Finding My Irish Family

For St. Patrick’s Day here is the text of a talk I gave to the Maryland Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in March 2019. I was scheduled to present it again at the Maryland Irish Festival in the fall of 2020, but for obvious reasons that never happened.

My display table at the talk

I’m going to tell you about a long and winding road of research and travel in search of my Irish family. But first a confession, unlike perhaps most of you I’m not Irish-American, I’m Irish-Flemish. I grew up in England with an Irish father and a Flemish mother. My mother grew up during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and my father was born to Irish immigrants in the northern English town of Manchester. My parents met when my father was a soldier with the British troops who liberated my mother’s town of Ghent in Belgium after D Day. They had a classic wartime romance, married in Ghent in 1947, and settled in the suburbs of London. My brothers and sister and I are quite proud of our unusual heritage. I once met a Flemish history professor from the University of Louvain. Of course I told him I am half Flemish. He asked what was my other half? When I told him Irish he reared back in mock horror and said “What a volatile combination.” Both peoples are known to be hot-headed and argumentative. Anyway that’s my family’s excuse for any number of sins!

Bridie Byrne

Growing up in England my Irish grandmother Bridget Byrne lived with us. I knew her maiden name was Carney, and that her family had called her Bridie. We knew her as Nanny. She was a very quiet, nervous woman, very religious. Her bedroom was like a little chapel, full of religious pictures and statues. She had a statue of a rather obscure saint, St. Philomena, by her bed. Later on I would learn its significance. Every morning before school we would kneel by her bed to say our prayers and then she would give us a mint, holding the round white candy out to us almost like the host at Mass. She never talked about Ireland or her family. When I was about 12 she had a nervous breakdown with paranoid delusions that my mother was going to run away and take us to live in Belgium. She was in a mental hospital for a time and when she recovered she went to live in a convent retirement home. My mother told me this was perfect for her; when she was a girl she had wanted to be a nun but her family couldn’t afford the dowry you had to pay to convents in Ireland in those days.

All this time there was no mention of an Irish grandfather. When I was about 14, I remember the precise moment on the sports field behind my school, it suddenly came to me like a bolt of lightning – I must have had an Irish grandfather, why does nobody ever mention him? My Flemish grandfather had died at the beginning of the war but his memory was a living presence in our family. My mother told stories about him and showed us photos. But of an Irish grandfather only silence. When I got home from school that day I asked my mother “Why does no-one talk about Daddy’s father?” She told me his name was Michael, he had been a police officer in Manchester. The reason my father never spoke about him was because he had a very unhappy childhood; his earliest memories were of his mother wedging a chair under the door handle to barricade them into the bedroom when he came home from the pub drunk and belligerent. I gradually learned more details. It was all very Angela’s Ashes. Before my father was born my grandparents had a baby daughter, Philomena, who died of pneumonia in my grandmother’s arms while her husband was at the pub with another woman. Now I understood the significance of that St. Philomena statue. The parish priest repeatedly told my grandmother that it was her duty to stay with her husband no matter what. Eventually when my Dad was about 16 his father abandoned the family and never supported them. They had to move in with relatives in Manchester, my grandmother’s brother Thomas, and my father had to leave school and go to work in a factory. Gradually my father spoke to me a little bit about it. He told me that his mother’s family all advised her not to marry Michael Byrne but she went ahead against their advice. When it turned out so badly she was ever after unable to make any other decision. I learned that every year my father went to check the records of Somerset House in London to see if his father had died (that’s where official records of births, marriages, and deaths were kept at that time). In 1965 he found his father’s death certificate and when he wrote to the local jurisdiction to learn more details he discovered that his father had made a bigamous marriage.

Map of County Mayo, Knock marked mid-right

For most of my life that was all I knew about my Irish side. I was much more involved with my mother’s family, frequently visiting Belgium to see my aunts and uncles and cousins. But maybe it’s something about getting older, I became curious to visit Ireland at least once to see where my ancestors and some of my favorite writers came from. And now that genealogical research is open to everyone on the internet I decided to research my family first. I started a few weeks before my trip, with just a few clues – I knew that both my grandparents came from Knock in County Mayo, a town famous for the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879. I knew my grandmother’s maiden name was Carney, she was born in 1888, and she had a brother named Thomas and a sister who became a nun in England. Not much to go on.

I ran into some problems right away – Byrne and Carney are the two most common surnames in Knock and every family seemed to have children named Michael, Bridget, or Thomas. Also the Irish census records from 1821 to 1891 were all either lost or deliberately destroyed. Only 1901 and 1911 survive, but since both my grandparents would have been children in 1901 that’s where I started. First I looked for a Carney family with a child named Bridget of the right age and a son named Thomas. Of course there was more than one! I began to make real progress when I found my grandparents’ wedding certificate because it lists the names of the couple’s fathers. Bridget’s father was Hugh Carney, a somewhat less common name, so I was able to identify the right family in the census records. Gradually each clue led on to another discovery and then another until a picture of my Irish family began to take form like completing a jigsaw puzzle.

I found a great deal of information on including those census records. I also used the websites of Roots Ireland and Irish Genealogy. For anyone just starting out on family research I recommend the book Irish Ancestors; a Pocket Guide to your  Family History by John Grenham. One word of caution about – when you get hints for people on your family tree they are either to information in archives or to other people’s family trees, where I found a lot of inaccurate information. I got so many hints about Michael Byrne’s siblings which were contradictory that I decided to verify by checking each one’s birth certificate myself rather than take other people’s research as gospel.  

So this is what I discovered –

The identity of my great-grandparents, Hugh Carney and Bridget Heneghan, and Michael Byrne and Bridget Cunnane. Yes there are Bridgets and Michaels in every generation. Michael Byrne was the son of a Michael and a Bridget and he had a sister named Bridget, and Bridget Carney was the daughter of a Bridget and had a brother named Michael. Sorting it all out sometimes felt like unravelling a tangled ball of wool. 

I discovered that both my great-grandfathers, born in 1843 and 1844, survived the famine as small boys. Mayo was particularly hard hit by the famine, losing a third of its population. The details of how they survived are something I’ll never know. Both came from farming families, the Byrnes from the Knock townland of Drum and the Carneys from Eden. 

I discovered that my grandfather Michael was one of twelve children. I had always suspected I must have relatives in the U.S. and indeed three of his siblings emigrated to America, to the New Jersey area. His eldest brother Dominick left in 1892, the year he was born, so the brothers never knew one another.

I discovered that my grandmother Bridget Carney was the youngest of seven, one of whom emigrated to Boston. Thanks to Ancestry I’m now Facebook friends with two of his descendants in the Boston area. My grandmother’s eldest sister Margaret must have been an amazing woman. She stayed in Ireland, married young and had 17 children while also serving as the midwife for her area. Several of her children emigrated to New York and through Ancestry I met my second cousin Brian, one of her grandsons. 

First Brian and I got hints from Ancestry that our grandmothers were sisters so we shared our family trees with each other to compare notes. When I saw a photo of two nuns on his tree I knew we were definitely related for I recognized one of them immediately, Sister Bernard Joseph of the Cross and Passion order whom I knew well as my father’s cousin. Now I learned she was one of Margaret’s 17 children. We used to visit her convent in Lytham St. Anne’s in Lancashire when we were children where the nuns served us delicious teas. I also knew she was responsible for finding the convent retirement home for my grandmother which was nearby. The second nun in the photo I didn’t recognize because I never met her but she was identified as Sister Trea, my grandmother’s sister. My Dad was quite devoted to his aunt who wrote to him regularly – he would read her letters aloud to us at the dinner table, commenting that they were like the writings of a medieval mystic!

My grandparents’ wedding photo 1917

It was a magical moment when I found my grandparent’s wedding certificate. Their wedding portrait is the only image I have of my grandfather. He is shown in his military uniform. I knew he had served in World War I and that is confirmed on the marriage certificate which lists his occupation as Military Police Officer and his residence as “Knock while on leave from France.” There’s a poignant detail – my grandmother lied about her age; she was four years older than her husband but she gives her age as 25, the same as his. Probably in those days women wouldn’t want to admit such an age gap.

I was also able to identify the exact time my grandparents left Ireland for Manchester. First I placed it some time between my father’s elder brother Hubert’s birth in Knock in 1918 and the birth of baby Philomena in 1922 in Manchester. But then I found Michael Byrne’s employment record in the online archive of the Manchester Police Force. He signed up on January 16th 1919, so very soon after the end of the war. The story I heard from my family was that he had to escape Ireland because he was a potential target of violence. Checking the history of what was going on in Ireland at that time it’s clear why.

The end of the war caused a renewed focus on the independence movement. There was a general election in December and the Irish Nationalist party Sinn Fein won a sweeping victory. Meanwhile the IRA were recruiting and arming themselves in preparation for the coming War of Independence. In this atmosphere men who had fought for Britain were considered the enemy. According to an article published in The Irish Times to mark the centenary of the Armistice “these men were shunned, ostracised from Irish society and in many cases murdered by the IRA.” In one incident in Cork 29 ex-servicemen were executed as suspected informers. It was also difficult for veterans to find work. The Ministry for Labour in London reported that the Irishman who returned from the front found “their own people have nothing but contempt to offer him for patriotism and sacrifice, and he is denied the right to work or live in the country for which he fought.” When one Irishman told his commanding officer he was returning home to Ireland the officer gave him two revolvers “for his safety.” As a former Military Police Officer Michael Byrne would no doubt be under more suspicion than most. He wasted no time in taking his wife and young son away from the volatile situation. The War of Independence broke out shortly after my grandparents left, and was followed by the Civil War, so they escaped a violent war-torn land as many refugees do today.

By the time I went on my trip to Ireland in 2017 I had all this information and I knew the exact plot numbers of my great-grandparents’ graves in the Knock’s Old Cemetery. The wonderful landlady of our B&B drove us to Knock one day to visit the graves and, thanks to her, we found Drum and Eden, the exact Knock townlands where the Byrnes and Carneys were from.

The Old Cemetery in Knock, the modern Shrine of the Apparition in the background

Now I have a cautionary tale for anyone doing family research – don’t forget about what you may have in your attic or basement! Back in the 90’s after my mother died my brother gave me a box of stuff he thought I should have as the eldest. I brought it home, took a brief glance inside – there were some jumbled papers and a lot of little pouches of rosary beads – I think I have the largest collection of rosary beads outside of a convent. I put the box in the back of a closet and, in the throes of a busy life working and raising teenagers I forgot all about it. But when I returned from Ireland I remembered it and thought I’d better have a look. It turned out to be an amazing treasure trove. 

Among the things I found, shockingly, was a copy of my grandfather’s bigamous marriage certificate! My father had searched it out at Somerset House. And I found a very poignant item – an envelope full of receipts for annual payments my grandmother made for the upkeep of her daughter Philomena’s grave. In a diary my father kept in his youth I found an amazing story from 1943 when he turned 18 and was doing his military training. One evening he headed out to a popular dance club in London but on the way he decided to stop first to visit his aunt Sister Trea who lived in a convent nearby. When he arrived at the club he found it had just been bombed; it was nothing but a pile of rubble with many casualties. If he hadn’t visited his aunt he would have been there.

But the most compelling item I found was a yellowed newspaper clipping that turned out to be an account of my great-grandfather Hugh Carney’s funeral in 1913. I would have saved a lot of research time if I had found it earlier because it lists the names and relationships of all the extended family who attended the service. The writing is just beautiful, the cadence magisterial and dignified like the prose of a 19th century novel. Here’s an excerpt:

“Amid many manifestations of deep and sincere regret the remains of the above named much esteemed deceased were laid to rest in Knock cemetery Monday 20th October…fortified and consoled by the ministrations of God’s Holy Church and perfectly resigned to the will of His Divine Master he breathed his last on the morning of Saturday 18th October, surrounded by all those who were nearest and dearest to him on earth…his death was happy, peaceful, and holy and edifying as his life. An honest, upright, and devout Christian, a model husband and father, and a kindly and charitable neighbour, we pray that his long last sleep be calm and peaceful and that his awakening shall be immortal and glorious…The interment took place immediately after Mass and was attended by an immense concourse of people. The adjoining parishes and towns, as well as his own native parish of Knock were largely represented, and afforded incontestable evidence of the widespread regard and high esteem entertained for deceased and the members of his family.”

My grandmother had kept this clipping all her long life and here was I discovering it over a hundred years later.

Of course I was thrilled to find this lost piece of family history, and I was so taken with it that at that point I didn’t think to turn the clipping over to see what was on the other side. But when I shared it with one of my newfound American cousins he asked if there was a clue to the name of the newspaper. So I turned it over. No clue, but I did find a marvelous story giving a glimpse into traditional Irish rural life. How often would you turn over a newspaper clipping and find another complete story – usually it would be bits of different articles and ads. There seemed something magical about the survival of this story intact. It’s a court report that reads like a little gem of a short story or one-act play that could have come from the pen of one of Ireland’s classic authors. Headlined A Title Case, it concerns a dispute over the ownership of a piece of bogland. The right to cut turf from a particular area of bog was known as the ancient rights of turbary. They were jealousy guarded, for the turf that Irish farmers dug out was their sole source of fuel. The defendant’s name is John Carney. Now with Carney being such a common name in Knock I can’t be sure he’s a relative, but Hugh Carney did have a brother John who attended his funeral so this might be him.

Here’s how the report begins:

John Blowick of Belcarra, sued John Carney of Elmhall, and his son, James Carney, of the same place, to recover 5 pounds damages sustained by the plaintiff owing to the defendant’s trespassing on his bog.

Mr. Verdon for the plaintiff

Mr. H P Howley defended

Mr M Moran produced a map of the locus in quo on behalf of the plaintiff. 

Mr. Blowick was examined and said the defendants commenced cutting turf on his bog on the 15th July. Witness paid rent for this bog and always used it.

Thomas McHale, Belcarra, said he always saw John Blowick using the bog in dispute. Nobody else used it, and he never saw the Carneys use it.

Cross-examined, witness denied he ever saw Carney or Loftus cutting turf on the bog.

John Hopkins said he never knew anyone to use the bog, except Mr. Blowick.

The Bog Workers by Paul Henry (1877-1958)

So far the testimony seems very cut and dried, if you’ll excuse the pun, but then we hear from the defendant:

John Carney, the defendant, said he had two holdings at Belcarra and he had a right to turbary attached to them. The landlord’s agent pointed him out the place to cut his turf, and he had been using the bog in dispute for the past 45 years. Witness’s portion of the bog was separated from Blowick’s by Loftus’s portion.

So he’d been using the bog for as long as 45 years but two men said they’d never seen him there? Then Edward Loftus was called –

Loftus said he had a portion of this bog and gave up his portion to Mr. Blowick. Carney had another portion of this particular bog and always used it and Blowick never had any rights on it.

James Heneghan said he saw the Carneys cutting turf on this bog for the past 35 years.

Note the name Heneghan, Hugh Carney’s wife Bridget’s maiden name, more evidence that maybe this is all in the family. 

Mr. Blowick was recalled and in reply to his honor denied that Loftus ever gave him a strip of bog.

More witnesses follow, all completely contradicting one another. If you’re confused at this point, well so was the judge. He essentially threw up his hands. The report concludes:

His Honor said he could not make up his mind that Blowick had established his claim to the place, and he would dismiss the case without prejudice.

The absurdist elements of this story brought to mind Samuel Beckett. It’s like a Waiting for Godot set in a bog in which Vladimir and Estragon are replaced by Irish tenant famers all talking at cross purposes, truth as slippery as the peaty mud at their feet. And the English authorities unable to make any sense of it all.  A fine metaphor for what would happen in Ireland in the decade following 1913.

My journey to Ireland was a kind of pilgrimage to the graves of my ancestors and the grave of the great Irish poet W.B Yeats in Drumcliffe, a short walk from where we stayed. And my research enabled me to place my family within the tumult of Irish history and understand how they, like so many others, could leave their homeland behind.

My display included my grandmother’s Memorial prayer card, her rosary, and a statue of Our Lady of Knock

3 thoughts on “Finding My Irish Family

  1. I too have Irish roots, records largely destroyed like yours. I’ve spent a lot of time on Ancestry and other sites picking up data and putting it into a 58 page tree. Because of the lack of records I haven’t picked up much on the Irish side, so maybe I should try harder, like you, and find out more. My relatives are Butler and O’Brien from Kilkenny…


  2. What a riveting read! All my life I thought I had an Irish grandfather, too, until recent years when I began to do family history research. Turned out that Papa’s people actually were English-Irish gentry, “land rich but cash poor” because landowners were expected to pay for a portion of the Poor Law relief efforts during a difficult time. They were/are Catholics, and when Oliver Cromwell chased Charles I off the throne of England, Papa’s ancestors “escaped” to Ireland and settled in County Longford. Not until 1853 did any descendants leave Ireland for better opportunities elsewhere, namely Florida!


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