One of the hazards of researching your family history is uncovering unexpected tales of ill repute. While I’m not sure the crimes for which Irishman William Flanagan was convicted by his British overseers would qualify today as heinous acts, they do leave a wisp of a paper trail. And I can’t pass up the chase.
It all began with the slightest shred of a clue. Uncle Ed, my source of many research hints, had once written in a letter that William Flanagan “spent many years in Australia.” No other details. This was the only bit he could provide of the story about a man living in the 1800s.
While a trip Down Under may be fashionable fun in the jet age, for an Irishman of that time period, that sort of “vacation” could only mean one thing: Transportation. That was the sentence doled out by the British for their subjects in Ireland and elsewhere found in violation of the many codes enforced at that time.
Fortunately for me, some history-minded soul of more recent years decided that archiving all the Transportation records—and other criminal records—of that era would serve the public good, and put the collection on the internet for all to see and search. That’s how I found William Flanagan.
Of course, I’m not yet sure that this is my William. It seems quite possible. The trial was held in Cork. I know from a letter to his sister, which the family still has, that the mail route to the family home was from Cork just over the county line to County Limerick, and it is quite possible that her brother also lived in that area. But if our William did indeed end up being shipped off to Australia, I can find no further records from Ireland showing that that was done. Nor can I find any records from Australia to any destination in the United States showing how William returned to meet his sister Anna who, by then, had surfaced with her daughter in Chicago. All the document states about the court case is that the trial was regarding the question of stealing trousers and “former convictions.” His trial date was set for March 22, 1851. He was sentenced to “Transportation, seven years.”
His death certificate shows only that, by the time of his passing in 1893, William had been in the state of Illinois for eighteen years, and that his place of birth was in Ireland. Nothing about Australia. His obituary was mum on the subject, too, listing only the date of his death, the church where his funeral was to be held, and the cemetery selected for burial. Presumed to be 80 years of age at the time of his death, William was a single man, so there was no one in his direct line to carry on the oral tradition of his origins. Thankfully, the obituary mentioned the link to his niece, Chris’s great-grandmother Catherine Malloy Tully. Other than that, there is little we know about the man who, through a quirk of British history, found himself unpaid passage to the far side of the world.