A great-great-great grandfather’s Letter

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Family stories have always been part of my life. One of the most dramatic involved a great-great grandmother of mine. She was a teenager living in rural Ireland who one day in the early 1870s told her family she was going out to see friends. The next time they heard from her was in a letter sent from the United States. As with any family story, the details of even this snippet changed with various tellings. In the version I remember hearing when I was a child, she left the house for a trip to town for lettuce. (Pretty far-fetched given what life was like in rural Ireland at the time.)

During a trip to Ireland in May with my mother, Patty, and her sister, Mary, I learned a lot more about our family’s roots in Ireland. Some things about our little origin story rang true to everyone we met, including genealogists and historians. But some things did not.

Aunt Mary is the family member most responsible for what we know about our family history, especially the Irish side. She started her serious work in the 1970s, writing to older family members and collecting photographs and letters, and has continued to invest time and money in the effort.

A key document in tracing our Irish foremother was a letter written by Michael Connaughton, dated July 22nd, 1875. “My dear and beloved daughter,” begins the letter to Honorah (Nora) Connaughton. Though we have no birth record for Nora, her husband reported on her death certificate that she was born in 1855 and was 58 years old when she passed away on August 10th. Since her birthday seems to have been after August 10th, she was likely 19 years old when this letter was written. Michael was about 61.

The letter contains tons of information that genealogists were able to use to trace the family, including Michael’s list of his other children and reports of where they were living and what they were doing; his notation that he was writing from Bookala; his mention of other nearby towns, one, Ballymoe, where he went to collect the 2 pounds 11 shillings and 6 pennies Nora had sent home, and two, Castlerea, where he planned to go to pay his rent “to Mr. MK,” and his signoff, which included the name of his wife, Mary.

In addition, he gives details that fit into the general picture of what was going on in Ireland at the time. “The crop is doing well up to this. The summer is very wet. My turf is not dry yet. it was late the blight is beginning to fall on the potatoes.”

He reports that Mary’s “hand is none better or worse” and that “The shortness of breath is my worse (sic) complaint which I am afraid will never part with me.” He died two years later.

We know from census records that Michael and Mary (nee Dillon) Connaugton had seven children (Sarah, Patrick, Nora, Anne, Michael, John, and Mary Kate). They rented their house and land in Bookala from Sir Thomas John Burke. They could read and write English and Micheal made at least some of his living as a tailor, a skill he passed on to at least some of his sons and daughters.

Though Michael’s letter mentions that Nora was living in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1875, we have little information on her time before she settled in Ludlow, Kentucky, and married my great-great grandfather, Richard Joseph Dillon, born in America in 1853 to Irish immigrants named Patrick Edward Dillon and Bridget Healy.

We have a boilerplate letter of introduction written by a priest to be shown to prospective employers or landlords and we have Micheal’s mention that she owns a sewing machine that she is using in part to make her living.

During the Ireland trip, Aunt Mary told me that the story she had heard had never included a trip to town for groceries, much less lettuce, but that Nora had gone out that day to visit friends. Mary had also heard that Nora had walked to a town and taken a train. Mr. William Gacquinn, a historian in County Roscommon, confirmed for us that trains were running through County Roscommon by that year and that she could have gone by train to a port city like Galway or Dublin for her trip to the United States.

It puzzled the genealogist and the historian that she would leave seemingly without notice because it would have been an expensive undertaking and the family seemed to have little money. They wondered whether some of Nora’s other siblings had emigrated prior to her leaving and had sent the money for her to come next. (The only sibling we have traced to and in the United States is the youngest girl, Mary Kate, who lived in Indianapolis, married a man named Edward Kane, and had four children, Mamie, Kathern, Edward, and Bess.)

Delving into this family history has been really interesting to me, especially since the family members I grew up knowing share lots of traits with these Irish relatives: there are a lot of letter writers, teachers (which gets more relevant in the next generation in Ireland), and sewists. Just like Micheal and Mary’s family in Bookala.

*This is a first installment in my attempt to pull together some of what we’ve learned into a narrative that can be followed and can serve as a springboard for further inquiry.

Red Maple

Here’s how my red maple looks today.

Jambalaya Writers Festival

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I spent a lovely day Saturday at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma, Louisiana, for the Jambalaya Writers Festival. I am pictured here with Monique Martin, who flew in from California to talk about her paranormal time travel romance novels. In addition to signing books, I gave a talk on the art of making nonfiction picture books illustrated with photographs.

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We had gorgeous weather for the outdoor lunch (Jambalaya, of course) and the sunset party on the patio.
I’ll be back on the road on Wednesday for the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at USM in Hattiesburg. See you there.

Mysterious Patterns on NYC Reading List

MP coverMysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature made another good reading list: recommended for third graders by the New York City’s Department of Education. See the full list here.

Many things have been going on around here so I’ve been away from the blog for longer than I care to calculate. Now seems like a good time to jump back in, though, because I have a few events coming up.

First up, I will be at the Jambalaya Writers Conference at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library on April 2nd. My presentation is titled, “Story + Photographs = Winning Nonfiction.”

After that, I will be at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at USM in Hattiesburg. My presentation, with Cheryl Mathis and Carrel Muller, is titled “Amazing Author Visits that Won’t Break The Bank.”

I will be signing books at both festivals. Please come by and see me if you are in the area.

Out and About Dresses – #selfishsewing

One of my quests this year has been to find a dress pattern with a good fit that I could make out of comfortable knit fabric. I think I’ve found a winner, the Out and About Dress by Sew Caroline.

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I kept seeing the dress on a dress form at Bernina Sewing Etc. (made by Cindy Hampton) and finally I asked to try it on. After I saw the fit, I decided to buy the pattern and the very same fabric pattern, one of the Art Gallery knits. I also bought a grey print.
I actually made the grey dress first.

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For the next version, I decided to make it sleeveless with a skirt made from a woven cotton print. I modified the neckline, which involved a little math. Sarah Out and About Dresses-9779
So, I’m posting these because it happens to be Selfish Sewing Week (#selfishsewingweek) in the world of Indie sewists and pattern makers. I have loved learning from Indiesew blogs and buying fun patterns like the Out and About Dress. My thanks to Roderick Red of Red Squared Productions for the photographs.

Mississippi Book Festival

What a wonderful day it was on Saturday for the first Mississippi Book Festival! It was amazing to have full rooms (though not so amazing to have people turned away).

I had a tough time getting into any of the other sessions, but the crowd was tremendous, the bookstore(s) fantastic, and I always love seeing colleagues (though, again, I hated missing out on hearing/seeing/greeting some of my favorite people.)

Sarah showing page

One great thing was that since the festival was in my home town Richard got to come along. He took some nice photographs so we can update the website with my “new look” so I won’t surprise people when I show up with longish hair.

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I love this panorama of the room.
Mississippi Book Festival

And, guess who else gets to come when we festival in my home town: my nephew! Another budding Wolfsnail fan, I’m sure.

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Summer Reading at Tisdale Library

I read recently at the Charles Tisdale Library as part of the Summer Reading Program. One challenge of these programs is the wide-range in age of the children who come. Many in this group were two years old, but the range went all the way up to 10- and 11-year-olds. I brought an activity for the older ones to do with the librarian, using Mysterious Patterns. I stayed with the large group of little ones and read a wide range of snail-related books, including Wolfsnail. With about 15 minutes left in my program, I asked the older ones back to talk with the whole group about fractals and other geometric shapes. I appreciate the help of the librarians, Patrick McCarty and Miss Mays.

Sarah Reading at Tisdale-2

Cook Prize Ceremony

cook prize webRecently I was at the Bank Street College of Education to receive a Cook Prize Honor for Mysterious Patterns.

The folks at Bank Street have a video stream of the event on their website.

My portion of the ceremony begins at 57:18.



Summer Reading at Eudora Welty Library

I visited Eudora Welty Library on Monday to launch the 2015 Summer Reading Program. We read Wolfsnail and Growing Patterns and I brought along Private Eye magnifying loupes for everyone to try.

Eudora Welty summer reading

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Tomatoes Ready to Roast

It has become my habit to start Saturday morning with some cooking. Typically, I am prepping for later meals. Today, I needed to roast some tomatoes for a Fennel Compote.

Richard decided to grab the camera when he saw the tomatoes lined up in a row.

tomatoes ready to roast