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A Journey to 18th Century Tuam

In June 2002 I made a journey to my roots in the west of Ireland. Of course, the Tuam I found at the other end was the modern day Tuam, but I was searching for evidence of what Tuam was like for the Sandfords who lived there 200 years ago. As I made my journey from the busy Heathrow to Dublin Airport, got into the hire car and drove away from the jammed Dublin ring road into the Irish countryside on a fine summer evening, I imagined I was travelling back in time. Increasingly rural sights and vistas unfolded. I thought of the contrast with my only previous visit to Ireland in 1964.

In ’64, I had taken my Austin 10 with four college friends, and we had toured along the south coast of Ireland and up the west coast. Some of my memories are of rainy days, which had tested the tents in which we camped. I remember driving back across Ireland from Achill to Dublin on a very wet rainy day, with little to be seen but expanses of bogs! What a contrast that memory was with this summer evening and the excitement as I made my way into county Galway.

One clear memory I have from ’64 is that, as we went north through Galway City, we bore left to explore the Connemara, and there we passed a sign for Tuam. I already knew then that my ancestors were associated with Tuam, where there was a memorial at the Cathedral. My grandfather, who had died in 1963, often spoke of his father's Irish roots, although at that time I was unable to get the details clearly organised in my mind. So it was in 1964 that I had passed by that sign to Tuam, and I was to wait another 38 years before making this journey to find my roots.

Returning to 2002, I made good progress and pressed westward through the quiet by-roads of county Galway, and in the gathering dusk I entered Tuam and found St. Mary’s Cathedral.

St Mary's Cathedral Tuam, Church of Ireland

In the gloom I made a quick and unsuccessful tour of the churchyard where I expected to find the tombs of my great great great grandfather Beech Sandford (1775 – 1841) and his father John Sandford (1751 – 1817). I thought I might be challenged, if I were to be discovered wandering around the gravestones at night. So, I decided to wait for the light next morning, and went in search of a room, which I found in the old Imperial Hotel, right at the crossroads in the town centre. I wondered how many Sandfords had crossed its threshold 200 years ago, and with a feeling of contentment at being “home” but with impatience for the morning went off to sleep.

Imperial Hotel, Town Centre

Next morning at breakfast the TV was showing the football world cup match that England was playing in Japan or Korea, but I was not lingering. I learnt from the desk staff that the local historian was a John Claffey, who might help me with my quest. I went down the road to St. Mary’s and in the daylight I quickly found the “altar” tomb of Beech Sandford.

Tombs of Beech Sandford (d. 1841) & John Sandford (d. 1817)

A complete search of the churchyard failed to locate John Sandford, so I went to a bookshop where I bought the only book they had on sale about Tuam. It was edited by the local historian, John Claffey, but dealt primarily with Tuam after 1836. In a quick scan I did not find anything about my ancestors. Next I waited for the library to open. There I found a copy of the book, which I had previously consulted in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It celebrated the restoration of St. Mary’s, and had a chart of the graves. This reminded me that John Sandford was buried right beside Beech Sandford’s grave. Back in the churchyard I saw how I had overlooked the words John Sandford hidden in the middle of the weathered inscription, which had been made hard to read by the damp and the moss on the gravestone. In fact, both Beech and John were in a prominent position just to the south of what would have been an old south entrance to the nave, before the cathedral was restored and extended west in the period 1863 – 1878.

The cathedral itself was locked, so I was unable to go inside. However, I was well pleased with my discoveries, so I went to collect my car. As I passed by again on my way out of Tuam, I noticed that a car was parked at the entrance, so I stopped again to see if the church was open. I found the door to the chapter house ajar, and inside two people were planning a historical exhibition, which unfortunately I would miss. I expressed my interest in the 12th. Century carved chancel arch and the town’s High Cross, but alas, although we could see through into the modern cathedral, these were not visible and they had no key.

As I left the building I explained my mission, and my success in finding the Sandford graves. Imagine then my amazement when it transpired that I was talking to none other than Dr A Claffey. I was pleased to able to tell him I had just bought his book. In turn he immediately said that Beech Sandford was a name he knew. He told me of the location of a house called Beech House, which had been in the 19th Century a solicitor’s office, but was now a shop and residential premises. I followed his directions, and soon found the house at the corner of Dublin Road and Circular Road. Surely this must have once been a family property. Perhaps, I was finally gazing on my 18th Century ancestral home!

Beech House - a Sandford home in the early 1800s?

I then had to leave Tuam to go to an academic workshop being held at Skreen in Sligo, which was the home of my great great great great uncle Rev. Gabriel Stokes (1762 – 1834). But that is completely different Irish branch of my family, and a story for another place.

A couple of days later I had another glorious drive back to Dublin from Sligo. This time it was very early in the morning, and I stopped right in the centre of Dublin and explored Trinity College, which I could not really remember from my visit 38 years ago to see the Book of Kells. The library was of course closed at 7.30 am, but I resolved to return to see what family records I could find in its archives. In the meantime, I strolled around absorbing the beauty of the TCD quadrangle, which must have impressed my great great grandfather when he arrived there from Tuam in 1836.

Trinity College Dublin - Campanile, 1856

Michael Sandford - 30 May 2004

Index page      Introduction     John Sandford     Beech Sandford       William Sandford      John Beech Sandford


St. Mary's Cathedral (Church of Ireland), Tuam :
an architectural, archaeological and historical guide.
Ed: Jim Higgins and Aisling Parsons.
Pub.: Friends of St. Mary's Cathedral, Tuam, c1995