Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Rare, But Not Too Rare

No, that is not me ordering dinner at my favorite steak house (although it could be).

After reveling in a three hour marathon, meeting two third cousins on my husband’s Tully side of the family and comparing family research notes with them and a second cousin on Monday, it occurred to me that there was something about toying with genealogical brick walls that is vaguely reminiscent of ordering a steak.

Here I’ve been, stuck on my husband’s Irish immigrant line of the ancestors of Chicagoan John Tully. Admittedly, searching for anyone with a given name as common as John will present some problems—and then, combine that with a surname that isn’t common, but isn’t rare, either.

I’ve been able to trace my way back to the 1850s in Canada, just as family lore held that the trail might have been. I’ve had some help along the way—hunches from family members, memories from years past, occasional hints blurted out at unexpected moments that, incredibly, yielded enough traction to make some real progress.

But things lately have become quite stagnant, when it comes to making research headway.

I thought I’d take the chance, while traveling these past two weeks, to poke around and play with the data I’ve already accumulated on the Tully and related families. Chalk this up to techniques that one would never dare to recommend as orthodox procedure—but I sure had fun with some “what if” moments that led to hypothesis-testing experiments.

Ever play around with the names of some ancestors? When I am totally stumped, I like to find a fairly rare name and see what I can find when using that name in online searches.

Call it the shot in the dark.

Like the time I couldn’t figure out my father’s family origins: I knew one of the rarest names in that family was the Polish name, Aktabowski. I thought for sure anyone I found with a name as rare as that would be guaranteed to turn out to be a relative.

The trouble with rare names, though, is that sometimes they can be too rare—so rare, in fact, that they yield no search results at all.

While traveling last week, I decided to play around with some rare—but not too rare—names in this Tully line that’s got me stuck. I knew, for instance, that the earliest patriarch I had been able to find—a man by name Denis Tully, born in Ireland about 1801—had migrated to a little town in Brant County, Ontario, known as Paris. If you are an subscriber, you can see the census page in which his family is listed in 1851 right here.

I happened to have discovered, some time back, that his wife’s maiden name was Flannery—and do you know, I couldn’t help but notice that the 1851 census readout for the very page in which Denis Tully was listed happens to have a listing for a Flannery family, too.

What would be the chances?

I thought I’d try the “rare” game and see what I could find. Within that Flannery family, I saw several of the unremarkable, oft-repeated Irish given names: Patrick, Michael, John. Unfortunately, the father’s first name was smudged by an unfortunately-placed ink blot. And for some agonizing reason, the assigned census taker took it upon himself to exercise extreme propriety in not listing any married woman’s name, deferring to the more demure “Mrs.” in its place.

However, in the midst of this family listing, I spied one potential for my “rare” game: Ed--- Flannery and “the Missus” had a son named Cornelius.

That would qualify sufficiently for my “rare” game: rare, but not too rare.

To the Google search box it went!

I checked for any listings that had “Cornelius Flannery” combined with Ireland or Canada or any other terms related to my Tully family history.

And do you know? I actually found not only a possibility, but another site or two to stick in my collection of useful websites.

I still don’t know if this Cornelius Flannery of the 1851 Canadian census in Paris, Ontario, is a keeper, as far as my family tree goes, but I did find some listings linking the Flannery and Tully families in their likely hometown in Ballina in County Tipperary, Ireland.

Check out this link, for instance: a page from a website for the Flannery clan, listing transcriptions for marriages and baptisms which included the surname Flannery. If you scroll down this page, searching for mentions of the surname Tully, you will find what most likely is the baptismal entry for John Tully, himself—as well as a mention of the Cornelius Flannery that got the search started in the first place.

Some additional prizes for this playful experiment at charging the brick wall:
            -baptismal records for several other Tully children
            -baptismal records for other Flannery children found in that
             1851 Canadian census

In addition, Denis Tully’s wife, Margaret Flannery, had a sister Kitty, who married a John Tully—most likely Denis’ close relative. Baptismal records for John and Kitty’s two daughters, Mary and Margaret, seem to match dates of the John Tully family also listed on that same page in the 1851 Canadian census.

Now, if only I could find passenger lists for the journey that brought all these families from their hometown in Ireland to that little town in Ontario where they all ended up settling!

While playing “what if” games in genealogical research is certainly not a risk-free venture—the hypothesis you choose to test isn’t guaranteed to be failsafe—toying with those unusual names may turn up some clues. Just like ordering your steak, though, remember that these name games turn out better if the choice you start with isn’t too rare.


  1. Ah, yes, a good search technique! I do the same sort of thing - pick the more unusual name as it helps "filter" the "noise".


    1. You certainly do, Iggy! I can't wait to see how one of your projects like this will turn out.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Far Side. Of course, always proceed with caution--but have a little fun on the way!

  3. I do this ALL the time, because I can't help myself! I completely agree with the unusual name theory. I think you are on the right track, and if it gets you to Ireland...!


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