first published May 18, 1998 Diving into the Genealogical Pool: Searching for My Irish Ancestors
by Cathy Corcoran
With my cousin Paddy Moran at the old family homestead in Crossmolina, County Mayo, Ireland
This story was first published back in 1998, before Ancestry.com and other services made it so much easier to find ancestors on line.
But regardless of how you do your research, I hope you have as much fun as I did. I hope you find your own Paddy Moran!
“I’m looking for a man who lives in the area,” I told the bartender at Hiney’s Pub. “His name is Paddy Moran. Do you know him?”
We were in the little town of Crossmolina in County Mayo, Ireland. The bartender pointed to a group of older men standing at the bar.
“Sure he’s right next to you,” she said.
“It’s me cousin, the American journalist!” one of the men cried.
He threw his arms around me and planted a wet Guiness kiss on my cheek. That’s how I met Paddy Moran, bachelor farmer, fiddler, raconteur, my third cousin on my mother’s side, my flesh-and-blood connection to the Ould Sod.
Six months ago, I didn’t know Paddy existed. Within days, we were the best of friends. He escorted me around the countryside, introduced me to half the people in the townland, showed me his cattle, his farm and the old family homestead where our great great grandfather was born.
Paddy moved into his “new” house in 1936, but said he didn’t have the heart to tear the old place down completely. One wall still stands, crumbling now in the mist. I got the chills when Paddy showed me the hidey-hole in the stone wall where his mother used to hide the money she made from selling eggs.
Although my ancestors emigrated from Ireland, I never knew exactly where they came from. My parents didn’t know either, but when I planned a trip to Ireland two years ago, I decided to do a little research to see what I could find.
My journey led me from the Massachusetts Archives at Columbia Point to the National Archives in Waltham to the New England Historic and Genealogical Society in Boston to Hiney’s Pub in County Mayo. It wasn’t easy, but it was a lot of fun. If you think you’d like to meet some of your family who stayed behind in the old country, here’s the way to go.
Start with what you know. Talk with older relatives. Ask them about their parents and grandparents, their mother’s and grandmothers’ maiden names, their dates of death, birth dates if they know them, and any other information they can think of.
One good technique is to videotape interviews with older relatives. Ask them about their childhoods, their uncles and aunts and cousins, their father’s and grandfathers’ professions and other family stories. Look for old letters or family papers that may be stored in someone’s attic. They can provide valuable clues to your history.
If your relatives have lived in Massachusetts for several generations, you can visit the Massachusetts Archives next to the JFK Library at Columbia Point, Dorchester.
The archives store records of births, marriages and deaths for every city and town in the Commonwealth from 1841 to 1905. Records after 1905 are held at the Mass Department of Public Health at 150 Mount Vernon Street, Dorchester.)
Although the Archives is a self-service operation, the staff is quite helpful, and there are usually volunteers on site who can help you with questions.
Let’s say you know that your grandfather died in Boston around 1900, but you don’t know much else about him. You can look up his death certificate on microfilm at the Archives, and find the year of his birth, his spouse and her place of birth. If your grandfather was Irish, his county or even parish of birth may be listed, but don’t be discouraged if “Place of Birth” is listed simply as “Ireland.”
Once you know his date of birth, you can look for a birth certificate which will list his parents and their places of birth. If your grandfather was born in Ireland, you can guesstimate when he may have been married, and look for a US marriage certificate.
The Archives also has copies of the Massachusetts State Census for 1855 and 1865, and US Census records from 1790 to 1900. By checking Census data, you can establish a 10-year or even five-year period when your relatives arrived in America. You can also check records of immigrant passenger lists from ships that sailed into the port of Boston.
If you can’t find birth certificates, but ancestors were Roman Catholic, you can check the Archdiocese of Boston Chancery Archives. Many immigrants did not bother registering births with their city or town, but did baptize their children in the local parish church.
The National Archives in Waltham also has US Census records for every state on microfilm, indexed by Soundex codes. Since many immigrants could neither read not write and many had names that sounded strange to immigration officials, many names were inadvertently changed when immigrants entered America. “Walsh” may have become “Welsh” or “Welch.” “Kinneally” often became “Connolly” or “Conley.” Soundex is a system based on the way immigrants’ names sounded rather than on their actual spelling.
The National Archives also has Soundex-coded naturalization records on microfilm, If your grandfather became a US citizen, his naturalization certificate will usually list the county as well as country of his birth. I found “County Mayo” on my great-grandfather’s citizenship papers at the National Archives. Even though I later discovered that he wasn’t my biological great-grandfather at all - he adopted my grandfather when he was a baby - that whole branch of the family came from County Mayo, and that was enough information to help me zero in on the Morans in Ireland.
Keeping good records is important - otherwise, you’ll end up with bulging manila folders stuffed with handwritten scraps of paper that can be difficult to decipher. I help all my research notes in a single spiral notebook. I also learned, after much confusion, to concentrate on one branch of the family at a time. Once you go back three or four generations, you’ll be dealing with 16 different family names. There are also several computer software programs available that will help you keep your ancestors organized. Other good sources or information are the libraries at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society on Newbury Street, Boston, and the Mormon Family History Library in Foxboro.
Once I knew the Morans were from County Mayo, I logged onto the Internet. I was disappointed to find that Moran is a common Irish surname and Mayo is not only one of the biggest counties in Ireland, it had some of the highest levels of emigration during the 19th century.
Hundreds of John Morans left Mayo for America. Which one was mine?
The Irish Family History Foundation came to the rescue. The coordinating body for a network of government-approved genealogical research centers in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, the foundation has computerized tens of millions of Irish ancestral records in the past several years.
On my first trip to Ireland, I telephoned the two centers in Mayo and learned that one had found records of my family in the little town of Crossmolina. Since that time, the centers have established a good presence on the internet. You can fill out a form on your family and submit it to a center vie email. They will perform an initial records search and notify you if they find information on your family. Costs for in-depth searches range from $75 to $300, and can take up to eight weeks to complete, depending on a particular family,
Susan Kellet, a member of the board of directors of the North Mayo Family History Foundation, said although many records are also on file in the National Archives in Dublin, researching them would require a substantial investment of time and money for an American if Irish descent.
“We’ve worked very hard to develop an accurate historical product that can be accessed via mail of the Internet,” she said. She added that the long-term goal is to assemble a national database that can provide information, even for families who have little knowledge of their ancestors.
In addition to her duties with the foundation, Kellet also owns Enniscoe House, a lovely 18th century Georgian mansion near Crossmolina, which she operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn. She is a descendant of Mervyn Pratt, former owner of Enniscoe House and the 19th century landlord of my ancestors, Patrick and Bridget Moran.
It was a surreal experience to sit on Kellet’s antique tapestry chairs in the drawing room of the “Big House” where Patrick Moran was a tenant farmer in the 1840s. I kept wondering what Patrick and Bridget would think of their great great granddaughter taking tea with the lady of the big house.
It was research that lead me to County Mayo, but sometimes, after all your research, you just get lucky.
Two years ago, after my first visit to Crossmolina, I wrote a story for the Patriot Ledger about my trip. After the story ran, Kae Sullivan of Weymouth called me and said she thought we might be related.
It turns out that Kae’s father was Pat Moran, who was the first cousin of my grandfather, James Moran. Kae and my mother are second cousins, and Paddy Moran of County Mayo is another second cousin. I met him on my last trip to Ireland.
If you get hooked on genealogy as I have, you know how exciting it can be to find a microfilm record of a long-lost ancestor, but it’s nothing compared to the thrill of meeting a real live relative in your family’s old home town.
Paddy Moran talks with a brogue but he looks suspiciously like me. He is my living link to my family’s history, a fascinating insight into the world of those who stayed behind in Ireland when my branch of the family emigrated,
I can’t wait to find the McLaughlins and the Shaughnesseys and the Walshs and all the others we left behind.
The "new" house on the family farm, built in 1936.
Guiness at Hiney's Pub, County Mayo
Enniscoe - the Big House where my great great grandparents were tenant farmers.
With Paddy at the local