3 Things to know about your Irish Ancestor Surnames

3 Things to know about your Irish ancestor surnames - and a lot more! In this readers Letter from Ireland, Mike has a conversation with a descendant of a family from County Kerry. In the letter, they touch on some important things to know about the locations, nicknames and pronunciation of surnames in Ireland.

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3 Things to know about your Irish Ancestor Surnames

This week, we are going to feature a reader’s letter – one that takes you from a small village in County Kerry to the big port of Hoboken in the USA. Along the way, we’ll chat about Irish surnames, nicknames and tricky Irish pronunciations.

But mostly this is the story of just one of the many families of our shared Irish ancestry. I do hope you enjoy it.

3 Things to Know about your Irish Ancestors Surnames – and a lot more besides!

Kathleen: My name is Kathleen Sexton Hall and I live in Red Bank, NJ, USA. I started to trace my Irish family history in 2014. I’d like to talk about Winifred Lynch and John J. Sullivan, my maternal great-grandparents.  They are the Irish relatives I know the most about.

Mike: Nice to meet you Kathleen. Sounds like you have been keeping busy – and discovering plenty – since 2014. Do share more.

Lynch Pub - 3 Things to know about your Irish Ancestor Surnames Kathleen: Winifred Lynch was born in Kilgarvan in County Kerry in March 1839 in the townland of Cahir. Her father was Daniel Lynch and her mother was Ellen Sullivan while the sponsors at her baptism were Patrick Sullivan and Mary Lynch. I also have a marriage record for Daniel and Ellen dated 1839. The witnesses were Florence McCarthy and Johanna Egan.

Mike: I see that you have been using the great free service at www.irishgenealogy.ie that allows us to search Church records for County Kerry, Dublin and much of County Cork. I’m glad you mentioned the sponsors at the baptism. It is often these individuals (as a well as witnesses to weddings) that offer us essential clues when tracking down OUR particular ancestor.

Kathleen: John Sullivan was born 1 January 1833 according to his baptism record. His address was Coologues and his parents were Sylvester Sullivan and Mary McCarthy. His sponsors were Jeremiah Donovan and Honora Godfrey.

Mike: Right Kathleen, that’s the initial records out of the way. How did your Winifred Lynch and John Sullivan come together.

Kathleen: Winifred had two husbands, her first was John Taehan. I found an 1859 marriage record for John Taehan of Clounleigh and Winifred Lynch. The witnesses were Timothy Haley and Patrick Blueman.  They had two children in Ireland. Mary Taehan born 10 March 1860 in Milleenatagil – sponsors were John McCarthy and Helen Sullivan. Cornelius Taehan born 1863 also in Milleenatagil. Sponsors were Mathew Lynch and Johanna Haley.

Mike: That’s a very interesting collection of Irish surnames right there, Kathleen. The surname “Blueman” caught my attention so I’d like to slow things down for a moment and talk about locations, “nicknames” and “pronunciations” – all of which play a big part when trying to locate your Irish ancestors.

  • Firstly, locations. All of the above places mentioned in the church records are “townlands” (these were the smallest parcels of lands mentioned in records) and are all located around the village of Kilgarvan in County Kerry. A couple were typically married in the bride’s homeplace – and the first child often baptised there also. However, there are plenty of Taehans in the area – so it seems that this group of your ancestors and their sponsors/witnesses were all close neighbours.
  • Next, nicknames. If you go looking for the “Blueman” surname you may find it hard to track down. You see, this part of Ireland was home to a large number of Sullivans – so many that different lines of Sullivans took on nick-surnames to tell them apart. One such line were the Bluemans. So, if asked for “Patrick Sullivan” I might say “which one?”. However, ask for “Patrick Blueman Sullivan” or just “Patrick Blueman” and we have things narrowed down. These nicknames were so ubiquitous that they worked their ways into many records much to the puzzlement of modern family history researchers.
  • Finally, pronunciations. The surnames mentioned in your records are anglicised versions of earlier Irish Gaelic names. Take the examples of Taehan and Haley above. These two names were often spelled as “Teahan” and “Healy” when anglised by English-speaking clerks and pronounced as “Tee-han” and “Hee-lee”. However, in the Irish from which they come – coupled with a strong west of Ireland accent, they would have been pronounced “Tay-han” and “Hay-lee” and so “Teahan” and “Healy” often got anglicised/changed to “Tayhan”/Taehan” and “Hayley”/”Haley” on arrival in the US or elsewhere.

Kathleen: According to the various censuses I’ve found that John Taehan first arrived in America in 1864 while his wife,  Winifred, and children arrived in 1865. The thing is, sometime after John Taehan arrived in America he died from the flu according to stories in my family.  However, I can find no record of him dying here. So, it looks like my Winifred was widowed shortly after arriving in America.

Sullivan Kilgarvan - 3 Things to know about your Irish Ancestor Surnames

O’Sullivan’s Pub, Kilgarvan, County Kerry

Mike: That is so tragic – a young woman in a new country with two small children.

Kathleen: Meanwhile, according to census documents John J. Sullivan arrived in the USA in 1864. He and Winifred were married in Our Lady of Grace church in 1869. I have the marriage record which lists her as “widow”. In the 1870  census they are living in Hoboken. He is listed as a long-shoreman and she is “making a home”. The family story involves John always liking her and him learning of her status as a widow and coming to America to find her.

I’d love to learn what happened to Mr. Taehen and how Winifred and John actually got together.

Mike: It looks like John Sullivan and Winifred Lynch Taehan were close neighbours in their native Kilgarvan. There was a strong chance that John and Winifred were aware of each others location through letters from home. It is also possible they were close neighbours in the USA – maybe alongside other Kilgarvan natives.

It was very typical for a young widowed woman to remarry after a period – sometimes to the brother of a deceased husband, other times to a neighbour. Often a match that was approved of by the wider family and neighbourhood. Maybe John and Winifred always had a liking for each other and maybe they finally had a way to be together after the tragedy of her husband’s death.

Regarding John Taehan, I will also post this letter in The Green Room and we can have some fun doing some shared research into some possible answers as to where he ended his days.

Kathleen: They had at least 8 children but only three survived. James and John J. Sullivan who were twins and Elizabeth Veronica Sullivan who was my grandmother.

John died 19 Feb 1921 of pneumonia according to his obituary in the Hudson Observer and is buried in Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City, NJ. They had the funeral at home according to his brief obit in the newspaper. Winifred died 5 days later 24 Feb 1921 in St Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken of Chronic Intestinal Nephritis and Senility.

Mike: That would probably be “Interstitial” rather than “Intestinal”. I saw John and Winifred in the census records in the US. It is striking to see slices of life in ten year increments. Children appear, grow older, some children die, others thrive and get jobs and then get married themselves. I did see John and Winifred at the end of their days – living alone together and he was still working into his early 70s.

I do hope they had a close and happy life. While they had to endure a lot of change and heartbreak with the loss of spouses and children, they were certainly there for each other right to the end – and departed this world together.

Kathleen: My grandmother, Elizabeth Sullivan remained close to her half sister Mary throughout her life. I still cook a lamb in the oven dish that is identified as “Mary on the Hill’s”.

Mike: Now that is a fitting end to this story – for now. Mary Sullivan – otherwise known by her nickname “Mary on the Hills”. Here’s to the Sullivan, Lynch and Taehan families of Kilgarvan, County Kerry and New York/New Jersey, USA!  Many thanks to Kathleen Sexton Hall – for sharing your story.

That’s it for this week, as always do feel free to share your stories, comments and Irish surnames in your family.

Slán for this week,
Mike and Carina.

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