Sunday, November 23, 2014

Aunt Ellen

Over the course of many vacations, when going to the lake in Ontario where my uncle had his summer cottage, we would watch for Long Point Farm where my great-grandfather had been born. Across the meadow could be seen Aunt Ellen's house and the Saddle Rock, a huge boulder on which rested a stone saddle, carved by nature. Her house was then no more than a ruin, but it had once been very charming. While perusing my Uncle Ferg's memoirs, he, my grandmother and their siblings also watched for Aunt Ellen's house as children:
Aunt Ellen's house was seen, across the field as we drove down Ellisville Road, before we saw the farm house and Dad was always informed by the chorus when the house was seen. It was directly across from the barn where her horse and her cow, usually a Jersey, were kept with the other farm animals. She knew where the best berries were around the farm and many landed in her cellar for winter consumption. Her cow was a tea milk cow. This was the cow whose milk was saved for the house. (From Because You Asked For It by Dr Fergus James O'Connor, p. 107)
Aunt Ellen was long dead when I used to watch for her house, and her livestock gone. But because of the stories I was told, it was not difficult to picture her walking across the fields, always with a pail of cookies for the children. She was the maiden aunt of the O'Connor family, the only one of old Daniel's seven daughters not to marry. Many families in those days had such aunties who were not called to either matrimony or religious life, but to live the single life in the world. Not that where Aunt Ellen lived can be considered "the world;" in some ways she was a bit like an Irish anchorite of old.

Two of the other sisters, Lottie and Annie, married late in life; Aunt Ellen's house was originally built for the three of them. Uncle Ferg describes it as a "great little house" with a loom house behind the kitchen, and a cellar "deep enough so that it was cold but frost free. The front lawn was beautifully kept. Lilac trees typical of all early Ontario houses. Peonies, narcissus towards either side and other flowers but I do not remember the types." (O'Connor, p 107)

Aunt Ellen (or "Eleanor O'Connor of Long Point" as she signed her name in her sister's autograph album) was born on the old homestead in 1839, the third child and second daughter of Daniel and Brigit Trainor O'Connor. She and her brothers and sisters were educated by an old Scottish professor named Duncan Cameron Horn whom Daniel hired and he boarded with the O'Connors. Horn had allegedly been one of Napoleon's guards on Saint Helena but otherwise would not tell much about his past. He wrote poetry to one one of Daniel's daughters; in The Paradise Tree I have him writing to Joanna, the eldest. He was very learned and instructed the whole family; it was as close as they ever got to a university. All but two of the children became schoolteachers, including Ellen, who was known for her correct and precise manner of speaking.

At one point, when she was a young woman, Ellen went to work in upstate New York, probably as a domestic or even as a governess she she was educated. All we have from that time is an undated letter from Daniel to Ellen and her younger sister, Mary O'Connor Desmond, who had married and was also living in New York state. Daniel was quite concerned about his maiden daughter's virtue, as he expressed in the letter.
My dear Ellen, as your lot is cast among strangers by practicing this precept as you have been taught by the church and by your parents, you will gain the respect and esteem of those who can appreciate virtue. You know it is the duty of servants either man or woman to obey their employers in all lawful actions. If however, they solicit you to commit sin in order to do anything wrong or sinful do not then, but resist all evil. Consider the family you work for as your own, look to their interest, let nothing go to loss that is under your care. I hope you will keep Sundays holy, shun every dangerous party, and also associates who are addicted to immoralities of any kind. (Letter from Daniel O'Connor to two daughters)
Ellen returned from New York with her virtue unscathed, and lived for the next six decades in her little house on the family farm. Her youngest brother Charles and his wife Emily built a house down the road from hers and they saw each other daily. Ellen sometimes annoyed Charles, as he records in his diary on December 8, 1906: "My birthday and a Holy Day. Ellen here for the day but she always casts a gloom on my day by recalling 'poor father died on your birthday.'" Nevertheless, they all saw each other through the many trials and labors that were part of living on the farm. Charles and Emily's son, my great-grandfather Fergus Joseph, described winter time on the farm in his memoirs:
Winters on the farm were rather dreary yet were possibly the busiest days and nights of the year. So much had to be prepared in the winter for the summer season....One of the main resources of the farm itself was the production of wool and woolen goods. During the summer time the sheep were shorn and the wool was washed and taken to the carding mill and was returned to the farmers in strips of wool....These strips all had to be spun on the old high wheeled spinning wheel into yarn...all through the winter the women of the house were busy doing this sort of work. Then, of course, the yarn was made into socks and mittens and into underwear....
Another task was the preparing of apples for keeping into the spring time. We'd peel the apples....then the apple was cored and the pieces split into various sizes and and strung on a long string.. Every house and every kitchen had two or three hooks inserted in the kitchen ceiling....from these hooks strings would come down and...the apples dangling would be left there to dry....Those apples would be used in the months of April, May, June right up until the fresh apples were free. (from Grandfather Remembers by Dr. Fergus Joseph O'Connor)
Pumpkins were also hung up and dried, and pumpkin sauce and pies were practically a staple. There was the loom house, where old rags were dyed and woven into rugs, as well as quilting. At the end of the winter would be the sugar-making out in the woods. It was a self-sufficient life of many and varied never-ending tasks.

In the photo to the left is Aunt Ellen (seated in the front center) surrounded by some of her brothers and sisters. Considering how hard life was then, it is amazing that they all lived to be ancient. Aunt Ellen entertained a great deal. Friends and relatives often stopped by for tea. She was famous for keeping her Christmas fruit cakes soaking in a crock of rum for years. Uncle Ferg recalls eating a five year old cake at Aunt Ellen's "as perfect a cake as possible." (Because You Asked For It, p 107) At my grandmother's seventh birthday, Aunt Ellen showed the children how to braid daisies into chains to decorate the table. "A beloved old aunt" is how her niece Madeline O'Connor described her.

The unmarried vocation, however, has many challenges, as Aunt Ellen certainly found. In her journal, written in her flowing, meticulously even script, she often penned the words "all alone again" after visitors left. She obviously had the battle with loneliness that is part of the celibate vocation. In her diary are poems copied from the English Catholic poetess Adelaide Proctor.
Only to rest where He puts me
Only to do His will

Only to be what He made me

Though I be nothing still.

Only to take what He gives me
Weak as a little child
Questioning nought the reason
Joyful and reconciled.

Only to look to Him ever
Only to rest at His feet
All that He sayeth to do it
Then shall my life be complete.
Aunt Ellen may not have lived in a convent, but she was certainly a consecrated soul, one of those unknown souls whose prayer and humble life had an impact on those around her. She remained in her little house into her nineties, when she finally went to live with one of her younger sisters in Gananoque, where she died in the 1930's. Her house is no more, but in her diary are printed the words PER PACEM AD LUCEM, followed by this verse by Adelaide Proctor:
For one thing only, Lord, dear Lord, I plead
Lead me aright
Though strength should falter and though heart should bleed
Through peace to light.

The Death of Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart

The Duchess of Alba has died. She was a direct descendant of Mary Queen of Scots, whom I think she resembled, before the dreadful surgery, that is. From The Guardian:
The 18th Duchess of Alba, who has died aged 88, was one of Spain’s best-known public figures. Her frizzy hair (sometimes dyed red), waxen skin and querulous voice uttering forthright opinions made her instantly recognisable. Never camera-shy and a frequent participant in high-society events, she was a darling of the gossip magazines, television shows and, in her later years, satirists.

The duchess, known as Cayetana de Alba, was fabulously rich and Spain’s biggest private landowner. She had palaces throughout the country, including the Palacio de las Dueñas in Seville, her main residence, and the Palacio de Liria, where she was born, in Madrid. The castle to which she owed her title is in Alba de Tormes, Salamanca. She usually spent the summer at her house in Ibiza or another in Marbella.

The dukedom of Alba goes back to the 15th century, but Cayetana de Alba was only the third female member of the dynasty to be duchess in her own right. Her godparents were King Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie, his English queen. She was a grandee of Spain 14 times over and possessed 46 noble titles, including Duchess of Berwick, a Jacobite title, as she was a descendant of James II (VII of Scotland) and his mistress Arabella Churchill. Her titles gave her several arcane privileges, such as not having to kneel before the pope and being permitted to ride a horse into Seville Cathedral.

Cayetana’s early life was not quite as easy as her background suggests. The 1931 declaration of the Spanish republic resulted in the expulsion of the royal family and social conflict as landless peasants fought to occupy aristocrats’ often uncultivated estates. She hardly saw her mother, María del Rosario de Silva, who was ill with tuberculosis and died when Cayetana was eight.

She had a peripatetic childhood travelling with her father, Jacobo, the 17th Duke, until he became Franco’s representative in London during the 1936-39 civil war and ambassador there from 1939 to 1945. In London, the future duchess received a broader education than she would have had in postwar Spain, and hobnobbed with her poor relations the Churchills. Her adored father introduced her into the world of painting and the arts in general; the huge Alba private collection includes paintings by El Greco, Velázquez, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya. (Read more.)
Pictures from funeral Mass, HERE.
At first wedding in 1947
With first husband
With first husband Luis de Irujo and their six children

With Queen Sofia and the family portait of Goya's Cayetana de Alba


Science may have found the key to Henry VIII's marital woes. From the SMU blog:
Blood group incompatibility between Henry VIII and his wives could have driven the Tudor king’s reproductive woes, and a genetic condition related to his suspected blood group could also explain Henry’s dramatic mid-life transformation into a physically and mentally-impaired tyrant who executed two of his wives.

Research conducted by bioarchaeologist Catrina Banks Whitley while she was a graduate student at SMU and anthropologist Kyra Kramer shows that the numerous miscarriages suffered by Henry’s wives could be explained if the king’s blood carried the Kell antigen. A Kell-negative woman who has multiple pregnancies with a Kell-positive man can produce a healthy, Kell-positive child in a first pregnancy; But the antibodies she produces during that first pregnancy will cross the placenta and attack a Kell-positive fetus in subsequent pregnancies.

As published in The Historical Journal (Cambridge University Press), the pattern of Kell blood group incompatibility is consistent with the pregnancies of Henry’s first two wives, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. (Read more.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014


From Vive la Reine: "A poster announcing the auction of furniture from the estate of the Petit Trianon, authorized by the act of June 10th, 1793." Share

Pope Francis and Science

From The New Yorker:
Last month, Francis made a lot of news when, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he said, essentially, that the Catholic Church had no problem with evolution or with the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. “When we read the account of Creation in Genesis, we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all-powerful magic wand. But that was not so. … Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation,’’ Francis said.

This comment was widely interpreted as a radical departure for the Church. It wasn’t, as Kara Gordon, among others, has pointed out in compelling detail. The Church has, for decades, taken the position that faith and science need not be opposed to one another. As the Catechism states, “methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”

Still, this Pope made a point of talking about evolution—and to do so at a time when the men and women we have chosen to represent us in Washington often equate support for Darwinism with eternal damnation. After all, according to a Gallup poll earlier this year, forty-two per cent of American adults believe that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Among some groups—Republicans, for example—the figure is much higher. Perhaps we should at least be thankful that Congressman Paul Broun, of Georgia, who described evolution and the Big Bang theory as “lies straight from the pit of Hell,’’ lost his Senate race. (Read more.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

"Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon"

A nineteenth century print by Joseph Bouvier. Share

The Intensity Gap

From The New Yorker:
Dannenfelser didn’t start out pro-life: she grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, in a devout Episcopalian family that was conservative but pro-choice. In college at Duke, she was a pro-choice leader of the College Republicans. After graduating, she fell in with a crowd of Catholic intellectuals who converted her first to the pro-life cause and, eventually, to Catholicism; like many converts, she found that her new faith was stronger than her old one. (Although the S.B.A. List is strictly focussed on abortion, Dannenfelser personally believes in a “culture of life,” the Catholic teaching that also opposes contraception, euthanasia, and the death penalty.) She has a knack for shifting, almost imperceptibly, between passionate paeans to human life and dispassionate analyses of political realities, often delivered with a crooked smile. “When I was really strongly pro-choice, I didn’t go to bed thinking, Oh, my gosh, women can’t be free unless they have abortion; what am I going to do tomorrow?” she says. “Now I’m going to sleep thinking, Oh, my gosh, thirty-eight hundred children are going to die tomorrow. What am I going to do to actually save some of them?” She calls this phenomenon “the intensity gap”—a simple way of understanding why her side hasn’t lost this war, and may yet win it. (Read more.)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Low Road

The latest in a series of mystery novels about Scotland, The Low Road once again features the intrepid newspaper reporter John McAllister, whose approaching marriage fills him with doubts. The disappearance of his friend, the Scottish Traveller Jimmy McPhee, brings McAllister out of his quiet life in the Highlands back to his former life in crime-ridden Glasgow. Thrown into the company of Mary Ballantyne, a young and lovely journalist, McAllister finds himself struggling with feelings of new love as well as with many old demons. His atheism seems to cast a darkness and hopelessness over his entire approach to life, mirrored by the grayness and grime of the post-war Glaswegian slums. His social prejudices cause him to be wary and critical of anyone who comes from what he views as the upper class. In the meantime, he must decide whether or not to go ahead with his wedding. A man of honor, McAllister tries to take the high road of decency while surrounded by cutthroats. The graphic descriptions of violence and dirt do not make the book an advertisement for a summer holiday in Glasgow. Nevertheless, the suspense keeps the reader surprised and curious to see what will happen next. Each character comes with a unique mystery, which in itself makes The Low Road a pleasure for lovers of a good thriller.

 This review originally appeared in the November 2014 edition of the Historical Novels Review.

(*NOTE: The Low Road was sent to me by the Historical Novel Society in exchange for my honest opinion.)