Friday, July 10, 2020

Lessons in Chicken Scratch

Round and round the search seems to go, seeking answers to a simple question: who are the parents of Johanna Falvey of County Kerry, Ireland?

At this point, armed with data from seven DNA matches' trees, I thought it might be a simple matter of searching through the digitized baptismal records from the two Catholic parishes where I had previously found promising Falvey records. I had culled the "founding ancestor" from the pedigree chart of each of seven Falvey descendants whose DNA matches my husband's test results, along with the purported name of their parents in six of the match cases.

I worked my way down the list, from the match with the largest amount of centiMorgans shared in common, with not so much as a possible connection, once I searched those baptismal records.

And then, I came to an entry for a child of a couple named Jeremiah Falvey and Margaret Sullivan. This seemed a likely match, as in previous explorations, I had seen the Sullivan surname pop up as sponsors for some of our own close Falvey family records. The record was also from a parish which I had already encountered for the baptismal record of one of our Johanna's own children.

The entry I found, however, was apparently a record in very poor shape. Whoever attempted to transcribe the handwriting left the entry riddled with question marks. There was simply no way to confidently determine, in the faint scrawl, what the gaps in handwriting could have signified.

I squinted and peered and blinked and looked again, but the letters just didn't speak to me. Finally, I went looking for any translation key that could help me make sense of the written message, and found this helpful decoding ring from Claire Santry's "Irish Genealogy Toolkit." It provided an example, not of a baptismal entry per se, but of a likely shorthand a Catholic priest might use to abbreviate the entry.

Here's her example:
Bapt Michaeli, fl Patricus Daly et Ellena Mahony, Courtmshry. Sp John Doyle, Marian Shea.

Here's her translation:
I baptised Michael, legitimate son of Patrick Daly and Ellen Driscoll of Courtmacsherry. Godparents John Doyle and Mary Shea.

I had spotted the "F.L." entry in the baptismal entry I had found in County Kerry, and wondered whether it might have stood for filium legitimum. After all, I suppose it could get tedious for a priest to have to write the same formulaic phrases over and over in a record book, when everyone already knows the pattern of what was supposed to be written. Seeing Claire Santry's example helped substantiate my guess.

As for the rest of that faint scrawl in the baptismal records in the Falveys' parish in County Kerry, I wasn't so certain. I could make out the faint "Falvey" but what was the father's given name? It started with Deme—but then, what followed? Could it have been Demetrius? But that didn't yield me the Jeremiah Falvey and Margaret Sullivan this DNA match's tree assured me I'd see.

I did recall, somewhere in the distant past of researching Irish names translated into Latin, that there was something up with the name Jeremiah, once it was transformed into Latin. Off on a mad search I went again, to see what the Irish equivalent of Demetrius might be—if, of course, that scrawl did indeed spell Demetrius.

There are several listings which assured me they contained exactly what I was looking for, but upon further inspection, alas, did not include the sought after Demetrius. All except for one, that is: this chart from FamilySearch on equivalents of Latin names for England. Sure enough, there in its right place was an entry assuring me that the English equivalent for Demetrius was indeed Jeremiah.

With that small victory, I wasn't done with this particular search, though. There was one small problem remaining. While I was looking for a child of Jeremiah Falvey and Margaret Sullivan whose name was Bridget, this entry recorded the baptism of their son named Michael.

Even bigger problem: the date of Michael's baptism—clearly given as the 28th—happened in August of 1842. Guess what year was given for the birth of our DNA match's ancestor, Bridget? That very year. Clearly, we aren't talking about the same Jeremiah and Margaret as parents.

Perhaps it's time to retrace our steps and look at the family trees of each of our DNA matches with a more discerning eye. Rather than assuming that the line of descent is already correctly laid out in each match's pedigree chart, it's always best to start with the present and work our way backwards through the generations. The best lesson we can learn, in deciphering chicken scratch, is to make sure we are looking at the right handwriting in the first place.

Above: Entry from Catholic parish in Molahiffe, County Kerry, Ireland, for 1842 baptism of Michael Falvey; image courtesy


  1. Oh man . . . . I was hoping "Michael" would be the one.

    1. Sometimes, Miss Merry, I can't help but think that the one I'm searching for is the one who got omitted from the transcription process. You know...the one who never showed up in the census records, either.


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