Irish Conundrum

The Conundrum of Irish Tourism and Americans 'Remembering' Their Irish Roots

Recently, the Irish government began its campaign to attract American visitors to Ireland, especially those with Irish ancestors, for the Centenary of the '1916 Easter Rising'. President Michael D. Higgins' recent visit to California began this campaign. It is well documented that over a third of Americans have Irish ancestors, but can these Americans find any record of their Irish roots?

The Forgotten Irish American Generations; The Coal/Copper Miners and Railway Workers

When one contemplates the Irish rebellions, especially the last one the Easter Rising of 1916, one needs to understand why rebellion was necessary, why no peaceful solution was possible, and why Irish Americans who had been in this country for up to four generations supported the rebellion, raised money for it, crossed the sea eastward to fight in it and rebelled even in this country, sharing the experiences of those still in Ireland.

Sadly, for a very long time, what many Irish immigrants found in the U.S. was not much better that: Prejudice against and abuse as Catholics and Irish here. American economic and political systems, here, in the U.S. were no less dominated by Protestants than there, in English Protestant occupied and ruled Ireland or England, where Irish often went to work in the 1800's. Until the American revolution, even in what is now the U.S., English law forbade land ownership if you were an Irish Catholic, except in Maryland.

Even after American Independence, public education, and even paid education, for Catholic Irish was greatly restricted, deliberately in many cases. Public policy reduced this perceived excess undesired population by a shortened life-span through malnutrition or deadly accidents in mills, mines and on docks. It further relegated them to these miserable, too-short lives by denying them any education that might provide better choices or skills for a way out.

However, in Ireland itself, public education, and even paid education, for Catholic Irish was greatly restricted, deliberately in many cases, and land ownership by Catholics continued to be prohibited. English public policy was to reduce the perceived excess undesired Irish population by a shortened life-span through malnutrition, and epidemics worsened by malnutrition or deadly accidents in mills, mines and on docks in the most dangerous jobs that required the least skills. English policy further relegated the Irish to these miserable, too-short lives by denying them any education that might provide better choices or skills for a way out, anywhere, including in the U.S., were they to find a way to emigrate.

In the U.S. and parts of the UK where manufacturing was allowed, in the 1830's, and 1840's before the famine, industry was just developing and not greatly varied. Weaving and railway building were among the most dangerous industries and the owners of the companies in these industries had the hardest time finding workers who saw the hard, long, dangerous work that so often took life or limb, as better than farm or construction labor. During the famine period, dangerous mills, mines and dockyards all suffered labor shortages and had to pay more for labor, from both the loss of life in the famine and succeeding epidemics, but also, in the U.S., because of the Mexican American War. In the U.S., for a few years army duty, which most survived, illiterate, unskilled Irish could earn enough to buy a piece of land at a time when good more southerly midwestern U.S. lands were available, and in Oregon and California. After 1851, though it was back to 'business as usual.' The same was true after 1865.

It wasn't until the mid to late 1880's that more industry choices became available for illiterate, unskilled, Catholic Irish labor, and labor began organizing more effectively for better working conditions and pay, and public schools for the children of these poor immigrants. With the exception of those who survived the famine and the Mexican American War to acquire and own decent midwestern farmland, though, the generations of Irish American emigrants between about 1830 and 1880 became largely forgotten generations, on both sides of the Atlantic, and those who ruled, owned the most land and mines and mills largely cooperated to make it so.

First bear in mind that the landowners in Ireland and England were Protestant English. Although there were Catholic landowners in the U.S., they were a very small minority until fairly late in the 19th century, except in California, Oregon and Washington. In Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia, the areas of the first big U.S. mining operations, and most extensive railroads who needed the mines, the mining lands were all owned by Protestants, mostly English in Pennsylvania, with some Germans, and English, Scots, and Germans elsewhere. I've yet to find any Catholic Irish mine owners. The Protestants, especially those of English ancestry, in the U.S., shared the same disregard for the Catholic Irish as did the English in Ireland or England. They all distrusted, even hated, 'Papists' who also refused to learn and speak English properly. As early as the 1600's the Puritans in Massachusetts described the native Americans as being 'wild savages, no different than the Irish; little more than beasts.' In the mid 1800's Protestant English, Germans and others were describing the illiterate, unskilled Irish immigrants as 'wild, uncivilized, no different than (our) natives; little more than cattle.' The language to justify abuse didn't change much in 200 years; neither did the attitudes.

The most dangerous, hardest jobs and industries, particularly their owners, needed and wanted illiterate people who couldn't read the papers about the accidents, and 'company towns' where the workers' hard earned wages were as quickly taken as dispensed in the stores that provided the only food, or the rented homes, all owned by the companies.

When the 'Duffy's Cut' massacre occurred, the owners of the railroad worried not for the lives and safety of current and future Irish railroad builders, but about how to hide the story so the Irish would continue to sign up for the dangerous work in hostile territory. To get the workers these industries wanted, the people taking the jobs had to be limited in education and information and very desperate for the hope of earning more and being able to save up for a piece of land of their own. They had to be willing and able to 'drink the kool-aid' of dreams that the U.S. industry hucksters and their paid recruiters sold in the cities and towns of Ireland and England where the most numerous of the most desperate Irish lived without hope of ever owning land in their own country. The industry hucksters were also looking for not the very poorest; after all they were not going to pay for the workers to emigrate. They were looking for mostly healthy young males and single females who were 'mind that's a-weak and a back that's strong,' to use the phrase from an all too true song by Merle Travis, '16 Tons;' strong and biddable, like oxen.

At the same time the English wanted fewer Irishmen and didn't want to dirty their hands with any more Cromwellian massacres. So, what better way, then to get rid of the unwanted Irish by preventing them from owning land, and/or getting an education and encouraging the U.S. industry hucksters to lure all the excess strong, but unskilled and uneducated Irish away. Remember also that England quite deliberately severely limited industrial development in Ireland and Scotland to keep most of the greatest and most profitable manufacturing in England itself and keep its own English persons employed first. England itself did not need or want unlimited numbers of uneducated, unskilled Catholic Irish in its manufacturing centers. It was a wonderful marriage by these Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, but one made in hell for the desperate Irish and Scots.

If a person came to the U.S. as a single young, healthy man, there was indeed a chance that one could survive the mills or working out of doors in all weather building railroads, or work in the mines who paid hard money instead of scrip, and save for a farm somewhere far to the west. There was far less chance if one came with a wife and children. There was no chance to save up to get out if the wife was still having children and few, if any, children were able to work. Worst of all, though, was working for either a railroad or mine that only paid in 'company scrip' that was not real money and could only be used to pay for rent or food from company owned housing on company land, or in company stores, where the prices were deliberately set so high to keep the workers stuck as employees until they died. 'Company scrip' good only at company properties and stores was literally a form of permanent indenture. The prices were so high in these monopolies that workers often ended up in debt after working 6 days a week 10-12 hour days and paying for lodging and food. Entire families would end up in debt with both parents and children as young as 8 years old working. To quote Merle Travis'16 tons' lyrics again, 'I owe my soul to the company store'.

The only difference between the mine and railroad workers and the African American slaves in the south was if the mine or railroad workers ran away, the mine or railroad workers didn't go looking for them because they could just get more illiterate Irish as they arrived on ships in New York.

The mine, mill and railroad owners also didn't care if the youngest children died of starvation or exposure, either. Those poor babes were just mouths that needed feeding, liabilities not assets. Feeding cost money, and the supplies as well, as prices of the food were controlled by the same mine owners paying the poor miners. God help the woman who didn't have enough milk of her own to feed her infants. The mine and railroad owners wouldn't.

To try to make ends meet, children as young as 8 and 9 were put to work by their parents under willing mine owners breaking up and sorting coal, and trying to stay out of the way of machinery moving it about and dumping new loads to be broken into smaller bits and sorted. There is no exact number of how many children died in the 'breakers' or from the amputations, cuts, and more that resulted in deadly secondary infections.

There are large parts of old Catholic church graveyards in all of the mining counties of Pennsylvania that appear empty but are not; this was where the thousands of children whose parents could not afford monuments, and died from coal breaking, malnutrition to even outright starvation, and exposure are buried, while the owners and supervisors of the mines enjoyed wealth and comfort. The Catholic bishops in Pennsylvania have never put the old parish registers on line, and it is hard to get the cooperation of the parish authorities even now to access the old registers and find the written scraps of the lives and deaths of the poor children, husbands, fathers and mothers who all died in Pennsylvania, sacrifices on the altar of Greed, (or Mammon).

Mining, which was vital to heating almost all homes in the eastern U.S. by the 1860's and most industry, and of course the running of all the railroads, was a big industry and big money for the owners, and upper managers and supervisors. It was nothing more than a death-trap for the poor Irish immigrants lured into it by the promise of enough money to save up for a piece of land of their own. Very few families that entered that trap escaped intact. There are many tens of thousands of forgotten graves of miners, and particularly their young children all over the now quiet mostly forest lands that cover the forgotten mines.

Many, to get out, did what Tony's great-grandmother did, when her beloved, but illiterate and unskilled, once strong and hopeful, Irish husband died. More women survived than men and children, and there weren't many decent, paid jobs for women at that time. They looked at their remaining children and then buried more than their husbands; they buried their past and married non-Irish. The non-Irish were literate, and had more skills and opportunities. The non-Irish could earn more money, real money, not just company scrip, and save up for land and get out. So many desperate Irish widows with starving children married non-Irish.

George Neubauer was an educated Bavarian Catholic, a widower who had recently lost his own wife and had four younger children who needed a mother. He took pity on the widow Mary Coyne-McNerney and her five remaining children, only one being a son, and married her. That was the last time she spoke Gaelic, for more than 15 years, until her brief third marriage to another Irishman in Minnesota. Mr. Neubauer spoke German and English, had the money, and his children were more numerous than hers.

He chose their next home, because he had the education and means; the Austrian-German community of Stearns County, Minnesota. Once re-settled in Watkins, they went to St. Anthony's Church, where only English and German were heard, never Gaelic. Within 30 years of the death of Michael McNerney, his youngest daughters' children had no idea they were partly Irish, at all. Their Irish blood and heritage that they still had within them had become just as forgotten as the graves of their father and five other children were left behind in Locust Gap, PA with no grave markers.

For over 50 years this was the same fate that awaited most Irish who emigrated to the U.S., hard work, early deaths and eventually, being forgotten by both their kin in Ireland and their own grandchildren in the U.S. It was a shock to Irish who came in the 1880's and 1890's to find so few Americans who descended from the 50 years of previous emigrants who acknowledged or remembered their Irish heritage and they deliberately made greater efforts to keep language and culture alive in their generation and build stronger communities.

However, it is still a shock today to more recent Irish emigrants and Irish government officials who seldom can find any Americans whose Irish ancestors arrived before sometime in the 1880's and remember and cherish them. Even when there is a dim memory of someone having been Irish, there is no understanding of that person's life, because there are so few records. As a result, too often, today, the heritage of Irish traditional music has no meaning when it is played or sung. If there is no longer any connection or memory to the real lives, experiences and culture of the people who first wrote, played or sang the music, there can be no life and soul in it now. It is like someone parroting, for some reason, the Latin 'pater noster' without knowing Latin, or having been raised and educated as a Christian.

That is why AmeriCeltic's mission begins with ‘restoring awareness' of this heritage to those who have lost their connection to it.

I have been researching my husband Tony's Irish family history, with a goal common to many persons who do family history, to identify and visit the old family areas in Ireland, and visit them some day. The celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising would be a good opportunity. Our frustrations in finding these ancestors show the problems generally faced by millions attempting the same task. In almost no other area of family history research do the mix of politics, religion, and forced illiteracy, combine with emigration to make the task so difficult. The problem has roots on BOTH sides of the Atlantic.

For all these deprivation, tracing Tony's Irish grandmother, Mary Catherine McNerney (1872-1969), was very difficult. Just that surname presents a problem; there are five spellings, at least, depending upon who made the record and when, since most of the records after 1707 were NOT made by the family itself, or even other Catholic Irish. Early on, we had personal interviews with two of her children. One of the children, Tony's aunt Harriet, was older and her mother, Mary Catherine, had lived with her in her final years.

Harriet gave us a copy of a family tree that she herself had prepared long before we first asked her for help in the mid 1970's. The tree had a lot of data but few dates the earlier in time events occurred. As we were going over the tree, we interviewed Harriet further gleaning more data. Then there was the problem of Harriet's mother, Mary Catherine, having changed her memories and thus her stories as she aged and her descendants then having to figure out which place or event was true. This is common with older people and sometimes their memories for events long past sharpen with extreme old age, and just as often, it goes the other way--the memories worsen or change entirely. It's literally a 50-50 chance. So, we had to find corroborating documents, starting, of course, with 19th century U.S. documents.

In these family history searches, the census record, as simply a record, is only a beginning. One really needs ALL, or as many as can be found, children's names and some idea of the several possible spellings of most Irish surnames, plus the first name of at least one parent. For a smaller family (almost all in the old kingdom of Connaught in western Ireland and just a few counties), McNerney had, surprisingly, many variants in spelling--and families connected with them. In the early to mid 1600's, when the family was a 'somebody' family and owned land, the original spelling, McInerheny, barely resembles most of the later variants. Also, certain first names are VERY common: Michael, Patrick, John, Joseph, Mary... Mary is often, but not always used in combination with a lot of other names: Mary Margaret, Mary Catherine, Bridget Mary, and so on. God help you if all you've got is a Mary with a daughter named Mary as a starting point in your Irish family's research.

In many cases there is a real problem even with census records, wherever the family lived, Ireland, England, Canada or the U.S. Many Irish families who emigrated throughout the 19th century--literally in all decades, were illiterate, or all but the father started out illiterate until the first few years after the family settled in a place where discrimination on the basis of religion didn't also prevent public education. In Ireland, their own country, Catholics were not provided with universal public education. They had to buy private education, as they could afford it, from someone willing to provide education to Catholics. There were few schools attached to churches as Catholic churches themselves were often torn down or destroyed as the English conquerors tried to obliterate the religion. Between 1707 and sometime in the late 1800's, Irish Catholics, also, could not even own their own Irish land! So, understandably, few Irish Catholics could afford to have all their children privately educated and very few did. This resulted in many spellings of surnames as other literate persons, usually Protestants/English who had little regard for the Irish Catholics, made written records of them. It also meant there were few of their own family's written records until they got to a place and point in time when at least some of the children were educated, could read and write and wanted to keep a list of family data (such as often is on blank Bible pages at the beginning or end of a Bible), or journals, letters, etc..

So in Ireland, and for the first decade or so in the U.S., researchers into Irish families must rely on records made outside the family--usually some form of government records, or employers' records, or newspapers, etc. and few of these entities had any regard for the low-class, economically, politically and socially, Catholic Irish.

In fact, there were self-serving economic incentives for the employers, newspapers--who were supported by the employers, and the others to hide the actual lives and deaths of Irish; the reality could dissuade them from emigrating and being exploited by employers who wanted plenty of cheap labor for low class, often dangerous jobs.

There is a very good example. The historical incident, called 'The Duffy's Cut Massacre'. The facts of this atrocity only came to light 170 years after the fact. This illustrates just how much the miserable lives and deaths of many Irish emigrants were initially covered up when it happened in 1832. Modern researchers are still trying to find all the bodies. Fifty-seven Irish workers were massacred in a single valley where they worked as railroad laborers because a cholera epidemic that had appeared came to be blamed upon them. Private railroad papers, inherited in 2006 by an Irish descendant of a Pennsylvania Railroad executive, noted the deaths and said the report must ‘never get out' because if it did then other Irish would not want to emigrate and the railroads would not have workers.

It wasn't much different in the coal mining areas, as we discovered when we tried to find out how Mary Catherine McNerney's father, Michael McNerney, asl well as her oldest brother, and three sisters died in the small 'cooperative mining village' of Locust Gap, in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, where the family first settled. It was a place they tried to forget, almost as much as the mine owners wanted to forget them.

By the time Mary Catherine McNerney was sharing her memories and stories with her adult and near adult children (she had 11 who survived infancy and 10 who made it to adulthood), she could no longer remember the name of the hamlet in which she'd spent her earliest and most poverty stricken years, where so much of her family had died. She also had apparently gotten tired of explaining that although she was Irish she was not born in Ireland and started saying she had been born in Ireland. Likewise, since everyone knew where County Cork—mentioned in so many old songs-was, County Clare for her father's origins became County Cork. County Cork and County Clare are separated by pretty much the entire country of Ireland only adding to the research headaches.

Fortunately, for us, Aunt Harriet had sorted out some of the stories. Harriet had also known her maternal grandmother, Mary Catherine's mother, Mary Coyne, and Mary Coyne had not altered her memories or stories over time. So, she had a bit of data from the previous generation. However, even that had a problem. Harriet explained to us that the official death record for her grandmother was wrong and that we'd eventually see the problem. We did, alright. Harriet recorded her grandmother's maiden surname as Coyne and emphatically stated this and some particular circumstances of her grandmother's early life, some of which we later found in emigration records and the first U.S. census record for the family. She was correct, but it was another death record that was wrong--her own mother's, not her grandmother's. The death record for Mary Coyne-McNerney-Neubauer-Kennedy (she was married three times) was filled out in part by a son-in-law, but he got it right for Mary's maiden surname, 'Coyne.' This shows up in at least one other death record for a child of Mary's where the clerk asked for the MOTHER's maiden name. Then we checked the actual record for Harriet's own mother, and Harriet had been the person giving the information. Well, somewhere between the handwritten notes made by a doctor or nurse and the final typed version, someone lost part of the notes. The person who did the typing couldn't really remember what had been hand-written about Mary Catherine's mother's maiden name, just that it had an 'oy' in it, and typed 'Joyce.' After all, James Joyce was a famous, well-known Irish author and poet--just like County Cork was famous in song. If the name had an 'oy' in it, it must be 'Joyce,' right? Thank heavens we finally accumulated multiple records that agreed on the surname 'Coyne.' Now imagine the problem if one has only two records with two different surnames because clerks weren't particularly careful, and there were no other family records. It was only in recent weeks that we had accumulated enough records through records of the children and grandchildren of Michael and Mary, some only recently placed on-line, that we now know the following: Mary Coyne was actually Mary Anne Coyne and her parents were Michael and Cecilia Coyne, besides Mary Anne having a sister named Harriet. We're still missing the name of at least one daughter of Michael and Mary who died young at Locust Gap. This is after almost 40 years of research off and on by persistent and experienced persons.

However, now we had papers with enough names and birth and death data, and limited documentation on this side of the Atlantic. Next, we had to find cross references to the records in Ireland, and some in England as well, and here's where it really gets ugly--for everyone doing Irish family research. The Irish stupidly help their English oppressors destroy their own Irish heritage and history.

Though promised independence at the end of WWI, by 1922 Ireland had not yet received it and violence began anew. Britain and the United Kingdom could not get into the League of Nations without giving up Ireland and had been dragging its feet. So, as part of this renewed violence, the Irish Republican Army, (IRA) used Public Records Office (PRO) in Dublin as a munitions storage depot, and when the British shelled it, two truck loads of lignite outside the PRO exploded, triggering two more explosions within, and 1000 years of Irish State and Religious archives were destroyed.

Unfortunately, this didn't destroy land and tax records for the Anglo-Irish or Protestant Irish or English families, it destroyed tax records for everyone. More significantly, the IRA fire-bombing destroyed the records that identified the population, their major life-events such as baptisms and marriages, and also connected them to places. It destroyed records going back to when native Irish and Norman-Anglo-Irish families were pretty much all that was in most of Ireland and still lived in ancestral areas and still owned their own lands. It destroyed also CHURCH records--all the baptismal registers, marriage registers burial registers, the records of where the old cemeteries were, where the old villages associated with the churches were, for both families who were members of the Church of Ireland (to which many formerly Catholic Irish belonged after 1707, to retain lands) and the remaining Catholic Irish. All churches had, at the end of the 19th century, been required to send their old registers to the PRO. It also destroyed the Irish census made and collected by the UK beginning in 1831, and being taken every 10 years afterward.

As a result of this IRA bombing, there are no longer any Irish census records prior to 1911, or at best, a few bits and pieces where copies were made of some civil parish in a particular county and retained somehow in that county. There are no church records prior 1922 unless the church failed to send the registers to the PRO or some far-sighted deacon/rector or priest made a hand-written copy and kept a copy in the church, or sent it to some regional library. There are some genealogies prepared from original records and these copies of church records that were made in the Registered Church Body (RCB) library in Dublin. These include records from a few Catholic churches as well as Protestant.

These collections vary in size. We went through the on-line catalog of collections and identified about 50 large sets of such records that could be made available to family history researchers. Few, however, are on-line. Between them, the library policies and bank transfer regulations don't make it easy to pay to get even a single collection on-line. We succeeded with one smaller collection costs about $400 to get on-line--and the bank fees to transfer funds from the U.S. to Ireland and convert dollars to Euros are ridiculously high, given that the only things that are really moving these days are electrons representing numbers; about 10-12% of the transaction above the actual transaction cost.

Some of these 50 collections are very large. Most of County Cork, ironically, did have foresighted local church officials, unlike other counties. And actually, all of the deeds, including many lease agreements that had to be recorded in the same office, were NEVER in the Public Records Office, but in the Registry of Deeds which was spared. So, the majority of destruction in 1922 was to Irish history, particularly family and Catholic Church history, and not land ownership and taxation. However, though the deeds and most leases are complete, going back even before 1707 to the 1500's, and then forward to the present day, none of it is on-line. Not even a complete deed index with a tad of abstract is on-line. In fact, for deeds before 1831, they are not indexed on an in-house computer. If you had any ancestral family who might have owned land and emigrated before, say, 1840, the only way to find a deed or lease record about them is to go to Dublin and visit the Registry of Deeds IN PERSON, or employ a researcher there--and those are not inexpensive. In the U.S., the going hourly rate for a professional family history researcher is anywhere from about $20 an hour to about $60 an hour. In the UK, it's about triple that or more; in Ireland, it's about $50 an hour and up.

Well, we thought we had a little hope in determining more about the families with the unique bits about Mary Catherine's mother that Harriet had written down, and which showed up in a few records on this side of the Atlantic. We found the January, 1866, emigration record for Mary Coyne McNerny and her oldest two children--which exactly matched data in the 1870 census record in Locust Gap, Mt. Carmel township, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. The family first went to Liverpool, England, just before emigration in 1865 and 1866. The ship, indeed, arrived from Liverpool in New York. A surprise was that the oldest two sons John and Joseph were actually also born IN ENGLAND. However, Mary Coyne McNerney had lived in England for a time before her marriage. She had been enrolled in a private school in England for a year or so. However, she was mistreated by schoolmates and teachers for being Irish and complained to her parents and they pulled her out. She never went to school again and what little education she obtained was at home. It was very little and she was functionally illiterate and described as such on all U.S. records. We found through English census records that were indeed, Coyne families that had gone to England and one family had enrolled its daughter in a private school not far from Liverpool and Manchester where most of the few Coyne families lived in Lancashire. It's very possible that Mary had been enrolled at this very school, but not proved. This all suggested that Mary Coyne married Michael McNerney in England, shortly before the birth of their eldest son. Unfortunately, though we found records of both families in the Liverpool / Manchester area at the right time, the particular families did not line up with the data we had. For one thing, the marriage for Mary Coyne to Michael McNerny was written down by Harriet and consistently stated on other records, including a census record, as having occurred in 1854--and in Ireland. We found two marriage index records for a Mary Coyne in England, but for 1857 and 1859. So, what historical documents exist show that the marriage did not occur in England. However, though it probably did occur in Ireland, the marriage record per se, either no longer exists because it was part of the parish registers destroyed in the PRO, or it will be very hard to find, because the bishopric of Tuam doesn't have all it's parish registers online, and we don't know in which parish the marriage was performed.

We have to hope that 'Mr. Coyne,' Mary's somewhat well-off father, left a will and related deed of sale after his death that all ended up in the Registry of Deeds, that mentions a wife named Cecilia, and two daughters, Mary and Harriet, among children who lived long enough to be 'heirs at law' and identifies his daughter, Mary as 'Mary McNerney.' County Clare, where the McNerney's lived, and adjacent Galway, one of the two counties where Coynes were most prevalent, have fewer copies of records in the RCB Library. It also makes it more likely that John was not the oldest child, at least one or two more were born who died before the family emigrated, or were living in England.

From 1815 onwards, Liverpool was a major port of emigration for millions of Irish and here is why and how. The poorer Irish Catholics were uneducated and thus not skilled labor and, if they had owned land, owned very little. There was very little money to use for emigration until the would-be emigrant made his way to a city with docks or heavy manufacturing to work for a time to earn money to emigrate. Liverpool and Manchester, both in Lancashire, had both huge docks and a massive, labor-intensive, shipping loading and unloading industry, as well as heavy manufacturing. There was good money to be made if one lived long enough to use it.

Many rural Irishmen went to the Cities of Cork or Dublin, or hopped a ferry across to Liverpool or Glasgow, worked until they saved passage money, then took a boat for New York from those cities. On the ship's manifest, it would have said, 'arrived from Cork/Liverpool' etc., and that's another way the stories got started that would have all Irish Americans believe they all originally came from County Cork. It looks like, though, in our Coyne-McNerney's case, Michael McNerney and Mary Coyne hopped back and forth across the Irish Sea a couple of times before emigrating. There's no marriage record for them in England, and they are not on the 1861 census record, yet their sons, John and Joseph were born in England, in 1859 and 1863, respectively. A baby son, Michael, was said to have died at sea during the emigration. 'Steerage' was an apt description of the two lowest classes of transport (3rd and 4th) for the lack of generally healthful conditions at the time. However, the ship's manifest did not show any extra baby born and died during the passage, so the best evidence is he was actually born and died upon arrival in either New York or Pennsylvania. The mother of the child was emphatic about his existence and the connection with the time of emigration, and the oldest brother remembered the baby as well, but no one had a written record of the birth and death in the family because when it happened, no one could read or write at that time. Although they were Catholic and would have given the child a proper funeral, we don't know exactly which parish in which state in the U.S. the poor baby died. This is a typical problem of families who arrived in New York City and were only there a few weeks or so and yet lost a child at that time. The same is true of an older child marrying, particularly a daughter. No family record means no location for the event making it very hard to find that daughter again.

After our own experiences, we conclude that IF the Irish government and the National Board of Tourism really wants to help Irish Americans discover their Irish roots, and so have a sense of belonging and a reason to visit any more than Dublin, then both must work, and put some money into getting those 50 or more collections of church records and genealogies on-line at the Registered Church Body Library, likewise the private family collections at the Library of the Royal Irish Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and all the pre 1911 or 1922 deeds and leases at the Registry of Deeds.They also need to make certain that all the Catholic Registers are at the National Library of Ireland (NLI) or Roots Ireland, (the paid subscription site) as well as fully indexed (the current index at NLI is inadequate). Otherwise, not many tourists are going much further than Dublin, or Cork, and the few most famous general historical/archeological sites, and even fewer will ever know or feel a real connection with their real Irish roots.

Meanwhile, we're looking for family Bible records on this side of the Atlantic from descendants of the oldest surviving son and daughter who lived to adulthood, of Mary Coyne and Michael McNerney, and then Mary Catherine McNerney and John Henry Beckers, that might narrow down the search a little more and lower the expenses of hiring professional Irish researchers, and hoping to get this all done before April, 2016.


Review: Sean Connelly: Golden Gate Ancestry

Finding the Bump in the Boreen: Irish names and Place names in Family History Research.

Presentation to the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society, Tuesday, April 17, 2017

By Cecilia Fabos-Becker

Sean Connelly, of 'Golden Gate Ancestry', spoke at The Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society, on Tuesday, April 17, 2017, 7:30 PM at the Central Park Library in Santa Clara. His presentation was titled 'Finding the Bump in the Boreen,' Irish names and place names, in Irish family history research. This title refers literally to finding the 'bump' in the tiny, usually dirt road (Boreen), that was the turn off to commonly small ancestral home for many Irish whose ancestors became emigrants for lack of sufficient economic opportunities at home.

Click Here for Seans handout for his presentation, Irish Genealogy Websites(Sean Connelly).pdf

Sean focused his presentation on how to find the village and home site of your Irish immigrant ancestors, to get beyond merely, 'my great-grandfather/mother came from Ireland,' especially if you'd ever like to visit and reconnect with distant cousins, today, which often makes a trip more individual and enjoyable. His talk emphasized mostly 19th century and later family history research for descendants of Irish immigrants.


Mr. Connelly is very experienced in 19th and 20th century Irish family research for primarily Irish Catholic families' descendants in the U.S. and California and speciallizes in this area. Much of his presentation would be very useful for persons whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 18th century, or were Protestant and arrived before about 1830, but its greatest relevance would be to those whose ancestors were primarily Catholic and left between about 1825 and 1925. The following is a combined summary of his talk as it related to doing family history research and our own experiences that illustrate some of what he discussed.

Tony and I, ourselves researched Tony's Irish lines, who arrived in this time frame, and much of what he said was familiar to us, but there were some reminders of things we had discovered and were not in the general 'finding your Irish roots' popular publications that we had started from, as most people do, and which would be very useful to other researchers today.

Most people doing their family history research generally know how to use the U.S. census records, and to find their immigration and naturalization records on such sites as, and Family Search. If their immigrant ancestors were alive, and so on the 1900, 1910 or 1920 censes, they probably know that the 'years' and in 'what state or nation' are also listed and in at least one, and that the year of immigration was recorded there. They can generally guess at what city port their ancestors arrived in the U.S. to find some immigration records, if they don't know for sure, especially if they've found a year of emigration from a census record. Many people also know about the county and state death records and that they often have birth dates, names of parents and other data that might not have been set down fully in the old Family Bible 'family' pages, or other family records that were, or were not, passed around family descendants.

However, that being said, how many people know how accurate the death records are, and that the Irish did not celebrate birthdays the way we do now, and people didn't always remember their exact birth dates? How many people know that, after they've found their immigrant ancestors, and have at least a rough idea of a year or maybe the season or month of birth, and year of immigration, where to find them in Ireland? How are the records sorted and how do you use them? Why can't you sometimes find the name of your ancestor in the records when you do find records?

Sean answered many of these questions in his talk. However, first let's cover something that needs to be introduced for the Irish emigrants in the U.S., which was evident in our research. Not all of these immigrants were literate, especially those who arrived before about 1880. Prior to the UK government's decision to provide some years of basic public education for all, Catholics were educated mostly privately in a system often referred to as 'hedge schools, or hedge schooling'. For a time, Catholics were not admitted to civil or Protestant educational institutions and were educated by barely tolerated Catholic priests and teachers who subsisted on private donations from mostly poor families denied the right to own land and businesses because they were Catholic. The Penal Laws of 1707, impose by England upon Ireland after the unsuccessful revolt of 1798, only began to be repealed, bit by bit, starting in the 1860's. This Penal Laws, denied Catholics many basic economic rights, including education, so long as they chose to remain Catholic. As a result, sometimes only the oldest and youngest sons, and maybe the oldest daughter were educated, and none of the rest if the family, because they could not afford it. Being poor also meant celebrating birthdays was a luxury and not done. So, many Irish who arrived in the U.S. were the middle, uneducated children who may have known their usually given formal name, but not even necessarily how to spell it, what approximate year they were born and little else. They themselves did not leave many written records for their descendants other than what someone who was literate and knew them wrote down for them.

In the U.S., there were some types of church records, but some Catholic churches did not record even burials for poor Catholics until after 1880. Baptisms and marriages were all that was recorded. The civil counties required marriage registrations, and will and estate administrations (great if they owned property, which many Irish did not), but not simply deaths, and births until very late in U.S. history, also. Immigration records were not well and consistently made and kept prior to about the 1840's. One has to look for all of these and, bear in mind that even when death records are found, the person filling out the record is NOT the person who died and may not have had accurate information. Often for a family with few sons, and none present, the person recording the information wanted and took it from a son-in-law, who as most people today know, are, being male and an in-law, notoriously unreliable for remembering any important vital information such as birth dates, names of parents, marriage dates or anything else that women usually consider more important. Sexism definitely has affected record keeping and has had an impact on family history research and mostly not for the better. Clerks (also usually males until the 20th century) and others often took notes in long-hand first and then after typewriters became available, typed the information later, not always consulting their own notes. Errors, from simple transposition of numbers in dates to spelling or setting down entirely the wrong surnames for the deceased and/or his or her parents are not rare at all. We saw all of this in just one Irish line for my husband's family and we know from other researchers they have encountered the same things, over and over.

Record keeping in the U.S. is rather sloppy compared with some other countries, and even varies widely in the churches. It helps to have and use multiple records sources for the greatest accuracy in determining what really happened, when and involving who, in any event.

Now assuming you eventually figure out that your emigrant ancestors came from Ireland, what records can be used to determine WHERE in Ireland to find the place they were born, their parents, and any current modern relatives? The first clues are actually on this side of the Atlantic, as Mr. Connelly pointed out. Some of the naturalization records, particularly after a certain date, required more than just 'Ireland' for place born, but also a county and village or some other local identifier. However, before about 1880 or so, the naturalization papers, when required by states at all, demanded less information. The ship's manifest may have a port listed where the person boarded often will begin to tell you where the ancestor lived, as a region of Ireland. Certain ports were used more by people from the region closest to it.

One thing that Mr. Connelly pointed out, that we noted also, was that the Irish arrived in a few U.S. urban ports and, being mostly poor, didn't often immediately move westward. The Irish community in the U.S. and other countries, beginning in the late 1830's, began organizing support groups and businesses, like benevolent societies and banks who helped the recent immigrants. They recorded members and those who were being helped. The Irish Emigrants Bank in New York, whose records are now on-line, had a means of even creating accounts for illiterate persons by clerks asking for certain pieces of information to set up an account and then use it, 'tests' to make sure no unauthorized persons accessed the usually meager, but very vital to the owners, funds in the accounts. One of the questions asked, and recorded as part of an identifier list, was the birthplace of the account holder. Not all Irish individuals had accounts, but many Irish emigrated with sisters and brothers and/or cousins and they all came from a narrow area in Ireland. If you find one individual of the surname you are researching, at the bank or in a ship's manifest for a given year, or in a county naturalization record, or in a county court record or county newspaper record for involvement in some labor conflict, that has the same surname as your own immigrant ancestor, and who emigrated/arrived in a place at about the same time and, based on the census records, lived in the same area as an ancestor of yours with the same surname, and who listed a place name in some record, you are likely to have found, at least the county, and general area, where your own ancestor originated. Family members often traveled together and at roughly the same time. Neighbors also often did so also, especially since they were usually actually cousins to one another. We identified the county for Tony's great-grandfather from just such a bank record and then confirmed it further with a review of Griffith's valuations, which helped us narrow down the baronies and townlands where Tony's great-grandfather's family most likely originated in Ireland.

There are other records. In the coal mining areas of Pennsylvania, for instance, after about 1870, the state required the mining companies to track deaths, by name, and serious injuries as well. That's how we found the ultimately fatal injury to Tony's grandfather, and death year, with the help of a county historian. Once you know a surname, forename and can figure out at least the county where the family likely originated from in Ireland, from the foregoing combination of records on this side of the Atlantic, then you can jump to searching records on the other side, in Ireland to narrow the search to the village and/or townland your ancestors originated and maybe find current relatives in or near those places.

This is where Mr. Connelly's talk goes to Ireland and becomes very important. Irish surnames are mostly regional, and not just to counties, but smaller entities in those counties, baronies, parishes and towns or villages. MacLysaght's Book of Irish Names, widely available for a reasonable price in paperback form, indicates some of this and covers many, many families in Ireland, of many types of ancestry. In several early national records, such as Griffith's valuation of property in the 1850's (on-line) and the 1659 Hearth Rolls index (not on-line, a few published copies are in a few libraries in the U.S.) indexes show the frequency of surname by county, and showed the baronies, civil parishes and towns, villages and 'townlands.' It becomes clear that surnames are associated with some counties, and smaller identifiable areas in those counties, far more than others. Additionally, Mr. Connelly noted and presented the fact that some fore-names are more rare than others, particularly in the mid and late 19th century, but to some degree earlier as well, and associated with regions and families. For example, a saint's name from some ancient monk or nun connected with a locally known holy well or shrine, often became used by families local to that area and appears among some family member of most generations. A county history or travel guide sometimes helps to find local features associated with saints that might have contributed to local forenames.

While after the mid 1800's a naming tradition in which the names of father's father, brothers of a child's parent, etc. for children's names was not as frequently used, in middle and upper class families, or those who aspired to be such, it continued to some degree. The oldest son of an individual male, thus, is often an indicator of that father's father's name. The name of the oldest daughter of a mother is sometimes the name of the mother's mother.

Starting in 1831, censes were taken in Ireland, every ten years, just as in the U.S. However, only bits and pieces of censes before 1931 still exist, because of the nearly complete destruction of the national Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922. Vital records were required to be registered civilly starting in 1845 and many of those still exist in the counties' public records offices. Also civil records of license fees, such as dog license fees, fines for not paying the fees, and civil disputes still exist. The Catholic parish registers which go back in time farther are more complete and on-line, but not indexed. You must know the county, barony and parish, which is not the same as the civil parish to find families and individuals. The civil parish is the old Church of England/Ireland parish name and within the civil parish boundaries are often two or more Catholic church parishes which may or may not include a parish name that's the same as the civil parish name. There are on-line aides that show where the civil parishes were and their names, within baronies and counties, and often in or close to what towns, and Catholic on-line sites that show the Catholic dioceses and parishes also. Comparing the two will usually help identify the Catholic parish that a researcher wants to examine.

Sean explained how, in the civil records, the names are not always the same as the form names in the vital records registers of either the counties or the church. It's often said that if you are Irish and don't have a nickname, you're a nobody. Most people have names that are not always the same as their formal christening name, or don't include any part of it. Nicknames often include terms, in Gaelic, for a characteristic, or the exact opposite of a distinguishing characteristic, such as 'Slim Will', for someone who weighs 300 pounds or more, or for someone who is actually as skinny as a rail. In Tony's family, the name William was popular for a time, and the family did use an Irish-style tradition for distinguishing the same named cousins and uncles: such as 'Plaster Bill, the painter and plasterer, 'Chicken Bill' who owned a large chicken and egg ranch, etc.. This is how you will find names in some Irish civil records starting in the 1800's but in some cases before, and often in Gaelic. There are a couple of on-line sites that have common words used in these nicknames and Mr. Connelly has lists of them also that he is willing to share.

Additionally, in civil records, names could include three names that were actually the individual, his father, and his grandfather as a means of identification. For example, Sean Donagh Padraic O'Connor, or Sean og (younger of a family in a small area with more than one person with the same name, or junior to Sean Sr., his father) mac Padraic (son of Padraic) O'Connor (O' generally meant of the family of and was used prior to the Norman and English colonizations and after the mid 1800's when interest in Gaelic language and culture was reasserted). Among the Scots-Irish, though, mostly found in the Ulster counties of northeast Ireland, 'Mc/Mac' has come to means the same as 'O'' roughly 'of the sons of the first man with that surname.' A clue is when the 'mac' is in a string of names and is not capitalized, it is usually the Irish Gaelic meaning son of the specific next person in the string of names. For women, you may find variants of the word 'bean' next to a man's name, indicating the wife of that man. Some words with a short pronoun are a location, that some individual was from some estate, village, townland, etc.. Are you confused yet?

Here's something else very important in the church records and, for those trying to find records prior to 1800, even civil records like wills and probate records. Most of the church records, and some earlier civil records, recorded the names, and events being recorded, etc., in Latin. While many names are fairly easy to decipher such as Josephus for Joseph, and Maria for Mary, some are not. James becomes Jacobus. William can be either 'Wilhelmus' or 'Guillelmus.' Patrick, which is 'Padraic' or 'Padraigh' in Gaelic becomes Patricius in Latin. Cecilia is fine in English and Latin but becomes 'Seala' or 'Sheila' and other variations beginning in 'S' in Gaelic. In the mid 1800's and later civil records, and later, many names that appear elsewhere in English are turned into Gaelic. To identify one's family and find the history of it, in all kinds of Irish records, and it helps to have lists from either a published or on-line source of the name translations from English to both Gaelic and Latin to make one's way through the records. Sean Connelly mentioned a number of lists available on-line that people have made available to help the researcher identify family members in three languages in the records.

Regarding places, Ireland was divided into counties and by the 1500's most counties were subdivided into baronies. Below baronies were civil parishes which came into use in 1800, and based on the old Church of England/Ireland parishes. Prior to 1800, the next smaller area designation to barony is a parish, which could be either Catholic or Civil/Protestant, or town area. The smallest area designation was the townland, which varied in size from as small as a few acres or as large as several hundred acres or more, and after 1650, may or may not have had an associated village with the same name on it. This is how church records, census and tax records such as the hearth tax rolls, and many other records have been sorted and filed. You must have lists of the post 1800 civil parishes and the older parishes to find people, as well as maps showing the baronies within the counties and the counties within Ireland. Above the counties, you will sometimes find one of the four or five old kingdoms as multi-county regions given: Connaught (northwest quarter or so of Ireland), Ulster (northeast), Leinster (southeast), Munster (southwest) and occasionally Midhe (Meath--that once also included West Meath, most of Louth, and Dublin) as the arch-royal 'middle kingdom.'

Other than the aforementioned bodies of records, there is another good source of family information, but much of it is not yet on-line and is only available in Ireland. When you examine the 19th century records that you do find, you will note that many people are tenants of large area land-holders. Many types of records list the landlords of the tenants as a way of describing where the tenants were located. These land-holders all had collections of estate records that included every transaction with their tenants and named the tenants, oldest sons, and more in them, year by year. Some are on-line and can be found at on-line 'county heritage centres', and other sites, such as under the surname of the land-holding family with any title it held and the county or barony in which the principal residential seat of the family was. Many of the estates were broken up after 1921 and some of the owners, those who had long been absentee landlords anyway, went back to England. A large number of the old large estate collections of records ended up donated to the National Library or the National Archives and many have not been indexed and fully catalogued even in these institutions much less put on-line. They may be identified on a list, or in a simple card index, which may or may not be on-line, as 'so-and-so's (titled landlord's surname) or such-and-such's (estate name) collections of papers.' Both the National Archives and National Library are in Dublin, Ireland and plan on several days to go through them on any visit. The estate collections, like the original memorandums of deeds and leases in the Registry of Deeds, are all in archaic long-hand script prior to the 20th century.

The aforementioned 'county heritage centres' will also have other useful items. Some have transcribed a number of cemetery inscriptions with the appropriately referenced associated churches and towns. Some have indexes to some county records by surname and year. Some have county histories that give some description of great and/or more sizeable families in an area. Many list the most common surnames of the county, and some by baronies within the county as well. All of this material helps the family history researcher find that little 'bump in the boreen' that is his or her particular ancestor's.

Regarding deeds and leases; some are on-line, many are not. However, the LDS microfilmed the entire contents of the Registry of Deeds and the pages of those many old books, and the indexes for them can be examined by renting the LDS microfilms through Family Search at

Last, for those pursuing their roots prior to the 19th century (1800's), to discourage them from retaining the Catholic religion, in the 1600's, large numbers of the Catholic and many native Irish families were pushed into the West of Ireland by the plantations set up by the English kings and later Cromwell. The West had less arable, less desirable land areas. Cromwell's famous comment to one group of Irish Catholics was 'to hell or to Connaught, I don't care which, just remove yourselves from here', is an actual historic fact. Connaught and parts of Munster, notably much of County Clare and parts of Kerry and Cork, were actually a form of 'reservation' for the Catholic Irish (just like the U.S. has for native Americans). The U.S. actually got the idea for forming reservations for the Native Americans from what the English had done to the Catholic, 'native' Irish in Ireland.

As the penal laws began to be repealed and Irish Catholics were allowed to engage in business and own lands again, starting in the 1860's or a little earlier, those who had come from further east did begin to move back into areas their ancestors had lived. However, many stayed in the western counties that comprise Connaught and Munster, where they had been allowed to own lands and conduct business most between 1609 and the 1860's. In contrast, the Protestant Scots-Irish started out in Ulster, but by the end of the 1600's many had expanded southward and to port cities, including Cork and Limerick. They continued to do so in the 18th century.

Thus, some families in the two old western provinces have not always been there, and if you are looking for them in the much earlier records of the early 1600's and late 1500's, they may be actually found in more eastern counties. With few copies in libraries in the U.S., not on-line, the published 1659 Hearth Roll will help find some, and, for Ulster, the 1629/30 census done to help the king determine whether the grants of 1609-11 were being distributed and managed according to his original charters and which lists Irish tenant families, are helpful to finding the families. The 1629 census and other records of the settlement of Ulster after the Earls' Rebellion were published in a series of volumes by George Hill and are on-line as well as available in published form. Also the civil records, which remain and which the LDS has microfilmed, of wills, legal disputes, etc. are helpful. These are organized in groups by both surnames for some and counties for others.

For more information about where and how to do Irish family history research, there are some on-line materials at the Santa Clara County Historical and Genealogical Society website and Mr. Connelly can direct you to, or provide uploads of others (provided the request is for relatively short items). We also have some sources for records on-line, but we emphasize history before 1850, in our> website under 'Ancestors' and then either documents or sources (links to collections of records or other sites with data).

Email Sean Conley at with additional questions.