On William Gale Breene

by Barendina Smedley

What follows is unlikely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t at the very least a cousin of mine, and indeed might not be very fascinating in that case, either. 

This has nothing to do with Norfolk, nor is it a ghost story. It’s family history, and not very good family history at that, because it’s more about what I couldn’t find than what I could. To the extent it posits any conclusions, these are entirely speculative and quite possibly incorrect. 

I should add, in case it isn’t obvious, that I’m not an expert on Irish or US history, that this is a casual blog post rather than a substantial and serious piece of research, that I can and will alter it without notice or compunction if new facts come to light, and that while I’m hugely grateful for the generous help and advice I received in the course of putting this all together, the mistakes — and I’m sure there are plenty — remain entirely my own.

The only reason, then, that I’m posting any of this here at all is that, having done the research that underpins what I’ve written, it seemed a bit wasteful not to make this material available in the unlikely event that someone, somewhere, might perhaps be able to derive some benefit from it. 

Finally, I am aware that I have not supplied footnotes. In truth, I do have these, in a working draft, but it is so hard to make them work on WordPress that I gave up. If, for some reason, you’re desperate for a reference, track me down and I’ll do the best I can to help.

Finding William Gale Breene

This is the story of my thrice great grandfather, William Gale Breene (1820-1896).

William Gale Breene’s life was not, as far as I know, any more remarkable than most lives are. All the same, he preoccupies me. In part, this is because he’s a problem for my sporadic attempts at cultivating a family tree. 

On more or less every other side of the family, I can trace my origins back into the early eighteenth century — and in many cases, far earlier than that. But with William Gale Breene, the trail stops dead. I have no idea who his parents were. I don’t even know the name of the town or village where his story started. And yet this was a man who was alive within the lifetimes of two of my own grandparents. He’s not some creature of the distant, mythic past — the world in which he died, at least, was not entirely unlike the one into which I was born. There is so much I cannot discover about him. Yet at the same time, there are points at which his life may well parallel my own. 

Anyway, this is my attempt to tell his story, in which there will be more silences than declarations, several strange digressions, many halting suggestions and few definitive answers.

Making a start

Where do we begin? The first piece of evidence that establishes the existence of William Gale Breene is a slightly unexpected one. In 1845, the American Colonisation Society, reporting on progress made on the purchase of land in Liberia, announced that between 22 October and 31 December 1844, they had received a donation from one W.G. Breene of Dayton Ohio to the value of 50 cents. The movement to send free black Americans to Liberia was opposed by abolitionists, by many black Americans, and even at the time was criticised as being possibly fraudulent, probably racist, and certainly supportive of slavery as an institution. By the 1840s it would have been obvious to most that the effect of supporting ‘repatriation’, as it was called, was anti-abolitionist — clearly so in a politically polarised state such as Ohio. So here we find William Gale Breene spending fifty cents on nailing his political colours firmly to a particularly discreditable mast.

More benign is the next record. Five years later, on 3 September 1849, two children were baptised at the Third Street Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio: William Henry Breene and Martha Jane Breene. Martha Jane, known as Jennie, was to become my twice-great grandmother. The children’s parents were listed as W. G. and Margaret Breene. Their older sibling, Francis M. Breene, had been laid to rest at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton on 20 April 1847, at the age of only three years. 

Around that same point, the 1850 federal census fills in more details. According to the census, William G Breene was 30 years old — i.e. with an implied birthdate of 1820. He was married to Margaret, aged 28. Living with him were his two surviving children, Martha J., aged 4, and William H., aged 2. But while both the children had been born in Ohio, Margaret was from New Jersey, and William himself was from Ireland. William was listed as a merchant tailor, with his ‘real estate owned’ i.e. personal wealth valued at $1,200. He shared his home with five other people, all Ohio-born: Fred Toobey (19), William Toobey (16), Giphat [sic] Shulder (19) and William Miskelly (19), all listed as tailors, plus Elizabeth Rogers (18), presumably a housemaid.

Let’s glance at one further source. By 1850, William Gale Breene’s business was continuing to expand. An 1850 government survey of industry in the region found that Breene had about $6,000 invested in his clothing manufacturing business, which used about $12,000 worth of cloth each year. The work was done by hand and employed about 20 men, costing Breene about $400 in wages per month. The business generated about $24,000 per annum.

By combining these sources, we can deduce that William Gale Breene had been born in Ireland in 1820; that he was in Dayton, Ohio by 1844; that by 1847, he was the married father of three children, one of them no longer alive; that by 1850, he was running a successful clothing manufacturing business; that he was a Presbyterian; and that his politics were Democratic, anti-abolitionist and also very public. He was far from the richest man in his diverse and rapidly-expanding local community, but on the other hand, he was also far from the poorest.

Yet at the same time, this entry already raises a number of questions. Where in Ireland was William Gale Breene actually born — and when? How did he end up in Dayton, Ohio, married to a woman from New Jersey? And, more to the point, why did he end up making this journey? 

Who was William Gale Breene?

Unreliable evidence

The answers are not straightforward. Using conventional online genealogy resources such as ancestry.co.uk, I have not yet managed to find an unambiguous reference to William Gale Breene in baptismal or marriage records, ships’ passenger lists, or quite a few other obvious data sources. 

In the way of these things, of course, I’m not the only person to have researched William Gale Breene. In the end, he and Margaret had ten children in all, eight of whom lived to adulthood, so in the present day he has quite a few living descendants. And many of them, on the Ancestry site at least, have come to the same conclusion about his family origins. 

Here is the mainstream Ancestry version. William Gale Breene was born in 1816 in Deniskea (i.e. Doniskea), Co. Tipperary. Listing his name as “William Brien”, he was the son of Patrick Brien and Honora Caroll. In 1825 Patrick Brien and his family emigrated to Otonabee, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada as part of an organised scheme, spearheaded by a man called Peter Robinson, to resettle impoverished rural Catholic families into parts of Canada that needed more abundant agricultural labour. Presumably, the argument is that young William drifted down from Ontario to Ohio — not a great distance, by frontier standards — and started a new life. This new life involved, inter alia, changing his name from “Brien” to “Breene” and inventing the middle name “Gale”, ditching the faith of his fathers in order to become a Presbyterian, training as a tailor, finding a wife from New Jersey, and also acquiring enough capital to invest in setting up a serious clothing manufacturing business. 

All of this seemed, to me, when I first discovered it, at once fascinating — because if everyone else is so certain it’s right, who am I to argue? — yet also rather challenging. 

Not least, there’s another source we haven’t yet considered here, which is family memory. Yes, I know that the stories families tell themselves about their ancestors are freighted with enormous issues of accidental inaccuracy, unconscious bias, sometimes even outright myth-making. But having said all that, let’s review what I was told about William Gale Breene when I was growing up in the 1970s. These stories came via my mother (b. 1930) who must have heard them from her own mother (b. 1905) and maternal grandmother (b. 1869), the last of whom must have actually known this elusive figure, William Gale Breene.

William Gale Breene was certainly from Ireland. But he wasn’t the normal Great Famine type Irish immigrant. His family were relatively well-to-do. He might have been a second son who wasn’t going to inherit anything much, or some similar tale. There was a vague memory of ‘hunting in pinks’ — i.e. as part of a proper mounted hunt wearing scarlet coats. There was a very pretty christening gown in which I think I was actually christened myself, which came from ‘the Breene side of the family’, as well as a lovely little chased silver infant’s cup, where the initials clearly referred to Martha Jane Breene, William Gale Breen’s daughter — again, a not-very-subtle statement of relative prosperity and a love for beautiful things. 

But there was also an insistence, important in a country where snobbery about these things is still far more pervasive than most British people assume, that William Gale Breene wasn’t a Roman Catholic — again, not that kind of Irish person. Indeed, I well remember, in the St Patrick’s Days of my American youth, feeling uncertain as to whether my family history gave me ‘real’ Irish heritage, or not — the Scots-Irish, i.e. Ulster Presbyterians, apparently not counting, for reasons I’ll leave it to others to explain. 

It was in this context, anyway, that the Doniskea version of his story seemed to me very surprising. In time, though, I grew rather fond of it as a notion. How romantic, how sad in a way but also how remarkable, to remake oneself in the way that William Gale Breene seemed to have done!

And yet as the months passed, doubts set in. True, one thing that makes the Doniskea version look plausible is that there is no record of a William Brien living in Ontario in, say, the 1850s or 1860s, so the William Brien who emigrated must have either gone somewhere else or died — and as Canadian records seem relatively good, the death presumably would have been recorded. But at the same time, there is nothing, other than a vague similarity of name (“William Gale Breene” versus “William Brien”) to connect the two individuals. 

So while keeping the Doniskea version firmly in mind, I decided to explore just a bit further, in the quest for this enigmatic forebear of mine. 

What did other generations of the family say about William Gale Breene? By 1956, when the Journal Herald of Dayton, Ohio reported on the donation by Mrs Milton Wright Jr to the Dayton Art Institute of portraits of “WG Breene” and “Margaret Jernee Breene”,  they claimed — presumably based on information given by Mrs Wright, which she had perhaps acquired from her aunt Carrie Breene, mentioned in the article — that WG Breene had come from Co Carlow. To quote the article, “The story goes that the early Breene brought fine woollens to Dayton from Ireland. He was the first custom tailor and importer of fine woollens and silks.” The article further notes that the couple had three children: Carrie Breene, Frank S Breene and Charles LG Breene. The portraits were apparently by “George Soule”.

Now, there are several things badly wrong with this account. For a start, as we have seen, William Gale Breene and his wife had ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. Also, the pictures themselves were painted not by “George Soule” but by Edward Edmondson (1830-1884) — Edmondson studied with Charles Soule the elder (1809-1896) of Dayton, whose portraits in particular can look rather similar. None of this makes much difference to William Gale Breene’s origins, except insofar as it shows how much error can enter into even a very short newspaper story.

More promising, perhaps, is the account of William Gale Breene’s life given in an 1882 history of Montgomery County, Ohio. The information is provided in the course of a very friendly biography of his son Charles and, crucially, went into print when Charles and several of his siblings were still very much around to read it:

The year of [Charles’] birth was 1858, his parents being William Gale and Margaret (Journee) Breene. The father was born in County Clare, Ireland, in 1815 and in his youthful days came to America, remaining for a time in New York city, after which he removed westward to Dayton, which was then a small and comparatively inconsequential town, having a population of only a few thousand, while many districts of the state were largely uninhabited. He bought out a merchant tailor shop for eight dollars at the southwest corner of Second and Main streets and, bending his energies toward the development of a trade, he secured a constantly growing patronage, which increased with the growth of the city and which he handled in profitable manner up to the time of his death in 1895. He had been married in New York city to Miss Margaret Journee and unto them were born nine children, seven of whom are living. The wife and mother departed this life in 1896, and the father about one year later. Mr. Breene was a member of the Masonic fraternity in hearty sympathy with the underlying principles of the craft. He enjoyed the friendship and regard of all with whom business and social relations brought him in contact for his life displayed those sterling qualities of manhood which in every land and clime awaken honor and good will.

Now, there are quite a few things that are wrong with this, too. Margaret’s name was “Jernee”, not “Journee”, and the couple had ten children, not nine. Moreover, Breene died in 1896, not 1895 or 1897, as is oddly suggested by the paragraph above. There are, of course, quite a few helpful details, not available elsewhere, that may well be correct, such as the suggestion that he arrived via New York, bought out an existing merchant tailor shop, and that he was a Freemason. But there are also some debatable points. Did William Gale Breene really come from Co. Carlow, or from Co. Clare (it’s not a trivial pint — the two are on opposite sides of the island of Ireland) or from somewhere else altogether? Also, when was he born?

This apparently simple point seemed, at first, increasingly impossible to establish. The account above gives his birth date as 1815. Yet the 1850 and 1860 census returns both imply that he was born in 1820. The 1870 census lists him as being 48 years old, i.e. born in 1822. The 1880 census lists him as 56 years old, i.e. born in 1824. Where does that leave us? We have to accept, I supposed, that he was born some time between 1815 and 1824, possibly in Co. Carlow and possibly in Co. Clare. 

Or so I assumed. On a whim, the other day, I looked at the findagrave.com website. William Gale Breene’s grave was listed there, but there was no reference to a year of birth, let alone an image. There was, however, an option to request a photo by one of the volunteers who helps gather material for the site. Without much optimism, I submitted my request and promptly forgot about it, not really expecting a reply. 

Lo and behold, not five hours later, I had been sent a link to an excellent photograph of a modest, lichen-encrusted, much-eroded grave marker, on which it was just possible to discern the relevant dates: 1820-1896. The mistakes in the later census returns may have cropped up because someone else accidentally provided inaccurate information — or was William Gale Breene actually a tiny bit vain, hence capable of shaving a couple of years off his age when asked about it? 

By the time the 1860 census rolled around, anyway, William Gale Breene had come up in the world. He was listed as 40 years old (implied birthdate 1820). He was living with his wife Margaret (38) and a growing family: Jennie (14), William (12), James (8), Mary (7), Margaret (5), Charles (2), and a 19-year old Irish girl named Bridget Miller who was a live-in servant. 

William Breene’s wealth was listed as $8,000 in real estate and $5,000 in personal estate, with his occupation given as “clothing store” — making clear that he was a merchant, not really an artisan tailor. Meanwhile Jennie — and this may be important — was, alone among the children, listed as having been born, not in Ohio, but in Pennsylvania; the implication is that in 1846, the family must have been living in Pennsylvania, although if so I’ve not been able to find any record of this. 

Margaret Jernee Breene

As we have seen, by 1844 — the year in which his first, short-lived son was born — William Gale Breene was married. His wife’s name was Margaret Jernee Breene. What do we know about her, and what does this tell us about her husband?

Margaret Jernee appears in the historical record in 1838, when she was first a probationer, then accepted as a full member of the Broad Street Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey. I think this must surely be “my” Margaret, as her surname name is spelled correctly, the date makes sense, and as many other records list her as being born in New Jersey. And it is interesting, if only because at that point one didn’t simply slip into a Methodist congregation by default. It took real commitment and belief. Her ‘leader’ in this journey was Budd Sterling, the son of James Sterling, one of New Jersey’s earliest Methodist preachers and organisers. 

At the time, assuming that Margaret was born in 1822, as the census returns imply, she would only have been 16 years old. Her membership of a Methodist congregation almost certainly means that she could both read and write — attainments not to be taken absolutely for granted amongst women in early 19th century America.  

Then in 1841, three years later, a register for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society records amongst its members one Margaret Jernee, living at 314 Pine Street in Philadelphia, which incidentally is just across the river and slightly south of Burlington, New Jersey. She was listed as a dressmaker. Rather against expectation, this neighbourhood still exists in a relatively unspoilt, if thoroughly gentrified state, as one of the city’s most delightful historic areas. The house in which Margaret lived is still there: a handsome late 18th century house in warm red brick, big casement windows and wooden shutters. So it is perhaps possible to imagine the early nineteenth century version as a much busier, much scruffier place of enterprise. There were boarding houses in Pine Street, and this might have been one of them, so Margaret could have been working elsewhere — in some sort of dressmakers’ workshop, or perhaps even sewing in her own room. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society was one of the first savings banks operating in America which, again against expectation, survived until the very recent past. 

Margaret Jernee may have worked for a Philadelphia dressmaking business like this one

Can we intuit from this that young Miss Jernee was living alone, or perhaps with friends, in the big city, earning some money through her dressmaking skill, but also provident enough to put some of that money away and also, possibly, kept on the straight and narrow by her Methodist faith? Could it be that her family home had been broken up through death or other catastrophe, sending her out to make her own way in the world? And was it here, working in the garment trade, that she somehow met a young Irishman, full of ambition and perhaps cutting a handsome figure too, who would end up as her husband for the next half century or so?

Margaret Jernee Breene, painted by Edward Edmondson c. 1860 (Dayton Art Institute)

Of course, this might not be “my” Margaret Jernee. We lack any birth information for her, other than the indirect evidence of what she claimed in census returns. So we don’t actually know where in New Jersey she was born, or who her parents were.

There is only one piece of information I have found that might shed light on this. In 1884 it was reported by a local paper that Miss Maggie Breene of Third Street in Dayton — i.e. Margaret Jernee’s daughter Margaret — was entertaining a Miss Florence Jernee of Louisville, Kentucky. We also know that a Florence May Jernee of Louisville, Kentucky died in 1911. She was single at the time of her death, so her surname was presumably the name she had at birth. Census data suggests that she was born in 1859. She had lived in Kentucky with her brother, who turns out to have been named Newbold Breene Jernee (1861-1933), a salesman, and they were both listed as being born in New Jersey. 

This, in turn, leads us back to John Jernee, who was born in 1820, married to Cornelia Sullivan in 1853, and died in 1898. Florence May Jernee and Newbold Breene Jernee were their children. On 17 September 1844 the Cincinnati Enquirer listed a letter at the post office awaiting collection by John Jernee, so he must have been on the move from New Jersey by that date. In 1860 he was living in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was working as a  master carpenter. Could John Jernee have been Margaret Jernee’s brother? Could they both have left New Jersey circa 1844, and travelled west to settle in similar parts of the world — Dayton and Louisville not being hugely far apart, by Americans standards? If John gave his son the middle name “Breene”, surely this implies that the two families were close, perhaps even that William Gale Breene was Newbold Breene Jernee’s godfather.

There was also, incidentally, a Samuel Jernee — another carpenter — who was born on 5 November 1818, died on 21 July 1892, and who lived and died in Cranbury, New Jersey. He appears in census returns and his grave is still extant. Was he another Jernee sibling? 

Finally, for the very little it’s worth, slightly south-west of New York City and the border with New York State, there is a neighbourhood of Sayreville, New Jersey still called Jernee Mill. Sadly, the immediate vicinity is most famous for a First World War era munitions explosion that killed about 100 people and, perhaps surprisingly, has left scars on the physical locality that exist to this day.

And here, alas, the trail goes cold. I should dearly like to know the names of the parents of John Jernee of New Jersey (1820-1898), and whether he is the brother of Margaret Jernee of New Jersey (1822-1896), but I have not yet found anyone who fits the bill. We can perhaps assume, though, that Margaret Jernee came from an artisan background, with an emphasis on carpentry, but also that she was sufficiently independent and determined to try to make a life for herself in Philadelphia as a dressmaker, rather than simply marrying young and staying within her own locality.

We do, at least, have a painted portrait of Margaret Jernee Breene, as mentioned above. From the costume and hairstyle, it must have been painting in the 1850s or the early 1860s. 

The portrait depicts a handsome woman, at that point perhaps in her late 40s, possibly slightly worn by the cares of looking after a large and ever-expanding family, but also elegant in her appearance: a very simple dark dress, finished with an exquisitely fine lace collar and cameo brooch. She looks intelligent and perceptive, but there is also just the hint of a smile about her mouth and in her dark blue eyes. There’s perhaps a bit of frontier toughness here, but also civility and cultivation. I think she also had a sense of humour. 

I’m glad that this long-dead woman, who travelled so far in her life, is my three-times great grandmother. 

Adventures in the garment trade

William Gale Breene’s career as a merchant tailor perhaps requires some explanation. 

In the earliest years of frontier towns like Dayton, households would have created their own clothing at home — hand-sewn, with varying degrees of success, by household members. By the 1830s, ready-to-wear clothing was increasingly available, albeit also sewn by hand, not cut to standard sizes, and hence often rather basic, e.g. used for military uniforms, prison dress and clothes for enslaved people. 

Breene, however, set up his business at a pivotal time in the history of men’s clothing. The sewing machine was invented in 1846; four years later, in 1850, Isaac Singer produced a better version which revolutionised commercial sewing. This was the point at which it became possible for higher quality men’s clothing to be sold ready-to-wear on a grand scale, rather than being made individually for the customer. But it also made the creation of bespoke, hand-finished clothing easier and more accessible. The work involved sourcing fabric, then cutting, machine sewing, hand finishing, pressing — before finally marketing and selling the resulting apparel. At least in the early stages, Breene and the team of tailors who lived with him probably did all this work together, literally in house, although later it must have been carried out on a more large-scale basis. As a merchant tailor, Breene would have supplied the fabric for the clothing himself — buying it in, importing it or even manufacturing it. 

It seems fairly clear from his advertising that during his years of running the business himself, Breene aimed at the relatively elite, high fashion end of the market, promising the latest styles and best quality fabric, some of it imported, and all of it sold at a prestigious location: 1 Main Street, Dayton. Breene was also either wise or lucky in his choice of Dayton, Ohio, as a place to settle down and establish his men’s clothing business. 

Founded in the 1790s, by 1850  Dayton was remarkably well-connected to other places: by the Miami River, by canals built from 1827 onward, by turnpike, then from soon after 1850, by the railway as well. It grew fast. In 1848, the population of Dayton was 14,000 — by 1860, it was more like 20,000, and by 1896, it had grown to 80,000. Although the river that ran through the centre of the city flooded periodically, with disastrous effect, this never seemed to hold progress back for very long. With easy access to water power, raw materials and an endless stream of ambitious and enterprising immigrants, it soon became a centre of industry, manufacturing and innovation. Accompanying this was a burgeoning of cultural and civic institutions: places of worship for an eye-watering number of faiths and denominations, benevolent organisations, newspapers and journals, secret societies, arts organisations and concert venues. This was a place, in other words, where the materials and manufacturing processes for up-to-date menswear were easy to acquire, but where there was also a population of relatively wealthy, progressive, dynamic people, anxious to cut a good figure in the world and with the resources to do so.

Dayton was also a place where it was probably relatively easy for an ambitious new arrival to find a place within what was a quick-growing, culturally diverse and in some ways tolerant community. 

Obviously, this tolerance extended to some groups more than others. People had lived in the area since 12,000 BC, if not earlier. At one point the native Americans in what would become Ohio had been part of a culture that created cities housing thousands of residents, building large ceremonial earthworks and maintaining large trading networks. Yet by the mid nineteenth century, a combination of wars, treaty arrangements and forced expulsions had driven virtually all the native Americans out of what is now the Dayton area. In this context, the language of the anonymous history of Montgomery County Ohio, where Dayton is located, written in 1882 and mentioned above, is absolutely fascinating. The author sometimes characterises the “Indians” as being “hostile” or “ferocious” — yet also clearly believes that the “Americans” (i.e. Europeans) often behaved badly towards what he calls “the Indian owners of the soil”, themselves behaving in ways that were “savage”, acting against the “Indians’ just right”. Writing, with a touch of wistful romanticism, about the earthworks created by what he calls the “Mound Builders”, he opines that while the purpose of those still-extant landforms can only be surmised, “to us they are only the relics and ruins of an extinct race”.

The first European settlers were people of English and what Americans call Scotch-Irish heritage who had been pushed westward from Virginia and Kentucky toward the end of the eighteen century. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, however, Dayton attracted ever-growing numbers of new arrivals from Ireland and Germany in particular. In contrast with the earlier settlers, many of these newer settlers were Roman Catholics. The Germans, for their part, also tended to hold on to their native language for the first few decades, meaning that in the mid 19th century Dayton had several regular German language publications. There were places of worship for Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, the Reformed Church — often in several competing versions. By 1850 there was also what residents called a “Hebrew Congregation”, and soon afterwards, Roman Catholic and Jewish burial grounds to accompany the earlier protestant cemetery. Lists of prominent businessmen, military recruits or elected representatives characteristically mix names that sound English, German, Irish, sometimes Dutch or French or something else entirely. 

And then there were the inhabitants of Dayton who were of African heritage: less than 2 percent of the population of Dayton in 1880. Ohio was, from the start, a “free state”, in the sense that the sale or purchase of enslaved people was not legal there. Only in 1841, however, did Ohio legislate so that any enslaved person entering the state was automatically deemed to be free. As Ohio bordered the “slave states” of Virginia and Kentucky, it soon became a major station on the “Underground Railroad”, the network of abolitionists and others who helped enslaved people escape to freedom. But at the same time, many of Ohio’s white settlers were themselves from “slave states” and were not necessarily themselves abolitionists. 

This led to considerable problems, before the American Civil War and even afterwards, when “black laws” continued to limit the freedoms of African Americans. Less formally, indentured servitude could feel a lot like slavery; some free black people found it necessary to work under the “protection” of a white person; racial segregation, formal or informal, remained prevalent throughout William Gale Breene’s lifetime, and indeed that of his children.

I think it unlikely that a black man would have felt comfortable coming into Breene’s shop to buy a suit for himself, or that Breene’s children would have ever sat in lessons next to black children (there was certainly a “coloured school” in Dayton at the time), or that the Breene family would have ever lived alongside black neighbours. 

(For more about the experience of people of African heritage in Dayton during this period, there is a fascinating article by Heidi Gauder on the life of Moses Moore here, which is full of illuminating details.)

Dayton: a city divided

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, William Gale Breene advertised his merchant tailor enterprise in a newspaper called the (Dayton) Daily Empire. Looking back at his times from the vantage point of 2022, it is easy to slip into the conviction that our own times are uniquely politicised, polarised and toxic. That would be a mistake. In antebellum Dayton, when the newspaper reading public chose between buying the Daily Journal and the Daily Empire, they were making a starkly political statement. 

The Daily Journal was the Republican, pro-Lincoln paper. The Daily Empire, on the other hand, was the Democrat-supporting, ‘Copperhead’, states’-rights, pro-slavery paper. Again, to generalise wildly, protestants and settlers of English heritage were more likely to Republicans, while Catholics and those of Irish or German heritage were more likely to be Democrats. In addition, there was a commercial interest in the anti-abolition policy, as well as in the reluctance to fight a war against the Southern States — if only because abolition was seen as something that would flood the region with cheap unskilled labour, while war would cut off access to southern markets and probably boost the fortunes of East Coast enterprises at the expense of the west. 

William Gale Breene was, I am fairly certain, a Copperhead Democrat. We have already seen, above, evidence of his opposition to the abolition of slavery. This may have been to some degree a product of his background, his business interests, perhaps even the influence of friends and associates. On the other hand, he seems to have been a member of the Third Street Presbyterian Church in Dayton, which is surprising, as its congregation had split from the First Presbyterian Church precisely over the issue of slavery, with the Third Street Church being the pro-abolition congregation. So, who knows?

The fractious nature of antebellum and Civil War Dayton is documented in an excellent article by Carl M Becker, “Newspapers in Battle: The Dayton Empire and the Dayton Journal During the Civil War” in the Ohio History Journal, available here.

In 1860, ownership of the Daily Empire and its associated titles was acquired by John Frederick Bollmeyer, a young former Treasury Department employee, journalist and a stalwart supporter of President James Buchanan, who in 1861 would be succeeded by Abraham Lincoln. Bollmeyer had been born in Hannover but had emigrated with his parents to Ohio, arriving as in infant in the 1830s. Anyway, his was the paper in which Breene regularly advertised, and which in turn published warm, sometimes humorous ‘advertorials’ recommending Breene’s men’s clothing company, which was located only few hundred yards from the Daily Empire’s offices, in Dayton’s market district. 

For instance on 21 September 1859, the Daily Empire ran the following, as part of a much longer and frankly mysterious yet jokey article praising William Gale Breene:

Breene has just returned from New York, where he was engaged for several days, under the direction of a first class artist, in photographing Broadway. His notes are complete and we would give some of them here, only they are copy-wrighted [sic]! The curious can have a look at them by calling at his Clothing Emporium. Not a suit of clothes passed along the crowded thoroughfare of the busy metropolis but that Breene made a note of it.

But the same article has plenty of references to the word “rough”, given in contrast to “smooth goers” who are said to be going out of fashion. The paragraph above is followed by this enigmatic pronouncement:

We rejoice to state that the roughs had it, and that the ‘smooth-goers’ were decidedly in the minority! They are “passing away” before the vigorous inroad of rough hewn manhood. Breene has the article! and he can make a man out of any body; he has it in the incipient state; he has it in the middle passage, and he has it with a full grown beard and flowing hair! When you call at Breen’s say “Rough!” and he will understand you. 

This slightly has the air of stumbling across someone’s inside jokes, not entirely respectable either, in some particularly dubious corner of 4chan, and I’m not entirely sure what it means, either, except to point out that one usage of “rough” at the time was to mean a “ruffian”, a hooligan, a thug. Might it have been the case that this was the paper’s way of saying that Breene was “one of us”, nudge nudge, wink wink, and not afraid to cause a bit of bother to his Republican neighbours? Or is that reading too much into it?

Throughout the 1850s, the two papers attacked each other, and radicalised their respective readers, by taking opposing positions on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and the looming threat of large-scale civil conflict. Once the war started, but was seen to be going surprisingly badly for the Union, the Daily Empire was quick to attack it as a costly, ill-conceived, unnecessary abolitionist crusade. Lincoln was portrayed as a Jacobin who ignored the Constitution, randomly arrested his critics, and couldn’t be trusted with power. 

The Journal, in turn, portrayed Bollmeyer, in particular, as a traitor. 

On 1 November 1862, tensions between the two papers reached boiling point. That morning, a Dayton hat-maker and staunch Republican, Henry M. Brown, saw John Bollmeyer standing in the street and stopped to speak with him. The argument between the two became heated. Brown called Bollmeyer a “damned Secessionist” and then, when Bollmeyer denied it, a “damned liar”. Brown promptly pulled out a pistol and shot Bollmeyer dead, in front of a stunned group of witnesses. 

In their account of the coroner’s inquest, the Daily Empire reported one of the witnesses recounting the scene as follows:

About half past 7 o’clock I was going to my breakfast — saw Mr Brown and Mr Bollmeyer […] when I got within fifteen or twenty feet of where Mr Bollmeyer and Brown were standing in front of Mrs Stutsman’s Boarding House on Second Street, I heard Mr Bollmeyer say, raising his hands — “don’t shoot” and at that instant Brown shot the deceased with a pistol — Brown turned round and put the pistol in his pocket  I said to him my God Brown what have you done — he walked away and said “It was no time for talking”. 

The witness who gave this testimony, by the way, was a man named Christian G. Breene. Might he have been a relative of William Gale Breene? I don’t actually know the answer to this. Curiously, I have not been able to find out anything more about Christian G. Breene. There  is a “Christ. G Breene” who appears in the 1863 draft registration for Dayton, Ohio — a married, 34-year old man from Ireland who was working as a clerk — but that might have been Christopher G Breene, who also lived in Dayton at the same time. This latter man was a Roman Catholic and again, not as far as I know related to William Gale Breene. Why were there so many people named “Breene” in Dayton, apparently unrelated? I’d love to know the answer, but I don’t.  

In any event, Brown’s murder of Bollmeyer resulted in a riot, the attempted lynching of his killer, and armed troops being despatched from Cincinnati to quell the disturbances. Bollmeyer’s widow, having seen her husband buried in Woodland Cemetery, was not allowed to use on the headstone the potentially inflammatory language — “martyr”, “assassin” — that she had originally chosen. Organised battles, some of them really violent, broke out in the local state schools between boys who wore a pro-Union badge, and those who wore the “butternut charm” of the Copperheads. And the two newspapers now had something new to argue about — whether the dispute that led to the murder had been one of high ideological purpose or, as the Journal contended, a fairly basic, neighbourly squabble over a dog and some annoying children’s Halloween pranks. 

In May 1863, the offices of the Journal were burned out by a mob following the arrest of a prominent Copperhead — and about half a block of central Dayton real estate was burned down at the same time. Martial law was imposed. In March 1864, a group of drunken Union troops smashed up the Daily Empire’s offices. The resulting riot left one man dead and several others badly injured. 

Even as late as the 1880s, twenty years after the end of the war, feelings in Dayton were still running high about these encounters, to judge from the contents of an otherwise very good local history which still found it necessary to strike a partisan note. In short, Dayton during the Civil War was highly polarised in political terms. 

Given his apparent support for the Democratic cause, these events can hardly have passed William Gale Breene by. 

War and peace

Let’s consider, briefly, William Gale Breene’s experience of that worst of conflicts, beyond his affiliation with his city’s controversial Copperhead newspaper.

William Gale Breene painted by Edward Edmondson c. 1860 (Dayton Art Institute)

It must, for instance, have been around this time that Breene had his portrait painted, along with that of his wife, by a local artist, Edward Edmondson Jr, who executed quite a few portraits of Dayton notables during the 1850s and 60s. Breene must have been between 40 and 50 years old at the time. The portrait shows a dark-haired man with a fashionable goatee beard, florid cheeks, a distinctive worry-line between his eyebrows, and a rather calculating, wary look on his face. While his wife’s portrait looks as if she’s about to break into laughter at some secret joke she really shouldn’t share with you, but possibly might, William Gale Breene’s portrait is, fittingly for a tailor, somehow sizing you up — entirely unsmilingly. What was he like, this ancestor of mine, as a husband, a father, an employer — a neighbour and a friend? He looks rather forbidding. Nor can this simply be an issue of artistic convention, because there are men portrayed by the same artist who look as if they’d be much more approachable, less guarded, easier company. But then perhaps that’s unfair to my three-times great grandfather. Perhaps he simply thought it was better to look serious when being recorded for posterity.

In any event, Breene appears on the roll for a military draft in June 1863, where he was described a a 42-year old married merchant tailor. As a married man above the age of 35 years, he wasn’t subject to conscription, but in any event, given that his actual business involved making clothes for men, it seems likely that he would have ended up making uniforms and related garments, and supplying necessities like warm underclothes, although I have no actual evidence for this. 

We also know that during the war years his family continued to expand. The previous decade had seen the birth of four more children to him and his wife Margaret: John James (1851), Mary Gale (1853), Margaret (1855), Emma (also 1855) — but then tragedy struck, and Emma died in 1856, at the age of only eleven months. In 1859, Charles Lafourcade Gale Breen arrived. Later, during the actual war, came Frank Shuey Breene (1861), Clara (1864) and Carrie (1865). That meant nine living children by 1865, the eldest of whom, Jennie, would then have been 19 year old. Breene’s eldest living son, William Henry, would only have been 17 in 1865, so doesn’t seem to have done any form of military service. Possibly that was a relief to the family.  

The Breenes were soon to have a closer connection the military side of the Civil War. On 23 December 1868 Jennie Breene, eldest daughter of William Gale Breene, married Joseph T. Patton, a former officer of the army of the Union, at the Third Street Presbyterian Church in Dayton. Of the four girls in her family who lived to adulthood, only two married, and while it’s always possible that this was entirely a matter of personal inclination, it’s also worth pointing out that the demographic shock of the Civil War meant that there were fewer young men, or indeed men of any sort, to go around than would otherwise have been the case. 

Jennie’s new husband, Joseph Thomas Patton, was born in 1844. His parents, Francis Patton (1797-1851) and Elizabeth Patton nee Daniels (1801-1845) both came from families that had lived in the New World for generations — often for a century or more. More recently, they had migrated from Harrison County, [West] Virginia to Ohio. There, in 1831, Francis Patton bought 88 acres of land in Miami township, from which the Shawnee tribe of native Americans had been driven following the War of 1812. Joseph Patton had grown up on this farm, valued at $4,000 in 1860. It lay on the outskirts of the small town of Quincy, incorporated on 1830. Quincy is only 50 miles north-east of Dayton — not very distant, by frontier standards. If online listings are to be believed, there are still quite a few Pattons living there today. 

Family legend has it that when it became clear that the Civil War was imminent, young Joseph, who was not only underage but also rather small in stature — his comrades would later call him “the Little Captain” — attempted to follow his older brother into the Union army, only to be told to go away. A few months later, when recruiters were less fussy, he ran away once again and entered Co. K, 22 Ohio Volunteers as a private. His parents, eventually accepting the inevitable, bought him an officer’s commission into Co. A, 93 Ohio Volunteers. Over three years — in the course of taking an honourable part in engagements including Chickamauga, Stone River, Missionary Ridge, New Hope Church, Liberty Gap, Brown’s Ferry, Charleston, Danbridge, Rocky Faced Ridge, Resaca, Laurel Hill, Pine Mountain, Kenesaw, Marietta, Chattahoocheer River, Atlanta, Jonesboro, Columbia and Franklin — he rose from 2nd Lt to the rank of captain. 

Then the war ended, and he left the Army. Joseph Patton’s farewell address to the men of Co. A, 93 Ohio Volunteers, given on 14 June 1865, when he was still only 21 years old, survives. I quote it in full, if only because I think it says a great deal about who this young man — my great great grandfather — really was.

Fellow Soldiers: Our term of service has been brought to a close, after nearly three years of hard and faithful service. The wicked rebellion we went forth to subdue, is only known as a thrilling page in the history of our country. We will soon separate and return to our respective homes, there to pursue, in the peace our valor won, our various avocations. Let us so deport ourselves that the world may know that we are gentlemen as well as soldiers. You have acquitted yourselves too nobly upon every field where your valor has been tested, to now be guilty of any petty crime that might blight your good name. In the hour of our rejoicing let us remember, in sorrow, those of our brave companions who have sealed their devotion to their country with their lives. I trust that, since I have had the honour to be your commander, I have gained your good will and esteem. I shall ever watch, with a jealous eye, the future course of each and every one of you, and shall rejoice in your prosperity in life. My earnest regards go with you through life. Comrades, one and all, goodbye, and may God bless you. 

He doesn’t mention the fact in his address, but Joseph Patton had, in fact, lost his beloved older brother at the battle of Missionary Ridge where he, himself, had also been seriously wounded — one of the three times he was seriously wounded in the course of the conflict. 

Years later, in the 1890s, when he perhaps knew he didn’t have much longer to live, he wrote a brief memoir of his experiences, titled “Personal Recollections of Four Years in Dixie”. Like all the best war memoirs, it is at once extremely funny, horrific and occasionally tragic. More than anything else left of him, it surely captures his distinctive voice.

There is no evidence, or even family tradition, for how the two young people met, but as Joseph Patton’s company was certainly in Dayton at several points during the war, it is tempting to imagine that they encountered each other in that context. What, though, must William Gale Breene have thought? He had, I am fairly sure, like so many in Dayton, opposed the war at the start, although of course supported the Union war effort thereafter. On the other hand, his new son-in-law was by all accounts responsible, intelligent, charismatic — in short, a good match. So perhaps, after subjecting him to the slightly calculating stare familiar from his portrait, he decided that this new son-in-law would would do. 

And it was, I think, a good marriage. Having survived the war, Joseph Patton soon developed a successful career selling life insurance. He moved to Detroit, Michigan with his new wife. He became deeply involved in the life of the Forest Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Loyal Legion (a Union Army veterans’ organisation), and other civic groups. 

Before long, the couple had produced two daughters. The elder of these, Bessie Emma Patton, born in 1869, was my great grandmother. We know from Joseph Patton’s memoir that he and Jennie made a pilgrimage to at least one former battlefield together, where they revisited the sites of some of his more memorable exploits. He spoke about the war with his former fellow soldiers, and also with his family. Many of the local directory references to Joseph T. Patton, as late as 1900, still list his military rank alongside his name. As far as that goes, his sword — unlike others in that assemblage, not strictly ceremonial, either — was displayed in the entrance hall of my grandmother’s house as late as the early 1970s.

In 1900, anyway, the Pattons’ happiness as a family was cut short. During a summer holiday on Mackinac Island, Joseph T Patton died, after what seems to have been a prolonged illness, at the relatively young age of 56, with the cause of his death listed as ‘heart disease’. His obituary notices and tributes were quite extraordinary. Even allowing for the affectionate and respectful hyperbole customary on such occasions, there is a real sense that this former farm boy turned soldier turned salesman had something about him — what everyone, insistently, referred to as a “knightly” quality — that made him stand out. His old Army comrades were asked, by their local veterans’ organisation, 35 years after the conflict had ended, to attend his funeral in full uniform. 

Joseph T. Patton’s wife and daughters, of course, were heartbroken. His widow Jennie lived on in Detroit until 1919, by which time, happily, she had several grandchildren of her own. 

Another line of business

There is one further context in which William Gale Breene’s early life in America can be documented. 

In August 1852, when the Great Famine of the late 1840s had already prompted the emigration of a perhaps a million Irish people to the United States and elsewhere, the Boston Pilot published an advertisement for the firm of P W Byrnes & Co. of Liverpool’s General Passage and Foreign Exchange services. 

The subscribers will despatch during the present year the several undermentioned magnificent Regular Line of Packets, sailing between New York, Liverpool and London. Persons proceeding to the Old Country, or those sending for their friends, will find it their interest to select our several lines for their conveyances. Passengers engaged with us will be shipped under the superintendence of our own Firm, thereby preventing any disappointment or delay.

There followed a list of ships, ports of embarkation and timings, largely sailing between Liverpool and New York. Then the advertisement turned to the exchange services offered — drafts on sight from the National Bank of Ireland. Finally, the advertisement listed local agents for the firm in a variety of locations around the United States.

The agent in Dayton, Ohio was one W G Breene.

What was this all about? In a world before online banking, credit cards and so forth, if an Irish person who was comfortably established in the New World wanted to send money to his struggling relatives back home — or, indeed, wished to secure for them a place on a reputable ship that would convey them safely to the United States — by far the surest way to do so was through precisely these sorts of arrangements. The agent would receive the cash, transfer it to the company concerned — while presumably extracting a percentage as commission — and in due course, the intended recipients in Ireland would have their remittances, or their tickets west. P W

This setup relied on some very specific things. The invention of the telegraph in the late 1830s was part of the story. Byrnes of Liverpool were a reputable firm, recommended by at least one published guide. But it was also important that local agents were trustworthy, both from the point of view of those handing them money, and also for the companies for whom they were working. Such agents needed to be respectable, good at keeping accounts, and very obviously solvent. Otherwise, who would trust them with cash? So it is significant that William Gale Breene was willing to do this work, and that he was considered capable of doing it. 

But it’s also interesting in one further way. By 1852, the vast majority of new Irish immigrants to the United States were Roman Catholics. Further, most of these were people who had, in effect, been forced to migrate in order to flee extreme poverty, perhaps even starvation. Most were from agricultural or labouring backgrounds, many spoke Irish (in some cases, exclusively so) and many were illiterate. In these ways, their experiences were perhaps very unlike William Gale Breene’s experience of emigration. In America, at least, Breene seems to have been quick to identify himself as a Presbyterian, while it also seems likely that he arrived with some form of artisan or even business skills, perhaps some surplus wealth as well. 

So it is striking to see Breene, a Presbyterian, positioned here as the obvious agent through whom established, predominantly Catholic Irish immigrants could send money or make travel arrangements for their endangered, predominantly Catholic Irish relatives and friends. It’s not as if there weren’t other Irish people in Dayton. The first Irish Catholic settlers arrived in Dayton in 1831, which is also the point at which German Catholic settlers, and also the first Roman Catholic clergy, arrived in the infant city. The growth of local industries, the expansion of the canals and railway network, and of course the abundant farmland nearby provided abundant employment and entrepreneurial opportunities and Irish immigrants were quick to discover these. But there were also plenty of ‘Scotch Irish’ settlers, not only recent immigrants from Ulster but also those whose families had been in America for several generations. 

And then there was also, there amongst the earlier citizens of Dayton, that other type of Irish person, slightly lost in today’s language of identity politics — the non-Ulster-based protestant Irish immigrant. This is, on balance, what I think William Gale Breene must have been. So I find it interesting that he was seen as sufficiently undifferentiated from his Catholic neighbours, yet also sufficiently and obviously Irish, to be the right fit for the role with P W Byrnes & Co. But it’s also interesting that, during the 1850s, which saw the rise of the Know-Nothing Party in New England and the South, and generalised anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment throughout much of the United States, Breene willingly associated himself with Irish immigration. His Irish identity seems to have been something he wished to retain, certainly in a business context, even when other aspects of his life arguably led him in another direction. 

Out of Ireland have we come

So it is that at long last, we turn back to Ireland.

We know that William Gale Breene came from Ireland, because the two short biographical accounts mentioned above both refer to this fact, and also, every census return Breene completed stated clearly that he had been born in Ireland. What we don’t know, unfortunately, is where in Ireland he came from, let alone the exact date on which he was born, who his family were or, as far as that goes, why precisely he left.

As we have seen, the two biographical accounts differ in what they say about Breene’s origins. The two-volume, apparently authoritative history of Montgomery County Ohio, for which the relevant informant seems to have been Breene’s lawyer son Frank Breene, claims he was born in Co. Clare. Whereas, the newspaper account of the donation of those two portraits, for which the information was probably a niece of Breene’s school teacher daughter Carrie Breene, insists that he was born in Co. Carlow. And as we have also seen, for anyone unaware of Irish geography or history, this is a real distinction. 

It’s also worth pointing out that Irish genealogical history faces some serious and specific problems — and not just the ambient embarrassment of being that grim thing, an (ex) American “in search of her Irish roots”, either.

No, this is a more practical problem. While aspects of life in late 18th and early 19th century Ireland were extremely well documented, a surprising amount of that documentation burned to ashes in the destruction of the Four Courts in 1922, under circumstances that apparently remain contentious. Many Church of Ireland parishes, facing problems with declining congregations, clergy numbers and security, had been encouraged to entrust their muniments to the Public Record Office so, when it burned, their records were disproportionately affected. I suspect this is the main reason why I have been unable to locate a William Gale Breene living anywhere in Ireland during the relevant period, let alone been able to identify his parents or other forebears, or to discover his date of departure from the land of his fathers.

Faced with this brick wall — although actually, in context, soot-blackened Portland stone might be more to the point — what does one do?

Over the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about William Gale Breene’s Irish origins. Spoiler: there is no clear answer here. But I do think I’ve at least brought some of the questions into clearer focus. So what follows, while not conclusive, at least points the way towards further research. 

All at sea

Where did William Gale Breen come from? There are no records of any “William Gale Breene” ever travelling to America. There was, however, a “William Breen” who arrived on 27 May 1839 in New York, aged 18 (i.e. possibly born in 1820, depending on his exact birthday), on the ship Bowditch, a vessel of 578 tons, of which one J. W. Thompson was Master. This William Breen had sailed from Liverpool but was Irish, and listed his occupation as ‘accountant’. 

Even here, though, we run into more ambiguity. The problem in this case is that while the US National Archives’ own transcription lists the name as “Breen”, at least one other online transcription gives it as “Green”. Well, I am still going to discuss it here, because until I can see an image of the actual ship’s list — which I haven’t yet been able to do — there is no way to be certain which is correct. 

Assuming, though, just for a moment, that the National Archives’ version is right, can this have been William Gale Breene? The “Breen” is spelled incorrectly. On the other hand, the dates work, in the sense that there is no evidence that Breene was in the USA before 1839, but certainly evidence that he was there by 1844; the birth date would correspond with that on Breene’s grave; the Liverpool-to-New York sailing route would match that for which William Gale Breene was later to be a paid agent. 

As for the “accountant’ reference — while Breene appears in the 1850 census as a “merchant tailor”, we can see from the 1850 industrial survey mentioned above that he was, even at that point, running a business employing 20 men, with a turnover of $24,000 per annum. We are also told, in what I think was his son’s account, that upon his arrival in Dayton he bought an existing tailor’s business — in other words, it was a “business” from the start, not just one individual who who knew how to make clothing. It soon became a prominent business, with a high-profile premises in the middle of town. And when we glimpse Breene at work in the pages of the Daily Empire, he isn’t sitting at a workbench cutting and sewing — he’s off in New York City spotting fashion trends, but also perhaps, as his advertisements imply, sourcing quality imported fabrics too — products for which Ireland was famous. Meanwhile the work he did as an agent for P W Byrnes & Co. would have demanded precise, accurate and credible book-keeping, not tailoring skill. For all these reasons, then, I am not going to reject this possible sighting of William Gale Breene just because it describes him as an ‘accountant’ rather than a tailor. 

Believe it or not, there is good information available about the teaching of bookkeeping in Ireland as it stood at the start of the 19th century. One example is Peter Clarke, ‘The Teaching of Bookkeeping in 19th Century Ireland’, Accounting History Review, April 2008.

It turns out that merchants in places like Dublin, Cork and Limerick needed good accountants, and 17th and 18th century Huguenot and Dutch immigrants to Ireland seem to have been at the forefront of transmitting contemporary accounting practice. The form of accountancy that was taught consisted mostly of double-entry bookkeeping based on journal entries. Under the Penal Laws (which, possibly relevant in this context, were directed not only against Roman Catholics, but Presbyterians as well), “hedge schools” offering informal education flourished. These were quick to offer mathematics and accounting, as a form of knowledge with practical applications that might prove particularly attractive to the parents who paid the school fees, as well as surveying, navigation and so forth — which, in turn, normalised such subjects in all schools, including those which had previously offered a less vocational, “classical” education. 

Accountancy went on to become an engine of social mobility. It was part of the skill set that could turn a farmer with a bit of capital and aspiration into a merchant or a manufacturer. But knowledge of accounting was also very much a portable personal resource, hence particularly compatible with migration. In any event, it is by no means impossible that a clever 19-year old might have had such teaching, perhaps done enough accountancy for some local business or perhaps even a family enterprise to style himself an ‘accountant’ — and then emigrated, hoping to make a living for himself in the New World, with its lack of restrictions on ambition, its need for educated professionals and, in a place like Ohio, its absolute explosion of vibrant commercial activity. 

So if this youthful accountant were indeed William Gale Breene, it’s worth pointing out that his children all seem to have received a good education — the girls as well as the boys. One of his sons, Frank, became a lawyer, while two others, William and Charles, carried on with the family business. More surprisingly, two of his daughters, Mary and Carrie, became school teachers. One of them, Carrie, would teach English, history, Latin and public speaking at Dayton’s main secondary school. Some if not all these offspring would also be involved in Dayton’s various cultural institutions, as well as social and secret societies. One was to cherish his friendship with a then-famous poet and essayist. So I do think learning was something valued in the Breene household. Although I don’t come from a family of bookkeepers — my ancestors were mostly farmers or soldiers, sometimes both — perhaps the fact that my mother, grandmother, great aunt and great grandmother all enjoyed writing, and indeed wrote very well, perhaps owes at least a tiny something to the influence of William Gale Breene. 

The journey out

What was it like, William Gale Breene’s journey from his home in Ireland to his future in the United States? Here, we have little to go on other than the balance of probabilities — but that’s more than nothing.

On average, circa 1840, he was most likely to have embarked from Liverpool, rather than from Ireland directly, and then sailed to New York City, where family tradition seems to suggest that he finally landed. By 1840, there was simply so much steamship-based trade between Liverpool and New York that the cost of the journey had become affordable for all but the poorest cottiers, smallholders and labourers. 

Assuming that he was travelling alone, he was once again typical, because at that point, young, single men were by far the most likely to make such a journey. And he would probably only have made the journey in spring or summer, because ice was a real danger later in the year. 

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that he sailed on that cutting-edge technological innovation, the steam packet. If so, the journey west could have taken as little as nineteen days, although perhaps as much as a week or so more. If we assume he was relatively wealthy, then he would have travelled in a small, shared cabin, but at least not in the hold. Although his ticket out probably entitled him to a certain amount of basic sustenance per day — a few quarts of water, some bread or biscuit, flour, porridge oats to be cooked by the passengers on a grate, a little sugar or molasses, salt, bicarbonate of soda, and soap — he would have been encouraged to bring provisions of his own. These could have included herring, vinegar, cheese, potatoes and onions. He would also have had to bring his own equipment for cooking, eating, and sleeping, as well as a trunk with a lock in which to store them. He might also have been advised to bring with him items of woollen clothing, as these were assumed to be better and cheaper in Ireland than they would be in the US — a salient point for this future merchant tailor. 

It was only a decade or so later that penny pamphlets giving advice on these matters began to appear, but I expect that in Dublin or Liverpool, or even through his own family connections, Breene would have been able to rely on the experience of others who had made the journey before he did.

Because William Gale Breene was probably travelling in 1840 or thereabouts, and because he was possibly richer than some Irish emigrants, he may well have escaped the truly horrific experiences of those who followed a decade or so later, when the Great Famine was well underway, and proprietors of the so-called “coffin ships” packed unsafe numbers of malnourished passengers into dank holds, complete with inadequate food and water, unsanitary conditions and the actual likelihood of contagious diseases such as dysentery and typhus. Many people died on these journeys; others arrived gravely ill and didn’t recover. He may not have had to endure weeks of quarantine, at anchor but still trapped amongst the dead and the dying. He may not have had to endure the sheer humiliation of being treated as some of his fellow countrymen were to be treated, both during their voyages and indeed afterwards. 

But even if we assume a degree of privilege, Breene’s journey would still have held real danger. One can’t spend much time reading mid-century Irish, British or American regional newspapers without realising that shipwrecks could and did happen. Even well-run ships had issues with poor conditions, disease and malnutrition. There was little space for exercise, virtually no privacy, and no guarantee that one’s travelling companions would be remotely congenial. And then, of course, there might or might not have been homesickness, moments of intense self-doubt or regret — or indeed, as far as that goes, the odd surge of elation at cutting the ties that held him to a life he may not have enjoyed. There is quite a lot we cannot know about his journey, however we try to follow it in our minds. 

One more point: it is only by accident, the fact a Dayton newspaper made a sort of joke of it, that once he had arrived in Dayton, William Gale Breene used to return to New York City, and perhaps other places on the eastern seaboard, to scout out the latest fashion trends and, one assumes, to purchase cloth and carry out other business transactions. He never, as far as I know, returned to Ireland for a visit. 

This is worth noting, if only because other immigrants to the US sometimes did exactly this. My great grandfather Cornelius Gardener (1849-1921), for instance, was born in the Netherlands, emigrated with his father to the US in 1853 and made a career in the US Army, finally retiring with the rank of colonel. He visited the Netherlands at least once in his later years. 

Was William Gale Breene ever tempted? As far as that goes, did further members of his family ever emigrate, or others he knew from his childhood, and if so, did he ever meet with them? We don’t know the answer to this, but it interests me, because it might say something about how he felt about Ireland. Did he miss it, this place where he grew up, or was he glad to leave it behind him?

Naming of names

Let us return, though, to the even more challenging question of where in Ireland William Gale Breene started his life. Here, we have only a few hints to go on. The first is the family tradition that he came from Co. Clare or Co. Carlow. The second is his presbyterianism. The third is the importance he and his children seem to have attached to the surname “Gale”, which was his own middle name and which was also used by several descendants. And the fourth is the Breene name itself. 

We shall start with the last of these: the Breene name.

The surnames “Breene” and “Breen” are apparently both cognates of Brian / Brien / Bryan, which of course relate to O’Brien. People who enjoy mythic backstories will be pleased to learn that all these versions have at least a notional connection with the only partially mythic Brian Boru, sometime High King of Ireland who flourished 941 – 23 April 1014, about whom much has been written and more sung, and from whom the barons Inchiquin, still extant, trace their lineage. 

Although early modern people in Ireland as well as England could be very unfussy about their spellings, amongst literate people, at least, the Brian / Breen distinction seems to have been in place since perhaps the sixteenth century. And until fairly recently, Breens were concentrated in specific parts of the island of Ireland: Co. Wexford, Co. Clare and Co. Fermanagh in particular. This is clear from sources including Pender’s ‘Census’ of 1659 (which wasn’t a census, and also doesn’t cover all of Ireland in its surviving form), Griffith’s Valuation (1847-64), and later surviving actual census material.

Since there has never been any hint that William Gale Breene came from Co. Fermanagh, I propose to remove that option from consideration. 

Next, we need to turn to the point about the “Gale” surname. 

In Georgian and Regency Ireland, as in England, some couples who wished to be married preferred to do so by license, rather than the calling of banns — indeed, there was a degree of social snobbery around this, because it meant that the better sort didn’t have to have their business read out before everyone in their local parish church. At the same time, though, it appears that in some cases Presbyterians and Catholics, whose own church weddings were not invariably recognised by the state, might apply for a license to validate their marriages. Again, though, because there were costs associated with this, as well as administrative complexity, it was probably something more common amongst literate, relatively wealthy people than the poorest in Irish society. 

A (partial) index survives listing the names and dioceses of the couples receiving these licenses. Two are relevant to us here.

In 1833, Frances Breene married Patrick Byrne, and in 1836, James Gale Breene married Alice Redmond. Both these marriages took place in the Church of Ireland diocese of Ossory. This historic diocese, now folded into the larger diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, includes the present-day Co. Carlow but not, I think, any of Co. Wexford. (It is harder than one might think, by the way, to clarify this point.) 

Unfortunately, the actual registers to which this index relates were lost in the burning of the Public Record Office in 1922, so we cannot now discover crucial details such as where the individuals lived, their fathers’ names, any witnesses, etc. 

Separately, on 6 November 1835 John Sullivan married Jane Breene in an Anglican service at Dunleckney, Carlow. Could this have been William Gale Breene’s sister? He did, after all, name his first daughter Martha Jane Breene. 

And yet of all of these, it is the name “James Gale Breene” that stands out. 

William Gale Breene cared enough about the name “Gale” to bequeath it to two of his children as a middle name, one of whom, in turn, gave it to a son who gave it to his own son. The spelling of “Breene” is less common than the “Breen” variant, so that stands out, too. Finally, William Gale Breene gave the name “James” as a middle name to one of his own sons. So, taking his marriage date into account, might James Gale Breene have been a cousin, or even a brother, of William Gale Breene? Might Frances, as well as Jane, have been a sister? In any event, this striking combination of names is enough to make me fairly confident that William Gale Breene came from Co. Carlow, not Co. Clare.

Regarding the marriages above, specifically the marriage of Frances Breene to Patrick Byrne in 1833, it is irresistible, if perhaps irrelevant, to point out that one Patrick Byrne (c. 1782-1864) was a well-known Irish architect, perhaps most famous for his post-Emancipation Catholic churches. He married a woman named Mary, and in due course produced three sons, all architects. Could one of these sons have married Frances Breene? Of course Patrick Byrne is hardly an unusual name, but all the same, it’s a pleasing point to ponder. 

Of course, the name “Patrick Byrne” also raises a second set of questions — related to the United Irishmen, a sworn association set up in the wake of the French Revolution with the aim of securing a variety of egalitarian and republican goals. We shall have more to say about this in due course. For the moment, though, it’s worth observing the existence of a Byrne family — large, prominent and well-connected — who, as farmers and merchants, in Cos. Wexford, Wicklow, Queen’s County and nearby areas, were well-known United Irishmen and played a conspicuous role in the events of 1798.

The Gale connection

Let us think a bit more about the “Gale” name. In the early 19th century, including a surname as a middle name was typically a means of perpetuating a connection with another family — a maternal family of origin, a cherished relative, or even that of an esteemed godparent or other patron. 

One Gale who catches my eye is Francis Thomas Gale (1810-1857). He may been the son of the “Mr Gale” listed in Leet’s Directory of 1814 as living at Balinakill, Barnadunty, Queen’s County. In the 1830s a parliamentary select committee on fictitious votes listed, in an appendix, Francis Thomas Gale, gentleman, as the freehold owner of 7 Warrington Place, Dublin, a house rated at £10 in 1835. We shall assume he was not, per se, fictitious. The house, by the way, still exists, relatively unaltered since the 1830s, part of a series of neat terraces looking over the embanked Liffey. 

Other sources link Francis Thomas Gale with Violet Lodge, Dalkey, and also Barrowview House, Carlow, and say that he was the eldest son of Captain Anthony Gale of the 17th Foot, and that he died on 4 September 1857 at the age of 47 years. For what it’s worth, Barrowview House (now Millview House) also still exists, although it has fallen on very hard times, now looks out upon neither the Barrow nor any mill, and is completely hemmed in by rather charmless and unattractive neighbours; if Violet Lodge still survives in Dalkey, now a rather fashionable suburb of Dublin over-populated with minor celebrities, its name has been changed. Might Francis Thomas Gale have been William Gale Breene’s mother’s brother?

There were certainly at least three middle class (to use a mild anachronism) Breens / Breenes connected with Dublin in the late 18th and early 19th century period.

The most extraordinary of these was John Edward Breen(e) who appears in all sorts of directories as a merchant living in St Swithin’s Lane, Lombard Street, London until his death in 1805. This sounds rather prosaic, until one reads the title of the 28-page sale catalogue from his estate, which is worth quoting at length: 

A catalogue of the superlative collection of cabinet pictures and miniatures, beautiful Roman missals, most superbly illuminated, a few bronzes, carvings in ivory, specimens of stained glass from the earliest periods of the art, drawings, books of prints and port folios, a beautiful impression Macklin’s Bible and a small library of books : the property of, and selected with equal taste and judgment by, the late John Edward Breen, Esq., deceased, of Swithin’s Lane, Lombard Street : which will be peremptorily sold by auction, by Mess. Skinner, Dyke, & Co. on Tuesday the 28th of May, 1805, and four following days, at twelve o’clock, at the Great Room, No. 25, Conduit Street, Hanover Square, near Bond Street, by order of the executors and trustees : among the pictures are a cabinet jewel of a Virgin and Child by Raphael : a Head of the Virgin by Carlo Dolci, from Lord Godophin’s collection : the Virgin Child, St John and Angel by L. D’Vinci […] the Adoration of the Magi by N. Poussin : a portrait by Denner […] : the Marriage of St. Catharine by Titian : the Birth of Adonis by Albano […] : cabinet landscape by Claude : a ditto by Wynants, and many others, in the most perfect preservation, by the following esteemed Masters : Correggio, P. Cortona, Solimena, Sal Rosa, Carracci, Guido, Rubens, Vandyck, Van Huysum, Phillippo Laura, Teniers, Claude, Paul Brill, Poelemburgh, Ostade, Wouvermans, Vanderwerff, T. Mieris, G. Douw, Pynaker, Breughel, &c. : in the collection of miniatures are the works of Petitot, Zinck, Cooper, Oliver, Hoskins, Hilliard, Holbein, Rosalba, &c.

John Edward Breen was, in other words, an art dealer, and a serious one, too. Despite his London address, he was apparently Irish, as his will (now, in a familiar refrain, sadly lost) was filed within the Irish courts. Indeed, it’s conceivable that he was the “Jo. Edward Breene” who was baptised at the Roman Catholic church of St Andrew’s, Westland Row, Dublin in 1758, with his father listed as “Gualt” (Walter), his mother “Brig” (Bridget) and one of the sponsors being Margaret Redmond. In other words, he may have been a Roman Catholic. Yet one of the few other things I’ve learned about him is that he was also a Freemason. 

I would like to learn more about John Edward Breen; in time, perhaps, I shall. Could he have had any connection with “my” Breenes? It’s unfortunate that his will, which might have clarified this, doesn’t survive, that the name “John” isn’t distinctive, and that his life is so badly documented. Still, William Gale Breene clearly cared about appearances. At a time when photography was novel enough to be exciting but also accessible enough to be possible, he carefully commissioned actual painted portraits (not bad ones, either) of himself and his wife. Two of his daughters were known patrons of the visual arts in Dayton. His great granddaughter (my grandmother) and his twice-great granddaughter (my mother) both had quite remarkable artistic abilities. There is a strong strand of enthusiasm for the visual arts that seems to run down that side of my family tree. Does it have its roots with this shadowy Breen who traded in Raphaels and Titians in those exciting years when the convulsions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era did so much to enliven the fortunes of London salerooms and art collections?

Next, we move back to Dublin. In 1811 came the arrest and trial of a group of alleged delegates to a Catholic Committee, a grouping connected with the legacy of the United Irishmen of 1798. The names of those on trial included H. E. Taafe, T. Kirwan, E. Sheridan, Dr J. J. Burke, and Dr John Breene. Dr John Breene, who I think worked at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin — a maternity hospital — shows up in other records, too. In any event, witnesses testified that Dr Breene had not been present at the event in question, and in due course the entire prosecution was abandoned, although not before the accused had all counter-sued for damages. These men were incidentally, explicitly Roman Catholics, but also consistently described as gentlemen. 

Finally, Pettigrew & Oulton’s Dublin Almanack & General Register Of Ireland of 1839 includes, in a list of lawyers, one Luke J. Breene living at Cavendish Row, Dublin — oddly, right next to the Rotunda Hospital. I have no idea what his religion was, but Langrishe’s Catholic Relief Act, passed on the 18th of April 1792, had enabled Catholics to practice law, so by that point Catholicism would not have been an impediment to a legal career. 

The point about these three men is that they were all, in some sense, part of the mercantile, professional or minor gentry class of early 19th century Dublin, which also seems to have been the circles in which at least one relevant Gale was moving. 

The Gales, though, also have direct links with Co. Carlow. 

In particular, there was an estate at Ashfield, Arles, just over the border from Co. Carlow into Queen’s County (Co. Laois), that had belonged to the Gale family since Cromwell’s time, with offspring who married into other local families. In this context, I am particularly interested in the families of Captain Thomas Gale and his brother William Gale, both of Valleyfield, Ballyroan, Queen’s County. William was born c 1778 and had started off on a promising military career before suddenly developing an eye inflammation on a march between Norwich and Colchester that caused him to go blind in 1802, at the age of 24 years. Discharged with the rank of captain, he married twice, and the name of his second wife is unknown. His second son, William H. Gale (1806-1870) was a school teacher and scripture reader who lived in Borris, Co. Carlow. On behalf of the Irish Church Missionary Society, he would travel to predominantly Catholic areas where he would preach and distribute anti-Catholic tracts. This approach did not, admittedly, always go down very well. In 1853 the “Banner of Ulster” reported that two scripture readers of Borris were pelted with mud by a large crowd of furious Catholic women and children in Graiguenamanna. In any event, by about 1856, the Ballyroan properties were being sold off, breaking the longstanding Gale family connection with this area. 

This may sound like a pointless digression, but let’s consider again the little we actually know about William Gale Breene. In his 20s, he had a commitment to funding a project connected with protestant evangelism, albeit in Africa. He seems to have been a Presbyterian. And two of his own children became school teachers. So it’s conceivable that William Gale Breene may have been given his middle name to assert a connection with the Gales of Ballyroan, and indeed that William H Gale may have been some sort of influence on his early life in Ireland. 

And then, admittedly at the more colourful end of the spectrum, there is Lt Col Anthony Gale, born in Dublin (1761 or possibly 1782) but undoubtedly connected with the Gales of Queen’s County — I think he must have been a first cousin of William Gale of Ballyroan — who became the fourth commandant of the US Marines, was court-martialled for a rich variety of offences including blasphemy and visiting a brothel, became increasingly drink-sodden and mentally ill, lived for a while just north of Philadelphia before, in the 1830s, moving to Kentucky, where he died in 1843 and is buried in an unmarked grave. To their immense credit, the US Marines have erected a monument to their slightly problematic former comrade in Stanford, Kentucky, which they continue to dress with a wreath every year. I don’t think that William Gale Breene was closely related to Lt Col Anthony Gale, but there may have been some more distant connection, at least in the sense that William Gale Breene may have been aware of his story. Also, it links the Gale family with Philadelphia, which may be where William Gale Breene met Margaret Jernee, as well as with Kentucky, which is not all that far from Dayton, Ohio. 

“William” and “Francis” are both frequent names amongst these Queen’s County / Co. Carlow Gales. And at least some of these Gales were Presbyterians.

This may be important. As we have seen, by the time he first appears in the records in the mid 1840s, William Gale Breene was associating himself with Presbyterianism. His eldest two children who lived past infancy were christened in a Presbyterian church. Most of his adult children seem to have identified as Presbyterians. And yet the first thing we know about his wife, Margaret Jernee, identifies her as a Methodist. By the time the young couple arrived in Dayton, there was already a profusion of Christian denominations operating there, including Methodists, Episcopalians and indeed Roman Catholics. So when they had their children William and Jennie christened as Presbyterians, they were surely making a conscious choice. As Margaret’s first allegiance had been to Methodism, it’s hard to avoid thinking that the preference for Presbyterianism was something that came from William Gale Breene himself. So let us stop for a moment to consider the experience of Presbyterians in pre-Great Famine Ireland.

I would dearly like to know more about the religion of the Breenes.

Breene / Breen / Brian / Bryan / Brien /  O’Brien / MacBrien are all, ultimately, Irish names. So there was a point at which my Breene ancestors were Catholic, and then later a point where they were Presbyterians. When did that transition occur, and where, and why? Plantation had brought evangelical protestants to Ireland from 1610 onward, and apparently some Catholics converted to protestantism, for a variety of reasons, some spiritual and some extremely worldly, all the way through to the middle of the eighteenth century, after which conversion became much less common. Marriage seems to have been a particularly frequent occasion for conversion to protestantism, although inheritance laws favouring protestant converts within Catholic families was another. 

Presbyterianism had come to Ireland in the early 17th century through the Plantation of Ulster, and then through subsequent immigration on the part of Presbyterian Scots. At times discouraged by the established church, and at other times grudgingly accepted, the Toleration Act of 1719 finally gave it legal status. Yet Presbyterians were still affected by legal disabilities, and also of course expected to pay tithes to the established church.

Irish Presbyterians found their prospects limited in a manner not wholly unlike their Roman Catholic neighbours. Between 1710 and 1775, a startling 200,000 of them emigrated to the North American colonies. And although many of these came from Ulster, there were certainly Presbyterians in other parts of Ireland.  In 1818, for instance, Carlow’s Presbyterian congregation was sufficiently vibrant to be able to fund and build quite a striking-looking if rather compact new chapel, still extant and in use today. The United Irishmen drew on the Presbyterians’ irksome sense of political and religious inequality, as well as the republican and egalitarian language of the American and French revolutions. They recruited from masonic lodges, too, and learned something about the organisation of secret societies from masonic practice. 

While the United Irishmen’s attempted insurrections in 1798 et al were at least in the short term strikingly unsuccessful, they helped to create a climate of distrust, instability and repression that must have coloured the experiences of most of the older people amongst whom the young William Gale Breene, born in 1820, grew to maturity. So if the young William did, indeed, start his life in a Presbyterian household in 1820s Co. Carlow, it is surely more probable than otherwise that  he had views of some sort, accurate or otherwise, about the events of 1798 — at possible that he felt his prospects in Ireland relatively limited, and that he would have viewed the United States, at least in in mythic terms, as a potential beacon of liberty, equality and opportunity. Many United Irishmen, Catholics and Presbyterians both, had ended up making their way to America in the wake of 1798, sometimes fleeing, sometimes as a commutation of a serious criminal sentence, and while this would have happened before young William was born, it can only have increased the likelihood that his family knew people who had emigrated, and perhaps had heard from them about the potential that places like New York or Philadelphia might offer.

At the same time, the Act of Union (1801), by shifting political power from the Irish Parliament to Westminster, had the effect of driving Ireland’s protestant landowners into a permanent condition of political minority, a situation only exacerbated by the repeal of the Test Act (1828). So, conversely, if William Gale Breene’s family had sided with his Tory, Anglican neighbours in these conflicts, in a sense he’d have come to the same conclusion — that his prospects at home were narrowing, that conflict was inevitable, and that opportunities might be more inspiring somewhere, perhaps anywhere else. 

Finally, the Act of Union, while it opened British markets to Irish imports, also meant that Ireland was suddenly flooded with cheap exports from a more highly industrialised Britain — at the same time that land values in Ireland were falling, estate rentals declining too, and all awhile, the Irish population continued to grow. Co. Carlow, with its easy access to Dublin, its relative wealth and its lack of dependence on potatoes as a staple crop, would escape the very worst effects of the Great Famine that took place less than a decade after Breene left the land of his birth. All the same, the 1840s and 1850s were not a happy time to be in Ireland, in Co. Carlow or anywhere else. Whatever his motivation for leaving, it is hard to deny that Breene probably made a good decision by booking his passage west, to the New World and a new life. 

Still more about the Breenes

Based on what I’ve written above, I don’t doubt that William Gale Breene grew up in Co. Carlow, as he seems to have told his at least some of his descendants. But I wonder whether in the slightly longer term his family actually came from just over the border in Co. Wexford?

The Survey of Ireland, a flawed intelligence report dating in parts from the late 16th century and in parts from 1602, had something to say about Breens, placing them in Co. Meath, which is some way north of Co. Carlow or indeed Co. Wexford:

Methe. —The province of Meathe in Ireland hath in it two counties. Meathe, as well inhabited as any shire in England, hath in it these great towns: Trime, Navante, Abbay, Demy (Derry?), Drodawghe, Kelles. Principal noblemen and gentlemen: Viscount Gormanson (Preston); Baron of Trimleston (Barnewell); Lord Killyn (Plunkett); Bannerett, Navant (Nangle); Bannerett, Scryne (Nugent); other infinite surnames; Lord Dunsanye, Hussey, Plunkett, Delahide. Irish crept in: Duffes, Gilshenans, Cawlans, Breens, but have no lands, but followers. Breines follow Betaghe of Moinote; Duffes and Gilshenans follow the Lord of Slane. West Methe hath these towns: Noble, Molengar, Loghsedie, Alone. [Men of name:] Baron Delvyn (Nugent), Nugents, Tutes, Dillons, Daltons, Petits, Darcye, Tirrell. At this time Richard Nugent, son of Mr. Nugent, brother to my Lord of Delvyn, in rebellion; he hath 40, with few properly his own. Both these counties of East and West Methe are infested by these Irish sects, viz., O’Mulloy, of Farcall, King’s County; Magohigan, the Fox, King’s County; O’Molaghelin; McCohelan, King’s County, with the State; O’Brian, of the Breane, with the State; McGall. The Dalahides, allied with the Connors, and enemies to the patentees of such lands as they heretofore lost by rebellion; they are with Walter Yongerle in rebellion.

This demonstrates something about the fluidity of names, especially when the writer was a late Tudor Englishman, but also about how the Breens were regarded: not a terribly important family, followers of “Betaghe of Moinote” rather than critical figures in their own right — Irish, to be sure, but in at least once instance, “with the State”. 

Let move forward, focusing on Wexford, past the Confederate Wars and the Cromwellian interlude. 

In 1661, William Breene of “Bologeneagh” made his will. Unfortunately, due to the burning of the Four Courts in 1922 — yes, that again— this index entry now seems to be the only evidence for his existence. “Bologeneagh” is probably a transcription variant for Bolacaheer, Ballyanne, Bantry, Wexford. (Confusingly, there are two “Bolacaheers” in Co. Wexford, the other one near Ferns.) The Irish is Buaile Chathaoir, which apparently means “Charles’s cattle fold”. The Down Survey of Ireland (1650s) suggests that this townland was, both in 1641 and 1670, unforfeited land, held by a protestant. Annoyingly, the fact the landowner was a protestant seems to mean that less was recorded about it than about some surrounding areas, purely because it didn’t change hands between earlier Catholic owners and protestant soldiers or new recipients of government land grants. 

Bolacaheer seems to be rather flat, pleasant farmland, not a great distance from the River Barrow, which would have connected it with New Ross and the sea going south, but also Carlow to the north. The reason I point this out is because it illustrates one way in which the Breen / Breene name may have spread. On a similar note, the Hearth Money Rolls for 1662 record Dermot Breene in Burnchurch, and William Breene in Goslingstown, Castleinch, both near each other in Co. Kilkenny, to the west of Kilkenny itself. 

In 1699, Patrick Breene, gent. of Ballygillane, Co. Wexford was included on a list of Jacobites outlawed on charges of treason. 

For a while, then, Co. Wexford was definitely the strongest base for the “Breene” version of the name. Griffin’s Valuation (1847-1864) includes four entries for a William Breene (correct spelling of surname) from Co. Wexford — Ballygary, Kilrane; Bargy Commons, Kilmannan; and two from St Mary’s, New Ross (Pondfields and New Ross) —but none at all from Co. Carlow or Co. Kilkenny. Looking at Griffin’s Valuation more generally, the incidence of ‘Breene’ is conspicuously high in Co. Wexford, with first names including John, James, Mary, Michael, Moses, Patrick, Thomas and William. (As I’ve mentioned, the other place where there are a lot of Breenes is Co. Fermanagh, but again, I’ve seen no evidence that William Gale Breene came from Ulster.) 

Writing perhaps a trifle optimistically about Wexford circa 1890, George Griffiths listed the Breens amongst the original inhabitants of that much-settled county: 

We believe that the lands of the greater portion of the County Wexford were confiscated no less than three or four times. From the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Forfeited Estates in Ireland in 1699, we learn that at that time alone there were 55,882 acres of land in this county confiscated. Bearing this in mind, is it not wonderful to find at the present day, that the descendants of the first Invaders are still located in the places of their first settlement — the Furlongs, Waddings, Prendergasts, Hays, Barrys and Walshes, and side by side with them now dwell in peace the Kavanaghs, Murphys, Connors, Byrnes, O’Tooles and Breens, whose ancestors so long and so fiercely disputed the intrusion of these strangers amongst them. With what love and veneration they must have held on, through so many changes, to the place of their nativity — the land that gave them birth — for we find not only the Surnames, but even the very Christian names of the ancient invaders, seated round the castles where their ancestors once held sway, and were looked up to as the rulers or lord of the districts. 

As we have seen, however, at least one Breene was already a protestant by the 1640s, and held his land through to 1660. So the point here is that nothing in this story is remotely simple. Individuals and families could and did convert from one Christian denomination to another, with varying degrees of coercion, zeal or cynicism. 

A digression: three tales of the Wexford Breenes

There is much more to be said on the subject of the Wexford Breenes — so much so, that I plan to say some of it elsewhere, in a separate essay. Here, three stories will suffice.

The first is an odd tale from Clone near Monamolin, in Co. Wexford, just to the southeast of Co. Carlow, on the other side of the river Slaney. On Wednesday 21 September 1808, two bailiffs from Enniscorthy appeared at Clone for the purpose of executing a warrant against “J. Breene and sons” of Clone, “for forcibly drawing corn, not their own property, from off a nearby farm”. This did not end well.

Upon coming into the field where Breen and his sons were at work, they desired them to surrender — and, on refusal, one of the bailiffs discharged a musket at old Breene, and shot him dead on the spot. The eldest son, on seeing his father killed, surrendered himself. — The deceased bore the character of being an inoffensive, industrious, honest man; his death is much regretted by all his neighbours.

These, then, were farming Breenes, although presumably they leased the land they farmed rather than owning it outright. The fact that his death doesn’t show up in existing parish registers — despite, for instance, the recorded death of one Guilielmus Breen, a Roman Catholic, at New Ross on 25 September 1808 — makes me wonder whether he and his family might have been protestants. 

The next two stories have to do with a Breen family who lived right to the south of Co. Wexford, in the parish of Hook, a long thin strip of land reaching down alongside the outflow of the River Barrow and culminating in the Hook lighthouse. Here, the principal landowner had for some time been the Loftus / Tottenham family, latterly Marquesses of Ely, for whom the Breens were principal tenants. Or to put it another way, although they were tenants, they were prosperous enough to be regarded as minor gentry in their own right. We can see that in 1798, they must have sided against the United Irishmen, as three members of the family claimed compensation afterwards — Walter Breen of Slade in the parish of Hook claiming a quite remarkable £648 4s 4d. for the loss of cattle and a gun, which implies he had rather a lot of cattle. The Breens of Hook parish appeared in the newspapers on at least two occasions, at least one of which must surely have attracted the notice of William Gale Breene, as it’s literally inconceivable that his family, friends and neighbours didn’t gossip about it.

The first time these Breens achieved international notice was in April 1822, when the Waterford Mirror ran a story — quickly picked up by newspaper not only in Ireland, England and Scotland but in the US as well — announcing the wreck of two ships, the bark Esther of Liverpool and the Sandwich Packet, which were lost in a storm near Hook Light. (The location, at the end of a long thin promontory at the lower right hand corner of Ireland, would have been familiar to anyone who was familiar with sailing routes between Liverpool or Dublin and the US.) The Esther, sailing from Charleston, South Carolina to Liverpool, loaded with cotton and rice, lost eight men, while the Sandwich lost her entire crew. 

Up to last night, nine bodies had been found, chiefly belonging to the packet’s crew. They are deposited in a house of Breen’s, of Slade, and it is probable some of them may be claimed by their friends: if not, all will be buried early tomorrow morning.

Slade must have been a place where both cargo and corpses washed ashore with relative frequency, but all the same, the picture it conjures up, of a farmhouse being turned into an impromptu mortuary, is a grim one.

Worse was to come.

In late August of 1833, the “respectable widow” of the late Walter Breen (presumably the daughter-in-law of the Walter Breen mentioned above) was living at Slade, along with her three daughters and two sons, the elder of whom — now aged 16 years — had just finished at boarding school in New Ross (probably the John Ivory School, where boarding fees ran to £30 per annum) and had come home to help his mother run the family farm.

(A brief aside: the widowed Mrs Breen was said to have lived “at Loftus Hall”, by which I assume those writing about her meant on a farm that was part of the Loftus Hall estate, owned at the time by John Loftus, 2nd Marquess of Ely (1770-1845), who had succeeded in 1806. Looking at a house valuation book for the parishes of Hook and Fethard, dated 1845, however, I can’t see any property that was managed directly by the Loftus family rather than being rented out. Is it conceivable that the Breens were living in the old Loftus Hall during a period when it was run down and perhaps unwanted, before its major reconstruction in the 1870s? The old Loftus Hall, which had been Redmond Hall previously, was much smaller than its successor, and by the 1830s would have been extremely unfashionable — as well as famously haunted. But that’s another story.)

Let us return to the story of the widowed Mrs Breen, her son and her manservant. “Master Walter”, a “fine promising youth”, seems to have taken exception to the relationship between Peggy Barron, a maidservant, and Martin Bryan, a manservant who had spent the past seven or eight years helping his mother manage her affairs, the farm included. Accordingly, Peggy was dismissed and Martin left too, although he seems to have come back regularly, possibly looking for casual work, or just sleeping in the barn.

One morning at 4 am, another maidservant, Mary Mason, met Martin at the kitchen door. He asked her whether Walter was about. Mary said that he wasn’t up yet, and went out to fetch some water, leaving Martin alone. When she returned, she met Martin putting on his shoes and leaving the house, obviously in a hurry. A short time later, she heard “Master John”, the younger brother, aged about 13 years — incidentally, almost exactly William Gale Breene’s age — calling from the top of the stairs. 

When Mary finally came up to him, she discovered the reason for his distress. Walter, lying in the bed the boys shared, was covered with blood, evidently dying. Mary tried to prevent Mrs Breene coming into the room, but the unhappy widow arrived just in time to see her firstborn draw his last breath. At first, the family apparently believed that Walter had experienced a burst blood vessel in the head. They sent for Dr Hewetson of Fethard Castle in the next village, a young doctor who would sadly himself die the very next year, who seems to have been the first to understand that a murder had taken place. 

Later, the papers — for the story of this “horrid murder” was covered throughout the UK — got the idea, somehow, that the weapon had been a small sharp tool used by slaters, driven two and a half inches into the victim’s brain, although the subsequent coroner’s inquest finally settled on an axe handle, picked up opportunistically in a nearby room, as the more likely option. Young John, it seems, had seen a figure enter the room, but hadn’t said anything, and had gone back to sleep, later seeing the figure leave carrying something in his hands. 

Mary, meanwhile, went out to the dairy, where she encountered Martin, who asked her for a drink. She had a short conversation with him, asking him if he’d been upstairs with Walter. Martin denied this. By now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Martin then went to a field where some local men were doing farm work, and told them that “Master Walter” had taken ill, and he was off to find a doctor. He was afterwards met by a man near Ballyhack, whom he asked whether he would be in time for the next passage boat.

Soon afterwards, a search was underway. Captain Barry of Arthurstown, his son Thomas Barry, and a party of police first traced Martin to the islands near Ballinlaw, then to some huts and hiding places along the banks of the river, and then as far away as Waterford. By the afternoon of the next day, the search party had actually given up and were returning, when at the village of Ferryback, they saw a group of people staring over a wall. The object of fascination turned out to be Martin Bryan himself. He had apparently consumed ten glasses of whiskey that morning, and was passed out under a hay rick. He was arrested on the spot, and taken to Wexford gaol.

On the way, Martin begged Captain Barry not to make him pass the place where his mother and sister lived. Captain Barry granted this request, but nonetheless, they ended up passing Martin’s mother and sister on the road. Martin asked them, tearfully, to pray for him.

The newspapers gave an unflattering description of the accused murderer:

He is described to us as about thirty years of age, rather above middle stature, slight make, a most austere and repulsive countenance, and his eyes sunken, but the eyeballs greatly protruding. 

Meanwhile, after the coroner’s inquest, Walter could finally be buried.

On Thursday evening, after the investigation by the Magistrates, this sad and melancholy ceremony took place — the procession, consisting of all the neighbouring respectability four miles round, with vast numbers of the poorer people, moved from the dwelling about five o’clock. The coffin being placed in a hearse, he was taken to Taghmon, a distance of seventeen miles from the awful scene, and amidst the deep and solemn grief of the vast multitude. The frenzied state of the broken-hearted mother beggars description.

Why Taghmon as opposed to Hook or Fethard? I suspect his mother, the widow Breen, must have had family there.

The trial, when it happened in March 1834, did not take very long. Mary the maidservant and Captain Barry both gave evidence. The jury didn’t even bother to leave the box before returning their verdict. The only glitch came when Martin’s lawyer, noting that the only evidence for the accused’s guilt, other than circumstantial factors, was his confession, questioned whether a local Catholic priest, Rev. Mr O’Flaherty, had been responsible for offering inducements for the accused to confess. It was true that Martin had asked to see Rev. Mr O’Flaherty, had spoken with him privately, and after that, Rev. Mr O’Flaherty had announced to Captain Barry that Martin was ready to explain what had happened. The presiding magistrate found this interesting, so execution of the sentence was delayed for a week or two on that point of law. 

Rev. Mr O’Flaherty, by the way, who was quite elderly, would die in 1835, aged 73 years. In 1808, he is recorded as having fulminated from the pulpit against local people who had burned down a neighbouring farm, and to have done his best to help discover who was responsible. He obviously had a positive working relationship with local law enforcement officials.

In early May, 1834, Martin Bryant was hanged not far from the scene of the murder. The motive, according to the papers, was Martin’s thwarted relationship with Peggy Barron, the dismissed maidservant, and his consequent anger at Walter Breen.

What are we to make of this? It’s a strange case that raises more questions than it answers. I plan to write a bit more about it in due course.

In summary, though, how was it that a ‘slight’ man, armed only with an axe handle that he had happened upon randomly, managed to kill, with a blow or two, a healthy sixteen-year old boy, while his thirteen-year old brother slept on inches away, and while the boy’s mother and three sisters were also present in what cannot have been an enormous house? Why were the family so quick to mis-diagnose a massive head-wound caused by an axe-handle as a burst blood-vessel? Why did no one, except perhaps Mary, think to apprehend Martin until long after he’d had a more than ample chance to get away — and indeed was eventually apprehended more by accident than anything else?

The answer, of course, is that we will never know. If this were a novel or an opera libretto, one might well wonder whether, over the course of seven or eight years of working closely together, in a household with several young children and few if any other adults, the “very respectable” widow Breen and her manservant might have developed a relationship even more transgressive than Martin’s putative relationship with Peggy; whether the return of an intelligent and perceptive 16 year old son to the household had disrupted this comfortable arrangement; whether when Martin took off his shoes to sneak upstairs to the rooms where the family slept, his intended purpose was something other than an attempt to murder Walter; whether Walter might have seen something or interrupted something; whether, at that moment, Martin did something that both he and the widow Breen would bitterly regret as long as they lived; and also whether, consciously or otherwise, there was some willingness in the family to let Martin escape, if only so he wouldn’t have to be questioned about the matter in an open court. “The frenzied state of the broken-hearted mother beggars description.” 

But what, we are left wondering, did Martin actually say to Rev. Mr O’Flaherty?

Hunting in pinks

Finally, let us review once more that strange decontextualised fragment of family memory: the claim that William Gale Breene, or at least his relations, had ‘hunted in pinks’. Can this have been true? If so, does it tell us anything further about him?

‘Pinks’, of course, are the scarlet coats traditionally worn by at least some mounted fox-hunts. Although it’s commonly believed that the term dates only from late Victorian times, and the existence of a putative tailor named “Mr Pink”, this in fact isn’t true. 

As early as 1834, Benjamin Disraeli was able to write to his sister “Although not in pink, [I] was the best mounted man in the field” — and there are plenty more references around this date. The origins of the word are unknown, but one of its functions was, surely, the way in which its bracingly counter-intuitive quality — rather like calling a white horse a “grey” — helped identify one specific tribe of people — the hunting set and those who knew them well — from ordinary mortals. Breene, as a gentleman’s tailor, would have been well-versed in the specific language of high-status men’s clothing, fabric and design, and probably enjoyed using such language to impress clients and others with his expertise.

But Breene may also have been making another sort of point here. Let’s assume, for the reasons given above, that he had grown up in Co. Carlow. Foxhunting in in eighteenth century Ireland basically mirrored aristocratic and gentry practice in England, to which the landowning families remained connected through ancestry, marriage, professional and political ties. The period from 1820-1840, Breene’s youth and early adulthood, was precisely the period when small, private packs of hounds, hunted by local landowners, were beginning to consolidate into larger, county hunts. The stories of these smaller packs are, necessarily, obscure; they led a fragile existence, coming into being then being sold off again when the owner died or lost interest or, very frequently, ran out of money. Their activities are largely undocumented. Yet there was a period where they must have loomed very large indeed in the social life of a place like Co. Carlow, with its pretty rolling countryside, superabundant small landed estates and relative wealth. 

Is it plausible, though, that someone who went on to be a mere merchant tailor — not obviously from a family of any consequence, certainly not major landowners— would have ended up hunting with hounds? I have thought about this long and hard, and on reflection, I think my ancestor may have been telling at least a version of the truth. In his highly entertaining History of Foxhunting, Roger Longrigg quotes the granddaughter of Thomas Somerville of Drishane as writing the following about her ancestor, a landowner with an attractive country house who, in the mid nineteenth century, still hunted a private pack of hounds:

How many Anglo-Irish great-great-grandfathers have not raised these monuments to their English forebears — and the, recognising their obligations to their Irish mothers’ ancestry, have filled them, gloriously, with horses and hounds, and butts of claret, and hungry poor relations unto the fourth and fifth generations?

In other words, participation in these hunts operated within a spectrum, and entailed what was, even at the time, rather an old-fashioned version of extended social patronage. There were those who turned up mounted and could ride to the hounds; there were probably followers; there may have been those who enjoyed the meets and perhaps the whole atmosphere of the chase without necessarily taking part. 

Say, for the sake of argument, that William Gale Breene grew up in a family that, while not spectacularly wealthy or important, was able to mix socially with other local landowners and minor gentry. In Co. Carlow, these might have included, for instance, members of the Gale family. We cannot know whether this was something he had seen and done often, or only rarely. We can’t know whether he ever rode to the hounds himself, or merely, as many have done before and since, rejoiced in the spectacle and the conspicuously generous, convivial hospitality. 

Once again, a lack of evidence throws us back on imaginative sympathy of the sort that is no longer a respectable fellow-traveller of history. Did he hunt with John Watson’s famous Ballydarton, which for a while, from 1822, became the Tullow, a subscription hunt, before, in 1826, reverting to being a private hunt again? If he actually took part, did he borrow someone else’s coat or did he have his own? Did he ride at all well? And did he hunt often, or — in the way of important events experienced in youth but remembered decades later — did one or two meets grow, in the kind rosy glow of hindsight, into a sort of perpetual whirl of bloodstock and gorse and the music of the hounds? 

And when, in faraway Dayton, William Gale Breene spoke of hunting in pinks, what did his family, friends, neighbours and customers make of it? Would they have had any understanding at all of what he meant? 

The answer to this is perhaps surprising: yes, some of them would have understood very well what he meant, and have appreciated it, and perhaps have had some sort of broadly similar experience themselves.

Foxhunting had, after all, existed in Tidewater Virginia since the early 18th century, which is more or less contemporary with its development in England — purely for the reason that the people doing the hunting in these two places were neither culturally nor socially distinct, many of them travelled back and forth from one country to the other, and there was enough wealth around to encourage those who wished to adopt the latest fashions and practices. The first throughbred stallion arrived in 1730. Hounds were imported too, as were huntsmen to manage them. Sometimes, even the red foxes had to be imported, as the American grey fox was in many ways less satisfactory as quarry. In the social circles in which Washington, Jefferson and their colleagues moved, sporting events could last for weeks, attracting visitors from all around the nearby country, everyone immaculately dressed and mounted, and ladies joining the men too. If the hunts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maryland around this time were slightly less lavishly-funded and glamorous than the smartest Virginian hunts, they were not materially different from much of what took place in the English shires at the same time. 

In time, as British and Irish settlers moved west, so did fox hunting. In rough, mountainous terrain, in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, the practice of hunting perhaps inevitably evolved — but those doing the hunting were entirely conscious that this was the case, and enjoyed the variety of nighttime, high ground ‘fox races’. Different strains of hounds mixed well-known imports from England and Ireland with more demotic local offerings — but sometimes the resulting breed lines worked very well. The US cavalry had officers who were sufficiently interested in mounted hunting with hounds to establish, soon after arriving in distant and unpromising Oklahoma, the first US hunt of purely military origin. Meanwhile in a well-connected state like Ohio, those who were interested in these things could read books and news reports, look at prints, and generally measure for themselves the difference between the hunting with hounds which they experienced themselves, and the more formal, ‘technical’, elegant form of hunting that took place in locations farther East. 

If it was against this background that William Gale Breene mentioned his own hunting experience, who could blame him? 

But there was quite possibly a degree of social snobbery there too. In Ireland in the 1840s, long before the days of Land League saboteurs, there had been those who had seen foxhunting, organised by those who lived in big houses, owned vast swathes of land and had plenty of surplus income (or credit), as a blatantly offensive gesture of Ascendency privilege, all the more so as economic and demographic circumstances deteriorated. The joyous act of riding over tenanted land, where the hounds killed poultry and did all sorts of other damage, could seem like a metaphor for something far worse. Like everything in early nineteenth century Ireland, even the more comfortable parts of it like Co. Carlow, foxhunting had a definite political cast to it, requiring people to take sides. And so, once the Great Famine had ensured that the stereotypical Irish immigrant to America was poor, Roman Catholic, and as such, subject to abuse and discrimination, that claim to hunting in pinks carried, if anything, extra weight. 

Endings and beginnings

Back in Dayton, Ohio, presumably in the family home in leafy Superior Street, Margaret Breene died on 7 November 1895, at the age of something like 73 years. William Gale Breene only survived his wife by about three months, dying on 6 February 1896, at the age of about 76 years. They are buried together in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, along with their firstborn son Francis who had died back in 1847 — almost half a century before — and with many of their family nearby. 

What happened to their children?

As we have seen, Francis M. Breene (1844-1847), their eldest child, died as a toddler. His death may well have been the result of a massive typhus epidemic that affected the USA in 1847 — an epidemic sometimes blamed, then and even now, on Irish immigration.

Martha Jane Breene (1846-1918) — “Jennie” — as we have also seen, married Joseph T. Patton, a young former captain in the Union army. The couple moved to Detroit, Michigan where Jennie gave birth to two girls, the elder of whom was my own great grandmother. Jennie died at the age of 72 years. I have seen a photo of her, although I don’t have a copy myself. I think she may have had quite a comfortable, happy life. My own grandmother was named “Martha”, presumably in her honour, and as my middle name is “Martha”, this is a bond that links us all. 

The Breenes’ eldest surviving son, William H. Breene (1848-1901) initially carried on with the family business in Dayton along with his younger brother Charley. 

The later history of Breene’s business is somewhat difficult to untangle. In July 1883, by which time William Gale Breene would have been 63 years old, the Dayton Herald ran the following announcement: 

The merchant tailoring firm of Breene Bros is this day dissolved, WH Breene retiring. The business will hereafter be carried on at the old stand by Charles LG Breene and Frank C Stetler under the firm name of Breene & Stetler. Parties indebted to Breene Bros. will please come and settle. 

Looking only at newspaper references, it seems that slightly later, in October 1883, the firm was trading as Breene & Weber. In 1886 it was Breene & Ohmer. By 1887, however, the brand was once again Breene’s. 

But the anonymous, printed history of Montgomery County, Ohio to which I’ve made reference several times before tells a different story. In writing about Henry Hollencamp, the Dayton-born son of an immigrant from Hannover who ended up as a successful local businessman, it reports:

In 1873, when but twenty-two years, [Henry Hollencamp] embarked in business on his own account as the successor of the firm of Toban & Breene, who in turn had purchased the business of William Breene — one of the oldest established merchant tailoring houses in the city, forming the partnership of Edelman & Hollencamp, but the widespread financial panic of 1873 had also its effect on them and after two years of business the partnership was dissolved, Mr. Hollencamp assuming the entire indebtedness of the firm. His position at this time well indicated the qualities which have characterized his entire life—an indomitable spirit and an unconquerable business integrity. He set himself to the task of meeting all of the financial obligations of the house and within a few years the entire indebtedness of the firm was cleared away and Mr. Hollencamp found himself upon the high road of prosperity.

Yet at the same time, it has the following to say about William H Breene’s younger brother Charley:

Charles L. G. Breene, enterprising and progressive, is conducting a large and growing merchant tailoring business in Dayton, his native city. The year of his birth was 1858, his parents being William Gale and Margaret (Journee) Breene […] 

Charles L. G. Breene, who was the seventh in order of birth in his father’s family, spent his youthful days under the parental roof and at the usual age entered the public school. He likewise attended the Miami Commercial College and was thus trained for the onerous duties of the business world. He put aside his text-books at a comparatively early age that he might learn the tailor’s trade under the direction of his father, William G. Breene, and on his father’s retirement in 1874 he and his brother William H. Breene established a merchant tailoring business under the firm name of Breene Brothers, thus continuing from 1875 until 1884. The brother then passed away and since his death Charles L. G Breene has been alone in business. For more than seven decades the name of Breene has figured prominently in connection with this line of business in the city and in fact has ever been a synonym for high class workmanship and for high commercial integrity.

So we can conclude, perhaps, that Willam H Breene initially ran the business with his younger brother, but in 1883 or 1884 he left the family firm. There are some slightly odd features of his life. In 1900 he was listed in the federal census as unmarried, and living in what was quite clearly a rather down-market boarding house in Dayton — which seems strange, given the relative wealth of the rest of his family, some of whom were living in a large detached house on a corner plot in an attractive residential area of the city. His occupation, at the age of 52, was merely listed as ‘clerk’, which seems a come-down from co-owner of a clothing company.

William H Breene died in 1901, at the relatively young age of 53 years — although his one-sentence obituary in the local paper mistakenly put his age at 51 years. There is, somehow, a sense of sadness and unfulfilled potential in his story. Perhaps unfairly, I can’t but wonder whether there wasn’t some sort of problem — a debility, an addiction, a huge falling out with the rest of the family?— that held him back.

A digression: the ballad of Constable Breene

The next son, John Jernee Breene (1851-1906), left Dayton at the age of about 20, initially driving a team of horses, receiving a land grant that he later sold up, working as a clerk in a general store, and also serving in a county militia in the “Indian Wars”. And here, we must take a brief, but possibly interesting detour from the main narrative.

Johny Breene, as he was known, eventually rose to become deputy county sheriff, then from 1888, town constable in Arkansas City, Kansas, a smallish boom-town competitor to Wichita, not an enormous distance from his home town of Dayton. In 1876 he married an Ohio woman named Josephine Wright, and together they had raised a family of seven children, who were, by 1906, ‘all living and all except one, the youngest, occupying positions of trust and profit’ — two of them as bookkeepers. Johny Breene was a Presbyterian and a member of the Modern Woodmen, a local friendly society. He was apparently one of the best-known men in his community, widely liked and respected. He and his family lived at 500 North C Street, Arkansas City — a small, single-storey house on a corner lot which, pleasingly, seems to survive to this day. 

And then, in November 1906, at the age of 55 years, having served Arkansas City as constable for about twenty years, something very sad happened. 

Very early one morning, Josephine Breene couldn’t sleep, and rose to look at the clock. It was 2.10 am. Her husband, unsurprisingly, commented that it was too soon to get up, and called her back to bed. But after about ten or fifteen minutes, she heard footsteps in their cellar, walking over the coal and lumber they stored there. She then heard someone turn the handle of the door that led from the cellar to the main house, pushing aside a chair in front of the door. Her husband, however, having fallen asleep again, heard none of this. 

As for what happened next, here is what Mrs Breene later reported:

She took hold of her husband’s shoulders, squeezed him a little, and whispered to him that there was some one in the house. They kept still for a little while before they got up and then as he left the bed, Mrs Breene got up too. Breene was near the dresser trying to get his gun out of its case, but it was sticking and he told his wife to light a match. She did so, walked into the dining room, looked around and saw nothing but the open cellar door. 

She walked to the dining room door and Mr Breene followed her. He told her to strike a match, which she did, and as she did so, the fellow passed under her arm. She thought Mr Breene had full view of his face as he was standing in the bed room door. […] 

Both men shot at the same time. Mrs Breene caught hold of the fellow, but let go. She then called for help. She said the man wore dark clothes and a long dark overcoat. His hair was brown or a little on the sandy order at least. […] She described him as not being a very stout man and at the glimpse she had of him, thought he had a slim face and was clean shaven. 

Both men fired twice. Whether Breene’s shots injured the intruder was unclear. The intruder’s first bullet, however, passed through Breene’s left wrist, and the second passed through Breene’s body, penetrating his right lung. 

The intruder then escaped from the house through the cellar, stole a horse from a neighbour’s yard, and vanished into the night, riding north. The horse returned the next day, tired out.  

Johny Breene survived the attack, and appeared to be recovering, but after about a week his health began to deteriorate, he contacted pneumonia and on 27 November he died. 

In the wake of the Breene’s death, local law enforcement officers went to great efforts to identify the murderer. The alibis of 22 possible suspects were investigated in depth. The enquiries, as the local force proudly reported, utilised the most up-to-date ‘long distance phone and telegraph’ technology. Various awards were offered for information leading to the killer’s arrest. 

Yet Breene’s killer was never, as far as I can discover at least, convicted of his murder. I should add that some online sources claim, with great confidence, that his killer was a local criminal whom Breene had previously arrested, and who was apprehended soon after Breene’s death. This is not, however, quite right. For while one James “Red” Robinson, a youthful member of a “tough gang” from nearby Winfield, was indeed arrested on charges of murdering Breene, he was very swiftly let go for lack of evidence, and went back to his life of petty crime. Nearly a year later, in October 1907, newspapers were still reporting the Breene case as unsolved. Rumours, apparently, abounded — for instance, that Robinson was only hauled in to gain information about Lewis “Bandit” Bloomfield, a much more sinister character who was perhaps more likely to have committed the crime — while another complication was that the sheriff who was investigating the case was up for re-election, meaning that there was a lot of background briefing against his handling of the case. 

Yet again, it’s a slightly strange story. It is possible, of course, that this was a simple robbery that somehow went wrong. But Arkansas City wasn’t a huge place — there were only about 6,100 inhabitants in 1900 —while Johny Breene was by all accounts well known, so was it really very sensible to try to rob the town constable? Nothing was stolen from the Breenes’ house. And whoever did it seemed extremely quick off the mark in opening fire, almost as if the killing, not a robbery, was the point. 

Certainly, this exchange in front of the inquest jury leaves open the possibility that Breene, who was frequently conscious during the ten days between the shooting and his death, and who had apparently got a clear view of his killer, knew perfectly well who the intruder — ‘assassin’ is the word used by his local paper — actually was, but chose to remain silent about it: 

In reply to a question if anything was said by Mr Breene or the man who shot him, at any time, Mrs Breene said: “The man never said a word, but Mr Breene grew quite angry at him and said: “You son of a gun.” That was all that was said.” 

Mrs Breene said that her husband never told her whom he thought it was who shot him. 

“Did Mr Breene ever describe the man who did the shooting?”

“No, he didn’t say anything to me, but I made a remark and said something about it and he tapped me on the shoulder and said for me not to say anything, and he never said anything more about it.”

“When was that?”

“That was right after he was shot.”

Well, one doesn’t have to spend a huge amount of time reading Arkansas City’s local newspapers from the 1890s and early 1900s — because, to return to a familiar theme, there were at least two of such newspapers, one Democratic and one Republican, both gleefully partisan in their coverage of local affairs — to see that Kansas, and indeed Arkansas City, was a toxic political environment, riven with small-scale factions and simmering grievances. Local correspondents fulminated against the “young men, without visible means of support” who went around town “wearing tailor made clothes” and opining that a “general round-up” was needed “of all those who cannot give a good account of themselves and are not engaged in a legitimate means of earning a livelihood”. Breene’s murder occurred in the midst of a series of apparently unrelated but worrying gun-related deaths, and at a time when concerns about gang violence and criminality were running high. Possibly Breene did, in fact, know his killer, but was anxious that his wife should not have to endanger her own wellbeing, and that of their children, by testifying against him and drawing the family into yet more violence. 

The funeral took place at the family home, conceivably in the very room where the murder had taken place. (Mrs Breene had moved to a new house elsewhere in the city within a matter of months.) There were some rather lovely tributes in the local papers to Johny Breene: 

Mr Breene, if a money maker was not a money saver. He was a small man with a big heart. A friend speaking of his tender heartedness, a few days before his death, said: ‘If a stranger came along and asked Johny for half a dollar, he always got it if Johnny had it. That Johny, as his friends all called him, said that if he needed another he could get it and probably the stranger could not.

And there was general agreement that he was as good a law officer, if not the absolute best, that the area had ever seen.

What is oddest about this though, to me at least, is that the story of Constable Breene’s murder then vanished completely from family mythology, despite taking place well within the memory of my great grandmother, who would surely have found the violent death of her own uncle a matter of some interest.

Well, it is certainly remembered today on all sorts of websites commemorating American law enforcement personnel who fell in the line of duty. Now and then, serving officers still leave kind little tributes to his memory, however garbled. I find that all rather touching.

Endings and beginnings (continued) 

Back, however, to the question of what happened to William Gale Breene’s children.

Mary Gale Breene (1853-1939), next in line, never married. Instead, she stayed in Dayton, living first with her parents, then keeping house for her bachelor brother Frank. But she also had a serious career as first a teacher, then a principal (i.e. headmistress), in the Dayton state school system. I think she must have appreciated fine art, as in 1944 her sister left the substantial gift of $2,000 in her memory to the Dayton Art Institute. One tribute to her recalled her “acute mind, sparkling eyes, an intellect filled with treasured knowledge for useful service” — she was clearly one of those teachers who was loved as well as respected by her pupils, and was much missed when she died at the formidable age of 86 years. 

The next of the Breene children was Margaret “Maggie” Breene (1855-1892). She married James D. Loughridge (1855-1910), apparently ‘an honourable, upright gentleman with a quiet and retiring disposition’, and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where her husband played a prominent role in the tobacco industry. They had two children, Breene Loughridge and Margaret Loughridge. Margaret Breene died young, though, at the age of only 37 years. 

Emma Breene (1855-1856) sadly died in infancy. She is buried with her parents in Dayton. I wonder, given the date of her birth, whether she and Margaret Breene were twins? If so, this is literally the only instance of twin births in my family of which I’m aware.

It fell to Charles Lafourcade Gale Breene — “Charley” — to take the carry on the family’s merchant tailoring business. His odd middle name was apparently that of a travelling woollens salesman who happened to be staying with the family on the night of his birth. As we have seen above, for 38 years he ran the shop on the third floor of the American Building, right in the centre of Dayton. His main gift, however, seems to have been an almost supernatural ability for social interaction. He seems to have known everyone, had time for everyone and, what’s more, effortlessly charmed more or less everyone he ever met. 

In 1890, he married Stella Wise, a fellow native of Dayton. Her father had come from Lancaster Co. Pennsylvania to Dayton, where he had become a well-known local businessman, with interests first in the grocery then in the cotton batting trade. 

Charley Breene threw himself wholeheartedly into the social and mercantile life of his city, not least as a member of many organisations: the Rotary Club (of which he was at one point president), the Elks, the Eagles, the Dayton Bicycle Club, the Boy Scout Council, and the Vingt-et-un club, apparently one of the oldest social clubs in Dayton. He was also a Freemason. At one point he wrote that he was a member of no church (his wife, for her part, was an Episcopalian) but that friendship was his religion. 

He also enjoyed poetry, and recited it very well. Following a chance meeting and some typically engaging words of appreciation, Charley Breene became a close friend of the Midwestern dialect poet James Whitcomb Riley, and often quoted his poems during after dinner speeches, or in talks to local organisations. He died in January 1943 at the age of 83 years, meriting a front-page obituary in several local papers.

Charley and Stella Breene had one surviving son, Robert Gale Breene (1895-1969). (Their first child, born the year earlier, died in infancy; I have not been able to discover the baby’s name.) Gale Breene served in the US Cavalry in France during the First World War and then, having risen to the rank of major general, spent most of the Second World War as Deputy Commanding General, US Army Air Forces, South Pacific Areas. His role there seems to have been coordinating the distribution of supplies, for which he was honoured by the President with several decorations. Here is only one of various citations:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Legion of Merit (Navy Award) to Major General Robert Gale Breene, United States Army Air Forces, for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as Commanding General, Service of Supply, in the South Pacific Area from 15 August 1943 to 15 June 1944. During this period, Major General Breene was responsible for the procurement and distribution of the vast amount of supplies and materials necessary to the prosecution of the war against the Japanese forces in the New Georgia, Treasury, Bougainville and other operations. Due to his highly efficient organizational ability and outstanding leadership a constant flow of vital materials and essential equipment was maintained to the combat forces in the forward areas. His keen knowledge of logistics and tireless devotion to duty contributed materially to the success of our forces in administering a series of crushing defeats to the enemy in the South Pacific Campaign. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Military Service.

In 1946, Major General Breene retired due to disability — I am not sure of what sort, but I don’t think it can have been a very profound problem — returned to Dayton Ohio, and took up a new career as an engineer with a particular interest in public infrastructure projects, e.g. canal development. He died in 1969. 

Maj-Gen Robert Gale Breene

Major General Gale Breene, my first cousin three times removed, was there at my christening, although he died when I was so young that I have no memory of ever meeting him. 

Meanwhile, William Gale Breene’s youngest son was Frank Shuey Breene (1860-1925). Frank became a lawyer, having been admitted to the bar in 1883. He practiced law in Dayton for over forty years. From 1910-14 he served two terms as city solicitor. In November 1924, shortly before his death from liver cancer, he stood for election to the court of common pleas, but lost. He was a Democrat. 

Frank never married, but, much like his brother Charley, was actively involved in community organisations including the Elks, the Knights of Pythias, and and was a founder member of the Dayton Lawyers’ Club. When he died in 1925 at the age of 65 years, he left his entire estate to his sister Mary. 

Frank Breene’s front-page obituary in the Dayton Daily News notes that “his family has long been known for its gifts, accomplishments and social graces” — quite strikingly, by this time his family’s business interests aren’t mentioned. 

He was a great student and reader, a man who could quote Shakespeare, Riley and other poets by the hour; in fact, a man whose mind was a storehouse of the best in literature, and who was able to summon the apt phrase and quotation whenever he desired.

Observing that Frank Breene only served in one public office, that of city solicitor, the obituary writer opines “He could have had other positions, but he was modest and unassuming and more interested in his library than in eminence of that sort”. (Indeed, in a printed testimonial in the course of Breene’s election campaign only a year earlier, a supporter commented that Breene wasn’t the sort of person who would ask a friend for a vote, which with hindsight might have been a bit limiting as a political strategy.) Robert C Patterson, a common pleas judge, recalled “While not old in years yet he always seemed to me to hold on to those traditions and mental attitudes we are accustomed to associate with gentlemen of the old school. In addition to being a splendid lawyer and a safe advisor he will ever be remembered for his loyalty to his friends and his sturdy integrity.” 

Incidentally Frank’s middle name, “Shuey”, is probably linked with an Ohio family of that name. The reference may be to the Rev William John Shuey, DD, of Dayton, Ohio (1827-1920), a Methodist minister and early missionary to Freetown, Sierra Leone in the 1850s. William Shuey also set up an extremely successful publishing agency, so was, in effect, a businessman as well as a preacher, and also the father of four children who made careers for themselves in Dayton. But the connection with evangelical protestantism is perhaps worth noting, if only because it’s a thread that seems to be woven through the totality of William Gale Breene’s life story.

Finally, the baby of the family — born when her eldest living sibling was herself 18 years old — was Carrie A. Breene (1864-1944). Like her brother Frank and her sister Mary, Carrie Breene never married.  She lived until the end of her life in what the Dayton Daily News called the “large Breene homestead” at 740 Superior Avenue in Dayton, which for years she had shared with Carrie and Frank. 

Sadly, the house has since been demolished. Its site is now, unless I am very much mistaken, a vacant corner lot on a very pretty, tree-lined street in a heritage zone. The houses around it hint at what it was probably like — three stories, high-pitched roof and ornamented gables, tall chimneys, lots of windows, stairs rising from the lawn to a generous front porch for watching the world go by, seeing and being seen. It was also very much a residential neighbourhood, far from any shop or workplace — somewhere to enjoy the rewards of commercial success without any of the noise or bother of actual commerce. This would have been, I think, the house where William Gale Breene, the aged patriarch, eventually died — perhaps with supportive members of his large, mostly successful family all around him.

But the house continued, for decades after his death, to perpetuate the local importance of that “Breene” surname. Like her sister Mary, from whom she was apparently for many years inseparable, Carrie Breene was a teacher in the Dayton state school system. When she died at the age of 80 years, her obituary described this teacher of English, Latin, public speaking and history as “cultured and charming” “gracious” — a stalwart of cultural events in the city. She was a member of the Westminster (i.e. 3rd Street) Presbyterian church, the Women’s Literary Club, Marlay Circle and the Young Women’s Christian Association, and also hosted events for school alumni and others at the Breene family home. She also loved and appreciated music. Even after she had long since retired from formal teaching, her former students paid her visits, turning to their old teacher for “inspiration and advice”.

It’s also striking, though, to note that by 1944, at least two local papers could make mistakes such as saying that both Carrie’s parents came from Ireland, or forgetting that she had any siblings other than Frank, Charley and Mary. Her death, almost exactly a century after her parents first arrived in Dayton, surely marked the end of an era. And with Carrie Breene, alas, may well have vanished much of what I would so much like to know about her father and mother. Where did they really come from, these two elusive figures? Why did they end up in Dayton? Most of all, what were they really like? 

Towards a tentative conclusion

There is much that may simply be unrecoverable about the lives of my three-times great grandparents in the direct maternal line, William Gale Breene and his wife Margaret Jernee Breene.

Here, though, is my best guess, based on the evidence mentioned above.

I think it likely that William Gale Breene was born in 1820, in or around Co. Carlow, Ireland. His family were probably protestants, possibly Presbyterians. They were perhaps from a mercantile or minor gentry background — at the risk of using anachronistic language, from somewhere within the wide spectrum of the middle classes, rather than, for instance, either a peasant / subsistence or indeed a landed and titled background. The Breene family was linked with Dublin, but probably also had deeper historical links with nearby Co. Wexford. 

The Breenes, however, possibly had a connection — through patronage, or perhaps even through marriage — with the Gale family of Queen’s County and Co. Carlow, who were members of the minor gentry, but who also had experience of pre-1840 emigration to North America.

I think that the “William Breen” who arrived on 27 May 1839 in New York, aged 18, on the ship Bowditch — an Irishman who sailed from Liverpool, listing his occupation as ‘accountant’ — may just possibly have been my ancestor.

Once in New York, William Gale Breene may have become involved in the men’s clothing and fabric trade, possibly as an accountant or buyer — a role that perhaps alerted him to business opportunities slightly further west, particularly for someone with relatively unusual accountancy skills and a modest sum of capital to invest in building a business.

It may also have been through the clothing trade that William Gale Breene met Margaret Jernee, a New Jersey-born Methodist from a skilled artisan family, who was working as a dressmaker. In social terms, this was perhaps not a brilliant marriage, but it seems to have been a successful union that endured for something like fifty years, producing ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood.

William Gale Breene was not afraid to express views or to support causes that interested him. By the time he arrived in Dayton, Ohio circa 1844 — where he was a relatively early settler — he was able to acquire an existing business and to set himself up immediately as a merchant tailor with several employees. He also associated himself with one of Dayton’s competing Presbyterians churches, with the Democratic Party, with opposition to the abolition of slavery and support for states’ rights. Once the American Civil War had begun, though, he was conventionally supportive of the Union and its war effort. 

As the years passed, William Gale Breene saw his clothing company merge with another to become (by 1883) Breene & Weber, then eventually to be subsumed into another larger firm, in which one of his younger sons continued to play a role. Meanwhile some of his other children achieved success in Dayton and elsewhere: they included two school teachers, a lawyer, a town constable, a businessman and two women who supported their husbands and raised little families of their own. By the time he died I think William Gale Breene had something like twelve living grandchildren.

William Gale Breene died in 1896, a few months after the death of his wife, at the age of 76 years, which was not at all a bad innings. He was buried alongside other family members at the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton.

In the years immediately following his death, it seems as if the reputation of William Gale Breene’s family in their home town of Dayton revolved less about business acumen than something rather different: cultural attainment, public service, moral probity as opposed to personal advancement. Whatever his purpose had been in coming to America, and however little we can know of what really motivated him, it is hard to judge William Gale Breene’s life as less than a fruitful, productive and worthwhile one.


Historians turn to the past to ask questions about the present. Family history does this too, but in a more intense, literal and personalised way. “Why am I the person I am”? And also, as far as that goes, the marginally more existential question: “who am I?”

What can we really know about William Gale Breene? It’s probably fair to say that he cared about appearances. Clothing is, after all, much of what we ever see of the people who surround us — how they express so much about themselves, not only their relative wealth, sometimes their occupation or background, but also their sense of style, their self-image and aspirations. Breene made a career out of helping people do that, so he must have seen the value of it, both literally and figuratively. We have seen that the stories he told his family about his own backstory included clothing references, specifically to the class-specific, indeed rather theatrical practice of hunting in pinks — a memory that probably gained a sharper edge when set against American stereotypes of Irish people as poor, hungry and uncivilised. And we have seen that he went to the effort of commissioning painted portraits of himself and his wife Margaret, creating a near-permanent image not only of how they looked, but how they wished to be seen — as important members of their community, displaying sophistication and style as well as simple wealth.

There was perhaps a degree of self-fashioning here, perhaps even, at the margins, self-invention. Did that matter? ‘Do not pretend’ was the stern motto of the man whom Breene’s granddaughter Bessie Emma Patton eventually married. I wonder whether Breene, for his part, rather enjoyed pretending? 

And so we follow this line down the ages. My grandmother, Bessie Emma Patton’s daughter, whom I can actually remember reasonably well, was a gracious, intelligent, beautiful woman whose house was furnished with taste and elegance. Insofar as she had critics, they may occasionally have accused her of ‘window dressing’ — in other words, of trying to create an attractive impression when the reality might have been more messy or less rarefied. 

My own mother, her daughter, had a near-magical ability to make the extremely ordinary suburban bungalow in which I grew up look, in parts, like a pocket country house. There was nothing bling-y about any of it — but that was the point. She felt strongly about the right and wrong ways to do these things, with a ferocity of moral judgement that perhaps suggested some theological doctrine of election gone slightly awry. Even now, decades after it ceased to matter, I am haunted by her long-ago snobberies and certitudes: that a house should never smell of cleaning products because that would mean one had tidied up on purpose for visitors (vulgar), that praising other people’s house or furnishings is vulgar — so many hazards out there, so little chance of getting everything right. As a child, I once managed to ruin a week’s holiday at the seaside by the unforgiveable faux pas of placing a bottle of ketchup on the table. No wonder I was, and remain, such an enormous disappointment to her. She was very much of the ‘do not pretend’ school, but in her case, that meant that exterior perfection needed to run all the way through to the (non vulgar) soul, which of course it very rarely does. Few of us, accordingly, lived up to her expectations. 

But the other thing that may be right about Breene is that he was willing to take sides. True, literally all his known political takes were almost supernaturally bad ones. Sending formerly enslaved people ‘back’ to West Africa was a terrible idea. Siding with the Copperheads in the run-up to the American Civil War looks an awful lot like standing up for slavery, even if it meant other things as well, such as defending the concerns of Irish and other recent immigrants against a Republican party that often seemed hostile to them. Arguably, even the choice to leave the country of his birth, and to make a new home for himself somewhere else, can be seen as an act of taking sides. As far as we know, he wasn’t forced to leave Ireland by poverty or violence or even some official settlement scheme — he simply decided he wanted to go. 

Well, without elaborating, both a readiness to take a strong and public point of view about things, and also a weakness for bad takes, runs deep in my bloodlines. But at least we’re not people who just put up with things or who worry about upsetting the neighbours. 

On the other hand, William Gale Breene had lots of children, was entrepreneurial by inclination, and never seems to have written anything about himself. All those things mark this strand of the family as being rather distinctive, because most of us tend to go the other way. 

And yet there is one thing which I am almost certain that William Gale Breene and I share. That is the experience of leaving the place where we grew up circa age 20 and crossing the sea to a very different place — marrying, starting a family, making a new life for ourselves in different weather, amongst different customs and under a different sky.

In my case, of course, the journey was the reverse of Breene’s. He left Ireland and moved to the US. I left the US and moved to the UK. But I am sure that there are aspects of that transition that work whichever way one travels. There is the experience, for instance, of never fitting in. When people wrote about him, even as late as almost a half century after his death, it was his Irishness they stressed — even though he lived in the US for perhaps as much as 56 years, the vast majority of his 76-year life. And then there is the strange sense of loneliness that comes from living among people who will never, try as they might, really understand some very basic things about one’s own life story, and who, when they try to fill in the gaps, will, through no fault of their own, inevitably do it all wrong. 

So when I hear William Gale Breene’s insistence that his family hunted in pinks, I can’t help but hear the half-angry, half-despairing assault on a common stereotype: not all Irishmen are Catholic, poor, starving or pitiable. Some of them wore well-cut scarlet coats with silver buttons, sailed over green fields on horses more sleek and heroic than anything you’ve ever seen, past houses built of stone that looked like the ancient temples they show you in picture books, in a land that might have been terrible and traumatic but was also, in places, extremely beautiful. 

And at the same time: Americans aren’t some sort of people without a history. Individually and collectively, they have a past, more or less like other humans do. They have connections to places, their own little myths and legends, their lares and penates transported here and there, a bit knocked about on the voyages but treasured all the same. You can read their books and watch their films and perhaps gain the comforting impression that you know everything about them, what it’s like to be one of them or, more relevant here, to have been one of them. Well, you probably don’t. 

They weren’t all what you think they were. I’m not what you think I am.

Oh, you wouldn’t understand. Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter much.

So perhaps that, too, is part of the reason why William Gale Breene and his in many ways unremarkable, unsatisfactory story preoccupies me. 

People who are born, live and die in the same place perhaps don’t need to search out reference points to orient themselves in the universe. But those of us who aren’t held in place by a scaffolding of geographical permanence — and there are a lot of us about, refugees by whim or circumstance or necessity — possibly do. Perhaps one of the most unfailing of those reference points is the ancestry that we carry around with us, wherever we go.

Admittedly, this makes no sense at all to some people, many of them worthwhile and admirable. My husband and son, for instance, while thankfully very tolerant individuals, quite clearly think my genealogical interests are borderline insane. My son gleefully calculates that William Gale Breene is only one of 32 three-times great grandparents of mine — as if this somehow proves beyond argument the total irrelevance of his story. My husband doesn’t feel the need to collect dead family members, perhaps because he has perfectly satisfactory family members still amongst the living, and that’s enough. So when I mention my family history to him, there’s just an uncomprehending silence. That’s why I don’t talk about my family history very much at all — which perhaps explains why I need to write about it instead.

The big problem for both my husband and son is that there is, to their way of thinking, no practical benefit to anyone in knowing anything about William Gale Breene. My son feels no sense of connection with him, although of course William Gale Breene is his own four-times great grandfather. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Neither, perhaps. Not everything has to be good or bad. Some things are just the way that they are, full stop.

But as time slips past, and the things and people and place that we love all gradually fall away — as everything falls away, as we grapple with the idea that we, too, will soon vanish into this onrushing stream of inconsequence and oblivion, which will also just be another of those things that just is what it is — it makes me obscurely happy to know that none of that, ever, will change in the least the objective bond connecting me with William Gale Breene and all these other people, this shadowy yet ever-present legion of the ancestral dead, known and unknown, without whom I’d have been a very slightly different person, and who are somehow, in some mysterious yet profound and important way, preserved within me.

From my christening, at my grandmother’s house in Paris, Kentucky, 1966: (left to right) my grandmother, Martha Gardener Galloway; Leila Breene; Maj Gen Robert Gale Breene
From my christening, 1966: my great uncle Roy Galloway; me; the Revd Baxter; my uncle’s father-in-law Ralph Baird