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.

Where’s Merrill? …. where’s the novel

The e-book version of Where’s Merrill? [A Genealogical Thriller] was published on 28th February 2013 and subsequently released in paperback during 2014. It is available to purchase for just a few dollars from:

© AMAZON or

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WM manuscript cover blog #1 copy

          #1 AMAZON Best-Seller 2014

Go on …. read it and try to help solve some lingering mysteries

All-Ireland Inquest

Dear Danny,

Went to the Roaring Cock yesterday lunchtime for a pint and the post-All-Ireland inquest discussions. I overheard this bar-room conversation between two locals:
“What time did you leave on Sunday?”
“I dunno. I woke up in Charlestown, early hours Monday. Why – what time did you leave?”
“I dunno.”
“So – did I see you on Sunday?”
“I think so.”
The Irish really know how to celebrate big sporting events.

Gearoid, Ha ha, brilliant ! I was really sad to hear The Green and Red had been beaten again; I thought they might have done it this time around. I’m sure mighty craic was had whatever. Did you watch it in the Cock ? I was wondering if the Killybacside gang were for Mayo or Donegal.

Danny, as you should know – Mayo & Sligo are in the Connacht province, and even though Mayo “bet” Sligo in the Connacht final, healthy local tradition says that you support your neighbours – even after defeat. I know it’s the opposite in Lancashire. Could you ever support Burnley in the FA Cup Final if they beat Blackburn Rovers in the semi!! Then again, this FA cup final could only ever be played on Fantasy Island.

Donegal play in the Ulster Championship. They are close neighbours but they’re separated by a small strip of Leitrim. We were glad that the GAA final involved two teams from the West for a change, but the Green & Red flags were flying in our parish on Sunday. My great-grandmother was a Mayo lady, so I cheered them on too. I was first in the Roaring Cock on Sunday morning (before the bar officially opened), escaping early from yet another midday funeral mass. I even beat old Hughie O’Gara to the bar, and he is a permanent fixture on the bar stool by the turf fire. I took my car home when I was only 1 or 2 jars over the limit, and vowed to return if Mayo got off to a good start. They didn’t. Two goals down in no time. Game over – barring a miracle. So I got sozzled at home, channel-hopping between Premier League soccer, GAA & Formula One.

I think Mayo’s failure just contributed to excess partying in the Cock for no good reason at all. Many say they cannot remember the second half – or the next few hours – or the closed door session after midnight, etc. Where do they get the stamina? Years of practice, I suppose.

Gearoid, I am so happy. I slept ! I went out for dinner with the Dublin/Nottingham girls and had a few beers before I leave Pamplona; I put the earplugs in to drown out the phantom snorer and was dead to the world. Today’s another day. I woke at 6.00am today pleasantly surprised to have slept so well. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that ”Foghorn Leghorn” had kept half the dorm awake again. In the spirit of the Camino, I gave a spare pair of earplugs to an Australian pilgrim who looked like she was more in need than I was.

Early start for me too, today, Danny. Got to research some Dubliners called Costello, a typically Irish surname – but they turn out to have been the Costa family originally from Lucca in Tuscany 200 years ago, and then they started to appreciate their Italian heritage in the 20th century and they start calling themselves Castello after further emigration around the world. Irish genealogy is never straightforward, especially as many Irish folk “adopt” forenames in adulthood which were never mentioned on their baptism records. I have Irish three aunts; my dad’s sisters. They were always known to me in Lancashire as Maureen, Eileen & Doreen. It turns out that they were born as Mary, Attracta & Joan ….. and even Hughie O’Gara (Cock fixture & fitting) was never christened as Hugh or anything like!

Danny, as you’ll appreciate, drink-driving around our parish involves keeping your vehicle in the two well-worn ruts in the single track lanes separated by the green strip of overgrown grass which has sprung up from the ancient tarmac last laid decades ago. It is impossible to leave the road, but meeting a fellow drink-driver coming the other way is a difficult challenge. And if the approaching fellow traveler is perched upon a rusty old red (unlicensed) tractor, then take evasive action. My shiny new motor now has the scars of one of these encounters.

But a bump or two on the family car is like a badge of honour around here – as is the 12 months driving ban for those heroes daft enough to venture into town after a few pints in the village “shops”. Liver complaints are unheard of – but bowel cancer seems to be the price you pay in old age for a lifetime of living off nothing more than Guinness soup. The recommended local medicine for bowel cancer is more Guinness, so that’s alright then.

By the way – Happy Arthur’s Day! Will you find a pint of the black stuff beyond Pamplona – if you dare venture off today.

Arthur’s Day is a great Irish invention which now ensures that the 12 month wait for Paddy’s Day is halved. It’s always better to have a reason to get totally “locked” as the Dubs say. But with Arthur’s Day falling midway between the GAA Football Final and the All-Ireland Hurling replay this year, there won’t be much turf cut this week ……

Which reminds me – a great headline in the Western People this week, as follows:No sun, no silage, no turf, no Sam – a Bad Year for Mayo.

Up Galway, in the replayed hurling final. Might venture out for a drink.

Gearoid , that cracked me up. You should write a book. Oh I forgot , you already have! Did you see the news? Rioting in Pamplona by Spanish austerity protesters.

The Spanish are mid-table rioters as far as I can see on the TV news. Be thankful you’re not passing through Athens. The Greeks really know how to trash the place.

Meanwhile, in parallel to your long trek, the 9-Day West of Ireland Drinking Olympics reached midway on Arthur’s Day. I gave up work early and ventured into the main stadium (aka The Roaring Cock) at about 4pm to check on progress. After patiently waiting for landlord Con’s middle daughter, Mae O (from Sligo), to set me up the perfect pint of Guinness, I jokingly asked whether I was too early for the Happy Hour free black stuff which I knew officially commenced at precisely 17:59. Hughie O’Gara in his familiar corner piped up that in Charlestown they had free drinks for two hours. Now Hughie has an odd Sligo accent which combined with the effects of a mild stroke makes him speak in a strange Dalek-like tongue. To me, it sounded like Hughie said that our Mayo neighbours were offering “free drinks for chihuahuas” – so as my pint settled right on cue, I was able to raise my glass to the regulars and exclaim (as per the Guinness TV ad) –
Chihuahuas!
Hughie didn’t get it. He just said, “I’m not kidding ye. Two hours.”
The session had been re-invigorated. Mae O gave everyone a free pint ahead of time as we giggled like kids and saluted our hero – “TWARTA!”

Next up, Matt The Truth explained that a new word had been invented locally. He told us that the definition of the word is – “to fall into a drunken stupor whilst watching your sporting heroes not unexpectedly let you down yet again in the biggest match of the season.” He advised that this word is DEJAVOODOO.

And then we saw the story in the Irish Independent newspaper on the bar top, wherein a Hong Kong business tycoon is offering $50 million to any man who will “woo his lesbian daughter”. This headline gave ample scope for a prolonged debate about different folk’s interpretation of the art of wooing, especially if the lady prefers to bat for the other side. As you might expect, the conversation degenerated and made young Mae O blush, and cannot be repeated here. Pious Peter was cringing, and said with his lisp, “Now, that’s what I call wooed [rude]” – so I retorted with “as the Chinese millionaire said to his spread-eagled dyke of a daughter.”

My drinking companion, innocent 89 year-old bachelor ‘uncle’ John asked his usual question when female homosexuality is raised. “What do lesbians actually do?” he enquired. Matt The Truth gave him a subtle clue when he said that there’s two lesbians who live on his lane, and they grow a lot of courgettes. John was baffled and advised us that he prefers cabbage.

Sore knees are nothing. My guts are starting to ache this week. Is it the porter, the side-splitting craic, or both?

Keep going Dan. You’ve progressed about 1.5 inches along the Camino map on my 12″ screen.

camino de santiago

Where’s he heading?