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\MCDONNELL, of Callowbrack, in England and Australia



One point of interest concerns John McDonnell - my father - and his birth certificate which shows that he was born in 1879. The person who informed the birth was given as Bridget McDonnell (her mark). Working from the probabilities of dates this might have been Thomas's mother i.e. Bridget nee Casey the wife of Johnny McDonnell and the grandmother of John McDonnell. However, as Bridget McDonnell nee Casey died in 1877 this could not have been so. It was possible that John McDonnell's sister Bridget informed the birth but she would have been only 15 years old when he was born in 1879 it seems unlikely. The strongest possibility is that it was John's Aunt, the sister of Thomas McDonnell. Her existence was confirmed by information from our Kilroy connections. The known children of Johnny McDonnell and Bridget nee Casey (there were probably others) are Thomas, Dominick, Patrick, Bridget and Mary (Mama).

The manner of my father leaving home at a relatively young age of 13 or 14 in about 1894 may have been more than the forces of economic necessity prevailing in Ireland at that time and in Mayo in particular. The circumstances may be explained by an anecdote told to me by my cousin Tom Dyra and John McDonnell's nephew in 1979.

It seems that he got into an argument with one of his friends, named Michael Fahey, who was born in the same month as him. (The 1901 census shows that there was a Fahey family living in Derryhillagh (the same Townland as John's Grandmothers Horan family) and one of the boys shown was called Michael aged 20 in 1901 two years older than John.) As the story goes Michael Fahey and my Father John used to go about together when they were younger. One evening they were walking into to town and were striding to see who was the fastest walker, John was getting in front, so Michael put his foot out and tripped John who came down on some sharp stones and cut the knees of his trousers and also his knees. When he got up he belted into Michael, and gave him a terrible beating and kicking. I expect he knew the police would charge him so he set off for Wales the next day and never returned until his mother died in 1921 which was the only time that I (Tom Dyra) saw him. My father, John McDonnell would have been two years younger than Michael Fahey. A strange twist of fate, had this small incident not happened it is possible that John would have stayed a lot longer in Mayo and perhaps worked the farm and eventually came to own the farm.

Whilst Tom Dyra may have thought that John did not return again to Ireland until 1921, he did in fact return to Ireland at least on two occasions. The first was in early 1915 after he had enlisted in the Connaught Rangers in England and was based in the regimental training camp in Kinsale for a few months prior to being shipped to France to join the regiment in mid 1915. The second time was in February 1918 when he had to travel to Islandbridge in Dublin for his medical discharge after his return from hospital in India. He had been very severely wounded on 11th March 1916 in Mesopotamia and had been in an Indian hospital in Bombay for many months.

Whilst I have no actual knowledge about it, I would like to think that he may have able to have visited see his family, before his was shipped over to England and then France in about May 1915.

My sister Elsie recalls and seems to confirm that apparently John would have left school at a fairly early age, a not unusual event at that time and in that country, and consequently would not have received a very high level of academic education. However, it is noticeable that his handwriting and signature has almost the quality of Copperplate handwriting. A far cry from today's generally illegible scribble, which passes for good handwriting today. Having left school early, it is most likely that the incident related above happened not long afterwards, and he left Callowbrack to start his journey to Wales.

There is an interesting article by Nancy Gallagher in the'Back The Road' ,'Recollections of Burrishoole and Newport' Volume 1 No.1 issue of the Newport Historical Society. This concerns the establishment of the Shramore National School which operated from 1909 to 1970. As my father John McDonnell was born in 1879 and assuming he started school at about the age of 6 or 7, he could not have attended the Shramore school .i.e. about 1885. It was more likely to have been the Treenbeg school, the tumbled but substantial ruins of which still survive on the high road to Shramore overlooking Lough Feeagh. The ruins of the Treenbeg (Treanbeg) school are approximately one and a half miles from the 'old' McDonnell/Dyra cottage at Callowbrack.

In the period before the Great War and before the development of the all seeing and all knowing Computer bureaucracies we know today, it was quite easy for a young boy to leave home and get a job and support himself. Lifestyles and needs in those days were a lot simpler and all one had to do was to earn enough money to provide the basic necessities - shelter, clothes and enough food to keep body and soul together.

Initially, he may have needed to work in Ireland, to earn money to keep himself and to save up for a one way fare on the ferry across the Irish Sea to Wales. Here the chances of work for an inexperienced youth were much better than in Ireland. The most likely crossing would have been from Rosslare to Fishguard in Wales being the shortest and therefore the cheapest.

His sojourn in Wales did not last very long and he did not appear to have liked his stay there or the Welsh people he met. This may be understandable when one realizes that the Welsh were a very nonconformist Chapel going people with a strong temperance tradition. Somewhat at odds with the Irish people who were Catholic and did not mind the occasional drink or two even on Sundays., and there may be the possibility of the loss of some possession whilst working in Wales. For a young boy, away from the people he knew and in strange surroundings, amongst people who probably did not show much tolerance towards the penniless Irish Catholic migrants, any such experience would have had a strong impact.

The jobs he took, like the majority of young Irishmen forced to leave Ireland because of economic necessity, and who did not have a great deal of formal education or a trade, would have been farm work or labouring in quarries, canal or road building and in many cases in the coal mines of Wales, the Midlands or the North of England.

In time, he would have picked up some practical experience, in many of these types of jobs required in this type of work. Knowing that many of his fellow Mayomen had settled in Yorkshire he would have quickly shaken the soil of Wales from his feet and gravitated towards the large industrial City of Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Whilst he was antipathetic towards the Welsh he appeared to have a soft spot for Preston in Lancashire. Whenever he mentioned Preston he always added the little saying - 'POOR PROUD PRESTON'. in a tone of affection. and it may have been that he obtained work there for a time on his journey to Leeds. Tom Dyra told me in 1995 that a lot of Irishmen were able to obtain work in Lancashire, the county where Preston was, during harvest time. The practice of employing Irish workers at harvest time was quite common in England at that time. It would seem that when he enlisted in December 1914 he gave his occupation as a miner and it may have been that he had changed jobs over the years after moving to Leeds.

Strange as it may seem, Leeds would have been a very natural place to aim for, particularly for a young man originating from County Mayo on the West Coast of Ireland, and which was in the Province of Connaught. The City of Leeds had a considerable migrant population building up from the middle of the nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth. An exceptionally large proportion of these migrants were from Ireland and indeed Leeds had the highest proportion of Irish born inhabitants of any other comparable city in England. Not only was there such a large Irish migrant population in Leeds, but a very large proportion of these were from the Province of Connaught, which included County Mayo .

Certain areas of inner Leeds became Irish ghettos such as 'The Bank' and 'Kirkgate' and it was no coincidence that he was to return to Leeds after the war with his new wife to the Irish area he knew so well. It would have been in one of these areas where he lived and worked, possible as a miner in one of the nearby collieries, prior to enlisting in the British Army on December 1st. 1914.

Being untrained but with some basics skills and presumably fit and strong and in the light of his subsequent work, I believe he may have also been employed by one or more of the large Building and Contracting firms operating in the Leeds area in 1914. One of these for whom he worked for in the 1930's and 1940's was called M.E. Harrison. Tom Dyra told me in 1995 that 'Mary' Harrisons was a building contractor founded by an Irish family and consequently many Irish unskilled workers would have worked for them.

In the mid 1930's a new Civic Hall was built in Leeds to house the city's administration and John worked on this site as well as a number of others where large buildings now stand.

John McDonnell and Elsie Maude Rose were married on Wednesday 28th. August 1918 at St. Edward's Catholic Church, Elmdon Road, Selly Park, Birmingham.The church on Elmdon Road is not far from the Cadbury's chocolate factory in Bournville a suburb south of Birmingham. St. Edward's is a red brick church and in use in August 1987 and still looks very much as it would have done in 1918 with the possible exception of an extension to the rear porch and the repositioning of the main altar closer to the pews. The Sanctuary and backdrop also look as if they could have been there in 1918. At the time of their marriage, Elsie was living at 132 Middletonhall Road, Kings Norton not far from St. Edwards church

Following his return from India in December 1917 or January 1918 (his overseas service officially ended on 28th. December 1917 either in India or on his return to England) he visited Dublin in Ireland to be discharged on 19th. February 1918 and returned to Birmingham.

John lived at 77 Pershore Road, Stirchley, a boarding house until he married. This was only a mile or so from Middletonhall Road and he lived there for the few months after his return from Ireland to when he married. During the few weeks after his return from India whilst he was still at the Selly Park /Stirchley hospital and after the initial encounter he and Elsie got to know one another before he returned to Ireland to be discharged.

John and Elsie moved to Leeds a short time after they were married and in 1920, John Leonard was born there. Bearing in mind that when John enlisted in Leeds in 1914 there was a significant Irish population there and many would have returned after the war, it would have been natural for them to settle in Leeds. Whatever the reasons they made their home there and this is where their children were born and grew up.

Tom Dyra recalls a story he was told about John's visit to Ireland for his mother's funeral in December 1921.It seems that when he got of the train in Newport (the trains were still running then but stopped in 1937) he saw a funeral procession in the town. When he was told it was Mrs. McDonnell (his mother) he burst into tears.

Their first home in Leeds was in 43 Richmond Street not far from the centre of Leeds and not very far from Mount St. Mary's church where all the McDonnell children born in Leeds were baptized.

Richmond Street and the church of Mount St. Mary's were in a district of Leeds known as 'The Bank' and had, for many years, been identified as a slum area. It was also recognised as a 'getto' to which the many thousands of Irish migrants had settled in during the mid to late 1800's.

John and Elsie McDonnell had six children :

During the years that the young McDonnell family were growing upin Leeds, John their father, worked for various building contractors and would have worked on a lot of major buildings still standing in Leeds.

43 Richmond Street 1919 - 1927

13 Cookson Street 1927 - 1935

428 York Road Leeds 9 1935 - 1940

160 Neville Road Halton Leeds 1940 - 1946

13 Poole Road Crossgates Leeds 1946 - 1950

5 Redmire Drive Seacroft Leeds 1950 - 1957

64 Manston Avenue Crossgates Leeds 1957 - 1958

47 Austhorpe Road Crossgates Leeds 1958

30 Nowell Terrace Harehills Leeds 1958 - 1960

John McDonnell had not been in good health for quite a few years prior to his death mainly because of contact with gas in the trenches in France in 1915 and also because of the shell wounds he received in Mesopotamia in 1916. He went to his grave still carry pieces of shrapnel in his back. It was while they were living at Poole Road that John died whilst he and Elsie were having a rare outing to the cinema on September 30th. 1950.

He is buried in Killingbeck Catholic Cemetery, York Road - Crossgates, Leeds, England. Section 'S' Plot No. 159 .