March 30, 2011 § 1 Comment
I believe I owe everyone who has posted a comment an apology. I assumed that when I replied on the blog you would get the reply via email. After doing some testing of my own it looks like that is not the case. There is the option at the end of the comment box to get follow-ups via email, but this actually requires you to subscribe to that comment chain, a process which I think is a pain in the butt.
The other option you have is to subscribe to all the comments via the ‘Stay with It’ option on the right hand side of the main screen.
However, going forward I will make sure to post a reply to you via email. I may also put something up online for everyone’s benefit, but if I want to make it more one-on-one I’ll just send you the email.
March 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
So I’m feeling compelled to ramble on a bit. After publishing the post on my grandfather I’ve taken a bit of a downshift in research. I think I went through an intense period of work which was largely inspired by discoveries in the Conroy family tree. While I will no doubt pick it up again, I think my focus is shifting a bit. I have also uncovered some new information regarding the Dunn family in Worcester County and I hope to have that posted up on the blog at some point soon.
In the meantime, however, I think I’m changing gears. For one thing, Spring has decided to finally arrive here in St Louis, and I will be taking up beekeeping in the next few weeks, and I have a bit of work to do to get ready. But this doesn’t mean I am putting genealogy on the back burner completely. I intend to refocus on trying to work out the mystery of my grandfather’s birth. The catch with this is that it may require some regional research that must be done in person, and I do not expect to get to that anytime soon. However, I have tracked down another living relative who is descended from the Dunn family, and I have written them a letter and I hope to hear from them soon.
I am also anticipating applying myself to my own development as a researcher, but more about that at another time. See you around.
March 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Census Junkie now has a photostream on Flickr, which will be a good way to display photos and documents. There’s just a few things now, but check up on it and more should be up over time.
You will need to have a Flickr account to make comments on the images. FYI. But, Flickr is a lot of fun so that isn’t too much trouble.
March 12, 2011 § 5 Comments
For some time now the blog has been largely focused on the ancestry of the Conroy family of Coen, Ireland. One thing has led to another, and I’ve been quite involved with pursuing that branch of the family tree. Now, however, it is time to turn some of the attention to the other main branch from which I descend, the Dunns.
The story really must be told in two parts. The first relates to the history of the paternal line of Daniel Dunne of Waterford, Ireland. For a long time I knew very little of this history, but recently I’ve uncovered quite a bit more, and the picture is beginning to fill out. The second part comes closer to home, for it tells the story of my grandfather, and the unusual circumstances of his birth. To make things interesting I’m telling this second part first.
The telling of this story involves discussing issues that are sensitive in nature, and carry emotional weight to them. I wish to make it clear that writing about them is not meant in any way to be some sort of exposé or sensational story telling. The attempt to uncover the past is not an attempt to lay blame or accuse, but simply to give voice and honor the truth.
My grandfather was born Joseph Francis Dunn in February of 1908 in Massachusetts; at least that is what he was raised to believe. His mother, Sarah Conroy of Queens County, Ireland, had married a man named Thomas Francis Dunne from Waterford, Ireland. At the time Sarah had been living in Newton and Thomas in Worcester. How they met remains a mystery to me. Sarah soon gave birth to a second boy, my grand uncle James. A few weeks after James’ birth Thomas died; he had been ill with diabetes. Sarah was now a widow with two small boys to care for, and by 1918 she had moved with them to Providence, Rhode Island.
As a young man my grandfather lived in Providence and worked at a local grocery market. As family lore tells it, he frequently made the trip on the train up to Newton where he would visit with his aunt Ellen, one of Sarah’s sisters. Up till this point the story is like any other, but then it takes a strange turn.
The time was now between 1930 and 1940, when America was rolling out new federal programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The country was also about to enter the Second World War. When my grandfather went to enlist in the army a curious problem came to light – he could not locate his own birth certificate. It was not unusual for people born at the early part of the century to lack a birth certificate; mandatory registration had only recently taken effect, and many States lagged behind in full compliance for several years. However, Massachusetts was among those few who had been keeping records for many years, going as far back as the late 1600s. While not completely uncommon, it was unusual for someone born in the early twentieth century in Massachusetts not to have a certificate to their name (incidentally I cannot find a certificate for James, either, although he does have a baptismal record – however, my grandfather does not).
When my grandfather inquired about the discrepancy with Sarah she apparently became very upset, crying and asking him not to ask her questions and to leave her be. You can imagine what kind of effect this would have had over him. No matter how he would ask her, or how he would try to reassure her, the same scene would be repeated; she would not speak to him and would become very sad. Sometime later, when my grandfather had married, his wife would approach Sarah, telling her that no one was going to judge her or be angry with her, that they simply wanted to know what had happed. Despite these reassurances Sarah would keep her silence.
Eventually my grandparents stopped asking her, but they continued to search for an answer on their own. My grandmother wrote to different institutions for any records they might have. One document they obtained was Sarah and Thomas’ marriage certificate from the town of Newton. Examining the record reveals a curious thing – the marriage occurred 10 Jul 1910. How could this be? To make matters even more complicated, James had been born 15 May 1911, followed by Thomas’ death on 28 May 1911, just a short year or so after his wedding. Clearly there was a problem, but perhaps the problem was my grandfather’s birthdate.
In the records my grandmother obtained were letters from some of the early schools in Providence my grandfather had attended as a young child. Each one listed his date of birth as February 1908. Perhaps even more strangely, on one record it listed his place of birth as New York. Since it was his mother herself providing the date of birth, it seems likely that it is correct, making the discrepancy with the wedding date all the more problematic.
Another curious issue came to light when I discovered the 1930 United States Federal Census for Providence, Rhode Island. Sarah is listed, as a widow, living with her two sons, Joseph and James. The birthplace for the two boys is listed as Massachusetts, respectively. However, the age given for Sarah when she was first married seemed odd. It is difficult to read; there is one of those many mysterious slashes or marks that seem to appear on census records, this time right through the number. I believe it is either 16, 17, or possibly 19. It is definitely not 25, the age listed on Sarah’s marriage certificate from 1910. If my grandfather was truly born in 1908, then Sarah lied in the census about her age when she married in an attempt to compensate for his early birth. My grandfather, in his early twenties at the time, would not have known any different.
But eventually he did learn of the difference. Family lore suggests that he even visited St Bernard’s, the very church where his parents were married and his younger brother baptized, in an effort to try to learn something of the truth. He apparently even confronted the very priest who officiated the marriage, who then acknowledged that my grandfather had come this far in his search, but that he should leave the matter alone. The priest then supposedly stated that it would only open up a can of worms. Imagine being a middle-aged man who has only just discovered you don’t really know the truth about your birth, and to have a priest tell you to leave it alone.
There are more strange details in this story. Thomas Francis Dunn lived out his life here in the States in Worcester City, Massachusetts. He is pretty easy to track in the city directories, but in 1909 an unusual thing occurs. He is listed as “removed to New York City”. For a man who otherwise never left Worcester, other than for his wedding in Newton, New York seems like an unlikely place to go. Furthermore, he isn’t there for very long; he returns to Worcester soon enough to be present in the 1910 Worcester census, as well as to be married in Newton in July. What could the reason for this short trip be? Did he visit a friend, or perhaps meet a family member who was immigrating? It is also impossible to ignore the apparent coincidence of his visit to New York in 1909 and my grandfather’s school record listing New York as his birthplace in 1908. Researching the 1909/1910 New York directories so far has proven difficult. For one thing, there are more than just a few Dunns, Dunnes, and Conroys living in the city.
One last odd detail is Thomas’ death certificate itself. It would seem logical that Sarah would have been the informant to his death, and indeed the document lists Thomas’ “widow” as such. But the absence of her name troubles me. I have seen a death certificate fail to list the informant’s name in only one other circumstance. Additionally, the names of Thomas’ parents do not match those listed on his wedding certificate. I have done some research in Thomas’ siblings and I am confident the information in his wedding certificate is correct. So how did Sarah, if she’s the real informant, get her husband’s parents’ names wrong?
All of this leads to some fundamental questions. First, if my grandfather was indeed born in February 1908, then where was Sarah living in 1907 when she got pregnant? Tracking an unmarried woman in city directories is very difficult, and women under the age of 21 are hardly ever listed. In addition to this, I have never been able to find her in the 1910 census in either Massachusetts or New York. The census was taken in April, so she still would have been unmarried, and while I have found the odd “Sarah Conroy” listed here and there, none has ever seemed to be right (birthplace wrong, age, etc.). Second, if Thomas is the birth father, then the couple would have been under tremendous social pressure to marry and make the relationship legitimate, but they aren’t married for almost two years. That seems like a long time to endure the pressures of your family members. But if Thomas is not the birth father then one has to wonder if he knew about my grandfather’s existence at all. And given Thomas’ early death, one also wonders if he or Sarah were aware of his illness when they married, and if, although it is a stretch, that was somehow a factor.
One way or another, Thomas dies in 1911 and by 1918 Sarah and the two boys have moved to Providence, Rhode Island. Almost every other member of Sarah’s family that came to Massachusetts stayed in Massachusetts, and Sarah’s relocation is a stark contrast to that pattern. By 1918 my grandfather would have been 10 years old, old enough to begin to be aware of tensions within a family that may have been trying to hide a secret. Sarah’s relocation was most likely intended to raise Joseph away from the family members who knew the truth behind the circumstances of his birth.
During one of the many times that my wife and I have discussed this puzzle, I began to consider how difficult it would be, as a parent, not to tell your grown child the truth about their birth, unless perhaps the secret was not yours to keep at all. In other words, perhaps Sarah herself is not the birth mother. However, that seems unlikely. I think Sarah’s silence has more to due with the perceived shame that an illegitimate child would have caused at that time, and that my grandfather’s discovery of the issue meant that Sarah’s potential attempt to keep him from ever learning of it had failed. The combination of those two factors was probably more than she could bear.
My pursuit of this mystery is fuelled by many things, but the point has never been to cause more pain or shame to family. I’m highly competitive when it comes to puzzles or games (anyone who has ever played against me in a game of Pictionary will attest to this), and until the last brick-wall in my research fails to crumble I will continue to pursue it. While the ultimate explanation has little value to the family members of the time, they are after all passed on, I do think it has meaning for those of us still here. Both of my grandfathers died when I was a young boy but my memories of them are still strong. I often wish they had been able to know me as grown man myself, and I miss them very much.
UPDATE 3/8/12: I recently uncovered the 1935 Rhode Island State census, which clearly lists Jospeh’s birthplace as New York. Again, this is at odds with the 1930 federal census which lists Massachusetts as the birthplace. I wonder what the 1940 census will say….?
March 7, 2011 § 3 Comments
“The area’s history is one of ancient myth, a record rich with the tales of outlaws and highwaymen and the search for sanctuary, as well as the universal Irish themes of war, confiscation, strain and struggle between landlord and tenant, famine and emigration.”
-Brendan Lehane, Wild Ireland
“On the far side of the valley a solitary ruined house stands in a grove of trees, a reminder that once this valley supported many families, the last of which left fifty years ago. The Ridge of Capard, crossed by the Slieve Bloom Way…forms the horizon ahead, while below the infant River Barrow is hidden by a cordon of birch and mountain ash trees.”
-Michael Fewer, The Way-marked Trails of Ireland
Previously I have discussed my desire to learn exactly where the Conroys first came from in Ireland, and I’m pleased to say that I have reached that goal, at least up to a certain point in history. I would not have managed this without the help of a few individuals, most notably John Conroy of Worcester and Michael Flanagan of Dublin, both of whom also happen to be my second cousins once removed. Actually, I think I owe a great debt of gratitude to the much of the Flanagan family, as Michael has often consulted with other family members on my behalf, even including the 85 year old neighbor of his brother, still living in the area of the old Conroy farmstead. John was also kind enough to provide several of the photos in this post; so to both of them I say, thank you.
I have been on a small quest to trace the Conroy family as far back as I can, not just in terms of lineage but also geographically. I have reflected on this some more since I last wrote about it, and I’d like to share my thoughts here. I feel very blessed to have grown up where I did, in a small town rich with history, making the slow but unavoidable transition from its form rural heritage to a more modern, suburban reality. The house I lived in was small, but the backyard ran up against over one hundred acres of abandoned farm land that is now held in conservation. I spent my childhood roaming the old cattle fields and woods, and because of these early influences I developed a strong sense of the importance of what people these days call place, or the sense of history, connection, and belonging to a particular spot or area to which we are familiar.
Many descendants of Irish immigrants can say little more than they know their family, in fact, came from Ireland. Perhaps less can actually identify the county of their ancestry, and even less the very townland their family members occupied. I feel extraordinarily lucky to able to not only identify the very townland, but in fact the very land and farm they lived upon. Having this very tangible link through the past is a real gift, I and feel very humbled by it.
Critical to this quest was correctly identifying who my great-great-great grandfather was. In Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland in 1854, there are two Conroys listed occupying land in Cones, James and John. With the help of Mike Flanagan I’ve been able to correctly nail down John as the man in question. Who then was James is still a mystery, although it would seem like the two must be related in some way. Almost all of the Conroy children were born here, including my great-grandmother, Sarah.
The farm itself rested on the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, lying in the heartland of County Laois. A few short miles lies the village of Rosenallis where the Conroy children were baptized, and where the family more than likely came to for supplies or to trade for needed goods. The area is described in colorful detail in a testimony by a man named Owen Clear, who was the last person to leave the Cones townland (also called Coen). The Clear family would have been very familiar with the Conroys, and in fact a few of them were the sponsors for some of the baptisms of the Conroy children. The story is available on the Village of Rosenallis website, found here.
John Conroy has actually visited the Flanagans, as well as the actual site of the old farm, now located within the natural park area of the Slieve Blooms. It is a dramatic thing to imagine how your family was the last to live in a wild and rugged area, now swallowed up by the trees and hills surrounding it. The region is considered one of the most beautiful in the country, and many walking trails are scattered through the area. John was kind enough to send me some picture of his visit, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that viewing them brought tears to my eyes. It is my desire to visit the area myself sometime in the future, but for now I am very fortunate to have these pictures to treasure.
My search will not stop here, however, and I will continue to dig back in time and place until I can go no further. I have recently been trying to learn more about my great-great-great grandfather, John, and what his story might be. The Conroys were among the last people to live on the side of the mountain, very near where the River Barrow is born and flows through the lowlands below. I wonder what they would think of all that has happened since.