A Letter from Ireland:
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Getting the most from Irish Ancestry Records

Sometimes we get frustrated with Irish Ancestry Records – we can see the main parties involved in the marriage or baptism/birth, but we there is not mention of where they lived! In this letter we take the example of one reader’s frustrations and use the presence of witnesses/sponsors to help establish a place of residence.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things in your part of the world today? We’re doing just fine here in County Cork – would you believe we are entering drought conditions in many parts of Ireland? I don’t think it will last much longer, but it does make me sympathise with so many of our friends in parts of North America, South Africa and Australia who suffer drought on an ongoing basis.

Is this your first time reading our Letter from Ireland? If so you are more than welcome here, we hope you enjoy reading this letter. If you’d like to receive a weekly letter straight to your inbox every week, signup for your free weekly Letter from Ireland by clicking here.and we’ll let you know how to join in the fun.

I’m sipping on a cup of Barrys 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.

Let me start with aquestion: Do you know the name of your godmother or godfather? How about the names of the witnesses at your wedding (presuming you had one of course)? Now, think about who they were – they were often close relatives or friends. But, in the past life was local – and so the sponsors and witnesses that appear on our ancestors baptismal and marriage records were not just family and friends – but neighbours as well.

This knowledge can help you locate the source of an ancestor in Ireland. Let’s take an example now with the story of just one of our readers – maybe you recognise similarities with her ancestry journey? Who knows, you might even know the places and names mentioned! So, here we go – with a conversation between the two of us:

Hi Mike,

My name is Julie Kett and I have been researching my Father´s English side for 8 years+ and more recently the Collins family on my Mothers side. My Great Great Grandfather is John Collins (born abt. 1836) and My GG Grandmother Ann Hickey (born abt. 1841). They are understood to come from Cork (according to the family census of 1891). However my Aunty Avril Collins believed they came from Sligo, so maybe they emigrated from Sligo to Cork ? I have been unable to locate their births. Unfortunately, both of their names are very common.

Mike: Well now, Julie – that idea of Collins being a “common” name – I think I prefer the word “numerous”! Two great surnames there – the majority of Collins’ in Ireland are located in the south around Cork and Limerick, while Hickey (an old Physician family) is typically located around Limerick and Tipperary. I’m afraid both names are very unlikely to be located in Sligo, so you might have to check those facts with your aunt again.

Julie: I do know that they married 7 Feb 1861 in Cork (Skibbereen and Rath Parish) and their first child Michael Collins was baptised 14 Jan 1862 in Skibbereen, Cork. Their address was listed as Currigfadda at the time of his birth.

Mike: Great for you to know that, Julie. South west County Cork has some great records available for free online. The church records for Skibbereen parish start in 1814 for Baptisms and 1837 for marriages. Here’s the marriage record for your Collins/Hickey ancestors – and here is the baptism record for their son Michael.

Map of Skibbereen

Julie: Between 1862 and 1864 the family emigrated to the UK. The first address I have is in Bristol where the family settled and John remained in Bristol until his death on 05 Sep 1903.

All the rest of their 12 – including James (1885), my Great Grandfather – were born in England. John Collins was a Boot and Shoemaker and made boots for sailors and lived in Captain Carey´s Lane in Bristol. Michael worked in one of the shoe factories in Bristol as a Rounder (1891 census). He would have pared the edge of the sole of the boot to the final shape using a shape-paring machine or by hand. There were many shoe factories in the Kingswood area of Bristol.

Mike: How very interesting, Julie! It always enlivens a family history when you get a sense of where your family lived, how they worked and what their day was like. Bristol was a very popular port and destination for many Irish people. My own father (also a John Collins) first emigrated to Bristol in the 1950s where he found plenty of work as a carpenter as they continued to rebuild the city after the heavy bombing of the second world war.

Julie: I would love to locate where John and Ann came from. I am currently researching possible siblings of John Collins. Maybe some of them relocated to Bristol, like John. There are several Collins families in the Bristol area who may or may not be related. Also, I am looking at other Collins families born in the Cork area of Ireland.

I have been lucky enough to find a Cousin through research, who has been researching the same family members in my father’s family tree and she introduced me to several photographs of my Great Grandfather – Alfred Williams on my Grandmothers side of the family. It was wonderful to put faces to names. This is why I know it is so important to keep researching and communicating.

Mike: You are right there Julie, do not give up communicating and researching – new connections are becoming available all the time.

On to your Collins/Hickeys – where did they come from? I assume you mean which farm or house around the Skibbereen area in County Cork?

Well, the first clue is that the couple were married in the townland of “Currigfadda” – they were also living there when their first son was born. I would start my search there. Here are the occupants of that townland of Currigfadda in 1853 – when the Griffith Valuation was carried out in the area. No sign of any Collins or Hickey families at that time. However, if you know the area (or look at the detailed maps) you will see that Currigfadda is a townland (the smallest unit of administrative land in Ireland) that makes up part of the town of Skibbereen. So, it’s not surprising if a family move from one part of town to another OR in from the surrounding countryside.

The next thing I would do is look at the witnesses and sponsors for the marriage and baptism shown above. These people were often family or close neighbours of the couple. The sponsors/witnesses were:

  • Michael Young
  • Thomas Cottam
  • John Martin
  • Anne Browne

No sign of a Collins or Hickey there. This may mean that the parents of the couple were dead by that time or lived too far away. Some of the above listed may also be in-laws. However, I often find that in urban settings you see a lot of close neighbours standing as witnesses and sponsors for ceremonies.

My next step is to notice any unusual names in the sponsors/witnesses – and carry out a search on that person in the records to see where they may be mentioned in other records. In this case I searched for a Thomas Cottam – and came up with this record for 1859 naming Carrigfadda which ALSO has a John Hickey as a sponsor!

Now, we seem to have cross-relative records. I had a look at the Griffith Valuations to locate a Thomas Cottam and found one, eventually – and incorrectly listed as Thomas Cotton here. He is in a townland called Deelish, located just outside the town of Skibbereen. He also has a neighbour called Daniel Collins in 1853. Now, remember that this was one of the worst affected areas in the country by the Great Famine – so you will see plenty of empty tenancies in 1853.

So, I wanted to illustrate how you could use church records to cross-reference sponsors/witnesses with the main parties and surface some clues to locating the Collins/Hickeys before emigration. At this point, we have a number of possibly useful pieces of information – but I would now contact the Skibbereen Heritage centre – who look after the records for the area and KNOW the family names (and many of the histories involved). Tell them what you have – and have your questions lined up. Of course, it would be even better to visit them in the area – they will probably point out possible locations.

So, Julie – I think it’s safe to say that your Collins/Hickey ancestors originated around the town of Skibbereen in County Cork (and not County Sligo) and while it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact place that they lived, that does not make it impossible with the right information and expertise. You are on the way to disocovering more.

Julie: To finish, there is an unusual story about John’s death. He died on 05 Sep 1903 in Bristol. Death Certificate reads – Age at Death: 66. “Stenosis of bone at base of skull and pressure of consequent fluid upon the brain, probably accelerated by shock sustained through being accidentally knocked down by a bicycle”. There was also a newspaper article written at the time under the headings “Inquests in Bristol” and “Cycling Accident”.

Mike: I’m sorry to hear that – what an unfortunate end. At least there are plenty of Collins’s in Bristol that owe their presence to your Collins/Hickey couple who made their way from the town of Skibbereen in County Cork!

Many thanks to Julie for sharing her story – and I hope that more of our readers are encouraged to dig out those church records for another look at the names of sponsors and witnesses – there could be some valuable clues in there! That’s it for now and we do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

  • Sharon McCarthy says:

    Hello Mike and Carina,
    Great information regarding looking at the marriage witnesses!
    Thanks,
    Sharon

    • carina says:

      Yes Sharon, already members of our Green Room are telling us that they have found some new ancestry lines to follow.

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