Diarmuid Gavin was more than happy to dive headlong into his family history – his greatest fear wan't that it would be murky or shocking, but that it might be boring!
Over the past few years, we have researched many stories for the series, and the problem is never that they are boring – it's more that they are impossible to prove. We always want to include a storyline about an amazing ancestor who fought in the Boer War or invented the automobile or helped an entire village during the famine, but if we can't find the proof to substantiate the family story then we cannot stand over it.
But in Diarmuid's case, many of the stories told for generations around the dinner table turned out to have legs!
Diarmuid and his family believed they had Scottish Presbyterian roots, but to get there we had to inch backwards through the generations. His grandfather Michael Gavin had worked very hard to support his family, get them out of inner city tenements and into their own house. His father before him (Diarmuid's Great Grandfather Joseph) was known as 'The Blind Beggar': a man down on his luck who, according to census & marriage records, was a Dublin-born father of 5 who married his pregnant wife at the age of 19. But then, we found Joseph's will, which showed his real name was Crichton Strachan Gavin. He was the Glasgow-born son of a Scottish Presbyterian Wine importer of the same name. Why did Joseph change his name, his religion and his place of birth?
In Edinburgh, things got curiouser & curiouser... Diarmuid uncovered three generations of the family, all called 'Crichton Strachan Gavin' – why the persistence of such an unusual name? Diarmuid found the very first Crichton on the Scottish Census, living in a very salubrious terrace in Edinburgh. His death certificate showed he was the son of John Gavin, a Shipbuilder from Leith.
Local historian John Stephenson was able to piece together more of this shipbuilding mystery. John Gavin was indeed a successful Shipbuilder and owner, and his business partner was a man called Crichton Strachan! This explained why the name was so important to the family. John Gavin died a very wealthy man, but had 11 children to share it among. One of John's children was Peter, a distiller. This triggered a memory in Diarmuid: he and his father had an old telegram where the 2nd generation Crichton (now living in Dublin) was writing home to Scotland, down on his luck and looking for money from his Uncle Peter's trust fund. Diarmuid resolved to find Peter Gavin's will, to see if there was any mention of his nephew Crichton in Dublin. There was: a line that said Crichton should be excluded from his will!
At this point, things became clearer for Diarmuid. The old family story had been that the Scottish Gavins had arrived in Dublin as wine & spirit merchants, setting up illegal shebeens across Dublin and drinking all of them dry. Now it seemed possible that the conservative Presbyterian Gavins in Scotland frowned on young Crichton & his shebeens in Dublin and disowned him. Not only that, but Crichton's son changed his name to Joseph, abandoned his father's religion and claimed to be Dublin-born: Crichton had been disowned by relatives above and beneath him on the Family Tree.
The Language Professor
Diarmuid, himself married to the daughter of an illustrious family, desperately wanted to prove that one of his ancestors was an Oxford Professor of Languages – he wanted to raise the Posh factor on his family tree!
Diarmuid had the wedding certificate for his Great Great Grandfather, Crichton Strachan Gavin – the Scot who arrived in Dublin under a cloud. His wife was a lady called Martha Julia Tibbert from London, and on the certificate her father was John Tibbert, 'A teacher of Languages'. The 1861 English census listed John W Tibbert as an ordinary English Teacher, but ten years earlier on the 1851 Census, he was listed as a 'Translator of Languages'.
Turning to Google, Diarmuid & his wife Justine searched for 'JW Tibbert, translator of languages', and came up with a number of antiquarian booksellers, all with copies of a number of operas... all translated by JW Tibbert, Diarmuid's Great Great Great Grandfather! This was all the more special because Diarmuid's father Jack is a major opera buff.
In London, Diarmuid was able to buy two original copies of the translations: at the time, it was fashionable for all opera to be performed in Italian, even if written in French or German! Diarmuid's ancestor would not have been a major player on the glamorous social scene, but it was his job to provide an English translation of the opera so that people would have a clue what was going on...
The IRA Hero?
Many Irish families would like to claim they had an ancestor in the GPO during the rising, and Diarmuid was no exception. His mother's dad, Bernard Manning, was supposed to have been an active IRA member at the time, and Diarmuid had grown up hearing exciting tales about the man – now he had the opportunity to see if there was any truth to them...
Diarmuid applied to the military archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin to see if they had a Military Pension Application for his grandfather. They did! The Military Pension's Board had the unenviable job of filtering through thousands of applications from people who claimed to have been involved in 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Reading through his file, Diarmuid learnt first that his Grandfather had no 1916 involvement whatsoever. But, he mentioned two IRA attacks he was involved in, one of them in the Inchicore Rail Works. His grandfather's own account of what happened in that attack seemed a bit comedic to Diarmuid – he drove a truck load of steel plating into the Canal!
However, meeting up with historian Paul O'Brien, Diarmuid discovered that the raid on Inchicore was actually incredibly daring, right under the noses of the British. Also, the load of steel plating ending up in the canal was intentional to render it useless since it couldn't be destroyed! It seemed that Diarmuid's grandfather was a true (if minor) war hero...
Mysterious Mary & The Forgotten Fallen
Diarmuid had one final mystery in his family tree – he knew nothing about his Grandmother Mary Stillman, who had married Michael Gavin in 1929 – even her own son, Diarmuid's father Jack, knew little or nothing about her.
One of the great advantages of an unusual surname like Stillman is that it speeds up genealogical research no end! If you're looking information about a grandmother called Mary O'Reilly or Murphy, there will literally be thousands of records to wade through, but not with a lady by the name of Mary Stillman.
From Michael Gavin & Mary Stillman's wedding certificate, Diarmuid knew they were married in St. Catherine's Church in the Liberties area of Dublin. He was able to visit the church and look through the original wedding registers kept in their safe. From these, he learnt Mary's parents' names, John & Anne. But he also discovered something unusual – Mary Stillman's mother Anne appears in the same wedding register as her daughter, in the same year! That meant Anne must have been widowed and was re-marrying. So, what happened to her husband (and Diarmuid's Great Grandfather) John Stillman?
Searching the death records for the Stillman surname was as easy as searching the marriage registers... Diarmuid discovered that John Stillman died of a gunshot wound, on April 27, 1916... just 3 days after the start of the Easter Rising.
The place of death was listed as Leitrim Place, just off Grand Canal Street. Meeting up with historian Paul O'Brien again, Diarmuid learnt that this area was the site of the fiercest fighting of the Rising, with the Battle for Mount Street Bridge and the occupation of Boland's Bakery being flash-points.
It seemed that John Stillman had indeed died in the Rising, but how, and on what side? Diarmuid retired to the National Library and started to work methodically through microfilm reels of the newspapers of the time. Eventually, he found mention of John Stillman in the Irish Independent – John merited a small obituary since he had been a newsagent for the paper. It appeared he was caught in crossfire while leaving his mother's house. He could have been trying to get home to his own wife and 4 young children on the other side of town...