Kettlewell family return from Texas to their Clonmel roots

Sian Moloughney

Sian Moloughney

Three generations of descendants from a family who emigrated to America from Clonmel at the turn of the nineteenth century were back in town, last week, walking in the steps of their ancestors.

Eleven members of the ‘Kettlewell’ family, from San Antonio, Texas, were honoured guests at Clonmel Gael Scoil, last Thursday, where the Rev Thomas Kettlewell was a loved and respected school principal in the late 1800s. His daughter, Elizabeth, emigrated to Texas and her great grand-daughter, Patsy, returned to Clonmel with her own children and grandchildren, on an emotional visit.

For the Kettlewell family returning home was a moving experience as they sat and had tea at the same stove that was used to cook meals in the time of Rev Kettlewell and his family.

The building, at the Upper Irishtown, has come full circle since Rev Kettlewell’s time. It has been an army building, the location of local government offices, was derelict for a spell and since 1993 has again become a school - Gaelscoil Cluain Meala. There are many coincidences between his time as steward of the school and its more recent history, under principal Treasa Nic Dhiarmada, which were highlighted during the visit.

It may sound almost unbelievable to locals, but a house in sunny Texas has been the home to a painting of ‘Lissenure House’ or the ‘Endowed School,’ the building we now know as the Gaelscoil, for generations. Kendall Biehl, great great great grand-daughter of Rev Kettlewell, described how she had grown up with the painting on their sitting room wall, and when it was decided to take a family trip to Ireland she finally started to dig into the roots of her family history.

They had always known the name of the town her great great grandmother, Elizabeth Kettlewell, had come from, and had an invaluable link to that past in a photo album of Elizabeth’s, which Elizabeth’s daughter had written names and places into. Patsy told The Nationalist how this album was always kept in a special place in her own home, as her children grew up.

Not only do the family have this lovely memory, a copy of an original brought with Elizabeth, but they have the original travelling trunk Elizabeth packed her belonging in for her move to America, and they have a letter, even older, written to Elizabeth’s grandmother, and mother of Rev Kettlewell, by Lady Mount Cashel thanking her for some lace she had sent as a gift. The family think the lace was sent as a thank you when Rev Kettlewell was appointed to the ‘Endowed School’ - and they still have some of that lace in the family!

On Thursday morning Patsy led her three children, son Tayloe, daughters Jennifer and Kendall, their spouses and their children back to the home Elizabeth left in the 1800s. Patsy and her granddaughter Grace share the middle name Elizabeth, after their ancestor.

Welcoming the family to the Gaelscoil, Treasa invited the two youngest members of the family, four year-old cousins Grace Zebak and Alyson Biehl to light a candle in memory of all who had lived and worked in the building, since it was first built.

Then she pointed out some of the coincidences between the Rev Kettlewell’s time and the Gaelscoil - both had financial and funding difficulties. Rev Kettlewell was not given the funds he had expected to run the school and ran into debt in the town, at one point so badly that the gates to the building were locked and no-one was allowed in or out for fear bailiffs would arrive.

Rev Kettlewell lived in domestic apartments in the school building, on what is now the basement level, and the school kitchen. He was joined there by his wife, his mother, and two daughters were born there, Jane and Elizabeth. His brother was also a teacher at the school. Jane died in her 20s but Elizabeth would emigrate to Texas on her marriage.

One of the most striking coincidences was when Treasa recently realised the day the school land transfer was finally signed over to the Department of Education from the County Council, after years of doubt, was actually Jane’s birthday.

Gifts were given to the family on behalf of the school’s Board of Management, a plaque to mark the occasion, a picture of the school drawn by a sixth class pupil, and a CD of Irish music recorded as a fundraiser for the school. The visiting family put on display some of the photographs and books from Clonmel that were found in Elizabeth’s trunk.

Patsy said it had been an emotional and wonderful journey. She said they could never have envisioned the great welcome they would get in Clonmel and it was overwhelming.

Kendall spoke about how she had put the puzzle of the family history together, from a box of ‘Kettlewell Treasures’ under her mother’s bed and with the help of the internet and finally emails to Treasa in Clonmel, who invited them to come and visit the school. Speaking about Rev Kettlewell, Kandall said she thinks he would have been so proud to see his descendants come home to Clonmel and sit, having tea, at his stove. “We are thrilled to be here, this is an experience of a lifetime.”

Kendall expressed her thanks for all the help she had received from Treasa and from Barbra Fryday who was able to provide the birth and death records to confirm the family history.

It was the first time in Ireland for all of the family, except Patsy. Among the family group was Patsy, her son Tayloe and his wife Ginny and children Nathan and Robin, her daughter Jennifer with her husband Dean and their daughter Grace, and daughter Kendall with her husband Chris and their daughter Alyson.