A Letter from Ireland:
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Irish Civil Records – and the Origins of One Irish Grandmother

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Have you used the Irish Civil Records recently? These Irish Civil Records (Births, Marriages and Deaths) are a very useful way to track down the origins of one of your Irish ancestors – and most are both available online and for free! See how we recently used them in this reader’s letter from Ireland.

Carina and a character in the folk park

Céad Míle Fáilte – welcome to the Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world today? It definitely feels like spring in County Cork today. The birds are singing and we’ve a “stretch in the evening” light till almost 7.00pm!

Before I go on, a short announcement. If you are in the Boston area this coming March 9th – we will be giving a talk at the NEHGS. You can see full details here – I do believe there are a few tickets left. If you can make it we’d love to meet you!

So, I’m having a cup of Lyons’s tea as we start into today’s letter – and I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself.

The Irish Civil Records.

One of the best things about Irish family history research is the availability of so many Irish records online and for free. One of the most useful sets are the civil records which were centralised by the Irish administration starting in the middle 1800s.

A centralised Civil registration system for marriages was established in Ireland in 1845. At first, it excluded all Roman Catholic marriages (at the insistence of the R.C. church), but a full Civil system of registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths became mandatory across Ireland by 1864. Full compliance with this new system took a number of years, but it eventually became one of the most complete sources of family research information available.

Since early 2019 – the full original images for the following records are available both on-line and for free at Irishgenealogy.ie (note: the post-1921 records of the 6 counties of Northern Ireland are not available for free online).

  • Civil Birth Records: 1864-1918 Note: Births under 100 years old are NOT available online.
  • Civil Marriage Records: 1864-1943 Note: Marriages under 75 years old are NOT available online.
  • Civil Death Records: 1878-1968 Note: Deaths under 50 years old are NOT available online.

So, let’s use one of the recent letters from a Green Room member  to use the above records (and a few more) to explore the origins of her Irish grandparents in Ireland. Introducing Terri Hart from New York in the USA. Here is an abbreviated version of the letter that Terri wrote – modified into a written conversation with myself!

The Origins of One Irish Grandmother.

Terri: Hi Mike, I am Terri Hart from Staten Island in New York. I started on my family history a few years ago – but it’s been stop and go.

Mike: Nice to meet you Terri. “Stop and go” sounds like the normal pace of progress for most of us!

Terri: The ancestors I am most interested in are my grandparents, Annie & Hugh McDonnell. Annie was born Anne Gallagher on June 20, 1899 in “Leabgarrow”, Ireland.  She came to New York in 1927.

Mike: How interesting that you only mention that name as place of origin – no county etc! I find that most country people who leave Ireland almost always identify with a local “townland” or nearby village. A “townland” is the smallest administrative division in Ireland (and is still used in many cases). It appears as a place of residence in most church, civil, land and census records.

I find that one of the most useful resources to look up the location (and spelling) of a townland is with Townlands.ie. It gives all the townlands of Ireland listed alphabetically by county. Here we can see your ancestral townland of Lebgarrow which is on the island of Arranmore off the north-west coast of County Donegal. A lovely part of the world – and one of the most remote places in Europe!

I mentioned the “Civil Records” at the beginning of this letter – and we can use that free facility to find the birth record for your Annie Gallagher which you can see here. So, her parents were Bryan Gallagher and Ellen O’Donnell according to that record.

The Gallagher surname dominated Lebgarrow townland, but we also find the following surnames there in the mid 1850s (Griffith’s Valuation):

Boyle, Campbell, Connor, Doogan, O’Donnell, O’Hara, Lyons, Magill, McCauley, McGinley and Sharkey.

Terri: Hugh, my grandfather was born in 1904 in Troy, New York. I believe Hugh’s family came through Canada before settling in Troy. No idea where in Ireland. I have seen some info on Ancestry.com. His father was Hugh and his mother was Mary. The McDonnell’s were ironworkers in Troy. I am very curious as to where the McDonnells are from.

Mike: Well, it is probable that Annie and Hugh’s family did NOT know each other back in Ireland as McDonnell is a fairly rare surname in the part of Donegal where your Gallaghers came from.

You can see a distribution of the McDonnell surname (often changed to McDonald following emigration) across Ireland in the 1800s here. McDonnell comes from the Irish for “son of Domhnall” and Domhnall was a popular boy’s name in ancient times. As a result, it worked its way into many unconnected Irish surnames when they started to appear from the 800s onwards. Surnames such as: O’Donnell, McDonald, McDonnell and sometimes even McConnell. So, we will have to have a longer conversation in the Green Room on that one!

Terri: Hugh and Annie met and then married in 1932 in St. Peter’s Church – Staten Island, New York. Their children were Bernard, Hugh, Patrick and Helen – all born on Staten Island.

Annie had a brother Patrick who passed Oct 18, 1929 in Ireland. I actually have his Mass card as well as my grandmother’s passport.

Mike: We can look at the Irish census records for 1901 and 1911 for Leabcarrow to see Annie and her family. Here they are in 1901 with a 2 year-old Annie – and here they are in 1911, this time featuring the Patrick that you mention as well as all your other grand-uncles and aunts.

Now, I could not find the death record for your Patrick on the Civil records which is quite unusual – but not unheard of! Again, I think we need to have a longer conversation in the Green Room so we can cross-check all facts.

Terri: My husband and I visited Ireland 2 years ago and I was determined to visit Aran. As we crossed the sea, heading toward Aran, I was literally breathless. We met a lovely gentlemen at the dock who offered us a tour. He was a native of the island. I started to explain that my grandmother was from there. He asked me her name and I said Annie Gallagher. This is where he explained that the Gallaghers were not and had never been from Aran.

After much confusion we realised that there is another island and we were actually off the coast of Galway and not Donegal. I was still amazed by my visit there and I am determined on my next trip to visit the correct Island.

Mike: That is so funny, Terri – but what a happy accident. The “Aran Islands” off the coast of Galway have “Inishmore” as their largest island. It is a beautiful part of the world and I am delighted to hear you “chanced” upon it. Your contact was correct – there are no Gallaghers on the Aran islands, just plenty of O’Flaherty, McDonough, Joyce, Mullen, Conneely and many more. No Gallaghers or McDonnells!

Terri: My husband and I were absolutely thrilled to visit Ireland. Being from the states you have no idea what it is like to see buildings that are so old with so much history.  The country was beyond beautiful and the people were so friendly and nice. While on Aran we visited a cemetery that was over 2,000 years old. We visited Dublin and Galway and enjoyed both so much. It was a short trip but we plan on going again next year and definitely seeing more of this amazing country.

Mike: I think you will really enjoy your visit to Aranmore when you get here. It is a lovely part of the world – and much of it is still Irish-speaking to this day. I see from the census in 1901 that your Annie was brought up in a household where they spoke Irish.

I hope you enjoyed that brief trip around the ancestral origins of Terri’s Gallagher ancestors. Remember, the Irish Civil records are a wonderful online and free resource for you to use.

That’s it for this week, as always do feel free to leave a comment below and share your stories and the Irish surnames in your family.

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina.

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