An Irish Village

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Famous Dunlaviners – Remembered Elsewhere; Forgotten at Home

Like many small villages in a rural Irish setting, Dunlavin has experienced a predominant trend of out-migration over the last two centuries. Perhaps the most famous migrant from our parish was the rebel leader Michael Dwyer, who left Ireland with his wife Mary from the port of Cobh in August 1805. Dwyer was one of five well-known rebels who sailed on the ‘Tellicherry’, which reached Port Jackson in New South Wales on St. Valentine’s Day 1806. Dwyer’s companions were Arthur Devlin, John Mernagh, Martin Burke and Hugh ‘Vesty’ Byrne, who travelled with his wife Rachael and their children. Dwyer’s life in Australia, and the lives of his companions have been researched and the findings published by Kieran Sheedy in his excellent book entitled ‘The Tellicherry Five’ (Dublin 1997).

However, there were also many less famous emigrants from the Dunlavin area, and it is on a few of these that this article is focussed. Emigration was an ever-present reality here during the nineteenth century. Passenger lists from some of the ships that bore our greatest resource – our people – from this area to a new life abroad still exist. While Michael Dwyer still awaited his fate in Kilmainham Gaol, for example, the emigrant ship ‘Susan’ sailed from Dublin on 28 March 1804, bound for New York. Among those on board was Anne Matland, aged fifty six. Anne was a widow and she was accompanied on the voyage by her son, Thomas Matland, who was twenty one years of age and was described as a ‘labourer’. Thomas’s sister Mary Ann also sailed on the ‘Susan’. She was a twenty year old ‘spinster’. The Matlands settled in the New York area, where their new life began, and where the spelling of their name somehow became ‘Maitland’. Many emigrants at this time were unable to spell, and many immigration officials simply spelt phonetically what they heard, so such a change of spelling was actually quite a common occurrence. The family settled in, survived and prospered and they still have descendants in the North-Eastern United States today.

The case of the Matlands is given as an example as it possesses some interesting features. Firstly, unlike Dwyer and his fellow rebels, the Matlands’ migration was voluntary rather than forced. Indeed, most of the nineteenth century emigration from this area was voluntary and was induced by the lure of a better lifestyle away from the agrarian poverty that existed here throughout the period in question. This poverty was accentuated by the impact of the Great Famine of 1845-1850, but it would be wrong to assume that out-migration from this area was a purely post-famine phenomenon. Again, the Matlands are a case in point, as they emigrated long before the famine struck.

A more famous pre-famine emigrant was James Fenton, who arrived in Tasmania in 1832, aged 12, from the village of Dunlavin in the County of Wicklow, with his mother, three brothers and three sisters (his father had died during the voyage).
In 1840, when he was only 20, he was the first settler to take up land west of the Mersey River where he selected large areas of heavily forested land between the Don and Forth Rivers. His first dwelling was a paling and bark hut on the river flats at the Forth Estuary. James Fenton's first permanent home at the Forth was called "Norwood". Then, after he began farming on the eastern side of the Forth, he made his home there in a house, which is still occupied, which he called by the aboriginal name ‘Lenna’.
In 1879 James Fenton retired from farming and settled in Launceston, where he built a house (also called ‘Lenna’) at 41 Brisbane Street. It was here that he created the literary works that are perhaps his most notable contribution to our heritage. In 1884 his ‘History of Tasmania’ was published by Macmillan’s of London. In 1886 his biography of the Reverend Charles Price was published by George Robertson in Melbourne and in 1891 he completed his widely read ‘Bush Life in Tasmania’, which is still in print. He also completed a large lithograph depicting the Progress of Tasmania, for which he was awarded a Diploma at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81. This work is now held by the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston. James Fenton died in Launceston on 24th June 1901, aged 81, and there is now a very prestigious ‘James Fenton Memorial Scholarship’ in his honour.
James Fenton never stood for Parliament, though he was keenly interested in local Government. He was a member of the various Devon Road Trusts for many years and Chairman of the Local Board of Works. He was a member of the Mersey Marine Board and in 1856 was appointed a local Justice of the Peace. However, James’s son, Charles also took a keen interest in politics and he did become an M.P.
Charles Benjamin Monds Fenton, settled and developed land at Table Cape and later established Tasmania's first Co-operative Dairy Factory at Wynyard which, nearly 100 years later, lead to the creation of United Milk Tasmania, the State's largest dairy producer. Charles Benjamin Monds Fenton was a member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly between 1886 and 1897. In turn, his son, Arthur Benjamin Fenton, represented the Division of Russell in the Tasmanian Legislative Council for 24 years from 1933 to 1957.
Another grandson, Charles Balfour Marcus Fenton, and his wife Flora (a member of the well-known North-West Tasmania Anthony family) conducted a dairy farm on their property, named ‘Dunlavin’ on the Irishtown Road near Smithton. He was involved in the administration of the State's dairy industry for many years and has been Chairman of the Board of Directors of both the Duck River Co-operative and United Milk Tasmania. Charles Balfour Marcus Fenton was also the member for Russell in the Tasmanian Parliament for 24 years from 1957 to 1981 and President of the Legislative Council for 9 years from 1972 until his retirement in 1981. After his retirement he was awarded the nation's highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia - the A.C.
Incidentally, another member of the Fenton family who emigrated from Dunlavin and became a member of the Tasmanian Parliament was Captain Michael Fenton who arrived there in the early 1820s and obtained a large grant of land above New Norfolk which he called Fenton Forest. Michael Fenton was the cousin of James Fenton's father, who died on the voyage to Tasmania. When the old Legislative Council was established in the mid-1820s Michael Fenton was one of the nominated members. When the first elected ‘bi-cameral’ Parliament began in 1856 Michael Fenton was elected to the House of Assembly and became its first Speaker.
The Fenton family of Dunlavin certainly came a long way from their origins in a rural Irish village before the famine. However, while Dunlavin experienced a certain level of pre-famine emigration, it is also true that the levels of emigration increased during the second half of the nineteenth century. The presence of an emigration agent in Dunlavin village testifies to the fact that emigration was a harsh reality and an ever-present threat to many families in this area after the famine and right into the twentieth century also. For example, in 1881, ‘Slater’s Directory’ listed Patrick McDonough as the local emigration agent. One Dunlaviner who would become famous in his chosen field, and who probably passed through McDonough’s office was John Lawler.

John Lawler went to America, where he furthered his education to such an extent that he became a leading figure in the famous University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He became a priest and took the name of Brother Albeus. His obituary appeared in the University magazine, ‘The Scholastic’ (Volume 47, Issue 11) in 1913, and it makes impressive reading indeed:
‘Albeus, Brother (Lawler, John)
The closing days of the last school year at Notre Dame were saddened by the death of Brother Albeus, the treasurer of the University, on the 14th of June. The deceased has been troubled for some years by a weak heart, and hence, while his death was sudden, it was not unexpected. He had been dangerously ill during the first week of June, but soon recovered sufficiently to return to his post of duty, where he died a few days later.
Brother Albeus, known to the world as John Lawler, was born in Dunlavin, Ireland, in 1857. At an early age he came to this country and in 1883 he joined the Congregation of Holy Cross. After his profession in 1886 he was for many years, prefect in Carroll Hall and teacher in the preparatory department of the University. He was made treasurer of the University in 1901, in which office he remained until his death. In addition he was for many years a councillor of the Provincial of the United States Province and a member of the General Chapter of the Congregation.
In business ability, Brother Albeus was well qualified for the burdensome office with which he was entrusted for so long a time. He is fondly remembered by the students of many school years for his unselfish devotion to their interests during their days at Notre Dame. Among members of his community, he was always esteemed for his fine spirit of charity, his quiet but tense devotion to duty, and by the exemplary quality of his religious life.
The ‘Scholastic’ may readily presume to represent all the Notre Dame students who have known the lamented Brother in extending to the University their sincere sympathy in the loss of its esteemed treasurer and in praying that the departed may speedily enjoy the reward for which he lived and laboured.’
John Lawler from Dunlavin was another who had left his native place and who had worked his way into an eminent position. He is remembered with fondness and pride in the university in which he taught for nearly thirty years. Another emigrant from this area, who also was to become famous within his own sphere and beyond, was Thomas Ambrose Butler.
Thomas Butler served as a curate in Dunlavin during the early1860s. However, he yearned for a more difficult position and resigned his position in Dunlavin to take up a position in Kansas, sometime about the middle of that decade. Kansas has only joined the Union in 1861 and the new state was real frontier territory, which was opening up to settlers in the aftermath of the American Civil War. This raw, new, vigorous, exciting but dangerous land attracted all kinds of homesteaders. These included Irish Catholics, and Fr. Thomas Butler went with them to minister to their religious needs. Butler wrote a book entitled ‘The State of Kansas and Irish Immigration’, which was published by McGlashan and Gill of Upper Sackville Street, Dublin, in 1871. This work, which went on sale for the sum of six pence, became the ‘bible’ on Irish Catholic emigration to the American West. It was a almost a necessity for any prospective emigrant on this side of the Atlantic to purchase the book, but it was also widely sold in the East of the United States, where many immigrants who had arrived there were thinking of making their way further west.
A few excerpts from chapter one of Butler’s book helps us to get an idea of his aims, objectives and his stance on certain subjects. He begins by telling us that: ‘It is now nearly five years since I resigned my curacy in the diocese of Dublin, and came out to this country in order to lend my humble aid in the sacred cause of our holy religion. I was well aware that amidst the crowd of immigrants flocking out upon the prairies of the new State of Kansas many Catholics were to be found and I also felt convinced that sons and daughters of Old Ireland would never be happy and contented while wanting the consolation Catholicity affords’.
He goes on to inform us that: ‘My missionary duties have been performed in the rising cities and amidst the young settlements upon the prairies for nearly five years; I therefore presume to think I can afford some useful information to persons intending to emigrate, and some interesting reading to all my countrymen at home who take an interest in the adopted country of millions of their race’.

Butler then made his intentions clear, when he wrote: ‘It is on account of so many misstatements appearing in Irish journals, and because I dread the injurious consequences to my countrymen, I undertake the task of writing on the subject of Irish emigration, especially to Kansas; and as I feel convinced that my sacerdotal character will be a pledge to the reader of my sincerity, and that more reliance will be placed in the statement of one who has been engaged in the duties of the priesthood amidst the people in the young cities and rising settlements of the Great West than in the words of land-jobbers and their agents’.
Emigration was a fact of life, in Dunlavin as elsewhere in Ireland at this time, but Butler did not see this as the ideal situation. He wrote: ‘I begin by assuring the reader that I am not an advocate of Irish emigration; I would rather a million of times that ‘the old race’ could hold every inch of ‘the old land’. I believe that the pang of separation, and the subsequent sad feeling of exile from friends and country, leave an impress upon the heart that can never be removed. Let those, then, who can live at home in Ireland remain there – unless, indeed, the future prospects of their family are very dark’. However, Butler saw one type of emigrant as having no choice: ‘There is one class in Ireland which, I am well aware, has no other resource left but emigration; I allude, of course, to the unhappy farmers who become the victims of eviction’.
Having established his background and beliefs, Butler went on to give a detailed and very interesting account of life in Kansas at this time. Among other things, he tells us that: ‘About the year 1854 the first small stream of immigration came in on the eastern borderlands of Kansas. Brave pioneers came up the muddy Missouri in boats from Saint-Louis, and pitched their tents in a pleasant place near the protecting guns of Fort Leavenworth, having a semi-circle of wooded hills beside them, and the great river as an arc to the chord of sylvan bluffs. Here some speculators soon built up frame houses and small ‘shanties’, and store-houses, trusting for trade to the officers and soldiers of the fort, and to the freighters who transported goods across the plains.’
At another point in the book he writes: On the second and fourth Sunday of every month I celebrate mass at St. Joseph's Church, eight miles distant from Leavenworth. When I enter my buggy, at six o'clock in the morning of the above days, to drive out to St. Joseph's, I feel as if about to go to a country chapel in dear old Ireland. The journey up and down the rugged hills, and through the lonely woods, and over the rippling streams, does not seem a long one, for memory is travelling all the time amidst the green valleys of the Emerald Isle, through the glens of lovely Wicklow, and amidst the giant mountains of the North. And when at length I catch a view of St. Joseph's Church from the summit of some hill, how like an Irish scene is the appearance presented’.
Moreover, Butler also noticed some differences from home and he went on to record: ‘The scene around the prairie church differs much in one point from that around an Irish chapel. Long lines of horses and wagons are seen standing on the roadside near the church, or coming over the prairies. The farmers and their families come in wagons or on horseback to Mass – none walk along the country road, as they were wont to do olden times in Ireland. In winter, when the mud is very deep upon the roads, young women travel to church on horseback, and at such season the long cavalcades of men and women present a picturesque appearance crossing the prairies or emerging from the woods’. The content of his narrative is actually very varied, but space does not permit any further quotation of his work here.
However, the conclusion of Butler’s book is quite strongly worded, and makes interesting reading: ‘We hear our people boasting oftentimes of the blessings diffused through America by Irish immigration. I gladly acknowledge that Ireland has been, and is, ‘a Missionary nation’, and that Catholicity would be hardly known on this continent had not the scattered Celts sailed over and planted the cross on many a prairie. But, then, if we seriously consider the loss of thousands of sons of Irishmen gone away from the fold of Christ, we will be inclined to wish that ‘the old race’ would remain at home beside their Irish chapels until their bodies are placed to sleep in holy ground, in the shadows of ruined abbeys, than come here to see their children growing up in infidelity. But in the country the sons of Irish farmers grow up as good and faithful as if they lived all their time in ‘the Isle of Saints’. For this reason, as well as for many others, which I have already stated, I am a strong advocate for farming life for the exiled Irish. While treating of the sons of Irishmen I must not fail to remark that the great mass of them possess an extraordinary love for the land of their fathers. They have learned many of the traditions of ‘the old land’ from their Irish mothers, and their American love of Liberty fills them with enthusiasm for the welfare of Ireland. I feel now that I am drawing to an end in the treatment of my subject. I have endeavoured to fulfil a promise made to many friends, and a duty I owed to my fellow-countrymen at home. I have described things as they really are in Kansas, having no object in life to gain by doing so. I do not seek notoriety through the Press, but I struggle for that which urged me out here from my quiet curacy in Dunlavin – the good of the Irish people. My patriotism is the broad national Irish one – ‘for Faith and County’. In conclusion, and as a last advice, I say to all the Irish people – Do not come out to America if you can live at home. If you cannot live in Ireland, come out and till the fertile prairies, and you will be happy. ‘Uncle Sam has lands enough to give us all a farm!’

Today, Thomas Ambrose Butler is a famous man in academic circles. His book, ‘The State of Kansas and Irish Immigration’, now known simply as ‘Fr. Butler’s Kansas’, is widely studied in universities throughout the U.S.A. and beyond. The book contains a wealth of information for students of the pioneering days of the American Mid-West, and is an important primary source for Kansas historians, as well as scholars of American history generally.
However, the book also works at other levels. It is also studied by students of the nineteenth century ‘Devotional Revolution’ within Irish Catholicism. Butler lamented the situation regarding state education in Kansas – he had come from an Irish national education system where church and state were intertwined. At one point he wrote: ‘But what we have to contend with the school tax. The school tax is an injustice in this free country. Catholics are obliged to pay this tax for the support of schools to which they are opposed, and even although they send their children to other schools not supported by the State. It is difficult for Catholic parents to pay the tax and pay for their children's education at Catholic schools. If we could get a share of the school tax funds for the support of our Catholic schools, then we would have every chance of educating the rising generation of Catholic children free from evil influence, and under the protection of those safeguards which Almighty God has given to His Church’. The Catholic agenda again shone through when, for example, Butler wrote: ‘It is true that the Catholic Church is gaining great numbers of converts every year in America, but if we consider all the children of Catholic parents who are being lost in the meshes of infidelity, we will probably cease to rejoice’.
Butler’s work is also studied by anthropologists and students of Irish ethnicity. The picture of Irish emigrant life contains much detail regarding their gradual cultural assimilation, and (in some instances) their contribution to acculturation within the melting pot that was nineteenth century Kansas. At one point Butler wrote: ‘The majority of our countrymen in Leavenworth belong to the labouring class, and are obliged to work hard on railways and streets for small wages. Four years ago the pay given to labouring men was two dollars per day; and if you take into account many inclement days during the year, when the labourer cannot work, it will be seen that such men have hard times here. The stern truth of the case is this – Irishmen must not hope to make much money as labourers in the towns and cities in the future. Since the emancipation of the Negroes the labour market has been glutted, and, undoubtedly, in a few years more Sambo and John Chinaman will be the only labourers on the highways’. By today’s politically correct standards, such references are seen as racist, but they must be taken in the context of the time and place of writing, as well as the cultural background of the writer himself.
That writer was a nineteenth century emigrant from Dunlavin. He was one of a number of emigrants from our area who had made good in a new life overseas. This article has only scratched the surface of the subject of emigration from this place. For every Matland, Dwyer, Fenton, Lawler and Butler who left this village and its environs, there are thousands who left, never to return, and whose names, lives and achievements were never recorded. Many have faded into obscurity and oblivion over time. Many more have lived full and varied lives and have descendants who still come to visit this area. However, it is pleasing to note, I think, that some of our emigrants from this place became very successful immigrants in faraway places, and this article has told a few of their stories.