Monday, September 20, 2010


As well documented in previous posts, I'm a just a tiny bit obsessed with genealogy these days. As loathe as I am to endorse such a heavily commercialized product as I must admit that their latest ad campaign has worked wonders for my endeavors! You see, the more people that join and add their information the more chances you have to link up with other distant relatives and share your findings. I have a few lines in my family tree that have hit a brick wall. Every last one of them end/start with the original person to emigrate from Ireland!

The problem is many fold...firstly there is the magnitude of people who all emigrated from Ireland in the late 1840's to early 1850's due to the Potato Famine. Couple this with the fact that they all came steerage,which shipping companies ranked lower than freight, meaning the detail of the records are severely lacking. In those days the shipping company simply presented a list of names, ages, and birth country. Unlike the records I've found for my husband's aunts who emigrated through Ellis Island in the early 1900's which included address of last residence and address of US destination which all help to pinpoint just which Mahoney family of whom  they were a member. Lastly is this beloved tradition in Irish families to honor the elders by naming the children after them resulting in families having 100's of members with the same name!!!!! Seriously!! 

By this I mean that a father of eight children will invariably have EIGHT grandchildren with the same name...okay slight exaggeration as the children of his daughters would have different last names.....sometimes since [like my in-laws] it is not unusual on an island with so many last names for someone to marry a spouse with the same last name!!! Genealogy for those of us with Potato Famine ancestors becomes a real detective mission.....

So this is my Great-grandfather. His name is James Sullivan....about a thousand James Sullivan's emigrated in those years.......

So this is his brother, William Sullivan. You'd think by looking for records that included both a James and a William in the same family I'd narrow down the pile? Think again!

Hoping against hope that I could crack the wall that prevented me from reaching back another generation into my Irish past I slogged through my grandfather's photo albums and envelop of handwritten notes on his relatives that my mother has been saving all these years.

In 1917 I found this picture of PJ Sullivan taken by my grandfather. The hand written caption just says, "PJ Sullivan, Butte, Montana". There are a couple of other group shots captioned, "Cousins in Butte, Montana". So I dove into the Butte, Montana genealogy scene...which turns out to be quite a prolific and active crowd!!! Now one little note in my grandfather's stash mentions his father being from County Cork. More specifically from the "Beara Peninsula, County Cork". Yeah....well the Butte crowd enlightened me on that wonderful tidbit...over 1700 Sullivan's from 70 different Sullivan families on the Beara Penninsula emigrated to Butte, Montana during the 1850-1917 time period!!!!!!!!!! I was completely daunted by the task of slogging through all of those individuals with the hope of making a connection to "my" Sullivan family. Then in a casual, rather off-handed comment on a Butte message board the name Riobard O'Dwyer pops up as a genealogist based on the Beara Peninsula who specializes in the Sullivan clan.....couldn't hurt to contact him, right?

Our first communications did not go well. As explained above, asking the man to investigate the birthplace of James and William Sullivan was like asking him to inspect the blades of grass on a football field!!! As I passed the disappointing news on to my Mom she responds with a surprising tidbit of information she had tucked into her brain many long years ago..."You know Great-uncle Bill was an Episcopalian?" HUH???? Pressed harder she relates a family 'legend',

"Well we were always told by Uncle Bill that his father was a teacher in a country school until the local parish priest canned him so the priest could give the job to his own brother. I thought I remembered him saying that his father's name was Patrick but I cannot be certain of that but I do know that according to Uncle Bill the last four or five children were raised Protestant because their father was incensed at the priest!" [Explains a lot about my family's quirky relationship with the Catholic church...seems it runs in the family!!!]

So I decided one night to forward that bit of family lore to Mr. O'Dwyer............and four days later I received an e-mail.....

Dear Mrs. Mahoney,

Using your information of last Thursday I spent Friday examining the records of the Church of Ireland (Episcopalian) and have come across the following information:

Margaret daughter of Patrick and Honora Sullivan baptized    16 June 1841
Joanna daughter of Patrick and Honora Sullivan baptized        5 Jan 1843
James Aloysius son of Patrick and Honora Sullivan baptized 16 October 1850
William son of Patrick and Honora Sullivan baptized                24 November 1857

The curate lists Mr. Patrick Sullivan as a 'farmer' [duh! the priest gave away his teaching gig?!?!?] with a residence of Ardgroom Inward, Beara Penninsula, Co. Cork, Ireland.

Riobard O'Dwyer

One wall busted!!!!!!!!!! You simply never know how much such a little bit of information can do in genealogy. Moral of this story? Get your parents and grandparents talking NOW! Record every last utterance as you never know which one is the key to your past!

Now I'm off to 'chat' with the Butte crowd to see if we can figure out who the heck old PJ Sullivan was....and if Margaret or Joanna are the connection to Butte....


  1. its so interesting, i need to tape record my grandparents I know i do but you just never getting around to do it, must try harder!

  2. you hit the jackpot on that little fact of him going to the episcopal church after losing his job! and it's true, one never knows knows important certain info can be to cracking a mystery. thank goodness your mom has a good memory and you're asking questions!
    I've got everything my parents can remember, written down in a crude kind of family tree - taping typing paper together one after the other as the tree widens and gets taller. love those pictures of your great grandfather james, and his brother William, and sounds as though you now have names of your great great granddad and great great grandmother!