Who is your most elusive ancestor?
Everyone has at least one ancestor in their family tree that they find particularly fascinating and elusive. For me, that person would have to be my Great, Great Grandmother, Mary Jane Gillis. Her surname had a seemingly endless number of variations, and like many other ancestors, her recorded birth date varied widely from record to record. Luckily for me, I had some help, and I would like to thank my friend Hazel Larkham, for her invaluable assistance in putting the pieces of this intriguing puzzle together.
Mary Jane Gilliece was born on the 13th of June 1877 in the townland of Rakeelan, near Ballyconnell in County Cavan. The fifth of thirteen children in a large Catholic family, Mary Jane was the daughter of a servant named John Gilliece, and his wife, Mary Cassidy. Working as a servant, I wonder if John wouldn’t have felt right at home in a setting like Downton Abbey!
Not much is known about Mary Jane’s early years other than her family was probably quite poor. Her father, John, died of tuberculosis in 1893 and his death record (this time recording his surname as Gilliese) lists his daughter, Mary Jane, as the informant. She would have only been 16 years old at the time. As one of the older children in the family, Mary Jane likely would have had to take on additional responsibilities in the home following the death of her father. No doubt it would have been a difficult time for the entire family.
Ballyconnell to Belfast
Family members tell me that Mary Jane left Ballyconnell in search of employment, and that she found found work at the Redhall Estate (pictured below) in Ballycarry, where she met Thomas Hawkins, who had been working there as a coachman.
On the 5th of September 1899, Mary Jane and Thomas were married at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Interestingly, her name was recorded as Mary Jane Gillis on the marriage record, adding yet another spelling to the seemingly endless variations of her surname!
I’m told that following their wedding, the newly married couple lived in the Loughmorne Commissioner’s House, where Thomas was employed to look after the reservoirs and forests. The area would have also attracted groups of affluent men who came to shoot for game. Mary Jane worked as a cook, and prepared meals for when the men returned from the shoot.
Please, no pictures!
By the time of the 1911 Census of Ireland, Mary Jane and Thomas were living in the
townland of Blackhill, with their five children. The family would grow to seven children by 1918. Although photographs were beginning to become much more common and affordable by this time, no pictures of Mary Jane or her husband Thomas seem to exist. Family stories indicate that she didn’t like having her picture taken.
The picture on the right is a scene of two young girls holding a puppy, and had at one time had hung in the home of Thomas and Mary Jane. It was very nearly thrown in the garbage before it and another picture very much like it were thankfully rescued from destruction.
Mary Jane kept in touch with her family in Ballyconnell, and brought her youngest daughter along when she visited them on at least one occasion.
I’m told that following the birth of her last child, Mary Jane took partial paralysis and unfortunately, ended up being bedridden after a number of years. On the 8th of January, 1931 Mary Jane died at the age of fifty-four in Blackhill. It’s said that Mary Jane requested her rosary beads while on her death bed. Although her religion had been recorded as being Presbyterian on census records, she had clearly retained her Catholic faith throughout her life.
After Mary Jane’s passing, one of her children commissioned local poet Tommy Bryans, also known as the Bard of Beltoy, to write a poem in her remembrance. The initials T.B. can be seen at the bottom of the piece below. The heading “Till the Day Breaks and the Shadows Flee Away” was taken from a passage of scripture in the book of Song of Solomon. Mary Jane’s final resting place, and that of her husband Thomas are unmarked, and it is believed that a fire destroyed the records of the churchyard in Ballycarry where they are buried.
Till the day breaks…
From the obituaries below, it is clear that Mary Jane Gillis was greatly loved by her family and must have featured prominently in their lives. It is said that she shared her love of music with her children and that one of her son’s had affectionately referred to her as the ‘wee woman’.
Are you researching the Gillis family from Ballyconnell, or the Hawkins family from Ballycarry? If so, please drop me a line as I would love to hear from you!