Looking for a needle, found a haystack.
January 20, 2011 § 6 Comments
I think there are two great discoveries that one can make when researching a genealogical project. The first is locate a document that you set out deliberately to find, and the other is to find something unexpected that you weren’t looking for at all. This second kind of experience can be very exciting and lead to even more discoveries, and it is the kind of moment that keeps Junkies like me coming back for more.
It was a discovery such as this I made recently that really stunned me, and uncovered details that I am still working to sort out. I had been searching for an immigration record for Agnes Conroy, daughter of James and Catherine, and was not having much luck. But as I was looking through one search result after another, one stood out dramatically from the rest. It was actually an immigration record for Ellen Conroy which I had never located. I had found records that seemed plausible, but nothing that was without a doubt hers. This, however, was different. It stood out from the other search results mainly because the spelling of Rosenallis, Co. Queens had been so badly butchered by whoever had keyed in the document that it was impossible to miss, and when I took a look at it the manifest itself I knew I had found the right one. All the details matched, listing her birthplace as Rosenallis and her final destination as West Newton, Massachusetts. Also traveling with her was her sister, Mary B Conroy. As I looked at their names I was drawn to another detail. Accompanying them was a man named Harry Burns who was of Irish descent but apparently was already living in the States in Newton. It was clear that he had made the trip back to Ireland and then helped to bring Ellen and Mary across the sea. But the most amazing detail would be the destination information listed under Ellen. According to the manifest Ellen was traveling to meet her cousin Mrs. Harney living on Cherry Street in west Newton. When I read this my jaw hit the floor. Several years in the future, in 1907, Ellen would marry a Mr. Thomas B Harney of West Newton, and Ellen herself would then live out her life on Cherry Street. Did this mean that her future mother-in-law was also her cousin? This seemed unlikely, so I began to look a little further.
When I went referred back to the Newton city directory I would make some pretty astounding discoveries. Suddenly there was Conroy’s popping out all over the place (well, mostly on Cherry Street). I found a John W. Conroy, whom with his son, Eugene, owned a painting business, J. W. Conroy & Son, which is referred to in the Illustrated Boston, the metropolis of New England, 1889. Ellen Conroy’s sister-in-law, Mary Elizabeth Harney married a man named John (J?) Conroy, born in 1870, but I do not know if he is related. The thing that intrigued me the most was the relationship between Ellen and this “cousin Mrs. Harney.” At first I attempted to locate Harry Burns, the gentleman listed on the ship manifest who was travelling with the Conroy sisters, but after a brief search I couldn’t find anything. However, as I looked through the city directory I discovered a Martin Harney, also living on Cherry Street, and in 1893 Martin is living with a John Conroy (possibly the son of JW Conroy Sr or the man who marries Mary Elizabeth Harney) and a Henry Byrne. When I saw this I grew very excited (and also kicked myself for not checking a different spelling for ‘Burns’) and I went back and look more closely at the immigration record. Upon closer inspection with a magnifying glass I could see that the ‘Harry’ was actually a Henry, just that the ‘e’ had been squished into the ‘H’ a little bit. Eventually I found Martin’s marriage record and he married a girl named Eliza Byrne from Ireland. Although I haven’t been able to prove it just yet, I think that Ellen must have an aunt (on either her mother’s or father’s side) who married a Byrne at some point, and thus began the family connection. Mrs. Eliza Byrne Harney then is Ellen Conroy’s cousin as mentioned on the ship manifest.
I cannot show that Martin Harney is in anyway related to the Harney family that Ellen marries into, but I cannot imagine that they’re not given the circumstantial evidence. I also don’t know that the JW Conroy family is related either, but once again it seems very likely that they must be. An initial search of birth and marriage records from Ireland would suggest that all the Conroys, Byrnes, and Harneys all originally came from Queens County, now called Laois. It would make sense, then, that families who knew each other in Ireland would congregate near each other in the New World, even marrying together. Another piece of the puzzle that suggests this is that all of the marriages that occurred in Newton all took place at St Bernard’s, the same place that Ellen and Sarah, my great-grandmother, got married at, and everyone who died was buried in Calvary cemetery in Waltham, Massachusetts (Sarah herself had moved to Rhode Island and is buried there).
Even though there are some loose ends, uncovering this treasure trove of information has been a real exciting experience, and I’m somewhat awed by the realization of how important Newton, Massachusetts has been in the history of my maternal great-grandmother’s family. It is amazing to discover that you’re even more connected with ancestor’s than you had previously imagined.
PS I did find Agnes Conroy’s immigration record after all, only she’s listed by her birth name of Bridget. My friend Michael from Dublin reminded me that girls named Bridget would not like being called Biddy back in the early 1900s, so she most likely changed her name or used a nickname or even her middle name.