The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 24, 2010

The Doubts

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:24 am

My most recent immigrant ancestors came in the 1880s to New York. They have been harder to track back than any of my other lines, harder than my colonials in Kingston NY or even my 1850s English arrivals, the Davises and Parrys.

My most recent immigrants are Irish—not my only Irish—but folks who came off the boat in 1880-something while their early lives dissolved into mist.

These most recent immigrants are also the only part of my family for which I have substantial oral history.

While my Donegal grandfather, who died when my mother was a baby, is a mystery, my maternal grandmother lived a long life. We lived adjacent to her for my first five years, and I remember her pretty well. Through my mother, my uncle (later my guardian), and the cousin (daughter of an aunt) who was raised by my grandmother, quite a bit of detail passed down.

In my own research, I’ve been able to  outline the lives of my grandmother and her three siblings in the U.S., collecting them in the U.S. censuses from 1900 on and acquiring some vital certificates. But there have been gaps in my American research, despite New York’s pretty good records, and I’ve never made any headway locating a trace of the family in Ireland.

Oh, for sure, nineteenth-century Roscommon was full of Dowds, but Grandma Jennie’s people never showed up in my forays into or any online databases. At a conference once, I took the opportunity to give some names to an Irish genealogy company offering to do a bit of free instant-research in their proprietary database—and the pros also came up dry.

The Irish use a small range of first names, and to pick my grandmother and her siblings out of the crowds of Patricks and Michaels, Ellens and Janes, I depended on knowing their parents’ names.  The 1955 death certificate for my grandmother confirmed her actual name was Jane and her father was Mark, and Mary, nee Flaherty, her mother.

It was when I pulled brother Patrick out of the index for Manhattan deaths in 1905 that I reconfirmed all the details—except one. His father was listed as “John.” I thought—well, imagined—his grief-stricken young widow trying to remember her man’s family, left twenty-plus years before in Ireland, people she’d never met, people who themselves were decades deceased. “John” might be a guess or crossed-fingered hope for a shadowy father-in-law’s name. “John,” I was certain, was a mistake.

Undoubtedly you know where this is going: it took over a year for this detail to worm its way into my consideration. I began to wonder and then to suspect “Mark” of being an imposter. My research over the long term had found, indeed, quite a few “”Marks” of the right surname in Roscommon, but they were too old or too young and not married to the correct mother. Although I once had hoped the relatively rare name of Mark might ease my research, “Mark” had become my main stumbling block.

With these doubts, I redid the research in the online datebase at IFHF (which includes parish records as well as civil registration): Jane, born early 1870s; father John.

It didn’t take long: there she was in 1871, in Cummeen, Elphin, Roscommon, mother Mary Flaherty, and father John Dowd. Cummeen—who ever heard of it—is a townland right by Tansyfield. Then I tried Michael, then Patrick. The hits cascaded. Ellen was the hardest: her name is recorded as Eleanor.

There are little variances in each record—except Michael’s, which replicates my info exactly. Three are born in Cummeen, for example, except the Patrick; he’s born in Fairymount, across Co. Roscommon, but with birth date info that matches my NY research.

I’ve dug back into the FHL pilot site and found two jane Dowds born in Roscommon in 1871—exact dates are not provided. I ordered the two films; one, no doubt, will have an image of my grandmother’s birth registration.


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