Grandmother’s diary told of life as a governess in war-torn France

Family Fortunes: ‘Loneliness engulfed my grandmother in the big house’

Catherine Cleere  in Kingstown on the day of her departure to Tourcoing, France on  June 30th, 1914.

Catherine Cleere in Kingstown on the day of her departure to Tourcoing, France on June 30th, 1914.

 

A few weeks after my mother died in January 2010 I sat alone in our home in Borris-in-Ossory by a blazing turf fire mesmerised by a bunch of photographs and postcards of French people dressed in highly fashionable clothes.

I had discovered my grandmother’s diary which she had maintained while employed as a governess to the rich industrialist family Rasson/Masurel from Tourcoing, France, close to the Belgium border. When I looked at the photos and read her diary I was inspired to visit the area. I did this in April 2014.

My grandmother, Catherine Cleere, was born in Clough, Co Laois in 1885 and later the family moved to nearby Donaghmore. From the photographs and the diary I can judge that Catherine had departed on June 30th, 1914 for France aboard a ship from Kingstown dressed elegantly with a stylish hat. She had been educated by the John of God sisters in Rathdowney where she had studied French and had become proficient in the language.

Catherine had a sister Margaret who was seven years older and had already experienced life as a governess in France. In 1906 she had been employed by the Fayet family, owners of a large glass factory at Chateau Montmirail in the environs of the countryside outside Paris. Motivated by the possession of her postcards, I visited that chateau in 2013 and returned two years later. Needless to say, its history is a story in itself.

She heard the cannons roaring and the soldiers on their weary marches pass the windows of the mansion

Catherine’s diary tells how she survived working as a governess during the first World War in the big house. She heard the cannons roaring and the soldiers on their weary marches pass the windows of the mansion. When Mr Rasson was conscripted in 1916, his wife left for a house in Paris with her two children Jeannie and Emile but decided to leave behind their sick child, Andrew, aged two years with my grandmother. Sadly he died soon afterwards. I found a photograph of the sweet little child among the photographs in Laois.

Loneliness engulfed my grandmother from time to time in the big house. Her strong religious beliefs were a great consolation.

Praying to St Patrick, not her practice in Ireland, became her daily routine. She planted shamrock at Tourcoing and commented on the beautiful green leaves of the plant. The Rasson family was kind to her, symbolised by frequent presents to a lonely Irish girl.

My grandmother was cut off from communication with her parents in Ireland for four years. On Bastille Day, July 14th, 1918, a long overdue letter arrived at Tourcoing Town Hall from Donaghmore, Co Laois. It had been posted six months previously and its arrival must have dispelled many of Catherine’s concerns about her family back in Ireland.

The diary, postcards and photographs along with my journeys of discovery to France have brought a new dimension to my life and I am planning to compose a more detailed account of Catherine’s life in France and my attempts to follow her footsteps.

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