By Charles Harley
Isabella Potts - July, 1887
“California is the hardest place to get a wife in any place in the world,” William Kirkman wrote home from San Francisco, October 15, 1854. Kirkman, though, was nothing if not persistent. “On the 4th of February, 1867, in San Francisco, Mr. Kirkman was united in marriage to Miss Isabella Potts, a native of Ireland,” W.D. Lyman’s Old Walla Walla County tells us.
Through his letters back to England and because, before emigrating, Mr. Kirkman worked in what then was one of England’s leading industrial enterprises, his Old Country background has long been fairly accessible to us. From knowledge of Mrs. Kirkman’s Irish roots, however, we have until recently had little more to go on than brief journal entries covering a few days’ visit to his Potts grandparents’ farm at Drumgrole, County Monaghan, as recorded in 1892 by The Kirkman’s elder son, William H. Kirkman.
“Thursday, July 14th... At four o’ clock took train for Ballybay... Took rooms at Leslie Arms Hotel and were then driven to Drumgrole about 3/4 mile distant where we saw for the first time grandfather & mother...”
In May, my wife Ellen and I visited Ballybay, a country town some fifty miles north by northwest of Dublin. Thanks to two encounters there, our knowledge of the descent and early circumstances of the woman who eventually became first lady of Kirkman House was greatly increased. The first encounter was with Mr. Robert Potts, whose farm includes the acres Isabella’s father once held. The second was with Mr. Peadar Murname, co-author, with his brother, of a monumental history of Ballybay and vicinity.
Mr. Potts of Drumgrole I found in the local telephone book. Mrs. Potts answered the phone. I explained that we were from America to research the Potts of Drumgrole. She replied that her husband would pick us up by car at eight next morning.
As he drove us from our Ballybay lodgings, Mr. Potts said that, despite his having the same names as Isabella’s father, their families were not related. Isabella Potts had left the land he now owned three generations ago. Her line in Drumgrole had died out.
At Drumgrole, we took a muddy farm lane that brought us to the edge of a rising field-Drumgrole is Irish for Ridge of Hoops-of verdant pasture. Mid field lay two solid slabs of mossy stone, one of them cut as though to accommodate a door or window: all that remains of Isabella Potts’s family home. Nearby, densely mantled with brambles, lay ruins of farm buildings, tumbled stone walls and twisted iron. Inspection was brief because Mr. Potts had undertaken to show us also the gravestones of Isabella’s parents, not-withstanding that, back at the farm; an ailing cow awaited his ministrations.
Isabella Jan. 21, 1845 - April 25, 1931
For a stone exposed for more than a century to the eternal Irish damp, the Potts memorial, situated in the far right corner of the Second Bullyboy Presbyterian Church bone yard, is remarkably un-mossy. Its inscription is easily read-and to me proved somewhat surprising.
After viewing what remains of Isabella Potts Kirkman’s childhood home at Drumgrole and visiting her parents grave in a churchyard in the nearby town of Ballybay, I called on Peadar Murnane, by avocation historian of the town and its surrounds, at his home on Ballybay’s Main Street.
I told Peadar of my mild surprise that Isabella’s parents’ ages at death were given on their gravestone as 96, Robert, and 95, his widow, Agnes. I read my host the entry from William H. Kirkman’s Journal of Summer Travel for 12 July, 1892: ‘Found the old couple looking very well, especially Grandmother, who is for one of her age (96) quite active. Grandfather not being so able to move about without assistance but still quite bright though 98 years of age.’
Peadar fished from the sea of papers that laps his office a photocopy of old Robert’s death certificate, which gives his age on death, 9 January, 1894, 18 months after his grandson’s visit, as 98…still. Gaps, errors and discrepancies in the vital statistics of those times were inevitable, Peadar said, given widespread illiteracy and poverty, and the paucity of official records—the Irish census not established till 1821, and the national register of “hatches, matches and dispatches” not till 1864.
The evidence suggests that George, Isabella’s elder brother and, according to available records, the one son of the family, was at best semiliterate. As the bearer of the news of his father’s death to the registrar for the district of Ballybay, it fell to George to sign the death registration certificate. His name in the box on the certificate reserved for the informant’s signature is, however, plainly written by the assistant registrar; whose longhand also fills the certificate’s 10 other information boxes.
Eleven years after his father’s demise, George had to inform the registrar of another death in the family, this time of his spinster sister, Sarah. On her death certificate George attests that he was present when Sarah died at the farm at Drumgrole. In the box for the informant’s signature, the name George Potts is again in the registrar’s hand. Between ‘George’ and ‘Potts’ comes a handwritten ‘X’. Next to that ‘X’ the registrar has appended, ‘His mark’.
We don’t know the year of his birth but in all probability George Potts was born late enough to be a potential beneficiary of Ireland’s National Schools system, created in 1831 to provide the poor and less well off with the rudiments of an education. Maybe George passed through a few of the earliest grades. If, though, he was the sole boy in the Robert Potts household, he more likely spent what ought to have been his school years helping his father on their tenant holding of —according to the 1861 Griffith Valuations, a land survey executed for the purpose of assessing tax—fourteen and one sixteenth acres, the proceeds from which were required to support a family eight or nine strong.
As girls in a household of modest means, Isabella and her sisters would almost certainly not have attended school. They would either have stayed home to help their mother or entered domestic service. From his photograph, Mr. Robert Potts was a proud man, and the family enjoyed a reputation for thrift, so perhaps it was with savings from the income from the farm, rather than from a slavey’s pittance that, in 1863, Isabella paid her passage to America.
‘For the first time stepped on Irish soil or rather English Landlord soil,’ William H. Kirkman wrote, 13 July, in his Journal of Summer Travel, 1892.
William and parents, William G. Kirkman and wife, Isabella, had that day disembarked upon “John Bull’s Other Island” en route for the modest farm at Drumgrole, near the town of Ballybay, County Monaghan, leased by Isabella’s father, Mr. Robert Potts, from the Leslie family, local grandees.
Isabella Potts in San Francisco - 1864
However true of Ireland as a whole, the view implicit in young William’s journal entry of hapless Hibernians prostrate beneath the hunting-booted heels of Anglo-Saxon rack-renters hardly reflects the particular circumstances of the Potts of Drumgrole.
While Isabella was growing up at Drumgrole in the 1840s-50s, the person to whom her father paid rent was female and of Scotch, ultimately Hun, origin. Specifically, the forbears of Emily Eleanor Wilhelmina Leslie had come to Ireland from Scotland in the sixteenth century, to Scotland from Hungary in the eleventh century, and claimed descent from Attila the Hun, whose parents galloped into Eastern Europe from central Asia early in the fifth century. Moreover, for a descendant of Attila, Ms. Leslie proved a pretty considerate landlady.
County Monaghan was sorely hit by Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1847-48. Blight ruined more than half the county’s crop of potatoes, its people’s staple food. Over the decade 1841-1851, through starvation and emigration, the population of Ballybay and its neighboring parish shrank by 20 per cent. But for Ms. Leslie’s charity and timely investments, that figure would have been worse. The Northern Standard newspaper for January 1847 stated that this lady “most liberally contributed 100 pounds to the Relief Fund”, which ladled out vegetable broth to the destitute. Men, who, with their families, might otherwise have starved, were given jobs on Ms. Leslie’s demesne, road making and ditch digging. For Ballybay—she owned the town—Ms. Leslie authorized construction at her own expense of a new market house, thus employing skilled tradesmen who otherwise might have foundered on the failed economy.
How straightened Robert Potts was by the famine we do not know. Records for tithes and taxes suggest that he weathered those hard times with acreage undiminished. Quite likely his rent was reduced. We find no suggestion that, from hunger and penury, any Potts of Drumgrole fled Ireland or sought refuge in the local workhouse—where, in exchange for roof and crust, inmates wore their fingers to the bone.
Odds are Potts and Leslies respected each other for what they were worth. The Leslies of Ballybay owed their estates to the expropriation of Irish Roman Catholic territorial magnates by Protestant conquerors. The Potts, too, were Protestant colonists from Scotland. ‘Destroy the Irish and plant your estate with Protestants,’ as a great landlord’s estate manager advised his employer. The Leslies, though, were known for their kindness.
In naming their second son Leslie, the Kirkman’s were perpetuating the memory of landed gentry whose tenants Ms. Kirkman’s forbears had been for well over a century. Isabella Potts quit Ireland not as a miserable refugee but, surely, with ambition to achieve in the New World a modicum of the prestige the Leslies enjoyed in the country she had left behind. As things turned out, she succeeded rather well.