Category Archives: history

Beech tree revisited

A feature of Facebook I quite like is the “on this day” memory prompt. Today I was reminded of what I posted to this journal five years ago… I have revisited that word sketch, and my subsequent post, before today. When studying metaphors and imagery in poetry on my MA course I looked through the window at that same tree, and thought about life, and the seasons of the soul.

Today the tree is still here, and so am I. Both older. Since then I know more of my ancestral grounds, and more of the sadness of loss and letting go. But I also hold on to the hope and promise of that life which is ongoing, and which cannot be quenched. It will stir again in spring.

Here is the three part poem I eventually wrote from my first word sketch five years ago. The voice of the poem shifts from being in the tree, then addressing the tree, and finally describing the tree from a longer time perspective. I find this is a process which often helps me cope with the changes and seasons of life. I hope you enjoy it.

Beech Tree Revisited

I stand tall, frame strong, robust

black arms, branching into finger twigs,

dressed respectably in leaves

of supple bronze, green sap holds firm.

Days disrobe me. Clothes fade

to shabby rags, brown stains of death.

Threadbare cloak pulls from my back.

I am stripped,



Here are your reaching fingers,

clutching brittle dying debris.

Here are your silvered arms,

rain sluiced, wind tossed.

Skeletal shoulders

bear the winter of your soul.

Here is your straight scarred trunk.

Here is the moss wrapped body.

Here an inner downward thrust,

to roots deep underground

where something unknown

wants to live.


Chattering excitement spills

from nestlings, sheltered

in wooden box pinned to her heart,

Circling crows above her head,

like v-shaped birds drawn

on the sky by children’s hands.

She stretches fingers to the blue,

touches shimmering rain clouds

with swelling tips of pink

which burst to lime,

and hurrying, lace gloves

pulled on, she waves

in welcome to the spring. Then turns,

still rooted in ancestral ground,

to dance along new paths, where

from beneath the litter of past years,

spouting bluebells fountain

into pools around her feet.

Cilla Sparks


Being a witness

One of the pieces of evidence of my ancestors I now have in my possession is a marriage certificate from a Quaker wedding in 1875 at which my great great grandparents, William and Elizabeth Jackson, were present. Their signatures appear on the wedding certificate as witnesses of the couple’s promises that they will be faithful marriage partners with God’s help.

George Fox, early Quaker, said “the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests’ or magistrates’; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s”. He continued “we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.” (

Today I experienced for the first time something my great great grandparents did- that of being a witness at a Quaker wedding. Even in the 21st century the pattern is much the same; in the setting of a largely silent Meeting for Worship the couple declared their love and commitment to each other in words almost identical to those on the 1875 marriage certificate. In the quietness it was deeply moving as the witnesses spoke (or sang) to the couple with personal messages, prayers and blessings as they felt moved by the spirit.

And just like my great great grandparents I showed my presence and my witness of the couple’s declaration by signing the wedding certificate. Today, in the 21st century, I witnessed two women declaring their love for each other and seeking Divine assistance in their marriage. It was a wonderful honour to be involved. IMG_6080


Accessing history…

Over the last two days of our stay in Ireland we spent time with Lindsey, another cousin of my father’s. Although Lindsey and I are close in age we had never met before this trip to Ireland. The rain was falling outside so it was a great opportunity to focus on catching up on a life time (well, make a start at least!) and discuss our shared interested in tracking down the family history. We have both become hooked on the detective work of searching online records for clues about our ancestors lives and stories, and regularly exchange emails about our discoveries.

Linen features strongly in our family history so it seemed appropriate to visit the Lisburn museum and their Flax to Fabric exhibition. It was fascinating to see the process of linen production and to realise the impact of the mechanisation of what had been a domestic industry for generations. The looms in their collection would have been housed in weavers’ cottages, their punch cards determine the jacquard pattern in the weave. There was one storage box on display with the name Greeves on it, sadly too high up to photograph well,  but it was physical evidence of my 3x great grandfather John Greeves’ factory, his Linen Spinning mill in the Falls Road area of Belfast. The photograph is from the online collection from Belfast Live


With Lindsey we went to Oxford Island and the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre. In better weather we would probably have walked, but instead we talked. As well as the beautiful location the Discovery Centre had another bonus, an amazing local history collection including over 700 Quaker books and publications. We met the archivist, and he was keen to help us with our search for more clues to the stories of our family in this area.


Our final stop before heading to the airport for our flight home was another place of preservation – the National Trust property Castle Ward. On the shores of Strangford Lough we enjoyed a wander around the Old Castle farm with its turreted tower, and then a tour of the the 18th Century house, a strange mixture of Georgian and Gothic. The National Trust does an amazing job of conserving so many historic buildings enabling us to see architecture and interiors we would never be able to see other wise. Their conservation principles are to manage the land, structures and collections in their care “ensuring that their special qualities are protected, enhanced, enjoyed and understood by present and future generations”. Ironically Castle Ward is a site of the filming of Winterfell in Game of Thrones, raising interesting questions in my mind about historical reality and the nature of historical fiction and fantasy novels.


However, and why ever, we study history, to unearth forgotten facts or create fiction and fantasy, thank you to all those whose work of preservation and conservation enable us to access and understand truths about our past and present (and future?)


The living among the dead

Our three nights in Northern Ireland were spent at the Belmont hotel in Banbridge. I booked it because the house was originally designed by my 3x great grandfather Thomas Jackson, architect of many prestigious Belfast buildings. He also designed many country houses for the wealthy Linen manufacturers of this area. The Bann valley is dotted with fine Georgian houses, several designed by Thomas Jackson, and the remains of the linen mills are still in evidence too. Belmont House is now a hotel, and is being refurbished very tastefully. I think my long dead ancestor would be pleased to see his creation being cared for into the 21st century.

My great grandfather T Jackson Greeves (named after his architect grandfather) lived not far from Banbridge in Portadown where he owned a Linen Weaving factory. His house, Fairacre, was visited by my own father when he was a child. I found it on my last visit to Ireland, and it was nice to drive past it again. I wanted to find the grave of my great grandparents T. Jackson and Gilbertina Greeves and after a bit of a search I did find it, but also felt the strong sense that they were not there.

On the Sunday of our stay we visited Moyallon Quaker Meeting House, where Gilbertina’s parents William Ridgway Jackson and Lizzie Uprichard were married and Gilbertina herself would likely have attended sometimes as a child. We joined the current company of Friends (as Quakers are known) for their largely silent Meeting for Worship. Strangely, as I sat in the beautiful old meeting room I was not conscious of the presence of my ancestors, although I knew they had been there. More a connection with the living. Some of those present shared common ancestors with me, and they all welcomed us warmly as they shared lunch afterwards.

Back at the Belmont Hotel we met up with two other Quakers, one of whom I had been in e-mail contact with, as he helped me search for Quaker documents from the1860s when I was researching my family history. Ross and Robina shared a meal with us, and also their knowledge of the history of Quaker families from the area. But more than that, we discovered a present shared spiritual connection, and it was a lovely afternoon of friendship and fellowship.

It makes me wonder if perhaps we discover the true life of our ancestors in their legacy in those who are living.


Waterford day

Today we explored more of Waterford. The Reginald tower and replica Viking ship on the Quay give clues to its ancient origins. Waterford has always been a very important port because of its position on the sea inlet, and a city since the times of the Vikings and Normans – it is regarded as the oldest city in Ireland. The medieval treasures in the museum offered a feast of embroidery, real gold thread on heavy red velvet, the episcopal capes which survived attack and seige.

Visiting the Bishops Palace gave us an insight into the life and industry of Waterford under the Georgian period. It was a time  of amazing exapansion, invention and industrialisation, and much beautiful architecture. Many of the entrepreneurs were Quakers. Two Penrose brothers started Waterford Crystal, the Malcomsons built the first ‘model’ village at Portlaw to house their mill workers, and they built ships too atvthe Neptune ironworks. There are Penroses and Malcomsons in my family tree.

My 3x great grandfather Thomas Jackson was born here in 1807 and grew up in the Quaker community. He grew up to be a prestigious architect in Belfast, and I would not be surprised if he was inspired by all the new beautiful buildings around him, and the spirit of enterprise amongst the Quakers.  In Waterford two cathedrals were newly built, both the catholic and the Protestant cathedrals built by the same architect, John Roberts, after whom a central square of the city is named.

We found the original Quaker Meeting house, now used as an arts centre, but still with a curving staircase and big windows. In 1798 the Quakers started a school which thrives to this day at Newtown, where their current Meeting house is.

We finished an interesting day with a drive to the coast south of Waterford, where we had tea at Dunmore East, overlooking  the oldest working lighthouse in the world at Hook Point, and then enjoyed the late afternoon light on the rocks of the Copper coast beyond Tramore.

People from the past, those who left, and those who stayed.

Today we drove further south from Kilkenny to the ancient Cistercian abbey at Jerpoint, founded in 1158.

Now ruined but with a wonderful array of ancient carvings, with some very quirky characters. I wondered who they all were, and whatever their lives were like.

Then we drove on, along almost deserted country roads, following the river Barrow down stream through a wide wooded valley, to the riverside port of New Ross. A reconstruction of one of the “famine” ships which took thousands of emigrants from a Ireland to America is docked there. We took a tour around it. I found it distressing to think of the extreme hardship so many suffered on the journey to a new life. Many never got there. Some of my ancestors emigrated to the New World in years before the famine. I can only hope the designated passenger ships they traveled on offered better conditions, but I guess not much better.

A famous family who went out to America was the Kennedy family. President JF Kennedy returned to the place of his ancestors and the memorial to his visit is on the quay at New Ross.IMG_5842

And three generations of my own family lived in New Ross, the Elly family, of which I shall write more on my family history blog at some point. In the meantime we finished our day near the ancient town of Waterford where we stayed in an old country house, and enjoyed supper in a very traditional Irish pub.

On the road in Ireland again…

Three years on from a previous trip to Ireland we are back on the trail of my ancestors. My grandmother was a Haughton, and although she grew up in Birkenhead her father Thomas Haughton was born in the small town of Athy, south of Dublin in County Kildare, on the banks of the river Barrow and on the Grand canal. His father and grandfather owned the corn mill at Ardreigh, just down river from the town.

Then we drove on further south to Carlow, a town also on the banks of the river Barrow. The castle withstood several sieges but is now in ruins. However I was in search of more Haughtons and I found the house of Samuel Haughton, a several times over great uncle?? He was a prestigious academic.

The Greeves side of my family also had links with Carlow. My 4x great aunt Mary Greeves married Daniel O’Brien and lived here among the Quaker community. Her sister Anne Greeves married Daniel’s brother William. William and Anne O’Brien did not stay in Carlow, emigrating to America around 1818. But there are obviously descendants of the O’Briens still around this area judging by the shop fronts I saw.

We spent our first night in Ireland in the ancient town of Kilkenny. This is the castle, not our hotel! IMG_5821.JPG