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The art of the obituary – local lives honoured in print

Leinster Leader 1 March 2007

The art of the obituary – local lives honoured in print

by

LIAM KENNY

All human life is recorded within the pages of newspapers. In bygone years local newspapers gave many column inches to weddings and to obituaries. And indeed in the society columns in the early years it was not unusual to see colourful reports of christenings and of engagements. Trends in social coverage have changed– no longer is it common to see detailed wedding reports in the local notes with admiring descriptions of the bridal fashion! However obituaries remained an enduring feature of the local paper. Although sad reading for immediate relatives the obituaries also brought a sense of pride to family circles and represented local journalism at its best, emphasising that the passing of a life was worth recording through the permanence of the printed word.

In the Leinster Leader of 2 March 1957 one of a number of obituaries relates to a Mr. Frederick Stockton. The recitation of his life and career is a reminder that Co Kildare men in uniform traversed the globe. We learn that the late Frederick Stockton was born in Naas Military Barracks (now occupied by Kildare County Council’s spectacular headquarters) where his father had been manager of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers canteen, which regiment the deceased joined.  The reader of 1957 ws transported back over fifty years previous as the obituary relates how Mr.  Stockton had ‘fought in the Boer War and also the First World War’. He was stationed in India and in Africa and finally returned to the Dublin Fusiliers depot in his native Naas where he resided through a long retirement.

The obituarist skilfully drew a character sketch of the old soldier. We learn that he was an energetic man, acting for many years as ‘drag’ for the Naas Harriers. And his early army training continued to be of service to the community -  ‘ A regular worshipper in St. David’s Church, Naas, he was always respected as an old reliable to assist in preparations for parochial functions when his military technique in making much out of little was of no small advantage’.

Another obituary in the same column casts light on a contrasting aspect of modern Irish history with a notice concerning the death of Mrs. Sarah Burke of St. Brigid’s Terrace, Naas.  It was noted that she was the widow of William Burke ‘who was well known as a composer of ballads, and of patriotic songs’. The tributes continued in a following item reporting the vote of sympathy at that week’s meeting of Naas UDC where Cllr. Jack Lawler said that Mrs. Burke’s late husband ‘was a sterling Nationalist and was an old Gael and well-known figure in Naas.’ We learn that he was better known as ‘the Bard’ and had done a term in gaol with other townspeople during the Land Agitation at a time when, the speaker noted pointedly,  ‘ a gaol term was not as popular as it proved afterwards’. 

 By recording such references the newspaper has given the modern reader an insight into the life and times of the locality in the late 1800s when land agitation manifested in controversial local incidents. As with Mr. Stockton whose army service in the imperial cause recalls Kildare’s place in military heritage, the references to the late William Burke highlight the often overlooked nationalist influences in the county.

 Both items reiterate the value of a well-crafted  newspaper obituary as a tribute to the deceased, as a source of pride to the family, and as an enduring record for readers in years to come by recording insights into local lives -  insights which would not be easily recreated from any other source.

 

 
Compiled by Liam Kenny from the rich resources of the Leinster Leader files, Local Studies Dept., Kildare County Library. Series No. 5.

The first instalment for March from Liam Kenny's regular column 'Nothing New Under the Sun.' Our thanks to Liam.


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