The Discovery of my 1st Irish Great-Great-Great-Grandparent

Being a professional Irish ancestry researcher, it may come as a surprise to some that it has taken over 5 years to positively identify my first Irish GGGGF, i.e. the oldest person in my Family Tree. Other, more experienced, family historians will realize that verifying direct Irish ancestors (who remained in Ireland) from the 18th century takes a lot of knowledgeable craft and a dose of circumstantial good fortune. Many amateur researchers jump to unwarranted conclusions about the identities of their earliest Irish ancestors, just because a few preserved names sound familiar (even when the geographical location of extant record sources makes the associations ridiculous). Usually, frustrated amateur historians adopt wild assumptions because no ancient parish records have been preserved to properly validate the vague ancestral relationships which they attach to the verifiable section of their family tree. Only recently have several new sources of genealogical data become accessible and readily searchable which enabled me to achieve my personal goal of extending my lineage by one further Irish generation.

It was a complicated process, but my tale might encourage others to persist, and to always think laterally and “outside of the box.”

My breakthrough moment came at the end of a holiday weekend in which I dedicated my spare time to re-visiting my ancestral loose ends, instead of spending every waking hour helping clients to expand their particular family histories. I started off trying to find the “missing” dates of a few vital events which had eluded me in the past. First up came a search for my paternal grandparents’ wedding date. I knew where Ned Neary & Ellen Durkin got married, but the church has poorly preserved registers, and Ned’s wedding details could not be found at local level. The marriage was also missing from national civil registers, and my mum insisted that Ned was so unconventional that he probably never got around to formally registering his union with Ellen. With my father being born in 1925 as the eldest child of Ned, I often wondered (and worried) if this omission made my dad “illegitimate” in the eyes of the law. Using new software which permits a search of ALL Irish civil marriage registrations filtered by matching bride & groom names, I finally tracked down Ned’s “missing” marriage certificate. It turns out that Ned did not bother to register his memorable 1924 Wedding Day with Ellen for over three years. My mother was right – Ned was indeed unconventional, if not controversial.

So Lesson One: never assume that a marriage was registered before the birth of the first offspring of the union. I have found many examples where the parents of a specified research subject did not officially tie the knot for years after conceiving children. Technically, these children were born illegitimately; however my dad and Uncle Iggy were conceived within wedlock – but before their dozy father bothered to venture into town to tell the local Civil Registrar that he was a married man.

Buoyed and relieved by this news about dear old grandfather Ned, I set to work on two more of my ancestry conundrums. These were interlinked problems, involving Ned’s oldest brother [John] and oldest sister [Mary], with Ned being the youngest of 12 siblings, most of whom emigrated from Sligo to New York City. I had previously tracked the life of each of my great-uncles and great-aunts, but John remained as a “lost” enigma. As the eldest son of Tom Neary & Kate Stenson, born over 19 years before Ned, he remained at the Neary farm in Tullinaglug as the 20th century dawned, presumably on the understanding that he would eventually inherit the homestead. John features in the 1901 census of Ireland as a 26 year-old farmer’s son, but by 1911 he had left home and could not be located in Ireland. None of my American cousins could recall any stories about John being present in NYC, whereas all of Ned’s other siblings were accounted for in either NY or Sligo. At first, I reasoned that John had realized that Ned would be better-placed to care for their elderly parents, and as such he forfeited his inheritance rights to the youngest male sibling. Free of an Irish mother’s apron strings, John would have ventured overseas, and I assumed that he must have traveled to England for work, and then lost contact with “home” if no elderly cousins in NY had ever heard about him.

I had one lead though which resurrected possible NY connections for John in adulthood. In April 1902, a John Neary namesake disembarked at Ellis Island NY claiming that he was intending to reside with his uncle John Stenson at an address in the Bronx. Ned’s mother (and my GGM) was Kate Stenson, and the Bronx address was close to where other Neary cousins eventually settled about 100 years ago. However, the John Stenson in question, when identified, was 20 years younger than my GGM Kate – and none of my Bronx cousins were remotely aware of a relative called John Neary. Furthermore, John Neary could not be located on Bronx census returns and our John Stenson candidate moved out of the Bronx soon after 1902 and was also unfamiliar to my American cousins. This research trail went cold and was put on the back-burner, for years.

So I decided to resurrect the search for the only other bit of missing data about my extended Neary family members. This involved the tragic death by drowning in New York of a child of Mary Neary who was Ned’s oldest sister. I had been made aware of this incident by my elderly cousin (now deceased) Fr Matt O’Rourke. He told me that his first cousin Johnny O’Rourke had drowned while swimming off a beach in Long Island, and passed-down family lore always stated that Johnny died “before his tenth birthday.” We knew that young Johnny was born in 1912, so I searched and searched the NY newspaper archives for drowning incidents circa 1920, without success, on many occasions. Recently, indexed editions of more obscure NYC regional papers have come “online”, so I tried the search for Johnny’s sad death one more time. Ironically, by accident, I found a brief mention of his swimming accident. Johnny was actually aged 14 when he drowned, and he was one of many NY and NJ drowning victims on a hot holiday weekend which coincided with stormy US East Coast seas.

Having established the exact date of the accident, I was instantly able to retrieve several more accounts of the Long Island drownings. One longer report stated that poor Johnny O’Rourke’s body was not washed ashore for many hours, by which time his holidaying family had returned to the Bronx, devastated. The police contacted a local Queens relative of Mrs Mary Neary O’Rourke to identify the deceased teenager, and this man was described as “the boy’s uncle, John J Stenson.” This was the same John Stenson who had been tracked down as the most likely receiver of my immigrant great-uncle John Neary when he landed at NY Harbor in 1902. In actual fact, John J Stenson was Mary Neary’s uncle, but we can understand the newspaper reporter’s confusion about family relationships on a weekend of numerous tragic deaths in local seas. So, John Joseph Stenson, by 1926 residing in Queens NY, was indeed my GGM Kate’s much younger brother.

A coincidental review of yet more John Neary namesakes living in the expanded search area including the Queens borough of NYC resulted in the discovery of John Joseph Neary, a bachelor with the exact same birthday as Ned’s oldest brother. It appears that JJ Neary born in 1875 was probably named after his uncle JJ Stenson who was less than 5 years his senior. The two John Joseph’s obviously formed a bond which was re-established after their separate emigrations to New York, and thus they lived and worked in the same district. The first wave of my Sligo family emigrants were aware of relatives living on either side of Long Island Sound, but the next generation and offspring were not. This fact was verified when I finally found a copy of John Joseph Neary’s WW1 registration card. Ned’s oldest brother from Port Washington listed his oldest sister from the Bronx (Mrs Mary Neary O’Rourke) as his “next of kin” contact, in case of emergencies.

Now, all of Ned’s siblings were accounted for, but the verification of JJ Stenson as my GGM Kate’s brother opened up a new line of fruitful research. Kate was born in 1852 within the same RC parish where my grandparents Ned & Ellen got married in 1924. As mentioned, the parish registers from the local church in question are spasmodic in terms of preservation. Nothing at all has been preserved dating from 1860 or earlier, and this meant that my verifiable Stenson lineage ground to a halt … until now. John Joseph Stenson was born in November 1870, meaning that he had a retrievable birth certificate and baptism record. Inter alia, my GGM Kate’s parents were discovered to be Edward Stenson & Maria Donlon. Alas, no marriage records for this union are extant, so my Stenson heritage trail was in danger of hitting a road block once more. I had to be satisfied that dear old GF Ned Neary had been named in honor of his own grandfather, Edward [aka Ned] Stenson.

Except that … I noted that JJ Stenson was born in the townland of Ballincurry. A search of the 1901 census returns from Ballincurry revealed that Edward & Mary Stenson were still alive and living there as 80 year-olds BUT so was a second married couple named Edward & Mary Stenson, aged in their 80’s. Unbelievable! These were the only Stensons living in remote Ballincurry – but they shared the same names. Even more remarkable, they were still around in 1911, entering nine decades of living in an agricultural wilderness. Who was who?

I was determined not to be beaten. I noted two things from the Ballincurry census returns which gave me a fighting chance to distinguish which couple were my great-great-grandparents. One of the Edwards was referred to as Ned (Chas.), and the other was plain old Edward or Ned. Secondly, one of the Stenson farmsteads had a visiting married son in 1901, and he was called John. Could this be John Joseph from NYC, or a different John? I had to thoroughly search many cross-Atlantic sailing records to verify that JJ Stenson never returned home to Ireland. Therefore, by elimination, my GGGF had to be Ned (Chas).

As an experienced researcher of Irish records, I immediately had an inkling of what the “Chas” reference meant. Two Edward Stensons lived side by side, so one was known as Ned Chas because this one was the son of Charles [aka Chas]. I guessed that the other must have been the son of Edward/Ned, but the Irish don’t tend to use the same double-forename as a distinguishing nickname. Calling someone Ned Ned Stenson would be just daft, wouldn’t it? Especially when all the locals back then knew that Ned was not Ned Chas!

To prove my hunches I had to revert to Irish property records because (as most readers will be aware) no complete 19th century census returns exist due to a fire at the Dublin archive repository during the Civil War of 1922. Detailed maps of Ballincurry dating from the Griffith Primary Valuation of the townland in 1857 proved that the two Edward Stensons of similar age were direct neighbors. I was willing to place a bet that the two Neds were first cousins, hence Edward Snr and Charles/Chas must have been brothers who both called their first son Edward.

I dug out the patchy 1827 Tithes Applotment Book for County Sligo. This is the oldest comprehensive listing of land tenants in my ancestral county. I found the Ballincurry page … darn it … no Stensons! Wait! Over the page … a continuation of Ballincurry residents … yes!

Edward and Charles Stenson were taxed on a shared landholding of over 10 Irish acres. There he is … my great-great-great-grandfather in black and white (third name down).

1827 Tithes (Ballincurry) Stenson

And so, a search for a lost great-uncle born in Tullinaglug in 1875 took me all the way to New York City and back to another townland in south County Sligo, less than 5 miles away, where my GGGGF Charles Stenson [born circa 1790] once resided in 1827.

In reality, many family history facts worked in my favor to achieve this research result. The fact that Ned and his brother John Joseph Neary were born 20 years apart, plus the fact that JJ Neary’s best friend, JJ Stenson and my GGM Kate were also born 20 years apart. Even the fact that there were two Edward Stensons born and raised in the same place and era did, on reflection, enable the two ancient but different Stenson lineages to be clearly distinguished.

My great-grandmother Kate Stenson lived to the admirable age of 92 years, passing away in September 1944. The story of my search for her resting place, and the incredible family history revealed by a close inspection of her graveyard headstone (shown below) will be saved for another day.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W


A Soundtrack In My Head

Where's Merrill?

The prologue of Where’s Merrill makes reference to the fact that I wrote large portions of the novel with a certain piece of music playing in my head. This was the rather unique instrumental titled Music For A Found Harmonium, and a link to the original and most fascinating rendition of this tune by The Penquin Café Orchestra is provided below. This piece of music was composed by the co-founder of the experimental orchestra, namely Simon Jeffes. Appropriately enough, the story behind the composition is that Simon found a harmonium whilst on tour in the Far East and sent it to a friend’s house in Kyoto. When he later visited his friend and his “found harmonium”, he was inspired to write an unforgettable yet simply structured composition which suited the quirkiness of the instrument.

In turn, Jeffes’ relentless harmonium tune inspired me to put into print the passages which…

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The Merrill & Sabrina Love Theme

Where's Merrill?

Stranger In The House by Elvis Costello, here dueting with the wonderful George “No Show” Jones.

You Tube video

This never was one of the great romances
But I thought you’d always have those young girl’s eyes
But now they look in tired and bitter glances
At the ghost of a man who walks ’round in my disguise
I get the feeling that I don’t belong here
But there’s no welcome in the window anyway
And I look down for a number on my keychain
‘Cause it feels more like a hotel everyday

There’s a stranger in the house; nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house no one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

And now you say you’ve got no expectations
But I know you also miss those carefree days
And for all…

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US Mormon ancestry records pre-date surviving Irish RC parish registers

It is strange to consider that the Mormon church, founded in the 1820′s, possesses original ancestry records which pre-date surviving Irish Catholic parish registers and make reference to Irish vital events in the 18th century – before the Mormon church even existed. How can this be? Well … it needs a series of very unusual historical happenings to have taken place in an Irish ancestor’s life, and one such ancestor was Johanna O’Connor born in County Kerry in 1807. Her amazing life story was summarized in a recent post on this blog. Refer to Irish Mormon Pioneer.

The key to being able to use exclusive Mormon records to identify ancient Irish family tree members whose names do not appear in preserved Irish church registers is that your research subject must have converted to Mormonism. Conversion from devout Roman Catholicism, as practiced in 19th century Ireland, to the new and very controversial Mormon religion which expanded from American roots to English towns in the 1840′s was literally a major “leap of faith” for any Irish man or woman. Very, very few would fit this ancestral profile. Johanna was not the only Irish person who settled in Utah over 150 years ago, but I have yet to come across another Irish Catholic ancestor who survived the harsh LDS pioneer trail and subsequently filed her mainly 18th century genealogy. Let me know if your own Irish family history contains a similar character.

In case you are unaware of Mormon doctrine, a practitioner of this religion is obliged to “baptise” (by proxy) any deceased non-Mormon relative into their Christian church. The deceased ancestor is then believed to have the right to accept or reject the baptism into the Church of the LDS, and Mormon followers consider that acceptance of the LDS faith ensures that the deceased can enter the Kingdom of God [Heaven]. This practice started in 1840, and towards the end of her life, Johanna spent many days during 1889 and 1890 baptizing over 50 members of her extended family. Until recently, we knew where Johanna’s marital in-laws came from (because they feature in corresponding Anglican church registers) but the precise roots of 35 listed Irish relatives could not be established, except that they all came from County Kerry according to Johanna’s LDS Temple notes. It was apparent to every researcher who studied the names that they did not exist in Irish record collections. So where were all these inter-related Irish folk from?

The LDS Registrar for Johanna’s baptisms by proxy left one clue by way of some semi-legible scrawl. Alongside the name of Johanna’s father, we could see a town birthplace written as “Bally B- – -”; the last three letters could be interpreted in several ways. The mystery was only solved when genealogists from Price & Associates contributed one extra clue left behind when Johanna passed away in 1894.

Here is my transcription of all the wonderful ancestral information which Johanna was able to recall:

1889 LDS Baptisms for the Dead (of Johanna O’Connor Farmer’s family)

In most ancestry projects, the goal of the genealogist is to discover the dates of the three normal vital events of their research subject, i.e. birth, marriage and death. The exact places where these events took place is also high on the research agenda. When a researcher is successful enough to track down the date and place of death of the ancestor in question, this information can be used to search for a published funeral notice or obituary … and an obit often opens up links to many “lost” family members who attended the funeral or were given respectful mentions as relatives of the deceased. In Johanna’s case, we thought that the discovery of a four sentence obituary in the Manti Messenger was the sum total of contemporaneous tributes to a remarkable Irish lady. Sadly, the local Manti newspaper article did not reveal anything about Johanna which we didn’t already know, after thorough research.

Therefore, it was with great surprise and delight when Diane Rogers from Price & Associates discovered that the Deseret News, the LDS Church’s oldest newspaper in Utah, printed a long tribute celebrating Johanna’s unique life after her demise in 1894. It was a joy to see that the obituary listed obscure facts about Johanna’s life which we had already unearthed from other research sources. Our complicated research processes were fully justified, but it was a bonus to read about other tidbits of Johanna’s life story and her character traits which, until now, we had only been able to speculate about. Finally, we knew for certain that Johanna was the pioneering woman we had envisioned and admired.

The Deseret News obit provided one new and crucial O’Connor birthplace clue. As shown below, it states that “Joanna Farmer, was born in Castle Island, County Kerry” [sic]. At last, we had a specific region of County Kerry to investigate. Castleisland is a small town and large civil parish in SW Ireland.

1894 Deseret Weekly #1

Some very intensive studies of the distribution of O’Connor families around Castleisland and the unique geography of the area eventually led me to “Ballybane”, the curious place which widowed Mrs Johanna Farmer referred to as her ancestral homestead in her 1889/90 LDS Temple notes.

1894 Deseret Weekly #2There is no townland called Ballybane in the civil parish of Castleisland, although namesake places exist in other parts of County Kerry according to the national database of Irish place names. It appears that Johanna referred to her birthplace by its common local name which preceded the formalization of Irish townland designations. In my opinion Johanna was born in Ballybane which forms the southern portion of the townland of Ballyduff, located about 10 miles north of Castleisland town. This region falls within the RC parish of Knocknagoshel, but the local Catholic church registers only survive from December 1866 onwards. So Johanna’s detailed listing of her parents’ generation and her grandparents informs us about a complete Irish family that does not feature in record collections of Irish origin. By accident, Johanna has created a unique Irish Catholic family tree which pre-dates County Kerry parish registers by over 100 years.

More recent records indicate that many members of the O’Connor family still reside in and around Ballyduff townland. I would be pleased to converse with anybody who believes that they have connections with the ancient O’Connor and Kirby ancestors listed in Johanna’s Baptisms for the Dead.

After life’s fitful fever she sleeps well

A pioneering Irish Mormon

Where's Merrill?

Owing to the non-preservation of the majority of 18th century Irish church parish records, and a fair few of the early 19th century registers, the branches of most Irish Family Trees cannot grow with much clarity beyond the years preceding the Great Famine. This is highly frustrating unless you come across rare circumstances in which an ancient Irish forefather wrote down their known ancestry in a formal manner for the benefit of all following and related descendants. This might have happened if your Irish ancestor was wealthy and/or descended from the British gentry. These types of ancestor could afford to employ academics to research and preserve their family history. Poorer folk, usually immigrants into the New World, occasionally created their own Family Bible from passed down oral histories in which the early family genealogy was listed haphazardly – but even this kind of valuable scribble (if found) in the front…

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