A Letter from Ireland:
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Where to Start Searching for Your Irish Ancestor

Have hit a block wall searching for an Irish ancestor? Many people jump over to the Irish records and little too soon – sometimes it is better to gather ALL of the records available in your home country before making the leap “across the pond”. Here is a conversation with one of our readers to help illustrate the point.

Céad Míle Fáilte – welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. The weather has been changeable over the past week – but the grass is growing greener by the day as a result! How are things in your part of the world?

I’m settling into a cup of Barry’s tea as I write, and I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into the letter!

In today’s letter we listen to the story of one of our Green Room members – Catherine Clifford. We were provided with lots of information about the origin of their Irish ancestors in County Kerry in the early 1800s. However, I want to use this letter to point out how important it is to fully examine the records at your disposal in your home country BEFORE making the leap across the pond to uncover relevant Irish records.

So, in this case Catherine may be absolutely correct with the Irish marriage and baptism records that she believes belong to her Callaghan ancestors – but I will do some extra investigation on the US side and see if it yields more clues to help us rule in/out any further Irish records she discovers. I have laid the letter out in the form of a conversation. Ready to go?

Catherine: My name is Catherine Clifford and I live in the anthracite-mining region of Pennsylvania in the USA. I have been tracing my family ancestry for about 10 years and am especially interested in my earliest Irish immigrant ancestors – John Callaghan and Johannah Meara Callaghan.

Mike: Nice to meet you Catherine. Just to let you know that your own surname Clifford is also found in quantity in Counties Kerry and Limerick. 

Catherine: I do not know dates and/or places of birth of John and Johannah but I do know they were married on 22 November 1817 in the Church of St. Mary’s in Killarney.  The witnesses were J. O’Connor and Denis Callaghan.

Mike: I did see that record. However, I do wonder how you made the leap from the US to this specific marriage record? I often notice that people examine Irish records – looking for a baptismal date that “sort of” matches one of their ancestors – find a possible match and then say “that’s the one!”. I look forward to examining more source documentation with you in the Green Room. However, let us agree that the marriage record you mention is indeed a possibility!

Catherine: According to the Baptismal records of the Church of St Mary’s Killarney, Diocese of Kerry, their nine children were: Mary (18-3-1819), Daniel (6-1-1824), John (17-7-1825), Cornelius (29-8-1827) Bartholomew (25-8-1830), Michael (23-8-1832), Ellen (7-4-1836), John (18-5-1839) and Patrick (11-11-1842).

Mike: Great to have those records. I wonder if all of these children headed to the USA? Or did Bartholomew travel by himself?

Catherine: The Bartholomew listed above is my great great grandfather. He married Frances (Fannie) Hagarty (Hegarty) on 4 June 1854 at St. Patrick’s Church in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Bartholomew worked in the anthracite mines in and around Pottsville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

There is a family story that Bartholomew and Fannie met on the ship on the way to America. I am trying to find more information on Johanna Meara Callaghan and Fannie Hegarty (Hagarty). I would also like to find the descendants of the Callaghan line.

Mike: How interesting! I think it is always worth listening to these family stories – there is often more than a grain of truth contained within.

Next, I would like to “unpack” some of the information you provided – and then look at available US records to see if they confirm your presumption that your Callaghans were married in Killarney in 1817.

STARTING FACT: The first definite fact I see is that Bartholomew Callaghan married Frances/Fanny Hegarty in 1854 and they lived in the Schuylkill County area of Pennsylvania. 

I had a look at various ancestry trees on ancestry.com – and found a number of trees that contain this family. I notice that most have their earliest record as being the 1880 US federal census – many of the trees go back no further. So, let’s start with the 1880 census and work our way back for the Callaghan family:

1880: – The family are living in Cass, Schuylkill County. In the household we have:

  • Bartholomew – age 52
  • Fannie – 46
  • Dennis – 22
  • Catherine – 24
  • Patrick – 20
  • James – 15
  • William – 13
  • Mary – 8
  • Sarah – 2

That’s a lot of children – and plenty of gaps between ages indicating that some children may not have survived.

Many Irish people of the time followed a naming pattern – naming the eldest son after the paternal grandfather etc. In this case the eldest boy is named Dennis which would suggest that Bartholomew’s father was also Denis – if they followed this pattern. But naming patterns only offer clues.

Next, let’s go back to the 1870 census – this one was harder to find given a misspelling of Bartholomew’s name:

1870 – The family are in Cass, Schuylkill County. In the household we have:

  • Battista (Bartholomew)
  • Francis
  • Many of the children listed in the 1880 census above.
  • Patrick Haggerty – 70 (hard to read the age)
  • Mary Haggerty – 70 (hard to read the age)

So, who are the Haggertys in the household? Are they a husband and wife? Are they Frances’s parents? Uncle and Aunt? Other? Notice that the second boy in 1880 is called Patrick – Irish naming patterns suggest that this is the name of the maternal grandparent – Patrick? This needs to be investigated further.

Next, let’s see if we can find the Callaghan family in the 1860 census: 

1860 – The family are in Cass, Schuylkill County. In the household we have:

  • P. Calaghan (Bartholomew!)
  • Fannie Calaghan
  • Catherine
  • Denis
  • Mary Calaghan – 80
  • Patrick Callaghan – 87

I am assuming that this is the correct family because of the presence of the two eldest children as well as Fannie/Frances. But who are those elder Callaghans? This is a mystery that needs to be solved BEFORE we jump across the sea to Ireland! Let’s see if we can go back another 10 years.

I did not find Bartholomew (remember that he and Fannie were married in 1857) – but did find the following household in Schuylkill County:

1850 – In the household we have:

  • Members of a Sullivan family.
  • Fannie Hagerty aged 20 living with them – born in Ireland.

This may not be OUR Fannie Hagerty – but the location, age and name suggest it is a strong possibility. As a bonus, just next door was a Callahan family – a couple in their early 30s.

So, using the above census information I want to line up available facts, probabilities and possibilities following the arrival of the Callaghans in the US so we would have more information to uncover probabilities as Catherine looks at the Irish records.I suggest that you (Catherine Clifford) need to get to the bottom of the above information before looking further at records in Ireland. Of course, Pam Holland, our US-based genealogist in the Green Room will be happy to give you pointers to help!

Catherine: I have had four wonderful trips to Ireland. I did visit Killarney and walked the lane where I was told the old St. Mary’s was located.

Mike: Good for you Catherine! Killarney is a busy town these days with one of the most beautiful settings in the world. It was just emerging as a tourist destination a few short years after your Callaghan ancestors left the area.

Thank you very much for letting me use your story to illustrate a very important first step BEFORE examining ancestral records in Ireland. It is very important to flesh out ALL available facts and guesses following your ancestor’s arrival in the US (or Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, UK etc.) before making that leap across to Ireland.

I look forward to seeing how your ancestral journey develops over in the Green Room!

We hope you enjoyed Catherine’s letter in search of her Callaghan ancestors. As always, feel free to share the Irish surnames in your family tree – and we are always interested in hearing more of your family stories!

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina. 

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