Friday, September 17, 2021

Falling Through the Gaps


How big a mug do we need to contain the genealogy crocodile tears we'll cry into our beer today?

It's February 17, 1848, and Anna Flanagan Malloy has just given birth to the daughter who will become her only child. She and her husband Stephen name the child Catherine—presumably, in the old Irish naming tradition, after Anna's own mother.

We already know what happened after that. At some point in the next year, Stephen finds it necessary to run to Liverpool where, on the eve of a subsequent departure, he dictates a hasty letter to his wife, alerting her that his next stop would be across the Atlantic Ocean in a place called Boston. From there, he disappears.

Meanwhile, from our hundred-seventy-plus year vantage point, we discover that, in an oh-no-you-don't-either moment, Anna grabs her daughter and heads to America...only she and Catherine inexplicably end up not in Boston, but another thousand miles further in Chicago.

Surely, we think, there must be a way to muddle through this research puzzle and determine the prior history of both Stephen and Anna. More certainly, we assume we can find some documented trace of baby Catherine, who at least could claim native birth on the Emerald Isle.

Apparently, this is not so. There is one barrier to our research plans. As John Grenham wryly put it in a recent blog post, "Nothing like some birth records to get a good fire going."

Ah, the Irish. Can you blame a starving man for seeing things from a more practical perspective?

In case you haven't yet stumbled upon the work of John Grenham, let's take a moment to consider the man and his efforts on behalf of Irish genealogy. There is a lot to be said of him.

In typical British understatement, for instance, blogger Alistair McGowan reports, "John Grenham is probably Ireland's leading genealogist."


John Grenham is certainly known for his useful guide on Irish genealogy, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, updated in 2019. Far more than that one publication, he has contributed decades of work on projects as an accredited genealogist in Ireland. Much of his work is now housed on his own website.

Let's take our issue with Anna Flanagan and her daughter Catherine Malloy to the Grenham website to see what we can find. Just looking at some basic charts and graphics will help illuminate our research difficulties.

First, let's see what we can discover about the surname Flanagan. After all, we've already noted that Anna, after her husband's departure, likely resided with some Flanagan family members in County Limerick. At about the same time as Stephen's departure in 1849, though, the surname Flanagan was widespread throughout Ireland, making it difficult to determine whether her roots were indeed in that specific civil parish where she received her husband's letter.

Malloy, on the other hand, was a surname centered in very few population centers. Of course, that is considering only one of many spelling variations; searching for Molloy, for instance, would produce a vastly different picture, covering almost the entire island, with the exception of the southwest region. Again, we find little to help us pinpoint where our elusive Stephen Malloy might have originated.

If we instead focus on finding the baptismal record for their daughter Catherine, as we discussed yesterday, once again we encounter a problem—but not of the same type as the widespread surname distribution we've mentioned above. This time, it is perhaps more akin to the conjecture offered only partially in jest by John Grenham: the availability of baptismal records in the specific Catholic parish where Anna and her daughter resided.

The Grenham site, along with many other resources, offers a date range of record availability by geographic location. Since we already know the Catholic parish where Anna and her baby were living at the time of Stephen's letter, let's take a look at what John Grenham provides for the parish of Ballyagran.

Bottom line: quite a bit...if you aren't looking for a baptismal record any time between August 30 of 1847 and September 22 of 1850.

As it so happens, an Irish child born on February 17, 1848, would likely have been baptised almost immediately, if not within a few days after birth—but, if born in the Catholic parish of Ballyagran, falling exactly within a three-year gap between a significant run of document availability ranging from 1841 through 1880. In other words, confirmation of Catherine's baptism is unfortunately no longer included in the church's records.

And so, we cry in our beer.

Something inside of me struggles to keep up the search. But...but...I sputter...there must be another way around this research dilemma. What about picking up that first trail, the one tracking Stephen Malloy across the Atlantic to Boston? 

Indeed, what revisiting this research brick wall teaches me is that it is useful to retrace our steps over the years. Going back to revisit the Stephen Malloy dilemma this month, after having laid aside the problem for years, did yield some new information—just not what we would have hoped. We'll check that out next week.

Above: Sign on road approaching the village of Ballyagran in County Limerick, Ireland, seen during our visit there in 2014.


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