When maps were maps (before Google Street View)

Regular followers will know that I collect old maps, particularly of Ireland or its provinces. Perhaps, more infuriatingly, I am always trying to get others to admire the beauty of the ancient craft of cartography. It is said that the island of Ireland was mapped more than any other place on the planet up until the early 1900’s. There are historical reasons for this. Some Irish maps were drawn in order to plan invasions, and others were created in order to “sell” vast portions of the countryside to foreign investors.

Check out Trinity College’s admirable Down Survey of Ireland webpage if you want to learn more about the regular mapping of Ireland, and the reasons behind this historical phenomenon.

Ireland may not possess its fair share of preserved vital records or census returns, but it can boast extant copies of maps dating from many decades of the most recent centuries.

Here is an image of one of my favourite vintage maps of Ireland, reproduced for no particular reason other than it deserves to be looked at – like a renowned work of art.

Vintage Ireland mapI wish I could afford the original, or an original antique copy.


You can choose your friends – but not your Ancestors

A recent purchaser of my novel “Where’s Merrill?” posted a mediocre review, and made the following bizarre observation:

“Write about someone more interesting next time”

Considering that this true story is sub-titled a genealogical thriller, and that it is now listed for sale as a genealogy reference book as well as a fictionalized thriller, the reviewer seems to have completely missed the point about Family History research. You cannot choose your ancestors. They are who they were. They are not made-up characters or a figment of a fantasy writer’s creative but far-fetched mind. It took all my willpower to not commit the author’s Cardinal Sin of responding directly to the negative reviewer with my personal feelings about the ridiculousness of their publicized opinion.

When you research your own family history, you might start out with a little knowledge about your ancestors’ backgrounds based upon memory or passed-down tales. However, when a genealogist is commissioned to research the ancestry of a complete stranger, possibly from a different country, then no-one can predict where the trail is going to lead. This is what makes genealogy so interesting, and such fun at times, and occasionally and tragically, so very sad. One thing is certain – you cannot manufacture your findings to be “more interesting” than they are.

It is also difficult to fathom why my dissatisfied reader finds Merrill to be dull. His researched life story was selected from over 3000 genealogy case histories to demonstrate the surprises that can lurk in anyone’s ancestral closet. Outwardly, as a young man, Merrill appeared to live a dream life; a successful businessman with a beautiful wife and two children. Then cracks start to appear. Hints at unsavoury vices, violent outbursts and dramatic lifestyle changes creep into the tale. Why? What caused this man to spiral downwards until he just vanished from the planet? And why would no-one talk about what happened? That is what makes Merrill so very, very interesting. It is not fiction. I have no control over the places Merrill resided in or the people he associated with. More importantly, I cannot change who Merrill was related to in a tangled Family Tree inhabited by some very dark characters.

Merrill had his good points and his bad points – like us all. No-one should be judged purely on their final chapter.

1934 October (Merrill)

The Burning of Tubbercurry

I am always fascinated by the fact that there are still living witnesses in our parish who saw from afar the local town of Tubbercurry ablaze, during a night of infamous terror. This event occurred in October 1920, so our witnesses are aged 100+. There must be something in the South Sligo water because we have more than our fair share of centenarians. Obviously, the number of survivors is dwindling yearly – but the tale is etched into the consciousness of all elderly and not so old Tubbercurry natives.

Wolfe Tone Square

               Tubbercurry 100 years ago

Nationalist rebels had been active in South Sligo for 50 years when the Irish War of Independence erupted at the beginning of 1919. Decades of anti-British sentiment saw ordinary Irish men and boys take up arms against their oppressors. Tubbercurry and surrounding districts instantly became a hotbed of secret IRA military offensives. Well-organized small units in each parish soon became masterly at the new art of guerrilla warfare. Constabulary and judicial targets were attacked in surprise overnight raids, and then the IRA soldiers disappeared back to their farms and cottages. The perpetrators were very difficult to distinguish from innocent civilians, thwarting British military leaders who were more used to fighting a visible army.

By 1920, a pattern of IRA ambushes followed by indiscriminate British-backed reprisals had been established, leading to ever-greater atrocities. The British Government sent in WW1-hardened troops to assist the overrun Irish Constabulary. These mercenary war veterans were ill-disciplined and regularly counter-attacked non-military Irish businesses. As a result, the whole of Ireland rose up to ensure that British rule over the island was ended once and for all.

IRB soldiers

            A typical Flying Column unit of IRA soldiers, young and old

Wartime events in our locality reached a terrifying peak on the night of 30th September 1920. An IRA Flying Column unit successfully ambushed a police and military patrol on the outskirts of Tubbercurry. The aim of the mission was to kill, wound or capture a recently-appointed Police Inspector, thereby sending out a loud message of local defiance. After a gun battle, the Police Inspector was fatally wounded, and the IRA retreated without suffering any losses. The British reprisal attack was swift and brutal. A company of “Black and Tans” entered the once-sleepy town of Tubbercurry and proceeded to burn the shops and homes of suspected IRA sympathizers. As the town was composed of adjoining terraced streets, soon the whole town centre was ablaze with women and children in fear of their lives. A small number of town-based IRA Volunteers could not quell the outrageous violence of an out-of-control British Army.

Read local Commander John Brennan’s witness statement to gain a full overview of the nature of the frightening War of Independence in Sligo: 1918 Tubbercurry Volunteers

After 30 months of fighting a losing battle, the British called a Truce and political dialogue about Home Rule provisions commenced. Then a short but tragic Civil War broke out as squabbles about the governance of the new Nation got out of control. Peace eventually prevailed in 1922. Local memories are long – but somehow, former enemies were graciously forgiven and Tubbercurry re-emerged from a charred past as though nothing had ever happened. That’s how it is today, and that is why it’s amazing, considering that living witnesses are still around.

My Brick Wall

In genealogy circles, the common term for a seemingly insurmountable research dead-end is a “brick wall.” Professional genealogists have the experience to know that a classic brick wall cannot be scaled – but if you keep digging, and dig deep enough, you might just be able to squeeze part-way through a hole and take a peek at the other side. And what you see might convince you to give up trying to go through that brick wall; it’s pointless. There was nothing of value on the other side. On the other hand, a glimpse of something bright and shiny might inspire you to reverse back a bit, head off to the side (not losing sight of that wall), nudge forward and eventually come out somewhere on the far side of that brick barrier that was holding you back for so long. Then you can start to try and make sense of things in a strange new place, but you can, eventually – if you stick around.

My personal brick wall (shown below) is a beautiful thing and pointless. Well, if you look closely enough, you will see that there is no pointing. No mortar. There never was. It’s a work of art; ancient Irish art.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WMy wall is the gable-end of an ancient Irish stone barn. It has withstood all weathers for over 200 years. It is a State-protected structure, and I am the Protector because it sits on my property. I wish that this meant that the State would contribute to the upkeep of the structure, but no! Oh no – as the private Protector, I am expected to privately raise my own funds and get on with the Protecting without a cent of State assistance. Of course, if my beloved wall ever falls down, then I am in big trouble … with the State – who would not hesitate to prosecute me for trying my best, spending a fortune, but ultimately failing, alone, in my lifelong task.

“Where’s Merrill?” in most book shops (not all)

When I advised that my novel Where’s Merrill? is available in most of the popular book outlets in many sales territories, I should have clarified that my Genealogical Thriller is not stocked in this particular shop:

Wong Book Store #1

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

The complete novel

is available at:


© LULU or


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Aclare: back then, and now

Thanks to Gordon Parker, a remarkable snapshot of forgotten life in a village in rural County Sligo has re-surfaced and returned home after over 50 years. Gordon’s family, based in London, recorded the image below in Aclare village way back in August 1961 when touring Ireland on a summer holiday. The rare, high quality colour picture was captured by using the now defunct Kodachrome camera film with the resultant photograph then developed and mounted as a slide, for viewing through a projector. The age of the digital camera has made all that processing a thing of the past … like an ass-cart.

1961 August - Aclare, Sligo

The village is full of asses …. in 1961

The date of Gordon’s photo is significant, i.e. August. The village of Aclare was full of animals and other eccentric characters because the Parkers passed through on the Summer Fair Day. The (sometimes infamous) history of this once well-known and important livestock trading fair has been discussed in previous posts. Refer to Aclare Fair Day and Old Fair Day (Revived).

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

The asses have all gone; never to return

A story every Irish Ancestry Researcher should read

Here’s a tale that resonates with my own research into the origins of an elusive O’Connor from “somewhere in Ireland” told here: Johanna

Never give up. You just never know ….

[courtesy of Mary O’Connor Tossell and Irish Central]

“The O’Connor family bible came into my possession after the death of my grandparents. I noticed within it, a few pages with lists of family birth, death and marriage information dating back to the mid 1800s that I’d never seen before. Not long after, I received a 1924 newspaper article celebrating my great grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary from a second cousin, with lots of family details that were new to me. I realized there was a lot I didn’t know and, ironically, those that could help with any questions were no longer here to answer them. I will forever berate myself as to why I hadn’t thought to I ask them when they were still alive.

In the spring of 1997, armed with this additional information, I hoped an answer to a seemingly unanswerable question might now be within reach. I was inspired to embark on a grand journey, to find the answer to my quest.

Where in Ireland did my O’Connor family come from?

I didn’t have a clue as to a townland nor even a county. I really only knew the names of my great grandparents, and that one of my ancestors was born in Ireland. (I wasn’t even sure which generation!) I thought the next step should be to try to find out who was buried in our O’Connor cemetery plot back where my grandparents came from in Vermont, hoping that might lead to a birth place in Ireland written on a tombstone or a burial record. If not, I thought at least it would help to locate their vital records once I determined exact dates.

While inquiring by phone long distance at the family cemetery, a very kind person going the extra mile at the rectory in Brattleboro, Vermont said:

“Wait, there’s another plot of O’Connors”.


To my great surprise as it turns out, she revealed the names of my previously unknown to me, great great grandparents. I never even knew they were buried there. If she hadn’t bothered, I may never have known! No mention though, of a birthplace other than merely “Ireland” and alas, no indication either on the tombstones themselves.

So, my emigrant ancestors were Maurice O’Connor and his wife Catherine Martin, both born 1822 according to the gravemarker. It was they, I later came to find out, who made the trek across the Atlantic during the worst part of the so called Irish Potato Famine; 1847, aka Black ’47, the year of the “coffin ships” into Quebec….or maybe I should say the starvation! Oh, but don’t get me started on that one, that is for another time to tell.

Next step was to try to locate Maurice’s death listing from the Brattleboro town clerk’s office to obtain the month and day and maybe a birthplace, as I now had a year of death from the cemetery information. I was merely calling to find out how to go about getting a death certificate if you only had a year i.e. 1898, when the clerk asked me to wait while she checked. She had gone to a dusty shelf and pulled out the ledger for 1898! Would you believe it, she actually went through it month by month to finally find Maurice’s death listed in October of that year, on the 20th – evidence of yet another kindness that advanced my quest that much forward.

But wait, that wasn’t all. As she went across the line of information she read aloud, and came to this:

Parents: Hugh and Johanna O’Connor

Wow! The names of my great great great grandparents. As I was only looking for dates, that was a pretty exciting, unexpected find in itself! Ah yet again, it only said “Ireland” as a birthplace. At least I now had an exact death date. Maybe I could find an obituary that might mention a townland.

By the end of 1997, I was getting rather depressed. I had already tried searching the Brattleboro church and cemetery records, tombstone markings, birth, death, marriage certificates, funeral parlor papers, Vermont Federal Census films, town directories, Vermont genealogy societies, U.S. naturalization papers, passenger lists, civil war veterans & Irish railroad worker references, and the local Family History Center (the Mormons). If I was lucky at all; they said merely “Ireland” as a birthplace. The naturalization papers I obtained from the National Archives in Waltham, Ma. had “Great Britain” even. But no townland mentioned, ever.

I had run out of ideas on how to find a townland in Ireland for my emigrant ancestors… after all this searching I still had no clue where my O’Connor family came from in Ireland. It was beginning to dawn on me that there was a possibility I might never find the answer to my quest.

It started to haunt me, “Would I ever know?” It was at this point that I remember thinking aloud to myself…

“Come on Maurice and Catherine, give me a hand here!”

It was only a few days later that I received an envelope in the mail from the Brooks Library, Brattleboro, Vt. I had all but forgotten having written, months earlier, requesting a search in their microfiche for an obituary in the local 1890s era newspaper. When I hadn’t heard from them, I figured they didn’t come up with anything. But now I had this envelope, I’ll never forget, it was on Jan 3rd 1998…

I realized immediately the significance of the information this envelope may contain. I paused before opening it while I weighed this thought in my mind… Either it had, or it did not have my great great grandfather’s obituary in it. I knew full well this might be my last good chance to find out the place in Ireland where my O’Connors were from … and if not there… Well, I can honestly say I was almost afraid to find out what was inside.

My hands were shaking as I opened the envelope to see what lay there in…

I gasped, as it was a photo copy of a newspaper page. Could it be… an obituary? I could barely take in a breath as I read:



“Maurice O’Connor…died Oct 20, 1898…he was born in 1823, at Mt. Brendon, Co Clare, Ireland

Oh my Gosh! There it was! My eyes filled with tears as I realized after all this searching, at last, in black and white;


My excitement was short lived…I was anxious to see exactly where Mt Brendon was, so I got on the internet to look for maps of County Clare. I found some good maps. But after much of what turned into frantic searching, I sadly realized, there is no such townland called Mt Brendon then or now in County Clare!

Now what? I was very discouraged.

Well I kept digging. I did find a village called Brandon, in County Kerry, on the eastern slopes of a mountain called Brandon… could this be it? … and would that mean I’d have to conclude my ancestor did not know what county he was from!? By this time I was really starting to doubt the usefulness of my newly discovered “find”.

Actually the more I thought about it, maybe County Kerry was the place to search… after all, it did have a Mt Brandon! In the meantime, I saw another site on the internet about tourism in Ireland and County Kerry where the village of Brandon was on the Dingle Peninsula; and was looking at prices of Bed and Breakfast places etc. … mistily dreaming about a someday trip to the Mt Brandon area; in the event that it might prove to be the right place….

When low and behold, begosh and begorrah, I spotted an email address for The Stone Cottage B&B in a town called Dingle whose proprietors at the time were named Becky and Michael O’Connor. What the heck, on an impulse, knowing full well it may be for naught, I emailed them.

I received an email back from them the next day. They were not my O’Connors (yeah, I knew I was just stabbing in the dark!)… but Becky did say there were O’Connors in the area of the village of Brandon, and that I should visit the O’Connors Pub and Guesthouse in Cloghane (pronounced Cla HANE) near to Brandon sometime and ask them. As I wasn’t planning a trip to Ireland any time soon, I instead wrote to the O’Connor Pub and Guesthouse that was mentioned and sent what family history I was aware of … and then promptly put it out of my mind. No use getting my hopes up. Still, wasn’t it nice of her to suggest though?

About a week later I got a phone call …from Ireland! It was the proprietor of the guesthouse, Sean O’Dowd! Although not an O’Connor- his wife was, for which I congratulated him on (haha!). But alas, his wife’s O’Connors also were not related to me either. (Of course, what was I thinking?) Searching for O’Connors in Ireland is like looking for Smiths or Jones in the U.S. (BTW I have discovered O’Connor is one of the oldest of Irish Gaelic surnames, and has a great and glorious history!)

Mr. O’Dowd gave me some hope though about the discrepancy regarding Mt Brandon being referred to as being in County Clare but actually being located in County Kerry . He suggested that if my ancestor, being an Irish Gaelic speaker (Dingle is a Gaeltacht {Irish speaking} area to this day), that the pronunciation of “Mt Brandon, Co Kerry” in the Irish, might sound like “Mt Brendan, Co Clare” to the untrained ear… and as Maurice, my ancestor, did not read or write (surely a result of the Penal Laws against Catholics. Oops, there I go getting off on a tangent again!) he would not have even recognized such an error himself.

2006 DP5Oh and then there was this; Mr O’Dowd also said he would talk to some other O’Connors that he knew for me, who lived on “the other side of the mountain” from the O’Connor guesthouse in Cloghane. (Mr O’Dowd lived on the eastern side). I thought it was really nice of him, but wasn’t expecting much, … after all, there are 30 thousand O’Connors in County Kerry! Considering after all, we weren’t even related, wasn’t it nice of Mr. O’Dowd to bother!?

(For O’Connor researchers; This particular sept of O’Connors {there are 6 separate clans}, calls itself O’Connor-Kerry. Contemporary descendants of this sept are by far the most numerous, and those from Dingle are called the Dingle O’Connor Branch of the O’Connor-Kerry.)

Now get this…The very next day, Jan 22, 1998, I was coming into the house carrying groceries when I heard this curious voice leaving a message on the answering machine…. It sounded Irish! I dropped what I was doing and quickly picked up the phone. It was a man who introduced himself as ‘Himself’* O’Connor of Bally – – -, Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland. (on the western side of Mt Brandon.)

*’Himself’ of course gave me his name but because so many genies have contacted him asking for help I’ve had to remove his name and location for his own sake (and mine!)

‘Himself’ told me he read my information given to him by his dear friend Sean O’Dowd of O’Connor’s Guesthouse and wanted me to know that his great great great grandparents were also called Hugh and Johanna O’Connor. The same names as my great great great grandparents… and they too had a son Maurice who emigrated to America …the same name as my emigrant ancestor! ‘Himself’ descended from a son John of theirs and as it turns out, I might be descended from John’s brother Maurice!

He gave me a marriage date for Hugh and Johanna in 1810; and a birth date in 1821 for Maurice (which fit with what I had… which was a range of 1820-1823 from varying answers in the Vermont Fed Census films, and his gravestone, and the obituary).

He also gave me the names of his Maurice’s siblings, with many familiar given names that I also have in my family; but then again, what Irish family did not have a John, James, Catherine and a Mary back then ?! (BTW I read that 29% of all the women in Ireland were named Mary in the 1850’s!) He also gave a possible explanation for the non existent Mount Brandon townland given as a birthplace …

Its because Maurice O’Connor was born on a cliff in the foothills of Mt Brandon! He left County Kerry because the farm his father had purchased for him had a landslide in 1847 the same year my Maurice emigrated. He said he had a lot more information for me, that he would write it all out. If this really was my Maurice, Wow…. what a find!! I could hardly believe it. I was so excited hearing all this, my hands were shaking trying to write it all down. I could barely read my handwriting afterward and I almost forgot about my quickly defrosting groceries!

There was only one flaw in it all…

When I was young, I remember asking the question; “Why of all places, did our family end up in Brattleboro, Vt ?” The answer was: “That’s where the work on the railroad ended.” …also family history had it that; “The brothers moved on to Chicago to look for work there”. But ‘Himself’ said his Maurice was the only one in the family of that generation to have emigrated, his brothers had not. Hmmm…. as my family was so vague about our roots I wasn’t even sure which generation worked on the railroad … was it my great grandfather John or my great great grandfather Maurice? The real question was, could ‘Himself”s Maurice really be MY Maurice? I needed to do a bit more research to prove the connection… but I must admit, my instincts told me this was probably my family.

There was something strangely eerie about it all, something I didn’t pick up on ’till later, when I was replaying the answering machine message for my husband that ‘Himself’ had started to leave before I picked up.

… it was that ‘Himself’ sounded so very much like my dad ! It was just as if it was my dad talking with a brogue! It was uncanny! It also made me feel like I really had spoken with the Irish descendants of my ancestors from “across the pond”!

To top it all off, ‘Himself’ owns “Tigh ‘Himself'” in Bally – – – Co Kerry. That’s Irish Gaelic for ‘Himself”s Place… a PUB!! What better spot to have a pint and toast your mutual Irish ancestors than Tigh ‘Himself’!? Is that the Luck of the Irish or what?

Please read on, the story doesn’t end here…it gets better!

I thought I would share another tidbit with you about my O’Connor genealogy research, I think its kind of romantic… also some of the info may be helpful to other researchers.

GET THIS! Back in the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s, the Irish from all over the states posted notices in the “Boston Pilot” newspaper, in search of missing friends and loved ones. This was “the” place to put such a notice. The 6th vol. in a series of 8 books is recently out, covering up to the U.S. civil war period which has gathered all these notices in $45 a piece volumes… quite a hefty price for only one volume even… so not expecting anything, but wanting to rule out a major source of info, and to take advantage of a very kind offer… look what I found when someone on the internet was generous enough to offer to do lookups in her volume, the first of the series:

“The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot” (Volume 1 1831-1850. page 236, 13 November 1847, Information Wanted

OF CATHERINE O’CONNOR, wife of Morris O’Connor, daughter to James Martin of Graan, near Dingle, co Kerry, who emigrated to Quebec last summer, with her brothers, John and James Martin, and is supposed to be in Upper Canada. Any information respecting her will be thankfully received by her husband, who is separated from her by the adversities of fortune. Address, Morris O’Connor, care of James O’Connor, Cabotville, Mass.

WOW! Turns out Graan is a phonetic pronunciation of Garrane, Co Kerry, its in the adjoining parish of Kilmalkedar, next to where Maurice was born, in Kilquane Parish which ‘Himself’ O’Connor told me about when I last reported to you. If this is the right Morris and Catherine, which I think it is, that ad was placed by my great great grandfather! Prior to this I didn’t know if they were married in the U.S. or Ireland (looks like Ireland), I didn’t know Catherine Martin’s father or brothers names!, nor when they emigrated nor where they were from in Ireland!

This could be an answer regarding the “brothers going on to Chicago”, and ‘Himself”s Maurice’s siblings not having emigrated at all… it may have been **Catherine’s Brothers** who moved on to Chicago! That’s IF its a match of course. I’ve also read that the Irish back then used the terms brother and brother-in-law interchangeably. Now I just needed proof…. something to make the connection between my U.S. O’Connor/Martin info and ‘Himself”s O’Connors in Ireland.

Note: Neither Catherine nor Morris could read or write, can you imagine how desperate they must have been, and how helpless they were to try to find each other when they didn’t even speak English in this new and vast country?… countries I should say; America and French speaking Canada !

Epilogue – When I sent the “Missing Persons” ad information to ‘Himself’ O’Connor, he talked the very reluctant local priest in Ballyferriter Roman Catholic parish near Dingle (which contained Kilquane and Kilmalkedar civil parishes) into letting him look at the actual parish records, in Latin! – which by the way, haven’t been filmed by the LDS (the Mormons) like most of the rest of Ireland and the world really….and guess what…

‘Himself’ looked up the marriage record for his Maurice O’Connor; married Shrove Tuesday, Feb. 22, 1846 and spouse; Catherine Martin (parents James Martin and Catherine Moriarty)!… and the whole Martin family births, marriages, just like the ad, in Garrane!!!


This confirms the Dingle connection to my Maurice from Brattleboro Vt, and my newly discovered 3rd cousin ‘Himself’ O’Connor and family in Bally – – -, Dingle, Co Kerry! I was so excited! And when I said that to ‘Himself’ he said;

“Oh, don’t be excited, it’s just us.”

Ever since I started my research over a year ago I’ve had this idea; that someday, if I ever found where Maurice was born, that I’d bring a bit of dirt from Maurice’s gravesite in Vermont with me for a future visit to Ireland. So how about this… ‘Himself’ told me that the very same land that Maurice was born on, near Mt Brandon (the real townland name by the way, is Clash) is still in the O’Connor family to this day!! Between his Irish brogue and his unique (to me) vocabulary; I wasn’t sure and couldn’t quite make out what he said next… I thought he said:

“The house still exists.”

“Still exists! You mean, I might be able to see it?”

Then I thought he said, “Yes, but it’s a cow house now.”

(Cow house?)

“‘Himself’, What do you mean by; ‘it’s a cow house now’?”

(obviously, a city girl <G>) …after a long pause he said, “Mary…. its where we keep the cows. Now what did you think it was, girl?”

So much for my romantic notions of bringing back a bit of Vermont to Mt Brandon! On second thought, I think maybe Hugh and Johanna’s gravesite would be appropriate don’t ya think? and by the way… Catherine and Maurice must have gotten together after that ad was placed in Nov. 1847 sometime by the next summer; around August of 1848; because my great grandfather John James O’Connor, was born June 17, 1849!

I heard again from my 3rd cousin; ‘Himself’ O’Connor in Ireland… (or should I say ‘Himself’Ó Conchúir; he does!) He sent me a letter; with family group sheets included (with notes in Irish Gaelic!). After searching parish records in Ballyferriter Roman Catholic parish **confirming** our family connection he told me this, which is really what I wanted to share with you;

“We are sure now, that our Maurice Ó Conchúir, is the same man you are looking for”… and later he finished with:

“We are sure now, you are ours.”

‘Himself’ signed it with: “Le mheas mhór, ‘Himself'” (with great love, in Irish Gaelic) Pretty neat, eh? It gave me goosebumps when I first read it… and it still does.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my story, and that it encourages you to keep trying! Máire Ó Conchúir Tossell aka Waterlilys@aol.com.

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#1 AMAZON Best-Seller (Genealogy Category)

2014 April - Amazon #1aOn 6th April, the true family history saga novelized as “Where’s Merrill?” hit the #1 Spot in the Amazon Best-Seller hit parade. A big thank-you to all readers, whether you be fans of genealogy or mystery thrillers. The book obviously has appeal in both categories having scaled the heights in both best-seller lists.

And the interest continued … and #1 was not a flash in the pan >>

2014 April - Amazon #1b

1865 – Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through NYC

I know … it’s a tenuous link – but if this newly-discovered quad photo really is the work of famed American Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady, then here we have the only known photograph of the momentous funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse as it passed through New York City en route from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, for burial in April 1865.

And … if … this photo was taken outside of the magnificent Grace Episcopal Church on Broadway, then surely my distant ancestor, Patrick Reilly from County Cavan is in the photo. You see, Patrick worked as an Irish immigrant NYC stonemason on the building of the Grace Church, and he lived nearby in 1865. Four years earlier, Patrick answered the call of Civil War recruiting sergeants and enlisted in the 15th Regiment of the New York State Volunteers. He went on to become a Union Army Engineer, building crucial temporary bridges prior to Union advances into Confederate territory. His President, Abraham Lincoln, personally inspected some of Patrick’s handiwork.

So … there he is … somewhere in this historic snap created by using a four-lens camera and developed on to a large plate glass negative.

1865 April - lincolnfuneral

I think that’s him – 14th from the right, in the Union Army uniform

Are there any other genealogy jokes? Not gynaecology; ha ha

Is this the best that the comedy industry can do:

How many Genealogists does it take to change a light-bulb?

Answer = Six (no, seven Einstein!)

1879 Edison bulb

1879 – a very old bulb – possibly belonging to Uncle Edison

One to travel to the factory to record the exact age and unique identifying number of the bulb.

One to check whether the bulb’s socket lineage is “live” or deceased.

One to trace the power line back to the pole.

Two to argue over the name of the original pole where the line started.

One to screw in the new bulb and write a detailed biographical account of the experience, complete with verifiable research sources, of course.

And one more to track the subsequent lives of the photons which emanated from the bulb.

It’s so funny, I almost chortled in the library. Sorry.

Is your Irish ancestral name ‘cast in stone’?

The spelling of ancient Irish surnames evolved over time. Originally, they were written in the unique Irish language; a strain of the Gaelic tongue spoken by ancient Britons. During more recent centuries, these names were converted to the Anglicized versions in common usage today. In reality, the accurate spelling of a family name was of little importance to most members of the family, as they were invariably illiterate or semi-literate at best. Our Irish ancestors were more concerned with the pronunciation of names because heritage tales were passed down the generations by word of mouth, rather than in written text.

The situation regarding phonetic genealogy can become more confused by the influence of local dialects in many parts of Ireland. My own surname of Neary is only pronounced as Neary in the east of Ireland, as well as in England and America where family branches re-settled after emigration. In the west of Ireland, where the Neary clan has its roots, the family name is spoken as Narey or even Narry using the local accent. As a consequence, this is how the name appears in many old documents. The record-keepers of the day simply wrote family names as spoken by informants with very little concern for spelling accuracy.

This scenario must be borne in mind by family history researchers when delving into Irish ancestry. Often, quite bizarrely, the first step in the research process is a reassessment of “your name.” Could it be that your Irish family name, as used by every forefather in living memory, was not your name at all?

An example of this genealogy conundrum is demonstrated in the images below. A large extended family in Massachusetts, descended from Irish immigrants, were always known as McKay, McKey or Mackey – but which surname was correct. The answer was proved to be “none of the above”!

I found that my particular research subject, Irish-born John McKay, adopted and used the McKay name in America for over four decades. Most of his siblings also accepted Americanized names when establishing their own families near to Boston. As a result, when John McKay died in 1913, his US death certificate notifies the world that John McKay, originally from Tipperary and son of Patrick, died in Chatham MA, aged 95.

1913 MA death (John)I had to use many unconventional research techniques before I was able to verify that John McKay was not really a McKay, or a McKey, or a McAnything! In this case, a strange but delightful twist in the tail permits me to reveal John’s true name by displaying it “in stone” via his grave marker. It would appear that the surviving offspring of John McKay knew all along that he was not a McKay, even though the male American lineage continued to be known as McKay! As shown below, John’s real and ancient surname was respectfully engraved on to his tombstone. Note that the dates of birth and death match up perfectly with the death cert of John McKay.

John Mulcahy & Ellen Donovan HeadstoneAs you might appreciate, it is difficult to interrogate computer databases to investigate a chosen ancestor’s background if you unknowingly have the incorrect surname. Doubly so in this project … because John Mulcahy’s father was not called Patrick, as written clearly on his death certificate. His father was Perry, an Irish nickname for Peter – but that’s a story for another day.

Merrill was obviously not the only person who left a confusing background trail to bamboozle researchers, generations later. In Merrill’s case, it was deliberate.

St Patrick’s Day – Breaking News

I cannot be the only person in the world that marvels at the marketing expertise of the Saint Patrick of Ireland corporation. Somehow, during the mists of pagan times, an immigrant holy man wandered across our ancient (wet and multi-dull coloured) isle of Ireland. Our forefathers liked what he had to say. He came across as an alright-sort of fellow, on good terms with the heavens above, but his name was a bit of a mouthful – so we called him Patrick, and he didn’t seem to mind.

Our Patrick got a big following (before the days of Twitter) and so we called him a Saint, particularly for walking up big mountains without decent hiking boots. We could spot him a mile off because of his distinctive clothing … which was never green.

So let’s all raise a glass of the British-owned, world-renowned, unique black beer called Guinness …. and celebrate the life of a Welshman who wasn’t called Patrick and didn’t wear green. This is the definition of “Irish” yes? Party. What the hell.

saint-patrick blogBy the way, you can get my novel for free via Smashwords for this St Patrick’s Day weekend by entering this code: PM77U at St Pat’s Thriller

The Good, The Bad, and Dad

DadonrightThe photo above featuring my father always caused amusement and curious interest when it was viewed in the family photo album, particularly after his untimely death at the young age of 54. The snap was christened “The Good, the Bad, and Dad” by his irreverent sons, more in recognition of their liking for Spaghetti Westerns than any comment on my dad’s colleagues. You see, my dad is on the right, and we don’t know the identity of the other two young men. We don’t even know where the photo was taken, except that my Irish dad was conscripted into the Royal Navy upon resettlement in England, and he once told tales of sailing around the world, with stop-offs on exotic islands in SE Asia. Perhaps this photo was taken in Borneo, or somewhere like that.

So we don’t really know if the tall handsome man on the left was “Good” or if the shorter streetwise lad in the middle was “Bad” – but thankfully we do have a single picture of Dad as a cool-looking bachelor boy exploring the world. I have learned from interviews with Dad’s old Irish school-friend, Eddie Moran, that my father was an accomplished horseman. My grandfather Ned Neary kept horses and donkeys at the old farm in Tullinaglug, and Eddie and my dad rode them bareback-style whenever Ned was occupied elsewhere.

My dad’s life was not fully appreciated until he was gone. His strife involved escaping from poverty in rural Ireland, living in a tiny run-down old two-roomed Irish cottage with a thatched roof, but Dad ended up providing a spacious six-bedroomed detached house with attractive gardens for his large family, of which I am one. Not a bad return for a poorly-educated manual worker … and he saw more of far-flung Asian destinations than I’ll ever see.

The short poem written on to the image is courtesy of Linda Goetsch, a fellow genealogy fanatic. “Remember Me” is rapidly becoming the genealogist’s equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer. The words just seemed 100% appropriate to accompany The Good, The Bad, and Dad.


There can only be one explanation for the unsavoury behaviour displayed below.

Archives are closed today

Yes – the genealogy pox virus is getting out of control. A recent survey of the most searched-for keywords on the internet concluded that genealogy is the most popular hobby in the world – according to Google robots assessing our every move, of course. I don’t suppose that Google et al have devised a way to tell whether lovers of the great outdoors, or regularly active sportsmen and women, etc, like their pastimes more than bashing away at a computer keyboard.

Regardless, I am not ashamed to admit that the never-ending search to fully understand why I exist, and why I live where I do, and why I am like I am – and more importantly – why I should be so grateful for my comfortable existence – occupies my mind every day.Genealogyitis

Passion and disease are very similar, except that in the latter case the subject wants to get better … and never go back in time. A passionate genealogist wants to get better by travelling back in time in order to understand his or her true self.

A passionate successful genealogist exhibits a warm, empathetic glow as he or she observes the travails of less fortunate souls. This is WISDOM.


Enjoy your illness – if that is what it is.


There ain’t no sanity clause

It was Chico Marx who came out with this memorable play on words, way back in 1935 in the Marx Brothers film “A Night At The Opera.” Chico was playing his usual street-wise Italian-American immigrant character when conniving Groucho asked him to sign a contract containing a “Sanity Clause.” In Chico-speak, the full reply was:

“You can’t a fool a me; there ain’t no Sanity Clause”

Decades ago, mental illness was not understood, and thus assessed and treated in bizarre ways. There is still lots to learn about brain diseases and their triggers, but thankfully the general condition is now accepted as biological fact and not some sign of weakness of character. Without wishing to belittle the sufferers of modern-day mental illness (or their admirable carers), I found the detailed analysis of the inmates of a Lunatic Asylum in 1882 [shown below] to be both amusing and illuminating.

1882 Insanity ReportMy observations are:

  • The death of a wife does not make men mad.
  • Domestic trouble can sometimes lead to a sex-change.
  • Prison life can be exciting for some men.
  • Too much study is bad for boys, and over-taxing the brain can lead to death.
  • You can recover from working too hard – or die.
  • Women can be excited by the Religious Orders, but men can get over this.
  • Do not worry about being diagnosed as insane or you will stop worrying forever.
  • Men cannot suffer from amennorhea – period.
  • In 1882, brain disease only affected 1 in 228 Lunatic Asylum inmates.
  • The “Change of Life” is as bad as amennorhea – period.
  • The “Change of Life” is as bad as the climate in India.
  • Congenital brain diseases have nothing to do with genitalia – fact.
  • Male heirs are only half as mad as female heirs.
  • Don’t let hyperlactation get on your tits – both made a recovery.
  • Don’t get mad drunk too often; you could end up in the Salvation Army hostel.
  • I think it says that you can recover from masturbation. My eyesight is bad.
  • Some old women are plain daft … well, one was.
  • If you are predisposed to thinking you are insane, you probably are.
  • Premature Conservatives are infantile, and harmless.
  • The Puerperal State is full of crazy women.
  • Sun-beds are safe for females.
  • After all of this analysis, we are clueless about 40% of the asylum’s inmates.

In 1882, only a quarter of this selection of institutionalized mental patients died in their sanatorium; a better survival rate than hospitals of the day dealing with chronic diseases. And this study group stood a better chance of recovery than their peers diagnosed with purely physical symptoms in the Workhouses. Madness? Even the Victorians knew that mental ailments were not contagious. Perhaps it was wiser to feign insanity than to be incarcerated alongside really sick people … a bit like the Public Health Service today.

John Neary aged (almost) 90

It is appropriate that I am writing this post about my Irish cousin John Neary on one of the days of early February. The precise date is irrelevant. The conflicting facts are:

  1. John Neary was born on 1st February 1924, making him aged 90+
  2. John Neary was NOT born on 1st February 1924, making him aged almost 90

This conundrum is a recurring theme in Irish Ancestry Research which I have to explain over and over again to inexperienced family historians. Why do our Irish ancestors have one date on their birth certificates and (more often than not) other dates that they claim are their true birthdays? Unfamiliar amateur researchers often whine that they cannot find a birth cert which matches their ancestor’s known birthday from passed-down family lore. Or, on the contrary, they reject indisputably correct birth data because they have retrieved a birth certificate which displays a specific birth date in black and white, and therefore it cannot be challenged …. or can it?

The reason for the conflict is surprisingly quite simple – and it is a phenomenon which continued into the first half of the 20th century.

When an Irish Catholic baby was born in rural Ireland, the priority was to get the child baptized pronto before any illness threatened its chances of surviving into infancy and beyond. And I mean quickly, e.g. typically within 72 hours of birth. The reasoning was that Roman Catholics believed that no-one could enter Heaven unless they were baptized. If a non-christened baby died a day or two after delivery, then it was sent to “Limbo” – and a poor mite in limbo was not in Hell but could never reach Heaven. So a RC baby was baptized in a hurry, and a small fee was paid to the parish priest, and baby’s head was wetted in the church, or wherever convenient, and again by the proud parents at home, or in the local pub. And that was that – job done.

Then, a few weeks later, someone would remind the Irish parents (anytime after 1863!) that the British rulers now demanded that the baby’s birth must be registered with the local Civil Registrar, and for this nonsensical burden, the poor parents would be charged another fee. The birth registration was often postponed until funds were raised, or the proud parents were threatened with a court appearance plus fine for non-registration. Next, one parent was tasked with heading into town to find the Registrar’s Office, and this could be a major (costly) journey if the town was 10 or 15 miles away. Usually the father “volunteered” to carry out the despised process on the town’s next market day, or maybe the one after. Perhaps he could sell some livestock to pay for a darned birth certificate.

And so it came to pass, after a considerable interval of several weeks stretching to months, that Dad ventures into the Registrar’s Office to declare that his wife’s delivered his fifth or sixth or seventh (etc.) son or daughter. Dad might remember the correct child’s name – but not always. He almost certainly could not remember the exact birth date of his latest progeny … and didn’t really care, so long as the child’s name appeared in the holy baptismal register back at home. Most of these dads from the rural farming community were ill-educated, and one can imagine that a wild guess at a birthday was narrowed down to a particular period between notable events such as Holy Days, depending how conscientious the underpaid Registrar was. The result of all this haphazardness was that (usually) Dad came home with a birth cert showing something like the name of the family’s latest addition alongside an arbitrary date demanded by an unloved official representing the government – not the sacred church. To compound matters, this unwanted certificate was screwed up and hidden in a drawer, never to be used again … because a Baptismal Certificate had a much higher importance in any Catholic household of old.

Now it starts to make sense. This is why many Catholics use their date of baptism as their DOB. This is why DOB’s on ancient Irish birth certs are (more often than not) completely misleading. This is why you can have an Irish ancestor who was apparently baptized before he was born! Always try to inspect the original baptismal register entry featuring your Irish ancestor and TRUST the info gleaned – above fancy-looking birth certs, or conflicting census data, or any other despised official document.

John Neary says that he was baptized in mid-February 1924, and so he adopted 14th February as his birthday (if asked). However, he never celebrated his birthday until he was in his ninth decade. He and his family could never afford to. Not many Irish farming families could. How can a poverty-stricken RC family throw 12 or 14 parties a year for their offspring. And so, sadly, birthdays are ignored and forgotten about. They are more important to genealogists and descendants than they ever were to our actual Irish ancestors.

John Neary’s birth certificate says that he was born on 1st Feb 1924. John knows that that is wrong but that is what it says on all his official documents such as his pension paperwork. He respects the date for ID purposes, and respects his dad for at least getting the month correct when the Registrar grilled him! From all the available evidence, we can only guess that John was really born on or about 12th February 1924. Does it matter? What DOB would you put on his gravestone when John eventually starts his journey to Heaven?

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

John Neary born (circa) 1st February 1924

The main thing is …. doesn’t he look in rude health for a man born just after the Irish Free State came into existence.


Some members of my extended ancestral family became big-shots in the complex Irish American politics of NYC. Many didn’t.

I don’t think that Judge Robert Neary is one of my direct ancestral clan, but to throw out the Westchester Judge’s election rally paraphernalia on to the Bronx rail-side dumping ground is a bit much. Maybe he deserved it; who knows?

Judge Robert A Neary

1879 – NYC Boxing Bout lasting 52 Rounds ends in stalemate (and court appearances)

I have been researching a very colourful distant cousin named Ned Mallahan born in Connecticut in 1849. Our Ned sparred as a boxer as a young man, whilst also establishing himself as a purveyor of fine liquors as he traveled around America demonstrating the noble art.

1886 Ned Mallahan portraitIn his mid-twenties, Ned settled in Manhattan and formed business partnerships with like-minded young sportsmen. Ned became a respected boxing referee, trainer and promoter. By the late 1870’s, Ned had assembled the most talented (or most ruthless) stable of raw Irish immigrant pugilists. With funding from supportive NYC sports fanatics, Ned organized fight night extravaganzas featuring infamous brawlers, boxers and wrestlers. His theatre houses were packed every weekend.

The Pantomime Villain image of the popular Edward F Mallahan on the left dates from 1886 when Ned could not have been a day over 37 years. He looks much older after a life grappling in carnival tents.

I found the newspaper report in the link below on the back page of the New York Herald. It reports on the much-anticipated international lightweight boxing bout between local hero Mike Coburn and “Spring” Dick Goodwin, an English challenger, on Friday night, 21st February 1879. As you will see, the display of fistic science went on and on, for 52 rounds, lasting 3 hours and 46 minutes. Even the NY Herald reporter was becoming exhausted by the contest. The eager hack had started off by writing up a round-by-round account of the encounter, but after 25 rounds he was out of words, and out of column space.

I sense that most observers were somewhat relieved when the NY Police raided the premises and brought a halt to the gruesome spectacle by arresting all involved, including the spectators, and the boxers, and Coburn’s corner-man and boxing impresario, Ned Mallahan. You see, professional boxing was illegal in NYC in 1879 – but still Back-Page headline news.

1879 NY Herald (Mick Coburn v Spring Dick)

I love the last “impartial” words of the loyal Herald newsman. When Coburn appeared before Justice Morgan the next morning [he] “did not seem to have a blemish on him” – after enduring 3 hours and 46 minutes in the ring with the fearsome English sporting gent, Spring Dick.



A Family Tragedy (and a valuable genealogy lesson learned)

Many years ago, when I started researching my Family Tree, I did not have a clue about my grandfather Ned Neary‘s birth family. After some time, I eventually discovered that Ned was the youngest of twelve siblings; there were six boys and six girls. I knew nothing about any of them, except for Ned, and even he was referred to as Edward or Ted in my lifetime. It appears that “Ned” dropped his Irish nickname after leaving County Sligo in the late 1930’s in favour of the more Anglicized abbreviation of his baptismal forename. Ted Neary moved across the Irish Sea to England, and I suppose that the Irish immigrants of the day had to “fit in” and grudgingly accept the monikers which their new neighbours and workmates applied. However, back in Sligo, everyone remembered Ned as Ned, if you get my gist.

Anyway – I was not long into my ancestry research project when I set myself the challenge of tracking down each of grandfather Ned’s deceased siblings, and finding out about their lives. Both Ned and my father (Ned’s oldest child) were dead too, so they could not help my quest.

When researching the six Neary sisters, my new-found great-aunts, I soon learned that three of these ladies had got married in New York City, and had their own families, thereby introducing me to many second cousins. Three of my new cousins had an interest in their family history, and so they could recall passed-down tales about the three Neary sisters who lived their adult lives in the Bronx, and kept in regular touch with each other as an extended family. There was also mention of a fourth sister who emigrated to NYC in her youth but returned to Ireland broken-hearted when one of her siblings stole away her boyfriend – and married him! This sister was identified to be Bridget, and her return to the homestead led me to more fascinating ancestral tales – but more about this saga will be saved for another day.

So, I was left trying to trace the lives of just two Neary girls, amusingly called Annie and Fanny. I was getting nowhere until my oldest “new” cousin advised that there was a vague family lore tale about a Neary sister who died in a house fire in America, aged in her 20’s (he thought). Another cousin added some more detail: this Neary girl used to work as a domestic servant at a big house, somewhere in upstate NY. Which of Ned’s sisters burned to death? Was it Annie or Fanny? If only Ned was still alive to tell me about this “secret” tragedy.

Back in Ireland, I set about getting the first and main part of the jigsaw in place. Fanny was the youngest of the Neary sisters, and she appears in the 1911 census of Ireland, living alongside even younger Ned at the family farmstead in Sligo. I had an inkling that Fanny was not our fire victim because she would have had to have emigrated just after 1911 (to have died on American soil) and there was no sign of Fanny boarding or disembarking from a transatlantic ship during the 1910’s. My uncles and aunts (and elderly Sligo neighbours) were not aware of a Fanny Neary, so what happened to Fanny? A long search culminated in the discovery of Fanny’s death record. She died in the old Sligo town Asylum Hospital aged just 24 after contracting a form of TB. Poor Fanny – it seems like no-one could remember her time on this earth almost 100 years later. She is remembered now.

The Neary fire victim now had a name – Annie – if the fire story was true. My NY-based cousin Patrick Reilly became fascinated with the “Annie Neary Fire” story as well. As he said (with his legal training), the accidental death of an American would lead to an Inquest, and a house fire resulting in fatalities would be reported in local if not State-wide or national newspapers. Patrick decided to pay a visit to St Raymond’s cemetery in the Bronx where he knew that Neary and Reilly family graves existed. His hunch proved to be very wise. Patrick came across a weather-beaten old gravestone in the Catholic burial ground, sandwiched between newer grave markers of non-family members, which had been overlooked before. The faint but distinct name of Annie Neary was all that could be clearly deciphered from a long inscription. Patrick attempted to retrieve more data by “stenciling” the remaining characters of Annie’s memorial stone. The month of death was April, but the day and year were less clear. After close scrutiny, Patrick insisted that the date began with a “1” [of course!] and ended with a “9”. The second and third digits also looked like nines, but obviously this could not be. Patrick was aware that his Neary ancestors do not show up in Bronx registers until after 1900, and so a logical conclusion was drawn that Annie must have died in April 1909.

We now had a name, a date indicator, and a primary cause of death: FIRE. It couldn’t take much more research to unearth the truth …. could it?

Well … two years later, every reasonable research avenue had been investigated without success. Patrick visited Historical Societies and Vital Records Offices in counties to the north of New York City where the wealthier American families once had country retreats serviced by domestic staff. No sign of Annie – and no notable house fires in the first half of 1909. I searched accessible US newspaper archives, from NY and surrounding states. Still no sign of Annie – but (worryingly) a lot of fire fatalities in the papers in the 1900’s decade, and a lot of US history learned along the way.

Something was clearly not right. Maybe the dramatic “house fire” story was an over-exaggeration. Maybe Annie did once suffer minor burns, and then contracted an illness, and passed away without any great newsworthy fanfare.

A new and final, last-chance saloon research plan was devised. “Let’s retrieve any NY death certificates which feature a female called Ann Neary (or similar) whose year of death ended with the figure 9”, I suggested to Patrick. Whilst we are at it: “How about any deaths that end in the year 8 or 0, just in case the monumental engraver’s etchings have been misread.” As a (by that time) experienced researcher, I also confounded Patrick by proposing that matching namesake deaths from the 1880’s or 1890’s should not be ruled out. Weather-battered carved digits can play havoc with the logic of the human brain, I opined. “And don’t take it as ‘carved in stone’ that April was necessarily the true month of death. The headstone might after been erected years after the death, when accurate recollections had faded.”

We found that there were more than quite a few death certs which met the revised search criteria. Okay – let’s narrow it down to namesake death victims who were teenagers, or aged under 40. That’s better – a handful – and so Patrick ordered the documents for collection from the NY State archives within a few days.

I was staggered when Patrick sent me a copy of the last NY Death Certificate he had added to his list, shown below:

1899 NYC death cert (Annie Neary)

My great-aunt Annie, and Ned’s sister, had died in a fire on the night of 7th April 1899. She was aged 21 years. Back in Ireland, Ned was just five years old. We can only imagine the heart-rending grief in the tiny Neary cottage in Tullinaglug, days or weeks later, when the news filtered through.

The death cert gave us all the answers we needed. Annie was burnt to a cinder in the attic room of a multi-storey Manhattan home overlooking Central Park in New York City; a room reserved for the servants of the wealthy Andrews family. I am somewhat relieved and grateful that Annie’s employer, Mr Wallace Andrews, repeatedly tried to rescue his domestic staff trapped in their upstairs rooms. These rescue efforts cost him his own life. Annie’s oldest sister Mary was called to the Fire Station House in order to formally identify the charred remains. God knows how this task was completed, technically and emotionally.

The full story about the 1899 fire in central NYC is recalled in this initial New York Times article: 1899 THIRTEEN PERISH IN DOUBLE FIRE

I was shocked to learn that dramatic fires in the dry timber homes occupied by American city dwellers at the turn of the 20th century were frighteningly commonplace. A fire in one house often spread to a whole block.

So what’s the genealogy research lesson? Well, everything, really.

A family lore tale says that a relative died in tragic circumstances. First, identify the NAME. What happened? It’s probably based on the truth. Why would anyone make this stuff up. When did it happen? Focus on relative’s ages (at the time) rather than calendar years. If your family suffered a tragedy, say 20 or 30 years ago, you are more likely to say something like “I was aged about 25” rather than “it happened in 1989,” for example. Annie Neary was said to be in her twenties when her life ended in sheer terror and panic, far from home. She was only 21 and this tale got told to her sisters’ young grandchildren, who only half-listened, years after the event.

Where did the event happen? The grandchildren retained some memories of the oft-repeated obituary. Annie worked in “big houses” owned by ultra-wealthy NY families. In the summer months, she worked in second homes (mansions) located north of the city, around Westchester County, where the Andrews millionaires liked to escape to a cleaner environment. Not quite “upstate” but “up the State” for an Irish immigrant unfamiliar with American geography. But for most of the year, Annie Neary would be found cleaning out fireplaces and re-lighting fires in the 67th Street town-house of her employer. Annie’s brothers and sisters were very proud of their sibling. She was a much-loved and trusted member of the renowned Andrews [domestic] household.

ANgravestone1909#8And finally, rely on the eyes of your on-the-ground research colleagues. I was sent a photo of Annie’s tombstone which according to Patrick asserted a date of death ending in 9. I agreed, from long-distance, but I eventually started to question Patrick’s interpretation of the inscription. I put doubt into his mind, which was wrong. This error cost us unnecessary time and expense. We have since learned that Annie was buried in the Bronx in 1899 because she had an uncle (John Stenson) who was settled into this booming Irish neighborhood – but the death year always did end in 9.

When the dust had settled, Patrick and I re-visited lessons learned. Why did the clerk with the burial register at the Bronx cemetery never inform us about Annie’s burial in 1899? Answer:  …. because we kept saying that she died after 1900, and most likely in 1909. As it happens, when we specified our burial date, the clerk could tell us who else shared the grave and who paid for the burial plot. Priceless (early US) family history information which was almost lost forever.

And why did we never find the name of Annie Neary in newspaper reports of the many fires in New York city and state which occurred just over 100 years ago? Answer:  …. because some indexing systems only list the names of the primary fatalities (e.g. Andrews), and other automated scanning systems do not pick up “unfamiliar” surnames of American immigrants, especially if the newsprint is faded. Poor little Annie, the chambermaid, all the way from Tullinaglug; there she was on the bottom line of this New York Times front page article, all along: 1899 NYC fire (NYT)

So when investigating initially obscure ancestral events, maybe the research mantra should be:

  • Trust your experienced intuition. You know the family better than anyone.
  • Focus on the facts, and only the facts, however vague and irrelevant they may sometimes seem.
  • Disbelieve what your ancestors recalled at your peril.
  • Keep an open mind, but do not introduce unnecessary doubt.
  • Most of all – stick at it. Answers, or extra clues, can be found in the strangest of places.

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

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

Another Irish emigration sailing disaster

I have previously recounted the sorry tale of the plight of dozens of poor Sligo natives who were attempting to escape famine conditions in 1848 by sailing to the Port of Liverpool for onward connections to other far-flung destinations. Half of the passengers never made it beyond Londonderry. Read more here: Sligo sailing disasterBelow is an account of another tragedy at sea, less than 12 months later, this time involving over a hundred souls fleeing from the north-west of County Clare and Connemara in County Galway.

On 7th September 1849, the St John, a brig of about 200 tons, sailed out of Galway harbour bound for Boston. She was owned by Henry Comerford of Galway and Ballykeale House, Kilfenora, and Captain Oliver from Bohermore in County Galway was in command. Aboard were nine crew members and about a hundred passengers in two main parties from Clare and Connemara, although later investigations asserted that the captain might have been illegally carrying another 30 emigres not entered on to the official manifest. On Saturday 6th October, the ship came close to land near Cape Cod almost at the end of her journey to Massachusetts Bay. The voyage had been a good one and so the captain issued a ration of grog to the crew in celebration. Captain Oliver suggested to the passengers that they too might celebrate their last night aboard the St John. The Irish human cargo had every reason for merriment; they had left far behind them a country of starvation, disease and death. The voyage had been less of a trial then they had expected and they were in sight of the shores of the Promised Land. They hurried to decorate the rigging and decks with candles and passed the night with traditional Irish songs and dance.

At five o’clock in the evening the brig passed Cape Cod Light and by one o’clock in the morning the First Mate guided the St John around Scituate Light. All of a sudden, the ship caught the wind of a fierce north-easterly gale and was soon being driven towards the shore. The rigging was hurriedly adjusted and a new, safer course was set. By daylight, the gale had become a full storm and the ship was being blown southwards along the Massachusetts coast. An hour later, on a mountainous sea, the St John was sighted at the mouth of Cohasset Bay. Inexorably the wind drove the little ship closer and closer towards the shore, with all hands on deck fighting to regain control of the St John over insurmountable elements. It was to no avail; the sails were now in shreds and the storm too powerful to fight. Both anchors were dropped but they dragged. As a last resort, Captain Oliver had both masts cut away but the wind and seas were relentless and the brig was helplessly forced onto Grampus Ledge. It was then about seven o’clock on Sunday morning.

Enormous waves lifted the stricken vessel and smashed her again and again on the rocks. The impact broke her back and opened her seams. A hole was quickly broken in her hull and those below decks were drowned within minutes. Pounded against the rocks, the brig began to break up. Horrified spectators saw people being “swept in their dozens” into the boiling surf from the crowded decks. Even though they were deafened by the howling of the wind and the thunder of the seas, the watchers were convinced that they could hear the screams of the unfortunates as they were dragged to their deaths. Sickeningly, there was nothing any bystander could do to help.

1848 st johnThe jolly boat (or tender) had been hanging by its tackle alongside the brig. Suddenly, the stern rigging bolt broke and the small jolly boat fell into the water, in danger of being swept away. The captain, the second mate, two of the crewmen and two apprentice boys jumped into the maelstrom and managed to secure her, but immediately about twenty-five frenzied passengers attempted to board the little boat and it was swamped. Of the people in or around the jolly boat, only one survived – Captain Oliver, who managed to grab a rope which was hanging from the main deck and was pulled aboard the ship by the first mate, Henry Comerford (believed to be a nephew of the ship’s owner of the same name).

Another group of passengers jumped into the water in an attempt to reach the overturned jolly boat, but they all perished in the cruel sea. By now the main ship was rapidly disintegrating. The water around her was strewn with wreckage to which people clung desperately even though they were again and again buried beneath tons of water as the colossal waves broke over them. The captain, the first mate and the remaining seven members of the crew eventually succeeded in re-securing the jolly boat using grappling hooks and all safely swam to and (shamefully) boarded the makeshift lifeboat and headed off to shore; only one stranded passenger was collected en route.

By eight a.m. the ship had completely broken up and the worst horror was over. In total, eight women and four men had made their own way to the shore, semi-conscious through exhaustion. Two passed away on the beach and the remainder had to have their hands prised from the wreckage which had saved their lives. News of the disaster spread along the American coastline and by early afternoon the shore was lined with people who worked unsparingly to resuscitate the living and retrieve the dead. The survivors had many stories to tell. Two of the women who had fought their way ashore had each lost three children. The human loss was horrendous. A man called Patrick Sweeney of Galway perished with his wife and nine children. Many of the recovered bodies were badly mutilated by the jagged rocks, yet Sally Sweeney’s features were reportedly “calm and placid as if she were enjoying a quiet and pleasant slumber.” There was one tiny miracle: Mr Lathrop, in whose house the survivors found shelter, waded into the surf to retrieve a parcel of clothing and discovered that he had an infant in his arms. Some days later the baby was said to be in excellent health.

1848 atlantic victimA newspaper report of the time says that forty-six bodies had been taken from the sea by nightfall, and that they were coffined in rough deal wood boxes on the beach. The storm raged on at sea for two more days as religious ceremonies on the shore and in the local cemetery took place. Immigrant family relatives rushed from waiting rooms at Boston Harbor to the scene upon hearing news of the disaster. Irish women howled each time a loved one was recognized in the lines of wooden boxes. Many unclaimed victims were buried in a common grave on Tuesday. The funeral party was headed by the captain and the survivors.

Sixty-five years later a huge granite Celtic Cross was raised over the mass grave, sited on the highest point of Cohasset Central Cemetery so as to command a view of the bay. The cross bears the inscription: “This cross was erected and dedicated May 30, 1914, by the A.O.H. and the I.A.A.O.H. of Massachusetts to mark the final resting place of about forty-five Irish immigrants from a total company of ninety-nine who lost their lives on Grampus Ledge off Cohasset October 7, 1849, in the wreck of the brig St John from Galway, Ireland. R.I.P.

If you can stomach an even more harrowing version of events, here’s a link to newspaper reports of the time: 1849 St John disaster

A pioneering Irish Mormon

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 or back of a family heirloom book can sometimes be proved to be less than 100% reliable. Long-believed family lore is not necessarily family fact.

So – could there be any way of discovering the names of the parents and grandparents of an Irish native born into virtual poverty at the beginning of the 19th century, and from a rural region where no parish registers survive until about 1850 onward? Well, yes – if you are very lucky. I came across an Irish ancestor who lived a fairly unique life, and detailed research into her background eventually led to the unearthing of parental information plus the full names of the four grandparents born in a remote part of Ireland in the mid-1700’s.

This ancestor was Johanna O’Connor born on 20th December 1807 in County Kerry, SW Ireland, in the parish of Castleisland. Many of her poverty-stricken peers headed west to America and Canada in order to escape annual hardship and near-starvation as part of large Catholic families living in mud and timber shacks, eking out an existence on barren mountainside farm fields leased to them by absent, greedy landlords. In most cases, the ancestral farmland had been stolen from the Kerry natives by invading English armies centuries ago, and then distributed among the army’s officers and financial backers. The local families then had to pay extortionate rent for the privilege of remaining in their primitive homes located on land which their ancestors had farmed as far back as medieval times. Johanna’s story of survival took an unusual route though.

For reasons unknown, some of Johanna’s older relatives had migrated in the opposite direction to the beckoning Atlantic Ocean. We now know that some of her extended family members were living in London, England, by the 1830’s. As a young lady, Johanna must have been invited to London to escape the West of Ireland poverty trap. It would have been a mind-boggling cultural shock for the girl from a windswept Kerry mountainside to find herself in the biggest city in the world, at that time, complete with its busy and dirty streets lined by overcrowded tenement housing blocks.

In 1835, at the age of 27, Johanna became acquainted with a moderately successful Englishman named John Smith Farmer. Her subsequent fiance came from a completely different background. John was the son of a comparatively wealthy merchant from Wolverhampton in the English midlands, and after joining the family business he too found himself in London as the purchasing agent for goods sold in the Farmer stores. The romance seemed more unlikely because John was from an established and respected Anglican family whereas Johanna knew of no other faith than Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, their courtship led to a marriage in London, and Johanna had no qualms about converting to the Protestant church to appease her in-laws.

John & Johanna set up a marital home in the Wolverhampton Black Country where John’s mother still resided. There, in the space of seven years, Johanna conceived and delivered two daughters followed by a son. In the early 1840’s, John & Johanna became fascinated by the new religion of Mormonism and invited visiting Elder Lorenzo Snow to preach in their Wolverhampton home. Then a double tragedy struck the Farmer family – John’s mother passed away, and not long after in January 1844, John Smith Farmer himself died after developing a painful bowel complaint. He was only aged 35 years at death.

Johanna was now widowed and living in an unfamiliar English city, trying to raise three young children. Those of her in-laws who were still alive could not afford to support extra family members, as the Farmer Factor businesses fell into decline. Johanna quickly dropped in status from middle class housewife to impoverished beggar woman, wondering why the Good Lord had allowed her dreams to be shattered. She turned to the supportive Mormons to find an answer.

Mormonism, developed in America during the 1820’s, arrived in England via missionaries in 1837. The new Christian doctrine spread southwards from its first base in Preston, Lancashire, allowing local Elders to establish branches in most of the industrial cities and towns of northern England. In these places, the missionaries were able to convince desperate down-and-outs or persecuted manual workers that a better life awaited them in new Mormon settlements in the Wild West of America. More significantly, the officers of the burgeoning Mormon Meeting Houses were able to offer a radical credit system to permit destitute would-be emigres to board ships from the Port of Liverpool bound for America on the understanding that their passage must be repaid from wages earned in the Mormon camps. Thousands of English and Welsh families signed up and made the treacherous journey west, over rough seas, and even rougher pioneer trails. Among the pioneer immigrants were a few Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian natives, caught up in the migration for a variety of reasons. Irish widow Johanna with her English children fell into the latter category because of her previous conversion to Protestantism and residency in England for a decade. Six weeks after her husband’s death, Johanna took the plunge and sailed across the Atlantic with her young family.

The promise of a new life in the New World, and an escape from the threat of the feared Workhouse institutions, clearly had its appeal to a woman not yet aged 40; a woman who had escaped poverty in her Irish homeland as a youngster. Johanna arrived in the newly-established Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois, just in time to see the Mormon founder Joseph Smith arrested for polygamy. Later in 1844, Joseph Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob who stormed the nearby Carthage jailhouse. Johanna and her children were forced to flee to the city of St Louis, an American Mormon stronghold. Here she stayed for ten years as her children completed their education. Her elder daughter found a husband, and her other daughter became a teacher – but Johanna’s journey to Mormon salvation was not quite complete.

By 1847, Brigham Young, the new leader of the Mormon Latter Day Saints, had sent his scouting parties out west to explore uncharted American territories. The Mormon dream was to colonize and develop a far western state in which all its church followers could resettle and prosper. Utah, and in particular the Salt Lake Valley, was to become the Promised Land. And so, in 1856, Johanna O’Connor and her teen-aged son loaded a few belongings into their ox-cart and joined one of many Pioneer Wagon-trains heading west to Utah. They had to travel through hostile native Indian territory and endure the extremes of natural weather conditions. Numerous pioneers perished along the way, and never saw Salt Lake – but Johanna survived again and settled in completely new and basic surroundings in the town of Manti UT.

Even though her son Joseph gave up the arduous Mormon lifestyle and religion, and soon returned to St Louis, Johanna appeared to thrive in the rural wilderness of Manti. Her new home must have had some similarities with the ruggedness of her County Kerry birthplace. Johanna lived for 38 years in Manti until her death in 1894, shortly before her 87th birthday. Her son Joseph returned to be with Johanna in her final days.

About five years before her death, Johanna followed the doctrine of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s preachings and started to “baptize” her deceased relatives into the Church of the Latter Day Saints. In so doing, Johanna formally registered the existence of, and her relationship to, every family member she could recall who had passed away. Johanna managed to fill up three entire pages of the Mormon Baptismal Registers for the Dead over a 12 month period. The full names of each relative, and their origins, were meticulously recorded. Johanna baptized her parents, and grandparents, and uncles and aunts, and great-uncles and great-aunts, and siblings, and one deceased child. Then she moved on to step-relations because a grandfather had re-married after being widowed. Finally, Johanna listed and prayed for all deceased members of her English in-law family. Her memory in old age, far from her Irish homestead, was astounding. Further research indicates that Johanna regularly communicated by mail with family connections in England and Ireland because she had “up-to-date” knowledge of deaths which occurred long after her arrival in America.

The image below displays the first tranche of Johanna’s Baptisms for her dead relatives. The message for all Family Historians is simple. Never give up, and never rule out the outrageously unexpected. When I first started researching Johanna, I presumed that she was just your typical Roman Catholic Irishwoman who managed to escape the Great Famine and rebuild a life in the USA. How wrong can you be?

1889 Mormon baptisms (Johanna)

The Poteen Wars

Retrieved evidence verifies that the wild residents of the Ox Mountains in County Sligo, and in particular the Catholic parishioners of Kilmacteigue living by the Windy Gap overlooking Lough Talt, were highly-regarded distillers of some of the finest Mountain Dew ever sipped in Ireland. Highly-regarded, that is, by fellow aficionados of the home-brewed spirit known as Poteen. The British authorities and later the Civic Guard of the Irish Free State took a different view to the producers and imbibers of duty-free liquor.

As a result, an ongoing clandestine war was fought around the south Sligo mountains and boglands for centuries. The policing agencies always boasted of victories in isolated skirmishes, but truth be told, the distillers were never beaten. The “illegal” trading of mysterious lethal brews still persists to this day – albeit that the receptacles containing the wondrous concoction are more likely to be discarded white lemonade bottles these days (if the plastic does not melt).

The newspaper articles below give a “taster” of the never-ending Poteen War:

1923 A Poteen Case

                 1923: the judge and police know the flavour (of                                         confiscated hooch)

1926 Poteen #2

                                   1926 …. One -Nil

1926 Poteen #3

                                            1926 ….. Two – Nil

1926 Poteen Captures

                                          1926 …. Three – Nil

1926 Poteen Making

1926 ….. Three – One (Cloongoonagh fights back)

1926 Poteen Traffic

1926 ….. Three – Two (no prosecutions in No Man’s                                             Land)

1926 sick cow

1926 ….. Three – Three (if all else fails, use the sick                                                     cow defence)

“ANOTHER ONE” led to the Civic Guards retreating to their Barracks in Aclare. The Poteen Pushers could not be stopped. Casual visitors to Cloongoonagh carried on their everyday business. Christmas was coming. Everybody was happy – even the Guards and the Judge, sampling the finest Mountain Dew prior to enjoying their fattened goose dinners.

If you want to know how to make Mad Man’s Soup follow this link at your peril:

Poteen Making

Marasmus …. in Ireland

During a recent research project, I was shocked to come across an Irish death certificate for a baby girl named Martha aged just under 15 months upon which the Certified Cause of Death was declared by a physician to be “Marasmus.” This is the condition which often claims the lives of very under-nourished infants living in areas of severe famine. We have all seen the haunting images of terrified black children with bloated tummies and heads attached to skeletal frames filmed during recent famines in war-torn African countries. The medical term for the distorted human condition you were witnessing is marasmus.

However, my Irish death cert of concern was not from the Great Famine era of Ireland, namely the late 1840’s. Civil death registration in Ireland did not commence until 1864. This particular death certificate, shown below, dated from 1877 when Ireland had overcome the worst of the economic depression in the post-Famine years. So how could a one year-old baby just starve to death in a West of Ireland family home at this time? This was a scenario which troubled me, especially when my research revealed that baby Martha had six older siblings who all appeared to survive childhood with relative and commendable ease.

1877 death cert (Martha)

The death of Martha occurred on 28th February 1877 in the County Galway village of Kilchreest. The baby’s parents were Patrick & Margaret. On first viewing the certificate I noted that Margaret reported the death, and this was a common but tragic duty for the mothers of infants who died very young, but usually as a result of fever or generally sub-standard living conditions. MARASMUS though! This diagnosis bothered me.

It was not until my client commissioned me to investigate more fully the background of her Irish ancestors that I discovered the whole sorry tale of poor Martha’s last few weeks on earth. The story was more tragic than I could have imagined.

In being asked to compile complete Family Trees, it was one of my tasks to find out when Martha’s parents died. All of her surviving older siblings emigrated to America, but Martha’s parents never crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join them, and they were also absent from the 1901 Irish census. Logically, both of Martha’s parents must have died before April 1901 and after youngest child Martha’s conception in 1875. I eventually found a matching death record for Martha’s father, Patrick; he died in the year 1900 as a widower. For days after, I struggled to locate any reference at all to the demise of Martha’s mother, Margaret. She was dead by 1900, and she reported baby Martha’s death in February 1877, yet there was no matching death record in the intervening years in County Galway, or the whole of Ireland, or anywhere in the civilized world for that matter. I was stumped – until I made an accidental discovery.

For some reason I cannot recall, I carried out my search for Margaret’s death record one more time. On this occasion, I must have left the span of years for my database search engine to interrogate as Martha’s DOB (in 1875) up until 1900. Up popped mother Margaret’s death registration …. in November 1876 …. so mother Margaret had died three months before her baby Martha. Ugh? So who was the female with the same name as Martha’s mother who registered the baby’s death. It took a while before the truth dawned on me.

Earlier research had determined that Martha’s father, Patrick, was most likely an illegitimate child. Patrick could not name his father when he married Margaret, in spite of the fact that this was a normal legal obligation prior to a marriage being recognized by the British state. So Patrick had no family network to step in when his wife tragically died and left him with seven children to raise single-handedly. Patrick worked on a country estate looking after the land and domestic animals on behalf of wealthy employers, and I reckon that he felt forced to carry on with his work in order to keep his family fed, after Feb 1877. Then it HIT me! Patrick’s eldest daughter was Margaret, born in 1864. This girl was aged just 12 years when her mother died …. and 12 year-old Margaret then became the surrogate mother for her six tiny siblings. Somehow, she managed to keep them all alive as her father Patrick spent long hours away from the family’s cottage in Kilchreest village …. but baby Martha needed a proper biological mother.

12 year-old Margaret toiled as best she could, but eventually Martha could not retain nourishment. After three months in Margaret’s care, baby Martha gave up the will to live as an underfed deformed human soul, in front of Margaret’s eyes, and probably in front of a traumatized group of young siblings. Martha’s death certificate confirms that “Margaret” was “Present at Death.”

Having absorbed these facts, it then became apparent that little Margaret suffered the final indignity of having to formally report the death of her baby sister to the local Registrar. Technically, Margaret was under the legal age to carry out such a sad task – and where was her father Patrick when this matter was reported on 14th March 1877? In fact, where was any neighbourhood support in these days before Social Workers stepped in to ease the burden on dysfunctional families? Shame on them all.

Perhaps the worst castigation should be spared for the family’s local physician. This man calmly advised the Registrar that poor Martha’s condition of Marasmus had been certified for eight weeks prior to death! In other words, this so-called doctor was aware of Martha’s drastic under-nourishment by early January 1877 at the latest, yet he left a dying baby in the care of her 12 year-old sister …. and just walked away from the evolving tragedy.

The only good news is that Martha’s siblings all escaped the Irish poverty trap and all eventually settled in various parts of America. Amazingly, one of Martha’s sisters lived to the grand old age of 103 years and retained a computer-like memory right up until her dying day. When this day came in 1972, she could still recount the story of her baby sister who died back in the Galway cottage homestead …. where no-one seemed to care about fatal circumstances which scarred young minds forever.


Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I was raised in a village in northern England. My English mother worked as a girl in the local cotton mill, and my Irish father relocated to the area as a youngster when his parents could no longer eke out a living on their small back-of-beyond farm in south County Sligo. I could always understand my mother’s background, and all things English, but I could never comprehend the reasons for my dad’s family choosing to uproot and settle in a different country, hundreds of miles from their “home” in Sligo. My fascination with this part of my heritage never left me, and when I had the opportunity to reside in Ireland I started to investigate my Irish roots. I found the answers I needed, and it changed my life … and eventually I started to write about this general subject.
When did you first start writing?
I first started writing when attending a Grammar School run by ultra-strict and devout Catholic Christian Brothers. I wrote daft short articles which gradually filled spare school exercise books to amuse my school-friends. My teachers were far from amused by my rebellious and blasphemous utterances. My books got confiscated from playground circulation, and I got a whack with a leather strap for my free-thinking artistry. When I started my first job in a technical drawing office, I resurrected my part-time writing career by submitting humorous pieces for inclusion in the in-house company magazine. In the days before personal computers, I was instantly enthralled to see my words in published print. I dabbled in commercial writing ever since until I felt confident enough to create a series of full-blown novels.
What’s the story behind your latest book?
My latest “published” book was my first novel constructed around a central theme of genealogy. Having become a professional ancestry researcher, I have collated many real-life family histories and some of the unearthed tales just had to be shared with fans of action / adventure / thriller / tragedy / history books. My first genealogical novel (of a planned series) is called “Where’s Merrill?” and is the true story of a man born in Midwest America who became a very successful businessman – but in the 1930’s he just disappears from the planet. No death record, no burial, nothing. His grandson wanted to know how, and more importantly, why.
What are you working on next?
The follow-up to “WM?” is sub-titled “a genealogical tragedy.” The main title is “Mother’s Little Helper.” It is a stand-alone novel but links back to some of the events experienced by the family history researcher in “WM?” There are some similarities in the origins of the two stories in that both concern clients trying to find out more about elusive grandfathers – but the second novel revolves around the discovery that a shocking crime was committed by an ancestor of the second client, and this crime nearly wiped out the whole genealogical lineage. As such, the client would not have existed except for a fateful oversight. Fact-based stories are often more astonishing than fiction, in both content and context.

Published 2013-08-30 by Smashwords.