A cautionary tale

Here’s a horror story from the front line.

The Irish Times ran a story a couple of days ago about the unveiling at the Chicago Irish consulate of a painting of Mother Jones, the firebrand union activist who was called “the most dangerous woman in America”. She was co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, an indefatigable strike organiser, all-round nuisance to big business and (no surprise) a Corkwoman.  Born c. 1837, she emigrated to Canada and then moved south to the US in the 1850s. After the loss of her husband and children and the subsequent destruction of her dressmaking business in the Great Fire of Chicago, she threw herself into union work and remade herself as the little Irish Mammy from Hell.

The little Irish Mammy from Hell

I’d never realised she was Irish, so started idly looking her up. Wikipedia records her as baptised Margaret in Cork in 1837 to parents Richard Harris and Ellen Cotter. So straight onto the transcription sites to have a look. No Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter entries in rootsireland.ie. On IrishGenealogy, there’s one Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter entry for the baptism of a Richard in Iveleary in 1835, a marriage for the couple also in Iveleary in 1834, but nothing else.  No Margaret.

On to FindMyPast, on the familiar basis that their mistrancriptions will be different to the others.  A Mary to Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter in 1846 in St Mary’s, North Cathedral, but no Margaret. The family had obviously moved into Cork city by then, but why did the earlier two searches miss this particular baptism? Because it’s in the wrong diocese for Rootsireland, Cork & Ross not Cloyne, and IrishGenealogy skipped it because they were told there’s already a transcript done locally. Which indeed there is, but not online. So the only online transcript is the one from the NLI microfilms done by Ancestry and FindMyPast.

So far, so convolutedly typical. But why no Margaret? Back to FindMyPast to search for baptisms confined to North Cathedral with a Richard and Ellen as parents between 1835 and 1846. And there’s a “Mary Hayes” in 1837 with a Richard as father and Ellen Cotter as mother. When you look at the original image of course it’s the bould Mother Jones herself, Margaret Harris, mistranscribed.

Mother Jones (easy to mistranscribe)

Lest you think I’m just beating up on FindMyPast for the fun of it, exactly the opposite happened the day after. I went looking for a Thomas Healy, son of Thomas and Mary Cavanagh born in Dublin in the 1850s on IrishGenealogy. No dice. Siblings aplenty, but no Thomas. Back to FindMyPast and there he is in St Michan’s in 1856, clear as day.

Thomas, son of Thomas Healy and Mary Cavanagh

Why nothing on IrishGenealogy? When I looked, the entry was transcribed twice and in reverse:

Thomas, son of Thomas Healy Healy and Cavanagh Mary


The records may be convoluted but the moral is simple. If you don’t find something in a transcript, never take that as the last word.

12 thoughts on “A cautionary tale”

  1. John, I read your excerpt and wept. For this Irish researcher the experience multiplied by a thousand!

  2. This happens to me at least once a week on FindMyPast and Ancestry–three times in the last few days alone. I send corrections and they never appear, even years later. If they are direct ancestors, I send them twice. Nothing happens. Mis-transcriptions, names omitted etc etc. I pay for World subscriptions for both of those and it is really inexcusable that they never add corrections. My blood is boiling even thinking about it.

    And the Marg/Mary mix-up is unending. What’s the Irish for bah humbug?

  3. Nicely done.

    Here’s a fun transcription error story.

    For most of my life I believed “Julia Doyle” was my 2X great grandmother, after all, she was on my g grandmother’s death cert. When I inherited the family genealogy responsibilities in 1992 I looked to build my trees on the very earliest internet resources, Cindy’s List and library IGI access. Time passed and trees grew. I was lucky. Our oral family history was surprisingly accurate.

    About the time online primary and secondary genealogy records exploded in quantity and quality (sometimes) I turned to Thomas, the family Fenian, and Julia’s husband. And wow. But Irish records were still mysterious and I was mostly stuck in the US. And then “the parish records” were online! I found Thomas and his line, but no evidence Julia was his wife, and then, the recorded mother of their children. Hmm. And who was this Mary Stafford woman?

    Eventually I discovered the parish records of Julia’s birth, both transcription and images. But written in the same priests hand, just (just!!) below (!!) Julia’s entry, was Mary Stafford’s. She was born the day after Julia Doyle and recorded in the same parish, the same family church, the same ink.. Wow. Talk about a transcription error!


  4. I have had similar experiences. My g-g-gps from Mayo had their first child out of wedlock, as the word “Illegitimate” in his baptismal record shows. But I never knew this until I dedicated one day to reading the images myself instead of relying on transcriptions and search logic.

  5. I’m named for my paternal grandmother, Mary Catherine O’Shea who is the daughter of Michael O’Shea, probably from somewhere in the southwest of Ireland and Mary Agnes Monaghan, from the rural area outside of Knockcroghery, County Roscommon. Michael and Mary Agnes were married in Manhattan, New York and I was looking for Mary Catherine’s baptismal certificate. I had her birth date so I thought this will be a cake walk. Not so… I started deleting information from the search engine (less is more) and finally found Mary Catherine with her mother Mary Manachain!! Mary Agnes had given her Irish surname for the baptismal record.

  6. In a previous life when I lived many years in Springfield, Illinois, and frequently made the drive to St. Louis, it was an easy side trip to visit Mother Jones’ grave at Mt. Olive, Illinois. It is good to see these records from the front end of her life. Well done.

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