The second Neary / O’Rourke marriage

It was great-aunt Maggie Neary’s 132nd birthday on 6th April 2017. Right on cue on this birthday, a long-lost photo of Maggie on her wedding day in 1913 emerged from an old family chest. Margaret Neary married John O’Rourke, a fully qualified NYC Civil Engineer originally from Leitrim, on 18th June 1913 in the Bronx.

Just under 10 years earlier, Maggie’s eldest sister Mary Neary married John’s eldest brother, Charlie O’Rourke at St Philip Neri’s Catholic Church in the Bronx. A family tale in New York relates that Maggie’s older sister Bridget once courted John O’Rourke and hoped that he would eventually propose marriage. This romance was progressing steadily as John completed his Civil Engineering studies – and then Maggie Neary arrived on the Bronx scene when she sailed to New York with her brother Matthew in 1905. Poor Bridget Neary’s dreams were dashed when John & Maggie started to “walk out” together at weekends. A few years later, John O’Rourke’s engineering career was flourishing and he was ready to settle down. John proposed to Maggie, and Bridget Neary returned to Ireland broken-hearted. A year after arriving home in Tullinaglug, Bridget married a Sligo man at St Attracta’s church in Tourlestrane – maybe on the rebound.

Meanwhile, Maggie & John married and conceived 5 children, the last being Eileen born in 1925. Eileen O’Rourke’s daughter Maura sent me this great photo on Maggie’s 132nd birthday … after a root about in an old family chest.

1913 photo (Maggie Neary on her wedding day)

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I was always taught that when you start reading a book you have to be captured almost instantly – certainly within the 1st chapter – to know whether it’s worth reading the rest of it …well I was certainly captured with “Where’s Merrill?”

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I can tell you that !!!!

M T Cooper (somewhere in England)

Confirmation of a name

If any of your ancestors were raised as Catholics, consider looking for a record of their Confirmation. This holy event is one of the seven sacraments in which Catholics participate as they pass through life. According to Catholic doctrine, in this sacrament participants are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and are strengthened in their Christian life.

Traditionally, these days, Confirmation is the third of the three sacraments of Christian initiation (following Baptism and First Holy Communion) normally undertaken when Catholic children are in their early teens. However, in ancient times and still today in some more obscure parts of the world, a younger Catholic child could be “confirmed” prior to Holy Communion, so long as the baptism ceremony had been completed.

1905 Liber ConfirmatarumFortunately, history dictates that the vast majority of our Irish ancestors were raised as Catholics, so if you have Irish heritage, then extend your vital record search criteria for each Irishman or woman to the following events. A written record of each occasion would have been registered at the time.

  1. Birth / Baptism
  2. Confirmation
  3. Marriage (if applicable)
  4. Death

Recently, I was delighted to find a preserved copy of my Irish grandfather Ned’s Confirmation record held in the custody of his native RC parish church in Tourlestrane, County Sligo. The library in the Parochial House had the usual Baptismal and Marriage Registers but I noticed a smaller section headed Liber Confirmatarum or Confirmation Book. This hand-written register had only been formally kept since the start of the 20th century but this was late enough to include the Confirmation of the 12th and last child of Tom Neary & Kate Stenson born in May 1894. In fact, Ned Neary must have been one of the oldest participants (at age 15) to receive the Bishop’s blessing because the date of the event was May 1909. The poor education of Ned and his parents was displayed by the fact that my grandfather was wrongly registered as a fourteen year-old.

Confirmation records are very interesting because they record the full names (and “reported” ages) of all the ancestral children in a generation who lived into their teens.1909 Confirmation (Edward Joseph Neary) This information may not appear in registered format anywhere else. It is easy to detect siblings where the full names and address of each child’s parents were recorded, as shown here. In some instances, the parental data might enlighten or verify your understanding of a mother’s maiden surname which was not forthcoming from other research sources.

As part of the Confirmation ceremony, each child is awarded a Confirmation forename which must be an established Catholic saint’s name. My grandfather chose a popular one, Joseph, but the record above is the only document I possess which proves that Edward Neary ever had a middle name. So, 120 years after his birth, my granddad can now be officially referred to as Edward Joseph Neary.

Perhaps even more poignant for me was reading the Confirmation record of my granddad’s sister, and the 11th child of Tom & Kate. This was the Neary girl known by the giggle-inducing name of Fanny who no-one could seem to recall. My earlier detective work verified that she was born in April 1892, but she passed away at the age of just 25 in the Sligo Asylum Hospital. Now, at last, funny Fanny had a proper and saintly title. As a young teenager in St Attracta’s RC church, my “lost” great-aunt was blessed with the full name of Fanny Mary Agnes Neary.

I am so glad that she chose a female saint’s name. 100 years ago, the vogue at Confirmation time in Ireland seems to have been that boys picked boys’ names, but girls could choose either gender. The Confirmation Book shows many examples of poor ill-advised teen-aged girls choosing new but odd male middle names such as Aloysius or Stanislaus.

One last research tip, worth remembering. Our Irish ancestors had a strange tendency of adopting their middle names as alternative new first names in adulthood, particularly if they migrated abroad. When searching for those elusive records featuring your forefathers (and mothers!), don’t forget that extra Confirmation Name as you fill in the search data box.

Then again, I can’t imagine that “Stanislaus Brennan, gender: female” will return many search results … unless she became a nun … but that’s another story for another day.

 

✞ Iggy pops off {RIP} ✞

The passing of a close family member in old age always results in sadness, and then happy reminiscences going all the way back to our childhoods. Old family photos are dusted down and shared, and we suddenly realize how special and unique those snapshots of a bygone era really are.

The peaceful death of my uncle Ignatius on 29th August brought about the same happy and sad memories, plus the rare opening of ancient photo albums. Lifelong bachelor boy Ignatius was fondly known as “Iggy” to family and friends. In the words of one of his own funny catchphrases: “He was a very nice man. A very, very nice man.”

There is only one photo of the complete Neary clan (circa 1950) as a proud family unit. This outstanding image, reproduced below, shows my grandparents, Ned Neary and Ellen Durkin, and all seven of their children – plus the family dog, of course. My father, John Thomas, was the eldest child, and also tragically the first Neary sibling to pass away in 1980. The photo was taken about a dozen years after the Neary family relocated from Tullinaglug in County Sligo, Ireland, to Withnell in Lancashire, NW England.

Ned was a hard-working labourer whose weather-beaten face always made him look much older than he actually was. By 1950, all the Neary children were smartly-dressed. Ned & Ellen did a fine job after escaping the comparative poverty of the west of Ireland in the 1930’s.

Ned Neary & family (2014)

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My unorthodox family gravestone that says it all – but also hides so much more

It took me many years to locate my great-grandmother’s grave. Her maiden name was Kate Stenson, but everyone in Ireland knew her as Kit. She was born in 1852 in Ballincurry, a County Sligo townland located between Tubbercurry and Curry. After marrying my GGF Thomas Neary in 1874, her name became Mrs Catherine Neary. She delivered twelve children, and subsequently became the grandmother of 24 grandchildren, the majority of whom were called NEARY (including my father).

As Kit’s youngest son, my grandfather Ned ended up caring for his widowed mother at the home place in Tullinaglug, up until the late 1930’s. At that point, for financial reasons, Ned elected to relocate his growing family to England – but Kit, in her mid-80’s remained in Ireland. Family lore told that Kit went to live with the only one of her six daughters that got married and lived in the west of Ireland; the others having emigrated to New York and/or died before Kit. For a long while, the identity of this daughter was uncertain … but elderly family members recalled that she lived in the coastal resort of Enniscrone, after her marriage to a man called Mullaney.

Extensive research eventually verified that my great-aunt Bridget Neary had initially emigrated to New York City in the late 1890’s, as did eight of her siblings, but Bridget returned home broken-hearted 10 years later. Apparently, a sister had “stolen” Bridget’s first love interest in NYC, and went on to marry him. Within months of re-settling in County Sligo, Bridget married a carpenter called Patrick Mullaney from Enniscrone. On this basis, my search for Kit Stenson’s grave headed in the Enniscrone direction – in the days before the online indexing of headstones!

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WOne summer’s afternoon, a trek around Kilglass cemetery miraculously located Kate Stenson Neary’s grave in a position high on the hill towards the rear of the graveyard, among older more weather-beaten headstones – but more ancestral mysteries were instantly raised. Catherine Neary died in 1944 aged 92, and she was buried in a grave already containing two corpses with names which meant nothing to me, or my family.

Kate Stenson’s grave is marked by the inscription “Grandmother of the Mullany Brothers [of] Enniscrone.” The grand headstone reveals that a male and female both named Fox, and who both died in Jan 1939 aged in their 70’s, are buried in the same plot. I could only guess that this mystery couple had a connection to the equally unfamiliar Mullany Brothers.

On the base of the main headstone, I detected some roughly inscribed words which have been rather unprofessionally added at some later date (after 1944), perhaps without removing the stone to a mason’s yard. These words read as “Erected By Her Son ?? Thomas Neary”. There are two engraved marks before the name Thomas which I cannot make out. My grandfather’s brother Thomas was a US Army career soldier and lifelong bachelor boy.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310WAfter a bit more research, and lots of head-scratching, I developed a plausible theory about Neary family events back in 1944. My theory is that Kate Stenson passed away at the grand old age of 92, after being resident in Enniscrone for no more than about the last 8 years of her life. This was a financially depressed era in Ireland, and the World War was still raging around Europe and farther afield. Her daughter, Bridget [Mullany] would have sent letters to my grandfather Ned in England, and other siblings in the Bronx and around NYC, including bachelor Thomas, to inform them that their mother had passed away. The war would certainly have prevented travel from the US for a funeral, and probably also from England. I reckon that the Mullany family could not afford a new burial plot, so they opted to bury Kate in the grave used by some family relatives called Fox. I discovered that the mother of Bridget’s husband, Patrick Mullany, was called Mary Fox, and that Patrick was raised as a child by aunts and uncles named Fox. The extra grave inhabitants were siblings of Patrick’s mother who never married. Initially, this grave would have remained without a significant headstone after the 1939 interments and again immediately after September 1944 when my GGM Catherine was laid to rest..

My guess is that Thomas was still in the US at this time, probably offering his services to the war effort, even if just in a clerical capacity. When the war was over, Thomas most likely officially retired from US Army service, and he would have received a generous pension. I think that he kindly offered to send money to the Mullany family to ensure that his mother had a suitable memorial headstone.

The Mullanys then (sort of) respectfully obliged Thomas’s wishes, and hence we get the gravestone listing the grave’s occupants – with Catherine Neary listed as the primary “resident”. Next, I think that Bridget & the Mullanys would have been surprised when later in the 1940’s, Thomas advised that he intended to return to Sligo to see out his final days as soon as trans-Atlantic passenger travel routes were safely re-established. However, Thomas got the greater shock when he visited the Kilglass cemetery for the first time to pay his respects to his deceased mother. Here he found his mother’s remains lying in a grave alongside two strangers (in Neary family terms). Furthermore, the grave inscription paid homage to the fact that Kate was the grandmother of Bridget’s children; three local brothers who were builders aged in their mere 20’s. No mention of her father Charles Stenson, or Thomas Neary her husband, or Thomas the son who paid for the headstone, or the other ten Neary siblings, or Tullinaglug, Kate’s home for over 60 years.

I believe that Thomas would have been justifiably alarmed by the fact that the Mullany’s had effectively hijacked his mother’s memorable lifetime. Kate gave birth to 12 children. Many had overcome adversity and forged good lives in and around New York. My grandfather Ned had looked after his mother and the family farm for over 20 years as the main bread-winner. The Mullany’s had belatedly got to know Kate very late in her life – why should this family feature in isolation on her tombstone?

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

        “Erected by her son ? ? Thomas Neary”

I can imagine Thomas & Bridget exchanging a few heated words about the bizarre headstone inscription. I think this resulted in the amateurish additional words being added at the base of the headstone, as a compromise to an angry or bemused Thomas. I can just picture one of the “jack-of-all-trades” Mullany brothers saying that they would personally inscribe a tribute to Thomas on the foot of the stone – and they made a right old mess of the inscription. The illegible marks before Thomas’s name could even be a spelling error which was crudely obliterated, but remains as a sign of unprofessional stone-masonry forever more.

In my opinion, the whole episode was triggered by Bridget’s rejection as a potential bride-to-be in the 1900’s decade in New York. Two of her sisters married two out of three very eligible Irish sibling bachelors in America. One of these handsome men became a fully qualified and renowned Civil Engineer and lived in the eye-catching big Bronx Reservoir House. Bridget must have felt bitter and jealous of her sisters’ good fortune when she returned to Ireland as an aging spinster. She had to settle for marrying a local small-town building tradesman, six years her junior. By the time her mother Kit Stenson died in 1944, it is likely that Bridget had disowned her successful siblings in New York, apart from Thomas who only emigrated after the Mullany/Neary wedding. Bridget’s bitterness is evident on Kit’s gravestone. The inscription acknowledges the relationship of my great-grandmother to Bridget’s own family, and no-one else …. except for those telling extra words added in amateurish fashion recording that my great-uncle Tom Neary actually funded the selfish memorial.

I might be interpreting the evidence wrongly, and doing my distant Mullany cousins a disservice. As might be expected from this tale, there has been no direct communication between Nearys and Mullanys for almost 50 years. If anyone can shed more light on the burial events of 1944, then please step forward.

Retired US Army soldier Tom died in Ireland in 1954. The whereabouts of his grave, and that of his father Thomas (the husband of Kit Stenson, and my GGF) have yet to be located.

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.

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

There’s two “L’s” in Tullinaglug

Hughie insisted that there was “two L’s in Tullinaglug.”

Morris retorted that he should look at the old maps. “There’s definitely three L’s in Tullinaglug.”

“Bollix!” shouted Hughie. “There’s Molly Moran’s well, and there’s Neary’s well. Behind the cottage, by the cow shed.”

There’s no answer to that. It’s true.

John's cottage and his auld Raleigh bike

The well’s round the back