Catherine Disney (1800-1853) is known as the ‘lost love’ of the Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), but about herself little is known. Based on what Hamilton wrote about her and scraps of information which were found on various places, extended with conclusions which could be drawn from known events, this is a sketch of how she fell in love with Hamilton in 1824, what the motives may have been for her family to force her to marry the reverend William Barlow (1792-1871), what may have triggered her suicide attempt in 1848 after which she did not live with Barlow any more, and how she spoke with Hamilton shortly before she died. In these two interviews she could finally tell Hamilton that she had also loved him.
In the last chapters it is discussed how Catherine’s unhappiness seems to have influenced her eldest son, James Barlow (1826-1913), and through him also her granddaughter Jane Barlow (1856-1917). This sketch is supplementary to the essay A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton. But being self-contained, it can also be read on its own.
Due to the scarcity of information about Catherine Disney, in this sketch I interpreted far more freely than I did in the essay about Hamilton. If there are readers who believe that I have misinterpreted or left out important information, or who have additional information, I would be very happy to hear about it, at victorian_marriage @ annevanweerden.nl.
The sketch can be read online in The Internet Archive’s BookReader, see the link on top of this page. In case offline reading is preferred, it can be downloaded below as a pdf (left) or an epub (right).
For further publications, see Publications
The books have only been printed in hardback copies, which cost €27.50 each (not including postal charges). It is freely available online, for instance on Google Books, Catherine Disney, but in case paper books are indeed preferred: they can be ordered by filling in a form at BoekenGilde. Clicking on the box: Beschikbaarheid opvragen = Request availability, shows the form in which Naam = Name, E-mailadres = E-mail address, Gewenst aantal boeken = Desired number of books, Versturen = Send. It will be read both by BoekenGilde and me; if we receive ten requests, the corrected version of the sketch will be printed in an again small edition.
The epub was made with a beautiful template my nephew had made for me when I was writing A Victorian Marriage. But because Google Books and some e-readers require epub 2 or 3, I made two additional versions, Catherine_Disney_2.0.1.epub, Catherine_Disney_3.0.1.epub
Using the ideas developed in my essay A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton, which can be read in the BookReader link at the top of this page or downloaded here, a summary of our view on how Catherine’s unhappiness influenced Hamilton can be found in the article we wrote about him: A most gossiped about genius : Sir William Rowan Hamilton.
Utrecht, 22 February 2020
When we were in Trinity College Library last summer, we saw Hamilton’s notebook containing both 1848, the year of Catherine’s suicide attempt, and 1853, the year of her death. The notebook contained the two quotes which were given in the book Myths Exploded, as given below, about Hamilton’s “secret petitions,” clearly showing his distress after Catherine’s death, and James Barlow’s remark, about how terribly unhappy his mother had been.
Yet the notebook contained more surprises, again explaining remarks and events. I had planned to work them out before writing about them, but time and circumstances makes that something for the very long run. I will therefore give them now, and perhaps later write some more, or further correct them.
Very remarkable, but not changing the story as given in Catherine’s biographical sketch, is that apparently Brabazon suffered a severe accident in his childhood, causing him to fall behind at school. Changing the story a bit is that when Catherine died, her sons Brabazon and Arthur were not at home, they were at sea. That means that of her sons only James William and Thomas Disney may have been present when Catherine died.
Quite amazing is that Hamilton wrote about Catherine feeling very guilty about the death of John Lambert, whom they apparently called “Johnnie”; he died in 1849, when he was only eight years old. He died less than a year after her suicide attempt, and she had been afraid that he had died because of her neglect, something she must have told Hamilton in one of their two ‘parting interviews.’ It underpins the idea that she indeed suffered very much from feelings of guilt, as I had suggested in my biographical sketch, yet now it seems to have been even more intense than I had assumed, and lasted until her death instead of until her separation of Barlow, as I had hoped for her.
In that sense even more remarkable is she did not write her heartbreaking sentence, “to the mercy of God in Christ I look alone, for pardon for all my sins” as a conclusion of the 1848 six-week correspondence, as I had understood, but she said that to Hamilton in one of their parting interviews. It again emphasizes that she remained very unhappy until her very last days, which explains James Barlow’s remark after his mother’s death, that he knew “the change a happy one for her, as she was for so long a time in a very great mental affliction and depression.” It is sad; even her last years were less quiet than I suggested in my sketch which seemed already unhappy enough.
All this openly shown unhappiness must also have made the parting interviews even more difficult for Hamilton than I had suggested; he must have been devastated not only because she had loved him and he had not known about it, but also that she was even more unhappy than he had known already. It makes his hatred against Barlow quite understandable, and it is a good thing that he did not have it in him to really act upon such feelings. Without revealing her identity other than to her family and Lady Campbell, he started to write about Catherine and her unhappiness, and wrote very many letters. Which he certainly will have needed, as a married man not being allowed to talk about it openly.
Lasty, there was a big surprise. The notebook contains a copy, in shorthand, of a letter sent from the Observatory on 21 September 1848, to James William Barlow, who apparently was in Carlingford, where his parents and in any case their youngest son Johnnie then lived. It might mean that my suggestion that Hamilton remained in Parsonstown after 12 September is not true. I asked Birr Castle whether they could shed light on the dates of Hamilton’s visit to Parsonstown, if he perhaps left but returned for a second time, but unfortunately, the oldest Visitor’s Book is from 1850. It therewith appears to be beyond my capabilities to solve this riddle.
Yet is does not say that Catherine wrote her suicide letter in September, as Hankins suggested. While being in Parsonstown Hamilton wrote letters about his visit to James Barlow, which would have been almost cruel had he known that James’ mother just had tried to commit suicide. Likewise, in the letter of 21 September the word Quaternion can be deciphered, and again that would be quite insensitive in such circumstances. Moreover, he sent the letter to Carlingford, allowing for the possibility that James Barlow’s father would see it, only some weeks after his wife would have tried to commit suicide. Knowing how honest Hamilton was, it is completely unimaginable that Hamilton would do something like that, and risk bringing James Barlow in such a difficult position.
Having returned again to Parsonstown, later in September 1848, and thus receiving Catherine’s sucide letter in October, is therefore still a possibility; Graves remarks that “soon after his return to the Dunsink Observatory, [Hamilton] received letters from his noble host and hostess.” Hamilton answered Lady Rosse, who had sent a poem written by Robinson, on 18 October, and he answered Lord Rosse on the 24th, but this delay was due to a search for some early optical investigations which were requested by Lord Rosse [Van Weerden 2017, 285-286]. It does not sound at all as if more than a month had passed since his return to the Observatory.And there were certainly compelling reasons to be in Parsonstown and be able to use Lord Rosse’s gigantic telescope, the Leviathan; on 16 September Hyperion, the eighth moon of Saturn was found, and in any case on 22 September the return of comet Encke was seen. Hamilton always was enthusiastic about astronomical events such as comets and eclipses, and it is very well possible that he could not see Hyperion with the Dunsink instruments. It would not be too surprising if in that case the Royal Astronomer of Ireland would go to Parsonstown to try to see this new moon, and the nights between 21 September and 5 October would be perfect for a search after Hyperion. The rings would not reappear again that year, and on 27 September it would be new moon. On 21 September Saturn would cross the meridian at half past eleven in the evening, just before moonrise, and at 5 October Saturn would cross at half past ten, just after the moon had set. In that time frame, between 21 September and 5 October, in case of clear skies Saturn thus would be seen in moonless circumstances.
That also means that the comet Encke could be seen in ideal circumstances; from its discovery in September until its perihelion in November, it could be seen from the northern hemisphere. The moonless nights around the time of the new moon, on 27 September, would also make trying to observe this phenomenon worthwhile; if not with the Leviathan (the comet may not have crossed the meridian in the night), then perhaps with Lord Rosse’s three-foot telescope, which was still better than the Dunsink telescopes.*
* In 1835 Hamilton wrote to his wife about the three-foot telescope, “it was really surprising to see the great brilliancy of the planets, and even of some stars which were not of the first magnitude. When the tube was nearly, but not exactly, adjusted to Jupiter, so strong a light was thrown upon the side by the reflexion from the mirror, that it reminded me of the light thrown on the ground by a coach-lantern [...]; whereas my largest object-glass does not throw a sensible picture on paper (so far as I remember) of any but the brightest stars and planets.”
Utrecht, 31 August 2019
In my sketch I reasoned that Catherine could not have been born in 1806 as is often assumed, because her brother Henry Purdon must have been born in 1806, and her brother James in 1807 [Van Weerden 2017, 10 footnote 29]. What I had not discussed was the possibility that Henry and James might have been twins, which is certainly not unthinkable knowing that Henry entered TCD on 1 July 1822, fifteen years old, and James entered TCD on 7 July 1823, sixteen years old.
Yet, Henry and James having been twins seems very unlikely because neither Hamilton nor Graves, nor any text on the Internet Archive I found, mentioned anything about them having been twins. Graves most likely would have mentioned it; he did mention the possibility that uncle James Hamilton had been twins (which he had been indeed), or that there had been twin brothers in the Hamilton family. Furthermore, James Disney having entered a year after his brother Henry although they were twins would suggest that there had been a reason that James entered later, something like a very severe illness, and there is no mention of that. Another option could have been that he simply was less intelligent than his brother Henry and needed more time for his entrance preparations, but having been a premium man [Graves 1882, 179], that is also very unlikely.
Unexpectedly I now found this apparently recent entry, Find a Grave -- Rev Henry Purdon Disney in which the headstone of Henry and his father Thomas Disney is shown, they were buried in Tullyvallen-Newtownhamilton, Old Church of Ireland, Newry, County Armagh, Northern Ireland. On the headstone it is written that Henry died on 11 July 1854, and that he was “aged 48 years.” That means that he was born in 1805 or 1806.
Not having assumed Henry and James to be twins, in the above mentioned footnote I had concluded that Henry must have turned sixteen very soon after entrance, and that also seems to be confirmed by the data on the headstone. Of course, especially the accuracy of the entrance record can be doubted, yet until a birth record is found, or a newspaper article showing when he was born exactly, the best available data so far are the entrance record and the headstone, which state that Henry was 15 on 1 July 1822, and 48 on 11 July 1854. The consequence is that he must have turned forty-eight between 1 and 11 July, and that is indeed in accord with my conclusion that he turned sixteen very soon after entrance. If Henry thus was born in July 1806, it is impossible that Catherine was born in 1806.
Utrecht, 11 June 2019
After I had finished my sketch about Catherine, it slowly began to dawn on me that something was wrong with her family tree on the Geni website. In my sketch I had happily mentioned that Catherine’s lineage could be followed up to her first known ancestor, Lambert De Isney, but looking at John Burke’s A genealogical and heraldic history of the commoners of Great Britain and Ireland again, it became obvious that it was impossible. The problem was that to the family of Sir Henry D'Isney (1569-1641) a son, William Disney Sr. (ca 1600-1667), had been added who was not in Burke’s Commoners.
Searching online for more information, it appeared that in his Commoners Burke only gives three sons of Sir Henry D’Isney, namely William (1589-1656), John (1603-1680/1681) and Thomas (1606-..), because the other sons died young. William was from Henry’s first marriage; Burke gives his male lineage which ended in 1722. Burke also gives the lineages of John and Thomas which continue until long after 1622, the estimated birth year of the John Disney of whom it is certain that he was an ancestor of Catherine. It is therefore impossible that Catherine was a descendant of Lambert De Isney in the line of eldest sons and heirs.
I then came across a remarkable book which I had not seen before. I had seen, and quoted from, the 1995 book by Hugh Disney, Disneys of Stabannon, but this 1997 book by Edward Disney, Hugh Disney and Twila Johnson Beck, A Story of Disneys : Some Myths Exploded, was new to me. It then also appeared that this book can freely be read online through FamilySearch, after making an account. The book contains a clear confirmation that the aforementioned William Disney Sr., who came to Ireland as a lieutenant colonel in Cromwell’s army, was the earliest known direct ancestor of Catherine, and that he was not a son of Henry D’Isney. The link between Henry and William in de Geni website has now been removed, and Catherine does not have a direct line to Lambert De Isney any more. Hopefully, someday someone will find out how she was related to this older branch, because it can easily be assumed that they were indeed family, but through someone’s younger brother.
The book also contained a real surprise. Because in 1838 Thomas Disney had written that he had three unmarried daughters while I had found only two, and of the names of the grandparents only Patience and Coote had not been given to one of the children, I had assumed that Catherine must have had an older sister called Patience, or Patience Coote. Indeed, it is mentioned in Myths exploded that there had been an older sister Patience, who was even born in the year I had guessed, 1795, but sadly, she had died again that same year. I had not thought of that. The missing daughter was, apparently, Sarah, who according to the book was born around 1813, making her one of the youngest Disney children. Thomas and Anne thus had fifteen children instead of the fourteen I had found.
And there were two, to me unknown, quotes in the book, again perfectly fitting Catherine’s terrible story as deduced from the scarce information. The first is from Hamilton, according to Myths Exploded written shortly before Catherine died, and therefore presumably after their ‘parting interviews’ during which Catherine had told Hamilton that she had also loved him, “I rarely hear the Commandments or repeat the Lord’s Prayer without putting up a secret petition that I may never love her too much or Him too little.” The second was made by Catherine’s eldest son James Barlow; it shows how very difficult her life had been, and therewith explains Hamilton’s great distress around the time of her death. After his mother’s death James Barlow wrote to his uncle Thomas, “I know the change a happy one for her, as she was for so long a time in a very great mental affliction and depression.”
Utrecht, 24 April 2019
The books have arrived, and I was surprised about how thin they are. I did work on Catherine’s sketch for about half the time I needed for Hamilton’s essay, and I also knew of course that the sketch had much less pages, yet it did not feel so different, also because it was much more difficult to write. The digital world is strange: places on the other side of the earth seem close by, and books do not have comprehensible sizes.
Because my books have been printed in only very small editions, and I wanted to give some of the copies to family and friends, I was worrying about writing in the books; my handwriting is not that good. So Rietje Smeets made two beautiful cards to go with the books, which I can write on and waste until it seems alright.
On the left side of the card for Catherine’s sketch a quote from a poem by Hamilton is given, because there is hardly any description of Catherine, and this is one of the few. Beneath it there are three little angels, photographed at the ceiling, or a wall, of Summerhill. I wanted to show it because it was from the house where Catherine and Hamilton saw each other for the first time, but it could also symbolize (not too seriously) Hamilton, Helen Bayly and Catherine Disney, yet without any indication of who is who. The three photos on the right side are all Regency-like scenes. The first is ‘Music lesson’ by Vittorio Reggianini (1858-1938); if Catherine later could play the harp she must have had lessons. The second is a dinner in Regency style, dining together with family and friends or visitors was a very common thing to do, and in Hamilton’s biography indeed very many dinners are mentioned. The third scene is also by Reggianini, see ‘The Letter’, here it represents Catherine and her sister reading Hamilton’s Valentine poem.
On the left side of the card for Hamilton’s essay a quote can be seen about which Hamilton wrote, “Be such my epitaph!” Beneath the quaternion equations are two quaternion fractals, a Mandelbrot and a Julia fractal, see for instance Hypercomplex Fractals. The three photos on the right also have to do with quaternions: they were used in the Space shuttle program, in Tomb Raider making the movements of Lara Croft and her background so smoothly, and for the Hubble telescope. I should perhaps also have chosen something in connection with his mechanics, but that did not give so many nice pictures as quaternions did.
Utrecht, 5 April 2019
On the 31th of March I finally finished the sketch about Catherine. It has been uploaded to our Royal Library and to Google Books, and the files have been sent to the printer. I am now making an epub.
And of course, the printer’s ink not dry yet (actually, not even wet yet) I found a mistake. In the story of the haunted Rectory in Carlingford, I imagined Catherine as a sixteen year old girl in a red dress. The red dress because the apparition wore one, sixteen because that is what the girl in the red dress said about herself in Hans Holzer’s chapter about the haunted Rectory of Carlingford in Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond.
I then erroneously assumed that Catherine’s red dress would be Victorian,* but she was of course sixteen in the Regency period, and those dresses were quite different from the Victorian dresses. Searching for Regency dresses I saw that they were indeed much smaller than Victorian dresses, therefore perhaps more like Edwardian ones, which would have fitted the story even better. But then I also saw that the Victorian dinner and day dresses were much smaller than I had imagined, apparently, the enormous skirts I mentioned in the footnote were Victorian ball gowns. There is much to know about fashion.
For comparison: on the left a drawing of a dinner dress, published in Januari 1825, the month in which Hamilton wrote to Uncle James about Catherine, and only a few weeks before he wrote his Valentine poem. Looking at the woman’s hairstyle, that is in complete accord with that of Catherine’s, which could again be a confirmation, next to looking rather young and not unhappy yet, that the drawing of Catherine was made around the time that she fell in love with Hamilton. In the middle an 1840 Victorian day dress, Catherine lived in Carlingford then. On the right a 1904 Edwardian dinner dress.
But during these searches I saw a remarkable painting, The Letter, by Vittorio Reggianini (1858-1938). He was born after the Regency but painted scenes apparently from that period, and looking at this painting it struck me how much the woman with the blonde hair looked like Catherine.** Suddenly it was far more easy to see Catherine smile, talk, and play the harp. I then imagined that she showed Hamilton’s Valentine poem to her sister Anne Eliza, and that they reread it together on the couch. There is a fair chance that she really did that, because Anne Eliza befriended Hamilton’s sister Eliza who, perhaps through her, seems to have known what Catherine felt for Hamilton. Tragic, that they could not talk about such things.
* Because twenty more books will be printed, I took the opportunity and corrected the footnote; now Catherine’s apparition is wearing a Regency dress. Where it was possible the books in e-form have been changed accordingly, it is a pity that the one in the Dutch Royal Library cannot be replaced.
** Apparently, that has something to do with the image code (literally translated from Dutch, I did not find a good translation yet) of that period: how an artist should depict people in such way that they would look beautiful (or whatever characteristic trait should be emphasized) in the eyes of their contemporaries. I clearly should have made Catherine's nose even smaller, as it will have been on the original drawing.
Utrecht, 8 March 2019
Today is International Women’s Day, which seems to be a marvellous day to put the last draft of the sketch about Catherine Disney online at ResearchGate. As a celebration that in most parts of the world forcing women into marriage is not possible any more. Catherine’s life would have been very different and very much happier if she had not been coerced into her loveless marriage, and it is hoped and should be worked towards, that soon all over the world such a practice will become unimaginable, and no woman will lose her life any more in the way Catherine lost hers.
Note added 5 April: That RG link contains the final version now.
Utrecht, 3 November 2018
Today 165 years ago Catherine Disney died, five years after she had made an attempt at suicide by taking laudanum. She did not love the man she had been forced to marry, and her unhappiness may have been worsened by the death of two young sons. She survived though, and thereafter lived mainly with family. In her last weeks she was finally able to explain what had happened to her to the love of her life, in two intensely emotional interviews. A golden lining at the end of her very difficult life.
The view on Hamilton given here and in the sketch is motivated extensively in my essay about him, A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton. The events described in the sketch all come from Hamilton’s letters, except what happened during Catherine’s 1845 visit to the Observatory, what happened in Carlingford around Catherine’s suicide attempt in 1848 and when and how she was brought to her brother in Newtown-Hamilton, and whether or not she attended her eldest son’s wedding in 1853.
But because not much is known about Catherine Disney, and nothing is known about her own view on her story, in the sketch that is extrapolated from the scarce information there is about her, yet at the same time firmly based on Hamilton’s observations of how she felt. Even though in some aspects Catherine may have seen things slightly differently, due to Hamilton’s two main biographies there is no doubt about her unhappiness, her love for Hamilton, her love for her children, and her rejection of her husband, and this is the thread which runs through the sketch.
Three of Catherine’s seven sons died young: William Brownlow (1831-1841), Maxwell Close (1837-1838), and John Lambert (1841-1849). Missing here is Catherine’s fifth son Arthur Edward Barlow (1835-1911). Of him no photo was found, but there is an interesting letter from him during his time as Commander on the steamship Nizam. It was written in March 1876, and Arthur Edward describes the saving of a life at sea by a life-buoy, invented by Holmes [All websites accessed 3 November 2018].
For two photos of Brabazon’s wife see Harriette Ellen Guinness.
While searching for information about Carlingford, where Catherine lived when she made her attempt at suicide, I came across a most remarkable story which concerned ghost stories about a haunted Rectory in Carlingford. In the 1960s a ghost hunter had conjectured that it had been about a romantic tragedy in the mid nineteenth century, involving a girl with golden hair in a red dress and a clergyman. Then it indeed turned out the be the house where the Barlows had lived, in their time called the Glebe House and later the Rectory.
Thinking about Barlow’s side of their story it seemed to me that that was visualized by the haunted Rectory. For his times not having made an extreme decision when insisting on marrying Catherine, in some way he also was a victim of their times. He certainly will have hoped for many years that his marriage would work out after all, and that the beautiful and radiant girl with the golden locks he had fallen in love with so many years ago would return in her if he would be a very good husband. But having lost two of their sons in Carlingford he will have lost all hope that his wife would ever become her happy self again, and for him that town with all its ruins may have become the embodiment of the ruins of his life. I did not imagine Catherine to be doomed to stay in Carlingford as a ghost, but that the clergyman in the story thus visualizes Barlow who in his mind stayed in Carlingford forever, chasing the beautiful young girl she once had been, always hoping against all knowledge that in the end she would learn to love him as she should. And who was not able to accept that he finally lost her completely.
Realizing that Catherine made her suicide attempt in 1848 the conclusion about the time of the tragedy, the mid nineteenth century, is certainly remarkable. But ghosts do not seem necessary at all in searching for explanations where the ghost stories came from. Many people must have known about Catherine’s unhappiness and her attempt. People talked with her, she was after all the reverend’s wife, and they will have noticed long before her attempt that something was wrong. The Barlows had staff and nursemaids who must have known, Catherine had to buy the laudanum somewhere, and after her attempt she had to be taken care of. She then left Carlingford, never to return anymore, but for some time Barlow and perhaps the children still lived there, and suicide was not openly talked about then. Therefore, over the generations people may have slowly started to forget about whom the tragic stories had been told. But that it had happened in the Rectory, that part was well remembered, explaining the legend about the haunted Rectory.