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Tuesday, October 14 2014 13:12

Among the fine presents received on a recent birthday, let me cite only the oldest. It came from my sister Maureen, who has been long established as our family historian.

She gave me an old photograph that displays some thirty people, both adults and children, members of my maternal grandparents’ extended family. The photo must have been made before the year 1900, probably in 1895.

Among the people captured in black and white, one has attracted my attention more than any of the others. He was my mother’s father, Richard Barry.

My interest in him may derive from the fact that his name became mine. At least my first and middle names come from him.

But the facts of his life also fascinate me.

Richard was born in Ireland in 1859. His family lived in the County of Cork in the southern part of the country.

He seems to have had only a rudimentary education in his early years.  But that would not stop his lifelong continued interest in learning. Those who knew him would always remember his abiding interest in the works of Shakespeare.

In 1871, he and his two younger brothers left Ireland, aboard the Cunard liner “Siberia” that traveled across the Atlantic to the port of Boston. Richard was listed in the ship’s log as age thirteen, a “common laborer.”

Actually he was only twelve. But had he given his true age, he would presumably have been unable to get a job when he arrived.

In any event, on the day after he landed, Richard went to work in a  leather factory in Peabody, Massachusetts, where his parents were already living.

Peabody was then one of the most important leather manufacturers in the world. Richard got his start with his father, who was already employed in the morocco leather business.

By the time of his death in 1909 at age fifty, my grandfather owned a leather business of his own. When I think of his early life, this strikes me as an extraordinary feat.

In the photo discussed here, only two of Richard’s children are pictured.  One was my aunt, Mary Agnes Barry, who was to live until 1974. She would become a successful teacher, devoted to her nieces and nephews. Here, poignantly, she is a poised and serious ten-year old, standing between her parents. 

Her younger brother. James, dressed in his Sunday best, is perched behind his mother.  He would die at age 47 before I could get to know him well.

Unlike four of the other men pictured, Richard does not have a mustache. His strong features make him seem to me confident and smart.  From what I have heard of his life, those qualities characterized his career.

My grandmother, Richard’s wife Hannah, is shown between her two children.  For me she was a deeply beloved family member and an important presence in my youth.  My boyhood visits to her house continue to loom large in my memory.

When we are young, we tend not to be interested in what our forebears did. They seem remote from our lives, not much worth cultivating.

My reason for drawing attention to this grandfather, whom I never knew, is to give attention to the values of family history.  Somehow, in later life these black-and-white figures become more human to us, and more important.

We become more aware of how they may have influenced our own lives; and their achievements can become further inspiration for ours.

What will later generations make of our own lives? I have written a  memoir, in part for my younger relatives, but its effect – like that of the family photograph – will probably remain unknown for a long time.

I like to imagine that someone will retrieve it in the 22nd century, just as have rediscovered something of my 19th century forebears’ lives.