Hidden gems in family stories: It was never about the buttermilk..

Michael and Julia O'Sullivan in 1905

Michael and Julia O’Sullivan, 1905

The COVID 19 pandemic has created a new dynamic in family living. Being confined at home has been challenging but there have been some surprising benefits to family life. In our 3 generation household, we have spent an exceptional amount of time together so Nana and Papa have been sharing more stories from our lives than is usual, even for us.

As a professional genealogist for 25 years, family stories were an essential source for my client research. Unlike documents, stories are filtered through a prism of interpretation and understanding. People tell what they believe are truths. Their “point of the story” is what was important to them but there may be hidden facts or insights which might be missed by the listener. There will be stories from the COVID period all told from each individual’s points of view.

The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 has many similarities to the current situation. Historical archives provide photos, newspaper articles and historic records which give us useful insights into the last worldwide pandemic. Elderly survivors, who were children at the time, shared memories which have become family stories. In 1990, I brought my 83 year old Dad to Cappaghwhile, County Tipperary to visit one of the places he lived as a child. We found the school he attended and other familiar sites. When we found the local creamery, it triggered a long buried memory from 1918. Dad said, for no particular reason, “My father saved us from The Flu by feeding us buttermilk”. What?

He expanded the memory to explain that his father, the local R.I.C. sergeant, cycled to the creamery every day to buy a large can of buttermilk and fed it to his wife and 6 kids. At age 11 Dad recalled that his mother was ill but not seriously and all the kids were fine. None of them got sick. For the rest of his life he believed in the medicinal benefit of buttermilk. We children dismissed it out of hand but thought it was just an amusing family tale. Until 2020.

This morning I woke up thinking about my family in the 1918 flu epidemic. I was running my Dad’s words in my head when a sentence I had overlooked, resonated with a flash of insight. What my Dad, speaking as an 11 year old, actually said was, “My father kept us all at home and fed us buttermilk”. Whoa! Sergeant O’Sullivan decided to isolate his family, keeping the kids out of school and administer buttermilk. The children most probably enjoyed the school holiday. My Dad never register this fact as being important. By taking this action, grandfather kept his family safe from the highly contagious disease. There are 73 people in this world who are descended from Michael O’Sullivan. We exist because of his inspired, voluntary family quarantine.

It was never about the buttermilk.


By Eileen O’Duill.

Eileen O'Duill

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