An antidote to Paddywhackery

Some years ago, I was approached by a family in the US to do research on ancestors of theirs who had left Ireland in the 1850s. In the course of finding out what they already knew, it emerged that this research was only the latest stage in a multi-generational quest that started immediately after emigration.

Like so many, the emigrant ancestors were fleeing the aftermath of the Famine and were forced into the cheapest and most desperate route. They traveled to Liverpool as deck passengers on a cattle transport from Cove, with all the filth and misery that entailed, in order to get access to a cheap ticket to New York. In Liverpool, they spent weeks, husband, wife and four children, living in the unimaginably overcrowded squalor of the city’s Irish ghetto as they waited for their passage. Then, when they were finally on the quayside and about to embark, they discovered that the youngest child,  four-year-old John, was missing. Despite frantic searches he could not be found, and they were faced with the choice of staying, with the loss of their passage-money and the knowledge of what awaited them in Liverpool, or leaving without the child. They left.

Embarking from Liverpool

Immediately after arriving in the US, the mother began to write to Liverpool police stations, orphanages, charities, anyone who could conceivably have come into contact with her child, and continued to write for the rest of her life. She never discovered what happened to him. Her other children had to promise to continue the search after her death, and then her children’s children and then their children in turn. Over a century and a half, the agony of that loss became embedded in the family’s story of itself, generation after generation, each one taking up and pursuing the lost child again.

Hundreds of thousands of stories like this are what lie behind Irish-America. When we’re tempted to jeer at the Paddywhackery of St. Patrick’s Day, we should think of them.

A fuller account of the family and their journey is at

15 thoughts on “An antidote to Paddywhackery”

  1. Thank you sincerely for raising this point. As I research my own Irish family roots it is deeply moving to read time and time again of the heartbreak and struggle so many suffered in those times. The trauma of the Sullivan family, the unspeakable agony of the decision they had to take and the eternal longing to find their lost child speaks of enduring grief and pain beyond imagining. Bless you for the work that you do to unite families. As an Irish migrant myself I know full well the feelings of loss and the knowing that in this changing world Ireland too has changed and as an exile I will never be “at home”again.

  2. Heartbreaking. The video is something everyone should watch, Irish or not. Most people in the US simply have no idea of the Irish story. My Irish ancestors came to New York in the 1840s and 50s from many different counties–three unrelated families in 1851 alone. Their stories include much tragedy as well, tho not a lost child–a four year old Thomas Quinlan dying on board but not lost. Imagine the anguish mixed with guilt the Sullivan family lived with.

  3. My family has this exact story. My 2nd great grandparents, Edward McGrath and Hanora Cronin left Clonmel with their children. What came through the generations was a whisper of a lost child and by my generation, we didn’t know if it was an euphemism for a child that had passed away or was actually lost in Liverpool. Edward and Hanora with the three remaining boys, came to NY on the same ship but are listed many pages apart- Honora with the children (my great grandfather just a year old) and Edward elsewhere. From there, they ended up in Chicopee like so many others and had two more children, daughters. Edward could write his name but Hanora was illiterate. In the 1900 Census, she and a daughter had their occupations listed as rag picker and rag sorter. I presume this was at one of the mills in Chicopee or Holyoke.

    1. I grew up in Granby and have spent many tens of hours searching for where my Tim Cronin’s parents were before they arrived in Chicopee. John Cronin and Mary Ann (Mahoney) Cronin. Their son had a tavern or bar on Commercial Street.

  4. The search for the origins of Famine emigrants — my husband’s great-grandparents — remains a brick wall even with DNA testing. He had a good match (2C1R to 3C) and we traced her maternal grandmother’s line back to her second great-grandparents, but could not find the common ancestor. The available records left us one generation short. Still, the research was fruitful and informative for most of the DNA relatives in England and Ireland and America. ☘️🇮🇪

  5. Thank you, John Grenham, for this most moving account of the little lost child and the travails of a family leaving the horrors of the post-Famine world through the squalor of Liverpool to the bleak (and in their case nightmarish) passage over. To that you could add that the anti-Irish prejudice (based in English heritage and religious difference) persisted for a full century in the U.S., beginning with an actual political party, the Know-Nothings, through the hiring discrimination (lasted in Springfield, MA area into the early 1950s, as to whether you would be hired in some places if you were Catholic), and all that went with that. Certainly there were Irish communities and rungs for advancement and people thrived. Still, my father’s family didn’t acknowledge that they were Irish until it became fashionable in the 1960s, at least not overtly.
    But mainly I want to thank you for the gift of acknowledging the Irish-American (or Canadian, Australian, etc.) perspective. All this genealogy comes from a place of longing, of trying to fix something broken. Fifty years ago this day – astonishing! – I was living and working illegally in Dublin, the job in a small confectionary and tobacco shop behind Trinity. Little more than a month earlier I’d been on the edge of a few riotous nights in Merrion Square following Bloody Sunday in Derry. Now I discovered that St. Patrick’s Day was a religious holiday, quiet, though there was a parade downtown that featured crazy Americans, old ladies from Philadelphia with blue hair (or was it green?). Instead, I followed the crowd out to the dog show in Blackrock (?), where I met some folks with whom I struck up a friendship for the remaining month or so of my five months in Ireland.
    For me at age twenty-two, arriving in Ireland was the astonishment of finding myself in a place where everyone looked like they were in my family, and where I realized I looked like them, though I’m sure I carried myself like a Yank (and was reproved on the street more than once – for eating while walking, for wearing a mannish style jacket that I’d bought at a thrift shop). I felt like I belonged there in an unexpected way – and yet didn’t. I was there partly because my grandfather never could go, nor any of the older generations, and when the boat taking me over to England set out, I sat on the deck and looked back and didn’t budge for an hour, feeling all those leavings in my bones.
    Americans deal with all sorts of anti-American feelings, but when it comes from the Irish directed at Irish-Americans, it pricks a bit more. Thank you for recognizing that and telling a tale in the video that should never be forgotten, for those on both sides of the emigration tragedy.
    Beannachtai na Feile Padraig ort!

    1. The dog show was in Ballsbridge. And the reason it was so popular is that it was the only place in Dublin with a licence to serve alcohol on St. Patrick’s Day.

  6. “and they were faced with the choice of staying, with the loss of their passage-money and the knowledge of what awaited them in Liverpool, or leaving without the child. They left.”

    What a devastating dilemma. Sounds like the mother never slept soundly again, and no wonder. Would be nice to believe that little John found some sort of foster family, and grew up safe and sound, but I don’t suppose that’s very likely.

  7. Thank you John for this moving tale of the Sullivan family, My ancestors came to Australia, 3 as transported convicts, 2 girls from Dublin & I from Portadown as free emigrants & the Connor family for Ballykelly in Derry as a family in 1837. The Connor5 sent money back to Ireland for maiden aunts that were left behind and I am still tracing those who may have gone to America. They were all brave people to go across the seas, particularly the three girls aged 17 & 18 going so far away. Thanks again John you have made me think.

  8. Found out that my great mother Jane Heaps (nee Guinan) had their first child Richard on the 29th November 1838, presumably in Dublin and they were on the ship in Portsmouth and their way to Port Jackson on December the 14th,mother and child arrived safely on the 1st April 1839 and she went on to have nine more children and Richard died in 1907. I assumed they went ahead with the trip because they had already paid for the ticket and as it was winter work for Michael her husband would have been scarce. It was not all bad news Michaels mother Ellen was with her, apparently there was strict gender segregation in steerage which included married couples.

  9. My mother had 2 Irish grandmothers, Margaret born 1827 County Tipperary, and Mary born 1846 County Cavan. Both of these women lost their parents in the famine years. On a pay to view site, I found the Church Burial records of Margaret’s parents, in 1846 and 1849. I thought this was an amazing find, as it was before Civil Registration of Deaths. In 1852, Margaret travelled to Australia, and on the shipping record states that her parents had both died.

    I also found an 1852 Dublin workhouse record for the father of Mary. He was a farm labourer, and described as a widower, native place County Cavan, aged 54 years, in poor health, and with dirty ragged clothes. Being in poor health, he would have died shortly after this, and there is no record of his death. It’s possible that he’d taken the family from the countryside to Dublin, planning to travel to another country for a better life, yet died in Dublin. Mary would have spent the next ten years at the workhouse, or in an orphanage. In 1863, at the age of 17, she was put on a ship to Australia, travelling on her own, like Margaret, to a place where she knew no one, and had no friends or relatives. That’s very brave.
    Within two years, both women married, and raised large families. The witnesses at their marriages were Irish women that they met on the ship to Australia. Both women lived to their 80’s, and their obituaries in their local newspapers stated that they were well known old residents, who were highly respected.
    There’s a lot of sadness in these stories about our Irish ancestors, but there’s also pride in their achievements, and a huge sense of gratitude. Thanks Mr Grenham

  10. Thank you John for sharing this family’s poignant story. We cannot fully comprehend the pain, suffering, heartache our ancestors endured, as they left their homeland and their loved ones. We Irish Americans and Irish share a common history, language and so on. And our stories diverged only when some left, and others stayed. And like this family, there are a million different stories. I am one of those Irish Americans who have this inexplicable desire to feel, touch, know, understand where we came from, how we got to where we are, our story, our shared history. And like another commenter mentioned, when we are criticized by the Irish it hurts a bit more.

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