Tuesday, November 4, 2014

From Paper Trail to Reality

If you were to ask me, even as recently as last year, whether I saw myself ever returning to Europe, the answer would have been a definitive “no.” One trip—and that was years ago—had cured me of any romanticism over the magic of European destinations.

However, add the compelling detail of a family member moving there—albeit for a mere five months—and I began to see things differently.

Besides, there was this small matter of a compelling paper trail that convinced me it was possible to find tangible evidence of the exact place in their homeland where those Irish ancestors were last seen.

It all started with one find in the midst of a pile of Tully family mementos saved by my husband’s grandmother: a letter verifying her father’s baptism. The note pointed us to a parish called Ballina and Boher.


It took a while to rule out the other possibilities—there are, after all, two towns named Ballina in Ireland, neither of which is in the county from which the letter was issued (County Clare). Since there are very few ways to ascertain the family’s presence in any part of Ireland, moving from this first step of discovery to any further documentation was a challenge. These were people who were not well-educated, not career-oriented, not land-holding, not wealthy or notable in any other respect. Add to that handicap the problem of most census records during the family’s tenure in Ireland being destroyed, and the result means there were precious few ways to confirm much of anything about the Tully family in Ballina.

Perhaps it was a fluke—but a fortunate one—that the only way to track down the Tullys in County Tipperary (the location of their church parish Ballina) was to look to property records. And it was fortunate, indeed, that the Tullys had not yet left for Canada when Sir Richard John Griffith’s team had swept through the county, performing the property appraisal they had been tasked to do.

Reconciling the only map details I was able to find online from Griffith’s Valuation with those of more modern maps was a challenge, but that was exactly what we needed to do in order to locate the property at which the Tully family had once lived. Clicking on the map at askaboutireland.ie’s entry for our Denis Tully didn’t seem to help (although a different map at Ordnance Survey Ireland zeroed in on the area we were seeking).

Once we arrived in Ireland and drove to County Tipperary to seek advice locally, we got so much information and suggestions that, try as I might, I invariably neglected to write down the source for the map that led us to the location. I think it was the helpful staff at the North Tipperary Genealogy Centre in Nenagh that provided it. It was a map entitled “Ballina-Boher RC Parish”—with a note, “Copyright Nancy Murphy, 2004” so I won’t be able to share it here—that superimposed local roads upon a display of the townlands of the civil parish of Templeachally. There on the map, right where a stream crosses the road, the genealogist marked the spot where tenant Denis Tully had, back in the early 1850s, rented his plot of land on Tountinna.

I’ve already shared the experience of our white-knuckle drive up Tountinna, but if you’ve missed it, you can see it here—and no, that is not a private driveway; two-way traffic happens on that road.

When we arrived at what we thought might be the place, we snapped photographs of the likely location of that stream—the word “creek,” incidentally, was not a word understood by the local people we queried about its location—and contemplated what kind of life challenges faced the families tasked with extracting from this wild but beautiful land all that was needed to sustain life. And satisfy both the landlord and the tax collector.

When we looked around the property—best we could see from our tree-covered vantage point—there was no sign of any buildings. Yet before the Tully family abandoned their home on Tountinna, they and several others had been tenants of one lease-holder on a relatively small parcel of land. Now, beside the stream crossing under the road, nothing beside that one sign gave any clue of what life was like there, over one hundred sixty years before.

country lane outside Ballina in the mountains of northern County Tipperary

Photograph: All that can be seen of the former (possible) Tully property, from the road leading up Tountinna in northern County Tipperary, Ireland. Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.  


  1. House or no house, that's the spot. It's what you hoped to find, and you did. Chris takes beautiful pictures. This one could be a 1000-piece puzzle.

    1. A jigsaw puzzle? Ooh, just think of all the hate mail that would garner us!

      Yes, you're right, Wendy--I need to content myself with finding the place. Well...IF this is the right place. However, if not, it's as close as I believe we could ever get to the right place. And I'm satisfied with that.

  2. I am amazed that this bit of paper has stayed with the family all this time! I wonder who asked for this "certified record"?

    1. I'm not sure of the reason behind the request, Iggy, though I certainly have tried to guess. Much too early for something like Social Security. Dated March of 1887, it was long after he was married--actually, a year before his sixth and youngest child Agnes was even born.

      I thought maybe it was needed for a new job application. I took a look back at my post about John Tully, the "poster boy" for the pension petition for the Chicago South Park police to check on his tenure there. Even that wouldn't add up--he served for thirty three years, just up to the year of his death in 1907. Unless there was some type of civil service requirement instituted while he worked for the South Park police, I can't figure any other reason for making this 1887 request.

      As a double check, I took a look at his sister's nearly verbatim baptismal verification letter to compare dates. Hers was issued in 1892. Again, that date doesn't seem to correlate with any event in her life that might require such documentation.

      Who knows. Perhaps they were all preparing to purchase life insurance!


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