Sunday, August 28, 2016

John Gunn, Flax Farmer?

Ah, it was a tedious old crop, flax right enough, and it was a hungry, greedy crop too but the fields around the Cleggan were good flax fields and there was money in it. I miss it, it's beautiful blue color. The fields were the color of a summer sky, and when it was scutched it was so golden that it burned and glimmered as the sun and moon had mixed and fallen on it.
                                                                                                  W J Smythe
     One of my great-great-great-grandparents whom I know very little about is John Gunn.  I estimate his birth took place around 1825 give or take, as his first known child was born about 1850, the tail end of the famine.  I know he lived in Ballygologue in County Kerry, very near Listowel, because that is the address the PP wrote in the register when his children were baptized.  I know he married Margaret Browne because when my great-great-grandmother, his daughter Mary Elizabeth, married Philip Power in Palmyra, NY, that is what St. Anne's PP wrote in the marriage register as the bride's mother's name.  Finally, from his death certificate I know he died in Ballygologue 3 October1871 of chronic bronchitis, an illness of "some days" duration.

     That's about it.  What was going on in between those dates?  What did he do to earn a living?  Other than the births of his children, those years are a complete blank. John was only in the neighborhood of fifty when he died, and what was chronic bronchitis and how did one get it?  MedicineNet says chronic bronchitis is a cough that produces sputum, lasts three months or more, and recurs. It must have been an unpleasant way to go, and equally so for his family who had to listen to the poor man cough himself to death.

     Several sites say cigarette smoking is the main cause today.  Was John a smoker?  I don't think cigarettes were common in 19th century County Kerry, though they did have pipes.  The west of Ireland was a pretty poor place, I would think tobacco was a luxury item probably not indulged in daily.  In fact one site I looked at confirms that, but claims peasants smoked Coltsfoot instead, which is actually used to soothe lungs. So what else might have caused this disease?

     Reading further on the amazing internet, I found that in John's era cases were often related to  one's occupation, in John's instance all I knew is that he was a laborer per his death certificate. That covers alot of ground.  I doubt there were many factories in Ballygologue, or in Listowel for that matter, the west of Ireland was quite bereft of industrialization at that time.  One thing they did have was flax! 

     In the "Parliamentary Papers 1850-1908 vol. 34", I found this-- "Bronchitis is a trade disease among flax workers."  That's interesting, but was flax even cultivated in John's area?  Found in "A Pamphlet, the Result of Practical Experience of the Benefits of An Extended System Of Flax Husbandry", published in 1870, is this reference to Listowel--"Flax of excellent quality is grown here; the land is generally let in small holdings, and the gentry are favorable to it's extended growth."  So-- there was flax farming going on in John's vicinity; but was he involved in it?  I hate to admit it but I don't know, and I have no idea how to research the topic any further.  There was a Flax Growers List for County Kerry circa 1796, but there are no Gunns on it and most of the farmers seem to be from the Dingle Peninsula or further south.  Of course John himself would not have appeared on a list from that early date, but I had hoped perhaps a relative would.

     I'm certainly not ready to throw in the towel, I'm still searching for obscure sources so if anyone has any ideas, I'm open.  I think flax growing/processing is a perfectly good theory of the cause of John's illness...

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