By Alfie O'Brien
Among the many nineteenth century monuments in Clonrush graveyard, most can be identified with familiar names that figured prominently in the history of the parish and its inhabitants. An exception may be noted, in a table flag, raised on masonry and inscribed with unfamiliar names with no obvious parish connections, but rather with Trinity College, Dublin; it reads:
Locals associated it with a drowning accident, alluding to that stretch of water with its many small islands and bays, which form the southern boundary to Clonrush parish, at that time in Co. Galway, later annexed to Clare. The Clare Journal gives a brief account of the accident, but owing to the limited means of communication at the time, some of the details reported were inaccurate. Apparently, the accident happened at Meelick Bay, resulting from a brief moment of undue alarm when an oar slipped overboard and all surged at the same time to recover it, causing the boat to capsize. It would appear that the party had travelled from Portumna. Legend rumoured, that they had been guests of the Rev. James Martin at the nearby Glebe in Lakyle — a place with which the superstitious were apt to link conjectures for ill-fortune.
Sacred to the memory of
Ogle Nesbitt Connor 79th Reg-md
Willis Connor A.B.T.C.D.
John Keys T.C.D.
The Rev. Isaac Daniel B.D.T.C.D.
16th July 1820
Erected A.D.1841 by the survivor
Shewbridge Connor M.D. Carlow
"We feel great concern in announcing the very untimely death of the Rev. Isaac Daniel; his brother curate of Portumna, and two other gentlemen. This melancholy occurrence happened at Meelick river, near Mountshannon, Co. Galway, on last Sunday evening, by the upsetting of the boat which they were in. The following are the particulars said to be detailed by one of the Rev. Mr. Daniel's brothers, who escaped by swimming to the shore:- The oar slipped, and all making an exertion at the same moment to recover it, the boat upset, nearly in the same spot where last December twelve months, a boat was lost containing nine persons. (The Clare Journal, Thursday July 20th 1820 )
Ogle Nesbitt Connor was born in Dublin in 1793, to John Connor M.D. and his wife Sidney Shewbridge, of North Cope Street, St. Andrew parish. At the age of nineteen he bought his commission as an officer in the 79th Regiment Foot — a Scottish regiment, otherwise known as Cameron Highlanders. This comprised two battalions and Ogle was assigned to the first. Details of his initial engagements are unknown; the first battalion was already serving with the allies in the Napoleon War on the continent. His name comes to light again when he was promoted to lieutenant on 21st May 1814. He was among a group of seven who were promoted to the rank of lieutenant or captain. Some were to replace casualties — three who were killed in action on the 10th April and a fourth who died of his wound on the following day. There is no evidence that Ogle was dispatched to the same situation, at least he apparently did not serve in the Waterloo campaign, which concluded with the final defeat of Napoleon in June 1815. An inspection of the 79th regiment in October of the same year shows, he was doing duty with the second battalion, which was involved in more routine exercises and training on the home ground at Dundee, while the first battalion was still camped near Paris. A slack period in military activity followed and some regiments were disbanded; this effected the second battalion of the 79th regiment which was disbanded in 1817. In such situations, officers had a choice of moving into half-pay, which was a kind of retainer which allowed an officer much leave until his service was required again, or to sell his commission. Ogle opted to remain on half-pay, but maintained contact with his regiment and followed it to Ireland where it arrived on 26th May 1820 — two months before the accident. He then took advantage of his leave to join his brothers on the boating trip on Lough Derg that so ended in tragedy.
Willis Connor, brother of Ogle and the fifth son of John and Sidney was born in 1798 and entered Trinity College at the age of sixteen. As a bright student, he enrolled in a special class, which required a higher fee, but enabled a capable student to complete the course in a shorter period of time. Willis was pursuing a career in law and in the year prior to his graduation from Trinity, where he received a B.A. degree in 1819, he also enrolled at Kings Inns College in Henrietta St. This college had a strict criteria of conditions for entry, which in Willis's case was satisfied by a testimonial from a friend of his father, a Mr. George Moore. Incidentally, the initials A.B. on the monument were reversed in error and in this instance doesn't signify the usual —'Able-bodied seaman'.
John Keys was born in Co. Donegal in 1800, son of William Keys and Jane Connor. William was one of a number of wealthy landowners of the name Keys in the parish of Clonleigh; all related and with a presence stretching back for a number of generations in the townland of Cavanicor in the same parish. John was apparently an only son and had one sister, Mary, who married a colonel Humphrey. John spent much of his student life with his relatives in Dublin; attending the same junior school as the Connors' under a master White. Entering Trinity College at the age of sixteen, he progressed with some difficulty, spending extra time in junior grade, yet managed to keep his head above water in his many exams throughout his six years at Trinity. The standard subjects were: logic, astronomy, physics, ethics, Greek, Latin and theme. However, a pass in all subjects with higher marks in theme, in his final exam, did not meet the required standard and John was deprived of a degree when he left college in the summer of 1820.
Isaac Daniel was born in Dublin in 1795, son of George Daniel, a scribe by occupation and his wife Hannah Fleetwood from the parish of St. Bride. He entered Trinity College in 1811 from private tuition and graduated with a B.A. degree in 1817. The loss of all relevant Church of Ireland records including those for Portumna ( Lickmolassy parish ) in a fire in the Public Records Office, Dublin in 1922, leaves much unknown about Isaac's ordination and ministry. Circumstances would suggest, however, that he replaced the Rev. John Armstrong as curate of Portumna, when that minister was promoted to rector in 1818; this rector also died in 1820. The Connor family, on the other hand, may have had a longer-standing acquaintance with Portumna parish since the Rev. William Shewbridge was serving as curate there in 1766.
The Survivor, Shewbridge Connor, at seventeen years was the youngest among the ill-fated party. Having already completed two years at Trinity College, he returned there after his ordeal and graduated with a B.A. degree within three years. Following further study at the College of Surgeons, he qualified as a doctor in 1826 and practised at the Lying-in hospitals in the city. He was appointed medical officer to counties Clare and Donegal during the cholera epidemic of 1832. It could be fair to presume that he especially petitioned to be assigned to these particular counties, so far apart and distant from where he lived, so that he would have the opportunity to visit Clonrush graveyard as he passed by on route to Ennis, and also to visit his relatives in Co. Donegal. He received a permanent post at Carlow Fever Hospital in 1836 and later at the dispensary where he was to remain. Keen to share his medical experience, he contributed to the Dublin Medical Press, with articles on fever and natural remedies. He married Elizabeth Walker and they had four children — Fanny 1839; Shewbridge John; Willis Ogle and the youngest Cecil Crampton, born 1852.
Dr. Shewbridge Connor was particularly concerned about the number of deaths that occurred at lime-kilns. Though they were considered to be a desirable facility among the farming community, in the production of lime for agricultural use, the lime-kiln presented a particular hazard to health and life while it was burning. When limestone is subjected to great heat, carbonic acid gas is given off and the pure lime remains. This gas being heavier than air was slow to disperse, the movement being further hampered by the usual practice of siting the kiln against the cliff of a hill or a high wall. Strangely, it wasn't the workers at the kiln that became the usual victims, though no doubt, they would keep to the side of the kiln facing the breeze, for their own comfort if not for their safety, and they rarely worked alone. As late evening would come, a stillness of air may ensue, while the fire of necessity would burn on. The deserted kiln now became enshrouded in this poisonous gas, which was invisible and had no smell, thus it presented no deterrent to a visitor to linger. A burning kiln within sight of the public road was a prime attraction to the homeless or itinerant who in their ignorance would seek the comfort of the heat where they could rest for the night. Neighbours also, oblivious to the danger, would go to the kiln in the quiet hours, to boil pots or to dry clothes. Inhalation of the gas would induce a sudden drowsiness or sleep and the unsuspecting victims suffocated where they lay, or falling into the fire or close to it, may be found blackened and dried up, partly consumed, or the bones may be the only remnants picked up. The men coming to dress the kiln after a nights absence, may find one or two individuals in some of the states described; or may occasionally be in time to arouse them from their dangerous sleep or to pluck them from the burning mass, only to see them — as Dr. Connor points out — occupy for months a hospital bed, perhaps to the exclusion of some labourer stricken with natural and unavoidable disease.
In order to get a countrywide perspective of the incidence of such deaths, Dr. Connor sent a questionnaire to the various county coroners with mixed results. Some declined to reply, others admitted that they were not situated in a limestone area of the country and had no knowledge of it, or that a verdict of accidental death would often be recorded in such cases, without note or comment. Others attested to Dr. Connor's experience from their own records. For the purpose of bringing the matter to the attention of the authorities and to educate the general public to the dangers, he wrote a booklet which he titled 'Aolee' — 'aol' being the Irish for lime — a word which he extends to assume the guise of 'Thuggee' and 'Suttee' (suffication and burning ) — the then outlawed Indian custom of burning widows, to which the careless exposure of the lime-kiln to vulnerable individuals, bore as he saw it, a comparison in its disregard for human life. Accordingly, he sub-titled his book "Human Sacrifices in Ireland". In it he calls for an official enquiry from the clerks of the crown coroners and others, into the apathy or indifference which prevailed in relation to such deaths, in contrast to other potential dangers where every precaution was taken to prevent it. Lime-kilns in the vicinity of towns were the haunts of loiterers and the profligate and a theatre for vice; occasionally the body of a murder victim would be thrown into the kiln to conceal the crime. In his book, he outlines a number of measures which should be implemented, such as, a compulsory fencing off of the kilns to prevent un-authorized access; making a point by analogy, he states: "Persons of humanity would strive to save the fly that hovers round their light." He also recommended the removal of the kilns that were in the proximity of schools and playgrounds, and from populous areas.
Lime was a valuable commodity in the building trade, in which the upper classes or people with votes had a vested interest, and any suggestion that might have a negative effect on its production, met with rebuff. The urban dwellers in the suburbs of towns, close to whose homes a lime-kiln might be situated, had little influence, since in any case, they had no vote. One Michael Blake of Carlow, writing of his difficult situation to Shewbridge, knowing his stance on the matter, stated:
"I did expend some portion of my philanthropy, striving to avert a dangerous nuisance, a lime-kiln, which is built up against my house, and is now in active use, which is unlawful and unjust. The carbonic sulphur of this kiln has often descended into my house and attacked every one of my family with head-ache. I have also spent some of my money at law, hoping to get justice and have this nuisance abated. However, all my exertions were in vain because there was a vote out of this political lime-kiln." Michael being overjoyed that someone of influence had rallied to his support continues:- "It seems mercifully intended by the Almighty, that a gentleman would be inspired with feelings of humanity, to save unprepared sinners from a sudden death and be the means of averting this cause of human destruction. Many a prayer you have got . . . May you be guarded from all enemies, visible and invisible and saved from a sudden or an un-provided death."
Unrewarding, as if it were, of his efforts to save the lives of the underprivileged, Dr. Connor continued to witness untimely deaths within his own family. His daughter Fanny died at the age of seventeen years and his wife Bessy died when their youngest child was only six years old. He died himself on the 20th February 1865, aged 62 years.
Shewbridge John Connor (junior), succeeded his father as M.D. at the dispensary in Carlow until 1873 when the family migrated; destination unknown. He married Anne Elizabeth Allen and three children were born in Carlow prior to their departure — Mary Elizabeth; Annie and Robert Shewbridge. Shewbridge Connor (senior) had an older brother John who was also a doctor. John had a son Sidney Shewbridge — a name which he adapted from his grandmother. Sidney worked as a clerk in Macroom, Co. Cork, where he married Elizabeth Fetherston of the same place in 1869, but did not remain. Perhaps, an associated descendant may yet travel to Whitegate; visit Meelick Bay and Clonrush graveyard, and so recall a forgotten chapter in their family history.