Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Different Records, Conflicting Realities


We can always hope, can't we, that the record of our ancestors' foreign-born siblings might lead us back home to the village from which they began their immigrant journey. Chances are really good, however, that no matter how hard we struggle with the possibilities to bring our Sullivans back home to Ireland, we will come up empty-handed.

There is a good reason for this: while many Irish church records have recently been digitized and posted online, there are still many more which are, so far, unaccounted for. Apparently, that includes the four Irish-born children of County Kerry residents Timothy and Mary Sullivan: Cornelius, John, Mary, and Elizabeth.

Of course, it would help to have a correctly-spelled maiden name for Mrs. Sullivan. Depending on which record we use, her maiden name was either a spelling variant of Monaghan or Minahen. Of all their Irish-born children, the only one I could find back in County Kerry might have been Elizabeth. According to the U.S. Census for 1860, Elizabeth was born around 1848. I could find one Irish baptismal record for an Elizabeth Sullivan, daughter of Timothy, baptised in August of 1847, but her mother's name was listed as Moynihan. Not quite the same.

Then, there was an Elizabeth, daughter of Timothy Sullivan, baptised in County Kerry at a date much closer in agreement with that census report—May of 1849—but while her mother's name was indeed Mary, the surname was not even close to Monaghan. It was Herlihy. Not a likely candidate, despite appearing in the parish records for Kilcummin, a locale featured in my searches for the Sullivans' shirttail relatives who later connected to my Kelly and Falvey lines.

The same story developed as I searched for those other Irish-born Sullivan offspring. Not much to find, when looking at records back in Ireland. So what about looking forward and relying on another record set to answer my question about their origin? Taking a look at the death certificates I could locate for any of Timothy and Mary Sullivan's children, I came face to face with another drawback to relying on death certificates: people say the most unpredictable things when faced with the stress of losing a loved one. The last thing anyone is thinking of, at that point, is correctly reporting the maiden name of the deceased's mother.

Case in point: these discoveries that can be found for the Sullivan descendants. The drawback in locating any information subsequent to the death of Timothy Sullivan's eldest—son Cornelius, born in County Kerry about 1842—was that he died at a fairly young age. At the time of his death in Michigan in 1877 of "d[r]opsey of the heart," his parents were named, thankfully, but his and their location of birth was simply noted as Ireland. And even though I've seen some ornate memorials placed at the grave sites of those who died during this era, Cornelius Sullivan's marker did not gush on, when it came to stating place of birth.

Looking to some of his siblings who lived to a much later age, even then the revelations are straightforward. Cornelius' brother James, the second of his siblings who were American-born, had the straightforward report of both parents—with Mary's name shown as Minahen—born in Ireland. No help there. Same for their sister Mary, in whose 1931 death certificate her mother was listed as Monaghan, but both parents were stated to be born, simply, in Ireland.

Despite the misfortune of every Sullivan, so far, following exactly the stated protocol of such reporting requirements, it always pays to look a little further. As it turned out, there were a couple other Sullivan descendants who could not restrain themselves from stating the exact origin of their Sullivan forebears. It is the little reporting errors such as these which inspire me to keep looking. And it is their continuance, in like manner, to buck the system that turns out to aggravate me no end.

Recall that while eldest Sullivan son Cornelius died at a young age, he did not die childless. We are gifted—well, at least partially—by the reports on the death certificates of two of Cornelius' own children. Keep in mind that, even though these are death certificates for Cornelius' children, each of those documents were required to also report where those decedents' father was born. Thus, we glean the following for Irish-born Cornelius from two of his children's death certificates.

From Cornelius' youngest child, son Timothy Paul Sullivan, who was not quite three years of age when his father died, we gain the following.


It is the little gifts like this which seem to help our research cause so much. Here, on this son's record, we gain the report that his father—the elder Timothy Sullivan's firstborn son Cornelius—was born in Killarney, Ireland.

On the other hand, with young Timothy's sister Elizabeth, we see the following about Cornelius from her 1928 death certificate:


Same Cornelius, different reality. Just the opposite of what was given in her brother's document, this one has her father the American-born parent—in Pontiac, Michigan—and her mother born in Ireland. So much for the "gift" of Elizabeth's brother's certificate, showing their mother being the one born in the states—in that case, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If we find reversals like this, how certain can we be in that report about the Sullivan origin being in Killarney?

What does that say about the people those Sullivans left behind? Could the fact that Timothy Paul Sullivan himself once served as an undertaker boost our confidence to rely on his family members to uphold the career-based care he surely had to take with records, himself? Or, checking to see who the reporting party was in each case, does this tell us anything about whether women or men tend to provide more reliable answers? Or that sons would remember less about their deceased mother's origin than they might about their father? 

In looking for any records of the Sullivan family's origin, whether factually accurate or more wistfully fanciful, I can't simply accept that report about their origin being in Killarney. After all, I ran across that same situation in Johanna Falvey's own obituary. Johanna, the one who started this whole research chase, had family who declared she was from the "Lakes of Killarney"—a romantic notion, but not necessarily accurate. It may be possible that the same dynamic was operating here with this other family from County Kerry. A lot of people may have heard reports about Killarney, but hardly anyone could pinpoint with accuracy any locations with names such as Firies or Kilcummin.

There is, however, one more avenue to explore. As it turns out, some of the Sullivan children turned out to become successful businessmen in their own right. With success comes wider networks, and thus, higher possibilities of being featured in articles in newspapers—perhaps, even, meriting a wordy obituary or two. We'll take a look at what we can find on that front, tomorrow. 


  1. You have a big puzzle I sure hope the obits help!

    1. Oh, Far Side, you know I am a fan of obits! Every little detail helps.


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