3] 1901 and 1911 Census, National Archives of Ireland.
[4] Marriage and baptism registers, St Mary's Pro Cathedral. 

Image Credit: ‘The Pro-Cathedral, Dublin’, George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Juggling Colleen

Everyone has heard the old saying about running away to join the circus… except, no one expects it to apply in their own family, and especially not in MY own family! But, that's pretty much what Elizabeth Wynne, a.k.a. Veronica Martell, did and she was my mother's second cousin.

It certainly wasn't something that was in her blood – at least not on her Wynne side. Her father, James Wynne, was an electrician. Her grandfather, also James Wynne, was a brush maker. And her great-grandfather, John Wynne, who was my great-great-grandfather, worked as a shop assistant. They were all ordinary people, living ordinary lives in their native Dublin city. So, how did they produce such an extraordinary, and talented, daughter?

Actually, Elizabeth had three younger sisters who also learned to juggle and followed her onto the stage. They all moved to London and trained with Jack Martell, the husband of their Aunt Moira. But, it was the eldest, Elizabeth, or should I say Veronica, who enjoyed the most success, or at any rate achieved the most mentions in the online sources available today. 

Like her sisters, Veronica initially worked the variety halls and cabarets in Britain and on the Continent. Her big break came in 1951 when John Ringling North, of the famous Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, spotted her at the China Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. Even though she had no circus background, he was so impressed with her act, he signed her up and Veronica joined the circus.[1] Her arrival was heralded in the New York newspapers that year, for example, in Brooklyn they said: 
‘Veronica Martell, a real beauty from Ireland, turned out to be a top-notch juggler, climaxing her act with a blindfold routine that seemed impossible, but the lady did it’.[2]

That season, Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Greatest Show on Earth, a romantic drama set in the Ringling Circus. Veronica played a small part, as herself, the Juggling Colleen.  They, somewhat surprisingly, scooped the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Story, competing against such movie giants as The Quiet Man and the western, High Noon.

Despite its Oscars, I don't think I've ever seen the movie. According to online sources, Veronica opened a short montage featuring an assortment of circus acts. She performed as ‘Ireland's Juggling Marvel’ to the old nationalist tune ‘The Wearing of the Green’.[3] There are some clips of the movie on You-Tube, here, but, unfortunately, Veronica doesn't appear in any of them.     

Elizabeth (Veronica) made her home in the United States. She met her husband, Robert Ziemski, while at the Ringling Circus in 1951 and they married the following year.  After their daughter was born in 1953, Veronica returned to the stage and in 1964, she appeared in a short Harold Baim documentary called Jugglers and Acrobats.[4] Some pictures of Veronica from the film are available here

More photographs of her, when she performed with the Ringling Circus, are available in the digital collections of the Milner Library at the Illinois State University, here.  I can see the Wynne family resemblance, especially to one of my glamorous aunts. Does anyone else see it too? (I cannot show the pictures due to copyright restrictions, but hopefully the links will work ok)

Veronica didn't have all the fun and her sisters enjoyed their share of the lime-light too.

Des O'Reilly, a drummer with an English pop band called The Puppets, remembers Christine Wynne, a.k.a. Christine Martell. In 1965, they did a three-month tour of Cyprus, North Africa and Malta for the British Forces. Christine played a stereotypical, drunken, Irish lass, juggling to the tune of ‘The Teddy Bears Picnic’. According to Des O'Reilly, she continually dropped the balls, such that they had to start and restart ‘Teddy Bears Picnic’ over and over again and he said ‘poor Christine, in her thick Irish brogue, would chastise herself for dropping her props!!’ He was thankful she wasn't a knife thrower, but it sounds like just a comedy act to me.[5] 

Moira Martell, born Mary Pauline Wynne in 1931, performed as the continental juggler, while Rita Martell, born Margaret Jane Wynne in 1934, became known as the youthful juggler. They also worked the variety circuits across Europe. All four sisters seemingly employed the same basic techniques in their acts. The programme for one of Rita's performances, in the Grand Festival of Magic show at the Scala Theatre, London, in 1954, reads:  
‘she has a brilliant act’ and ‘worked numerous routines with clubs, balls, hats, etc., and finally did the fountain of bouncing six balls whilst blindfolded!’[6] 

Sadly, the Martell Sisters have all passed away now. Veronica only died in February this year. Her obituary can be read here 

[1] The Billboard, 21 Apr 1951, p. 57, accessed on Google books.
[2] Brooklyn Eagle, 5 April 1951, p. 4, accessed on Fulton Postcards.
[3] ‘Many Acts’, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Circusmusic
[4] The Baim Collection.
[5] Des (A Musical Life).
[6] The Magic Circle presents a Grand Festival of Magic, Scala Theatre, October 4th to 9th, 1954: Programme
Image: Pixabay 

See also, the first episode of this story Showbiz!

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 27 June 2015


Recently, I started working on a new branch of our 
Wynnes – that of James Wynne. James was an elder brother of my great-grandfather, Patrick Wynne. His branch promises to lead us into the glitzy world of showbiz, with its professional jugglers, circus performers and even a part or too in the movies.

How is it we have heard nary a whisper of these extraordinary cousins before now?   

It may take me a while to sort out who’s who with James, his children and grandchildren, especially as some of them adopted a stage name.  So, first things first…    

James Wynne was born on 25 November 1857, at 56 Thomas Street, Dublin. He became a brush maker by trade, same as my great-grandfather. In 1892, he married Christina Kavanagh and they had five children, John Augustin, Nora Isabella, James Percival, Mary J. and Edward Patrick – just a typical Dublin family.

By 1911, James was no longer living with Christina and the children. Perhaps he had passed away, or maybe he had taken up residence elsewhere. A man, whose details closely match his, was found ‘resident’ in Leeds, England, at the time. This James Wynne was fifty-three years old and married, a brush maker, born in Dublin. He was boarding, without his wife, in a household in the West Yorkshire town. Whether this was my great-granduncle or not, and what happened to him afterwards, remains to be seen.

Before her death, James Wynne’s niece, Pat Fagan, told my cousin Aileen that her uncle John Wynne had two daughters – Nora and Maura. Sound like a classic case for Chinese whispers? Anyway, the story goes, Nora married a tailor and immigrated to Australia, while Maura became a dancer in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin.

‘Uncle John’ was the one who lived in Dundalk. He actually had five daughters, including a Nora, a Mary Agnes and a Mary Clarissa. None of them fit Pat Fagan’s description. I now suspect it was James Wynne’s two daughters, Nora Isabella and Mary J., who became the tailor’s wife and the dancer. Of course, I have no proof of this yet, either.

This month, thanks to the owner of an online family-tree, I learnt that a Moira J. Wynne married John Davidson, in London.  Moira is pronounced quite similar to Maura, or indeed to Máire, the Irish for Mary. So, was Moira our dancing Maura, a.k.a. Mary J.? Her marriage certificate confirms she was the daughter of James Wynne, a brush maker. But, her occupation, if she had one, was not recorded and if she danced under a stage name, it might be hard to ever find out.

John and Moira’s marriage proved to become the Wynnes’ gateway into the ‘limelight.’ John Davidson was better known by his stage name, Jack Martell. He had seen some success as a comedy juggler and pantomime actor, working in the music halls in England, during the first half of the twentieth century.

From 1929 until 1938, the London electoral registers show Moira Wynne and John Davidson were living together (‘in sin’, I might add… in the 1930s… just sayin’) in Doverfield Road, London. They married at the end of 1937, but seemingly had no children together.

Four of Moira’s Dublin-born nieces, the children of her brother James, travelled to London, in their teens, all eager to train as jugglers with Jack Martell. The eldest girl, Veronica Wynne (her name at birth was registered as Elizabeth C.), resided with John and Moira from about 1948. Within a year or two, she was joined by her sister Chrissy (Christine).  Their younger sisters Moira (Mary P.) and Rita (Margaret J.) soon followed suit, as they came of age. All four seemingly mastered the art of juggling and travelled the world plying their trade. They too adopted the stage name, Martell. 

To get an idea of what it was all, about, check out Anita Martell in action here, courtesy of a 1937 British Pathé film. Anita Martell, or Anita Davidson as she was born, was John Davidson’s daughter, from his first marriage.  

See more about the Martell Sisters - The Juggling Colleen.

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Genealogy Saturday: Diary of WWI soldier’s last days

Granda’s first cousin, Camillus Wynne,  served as a rifleman in the British Army during World War One. Many of you will remember him from previous blog posts. He died in the horrific Battle at Bellewaarde, in Flanders, on 16 June 1915 - 100 years ago. The army's 'war diaries' provide a first-hand account of Camillus’ final days and hours. They make for fascinating, if somewhat harrowing,  reading:

14 June 1915
In Bivouac - Officers lectured by 2nd in command on the King’s Regulations. Copies of the Corps Commander’s message complimenting the Battalion on the gallantry displayed in October last at NEUVE CHAPELLE, when it repulsed the enemy with the bayonet, were distributed to companies and read out on parade.

Sports were held in the afternoon. The principle event was the high jump for the Commanding Officer’s prize. This was won by a jump of 4 [feet] 9 1/2 [inches]

15 June 1915
In Bivouac - The Battalion paraded at 5.30 pm and marched to the assembly trenches between WHITEPOORT FARM and Railway to support 9th Infantry Brigade in an attack on BELLEWAARDE SPUR. Strength - 21 Officers, 630 other ranks.

16 June 1915
The bombardment of our artillery commenced at 2.50 A.M., lasting until 4.15 A.M., when the 9th Infantry Brigade assaulted, carrying the first three lines of German trenches. The 2nd Royal Irish Rifles supported the left – ‘C’ Company followed by ‘D’ Company on right, ‘A’ Company, followed by ‘B’ Company on left, with orders to consolidate the first German line.

‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies, carried away by their runners, pushed through to the 3rd line, closing up with the assaulting troops under E.C. FARRAN & Lieutenant C.H.H. EALES. The companies were then reorganised and withdrawn in perfect order to the first line, which they put in a state of defence.

‘A’ Company, under 2nd Lieutenant W.E. Andrews, was similarly engaged on the left. Owing to heavy artillery fire which soon developed, ‘B’ Company was unable to follow ‘A’ Coy quickly. They were formed up on CAMBRIDGE Road, 250 yards behind, preparatory to making another effort to get through, when they were unfortunately shelled by enfilade fire, causing 30 or 40 casualties. The remainder of the company was then withdrawn and kept in battalion support for the remainder of the day.

During the day, from early morning to nightfall, the Battalion was subjected to terrific artillery bombardment.

The non-commissioned officers and men of all companies distinguished themselves by the discipline, coolness and steadiness, under most trying circumstances.

At no time during the day can it be said that they were at any time shaken by the ordeal. For instance, at 3.30 P.M., after hours of bombardment, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies, with very short notice, were called upon to attack. It possessed just as much spirit and dash as their early morning attack. Both of these attacks were gallantly led by E.C. FARRAN, who was wounded and became missing, and 2nd Lieut. C.H.H. EALES, who was uninjured.

‘A’ Company consolidated and held in a most determined manner, the left flank of the German trenches, and handed them over intact to the Royal Scots who relieved them at midnight. 2nd Lieut. W.E. Andrews, who commanded this portion of the line, deserves the highest praise for able way in which this difficult operation was carried out. The Battalion was relieved at 1.29 A.M. having acquitted itself in a manner which has called forth praise from the Corps Commander.

The following officers and about 300 other ranks [including Philip Camillus Wynne] became casualties: 

  • Capt. C.M.L BECHER, slightly wounded
  • Capt. E.C. FARRAN, 3rd R. Ir. Rifles, wounded and missing
  • Lieut. W.E.S. HOWARD, 4th R. Ir. Rifles, wounded
  • Lieut. D.M. ANDERSON, 5th R. Ir. Rifles, wounded
  • 2nd Lt E.J. HOARE, wounded
  • 2nd Lt J.G. BLAND, wounded
  • 2nd Lt F.C.P. JOY, 3rd R. Ir. Rifles, killed
  • 2nd Lt E.B. KERTLAND, 4/R Irish Fus., wounded and missing
  • 2nd Lt R.L. VANCE, 4/R Irish Fus., wounded
  • 2nd Lt T.J. CONSIDINE, 5/R Dub Fus., wounded
  • 2nd Lt C.H. WALE, Special list, wounded
  • 2nd Lt J.M. MC INTOSH, killed
  • 2nd Lt A.A. RAYMOND, slightly wounded, remained at duty.

Source: Transcribed from the ‘War Diary’ of the Second Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, June 1915, ‘UK, WWI War Diaries (France, Belgium and Germany), 1914-1920’,, citing First World War and Army of Occupation War Diaries, WO 95/1096–3948, The National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew, Surrey, England. 
© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Three little vignettes: ghosts, apparitions and porter

When I wrote the blogpost ‘Uncle Michael married Aunt Kate', my uncle Colm said it solved one the great mysteries of his life. That mystery was - ‘who the hell was the Uncle Mike?’ Colm had always believed Uncle Mike was a Byrne, but he could never quite place him. My blogpost confirmed Mike was actually Michael McGrane, Colm's maternal great-granduncle. Last year, shortly before he passed away, Colm shared with me three intriguing stories concerning the long-gone Uncle Mike. Here they are in my uncle's own words:

Three Little Vignettes [by Colm Wynne]
'The first made a great impression on me. The Wynne family moved to 3 Lower Jane Place from Leinster Avenue around 1950, shortly after Anne's [my aunt's] birth. Auntie Kay [my grandaunt, Kathleen Byrne] had been living there on her own, following her parent’s deaths.  We opened (or re-opened) a small corner shop there called Kathleen's. It was very much later, when I was an adult, I realized that following my father’s first heart attack around 1947, his business failed as he was unable to pursue it, and we needed the income from the shop to survive. 

Aged around six, I used to sleep on a chaise longue in the kitchen/ dining room. That's a fancy description of a small general use room with an iron range, a gas cooker and a very mean table, some equally mean chairs and a bench. There was also an old fashioned dresser and a wardrobe! in the room. 

One night I awoke to find an old man, in a jacket and cap, hunched up on a chair in front of the range, warming himself. I knew he should not be there so I picked up a toy to throw at him. For some reason, I could not move my limbs freely. The attempt to throw was like moving my arm through treacle. When I finally released the toy, instead of flying through the air and clouting the intruder, it just dropped harmlessly beside the bed.

I knew this shouldn't have happened and got frightened at this point so I started screaming. Mammy and Daddy came from their bed in the next room and turned on the light. My visitor vanished. They did not see him. They tried to persuade me I was seeing things and it was all in my imagination. I insisted I was not, so they changed tack and tried to persuade me I was just awaking from a bad dream. I know to this day, I was not. 

The upshot was I was taken into their bed for a few nights and then transferred to the front bedroom with my sisters, where I slept for several years. The following evening the adults were gathered around the fire in what nowadays would be called the lounge. I don't remember what it was called then, probably the parlor. Your Mam will probably remember. It was a big room with a section curtained off shielding a double bed where my parents slept. It had previously been where my grandparents slept. I had already been put to bed there. Although I wasn't supposed to be, I was wide awake and listening. 

I heard them discussing the events of the night before with Auntie Kay. It transpired that from my description the apparition was clearly the deceased Uncle Mike, and that I was not the first to have seen him. I can't remember now who else had the dubious pleasure. 

Number Two: A very short one, this. Apparently when living in number 31 Lower Jane Place, the Uncle Mike worked on the docks. When he came home each evening he never had to knock or use a key. The door was always opened for him by some previously deceased family member. I don't think I ever heard who it was. I certainly don't remember if I did. 

Number Three: Also short. The Uncle Mike was very fond of his porter. His bosom drinking buddy and working companion became very well known in later life and indeed his afterlife as Blessed Matt Talbot. When Matt forswore the drink, he tried very hard, and I understand unsuccessfully, to persuade Uncle Mike to do likewise. Despite his best efforts, the Uncle Mike remained a toper. Matt gave Uncle Mike his prayer book in the hope that it would help. I don't know if he ever read it, but it was still around when I was a small boy. I have no idea what happened to it afterwards. Again, your Mam might be able to throw some light on it.'

Michael McGrane died of heart failure on 23 December 1929, at 3 Lower Jane Place, the house he shared with my great-grandparents. He had suffered from bronchitis for seven days before his passing. On Christmas Eve that year, my great-grandfather and Michael's nephew, James Byrne, registered his death. 

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy