William Coffey’s early life

So where then was William Coffey born, if not in the non-existent ‘Conlay Hospital’? Coffey sometimes gave his place of birth as Hospital - the name of a town in County Limerick, Ireland. But when more detail was required, he said that he was born in the parish of ‘Emlay’ (Emly), giving ‘Hospital’ as the nearest town and ‘Limerick’ as the county. This narrows down Coffey’s birthplace to a very small area. While the civil parish of Emly lies in the county of Tipperary, the Catholic parish of Emly goes just over the county border into Limerick, into the civil parish of Knocklong, not far from the town of Hospital. It was in this area of about a square mile that Coffey said he was born.

Another mistake made by McCrery was to name Coffey’s parents as James Coffey and Mary Larkin. Now there is indeed a William Coffey born to a James Coffey and a Mary Coffey (née Larkin) in the neighbouring parish of Kilteely. This William Coffey, however, was born in 1843. So he could hardly be our William Coffey - a William Coffey born in 1843 could only have been three years old when our William Coffey joined the army! Our William Coffey in fact gave his father’s name as William, not as James. His parents were almost certainly William Coffey and Johanna Healy, who married in the Catholic church at Emly village on 21 January 1820, witnessed by Michael Brien and Bridget Murphy.

At the time of their marriage William and Johanna were living in the township of Lisobyhane, which was in the larger part of the parish that falls in County Tipperary. But they subsequently moved north-west into the tiny part of Emly parish that falls in County Limerick, the part in which Coffey himself said he was born. On the occasion of the baptism of their son, Timothy, on 23 May 1829, William and Johanna Coffey’s address was recorded as the township of Corbally. When James Coffey was baptised on 24 June 1832 their address was the neighbouring township of Lackelly, and when John was baptised on 28 March 1835 it was once more Corbally. Corbally and Lackelly are adjacent townships in the Limerick part of Emly parish: they were practically the same address, and the family may not have moved around the area at all.

It has been estimated that only about seventy per cent of baptisms found their way into church registers, either because the baptisms were performed at home or for some other reason. William Coffey is one of those whose name fails to appear. One possibility may be that his family simply moved for a time into one of the neighbouring parishes that has no records from this period. Nevertheless, Coffey’s army papers show that he believed himself to have been born in Emly parish, Co. Limerick.

His papers also imply that he was born on 25 January 1829, because his pensionable service was reckoned from 25 January 1847, which was evidently taken as his eighteenth birthday. This date of birth, however, is impossible, if only because Timothy was definitely born in the May of that year. William may have been born earlier - the 1851 census suggests he was born in 1828; or he may have been born later, as suggested by the 1871 census and his death certificate; or he may even have been Timothy’s twin. Probably, like many men and women of his time, he was unsure of his age and simply found himself having to invent an age and birthday for himself at enlistment. The men and women of Coffey’s time are of course notorious among genealogists for varying their given ages through life. When Timothy followed William into the army at the age of twenty-three, he gave his age as nineteen!

According to Coffey, his father was a labourer. As such his father would have made agreements with a local farmer to work on his land. In exchange for this work he would have had a simple cabin for himself and his family, permission to cut turf for fuel, the privilege of keeping a pig, and - most important of all - land for cultivating potatoes. Potatoes were the subsistence crop of half the population. Every year there would have been a time of hardship for the Coffeys between the final consumption of the previous year’s crop and the arrival of the new. Until the arrival of the new crop in October, labourers and their families might have to rely on having the money from elsewhere to purchase meal or potatoes and, as a last resort, on selling their pig, which was perhaps all there might be to keep them from destitution and the workhouse. It was a vulnerable way of life.

Emly itself, though a village of only some 650 inhabitants during William’s childhood, had once been one of the three principal settlements of ancient Ireland. Though its importance had waned since the Reformation, its Christian history went back further than St Patrick. It had also been the site of a religious house founded by St Ailbe, Emly’s first bishop, in the sixth century. Each year on the saint’s feast day, 12 September, the Coffeys would have joined the other Catholics of the parish in making a pilgrimage to the stone cross and holy well  - ‘St Ailbe’s well’ - that stood in the graveyard of the church where William and Johanna had married. The parish also had its annual fairs, then only on 21 May and 22 September, though the privilege of holding markets and fairs had been granted to Emly in the thirteenth century by King John.

Hospital, the nearest town, also had its history. It took its name from a ‘hospital’, a religious and military base set up there in the thirteenth century by the Knights Templar, one of the great military orders of medieval Christendom. William would surely have visited the ruins of their ancient church and seen the founder’s tomb and the figure of a knight in a niche in the chancel wall. Cattle fairs were held in Hospital four times a year, while in the village of Knocklong (nearer to Coffey’s birthplace than Emly village) there was a butter market every Tuesday, with fairs held on 23 May and 1 October for cattle, sheep and pigs, the October fair also featuring a large show of horses. Then there were castles to see in the area, the ruins of Knocklong Castle and in the grounds of Ryves Castle an ancient burial ground.

The parish of Emly itself had been the site of important battles against the Danes in the ninth century. Around the time of William’s boyhood there were often noteworthy finds in the bogland of his parish: an ancient canoe, rich armlets of gold, and bronze swords. It is difficult not to imagine Coffey out with his brothers searching for such treasures, his imagination filled with knights, castles, swords and battle.