Tracing footsteps from Clonakilty to India in famine times

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Posted on: 4th July, 2016

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Above: John’s granddaughter – Agnes Footman (in the middle), with her three sons, Vivian, Noel and Malcolm and their wives Joyce (Curran), Esmeralda and Marie; Agnes also had seven daughters. Ian is Vivian’s grandson and Agnes’s great-grandson.

Much has been documented, written, and made into documentary and feature films about the Irish migration to Western nations like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand over successive periods of time, including the very unfortunate and sad time of the Great Famine of 1840s–50s. To-date, there has been no research, writings and any public information about the Irish migration to India. Almost all migration to India took place during the Great Famine time. This was when Irish young men fled or were sent by their family to join the East India Company, and to make a better life for themselves.

A production crew was in West Cork last month filming a documentary titled ‘Boys from Vepery’. The documentary traces the ancestors of Ian Michael, going back six and seven generations ago to a time when two famine migrants travelled by ship from Ireland to India. Patrick Curran from Cork (city) and John Footman from Clonakilty braved the ‘seven seas’ to make their way to Vepery, Madras (Chennai), India. Patrick arrived to Madras in 1859, while John arrived 12 years earlier in 1847, as a 21-year-old Irish Fusilier soldier with the East India Company.

The main protagonist of this documentary — a joint venture between Ian Michael and film director Fokiya Akhtar — is John Footman (Ian Michael’s ancestor). Ian has traced John’s family roots to Clonakilty; John’s parents were John Footman and Joanna (Joan) Collins.

Vepery (as in the title) was a suburb in Madras during the 1840s where Irish, Scottish, and English army barracks were located.

Ian Michael (centre), a descendant of John Footman from Clonakilty, is tracing his ancestor’s footsteps in a documentary filmed in Ireland and India.

Ian Michael (centre), a descendant of John Footman from Clonakilty, is tracing his ancestor’s footsteps in a documentary filmed in Ireland and India.

The picture above shows John’s granddaughter – Agnes Footman (in the middle), with her three sons, Vivian, Noel and Malcolm and their wives Joyce (Curran), Esmeralda and Marie; she (Agnes) also had seven daughters. Ian is Vivian’s grandson, and Agnes’s great-grandson. John Footman, son of John and Joanna (Collins) are therefore his great-grandma’s grandfather and mother – seven generations separate Ian to them.

The Footman’s and Collins family come from Clonakilty and its surrounding farm/villages – Dundeady, Lisduff, Donoure, Dirk Cove and Castlefreke. In fact both families worked and lived during the famine period at CastleFreke tending to the horses, working as labourers on the castle grounds.

The production team has just completed the first round of filming in India (Madras/Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bombay/Mumbai) and Clonakilty.

“Though my family and many other families in India that I know have strong Irish roots, the British during their colonial rule called us all ‘Anglo-Indians’, all with European lineage. So the Anglo Indians of India can have Irish, Scottish, British or Portuguese ancestry,” explains Ian.

“It has been an amazing journey to track the story, which has powerful content to find the place in the hearts of the audience. I, as the director of the film, am trying to deal with the subject to keep it true and real. The film needs to stand on its feet based on the narrative structure and the setting,” says film director Fokiya Akhtar.
A piece of Irish history from the parish church that Ian was baptised at – St. Mary’s Church, Secunderabad.

“The church began with the work of Fr. Daniel Murphy among Irish Catholics in the British Army. He arrived in India in 1839, and began the construction of St. Mary’s church as a cathedral in 1840. It was completed and blessed in 1850, and was at that time the largest church in Hyderabad State. The church ceased to be a cathedral in 1886, when the see was moved from Secunderabad to Hyderabad”.

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