In this letter we follow the path of one Irish immigrant who journeyed from County Mayo all the way across the prairies of America. What makes his story so special is that it is told in an interview of one of his descendants.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things in your part of the world today? I’m writing this letter on Easter Sunday morning and as we say at this time of the year “the sun is dancing in the sky” at an early hour.
I’m sipping on a cup of Lyons’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.
We’re going to have a look at the family history of just one of our Green Room members – Thomas O’Mahony of Minnesota, USA. Thomas shares the story of just some of his County Mayo and County Cork ancestors – and also has a few thoughts to share and questions to ask!
I have edited his original letter – and inserted some of my own thoughts and replies as our conversation unfolds. Do see if this family history resembles your own:
Thomas: My name is Thomas James Mahoney and I live in Edina, Minnesota, USA – a suburb of Minneapolis settled primarily by the Irish in the 1870s as a result of the potato famine, but named after Edinburgh by some Scots who settled later. I have been interested in family history for about 25 years when it dawned upon me that I knew very little about my ancestors beyond my grandparents. I seem to work on family history in spurts, interrupted by daily life.
Mike: Nice to meet you, Thomas – you have a fine County Cork surname there which we pronounce locally as “Maa-anny”. Your description of working on family history “in spurts” seems like an apt description for many of us!
Thomas: The family couple that I am most interested in is James Marion (B: 1820, Mayo, Ireland) and his wife, Nancy Ann Owen (1837, Ireland). James was my mother’s gr-grandfather. Through oral history and the family bible (the family was Roman Catholic), I know that James came from County Mayo, but never mentioned where in Mayo he was from nor the circumstances behind his emigration. My biggest question is about James Marion: What Co. Mayo village is he from? What were the conditions in Co. Mayo that would have propelled him to leave? How did he travel from Co. Mayo to reach Liverpool?
Mike: How nice to have that oral history handed down – and backed up by bible notes just in case anyone is tempted to make things up! Mayo in the mid-19th century was one of the hardest hit counties by the famine. It’s population declined from 388,000 down to 109,000 between 1841 and 1971 due to death and migration. As a result, we calculate that about 13% of the Irish Diaspora population around the world have roots in County Mayo.
So, why did your ancestor leave Mayo before 1837? The population of Ireland grew from about 2 million in the mid 1700s to over 8 million by 1841. This increase in population had a profound effect on division of farms, availability of food etc. So, perhaps your ancestor left due to a desperate situation? Perhaps for the opportunity that all young people seek elsewhere? Perhaps he had a specific offer? Perhaps he followed his family? Hard to know for definite. If he left for the USA from Liverpool, he may have made his was from Mayo to Dublin before taking the short sea crossing to Liverpool from there – although Sligo, Ballina, Westport and Galway were all active ports at the time shifting people and goods directly to the USA/Canada as well as England.
Thomas: Because Marion is not a common name, I thought it would be easy to track them down, but it has proven to be difficult. Perhaps their stay in Mayo was not long and their history is from somewhere else. I suspect they were there longer as they were farmers, and that takes some time to become established.
Mike: You are right about the Marion surname. I want to focus on something here that many of our readers may have come across in the Irish family trees – the likely changing of spelling or pronunciation after immigration. You see, while the surname Marion is found in Ireland – it is mostly in the north-east of the island where it is of English origin. So, while it is possible that the surname was originally Marion in County Mayo (and I can find no Marions in the records in County Mayo) – it is also possible that it was originally one of the more common surnames in County Mayo. Surnames like Marrin/Marron or perhaps Maree?
I searched all online records available to me and could not come up with any individual with the surname Marion in County Mayo.
Thomas: Some of the following ‘facts’ may not prove true, but this is the best information I have. James Marion emigrated to the USA in 1837 on the ship Smyrna, departing Liverpool England and arriving in Providence, Rhode Island USA. I believe that James traveled on a wagon train from the East to Illinois, then he moved to Clinton, Iowa. No documentation of their marriage so far, but I would expect that James and Nancy met on the wagon train trip. They then settled in Hope, Somerset Township, Steele County Minnesota where they farmed and had eight children: John Ambrose, James B., Mark, Peter H., Michael F., Mary Ann, Kate, and Ellen Angelia.
Mike: I like your style – always good to treat the possible/probable “facts” with some scepticism. And what a great pioneering story! I’m sure there were many more parts to the story of your James along the way – but it sounds like he made the right decision to embark on that long uncertain journey back in County Mayo.
Thomas: Regarding their County Mayo roots, I believe there is a connection to several families that may help identify their location: Healey, McAndrew, and Ambrose. I understand that the Healey family emigrated to the USA from England, but I suspect that they were originally from Mayo because they also were on the same wagon train and three Marion’s married three Healey’s. All lived in the Somerset Township, Steele County Minnesota area and all of the Marion’s and Healey’s farmed.
Mike: The connection of various family names can be very useful when uncovering the likely source location of an ancestor back in Ireland. First off – Healy. There are two main groupings of Healy in Ireland. The first is in County Cork – and the other up in County Sligo into Mayo where they are numerous right up to the present.
The McAndrew surname is prevalent in County Mayo. They were a branch of the local Norman Barrett family. The surname is very rare outside Counties Mayo and Sligo.
Finally, that is an interesting theory on Ambrose. However, Ambrose is typically found as a surname in Cork and Limerick rather than Mayo. Also, bear in mind that Ambrose was a common enough boy’s given name – even in County Mayo.
Thomas: On Nancy-Ann Owen, all I know is her DOB and that she is from Ireland. I do not know her parents or County of birth. U.S. Census from 1900 and 1910 report that she emigrated to the USA in 1847 and 1850 respectively. I have not been able to verify either record, but it gives me a timetable that makes sense, especially since it was at the heart of the Great Famine. Nancy is a tough one.
Mike: I notice that your James immigrated about 1837 while Nancy arrived after 1847. As they met on that wagon train, I guess James lived somewhere on the east coast before migrating west to Iowa?
It is likely that Nancy arrived in the US as a result of the Irish famine. The surname Owen/Owens is found in many parts of Ireland – but is found in large numbers in Mayo and Sligo as Owens. So, it’s possible that your James and Nancy may have had a similar local Irish accent.
Owen can be of Welsh origin in Ireland, but is normally derived from the Irish boy’s name “Eoghan” (pronounced Owen) as are the surnames McKeon, McKeown and so on.
Thomas: The Marion’s were well-respected as farmers in Steele County, Minnesota. The eldest son, John Ambrose Marion, was a highly successful farmer and entrepreneur who was tragically killed by his bull in 1914 at age 61. His son, John Mark Marion (my grandfather), had to take over the farm at age 16 and support five people.
Mike: It sounds like your John Ambrose really made a mark – how tragic to die so young. Your grandfather must have really stepped up in this case – and at such an early age.
Thomas: I have been to Ireland in 2011. We attended the O’Mahony Gathering in Bantry, Co. Cork, meeting many O’Mahony’s from my paternal side. We also visited the town of Ballyclough (Ballyclogh), Co. Cork, about five miles west of Mallow. My gr-gr-grandfather, Cornelius Mahoney married Mary Harrington in the Ballyclough church in 1855. Digging before 1855 has been a challenge. As a side note, almost 160 years following their marriage, my son Peter Mahoney married Bridget Harrington! So life has not changed so much after all.
Mike: What a great opportunity to meet up with all those O’Mahony cousins. I know Ballyclough well. While there are quite a few Mahonys in the area, there are much fewer Harringtons (they are mostly further west).
I looked up the children of your Mary and Cornelius and the second eldest boy was a James. Using Irish naming patterns this is typically the name of the wife’s father. I then came across only one Harrington in the Griffith’s Valuation of 1852 in the parish of Ballyclogh (townland of Ruanes) – and he was a James. I wonder if this is your Harrington line?
Also, be aware that the witnesses on the various children’s baptisms give an idea of the neighbours and relations – this can help establish exact locations.
Thomas: Thank you so much for your help.
Mike: You are very welcome, Thomas – and thank you for sharing part of your Irish family history!
By the way, since I wrote the above letter it turned out that the surname Marion in County Mayo was often a mis-transcription of the more prominent name “Manion” or “Mannion“! Goes to show, it’s always worth going back and checking the source in the handwritten records yourself.
How about you? Do you have an Irish family history similar to the one above? Do add your comments below and let us know.
That’s it for this week. Many thanks to Thomas for sharing just a part of his Irish Family History. We do look forward to you joining us again next week.
Slán for now, Mike & Carina.
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