How I finally found my long lost Irish ancestors
My lessons learned on how to trace the family tree
I have been doing genealogical research for eight years now and have served as the Education Chairperson on the Board of Directors for the Irish Genealogical Society International (IGSI).
Although I am not a professional genealogist, I believe that I have had tremendous success in my research. I began my family research during graduate school, after completing a research class, and I found myself missing the thrill of the hunt, the obsession of the dig, and the discovery of the obscure.
My family, of course, thinks that I am absolutely crazy, but, if you are reading this, you understand the genealogical bug and already have been bitten. In my own mind, I always envision the dual images of a Boston terrier with a toy in its mouth and a mad scientist with hair askew when thinking of a good genealogist.
I believe that a really good genealogist doesn’t let go of a lead and neither do they necessarily care about how they might look when they are on the hunt. I hope that the story of my hunt inspires you to look again at your research or to start your own hunt.
Rule 1: Don’t let the impossible scare you
My mother’s name is Kathleen Sullivan. Yes, Sullivan. Furthermore, she has two separate Sullivan lines in her tree as well. Did I let that scare me?
My first line of attack was to sort out all the Sullivans in Belle Plaine, Minnesota by using the Federal and Minnesota state census records. The church history book and other old articles described Sullivans in a variety of ways: Big John Sullivan; J.J. Sullivan; Foxy Sullivan; the Kerry Patch Sullivans, et al.
Sorting out all of the Sullivan families took time and patience as some were from Cork, some from Dublin, some from Kerry. I paid particular attention to middle initials if listed in the census. The use of an initial was one way to distinguish James T. (b. 1825) from James C., his cousin, (b. 1818). Also, the family groupings of children and the wives’ names helped to differentiate the Sullivan clans. While researching in the census, I like looking at the family groupings immediately above and below the one that I am focusing on because neighbors could be, and in my case often were, relatives.
Pay particular attention to the 1900 census as it recorded the year of immigration, the number of years in America, and whether or not they were citizens.
My next big break came after visiting the graveyard in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. I had obtained a plat map of the cemetery from the church and knew from this source where to find my great-great grandfather’s grave, James T. Sullivan.
I found out that he was indeed one of the “Kerry Patch” Sullivans by correlating the census with old articles. Encouragingly for me, his siblings and mother were buried in the immediate vicinity. His family was unique among the other Sullivans in the area because there were seven sons in the family. But the big breakthrough came as I looked at the topographical features of the land around the tombstones.
There were three distinctively lowered sections, covered over with grass, just a few feet to the northwest of my great-great grandfather’s grave. Nothing was listed on the church cemetery plat map. Following my hunch that something might be there, I kicked away the grass and spat on the stone only to find an amazing clue: a townland listed on one of the gravestones and a parish (both spelled incorrectly) on another one.
The graves were the family of James C. Sullivan, my great-great grandfather’s cousin. The townland was in Kerry, confirming the county. Our Sullivan cousin’s wife’s birthplace was listed as Fieries, and I assumed that this townland had to be close to our Sullivans. After referencing the Alphabetical Index of Townlands book at IGSI, I had a good idea of the general area from which my Sullivan family came.
What did I learn from this experience? First, trust your hunches and pursue them. Secondly, the Americanized spelling of the Irish geographical place names are attempts to phonetically replicate the names and most, if not all, fall short.
So, be imaginative and flexible when you come across a “so-called” Irish spelling in English. Lastly, I learned that surveying the topographical features of the land, such as dips in the earth, may be genealogical clues waiting to be discovered. In Ireland I found that other topographical features, rivers and ravines for example, time and again assisted me in my research, particularly when cross-referencing archival plat maps from the Land Valuation Office in Dublin (which correspond to the Griffith’s Valuation) with current Discovery Series Maps. Roads can move, but rivers don’t.
My biggest mistake was in not bringing a good set of boots to help trudge across farmland, manure-filled pastures, fields, and creeks. I traipsed through them all, but with soggy feet the whole way.
With this newfound Minnesota cemetery information in hand, I wrote to the two Catholic churches in this area of Ireland and included with my request a small cash donation. I suggested that if one of parishioners had time to do some research, I would be most obliged.
Amazingly, I had the “luck of the Irish” with one of the two churches. Castlemaine’s Catholic Church had records dating back to 1820. The current parish priest didn’t have time to research this information, but one of the parishioners, a retired principal, generously accommodated my request.
According to her notes, a Father McCarthy had begun documenting baptisms very early, before it was required, and she not only found all of James T. Sullivan’s brothers’ baptisms, but also his mother’s maiden name. The family was listed in the baptismal entries as having been from Knockaneacoolteen, just a few miles east of Castlemaine. Our cousin’s entire family with baptismal dates was immediately living next door.
With the townland and baptismal records in hand, I referenced the Griffith’s Valuation (1848-1864), the Tithe Applotment Books (1823-1838), estate records, and ordered a plat map from the Land Valuation Office in Dublin. When I traveled to Knockaneacoolteen, Ireland, I knew the exact road to turn on and discovered my, to that moment unknown, cousins Donnie O’Sullivan and Anya Casey Meade, still living on the same road where my 3rd great grandmother, Elizabeth Daley Sullivan, had lived.
My Elizabeth lived on plot 4b; the cottage is unfortunately gone. Nevertheless, the neighbor, most likely her sister-in-law, lived on plot 4a, right next door, and Mrs. Meade still lives in this existing cottage.
Donnie O’Sullivan's physical features are amazingly similar to my deceased grandfather, Parnell Sullivan, even down to the blue eyes and gentle demeanor.
It was a slightly sad yet joyous moment when we met, at least for me, as I could not but help remember my grandpa. Shortly thereafter, we laughed together when we realized that his dog and my cat at home had the same name, saying that this truly was a sign that we must be related.
After a cup of tea to fortify ourselves, he was gracious enough to guide me through the hill fort in his backyard, and to show me the ancient souterraine, an underground stone pit, that lay in the center of the hill fort.
I realized that I was walking, sliding, and crawling through the same primordial sludge that my Sullivan ancestors had crawled through, and perhaps had even built, centuries ago. Covered with muck and mud, I smiled thinking that all of my work at home had been worth the effort.
Rule 2: Talk to everyone, even the dogs
In Ireland, allow yourself time, even more time than you think you might need, to explore, to talk, and to listen. I am lucky enough to have inherited my father’s gift of gab and my mother’s red hair.
So, almost everyone that I met was willing to talk and/or help to investigate my family lines. The Irish love to talk and you never know what you might learn from even the most inconspicuous person. Real talking and listening take time.
Also, driving in Ireland is difficult at best. I rented a car for three weeks and chose to drive because my family’s townlands were literally “off the beaten path” and, after years of research, I wanted to stand on our terra firma.
My Shea side of the family was from Carragraigue, Drumtarriff Parish, Cork. This small townland lies in the Blackwater River Area of North Central Cork. I booked a rental cottage in the nearest town, Millstreet. On my first day in Millstreet, I spoke to a beautiful dog on the street while petting him. Well, the dog’s owner, the local veterinarian, walked up to me, and we started talking. She gave me wonderful directions to Carragraigue as she had driven all over the region for her work.
In addition, she was an American, so the directions were precise, yet detailed. You will find that when you drive in Ireland you will invariably get lost. Getting directions from the Irish is very different from getting directions from an American. On more than one occasion I was told that what I was looking for was “a wee bit down the road.”
Signage is also very hit and miss. Oftentimes, I drove for many miles without any indication of whether or not I was even on the right road. At first I found this frustrating, but then I realized that I was the guest in the country and came to appreciate the feeling of being lost in such beautiful scenery. Eventually, I always found what I was looking for.
I found Carragraigue with the help of the O’Kiefe, Coshe Mang, Slieve Lougher and Upper Blackwater in Ireland collection, commonly known as the “Casey Collection” at IGSI.
Casey was a physician who documented church records specifically in the Blackwater River area of Cork and Kerry. I found, with the generous help of my distantly-related Shea cousins, our family’s baptismal certificates listed in the collection.
The collection is, simply, horribly arranged in several volumes. It appears that there is no rhyme or reason for the organizational structure of the collection. Nonetheless, with the assistance of a wonderfully clear index created by the Wisconsin Genealogical Society, the volumes are decipherable. Next, I checked the Griffith’s Valuation on microfilm, which is now available in digitized version on-line through Irish Origins, and ordered the corresponding plot map from the Land Valuation Office in Dublin.
Tim Shea, my great-great grandfather and an early Minnesota pioneer, was already in the United States when the Griffith’s was being compiled. However, as I found in many of my other avenues of research, oftentimes a mother or remaining younger siblings remained behind until money could be sent for them to immigrate. Tim’s mother and younger brother were listed on the Griffith’s. She eventually did immigrate and is buried in St. Thomas, Minnesota alongside her other children.
With the aid of the Discovery Series map, I located several church ruins and graveyards are in the immediate area. These maps list ruined churches in red ink, but the maps do not state that there may be a graveyard in the ruins. In my case, that was the case: a graveyard lies within and around the ruins.
Additionally, this ruin had a plaque that read the church had been burnt by one of Cromwell’s men on July 27, 1651. Four hundred people were inside the church at the time it was set afire. This was a personal epiphany for me. I had certainly read how Cromwell had devastated the larger Irish cities, but this small church was in the middle of nowhere. It made me realize how complete the holocaust had been.
As I walked through the ruins, one stone in the interior of the crumbling walls unambiguously caught my eye. It read: "Timothy Shea, erected in memory of his father Owen Shea, died Feb. 1795, age 68 and mother Ellen Shea, died 1786, age 51." I knew this couldn’t have been erected by my Tim, the American immigrant, as he hadn’t been born yet, but he was the eldest son in the family.
Another helpful clue: if you are familiar with the Irish naming conventions, then you know that the first son is named after the father’s father. I believe that the stone in the church ruins was therefore erected by my Tim’s grandfather for, as it states, his father.
The dates fit generationally well, and, for me, the most convincing element is that I could, and did, easily walk from the family farm land to the ruins which lay not a half a mile to the due north. I now strongly believe that Owen Shea is my 5th great grandfather. I would never have uncovered this information had I not gone directly to the townland, or had I not walked on the old roads that my ancestors had trodden upon.
Rule 3: Don’t rule out anything until you have looked at it yourself
I remember early in my research someone told me that The Search for Missing Friends collection was worthless. Boy, am I glad that I didn’t listen to them. Reprinted queries taken from the Boston Pilot Newspaper (1851-1905), The Search for Missing Friends is an 8 volume collection of tiny search enquiries, really more like snippets, of Irish immigrants desperately looking for their relatives. Reading the ads always brings tears to my eyes: mothers looking for their sons or daughters; brothers looking for their brothers; wives looking for their husbands. In our age of instant communication – telephone, e-mail, and text messaging – it takes a little imagination to understand how someone might have gotten lost.
Although, when you realize that most Irish immigrants couldn’t read or write, and that they had a limited idea of how large geographically the country was or the population density of the U.S. cities, and that many states had not even achieved statehood at the printing of the ads, you can begin to understand all the barriers these new immigrants faced.
I found my O’Halloran family in one of The Search for Missing Friends volumes. Thankfully, each volume has an index. A cousin placed the ad, and it was so specific that I knew it had to connect to my O’Halloran family. The ad, placed on January 16th, 1858, was searching for John, Patrick and Denis. Oral stories in our family always said that there were three brothers who came over together but separated in Ohio.
The ad read: "Left Courtlandt Co., NY for Minnesota about 3 years ago," and it was placed by their cousin, Patrick O'Connor of Milford, County Cork. Minnesota became a state in 1858, so these Halloran immigrated to Minnesota very early. I found John Halloran listed on the 1857 Minnesota Territorial Census.
There were no other Hallorans in the state at that time. So, I had the townland in Ireland: Milford. Another clue linking Milford directly to John came from his gravestone. The stone states that he was born in Mallo[w], Cork. After looking at a map, it is easy to see why this is so. Milford is a small village just a few miles northeast of Mallow. When I do my research, if I have to rely on an assumption or educated guess, I try to find additional sources of information to test my hypothesis.
Once I find three sources confirming a lead, i.e., a trifecta, I feel fairly confident in the conclusion. Genealogy is not an exact science, and I am continually editing my information. My third genealogical source of information for this family transpired during my trip to Milford.
I couldn’t find the O’Hallorans listed in Milford, County Cork on the Griffith’s Valuation. Nonetheless, I traveled there with information, and laptop, in hand. Again, I spoke to everyone I could, but the town was rather small and did not have a library. I did, however, run into an elderly woman who remembered there being an O’Halloran store in Dromcollogher’s town square. Dromcollogher, County Limerick, lies not 3 miles to the west of Milford.
I drove, rather hurriedly, to Dromcollogher, but no O’Halloran store existed. Unlike Milford, they did have a library and that was my first stop. The librarian was extremely helpful, and as it turned out, noted that one of the previous librarians had been an O’Halloran.
She even went so far as ring up a local man whose mother had been an O’Halloran. At first I think he was reluctant to meet me. Mostly, I believe, based upon my not very Irish sounding surname. Once he saw my curly red hair though, he laughed, commenting that as I walked up his sidewalk he thought that it was his daughter coming to see him. That was how I met David O’Brien, my wonderfully fun-loving cousin.
David’s ancestors, I discovered during the trip, had been baptized in Milford. According to the two townland’s baptismal records, the O’Halloran clan moved to Dromcollogher sometime between 1865-1868.
If I had not met David, I would not have known his and his wife’s generosity, nor would I have progressed to the next substantial genealogical clue. David remembered that years ago someone had called him about a gravestone that had fallen over in the cemetery west of town.
I had looked in Dromcollogher’s cemetery for old O’Halloran markers but would never have thought to look even further to the west. With cleaning supplies, David and I headed out. We walked up to the first fallen stone, and, God bless him, David scrubbed and scrubbed.
What we found was our common ancestor. David’s ancestor, Martin, had erected the stone upon the death of his father John. My ancestor, John as well, was the first son in the family. In summary, Martin and my John, the American immigrant, were brothers, and this find was their father’s stone. Without the librarian’s initiative and interest perhaps none of this would have happened!
Rule 4: Start locally first
Most of the priests in Ireland were very accommodating. As I found out quite quickly, it pays to schedule, via telephone, a visit. Not all the priests have e-mail, nor do they check it daily. WIFI, as of last summer, is not readily available either.
Priests have busy schedules but being politely persistent is the key. Envision the Boston terrier. I recommend buying a cell phone in Ireland upon arrival. American cell phones don’t always work in Europe, and today the cost of a phone is reasonable.
I was happy with my purchase and buying minutes was easy as well. I think that the priests must get a lot of Americans looking for their roots who just show up at their doorstep, without specific information, leads, or clues in hand.
Once I demonstrated my politeness, persistence, and specific connection to the area, they were most often extremely kind in return, showing or copying baptismal records.
I tracked my Shore side of the family to Birch Cooley, Minnesota where my grandmother had grown up. After looking at census records and newspaper obituaries at the Minnesota Historical society, I tied in other surnames as well: McCarthy, Hurley, and Desmond.
Families tried to stay together when they immigrated, and that is exactly what happened on this branch of my family tree. Shore doesn’t sound particularly Irish, so having the other surnames helped tremendously to find the Irish townland. However, I did find it, with the help of some distantly related Shore cousins who were generous with clues and spirit.
Catherine Hurley Shore, my great-great grandmother, was a tough ancestor to nail down. Two of her four children’s death certificates listed different maiden names for her. Her obituary and her own death certificate listed none. A plat map of the Minnesota township and the neighboring township revealed a clue. Immediately to the east of her farm a Patrick Hurley was listed, as well as a few other Hurleys. In addition, although at the time I didn’t realize that it was a clue, Patrick’s township in Minnesota was named Bandon.
When I searched the microfilm version of the Griffith’s Valuation, I searched for Shore and Hurley together. I knew from local death certificates that William Shore’s mother was Mary McCarthy Shore. So, I added, in the back of my mind, the name McCarthy. Guess who I found? Mary McCarthy Shore was renting from a Bartholomew Hurley in Farranalough, County Cork. Farranalough, as it turned out, is just a few miles northwest of Bandon, Ireland.
Once you arrive in your townland, there may be ample opportunity for you to continue your research. Librarians, as I mentioned above, are wonderful resources, but so are retired, local farmers. I was privileged enough to meet one in the graveyard near Farranalough.
As it turned out, John Joseph Lyons was not only kind-hearted, but had done a tremendous amount of local historical reading and was willing to spend a whole day driving around the townland, telling stories, and looking at my archival plat maps. After our day of touring, he even dug into his own files of the area and came up with local census information that wasn’t available in the States.
We scheduled an additional meeting to visit a smaller, out-of-town graveyard in which the Hurley family of that area was buried. Mr. Lyons’s grandmother was a Hurley as well. We may be distant cousins, but I don’t have specific genealogical proof to that end. I would like to think that this wonderfully gentle, sweet man and I are cousins.
Rule 5: “How could I have been so stupid?”
Sometimes a clue is staring you in the face, and you look back, possibly for years, without understanding its worth. That’s what happened to me on my Cooper and Healy side of the family.
Catherine Cooper, my great-great grandmother married John Halloran in the U.S. On her grave marker in Minnesota, her place of birth is listed as Hospital. For years I thought that this was a quaint way of saying that she was born in a hospital. Then, I realized that the letter “h” was capitalized, so it could certainly be a proper noun, a place name, and that’s what it is - a Catholic Parish in Limerick.
I wrote to the Limerick Genealogical Society asking for help. They were most efficient in their research and provided me with baptismal information for the Cooper family, along with general information about the area. Catherine had been baptized in Hospital, along with a younger sister, but an older brother had been baptized in Bruff, not too far away.
Catherine’s mother’s name, according to the baptismal records, was Julia Healy Cooper. Her husband was Edmund Cooper. In Bruff, I saw from the church records that there were many female Healys in the area, starting as early as 1784.
The Limerick Genealogical Society also reviewed the Griffith’s and found that a Julia Cooper was living in Rawleystown, just north of Hospital. Additionally, a Mary Healy was listed as an immediate neighbor.
I ordered the corresponding archival plat map from the Irish Land Valuation Office and was able to go directly to the land. Unfortunately, the old cottages were demolished and new ones stood on their site. Julia, to my best account, did not immigrate to America. She probably is buried in the small graveyard just south of town, although I couldn’t locate her gravestone.
My grandmother, who hung a picture of JFK just under the Pope in her kitchen for countless years, would have been delighted with one new discovery from this trip though.
As I was driving into Bruff, an elderly woman told me that the Fitzgerald family children had been baptized in Bruff. After looking at the map and a printed microfilm copy of Griffith’s, I noted that they had lived just to the south of Rawleystown and probably were buried in the same cemetery as Julia Healy Cooper. I’m sure that grandma is laughing up in heaven at that one.
Ellen Puff received her BS in Speech from Northwestern University and her Masters Degree in Education from the University of St. Thomas. Currently, she is a Secondary English teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ms. Puff has served as the Education Chairperson on the Board of Directors for the Irish Genealogical Society International (IGSI) and on the Board of Directors for the Pommern Regional Group (PRG) of Minnesota. Other accomplishments include: writing and editing professionally; being a six-time Minnesota State Fair Creative Arts activities winner in the field of hand-knitting, and reaching the summit of Croagh Patrick in 2004.
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