For almost seven months I have tried to write fully about the passing of the extremely special person, Dr. Jane Lyons. Perhaps my difficulty has been in part due to the fact that posting such on this blog would effectively close the parenthesis of our approximately 20-year-long energetic journey together. One morning at the beginning of February I woke from a fairy-tale like dream in which my soul-friend was cheerfully introducing me to her magical world in a beautiful place full of heart, creativity, love, and even, costume. Jane and I were sharing yet another adventure together, but unlike any we had in the past, and she wanted me to know she was deeply happy and fulfilled. That I know Jane died in her sleep on August 6, 2022, and has more recently assured me that she is at peace, I continue to try to write.
Owner of the formerly enormous website, FromIreland.net, Jane Lyons introduced herself at a conference eight years ago in this way: “…I am not an archeologist, I’m not an historian, I am a scientist and engineer who drifted into genealogy and gravestones back in 1996. In 1996 I began transcribing gravestones in County Laois and between 1996 and 1998 I transcribed, we’ll say, maybe two-thirds of every gravestone that was pre-1901…At the time I was a lecturer at UCD. By 2001 I opened up a website, and the website gets 1,000 visitors a day, minimum. I own a very large genealogy mail list, one of the largest in the world, and in the last few years I’ve discovered FaceBook, and I’m very noisy on that.” (Listen to her here.) In addition to the wealth of other forms of useful documentation about early places and snippets of Irish history from various historic documents, Jane had webpages of transcriptions for 122 graveyards at that point, and had taken about 200,000 photographs. Her website led me to her when I began my own research in 2001. Why was it that anything I keyword searched online kept dropping me into her site? After writing her a fan email, I joined her listserv and the rest is our own history.
I am grateful to have been able to be an online observer of the beautiful Humanist Celebration of Life that Jane’s beloved children and friends created for her in Dublin on August 13. All details were heartfelt, embracing aspects of Jane’s life and passions. The altar made of her woven casket was surrounded with love and thoughtfulness, as her camera, her well-worn and constant boots, her dog’s leash, her garden flowers and other touches were reverently added to it in stages by the younger members of her family. Traditional flute, contemporary Leonard Cohen music and a tribute to her incredible work in saving and sharing Irish history that cannot be found in books honored her well. Through my tears I felt her smiling and approving, her love flowing over all present. Somehow this vicarious witnessing helped ease my sense of loss, though I could only own a fraction of that being felt by those who grew up with, through and around her.
Back in the days before the Internet as we now know it, before social media and all that has become, Jane and I were fairly constant companions in cyberspace through her online group, Y-IRL. There, she befriended and opened up her world to me while others in this virtual international community also began to help me “learn to learn” about Irish ancestral history, times and places. She and other members patiently shared insights that taught me by example how to conduct genealogical research. (Eventually I also took online courses, imagining I might even one day hang a shingle and change my profession, having fallen completely “down the rabbit hole”!)
We communicated “across the pond”, around the world, through the ether, while Jane generously orchestrated the gathering between strangers in a way and on a scale that I believe had never happened before and could not happen again. Pre-FaceBook or any of its offshoots, Jane’s listserv invented itself as its regular participants engaged in deep and thoughtful ways, sharing knowledge and opinions in an atmosphere of kindness and civility, in ways that made one feel that all could potentially become friends. In fact, those living in proximity to each other did arrange to gather occasionally at mutually agreed-upon places, dates and times, to enjoy conversing and eating together. I participated in some of these and arranged my own different kind in Connecticut, to gather together those with whom I was in regular contact regarding our common place-based research, so that we all could meet each other. (Thanks to the Naugatuck Historical Society for allowing large gatherings to happen twice, with great results!)
Jane Lyons drove endless miles throughout Ireland as she scoured long-ignored cemeteries, photographed and transcribed tombstones and shared the results publicly long before anyone had thought to do what would become an official effort, en masse, by the late 2000s. Jane had become a full and almost daily presence in my life into the mid 2000s. She so inspired me that by 2006 I had also begun a website of my Irish-focused efforts, posting transcriptions for important cemeteries in New Haven County where the earliest Irish-American settlers were buried. I hoped to create a bridge back to her research while seeking the correct locations for my own people. For a time, Jane and I acted as sympathetic parallels of each other.
Then, one day, Jane had a terrible accident that required she be kept in a coma for three weeks, a portion of her skull being kept alive within her body while the swelling in her head diminished. Her world-wide community was silenced in shock and fear, her heightened importance to everyone becoming realized starkly, acutely. When the day arrived that she posted online again—and all of us could finally let out our breaths—I announced to my husband, “We need to go to Ireland!” This, my/our second trip, was specifically in order to meet Jane. Upon return I began this blog. With each of my three subsequent pilgrimages to Ireland, seeing and spending extended time with Jane was an important part of the experience. That Jane also came to see me in America for the book release of my From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley, became an expanded occasion for her to also visit some of the individuals and groups who were participants on her listserv. It was a thrilling full-circle time for everyone. Having picked her up at the airport at the beginning of her trip, she stayed with us where we were staying, we spent time with her in New England, then passed her on to make the circuit of gatherings in other places, then met up with her again at a gathering in Washington D.C. and brought her back to spend another week with my husband and me in Baltimore before we reluctantly brought her to the airport as she headed back to Ireland.
Though I can count the number of times we have physically been in the same place over the same extended times, each of those real-life connections were outsized in their importance and fullness, nurturing the mutual feeling that we had known each other since childhood and gone through decades of life together. Jane became one of the people in my life to whom I am permanently tethered by memory through places and chapters of time, and for whom the relationship required more engagement than emails. Perhaps our spirits were meant to meet and play roles in each other’s lives from the beginning. It may take a lifetime to get to find all such individuals, but Hallelujah for those of us fortunate to have found many of them!
COVID’s arrival in 2019/2020 meant that my blog stopped being about research and scholarship about Ireland, which suddenly seemed inappropriate and irrelevant given the severity of Humanity’s frightening health crisis. Yet I never fully shut it down. As memories of Jane reel through my thoughts like still photographs in progression, I will close by offering a few images here, and sending love out to those who still feel her connection. Thank you, Jane, for giving so fully of yourself and for all the wonderful moments we shared. You will always live on in my heart!
©2023 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
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