September 22, 2014
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IF you can cast your mind back to Tuesday 15 October, you might recall that it was a beautiful, sunny autumn day with blue skies and just a light breeze. Mind you, there were some storm clouds in the environs of Leinster House, as the ‘Chuckle brothers’ left us with little to chuckle about.  But isn’t that par for the course at this stage?

I don’t know how you spent that day but, for my own part, I decided to make good use of the fine day and took to the bicycle, heading off in a wide loop taking in Shaen, Mountmellick, Portlaoise and The Heath.

My cycling habits, I find, are somewhat akin to my historical pursuits. That is to say, I rarely have a clear focus on where I am going, but I am aware of the general direction I am going in. It is probably why I usually cycle alone, as a committed cyclist would find my ambling along just too frustrating, as, I’m sure, the purist historians out there find my historical musings.

But on this occasion  there was some method to my cycle route madness. Shaen was on the agenda because I had come across a reference a few days earlier to a Thomas Kemmis. This particular Thomas (because there were more than a few of that name down through the years) caught my eye for no other reason than he was born in 1753, 200 years and some months before I arrived on this planet myself.

Thomas Kemmis

Thomas Kemmis

I don’t know what it is in our make-up that predisposes us to become particularly excited about long ago events that have happened in the same year, or have happened an even number of years before or after a particular event. And when it comes to those even-year anniversaries, anything that happened 100 years ago, or multiples of same, beats the rest into a cocked hat. And for me, finding this particular Thomas Kemmis while I was researching a completely unrelated event was like striking a rich seam of gold.

He was born in 1753, 200 years before me, and he died in 1823, 100 years before my father was born. He married Anne White in Dublin in 1773, the same year the foundation stone for Abbeyleix House was laid. Later, in 1808, he was admitted as a member of the Dublin Society. This was the year my great, great grandfather, also my namesake, was born.

Of course, all of these events are totally unrelated and utterly meaningless as a collection of events to anyone except myself and, perhaps, a student of social history.

Such a student might wonder if the laying of the foundation stone of Abbey Leix might not have been a topic of conversation at the Kemmis and White wedding on 11 September 1773. After all, Thomas Kemmis would later inherit Shaen castle estate, an estate in the Queen’s County of significant proportions, comprising almost 6,000 acres.

Indeed, it might not be outside the bounds of possibility that the second baron Knapton (later to become first viscount de Vesci), who commissioned the building of Abbey Leix, would have been a guest at that joyous event.

And so, my visit to Shaen brought me to a small graveyard which I had visited on a previous occasion. There, inside the ruined church, are two commemorative tablets. The earliest, I think (the date is not legible), is a simple stone tablet and commemorates Joshua Kemmis. The later, a more substantial marble tablet, was erected to the memory of Thomas S Kemmis by his wife Mary. Thomas S Kemmis died in 1844 aged 46 years. His father was the Revd Thomas Kemmis and the Revd’s father, Thomas, is the man who shares the coincidental anniversaries with Thomas Cox, born 1808; Colm Cox, born 1923; and Thomas Cox the younger, born 1953.

So, where is the commemorative stone for this Thomas Kemmis? Well, I have yet to discover it. And guess what?  I have no idea where Thomas Cox, the elder, is buried either, or if there is a commemorative stone for him. Another meaningless coincidence to you, perhaps. But for me, the quest to answer these historical conundrums continues in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

Tom Cox
Tom Cox
Tom Cox column 'An Eye on the Past' appears weekly in the Laois Nationalist newspaper.

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