On the Martin trail

Six generations of Martins had worked in his Galway pub, he said, adding that his grandfather’s name was John, his father was Billy, and he had a son named Liam. ‘Well, Billy,’ I replied, ‘I don’t know if we’re related, but my grandfather was Billy, my father’s name was John, and I too have a son named Liam.’

‘Be prepared for setbacks’ is one of the first pieces of advice you’ll get from experienced family researchers. How true, I discovered, as I started to delve into my Martin family history.

In 2004, I went to Christchurch’s Linwood Cemetery where my Irish great-great-grandparents, Michael and Mary Martin (nee Boland), are buried. Thanks to the council’s excellent records, the plot was easy to find in the Catholic section where Michael had been buried in 1895 and Mary five years earlier.

A welcoming sign, but I was looking in the wrong place

I approached the grave site expecting at least a national monument in honour of my forebears. Instead, all I found was an unmarked patch of dry grass and weeds. It seems that on the voyage to New Zealand in 1864, Michael had carved himself a big wooden Celtic cross. His pride and joy had been placed as his headstone. The weather, or vandals, had long since destroyed it.

Two years earlier, I’d been in Ireland armed with the Martin family tree. All I knew was that they were from Co Tipperary. ‘Welcome to Tipperary – you’ve come a long way’, says a sign on the outskirts of the town where I asked a barman if he knew any Martins still living locally. ‘You wouldn’t really want to know them,’ he said. Small time drug dealers, apparently. The barman was more interested in talking about Once Were Warriors.

At Tipperary’s Family History Research centre I was told that a search of Martin family records – costing $140 – would reveal little more than my family tree already contained. In the local famine graveyard, which was as bleak as the name suggests, one headstone carried the name ‘Mary Martin’.

It wasn’t until I returned to Dublin that I started to make some progress. A genealogist at the National Library near Trinity College looked at my family tree and quickly came up with a match for Michael Martin and Mary Boland in the marriage records of the parish of Terryglass.

Terryglass is a little village in the northwest of the county, many miles from Tipperary town. I’d been looking in completely the wrong place. Thank God, the drug dealers weren’t related. Parish baptism and marriage records for the 1800s are all on microfilm, and I soon found Michael and Mary’s wedding certificate. A swirling hand-written script shows they were married at the Terryglass Catholic church on 23 February 1841. The certificate cost £1.10, ‘a lot of money’ at the time, a librarian told me.

Rural Ireland was densely populated then and divided into ‘townlands’, small parcels of land marked out by landscape features such as a streams, rivers, or hills. For generation after generation, family members remained on the same townland, often within a five-mile radius of their birthplaces. Over time, areas and names become strongly linked, and it is still common in Ireland to link a surname with a certain county or locality.

The Martins are from ‘the bogs of Ireland’ and turf is still cut in the area

A family’s townland was recorded on baptism and wedding certificates. When my great-grandfather, James Martin, was baptised on 15 August 1852 at the church in Terryglass, the family was living in the townland of Macloon (also spelled Muckloon). Macloon is a small headland jutting out into the north east of Lough Derg, not far from where the River Shannon flows into it. The Boland family was living in a nearby townland called Muckloonmodderee.

The Great Famine raged in Ireland from 1845-50, but more people left Ireland after it than during it. By 1864, Michael and Mary must have decided they could no longer bear the poverty of their homeland. Their eldest son, Anthony (my father’s and my middle name) left for England then sailed for New Zealand. Michael and Mary packed up their remaining six children, including my great-grandfather James, about 12 years old, to join Anthony on the other side of the world and begin a new life.

When I returned to Ireland in 2009, seven years after that first visit, I was much better prepared. I headed straight for Terryglass. From an old map which illustrated the townlands, I could pinpoint where the Martin and Boland families lived. For several days, I walked the lanes and green fields. Colm D’Arcy, a floor polisher and former Shannon boatman, told me over a pint in Paddy’s Bar that years ago ‘there was an amount o’ houses’ in the area. Had my ancestors once lived in one of the cottages that now lie in ruins? Other locals directed me to a grassy paddock still known as Jimmy Martin’s field. I thought of my uncle Jimmy, my father’s eldest brother. He’d have been named in the Irish fashion of naming the first son after his grandfather.

The old family cottage?

That little field, and the Dublin records, are the only signs that my families ever lived there. The famine cleared the area of people and eventually the memory of Jimmy Martin’s field will disappear too. Yet there’s always an echo if your ear is attuned.

Before I left, one local told me to visit the pub of 81-year-old Billy Martin, just a few miles away in Portumna, Co Galway. Billy was my grandfather’s name, so that was worth following up, I thought. Billy’s is a ‘night pub’ so I had to wait until evening for it to open. It’s no trendy Irish bar, more like a musty little New Zealand living room from the 1950s. I shook the hand of white-haired Billy behind the bar, and told him my people had come from nearby.

Billy Martin’s ‘night pub’ in Portumna, with store and garage next door

Six generations of Martins had worked in his pub, he said, adding that his grandfather’s name was John, his father was Billy, and he had a son named Liam. ‘Well, Billy,’ I replied, ‘I don’t know if we’re related, but my grandfather was Billy, my father’s name was John, and I too have a son named Liam.’

I never had to buy another pint of Guinness that evening.

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