Ancestry Research-wise … Ireland regresses from ground-breaker to stone-age in 15 days

Those of you who follow the latest news in genealogy research developments will be well aware that July 3rd 2014 was a momentous day in Ireland. The indices to the Republic’s civil records of births, marriages and deaths up to 2013 were made available to viewers online. It was a marvelous occasion, celebrating over 6 month’s hard work by dedicated civil servants (at great cost to the public purse), rightly trumpeted by government Ministers as a big step forward in promoting Irish ancestry to the vast worldwide diaspora.

ig website

Temporarily? For over a month, and counting?

15 days later the website was closed down … by a [Nanny] State watchdog voicing concerns about data protection. Billy Hawkes, Ireland’s Data Protection Commisioner, declared that a monumental “cock-up” had occurred. It seems that one Irishman was concerned that his DOB and mother’s maiden name were now traceable via the civil birth registers, so the whole website was abandoned overnight. This unprotected public data is available to any Irish resident or visitor to Ireland who cares to venture into one of two General Register Office research rooms.

Our neighbours in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland appear to have no such concerns regarding the publicity of DOB’s or the maiden surnames of citizen’s mothers. All are traceable (for recent decades), if you know how to interrogate British government-funded websites which promote the identification of births, marriages and deaths of loved ones, relatives and ancestors.

Billy Hawkes seems to be overly concerned that some half-wits use their DOB or mother’s maiden name as their sole “password” on unidentified websites of extreme importance to the financial security and privacy of all citizens of the Irish Republic. Really? There are only two High Street banks left in Ireland, after the recent mismanagement of the nation’s economy … by the Government. Neither bank requests DOB’s or maiden names as account passwords – in isolation. Nor does any financial institution to my knowledge. Sensibly, they all have double or triple encrypted password protection for electronic account access, with at least one alphanumerical password randomly selected by the money processor, not the account holder.

Yes, we know that Facebook demands to know its sad users’ birthdays … so that other saddos can send an annual image of a cake or balloon … BUT daft gossip via social media platforms is not of national importance … IMHO … LOL … as they say on FB or similar.

Things are moving on …. yet Billy Hawkes and the Government as a whole remain tight-lipped. Thanks for spending all my income tax on a commendable genealogy research promotion exercise that you cannot agree on. Shame on you all.

Latest announcement by the Department of Heritage, Arts and the Gaeltacht

Personally, I believe that Ireland’s Office for Data Protection is very culpable in this ludicrous affair. Surely, part of its role is to oversee and guide any publicized venture that intends to make more personal data readily available to the masses. This office’s staff were fully aware of the Irish civil BMD database project, yet they stood back and then claimed to be shocked by the end result … which they did not even check out until a third party raised a minor concern. What do these nameless Data Protection officials do all day? Swap jokes on Facebook?

Billy Hawkes and his team could redeem themselves by recommending that the Irish government funds a series of public service announcements aimed at warning the less computer-savvy man in the street not to use a DOB, marriage date or family maiden name (or forename or address or phone number or bank account number, etc) as their deadly secret “password” which gains immediate entry into all sorts of private online accounts and personal files … if the ill-educated man wishes to retain privacy, of course. It’s a free world, and many social media users seem to like to share everything about their humdrum private lives with total strangers (including addresses, DOB’s, marriage anniversaries and full family details c/w excruciating photos). Then again, if such a public service announcement was made, Billy Hawkes would be justifiably accused of scare-mongering because every IT expert would point out that personal electronic banking and payment systems cannot be hacked by simply entering an associated DOB or name.

Archives are closed today




South Sligo National Schools – Largan & Kilmactigue outdo Drimina

No sooner had I publicized the fact that a very old photo of the (named) pupils of Drimina National School existed, dating from the 1920’s, and not one, but two, even older photos come to light from the relatively small Kilmacteigue RC Parish in South County Sligo. The photo below features the pupils in attendance at the tiny Largan National School overlooking the beautiful Lough Talt in November 1913. As you will see, a name has been put to each schoolchild. Do you know any of these families? Were they your ancestors?

1913 November 6 - Largan NS

Largan National School – 6th November 1913.

Back Row: Joe Murry, Joe Murry, Tom Cooke, Willie Curley, Joe Deehan, Francis Murry, Martin Deehan, Pat Walsh, Joe Gallagher, Annie Cooke, John Henry Murry, Beezie O’Donnell, Mike Curley, Bridget Mullarkey, Jim O’Connor, Mary Kate Cooke, Mary O’Connor, Mary Walsh, Maggie Henigan, Florrie Henigan, Kate Quinn, Delia Quinn, Mary Jane Goldrick, Mary Kate Deehan, Mary Ellen Mullarkey, Kate Mullarkey.

Front Row: Martin Quinn, Micheal Walsh, Jim Goldrick, John Lang, Jim Quinn, John William Mullarkey, Mike Quinn, Annie Kate Goldrick, Mary Ann Durcan, Kate Curley, Mary Agnes Murry, Emma Goldrick, Mary Frances Murry, Bridget Curley, Annie Theresa Mullarkey, Maggie Lang, Kate Deehan, Mary Walsh, Kate Kildunne, Maggie Deehan.

The next day, the unknown professional photographer set up his tripod at nearby Kilmactigue National School. This excellent photo was the result:

1913 nov 7 - Kilmactigue NS

If only all genealogies were this simple

First off, the formalities. It was our Shankley’s fourth birthday on US Independence Day, yesterday. Straightaway I should point out that Shankley is a pedigree male Bengal domestic cat because a pet named Shankley appears in my genealogical thriller novel “Where’s Merrill?” in a different guise. Being a Bengal, Shankley’s 4th birthday is a significant milestone for him. He can now be classed as an adult and he is certainly refraining from starting childish daily play fights with his younger feline house-mates as was his way a year ago.

As part of the birthday celebration, we took out Shankley’s birth certificate to respectfully remember his parentage. Yes – pedigree animals have their own birth certificates – and some breeders provide documents which are far better in content than human counterparts. Take a look at Shankley’s birth cert below. Professional genealogists would be obsolete if national authorities ever started to request such detailed information when the birth of a human baby was registered.

2010 birth cert (Shankley) copy As you can see, the new arrival’s full name of Sunstorm Shankley was registered as the progeny of his named father and mother, termed as Sire & Dam. Only a few obscure places in the human birth registration world bother to record an infant’s grand-parentage – but by reference to his birth document, our Shankley can name all eight of his great grandparents, and quite remarkably all sixteen of his great great grandparents. Each ancestor is given a brief physical description, and former champion show cats are highlighted in red text. It is clear that Shankley is descended from cat royalty on the paternal side of his concise Family Tree.

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                                        All grown up, at age 4?

Happy birthday to Shankley and the USA

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.

Happy Birthday to Football

As the 20th staging of the FIFA Word Cup international football tournament finals gets underway today in Brazil, I thought it appropriate to combine my interest in genealogy with the great sport of [Association] Football – or soccer as it is known in countries such as America and Ireland where native team game players of old stole the football name before it could be copyrighted (yet perversely all other versions of football involve moving the ball by hand, mainly).

Even Football Clubs have birth certificates, strange as it seems – and some clubs are “getting on a bit.” Most established English clubs are now older than the oldest living Englishman. The FC birth cert below shows that one of England’s most successful teams, Liverpool Football Club, celebrated its 122nd birthday just last week. As with traditional vital records, this particular birth cert records the name of the proud father of the new arrival. In a bizarre twist which amuses football fanatics on Merseyside, Liverpool FC was spawned by its long-time arch-rival, Everton FC. In 1892, Everton was a popular and strapping 14 year-old. As genealogists know, in Victorian times it was quite common for teenagers to enter fatherhood or motherhood. Amazingly, LFC’s father, Everton is still going strong and rather cheekily keeps making comeback appearances which threaten to destabilize the red team’s recent domination of the soccer-mad city of Liverpool in terms of on-field success.

1892 LFC birth_certificateAs a consequence of sharing my life with a Red Scouser, Liverpool FC have become my second favourite domestic side. I will never abandon my “first team” though, after my father dragged me along to become a spectator of my first professional football match as a schoolboy. 1875 BRFCAncestrally, my family developed an unbreakable affinity with Blackburn Rovers Football Club which is even older than Liverpool FC and its daddy, Everton. As the club badge shows, Blackburn Rovers was baptized as a club in 1875, although this was a delayed christening after other nicknames had been adopted and rejected by the new kid on the 1870’s football scene.

Even BRFC was a relative youngster when it came into formal existence. The honour of elder statesman in English professional football ranks goes to Notts County FC. In November this year, Notts County will be 152 years-old having played about 4,750 Football League matches. County is still capable of showing some young upstarts a thing or two about the beautiful game, although the old man has not been fit enough to compete in the top division for 20 years. “At the end of the day, the legs have gone, late in the game,” as a semi-literate TV pundit will probably say more than once during the next glorious month of World Cup highlights.

The first FIFA World Cup Final tournament was held in South America in 1930, so it’s appropriate that the same continent hosts the finale of the 20th competition. My beloved BRFC was already in late middle age by then, and County had even become a pensioner. It’s a funny OLD game.


The beauty of South Sligo

I have long been aware of the hidden beauty of my “back yard” in South Sligo, but as an early-riser, my appreciation has always been limited to scenic viewing during daylight hours. So I was was both surprised and proud to find that my home patch features regularly in the stunning night-time photography portfolio of Damien Stenson. Damien is a very talented Galway-based landscape photographer but he specialises in night photography – as displayed by the breath-taking imagery shown below.

These four examples were taken from the shores of Lough Talt, nestled in the Windy Gap of the Ox Mountains. A big effort is underway to promote our tranquil backwater as a tourism destination to a worldwide audience. I am not alone in wishing this venture the greatest of success while conversely hoping that the trickle of rambling tourists never becomes a torrent of couldn’t care less litter louts. A tranquil backwater needs places of tranquility – even at peak season.

DS3DS4DS5DS6The bright comet-like object in the night sky of the photo above is the International Space Station passing overhead during a film exposure of several minutes. I am far from being a knowledgeable student of modern photography techniques so head over to Damien’s Facebook page for all the technical blurb about how these wonderful images were captured by a true magician of the lens.

Dozens more memorable pictures, mainly from the West of Ireland at night, can be viewed at

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


∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

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.

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.

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?

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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

Irish Ancestry Research HQ

2010 was [very] cold. 2014 is very windy and wet. One tree down, and one stray large branch did some damage to the “kitty compound”.

Where's Merrill?

This Bengal cat knows the answer.

A Bengal pedigree hybrid cat is the fourth generation offspring resulting from breeding an Asian Snow Leopard with a domestic feline. These beautiful animals of gentle temperament retain the golden-spotted markings of a leopard on their underside, a tiger-like shiny striped coat and distinctive “mascara” markings around the eyes and face.

Bengal Beauty

Back to More Merrill Musings

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The Best View in Ireland

Where is the best view in Ireland?

Maybe you’re taking things for granted. It could be right outside of your window.


2006 DP4

                                                                                                         To The Right


Ooh Nice

2006 DP5

To The Left


A Soundtrack In My Head

Where's Merrill?

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

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

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The Merrill & Sabrina Love Theme

Where's Merrill?

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

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

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

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

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A pioneering Irish Mormon

Where's Merrill?

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

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Where's Merrill?

In our search for Merrill, we traced the lives of all his possible associates. This meant researching the whereabouts of all identifiable members of Merrill’s complicated extended family. In doing so, we came across one very eccentric character called Andrew Hessler who led a fascinating life with echoes of the Mystery of Merrill, although this man’s antics occurred a few decades earlier and culminated with his shocking death in 1915. As a result of my strange findings, I christened Andrew as Mini-Merrill.

If you‘ve read Where‘s Merrill, you will recall that Horace Forster’s mother was Amelia, and when her husband Leo Forster Jr shot his brains out after five years of marriage in 1886, we found out that Amelia eventually got married again to this fellow called Andrew Hessler – but this second husband “disappeared” (just like Merrill) during 1900 amid rumours of suicide.

I take some comfort regarding my…

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Where’s (Merrill) the Synopsis?

The basic story ….

Where's Merrill?

“Where’s Merrill?” is a uniquely crafted mystery thriller based upon real life historical events. In fact, it is two inter-related stories in one novel set in different time-frames  namely the past and the present. An Irish genealogist called Jed is commissioned by Tim, an American client, who needs to understand more about his mysterious maternal ancestry. Fate had dictated that Tim never got the chance to meet his grandparents, and he didn’t even know the name of his mother’s father. She refused to tell Tim, even on her death bed. Why? That was a question which troubled Tim as he witnessed his mother’s melancholy throughout his adult life, and after her death he resolved to find some answers – and peace of mind.

It was also a question which intrigued Jed after he learned that Tim’s grandfather simply “disappeared”. No death record, no burial – nothing. Jed identifies the “missing” grandfather…

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Fascinating Firewood

For over eighteens only ….

Steady hands required

                                        Steady hands required

The Carling Brewery has introduced an odd marketing campaign in the west of Ireland. If you purchase sufficient cans of Black Label lager beer, the purchaser is given a box of J-Blocs – with no explanation as to why the purchaser deserves such a bizarre gift. The J-Blocs box indicates that only persons over 18 years of age are entitled to this gift. Fair enough. You have to be 18 to buy beer in Ireland. Another teaser states that you need “steady hands” to handle the mysterious J-Blocs box.

I opened the box when I got home from town. It was full of neatly cut sticks of firewood. With steady hands, I lit a fire in the hearth. The J-Blocs added to the glow of burning sods of turf in no time at all. It’s a clever idea. Stay in, booze at home and keep warm.

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

Merrill the Hedgehog

For about the last two weeks, we’ve been feeding a hedgehog which was spotted in our front garden late one night. We understood that these creatures were very secretive and rarely ventured far from their nests – but we noticed that our visitor started to regularly take his feed of meat and biscuits by our illuminated front door every night at about 11 pm. By placing his food nearer to one of our outdoor security cameras, we also started watching him arrive and depart (after about 15 minutes of munching) in glorious infra-red night vision. Our hedgehog was a large adult and we christened him Merrill.

We were shocked on Saturday morning though, when we saw how huge our Merrill actually was in daylight. For reasons unknown, this normally nocturnal dweller, had decided to take a stroll around our garden in broad daylight. He was larger than a typical domestic cat.

Merrill on the Move

                                       Merrill on the Move

Merrill proceeded to take a five minute jog around a circuit of our house. Hedgehogs can move at a surprisingly high pace, especially big fellows like mega-Merrill. He eventually ambled into our old stone barn and had a rummage through my stocks of winter wood fuel. Merrill sensed that I had spotted him and hid behind a thin branch of fallen timber. It wasn’t the best of hiding places.

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                           Merrill in Hiding

Merrill is obviously grateful for his free dinners in the run-up to hibernation time and has become remarkably tame. He is not spooked by bright lights at night, nor by humans observing him at close quarters. Stray cats have approached him but his natural spiky defense system in combination with his vast size means that would-be predators soon lose interest in our Merrill. Only when he’s ready, with a full belly, does he trot off towards the garden fence and into a natural hollow protected by shrubbery.

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          A rare glimpse at the underside of a giant Irish hedgehog

I managed to capture the photo above, by chance, when Merrill scrambled up to the top of my wood pile and then lost his footing. He rolled backwards doing gentle somersaults, and had a soft landing in the hay. Feeling rather embarrassed he then went home for the day, and no doubt had a long sleep. At long last, I found Merrill – but I’ve promised to keep his address and whereabouts secret.

Aclare Old Fair Day (Revived) 3rd Aug 2013

Earlier posts recall the days when Aclare village in County Sligo hosted one of the busiest Fair Days in the region. Back in the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, the main focus of attention for buyers and sellers alike was the trade in farming livestock, followed by boisterous quaffing of ale and whiskey in the village’s many old public houses.

Today, prompted by the more genteel and nostalgic mood of The Gathering of 2013, Aclare has stepped back in time and the dozens of long-deserted old shops and business premises have risen from the grave for one weekend only. There are not many beasts of the field around (for which the Tidy Towns’ appointed street-cleaner is eternally grateful), but market stalls are displaying farming antiquities alongside freshly baked breads and cakes, lovingly made in the old farmhouse kitchens of the surrounding countryside. With an old-style Dinner Dance (for the traditionalists) and a Disco (for the younger brigade) to follow, boisterousness in the pubs might yet make a comeback.

Aclare OFD #1VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WVLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Aclare Old Fair Day (Re-visited) 2013

Early morning – Aclare Old Fair Day (Re-visited) 2013

Thankfully, a growing tourism trade in our secret part of South Sligo is boosting the local economy, year on year. The unspoiled mountains and lakes appeal to young and old alike. More information about the area can be found via the link to our Walking Festival brochure (below). Everyone will be made more than welcome. Don’t all come at once though …. the beauty is in the serenity …. followed by great music and craic in the bars.

2013 South Sligo Walking Festival Brochure

The Holy Lamb

I have previously referred to a Black Sheep in the family, in the form of an abusive priest of the worst kind. I am pleased to be able to introduce the antithesis of the abuser, the holiest man in my Family Tree, none other than Father Matthew O’Rourke, my first cousin once removed.

Matthew was born on 7th November 1918 in the Bronx district of New York City. He was the middle child of five O’Rourke siblings born to one of my grandfather Ned Neary’s sisters (Margaret) who had emigrated from the Sligo farmstead to New York in 1905. In the Bronx, Margaret married her brother-in-law, John O’Rourke, a Leitrim native and a fully-qualified and respected Civil Engineer who worked on many important NY infrastructure projects.

Margaret Neary’s first child, a daughter called Mary, died before the age of two when Margaret was six months pregnant with her second child. The new baby would have started to console John & Maggie O’Rourke over their sad loss, as this child was also a daughter, honourably christened as Margaret Mary in September 1916. The new baby developed into a strong, bright and independent young lady. By 1938, Margaret Mary had breezed through college studies and went in search of a career having been awarded a Major in the field of Chemistry. In 1940, Margaret Mary would have witnessed her younger brother Matthew leaving college with his own BA degree and then attending St Joseph’s Seminary to study to enter the priesthood. Matthew’s life choices must have influenced his older sister because in 1949 Margaret Mary gave up her well-paid employment and became a nun in the Order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, Margaret Mary lived her own long and holy life as she too devoted herself to God, becoming a Catholic teacher of native Najavo Indians in Arizona before eventually retiring to her convent in Pennsylvania. Margaret Mary died on 7th November 2008 in the convent hospital, aged 92, an event which upset Fr Matthew … for he was still going strong, and it was his birthday and he related the news of Margaret Mary’s death to me with much sadness in his voice.

During his seminary studies, Matthew was sent in 1944 to work in the poorest black communities of the Southern US states. He spent about a year in these communities, and what he saw was to inspire the majority of his adult life. Matt was fully ordained as a Josephite priest on 10th June 1947 after completing his ecumenical studies in Washington DC. He was awarded his first ministry as an associate pastor in a mixed race city center parish of New Orleans, and here he was horrified to experience segregated white and black RC mass services. Worse still, the local white kids received a decent education at small publicly-funded schools, but the black children got no formal education at all.

Fr Matthew O'Rourke SSJFr Matt had a vision of opening the deep South’s first mixed race Catholic High School, and so he attended night classes at the local New Orleans university for 5 years graduating with yet another degree; this time a Masters in Education. During this period, Matt became an active campaigner in the burgeoning civil rights movement of the time, trying to gain equality for black Americans. Traditional white supremacists sneered at the Catholic Church’s involvement, and several senior priests were arrested on trumped-up civil disturbance charges. Looking back, Fr Matt wrote:

“Discrimination because of race was almost total. Segregation was everywhere — in the schools, in public transportation, in the stores, in banks, in restaurants, at lunch counters, in the movie theaters, in the parks and swimming pools. Worst of all, there was de facto segregation in the southern churches.”

During these mature student days, Fr Matt eventually assumed full authority over the Raymond Parish of New Orleans. At the time of becoming PP, his city center Catholic Church was still holding one Sunday mass for the white congregation, and then a separate service for the black parishioners, mainly because the influential local white politicians demanded that segregation must be upheld in all public places. Fr Matt announced one week after taking control that there would be just one combined mass service under his ministry, in future. The New Orleans white so-called Christians were up in arms. Fr Matt told them to accept the way forward, or to go and find a different religion. The whites reluctantly accepted Fr Matt’s decision, and crowded into all the pews up front, with the blacks having to stand at the back. Fr Matt wasn’t finished. During his first combined mass sermon, he asked the black senior citizens to walk up the aisle, and he instructed the white families to shuffle around and find seats for their elderly fellow-parishioners. The “change” in local society had started.

In 1950, Fr Matt presided over the building of a new Josephite catholic parish high school. He was appointed the first-ever principal of St Augustine’s in 1951, and served in this role for a decade. Fr Matt invited the “excluded” local black children to attend his school, again to the alarm of much wealthier white families. Even the uneducated black kids were disinclined to join academic classes, so Matt recruited top sports coaches and encouraged the reluctant scholars to venture through the school gates and form initially all-black sports teams. A major turning point came when Matt arranged end-of-term challenge matches in football and basketball, whites v blacks. The whites scoffed but were forced to eat their words when the “Negro teams” trounced their new schoolmates at everything, including track and field events.

Soon after, Matt organized sports tournaments with neighboring schools. Most were unwilling to permit games with St Augustine’s mixed race athletes, but St Augustine’s teams invariably won the scaled-down competitions – and so each exclusive whites-only school lined up to attempt to beat the New Orleans champions from St Augustine’s; a mixed bunch of intelligent liberal white boys and promising muscular black athletes. Integration had been commenced forever, unwittingly in the eyes of white bigots. Of course, Fr Matt was soon able to tell his black sports stars that they had to join the academic classes if they wanted to remain on the sports teams.

Matthew’s foresight and determination was soon recognized by his superiors. He o+rourke+st+augustineeventually rose through the ranks of Josephite society, and became Director of Education during the turbulent 1960’s decade. Fr Matt now had the power and ability to mould the curriculums and entrance policies of every Christian school or college across America. Today, many black Louisiana politicians, business leaders and sports celebrities pay homage to Fr Matt (fondly nicknamed “The Chief”) and their all-round education at St Augustine’s during the 1950’s and in subsequent years. In truth, most African American students in the USA, past and present, should thank my Irish American first cousin for his relentless courage in gaining equal access to educational institutions for all races – something which is now taken for granted.

Photo (ReverendMatthewJosephORourke)Fr Matt visited his mother’s Irish hometown of Tubbercurry on several occasions, and composed his own hand-written version of a Family Tree after seeking out and interviewing relatives. About 10 years ago, I was privileged to be personally introduced to Fr Matt by a new-found NYC-based cousin, as Matt served in his last SSJ role as the Rector of St Joseph Manor in Baltimore, a retirement home for ailing priests from the 1990’s onward. He graciously sent me his detailed O’Rourke Family Tree, and I was therefore able to vastly expand my Neary Family Tree. I reciprocated his kindness by retrieving several Irish vital records featuring his father and uncles, and their forefathers, which Matt had never been able to locate. He said that I had made him a “very happy and contented old man” as he prepared to meet his Maker.

Shortly after his sister Margaret Mary died in Nov 2008, Matt took a heavy fall and broke his hip in seven places and fractured his femur. He was now aged 90 and even his nursing staff felt that the much-loved Fr Matthew would never recover from this devastating accident – but he did. Eventually confined to a wheelchair, Matt was able to communicate with me in Ireland via the phone and with his regular letters and blessings. Remarkably, Fr Matt had become fully computer-literate in old age, and he even sent me the odd e-mail as a disabled nonagenarian to advise me of the births of new family tree members across the world.

The renowned published author, civil rights pioneer and former School Principal and President, with the film star good looks, the Very Reverend Father Matthew Joseph O’Rourke, SSJ, passed away peacefully on 9th March 2012 at St Joseph Manor. He was buried on 14th November at the New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore.

2012 photo (Fr Matt)

Last photo: Fr Matt, The Chief (1918-2012) RIP