Friday, July 3, 2020

Where are the Letters?

When my daughter spent half a year in Ireland, attending classes at University College Cork, it was hardly as if she had moved nearly half a world away; we kept in touch daily by emails, texts, and video calls. Our ancestors of 150 years ago, however, didn't have that convenience.

Most people in such circumstances then might have relied on letter writing to bridge the miles. If you, as a family historian, are the recipient of a rich collection of such written dialog, consider yourself fortunate. As Americans moved westward, it was the humble letter which served to keep relatives connected and informed about family news—and some of us still get to benefit from that peek into everyday occurrences from a previous century's family news.

The situation with my husband's second great grandmother, Johanna Falvey Kelly, is different. While we now know from her Fort Wayne obituaries that she had several siblings back in Ireland—plus at least one sibling who had moved all the way to New Zealand—I realized there was something that might have been missing from that scenario.

Irish Catholics, from the era prior to Johanna's immigration to the United States, likely did not have the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Thus, no matter how much they yearned to connect with the family they left back home, there likely would be no letters saved to recount the story to those of us who would most like to know that history.

That realization was just one more of the jolts which remind me that a family historian cannot overlay assumptions about modern life onto the story of our ancestors' past. Knowing that Johanna had relatives in County Kerry and in New Zealand made me wonder just how they kept up on news about the widespread siblings' daily lives.

There are other recountings of Irish men and women connecting with the folks back at home—sometimes, thanks to a neighbor willing to serve as scribe to write out a dictated letter and mail it to someone back home, who could find a priest willing, in turn, to read aloud the letter's contents to its recipient. I know that was the case with another of my husband's ancestors, whose wife kept that letter close at hand for the rest of her widowed life. Only in such rare situations does that first generation of immigrants pass along to us any record of their daily transactions from that period of their life.

Which leaves us, the stumped researchers, desperately trying to piece together records which leave us bleary-eyed and despondent. I find myself bouncing from times in which I pore through the baptismal records of County Kerry, noting mothers' maiden names and comparing them with names of the child's sponsors, to searching for DNA matches whose already-constructed trees contain hypotheses about just how they fit into the Falvey line. Besides populating the cells in a spreadsheet, the names begin filling up our hypothetical Falvey tree, both from the bottom up (with DNA matches) and the top down (from records of likely Falvey ancestors).

And yet, the process leaves me feeling so very much stuck in the big middle of nothing. Which is where I begin yearning for the sign of an impossible letter from someone, anyone, from back home in Ireland.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Staying in One's Place

It is hard for us to imagine anyone staying put in one location for not only an entire lifetime, but for generations preceding that life. And yet, that is exactly how we imagine our immigrant ancestors' families, prior to their life-changing decision to flee their homeland for a new world across an ocean's expanse. But did they really stay in their place, back in the land where they were born?

I'm beginning to wonder that very thing, as I chase the Irish surnames Kelly and Falvey—and now, adding the surname Cullinane to the search—across the Catholic parish of Kilcummin in County Kerry. It's beginning to look quite convincing that Debora—or Gobinette, as she was sometimes registered—was a sister of my husband's second great-grandmother Johanna Falvey Kelly. Thus, I am now building the family tree of this Debora and her husband, Daniel Cullinane.

In the process, I ran across the baptismal record of another of their children, someone named Michael Cullinane, who was born 25 November 1871, and baptised the very next day—not an uncommon practice during that time.

Adding young Michael to our provisional—and well hidden—Falvey tree, that triggered location of another record online, a transcription only, which seemed to be of the same birth.

This record, however, was not dated until 15 December of that same year. Same names for the parents, mind you, it nonetheless threw a curve with the stated location of the birth and baptism: Molahiffe, not the "Knuckancore" listed as the family's residence.

Since this 1871 birth, unlike the 1860s records of our Johanna Falvey's own children, occurred well after the institution of civil registrations in Ireland, I suspected the case was that Molahiffe was the location where the parents needed to file for the civil registration. Furthermore, though there was no digitized version of the actual document available for inspection online, I know from other such records I've seen that the date for civil registrations often was given as part of the quarter of the year in which the record was created—in the case of Michael's late November birth, the last quarter, ending in December.

That, of course, is my guess, not knowing by any personal experience what an Irish Catholic parent might have done in 1871, remembering how it was only a few years prior when such a registration would not have been made at all.

There was, however, one more thing that caught my eye, when comparing these two records with obviously different dates: the list of townlands was different. Molahiffe, as a civil parish, would contain a long list of townlands, just as would the civil parish of Kilcummin, of which the townland Knockauncore had already figured in our Falvey searches for Johanna's own children. I was slightly concerned about why the civil registration for Michael Cullinane, son of Debora Falvey, would have been in a different civil parish than those for her sister's children—until I noticed the name of a townland entry I had seen before.

Taking a look over the listing of townlands for the civil parish of Molahiffe, I recalled two things. The first was that, of Johanna Falvey Kelly's only child to have had a civil registration for her birth, the civil parish had also been transcribed as Molahiffe. The second item was recalling the name of one of the townlands I had seen, in past research, which rightfully belonged in the Molahiffe parish.

The name of this townland has been listed in the various online records I've found, but with one annoying quirk: it comes with a spelling often varied, apparently by whim of the scribe attendant at record-keeping duties, and thus misspelled, sometimes not showing up on search results at all. The townland name is Lisheenacanina—at least as it shows in John Grenham's website—but if you care to find it in the online record of Griffith's Valuation, you best be spelling it "Lisheennacannina" if you wish to find it.

And find it, I did—at least, an entry for one man named John Kelly. Whether that was one and the same as our Johanna's husband, I can't say. Consider the many people who must have claimed such a name in that region. Still, the other surnames in that townland—especially Sullivan—align nicely with some of the surnames I've found on Falvey-related baptisms, the next parish over.

Lisheennacannina was one of those places which was hard to find, and probably capably illustrates the frustration, for a foreigner, of researching anything having to do with the concept of townlands. Even when we traveled to County Kerry and stayed at a local bed and breakfast, our otherwise helpful host could not for the life of her tell us the location of that nearby townland. She did call all her relatives—aptly also named Sullivan—inquiring as to directions to give us, so we could drive there and say we stood on the very spot where our ancestors once lived. But, other than deciding we had, indeed, gotten lost on our way, we realized that there was little but green grass and rolling hills left of what one long ago had called home.

This all brings up questions, of course. Prime among them is questioning the notion that, unlike us in our modern times, those ancestors truly did stay put until something horrific budged them from their centuries-old homeland. I am not so sure of this now. While it surely is possible that I might be researching the wrong John Kelly, it is slightly less certain that I've confused the wrong Johanna Falvey and her (possible) sister Gobinette/Debora Falvey who also seemed to move from one parish to its neighboring parish with regularity.

At any rate, I'm now searching for any indication that, yes, it might have been possible that, in the 1860s and 1870s, two different couples from the same extended family would have had their children baptised in a church in one civil parish, yet made the trek to the center of a neighboring civil parish to register those children's birth in the governmental records.

Whatever patch of green grass did turn out to be Lisheennacannina, I suspect more than one couple in the family called it home at one point or another.

Above: Excerpt from the 1871 baptismal entry for one Michael, son of Daniel Cullinane and Gobinetta Falvey from the records of Catholic parish Kilcummin in County Kerry, Ireland; image courtesy

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Rose by any Other Name . . .

...would still be translated into Latin for church records.

As if I and my husband's DNA matches weren't having enough trouble determining who their Falvey ancestors were, back in County Kerry, we need to consider yet another research stumbling block: how Catholic church clerics handled record entries for Irish names of children growing up in their anglicized homeland.

In my search to discover more about the possible family constellation for my husband's second great-grandmother Johanna Falvey, I've been reading the pages of two Catholic parishes' baptismal and marriage records. The goal of this search—did I say exhaustive?—is to spot any mention of the Falvey surname in either the mother's maiden name or that of the child's sponsors, no matter what the child's own surname.

Within the right time frame, I ran across this entry for the baptism of one Mary, daughter of Daniel Cullinane and his wife, who was listed as Debora Falvey. The family was noted—if I can read the handwriting correctly—as living in Knockauncore, encouragingly agreeing with some other Falvey records I had spotted. Best part, though, was the sole sponsor listed for baby Mary: Johanna Falvey.

We've already discussed the likelihood of that sponsor being either a sibling or in-law of one of the parents, so this is a promising sign. Even more exciting to realize is that the Cullinane surname has shown up in one of the DNA matches I and my research partner have spotted.

The difficulty with this baptismal entry is not readily apparent, though—until the researcher tries to piece together any other records for this family group. Mother "Debora" apparently found herself a victim of the tendency of priests to record Irish names as Latin ones—even if there was no corresponding form for that name in Latin. Either that, or her husband Daniel had several different wives over the course of a few years of his life.

Delving into this possibility, we can already guess the source of some of the confusion. Have you ever noticed place names in Ireland which cause you to wonder about just how to pronounce that letter combination? Take, for example, the seaport of Cobh, site of the last stop of that fateful Titanic voyage. Or names of Irish notables, such as the legendary Queen Maedhbh (okay, so they reduced a few letters to result in Medb). There is a reason for those awkward combinations: the Irish alphabet does not include all the letters that come with the English alphabet. Thus, inventive combinations to represent specific sounds.

In addition to that problem, though, is the interface that gets added on when Catholic priests needed to translate names into Latin. Some Irish names simply do not have corresponding Latin equivalents. So priests got inventive—but, unfortunately, not standardized in their approach. Even within the same parish, if records were kept by more than one priest, the same name could be creatively morphed into two or more Latin "equivalents."

That, apparently, was the case with the woman entered as Daniel Cullinane's wife Debora. Through the years, she was identified with a number of different names, including, at one point, the name Gobinette, which baptismal record I shared in a post last week. True, even her maiden name Falvey had been mangled, but would you have guessed her first name, just by reading that record?

Thankfully, we now have several aids to help us navigate those Latin records while we search for those elusive Irish ancestors—everything from quick lists of common Latin terms in church records to more extensive lists by categories, to even a searchable index of Irish boys' names (or this more complete list which includes both male and female names).

As for the name Gobinette, it turns out the priest wasn't entirely off track when substituting the more recognizable Debora for us English-speaking researchers. Gobinette is apparently itself an anglicized form of the Irish Gobnait, a name common in the region around County Kerry, which in turn can be further anglicized into the more recognizable names Abigail or Deborah.

Thus, depending on the priest recording the various baptisms of the Cullinane family from Knockauncore in County Kerry, Daniel's wife Gobinette might reasonably have been listed as any one of those versions of her name. But whoever she really was, she was sister to someone named Johanna Falvey—of whom I'm keenly interested to learn more.

Above document from the Catholic parish records from Kilcummin, County Kerry, dated August 1856; image courtesy

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Always Better with Company

Genealogical research may seem like a solitary pursuit. After all, our research roots grew out of the pleasures of settling in at remote archives to scour seldom-used source documents for clues about our own ancestors. Even the modern-day researcher is more likely to be found hunkered down in the glow of a laptop at 2 a.m. while finally catching up with that elusive ancestor online. We seldom think of genealogy as a team sport.

Yet I recall the extensive delight of enjoying the quest with a fellow researcher—someone whom I've never met in person, but with whom I share a common third great-grandmother and a desire to know more about that ancestor's family. I've mentioned one of my favorite research-partner experiences before, in which I became acquainted with a University of Michigan history professor who just happened to be related to my mother-in-law's Gordon line; we spent years exchanging emails as together we built up an extended family tree for that surname.

I think of that experience often, as I now reach out to connect with a DNA match on a different family line. There are, indeed, researchers out there who are just as keen on finding family history answers as we are—with the added bonus of being related to us.

Sometimes, those newfound connections are not just a sharing of a mutual surname, but can also form around a common research goal. In this current case—in which I am trying to push back a generation from my father-in-law's Kelly and Falvey lines in County Kerry—I have discovered another genealogy blogger who is examining a situation much the same as ours. Not only that, but she is a blogger with whom I've exchanged notes for quite some time already.

Better than that, her current research challenge runs almost parallel to ours. Though she is in Ireland while I am in the United States, we are both puzzling over Irish-ancestry DNA matches who currently live in New Zealand. And she is employing much the same technique I am opting to try—only as she is doing it so much more elegantly, I can only refer you to her recent blog posts so you can see how she designed her research process for yourself.

When I tell you her name, you may recall my mentioning her before. She is Dara McGivern of Black Raven Genealogy, the very writer who showed me that, despite the dearth of Irish records, it is possible to reconstruct usable information on Irish ancestors by even unexpected resources—such as using registrations for dog licenses. Unsolvable problems can generate innovative responses.

Dara's current research project may, if she finds enough resources, yield her another generation beyond where she is currently stuck with a particular surname. As it happens, a DNA match has turned up, sharing that same surname in her family history—yet not the same given names as what Dara shows in her family line. Just as I am doing, she is meticulously tracing back the DNA match's family line from current day in New Zealand to origins in Ireland.

Because Dara has a number of family members who have also tested their DNA, she is comparing her family's data with that of the New Zealand match and related lines. She clearly outlines her process in her blog, with the introduction in Part I, and her most recent explanation in Part II. Click through that second post and scroll down the entry to see how she laid out the data in table form; it helps to keep all the details straight by using such a visual device to diagram what is known, so far.

All that to say, augmenting the helpfulness of seeing how another researcher is handling the same quandary is the opportunity to connect with that person to compare notes as the process is unfolding. Too often we limit ourselves by assuming genealogy is a solitary task. While yes, in many ways it is, it is also a pursuit made more enjoyable when we can share our conquests with others we meet along the same path. As we bounce ideas off each other along the way, we sharpen each other's approach and, hopefully, can hasten progress toward a useful conclusion for each of us.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Why a Reasonably Exhaustive Search
will not Kill Us

Monday morning: time for a research team pep talk. It's been two weeks since it first occurred to me that I can combine clues from family trees of triangulated DNA matches to smash through my husband's brick wall ancestor roadblock in County Kerry, Ireland. And yet, though the records have been handily brought to me through the technological wizardry of digitization, search capabilities in the face of abysmal handwriting styles have been a reminder of point one of the Genealogical Proof Standard: the "reasonably exhaustive search."

Whenever I have attended genealogical conferences and heard a speaker launch into details of applying the "reasonably exhaustive search" for a case study, I get exhausted just listening to the recounting of the effort. And yet, as Robert Raymond of FamilySearch pointed out, "The GPS does not call for exhaustion, it calls for reasonableness."

Granted, not everyone is precisely clear on what constitutes a "reasonably exhaustive search," given our current research capabilities, as James Tanner of Genealogy's Star discussed nearly a decade ago. Some researchers, such as Michael Hait, advocate expanding one's resources by exploring additional finding aids and pertinent repositories related to the research question at hand. Some, like Melissa Johnson, remind us that what might seem like the overkill of "exhaustive" may indeed prevent us from falling short of finding the correct answer to our research question.

Still, no matter what it is, "exhaustive" makes me...well...exhausted. This is where the grunt work of research resides. It takes work to find some answers. But the real question is: c'mon, now, do we really want to find the answer?

Of course it's yes. That's what kept us going up to this point. Why stop now?

If we have made it past those first few generations, pinpointing names and dates and places for a geometrically-expanding cast of players in our family, it will not kill us to continue the process (even though it feels like it will). Just think of this challenge as a concentrated dose of everything that brought us this far.

We are motivated by finding answers to our family history questions. Moving further down this research path may challenge us to develop new skills, but the tension of mounting the learning curve propels us closer to succeeding in overcoming the challenge. Much like the "no pain, no gain" of those who glory in physical training, this quest becomes the mental calisthenics to put our family tree in tip-top shape.

Research pep talks may help us re-invigorate our will to succeed at mounting that brick wall problem, but sometimes, we need a bit more. That's where the next step comes in: gaining a bit of encouragement from finding others along the same path. Benefiting from the company of others dealing with the same issue brings its own kind of motivation. We'll visit another researcher, tomorrow, who is tackling much the same problem as what our Kelly-Falvey research roadblock may require of us.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Counting on Connecting

The one good thing about maintaining a genealogy blog is that it can attract interested cousins. "Cousin bait," we call it among our fellow genea-bloggers: one of the main reasons we make our research conquests—and foibles—so public. We hope to attract like-minded distant cousins to the joint pursuit of our ancestors.

Thus, with the shifting goals of my current research pursuits, the more I connect to one branch of the extended family, the less I end up working on another branch. But I'm okay with that. Connecting with family is important. We need to share what we've found, and collaborating with cousins can accelerate the search.

Though I had intended to spend the last two weeks zeroing in on consolidating two trees on my husband's side into one—the better to link to DNA matches, now that we can tag these in our Ancestry account—I also ended up making the acquaintance of some DNA matches on my own maternal side, so my progress count will reflect those small victories as well as the duplication of records moved from my father-in-law's tree to that of my mother-in-law.

It is hers which will become my husband's all-in-one tree for DNA purposes, so while the numbers seem inflated, it really doesn't represent any new progress on her lines. The 224-name increase is really just that many people copied from my father-in-law's tree to hers. With that almost done—I have another two weeks of double-checking work on that project ahead of me still—her tree now stands at 19,076 names.

While I've been working on the same exercise on my own side of the family over the past month, this time the increase wasn't quite so pronounced. I added forty six names to my mother's tree, which now stands at 22,429 people, but it was mostly because of emailed inquiries I've received from cousins who found me via this blog. As I go back to review those lines, I discover updated information which allows me to add more names and documentation.

If we look at the trees I've maintained for both my father and my father-in-law—the ones now being folded into their respective wives' trees—you can tell by the numbers whose tree actually gained new individuals. On my dad's tree, which has only 715 people, I added not one new person in the last two weeks. On my father-in-law's tree, the one for which I'm currently grappling with the mystery of the far-flung descendants of his Falvey ancestry in County Kerry, I've added seventy eight new names in the past two weeks. Looking at his tree by itself, it now contains 1,812 individuals. And I still don't know how to connect them with Ireland; I've just found more descendants claiming that same mystery line.

The best part about this scenario, though, is the fact that there are other cousins out there, yearning to connect as they research their roots. Some of them have been found by genetic genealogy connections, since we have tested at all five of the current DNA companies. Some of them have wandered by, thanks to the airing of popular television series such as CeCe Moore's The Genetic Detective, which pique people's interest in finding their own roots. But some of the ones who have connected have been distant cousins I never even knew, who also are keen to find more about their family's story. Connecting with them has helped multiply our efforts to gather those details.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Brick Wall Ancestors
and Invisible Gorillas

While struggling over the lack of leads to further identify the roots of my father-in-law's great-grandmother, out of the blue, I remembered a book. Not having anything to do with that Falvey surname in Ireland which currently has me stumped, it's a book by two psychology professors about how much our minds miss of even the things that should seem the most obvious. Aptly named, it's The Invisible Gorilla, brought to us through the studies and reflections of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

I've written about the book before. You may have even tested out the video I mentioned back then, which goes along with the subject of the book.

But how quickly we forget. This weekend, after reflecting on how much of a struggle it has been this past week to find any documentation for that one family line I've been seeking in County Kerry, that reminder came back to slap me in the face. Sometimes, things are so obvious, we fail to see them.

Here are a few research tendencies I'm taking to heart—and hopefully avoiding in this upcoming search.

First, remember that, no matter how much we might think we don't, we carry forward in our research those assumptions which have been invisibly embedded in our own outlook on life. If we can't imagine a life without computers, or mobile phones, or—forget mentioning those modern conveniences—even think about a life without antibiotics or refrigerators, how can we think like our ancestors? How could we accurately calculate their most likely plan of action when confronted with impossible situations (like the Great Famine)? Forget that, how could we guess how their everyday choices compound to back them into unexpected corners?

Second, just like subjects in car wrecks might not have been able to spot the very visible threats coming straight at them, we may well be staring straight at the document which holds the answers to the research questions which have us struggling. Could it be that taking a second look at all those documents which didn't help before actually lead to an answer which was always in plain sight, yet unseen?

Third, the activities of daily life can camouflage the unobvious details which are the very clues we are trying to find. Perhaps we can actually find our answers embedded within the constant drone of life's same old same old.

These are just a few thoughts running through my mind as I struggle to see my way clear of this brick wall research problem. They may or may not yield remarkable results—if anything new at all. But in thinking of these things, I am reminded to at least slow down and take my time reviewing what I already know. If nothing else, it encourages me to not consider it a waste of time to look at the same documents twice. Maybe I can see that invisible gorilla detail on the second visit.

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