The Livingstons and Watsons in the Vale of Avoca, Ireland

One of my earliest memories in life is of my Aunts Alta and Bess singing a mournful song about leaving the Emerald Isle.   Then, they would tell us emphatically, as if they didn’t want us to forget, that our family was from the Vale of Avoca.  I remembered this image as my family took a trip to Ireland several years ago.   But after we landed in Dublin Airport, the hustle, traffic and chain stores of Dublin made me question the “Emerald Isle—land-of-magic-and-leprecauns” image that’s so often conjured about Ireland.  Then we got to the Vale of Avoca.  And I completely understood what Bess and Alta meant with the song.  The Vale of Avoca is indeed emerald and I’m quite sure it’s magic. 

The Vale of Avoca is widely seen as one of the most beautiful places in Ireland.  Surrounded by rolling hills, lush and green, the Vale of Avoca is where the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers converge.   Irish national poet Thomas Moore was so overcome by the beauty of the place that he wrote “The Meeting of the Waters”—a poem well-known throughout Ireland that was later set to music.  Here are a few lines from this poem/song:

There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet

As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;

Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,

Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.

When I hear this song, I immediately think of our ancestor Thomas Watson, Sr. (“the teacher”) singing it or playing it on his flute.  Written during the latter part of the 1700s, the song quickly became well known throughout Ireland and surely would have been known by everyone living in the Vale of Avoca, including Thomas Watson.  Being an avid amateur musician, choir director and flutist, Thomas Watson probably played and sang this song about his home village many times.  I also wonder whether his death shortly after leaving the Vale of Avoca was hastened in part by having to leave this beautiful valley he had known his whole life.  And I begin to understand why the songs of the Irish Americans like Bess and Alta were so often mournful.    

The area around the Vale of Avoca has been mined since the 1200’s. Copper mining, however, started around the mid-1700s and it was the emerging copper mining industry which originally drew the Livingston and Watson families to the area from England and Scotland.  Another industry which was prominent in the Vale of Avoca at the time our ancestors were the textile mills. 

Today, the Vale of Avoca is a tourist and farming town, with narrow roads, stone bridges and beautifully maintained historic buildings, all set in the backdrop of the Avon River.  I had a feeling that the village today looked a lot like it would’ve when our ancestors lived there some 150 years ago.  But not the Church. The Castle Macadam Church was the center of the lives of the Livingston and Watson families when they were in the Vale of Avoca.  It is now abandoned, replaced by a new church with the same name built nearby.  The cemetery where Joseph and Elizabeth Watson and John and Eleanor Brady are buried (along with many more of our ancestors) is now overgrown with bramble and can be quite challenge to access.  (Note:  I have seen more recent pictures of the ruins of the Castle Macadam Church and it appears that the brambles may have been cleared from the cemetery surrounding the ruins.)    

The Castle Macadam Church and cemetery (in ruins) as it was when I visited Ireland in 2001.

Image of Castle Macadam

In about 1785, when he was about 25 years old, Joseph Watson came to the Vale of Avoca to take a position as a captain in the mine.  Once there, he married Elizabeth Cooper who was apparently from a prominent Protestant family from the Vale of Avoca.  Don Hill’s research suggested that Elizabeth might have been the daughter of the Cooper family who originally donated the land upon which the first Castle Macadam Church stood.  They were married on February 14, 1788 when Joseph was 28 and Elizabeth was 26.

John Levingston came to the Vale of Avoca from Scotland around the same time Joseph Watson arrived.  He first passed through Northern Ireland and then Dublin.  While in Dublin, he met and married Eleanor Brady.  Shortly after they were married they moved to the Vale of Avoca where John leased land near the mine.

The Vale of Avoca that our ancestors knew would have been characterized by great beauty, great unrest and ultimately, great anguish.  A defining characteristic of village life in the Vale of Avoca during the time of our ancestors was the rift between Catholics and Protestants.  Our ancestors arrived in the Vale of Avoca after several hundred years of a gradual erosion of the rights of the indigenous majority Catholic population.  This ultimately led to the situation our ancestors would have known, where Catholics were prohibited from owning land, participating in commerce, voting, or ruling their own affairs.  At the time our ancestors lived in the Vale of Avoca (from the late 1700’s until the mid-1800s), the Catholic majority population was heavily taxed, had few rights to schooling and were relegated to small plots of land for subsistence.  Profits from the larger agricultural and business operations were funneled to absentee British nobility and landlords.  While the Livingstons and Watsons were in the Vale of Avoca, there were numerous rebellions throughout Ireland as the Catholic majority resisted the prohibition of their language (Gaelic) and their disenfranchisement from commerce and economic life.  The Vale of Avoca would not have been immune to these struggles, though our family record does not provide much comment on what surely would have been a pivotal issue of their day.

What was life like in the Vale of Avoca when our ancestors live there?  In 1842, Johan Kohl travelled throughout Ireland to make a report about the state of the Irish Protestant Churches for church leadership in England.  He spent a few days of his journey in the Vale of Avoca, staying with a “prominent church family” in Avoca.  Though he never names this family, there was only one Protestant Church in the Vale of Avoca at that time and the Livingstons and Watsons were very involved with this church.  So we can speculate that Johan Kohl might have been writing about the accommodations he received from our ancestors.   He writes that the accommodations were “clean and comfortable”, but he was not as fond of the food.

The refreshments consist mainly of mutton chops, potatoes and tea.  The tea is almost always good, the potatoes half raw and the mutton chops often so tough that you attack them with imminent risk to your teeth.

The Catholic/Protestant divide actually may explain why the Livingston and Watson names are so often linked.  Our ancestors would have very much been expected to marry within their own faith.  During the time of our ancestors, the population of the Vale of Avoca was close to what it is now:  About 700 people.  In Ireland overall, an 1840 census showed that only about 20% of the population was Protestant, so we can guess that there were about 150 Protestant people in the Vale of Avoca area when our ancestors were there.  At any given time, only a handful of these people would have been single and of marriageable age, causing Livingston sisters/brothers to marry Watson sister/brothers.  And, some 150 years later, the intertwining of these two families continues to leave us with a hyphenated family picnic.

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