Thursday 14 December 2023

Osman Tisani of Barna House.

 The sad story of a young Barna lad. 

A photograph of a young Osman Tisani on a boat on Lough Corrib.
From the late Maurice Simple’s wonderful book, Reflections on Lough Corrib. 

Those who engage in research of times past will know how starting on a journey in one direction can end up with being taken down a different road entirely. 

We came across a reference to Marcus Lynch of Barna House outside Galway, enquiring in June 1896 as to what the level of distress was and how the potato crop was faring, on the Aran Islands. 

A summer that was too wet often ended with the potato crop rotting in the gardens. A summer too hot resulted in a withered crop in the shallow soil. 

The ideal summer for the islands was one where there was enough rain to grow a good crop but not so much that their neighbours in Connemara were unable to save the turf. 

Always a difficult balance. 

Marcus Lynch enquiry in June 1896.

In 1894 there had been many evictions on the islands but at least this was done in the springtime. The bailiff, police and “emergency” men returned in October 1896 and arrived just as a fierce storm was striking the islands. 

They carried out a number of evictions on the big island but were forced after a number of hours tossing offshore, to abandon plans to land on Inis Meáin and evict three families, when the SS Duras was forced back to Cill Rónáin by a rough sea. The seasick force were glad to find solid ground after their ordeal. 

They returned by gunboat the following month to Inis Meáin but collected only £12 while the ass and two pigs they had seized had to be given back to their owners when the local boats refused to carry them to the anchored HMS Albacore. We will return to those hard times some other day. 

Marcus Lynch of Barna House (1836-1916)

Marcus Lynch was a member of the Board of Guardians in Galway, whose remit included the three Arran Islands. 

Marcus was descended from a very old Galway family who claimed kinship right back to one of the ancient tribes of Galway. 

Barna House today. The ancestral home of the Lynch family of Barna. 
Built in the 18th century, the last of the family left in  the 1930s. 

Although the family had remained Roman Catholic, they still managed to hold on to some of their land and steered a delicate path with a foot in both camps.

They lost much of their lands after the encumbered estates act of 1849. This act facilitated the sale of estates which had been crippled by debt during the years of the Great Hunger. 

The Lynchs were the local landlords in Barna and  supported in both a spiritual and temporal way, the local parish. This was the parish of Rahoon where the main parish church was St Joseph’s in Galway. 

The old church in Barna. Opened in 1840 and supported both 
spiritually and financially by the Lynch family

In the course of our research on Marcus Lynch (1836-1916) we came across a reference to a young man from Barna who spent a week in Galway prison after being found guilty of aiding a deserting soldier of the 88th Connaught Rangers, who was trying to escape by steamer from Galway dock. 

This triggered a memory of seeing a photo once in one of Maurice Simple’s great books about Galway and the Corrib.

 (We join with others in suggesting that if the new footbridge over the river is to be named after anybody, nobody is more deserving of the honour than Maurice Semple) 

Sure enough, we found the photo of Osman, taken as he lounged on a boat at Lisloughry near Cong, one calm, sunny day long ago. The ‘CINGALEE’  belonged to the famous Galway businessman and athlete, Frank Bailey (1878-1953),who once raced the train from Clifden to Galway on his racing bike. 

Osman Tisani looking very relaxed on Frank Bailey’s motor boat ‘Cingalee’ at Lisloughry. 
 (Photo from Maurice Semple’s book Reflections on Lough Corrib)

Frank Bailey’s  ‘CINGALEE’ was first offered for sale in 1908. 
It was still being offered for sale in 1911. It was described as being 
built of elm and oak, 27 feet long and being capable of carrying 20-30
It had an 8HP engine and could travel non stop to Cong at 8 MPH. 

What made a very unusual story even more remarkable was that this young man of about 19 years in 1908, was it seems, a native of West Africa. 

And so we began to research his story. 

There are a number of theories of how exactly he came to be living at Barna House and we will get back to that. 

The 1911 census return for the residents of Barna House.

The story told at the court case in 1908 reflects well on Osman Tisani. We came across a number of different spellings of his name (eg Tizani) but this is the spelling inserted by Marcus Lynch in the 1911 census. 

The courthouse in Galway where Osman Tisani appeared 
in 1908 on a charge of helping a deserter from the army.
(Photo UCD library)

The newspapers reported that District inspector Mercer presented to the court a coloured man named Osmond Tisanni (Osman Tisani) an employee of Marcus Lynch of Barna, charged with aiding John Keane of the Connacht Rangers to desert. 

(Those who have an interest in Aran history may remember that it was Inspector Mercer who led the investigation earlier that year in Cill Rónáin, after the priest’s house had been bombed )

Sergeant O’Neill from the RIC barracks at the docks told of arresting John Keane on November 3rd 1908, on board a steamer that was about to depart for Glasgow.  

We are almost certain that the steamer in question was the SS Atalanta which regularly called at Galway. It was owned by the J&P Hutchinson shipping line of Glasgow. 

In March 1915 the Atalanta was set on fire and damaged off the island of Inishturk by a German submarine. The crew of sixteen managed to get to the island in their lifeboat where they reported being very well treated. The Atalanta was towed to Cleggan and later repaired. 

Some of the 16 man crew of the SS Atalanta in March 1915. 

Sergeant O’Neill had handed Private John Keane over to the army for court-martial and also told the court that the captain of the steamer told him that Keane’s passage had been paid for by a black man. 

Galway Dock in early 20th century. Photo N.L.Ireland. 
RIC barracks were at the top right beside what used to be, Delargy’s pub.

Sgt O’Neill told the court that the soldier was wearing dry, civilian clothes. He further told the court that Osman had later called to the barracks and admitted giving the clothes to John Keane.

The teenager from Africa was just a few years in Ireland and probably hadn’t yet learned the local motto of “Whatever you say, say nothing” or ever been given the traditional instruction to Irish children on how to deal with nosey neighbors, “tell them nothing”

The policeman claimed that Osman told him that he knew where Keane’s uniform was and would bring it to the barracks later that day. However, some of it had been burned he said and the red stripe had been cut out of the trouser legs. 

It’s not surprising that Osman was allowed go home to Barna as Marcus Lynch was one of Galway’s leading citizens and as well as being a Justice of the Peace, he had previously served as High Sheriff for Galway City. He was a member of the local Board of Guardians and served for many years as chairman of Galway Harbour Commissioners.

It’s likely that Marcus Lynch had been told that the police suspected a black man of helping John Keane and he probably encouraged Osman to call to the police barracks.

It would appear that Osman failed to return with the remains of the uniform. 

Sergeant O’Neill told of calling a couple of days later to Barna House only for Osman to allegedly say that he knew nothing about the uniform.  

Osman challenged the sergeant on this and claimed he was being misquoted. He said that when he met John Keane, he told him that he was starving. Osman then provided him with bread, tea and fish. 

Sergeant O’Neill then repeated that Osman Tisani had called to the station on the 5th and told him about the uniform. He also repeated that Osman had denied later knowing anything about the uniform. 

Next to take the stand was Sergeant O’Brien of Barna R.I.C station. 

The former RIC barracks at Freeport in Barna 

The uniform of the Connacht Rangers showing the stripe on the side 
of the trousers and the distinctive green collars and cuffs. 

Sergeant O’Brien told the court that acting on information, he went to Barna wood and hidden in a hole he found the trouser part of a uniform with the red stripe removed. He also found a cap with the badge removed and a great coat which had been cut into pieces. These items were produced in court.

Barna woods in December 2023.
In November 1908, clothes belonging to a deserting soldier,
were found hidden here by the police

At this stage Osman admitted giving the fleeing soldier a trousers and cap out of sympathy for him. The soldier had told him of having come from Oughterard and that he had been badly treated in Renmore, the home base of the Connacht Rangers. 

Defending solicitor Henry Murphy argued that as the case was brought under the Army Act regarding desertion, there was no evidence that his client knew Keane was a soldier. 

He also insisted that the information about a black man paying for the soldier’s passage, given to the police by the Steamer Captain, was not evidence and should be ignored. 

The policeman reminded the solicitor that Osman had mentioned that Keane had been badly treated at Renmore and that Osman had seen a letter from the soldier’s brother.

This effectively destroyed the solicitor’s claim of his client not knowing Private Keane was a soldier.

Renmore Barracks, home to the Connacht Rangers. (The Devil’s Own)
It was here that Private John Keane was based, in November 1908. 

In mitigation the chairman of the hearing said that the young man had spent many years in foreign countries and consequently may not have known the law. 

If he were an ordinary civilian he would have been given six months in jail, the chairman added. 

He continued “This man, although ignorant of the law has shown himself to be somewhat ingenious”. 

It’s obvious that the court did not want to impose a custodial sentence on Osman but a curious clause in the Army Act made it impossible to impose a fine. 

He was then sentenced to seven days hard labour in Galway prison. This sentence he duly served and was released on November 29th 1908. 

The prison in Galway where Osman Tisani served seven days hard 
Labour for trying to help a soldier to desert from Renmore barracks. 

The instinct to help another in need was probably reinforced in this young man, a long way from home, by what must obviously have been a traumatic early life. 

The prison record gives us an idea of what he may have been through. It describes him with having curly black hair, brown eyes, being five feet and five and a quarter inches tall and weighing 129 lbs. 

It gives his age as 23 but going on what Marcus Lynch recorded in the 1911 census, this may well be incorrect. His place of birth is recorded as Timbuktu French Coast Africa. This is in present day Mali. 

His father is listed as having the surname Tissame and we are unable to figure out the first name. His address is given as North Africa.

Possibly the most revealing information on the difficulties he faced in his young life can be found in the list headed MARKS ON PERSON. 

According to this, Osman had the sign of a wound on his left thigh and that one of his toes had been cut off. 

Prison record indicating Osmond’s troubled background. 

This all brings us back to the question of how a young African boy came to be living at Barna House where he seems to have been well treated. 

There are many different theories but his arrival in Barna was connected to the death of Marcus Lynch’s last son and heir in South Africa in 1900. 

Barna native, Captain Nicholas Lynch 1868-1900
Served in West Africa in the the 1890s and died 
in South Africa, a few months after arriving with his
Regiment during the second Boer war.

Some reports say Captain Nicholas Lynch of the South Lancashire Regiment was killed at the age of thirty two during the Boer war in November 1900. Reports of his death say he died after contracting enterie fever (Typhoid). This was only six months after his arriving in South Africa. 

It’s likely that he caught the fever while recovering from a wound sustained in battle. 

 Marcus’other son Arthur (1874-1892) had died as a teenager in 1892 after contracting fever while visiting relatives in Kilkenny. 

Some time after Captain Lynch’s death, a young African boy showed up in Barna and became part of the Lynch household. It’s likely that before he died, Captain Lynch had arranged this with his father. 

There are some theories about how Captain Lynch came to know the young boy. Some are a bit fanciful but if we accept that the most likely origin of Osman was West Africa it’s possible that either he or his father was a servant to Captain Lynch at some stage. 

In 1887 Nicholas Lynch was commissioned at age 19, as a 2nd lieutenant with the South Lancashire Regiment. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1889 and to Captain in 1894. 

Captain Lynch was  posted to what was then known as the Gold Coast Constabulary in 1893. In 1895 he was Adjutant to a Volunteer corps and in 1898 was part of the West African Frontier Force. It’s possible that Osman’s father was part of this force. 

The West African Frontier Force. 
This was a locally recruited force of 
African men who were part of British forces. Captain Nicholas 
Lynch of Barna was attached to this group during his years in the army. 

Osman was registered in the 1911 census as being from Timbuktu which was not under British control. However in 1893 the French had conquered the city and perhaps Osman and his family had moved to the Gold Coast. 

The wealth and location of the areas around the Gulf of Guinea
attracted a lot of European nations, eager to exploit the many natural resources. Nicholas Lynch was stationed 
in the Gold Coast for many years.

The Gold Coast today is the general area of The Republic of Ghana. 

Given that he was given such a great welcome at Barna House, it was only natural that locals wondered if Osman might be the son of Nicholas Lynch and an African mother. 

With no male heir and with two of his daughters nuns and the other unmarried, Marcus Lynch may have looked on Osman as his only grandchild. 

We will probably never know the exact details.  

According to local lore, Osman went to school in Barna, learned to speak Irish and played hurling for the local club.  Marcus Lynch is said to have built the local handball alley for the benefit of Osman and his friends. 

We can find no reference to Osman until his death at the asylum in Ballinasloe in 1920. He was named as Osman Joseph Tizani and the age given was 32. Cause of death was given as pulmonary congestion but it’s interesting to note that he was described as a farmer. 

It’s likely that the name Joseph was given to him at confirmation as he is described in 1911 as being a Roman Catholic. He is said to be buried in the local cemetery near Barna pier. 

How he ended up in the asylum is open to speculation but the traumas in early life and the curiosity of being the only African in a strange land, can’t have been easy. 

Being unthinkingly referred to locally as ‘Blackeen Bhearna’, must have felt very belittling for the young man. 

Some reports speculate that he developed a liking for Poitín but with the death of his main benefactor, Marcus Lynch, in 1916, his happy years in Barna were coming to an end. 

In his very well researched book ‘Barna-A History (2000) Padhraic Faherty tells of hearing of Osman having fallen in love with a local girl who emigrated to North America. Unrequited love may have contributed to his sad end. 

Those wishing to learn some more about Osman might like to read an article from Barna resident Windsong which wonders at what the real story is. 

With the death of Marcus Lynch, the entire Lynch connection with Barna was entering its last few years. 

One of the last acts by the Lynch family was the donation of an 
organ to Barna church. In 1934 Ethel sold out to the famous 
surgeon, Michael O’Malley and moved to Dublin.
She died in 1955. (Photo Connacht Tribune)

Marcus had three daughters, two of them nuns. After Marcus died his sister Margaret Mary (Lily)  ran things for a few years but after she died in 1930 the responsibility fell on his daughter Ethel. Much of the lands had been taken over by the Land Commission in 1923. 

The Lynch family had a strong connection with the local parish as 
the location of their family vault demonstrates. However, they were the  local landlords in Barna and on occasion evicted tenants. 
This probably explains why a flock of 23 sheep belonging to Marcus
was  destroyed in 1885 with some being stolen, others maimed 
and the remaining thrown to their deaths over the cliffs in the distance. 

Galway Golf club had occupied some of his land from about 1905 until 1925 when it moved to its present location. 

Osman Tisani wasn’t the first exotic resident at Barna House. In Paris in 1867 Marcus had met and married Blanche, the young daughter of the Polish emigre, Count Julius Marylski of Leucryca, Posen and Harriet, his Irish wife. Blanche was born in Paris in 1846. 

The teenage Blanche was said to be among the most beautiful women in Europe. 

A brother of Blanche, Arthur Eustace de Marylski died at Barna house in 1872 at 29 years of age. Curiously, he is buried in the grounds of St Nicholas church in Galway. 

The grave at St Nicholas Collegiate Church in Galway of 
Arthur De Marylski who died in 1872 at Barna House. 

Blanche had died in May 1908, just a few months before Osman being sent to prison. 

So, our story about the distress on the Aran islands in the late 19th century led us to an incredible story about Osman Tisani and his years in Barna and the West of Ireland. 

Mind you, this is not the only connection between the Bearna/Na Forbacha area and the islands. As well as a number of islanders making their homes there in recent years, the island’s patron Naomh Éanna is said to have prayed here as he made his 5th century journey west, before sailing to Árainn from Gorumna. 

The waters of this well are reputed to have healing powers of sight and hearing. 
A well maintained spot just off the main road to South Connemara 

Tobar Éanna where the saint stopped and prayed on the road to Trá na gCeann.(Silver Strand)

A large number of islanders have Gill DNA and while some say that the Gills originated from around Murrisk near Croagh Patrick, others claim that they came from Bearna. Perhaps they came from Mayo but via Bearna, or indeed from both locations. 

If this were a Charles Dickens story it would surely end up with the fleeing soldier returning as a wealthy man in later years, to help the lad who had taken pity on him long before. Sadly, Osman Tizani’s story had no happy ending. 

Barna woods is today a fantastic asset for the public to enjoy and all credit to those who brought this about and continue to maintain it. 

The Lynch vault in Barna with Osman’s ball alley in the background. 

Every time now that we pass Barna woods, Osman’s handball alley and the Lynch vault at Barna church, we will remember those who are long dead and in particular, Osman Tisani, who went out of his way in 1908 and took pity on a fellow human being.

Michael Muldoon.

December 2023