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How a pocket watch led an Australian man to discover his ancestors hailed from my Mayo home

Doolough Diaries: I’d like to tell you of the tale of Bob Bingham, who hadn’t a clue of his family connection to Ireland and their influence over a county until a recent quest for his heritage

In a busy month for solar eclipse hunters – including a wind-battered crew over from the BBC – it was also the month basking sharks began their graceful inspections of the Erris coastline along Co Mayo.

It was also the month I buried my father, who will sadly never see my dream here come to fruition. In celebration of fathers and grandfathers, indeed in this case, even as far back as the 10th century, I’d like to tell you of the tale of Mr Bob Bingham, whose father – nor himself – ever got to see Doolough Lodge. Until a recent quest for his heritage, he hadn’t a clue of his connection to my house, to Ireland, or indeed to this part of the world.

I met Bob, from Australia, on an online heritage/ancestry site as we were both researching the same house. For me, it was a simple enough journey to look into this old house I’d bought, but he had discovered – aged almost 60 – that his grandfather and namesake Robert Bingham had emigrated from the house to Australia in around 1911, bound on a bit of adventure.

All this came to light through a pocket watch, which Bob (and his brother Peter) had hidden away years before after they broke it as children: “It was not until my ultimate retirement that I became curious about the broken watch and an old 1925 passport belonging to my grandfather that seemed to surface from nowhere,” he says.


He says guilt drove him to spend $1,000 to refurbish the pocket watch, and the passport holds the only photograph known of his grandfather, who he’d never met. He hadn’t met his grandmother either and presumed his heritage to stem from Scotland on account of his red hair, and England, due to the British-sounding Bingham surname.

The watch’s inscription: “Presented to R J Bingham Esq as a token of esteem from his fellow employees of Sydney Snow Ltd 11th July 1925″, took Bob from Australia – where his grandfather had worked for industrialist Sir Sydney Snow – to Grafton Street in Dublin.

“I found him in a 1901 census as a live-in trainee draper for Brown Thomas in Dublin, then he surfaced on a passenger list on board the Suffolk leaving Liverpool in November 1911, bound for Sydney. As a first-class Irish passenger and a far cry from the unrest developing in Ireland, he set off on a big adventure.

It’s not often when tracing roots you get to go the whole way back to the Middle Ages, but Bob’s been rather busy and he’s managed to go as far back as 1060, including a link to Princess Diana. Not bad for a fellow who didn’t know he had a drop of Irish blood in him until his sixth decade. He says extensive searches coupled with a wealth of knowledge from many “genetic cousins” from DNA worldwide, has helped to fill in the gaps.

His quest took an interesting turn; he discovered there was a place here called Binghamstown, and the (now ruined) Bingham Castle turned out to be the estate of his great-great-great grandfather, Major Denis Bingham, who he describes as “infamous” and “who had inherited half of the original Shaen family property and a third of Co Mayo in 1789″.

This rang a bell from an article I had written about how north Mayo paid for the crown jewels donned by King Charles at last year’s coronation. Essentially, in 1661, with empty royal coffers and no crown jewels bar a 15th-century spoon (I kid you not), Charles II paid the royal goldsmith for the jewels (estimated to be worth between £3 billion and £5 billion today) not with cash or castles – though he did throw in a baronet and “royal goldsmith for life” mind you – but with 95,000 acres of land on the Barony of Erris. In other words, every bit of land over here.

Presumably, not too happy with this arrangement as he’d outsourced all of the work, the royal goldsmith flogged the 95,000 acres to the Shaen family of Roscommon. Arthur Shaen’s two daughters and their husbands from the Bingham and Carter families ended up with the lands and inherited the lot. Part of the estate known as Bingham’s Castle, built in 1790, no longer stands but the family’s legacy lives on. And Bob has only recently discovered he’s part of it.

Acknowledging that the family have been referred to as “greedy landlords”, he says you’ll find the major’s (Denis Bingham) influence all over Co Mayo, and believes establishing this town of Bangor Erris, was one of his forefather’s achievements.

He and his other half, who he refers to as “the lovely Marilyn”, have yet to come to Mayo. But I look forward to the day that the pair manage to cross all the oceans and seas that separate us, so he and I can sit and toast our fathers, our grandfathers and our dreams.

You can read previous Doolough diaries here

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables