A Friend to Her Village

A Friend to Her Village

Dromiskin cemetery

Dromiskin Cemetery. May 2015.


While tromping about the wee village of Dromiskin for a few hours, we stopped to admire some of the oldest houses from afar, one of which was Cromeen.

A marker informed us that Cromeen had been built by the Reverend (circa turn of the 20th c.) for his two daughters–who were retired missionaries from India. The placard went on to divulge something rather interesting about the daughters, Zoe and Isa:

The Chamney sisters were famous locally for herbal remedies and medicines. Their popularity in the village is evident in the epitaph on their gravestone in the old churchyard. They are referred to as “Friends of the village.”

My companion and I looked at one another, eyebrows arched. A mere tidbit of Irish herbal history.

This was rather cheering; how many historical instances of women famed for medicines can you count, wherein negativity and suspicions of witchcraft did not lurk? Here were two herbalists loved by their community.

Of course I had to see the headstone now, as something about it was odd.

So we stopped back into the churchyard before our departure, splitting up. I took the right side, and my companion the left. I hadn’t gone on more than a minute when he shouted and beckoned me over.

The stone is in quite fine condition, and used to many years of inscriptional research, I read it with ease.

But the stone tells us a slightly different tale. This was not a pair of herbal sisters memorialized:

funerary inscription

funerary inscription

The Reverend apparently had nine children, but Isa and Zoe received special mentions. Zoe (formal name Josephine) lived to 83 years of age (dies 1952) and is described only as “his youngest and dearest child”.

It is Isa, who also lives to 83 (dies 1948) who alone received the appellation “Friend of the Village.”

Well, spinster herbalists. Seems to fit the historical pattern.

But then a bit of poking about revealed to me this: someone else who married into the family was involved in botanical circles.

A missionary–also in India–and also botanist.

In The Herbarium of the National Museum and Galleries of Northern Ireland (2004): a Reverend Frederick Hugh Woodhams Kerr (1885-1958) apparently wed one of the Chamney daughters. Well, we are told he wed “the daughter” of Reverend Chamney.

But which was it? Isa or Zoe?

For Kerr, this husband, was at least an amateur field botanist. Did he influence Isa or Zoe, or share similar interests?

In the 1901 Census, Isa is 35 and living in Dromiskin (perhaps at Cromeen? The house is not identified). There is no mention of Zoe, just their father Joseph (82 at the time,) one other daughter (Mary Butterworth, 37), and two female servants.

By 1911, in apparently a different house, Isa is 46 and listed as the head of family. She has two boarders, Adeline Taurtin (37) and William Taurtin (36) living with her. No sign of a husband.

Here’s what The Herbarium says of Kerr:

Kerr, Frederick Hugh Woodhams (Rev) (1885 – 1958) fl 1929 – 1948 QUB (ex Armagh County Museum). Biographical notes from Dr G. Gillespie of Ballygawley,Co. Tyrone are on file in BEL. He was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1907 and after serving as a curate in England he went to India as a missionary, and later served in Italy as an army chaplain during World War I. After the war he returned to India, where he married the daughter of the Rev. Joseph Chamney of Dromiskin, Co. Louth. The Kerrs returned from India in 1928 and he was appointed to the Parish of Arboe on the shores of Lough Neagh. Sometime in the late summer of 1937 a group of Tyrone amateur field botanists centred around Kerr commenced a Flora of Tyrone project, which resulted in an unpublished MS Flora (copy of this in BEL). After his wife’s death he returned to India where he died in 1958. (Vascular plants: Ireland; Chotah Nagpur, India).

Further poking about led me to this bit in the Biology Curator’s Group newsletter of February 1981:

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So he married in India “a fellow worker” — daughter of the Reverend. No first name. Just “Mrs. Kerr died about 1948.”

Ah, Isa? She died in 1948.

But he married the daughter in 1928?

Isa would be around 63 years old!

Frederick was born in 1885. That means he was at least around 43 years old. Still prime of life. Hmm.

Well, my own grandparents are 19 years apart, he being the younger…

How odd that these Chamney sisters are called friends of the village, that they are remembered as such despite the fact that they may have lived years of the remainder of their lives outside of the village: in India, Dublin, Co. Tyrone…

And Zoe seems to escape from our story altogether, pinned to it only by her appearance in the village tourism placard.

And then I find her, I think, in a whisper of the 1911 census:

Chamney, Zoè Josephine Corrig Road Kingstown No. 2 Dublin 41 F

Never married, apparently, 41 years of age. She is listed as the head of the household in this Dublin house. In her house are also a teacher, a nurse, two unspecified women, and four servants.

I head over to the Irish Times to read a memorial of Kerr published on June 13th, 1958, certain it would finally name this wife, but I can’t access it.

As of now a picture emerges of two daughters who lived to middle-to-late-middle-age whilst in Dromiskin. We do not know what portion of their early lives were lived in India as missionaries.

I’m not feeling confident in my initial reconstruction.

If Isa–or Isa along with her sister Zoe–were the village herbalists, they must have been so at some point before or after their Indian missionary careers, and certainly before the 1930s.

The house is completed for them by their father around the turn of the century (who died in 1906), so we presume they are there in 1900. They are already middle-aged.

When did they begin their herbal work? What form could it have taken? Who in Dromiskin today might know?

But then in 1911 Zoe seems to be in Dublin. Granted, we only have the census records of 1901 and 1911, so that year in Dublin could be a fluke; she could be at Cromeen the rest of the time.

When did Isa return to India?

Both sisters’ deaths are recorded in the Civil Registration Records as being in Ardee.

And now I’m looking at the death records in confusion. Why is Isabella named here by her maiden name?

Perhaps it was not Isa who married Frederick, but another of the children, who happened to die the same year as her.

This is becoming a bit of a tiresome math puzzle.

Have I mis-connected the dots in the midst of my romanticism? Likely.

Until I find Mrs. Kerr’s first name, there’s a blank.

And it is also time to find out if what is printed on the tourism placard is oral history, or if there is documentation somewhere to back up the spinning of a tale.

And here our story must rest–for now.

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