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Finding William: An Irish family history story
How a 30 year search across the Irish Sea taught me about a man I could never hope to meet
I have my own way of finding him among the grey rows of Victorian paupers’ graves.
Passing in front of the Campo Santo, I line up the two statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and follow their gaze.
They look towards a gap in the trees where a grass track opens up beneath the high canopy of branches and leaves.
Down that path, a chalkware plaque of the Mother and Child nailed to an old beech tree serves as my marker.
I turn to the right and look along a short row of headstones. He is here.
In the old Catholic cemetery of St Joseph in Moston, my three times great grandfather William Kirby lies buried with ten strangers.
Beneath a broken white crucifix and an inscription urging the charitable to pray for the souls of the departed, he is halfway down the list of names etched into the granite slab.
William died on 4 December 1902 from bronchitis and exhaustion at Crumpsall Workhouse three miles to the west.
Standing here, I wonder about his journey from that place. Did the horse and cart carrying his coffin take the long climb up Charlestown Road? Did his children walk behind? Did they stand where I am now?
I have thought a lot about William over the decades since, sitting alongside my dad in Manchester Central Library in 1988, we first read his name on the dimly-lit screen of a microfilm projector.
Riding home on the upper deck of the 17 bus that afternoon, we couldn’t help but keep looking at our printout of that 1871 census page.
One word one leaped out and seared itself into my mind — Ireland.
For a young lad who had rarely been outside of Manchester, my own story now suddenly seemed richer and even a little exotic.
I pictured a man with black hair like my dad — Kirby means “dark son” in Gaelic — walking through a land of mountains, fields, bogs and streams.
As we searched for further clues about William in the library in the years that followed, we slowly pieced together the details of his life like a jigsaw.
Aged 15, in County Mayo, he had somehow survived the Great Famine before ending up an immigrant in Cottonopolis, where he later married and set up home in a cellar.
The more we discovered, the more astonished we became by our ancestor’s ability to survive — leading to our own existence more than a century later in a city he had helped to build.
Finally, in 2011, the two of us made our own journey back across the Irish Sea.
We looked for answers in overgrown cemeteries, down country lanes and on a remote drive along the Atlantic coast on a failed mission to find a mystery woman we were told still had “the Kirby wedding shoe”.
Our search for William’s townland, the patchwork of fields he called home, eluded us.
And it was only by returning to Manchester, where we widened the net to trace William’s Irish-Mancunian relatives and friends back to Mayo, that we finally got somewhere.
A niece, it turned out, had been baptised in the ancient Ballintubber Abbey, where unknowingly we had gone to Sunday Mass.
The godfather to one of William’s children was from the nearby hamlet of Skehanagh — the “place of the whitethorn” — a narrow lane with a few houses that we learned was decimated by the potato blight in the black year of 1847.
But we didn’t have to travel back to Ireland to get closer to understanding William, I finally realised.
His story was right here in the slums of the world’s first industrial city where he fought a decades-long struggle for survival.
Living conditions were so hard that two of his children failed to reach adulthood, while his wife, Ellen, was taken by tuberculosis. She is buried not far from him, in a grave with a missing headstone.
The battered, brown leather family Bible, which has miraculously survived, has the word “dead” repeated over and over on the page where wealthy families might display a portraits of their kin.
Eventually, archaeologists made a stunning discovery in 2012, digging up William’s cellar while researching the city’s Victorian housing and allowing us to walk right through his front door.
I could never hope to meet William, but after a 30 year journey to find him, I feel I know him well.
It’s because of him that I live and breathe and that I can stand here today — one man among the tens of thousands of Irish surnames etched on the grey rows of graves in a Manchester cemetery.
The Manchester Diaspora
A big thank you to everyone who has contacted me about scuttler ancestors — I’ve learned some interesting things already that I didn’t know and it’s a project I plan to return to in a few weeks.
Earlier this week I also posted a thread asking where families from Ancoats, Collyhurst and Miles Platting moved to after the old “slum” houses were pulled down in the 1950s and 1960s.
So far we have Wythenshawe, Stalybridge, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hattersley, Stretford, Moston, Blackley and Middleton. Does anyone know of other places?
The thread is still open here if you’re a subscriber and want to share your own story.
Hope you’re all having a good weekend whichever Manchester football team you support. ⚽️