A Letter from Ireland:
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Starting Your Irish Ancestry Search in the right place.

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Our readers are very keen to trace their Irish ancestors back to a specific part of Ireland, and that is very understandable. However, it’s often a better idea to dig up more leads and clues in the ancestors place of immigration BEFORE attempting to make the leap back to Ireland.

Emigration from Ireland

Céad Míle Fáilte – you are welcome to the Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things in your part of the world? We’re over in England today visiting our first grandchild – isn’t it lovely to see the family tree coming to life in such a way!

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

Let me start this letter with a question – have you discovered the place of origin for your ancestors in Ireland? Maybe you have even walked the same farm or village as they once did. If so, you are one of the lucky ones!

Unfortunately, many people have ancestral records that refuse to offer a clue as to where their Irish ancestors originated. Sometimes we get frustrated with that situation and take a best guess as to where in Ireland they lived. Sometimes we are right to make this leap and sometimes we get lucky. Other times, it’s worth “retreating” back to your ancestors place of immigration for a second look at the local records in that area – to look for clues that will help us pinpoint an exact origin in Ireland.

Introducing Jim O’Neil – who comes from Oregon in the US. Jim believes he has found the place of origin in Ireland for his O’Neil ancestor – and he may well have had (he did not share all the records at his disposal). Have a read and see how we urge him to re-consider the local records in the US to ensure he has gathered as much evidence as possible before making that leap across to Ireland:

Jim: My name is Robert James O’Neil Jr. and I go by “Jim”. I live in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, USA, near the city of Eugene. I have been tracing my family history for about a year, but have been interested in my ancestry for a long time before that.

Mike: Nice to meet you Jim. I visited the Willamette Valley back in the 90’s – a most beautiful part of the world!

Jim: The ancestor that emigrated to America was my paternal great grandfather, Lawrence O’Neill, born in 1833 in the Emly parish, in County Tipperary. We believe his parents were John O’Neill and Mary Adams…they were farmers in the Emly area, townland of Ballyhome. 

Mike: Now, when I see the word “believe” I am always curious where this belief came from? Maybe you have some documentary proof – but I often advise our Green Room members to flesh out as much detail and context as possible in the country of immigration before making a leap across back to Ireland. So, in this case I am going to examine some details of Lawrence and his family in Wisconsin – and see how that can help to make a best guess on the location of YOUR O’Neill back in Ireland.

Jim: We are not sure when Lawrence left Ireland, but he first went to Ontario, Canada and then into the State of Wisconsin, USA sometime after that. We do have a record of him being married in Wisconsin in1864 to Martha Jane Churchill. I would really like to find more information about his family and previous generations.

Mike: OK, let’s start in Wisconsin. Here are some details from the federal census of the area:

1870: Lawrence is aged 37 – and living in Porter, Wisconsin with:

  • Martha (his wife) aged 23 (born in Canada)
  • Charles aged 5 (born in Wisconsin)
  • John aged 3 (born in Wisconsin)

They live close to two families of Churchills. The head of the nearest Churchill family was born in Ireland.

Let’s jump forward 10 years:

1880: The O’Neill family noted above are joined by:

  • Mary aged 3
  • Joseph aged 6 months.
  • Various Churchill families still live nearby.

Looking at further records, I can see that the O’Neills had one further son – Murt Leo in 1882, and Lawrence O’Neill also died that year.

So, how did the Churchill and O’Neill families come to be in the area? Let’s jump back the 1860 census:

1860: Martha Churchill is aged 13 – and living in Porter, Wisconsin with her family including her parents Joseph and Jane (both born in Ireland).

However, there is also an “L. O’Neal” in the household (aged 28 born in Ireland). This would appear to be the later “Lawrence O’Neill”. He is a boarder/farm worker – who later married one of the daughters in the household.

1850 census: The Churchills are already in the area – but there is no sign of a Lawrence O’Neill in the neighbourhood.

So, here are a few thoughts and suggestions:

  • I think the Churchill families origin in Ireland may also provide some clues as to the origin of Lawrence O’Neill. Families often took in friends and relatives who they knew back in Ireland. You also mentioned that Lawrence went first to Canada from Ireland – did he know the Churchills in Canada?
  • The name “Lawrence” is also often spelled as “Laurence” in Ireland. This first name is almost exclusively used in the counties of Ireland in the southern half of the island.
  • There are many unconnected O’Neill clans in Ireland – the most famous one is from Ulster. It is probable that your Lawrence comes from a county in Munster or Leinster (southern half of the island).
  • The name “Murt” springs up a few times in your family tree – this is short for Murtagh and is used in many families in Ireland to this day – again, mostly in the counties of Munster and Leinster.
  • The name of the eldest child of Lawrence and Martha is “Charles”. This would suggest that the father of Lawrence may have been called Charles according to Irish naming patterns.
  • It is important to share the religions of the Churchill family and O’Neills as this will provide further pointers as to the origins of the Churchill and O’Neill families in Ireland.

So, I look forward to investigating further with the help of Jayne McGarvey and Pam Holland.

Jim: I also have O’Neill ancestors on my mother’s side. In tracing back, I found that the ancestor on that side that emigrated to the USA was Major General Sir William Henry Johnson (my 5th great grandfather). He was born in Smithtown, County Meath in 1715. He came to the USA in 1738 and was a major figure in Colonial America. 

Mike: What a great connection to have! O’Neill is a very prominent surname in the midlands of Ireland – an ancient branch of the O’Neills of Ulster.

Jim: In tracing back his parents, I discovered that his father’s name was Sir Christopher McShane O’Neill Johnson. To my surprise, I realized that the Johnsons in my family are descended from the McShane O’Neill’s of Ulster. I researched how the McShane name was anglicized to “Johnson”.   With more research, I discovered that even farther back, my family also included Saint Oliver Plunkett (my 9th great uncle), Shane “The Proud” O’Neill (12th Great grandfather), Hugh Aodh Mor “The Great” O’Neill 2nd Earl of Tyrone (1st cousin, 12X removed), Matthew O’Neill, 1st Baron of Dungannon (12th Great Uncle) Conn Phelim Baccach O’Neill (13th great grandfather) and many others.I was able to trace back as far as 1365 in this line.

Mike: Yes, “John-son” and “Mac (son of) Shane/Sean” mean one and the same. McShane is more often anglicised as “MacKeown” on many parts of Ireland. Once you have a definite lead back to a person such as Sir Christopher – then their existing genealogy records can take over!

Jim: My wife and I were in Ireland in September for over 2 weeks and had a wonderful time. We spent 3 nights in Dungannon and visited Shane’s Castle near Randalstown on the north shore of Lough Neagh. Both Dungannon Castle and Shane’s Castle were shown in my ancestry research as being the location of several births and deaths in my family. We also visited the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast before traveling for several more days around the Island, visiting many castles and other historic sites. 

Our trip took us through Enniskillen,  Galway, (2) nights in Limerick, Killarney, Dingle, Cork, Youghal, Kilkenny, and (4) nights in Dublin. We did not get to see everything, as we could have spent another month there easily. We did explore the Emly area, where my Father’s family was from, finding several Cemeteries in the area with numerous headstones with the “O’Neill” name on them. Due to our short time, we were not able to do much research there.

We loved Ireland, and wish we had had more time there.

Mike: Good for you – how nice that you visited the parts of Ireland you feel most strongly connected with through family ties. Perhaps, when you make those further ties with your O’Neill and Churchill family connection you can revisit.

Jim: As I said before, my biggest desire is to find out more information about my Great Grandfather, Lawrence O’Neill….when did he emigrate? What happened to his 6 siblings? What about his father, John and mother, Mary? I hope this is not too much information, but anyone’s help would be greatly appreciated.

Mike: As I mentioned above, I think it would be prudent to put your best-guess as to the parents of Lawrence to one side for the time being – and work on expanding more on the locations and life of the O’Neills and Churchills in Ireland.

Thank You,

Robert “Jim” O’Neil.

Mike: Thank you, Jim – and I look forward to hearing more (and discovering more) here in the Green Room!

That’s it for today’s Letter – do feel free to leave a comment below or share the surnames and stories in your Irish family tree.

Chat next week!

Slán, Mike & Carina.

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