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 1, 2011 § 2 Comments
I recently made a trip to the Saint Louis County Library, home of the local Family History Library, to take another look at the Roman Catholic Church registers from the parish of Rosenallis. I had two goals in mind, the first being to locate James Conroy SR’s birth record, and the second, to try to locate any of the Harney, Byrne, or other Conroys who had lived in Newton, Massachusetts, who had roots in Queens County. In regards to James I am pleased to report that I was successful in quickly locating his baptism record which confirms that his father’s name was John, and not Hugh (see Finding Hugh), and he was born in Capard itself.
In another parish register, this time Mountrath, Co. Queens, I was able to find James’ marriage record to Kate/Catherine Heffernan. Kate was from Redcastle, a town nearby, and a Joseph Flanagan and Eliza Heffernan (Redcastle) were the witnesses. The date was 17 May 1871. It would seem that James, who was born in Capard, travelled to Mountrath for his wedding, which very likely was arranged, although I’m not sure.
I happened to stumble upon the baptismal record for James and Kate’s first child, John, born 20 Oct 1872. His birthplace was a little hard to see, although it clearly started with “Derry”. I checked it against a list of all the Conroy children sent to me by John Conroy of Worcester (great-grandson of James), and it would seem that he was born in a place called Derrycon, located a little northwest of Mountrath in what looks like a very rural area on the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, near where the Mountrath river comes down from the heights above. I know very little of James and Kate’s life at the time, but perhaps they were slowly moving back to Capard when John was born. They may have started farming in the area of Mountrath, and then moved on for whatever reason. Perhaps my friend (and second cousin once removed) Michael Flanagan in Dublin will weigh in on this one!
As mentioned above, I was also looking for other Conroys, Harneys, and Byrnes, in an attempt to nail down a relationship. I know for a fact that the Conroys of Coen were in some way related to the Byrnes, because Eliza Byrne, wife of Martin Harney, is most likely Ellen Conroy’s cousin, based on information found in an immigration record. Eliza’s husband, Martin Harney, had a brother named Thomas Harney, whose son, Thomas Martin Harney, married Ellen Conroy. Are you still with me?! Anyway, I also know that the Harneys were from the townland of Skerry, located adjacent to Capard, home of the Conroys. In Griffith’s Valuation there is a Peter Byrne listed, sharing land with a Thomas Harney, who is most likely Thomas and Martin’s father. Could Peter be related to Eliza? I’m willing to think so.
The townland Skerry did appear in the Rosenallis collection, but no Harneys or Byrnes to be found. However, the entire Catholic Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin is split between the parishes of Rosenallis and Mountmellick, so perhaps the Byrnes and Harneys will appear in the Mountmellick registers instead.
February 7, 2011 § 1 Comment
A little while back Kathy Hammond, a distant cousin and contact on Ancestry.com, emailed me to inform me that she had found an immigration record for James Conroy JR from 1907, and pointed out that this was different from a similar record that I had located listing his arrival in 1904. When I took a look at them I was really puzzled because the two records seemed to be for the same individual, but how could one person travel to the US twice?
When I took a closer look at the 1907 manifest I discovered that James had already been to America once for the duration of one year. If his first arrival was back in 1904 and he then returned to Ireland a year later, that would put him on track for making the return a little later in 1907.
The question that leaps to mind of course is why did he leave the States in the first place? It is unusual for an immigrant to leave America but not unheard of. Henry Byrne travelled from Newton, Massachusetts back home to Queens County, Ireland and then in 1895 made the return trip back to the States accompanied by Ellen and Mary Conroy whom I believe were his cousins. Joseph McKenna, husband of Agnes Conroy, applied for a passport and returned home to Ireland for issues relating to “health”, and then returned to the States as well. I cannot find a passport application for James Conroy, but perhaps if you weren’t yet a citizen you didn’t need a passport, but I’m not sure. I have also considered the possibility that he returned home for a funeral, but I do not know of any Conroy family members who died during that time period, so for now, his reasons will remain a mystery.
Below, the 1904 ship manifest for James Conroy, listing his birthplace as Mountmellick, Queens Co., and listing his sister Ellen of West Newton as a contact.
Below, the 1907 ship manifest listing his birthplace as Rosenallis (also listed as Ellen’s birthplace on her immigration record), which is actually more geographically accurate than Mountmellick (see above). Ellen is again listed as his contact, this time at a different address. Also listed is the one year duration of his previous stay in America.
Detail: Curiously it lists “1907 1883 – 1907”. He would have born around 1883, so I find that detail odd in the record.
Detail from 1907 listing James’ last contact in Ireland as his father, James Conroy of Capard, Rosenallis, Queens County.
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.
January 13, 2011 § 5 Comments
It is a goal within my research to attempt to identify as closely as possible the place of origin of the two families from which I directly descend, in this case the Conroy and Dunn families. I am compelled to find as many details as I can, and simply knowing the county or townland is not satisfying enough to me. I guess that’s the perfectionist in me coming through. For now, I have been principally focusing on the Conroy family, and I believe I am getting close to knowing exactly where they came from, right down to the actual farmland they lived on.
I have commented before (see post) on the interesting experience of learning more and more about an ancestor’s place of origin, as I go from more broad and general details to more exact and specific ones. This has been the case with the Conroys. At the beginning of my research I knew they came from area of Mountmellick in County Laois but over the past few months I have narrowed that down considerably.
In the 1901 census return for Ireland the Conroy family is listed as living in the Cones townland. James Conroy, my great-great grandfather, is the head of house, and at least a few of his daughters, including Sarah my great grandmother, are also present. James is about fifty four which puts his date of birth at about 1847, right during the height of the Famine.
I have recently been looking through Griffith’s Valuation and located the index listing for the Cones townland. For a while I have been a little confused about under what parish did Cones exactly lie, but comparing the results from the valuation and the 1911 census leaves me with no doubt that I am on the right track. Cones is clearly within the Rearymore parish of the Mountmellick Poor Law Union. Consulting Griffith’s Valuation I discovered that there is a Hugh Conroy living in the Drummond townland, as well as a Matthew Conroy. In Cones there is a James and a John Conroy. Since the Laois valuation was supposedly completed in 1854, I doubt that a five or seven year old James Conroy would be the owner or occupier of his own farm, so perhaps the James listed in Cones is an uncle or some other relation. I cannot yet prove that the Hugh Conroy in Drummond is my great-great-great grandfather, but perhaps when his son James grew older he then moved to the Cones townland where James later appears in 1901.
A while ago I was at the local Family History Library branch, looking through the registers for the Roman Catholic parishes of Rosenallis and Mountmellick. Among the records for baptisms I found what I believe to be James’ baptism. Below is the record. Unfortunately the quality is a little poor, as it is a scan of a paper print out from a microfiche reader, but I hope to replace it with a straight digital copy at some point. Under the April 1847 heading James Conroy, appearing at the end, is listed as the son of Hugh Conroy and Cath(erine) Beu, with witnesses Nat./Mat. (Nathan or Matthew?) Conroy, and possibly another Conroy, although it is difficult to read. The place of birth is then listed, and for a long time I was not sure what it said, but after my recent discoveries I am certain that it lists Rearymore as the birthplace. Rearymore can be seen listed as the birthplace of the last individual under the March heading, and I think it is plausible to believe that they are the same.
In order to be sure about any of this I think a consultation with the current Valuation Office is likely in the future, and locating any other birth and marriage records would also help. I really hope to be able to identify exactly where the Conroys where living, and it would sure be fun to do so.