Finding Adelaide O’Keeffe in 2021

Lynda A. O’Keeffe is a researcher/writer who lives between England and Ireland. She has contributed to numerous publications including History Ireland and various online publications including the Irish Literary Society. She has recently completed a historical novel about the life and works of John O’Keeffe and is currently writing a stage play about John’s extraordinary life reflecting the effect of blindness in shaping his work, and intends to write about Adelaide.

Lynda has joined me a couple of times now to share some of her research into the lives of John O’Keeffe, the blind playwright and his devoted daughter, Adelaide. Well, she’s back with  lovely story about one of her discoveries – the gravestone of Adelaide. So without further ado, I’ll hand over to Lynda:

Under what guise would the intention of grave hunting be labelled? Some may say, curiosity, even morbid curiosity, familial research, genealogy or just the simple desire to reify a particular relationship?

In the case of Adelaide it was a stubborn desire to know more about an extraordinary woman. A woman who from the age of twelve years worked for forty five years as her blind father’s amanuensis, companion and carer. Although as his amanuensis she  lived in the shadow of his playwright fame, she shone her own bright light in the books she authored. In 1833, Adelaide’s father died leaving the then fifty seven year old spinster alone and in poverty. She had declined offers of marriage to care for her father, and some may say, she sacrificed her entire life for him.

Courtesy of NPG
Courtesy of NPG

After her fathers death, Adelaide led a somewhat itinerant life, staying for short periods around the villages on the Sussex coastline. There are so many questions about the day to day circumstances of a woman who played an important and vital role in the education of children, yet as a person remained somewhat unknown and now forgotten. Like so many women in the 18th and 19th century, Adelaide must have battled hard for recognition in a gender biased society, were the employment of women was frowned upon.

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

Did the income from her writing provide periods of relief from her poverty, did she work as a governess, have  friends to support her, and did she ever regret the sacrifices she made on account of her father’s disability? There is something there that demands respect and admiration for a woman living alone in a time that cannot be compared with life today.

Adelaide, her life and work is an enigma, with a thought and a whisper, Adelaide should have recognition. With so many unanswered questions, the quest to find her final resting place began. A quick trawl on Ancestry showed that she died in Brighton. On the 1861 Census, she is listed as a boarder aged eighty five; the other boarders are women half a century or more younger than her.

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

Armed with the date of Adelaide’s passing, an email was sent to Brighton cemeteries and shortly after a reply, stating Adelaide’s final resting place as the Extra Mural Cemetery on Lewes Road, Brighton. The kindly man in the office, listened patiently as the story of Adelaide was told, persuading him to dig out the burial records from 1865. Adelaide’s burial was not that of a pauper, he said, but of average cost, her casket was oak and the funeral rites were led by a chaplain. There is no indication of who attended her funeral, bought the burial plot or placed the gravestone with its tender inscription.

A strong urge, or perhaps a compulsion, a nagging insistence that Adelaide’s grave needed to be visited, to say that first hello, utter a prayer and lay flowers for a person who gave up so much for her father, and gave so much to the world through her literary genius. This compulsion was not borne of pity, but of admiration for a woman who quietly achieved. The kindly man in the cemetery office dug out a map of the burial grounds and thereupon the location of Adelaide’s grave was revealed, but only literally, not physically!

The pandemic struck and all notions of locating and visiting Adelaide’s grave were put on hold, as the world hunkered down in terror of this ghost like virus that lurked unseen, devastating lives in its wake. A miserable, dark time when visiting a cemetery seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind.

In November 2021, the world seemed to relax and the virus loosened its grip and the terror began to dissipate, as if in celebration the sky was blue, hardly a cloud in the sky and the sun shone on the day the long journey to the Extra Mural Cemetery in Brighton began.  With a car packed with spade, forks, secateurs, trowel, gardening gloves, the obligatory hand sanitiser, face masks and a box of chocolate truffles to thank kindly man for his help; all set for the long awaited discovery of Adelaide’s grave. However, now reading this back, it sounds more like preparations for a grave robbery or that of a body snatcher.

Arriving promptly at 12 noon as pre arranged with kindly man in the cemetery office and with all the ‘grave-hunters’ paraphernalia slung over a shoulder, said kindly man proceeds to march in an authoritative fashion in the direction of where Adelaide’s grave should be. Up a slightly hilly road, turning left and down a steep gravelly path it was becoming increasingly difficult to balance with one heavy spade in left hand and large bag with gardening tools in right, but onwards kindly man marched without a thought for the ‘pack person’ struggling behind him. You might well ask where the chocolate truffles were at this stage of the journey, I had given them on meeting kindly man.

Back to our story, it was at this point that the questioning began for the the reasoning  behind this unlikely excursion. Upon reaching the end of the gravelly path, he turned sharp right onto a tarmac path and comes to an abrupt halt and points to a wall, saying, ‘Her grave is somewhere over there.’ The sight of the wall presented a conundrum…a ladder had not been thought of, how to get over the wall? So near, yet so far. Recognising the concern about the wall, kindly man, then marches further along the tarmac path and says, ‘No need for a ladder, we can go this way’.

Further we yomp, until arriving at a small muddy track that leads upwards into an area of thick undergrowth, a luxurious green carpet woven with ivy, bramble and periwinkle – all made treacherous by their ability to tangle around an unsuspecting foot, the area was also on a slope! The only paths that criss crossed the green carpet, were those of rabbits. There were no headstones that could be used as markers, it was only then that the reality kicked in that it was going to be near impossible to find Adelaide in this overgrown wilderness with it’s residents sleeping silently underfoot.

Kindly man stops and stretching out his arms, announces, ‘Her grave should be somewhere around here.’ This somewhere could have been one hundred metres radius or half a metre, what difference did it make? The challenge was there, we had come so far… In desperation, a plea, which was intended to be silent, poured forth, ‘Oh come on, Adelaide. show us where you are.’

Kindly man, looked concerned and in an attempt to ignore, busied himself by pushing and clearing the undergrowth with his booted foot. ‘Hang on’ he says, ‘Here’s something, it says authoress.’ Of course it had to be Adelaide! Further clearance of the tangled ivy and bramble revealed part of the inscription of the gravestone – Adelaide, we had found her, hooray.

Now dear reader picture this, sloping ground covered in undergrowth and one  person on hands and knees with secateurs excitedly cutting away the  ivy, whilst trying to maintain an element of dignity whilst slipping down the slope, being watched over by a solemn cemetery officer. How glorious were the words when, kindly man says…’Excuse me, if you don’t mind…’ At last he was to take charge of the spade, clear the undergrowth, oh the delight…he continued,  ‘…I will go for my lunch.’ ‘Oh…’ was the slightly miffed reply, ‘Is it safe here, in this secluded part of the cemetery?’ As he strode off in his authoritarian gait in search of his lunchbox, he stopped and turned for a second to say,  ‘We’ve never had any trouble, you have my telephone number if you do have a problem.’

Now alone with Adelaide in her secret garden, her gravestone revealed, and  the inscription exposed.  A prayer was uttered and flowers laid and somewhere in a far away place, perhaps in one’s psyche or imagination, or maybe, Adelaide was there, laughter could be heard and a smile imagined.

Did Adelaide regret the sacrifices she made? Read the inscription and then conclude.

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

Rest in peace, dear Adelaide

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

Featured Image

View of Brighton Extra Mural Cemetery