One-hundred-and-fifty-three years later, I ended up celebrating my great-grandparents anniversary in Cork.
Genealogy has been a lifelong quest in my family that started with my father back in the late 50s.
When he and and my mother visited Bandon and the various Catholic churches in the town in 1964, he tried to find his grandfather’s marriage records or anything to do with the family of John Leary but was told that due to a fire – all records were lost. But thankfully he planted his seed of hope in finding the Leary family onto me, his youngest daughter, and for decades, I have been searching and searching.
The name "Leary" in Ireland is like Smith in the US: everyone has it. And the name John Leary is far from significant, but I kept searching. My fingers were crossed that at the O’Leary reunion in 2015 in Inchigeela someone, somewhere, would point me in the right direction. The angels were working overtime because what happened next was nothing short of an Irish miracle.
Through the generosity and kindness of my Leary and O’Leary cousins at the reunion, the Cork Genealogical Society, dear friends in County Wexford, and countless hours of Internet researching, I found out my great-grandparents John Leary and Hanna Sullivan were married at St. Finbarr’s South Chapel in Cork City on September 7, 1862, not Bandon like my father always thought.
Armed with this new information, plans were made to visit St. Finbarr's South Chapel and look for this "needle in a haystack" of documentation. I was determined to see this dream through to fruition as we drove from Inchigeela to Cork City on a somewhat dreary Monday in September.
Walking up to the front doors of the church, the feeling that permeated my heart and soul at Gougane Barra followed me here. I was literally duplicating the steps that my great grandparents took in 1862 -- 153 years ago. Call it Irish intuition or luck of the Irish, but something amazing was going to happen!
Because I requested an appointment, we were able to see where the church records were kept -- in huge, old books written in the most beautiful script handwriting.
We found the dusty old book that said “1862” and I knew they were married on September 7, 1862. As we were paging through the books, the record was found. I had finally cracked through a near impenetrable field of Leary genealogy.
In black and white it said: "John Leary and Johanna Sullivan, September 7, 1862."
Tears filled my eyes. But the next words caused my heart to almost stop. The three of us looked at each other as someone said "Do you know that today is September 7?"
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We were speechless! We were in the church where they married 153 years ago -- their wedding anniversary -- without even planning it. Someone called it coincidence. I definitely think it was a Cork miracle from my great grandfather, John Leary. My heart and soul were saying "go raibh maith agat" (thank you in Gaelic).
We went up to the front of the church and someone took our picture (because of the beautiful statue – you can’t go on the altar) and explained what it would have been like getting married 153 years ago:
The bride would have walked into the church, maybe holding flowers. The groom, if he had a suit, would have worn it, but seeing as my great-grandfather was a laborer and could not read or write, I’m sure he wore the nicest clothes he could find. The sponsors would usually be a brother or father; in this case, it was his father, Edward Leary, and his sister, Margaret Leary. The bride and groom would have been married by the parish priest. The priest would bless them in Gaelic (the Irish language). And then leave the church as husband and wife and begin a new life.
No big reception or party; it was the blessing of God that gave them their humble start. They survived the famine The Great Hunger, and they loved each other. I'm sure they were hungry for a new life in a new land -- but leaving their beloved Ireland must have been difficult.
John and Hanna (Johanna) Leary had five children in Ireland all born on Lower Glasheen Road in Cork City: Julia, born in 1863; Edward, 1865; Margaret, 1868; and Mary, 1869. Another boy, John born in 1871, died in childbirth. In May of 1871, John Leary left Queenstown on the SS Batavia bound for New York, coming to the land of promises and a better life for him and his family.
The following year, his family joined him in his new home in suburban Philadelphia called Conshohocken, an Indian name that means “Pleasant Valley”. Here in Conshohocken, John and Hannah Leary would add two more boys to their growing family; Michael, born in 1874, and my grandfather, Patrick Joseph born in 1877.
I have no pictures of my great grandfather, John Leary. But I do have a picture of his son, my grandfather, Patrick Joseph Leary, and my father, Joseph Francis Leary. There is no doubt a family resemblance.
Why my great-grandfather chose Conshohocken is a puzzlement to this day. But as it was then the home of many manufacturing companies including Alan Wood Steel, Lee Tires, and also where many Irish lived in sections called Cork Row, Irishtown, and Connaughtown, this one-square-mile of a little suburban Pennsylvania borough made my great grandfather feel welcome in his newfound country and he was grateful for his new life.
Cork City and St. Finbarr's South Chapel gave me a dream come-true. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
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