There were several very old gravestones and memorials preserved inside the tiny cathedral at Clonfert. This one was was so sad it took my breath away:
To the memory of James Frederick Henry Dennis, son of Major James Dennis of the 4th Regiment, whose remains lie interred near this place. He was born at Newark in upper Canada the 17th of January 1805 and died at Shannon Bridge the 8th of Sept 1820, aged 15 years, 7 months, and 29 days. This humble stone was placed as the last tribute of his fond parents bereaved early of a son whose affectionate and religious conduct endeared him to every acquaintance. His infant sister Ellen, aged 2 years, 6 months, and 24 days also lies interred by him, having only survived him 10 days. Blessed be their peace for ever.
Naturally I imagined a story to go with it: Maj. Dennis and his wife were emigrated Irish and had come “home” to Ireland (for a visit? to stay?) with their two children.
But I wasn’t thinking like a historian. My dear friend Margaret, a skilled genealogist, set me straight: Maj. Dennis must have been stationed in Canada with his regiment for a while. She found numerous mentions of his presence with British forces in Canada in the early nineteenth century (Newark, where the son was born, was the capital of Upper Canada, which is now Ontario) and quickly discovered that the major was a career officer who saw service in several countries. She quoted from some official records; he
served in Copenhagen campaign; wounded in both hands. Present at Queenston, wounded (Bvt. Major 28 Nov. 12), Fort George, Stoney Creek, twice wounded, Hoople’s Creek. Commanded a Division at Maharajpore, 29 Dec. 43. Bronze Star and appointed K.C.B. for his services.
You caught that, right? He was in Denmark, then shipped to Ontario for what we Americans call the War of 1812 (these were battles: Queenston, Ft. George, Stoney Creek, Hoople’s Creek) and brevetted to major; then they shipped him to India sometime before 1843. Think about how long that took with a wife and kids and household goods. As a result of the awful and bloody Battle of Maharajpore he was awarded the (bronze) Gwalior Star and made a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. (I just report these things, kids, but you’ll see it really does have to do with, well, taking a bath.)
Margaret continued to poke into the records over the next half hour as we speculated via e-mail about why Maj. Dennis happened to be in Ireland in 1820. Was it his home? Or was he there as part of the British forces keeping the “Irish problem” in check? This period of time in Irish history was pretty tumultuous (when was it not?) and the English had garrisons all over the country.
Then she found an obituary that told us this:
In 1801 he married a daughter of Hugh Lawton, Esq. of Cork. That family were descended from an old Cheshire family, Lawton of Lawton Hill, who went to Ireland with Wm. III. In Ireland Hugh Lawton Esq.’s seat was called Marsh Hill. Maj. Gen. [promoted again and again!] Sir James Dennis, K.C.B., died at age 78, Jan. 14 1855, in Pall Mall.
Now, Wm. III would be that darned Dutchman, the Prince of Orange, who as the English king in 1690 won the Battle of the Boyne, and set in motion many of the problems that still exist in the north of Ireland. Thus we might assume the Lawtons were Protestant. And Pall Mall is in London, so I’m betting ol’ Jamie was English born. Margaret told me she found his obit in “Gentleman’s magazine and historical chronicle,” vol. 43, with all the details of his service, including Canada. Interesting is that he started in the Royal Navy as an ensign who distinguished himself and later switched to the army.
A few minutes later, Margaret had even more information:
Mrs. Dennis was Sarah Lucia Lawton, and she died in 1828, having had ten children. Seven of those children died under the age of fourteen. From what I can determine only two grew up and married. After the death of Maj. Gen. Sir Dennis there was a complicated court case between representatives of the children, competing for shares of the estate. One was the widower of an adult daughter.
So there is the rough outline of a life. Of two lives. James Dennis married Sarah when he was twenty-four and stayed married to her for twenty-seven years (a long time in those days; an average marriage was ten years, due to all the wives dying in childbirth). But it’s still very odd that—if Sarah was landed gentry from Cork—she was so far away from her home. Shannon Bridge is in Co. Offaly—the Midlands—and St. Brendan’s in Clonfert is about two or three miles away. So that part makes sense, but she was still a long, long way from Cork, especially by the standards of travel in 1820. What was she doing in Shannon Bridge? It’s a very small town, and it’s not really on the way from/to anything.
It’s a mystery.