A needle in a haystack of needles

In Myles na gCopaleen’s wonderful parody of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Beál Bocht (The Poor Mouth), the narrator, Gaeilgeoir Bonaparte O’Coonassa, describes his first day at school.

The teacher demands, in English: “Phwat is yer nam?” The response, in Irish, begins: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot.” Whereupon the teacher calls him to the front of the class, hits him over the head with an oar and screams: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”

An oar

When he regains consciousness, Bonaparte discovers that every other child in the class is also officially Jams O’Donnell.

In some parts of Ireland genealogical research involves distinguishing one Jams O’Donnell from another. For Byrnes in Wicklow, Sullivans in south Kerry, Dohertys in Donegal, or Bradys in Cavan, the problem is not finding a needle in a haystack. It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.

A plethora of Bradies in Cavan

When people with ancestors like Jams O’Donnell ask a genealogist for advice, we rarely do the honest thing and tell them to find a new hobby. Instead, they’ll hear a long description of the process of reconstructing and comparing families, getting the right children in the right birth order, painstakingly accumulating circumstantial evidence that just might, eventually, with luck, identify the right people.

I was recently hoist with my own petard, trying to find one particular Ryan family in Caher parish in south Tipperary with only the children’s names as a guide: John, Michael, Mary, Margaret, James and Catherine, God help me.  I identified all 53 Ryan families in the parish baptising a child with at least one of these names between 1828 and 1838, then retrieved all other children baptised outside those years to the same couple and then reconstructed all the families. It was a long and painful process. And there was not a trace of the family I wanted. Serves me right.

32 thoughts on “A needle in a haystack of needles”

  1. John, this gives me “comfort” (my quotations) that I’m not alone in trying to secure my own ancestral toe hold there in the land of forty shades of green.
    Best Regards Michael “Mick” McAuliffe

  2. You give me hope, John. I’m searching in vain for my Nelson ancestors, trying to find 3rd GGF James and his wife Elizabeth, possibly (probably?) from County Down (Dromore or Garvaghy), and settling in New Jersey in 1811. It’s the flimsiest of hypotheses though, and a strong wind would knock it all down.

    1. Look in the area of Carrickmacross, there are/were Nelson’s there, my hubby’s grandma came from there, maiden name was Nelson

  3. Thank you John for letting me know that I’m not the only one struggling with some of the same issues. It would have helped if a few more first names were added to the mix. HaHa.

  4. Likely I’ve not been as thorough but I’ve done my own version of this and with similar results all the time. But once in a while I’ll find a marriage that links one of these researched but not sure who they are people with folks I do care about, which makes it worthwhile. Not that that happens a lot but just enough to keep me poking into things that I might find better use of my time 🙂 At worst, I’ve done someone else’s research for them.

  5. I have ran across the same problem,my other problem it seems that alot of people who share same surname ,also married a wife with similar name as well as named their children same family names,but located in different areas.
    My question is would they register the same family in different locals.

  6. The silver lining is that you have cleared up the mystery for a LOT of Ryan descendants. I don’t think I am one. But I appreciate your commitment and sympathize with your disappointment. Thank you.

  7. Hi Everyone, I too have chased the rabbit down the hole of Family trees and branches of trees.
    My materinal side was Dooley and Devereux in Co. Wexford. I can get so far but the church records for my 3x and 4x great grandfather did not survive, and what marriage records that have survived, only give the couples name and witness no fathers name.
    But I still continue looking you never know. I knew from an elder cousin that the Dooley’s came down from the mountain. Ok but there are no mountains in the Wexford area. I knew my Grandfathers was born in the forth Common area along with his brothers and sisters . The other day I came across an article talking about the mountains (Hills) in Co. Wexford and there is a forth Mountain so I now know the area to look.
    The hunt continues, the American branches ones I find the immigration docs is a lot easer. The other day I wounded why a cousin female had married late. Turned out she immigrated to USA, became a citizen and was working. Then I find out, the state department told the justice department to pull her American citizenship and she was sent back to Ireland where she married within a year. Have not found out what she did yet. Its the back stories that keep me going.

  8. I appreciate your way with a turn of phrase, John: “It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.”?

    I’ve also had to find my g-g-g-grandfather and g-g-g-grandmother using sibling names and order. I knew my g-g-grandfather Patrick was born to Patrick and Alice Gannon in County Leitrim in the 1830s, but I couldn’t find any record of his birth. I did discover that there were two Patrick and Alice Gannon couples in the county having children at that time. I narrowed it down to one of the two couples by tracing each couples’ children and ultimately finding one set (Jane and John) both living within a few doors of my g-g-grandfather Patrick in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1860s. I eventually pieced together that in all 7 siblings and the mother Alice all ended up on the same block in Providence. I ultimately also found a death certificate for Jane Gannon Lonergan which listed her mother Alice’s family name Goldrick, which confirmed for me that my g-g-g-grandparents were indeed Patrick Gannon and Alice Goldrick of Moher (now Cornagher) straddling the parishes Cloone and Mohill.

  9. And I thought I was the only one that happened to. And it was always with Murphys and O’Briens, of course.

  10. The only way to confirm (or sometimes to eliminate) with any degree of certainty is DNA which thankfully is available to us all nowadays.

  11. I had my own Myles na gCopaleen genealogical incident in late 1960s, where grand parents names were required for your confirmation documentation, when my teacher asked for the Christian Name of each Grand Parent I dutifully answered John & Mary for both family lines, for which I got a clout for my efforts!!! A letter from my parents was subsequently required but no apology was forthcoming from said put upon educator in the land of John & Marys’

    I had a bit more luck in tracking the right Fitzgerald family 1800 to 1840 in Dromourneen Caheragh C0. Cork after a process of elimination having reconstructed all the families from the baptismal records.

  12. I laughed at your mention of Doherty’s in Donegal. I’m a Doherty born in America. A couple years ago I was sitting in a bar in Buncrana, Donegal, and it was mentioned to the bartender that I was a Doherty. He said I’m married to a Doherty. Then another man at the bar said he was a Doherty, too! We all had a good laugh.

  13. My Glenties Gallagher brothers married their Molloy cousins, sisters, and each had 10 children, James John, Margaret, Mary, Daniel, Bridget, Ellen, Rose, Kate, Sarah. They lived in the same townland. It’s a form of Chinese torture.

    1. Hello Angela
      My Donegal family tree has dozens of Gallagher and Molloy families near Glenties and surrounding areas. So far I have found one marriage as you describe: Edward C Gallagher & Catherine Molloy. Other female Gallagher girls married Molloy boys.
      I would like to collaborate and compare trees with you.

    2. Hello Angela
      My Donegal family tree has dozens of Gallagher and Molloy families near Glenties and surrounding areas. So far I have found one marriage as you describe: Edward C Gallagher & Catherine Molloy. Other female Gallagher girls married Molloy boys.
      I would like to collaborate and compare trees with you.

  14. Strangely enough it doesn’t have to be a common name. My problem is locating the parents of my GGGM Mary Doolittle from Wicklow, married to Captain Robert Conway in 1835. I am pretty sure she is either a daughter or a niece of George Doolittle and Catherine Connor, but can find no trace of her birth details. She is clearly part of the GD family, judging by the sponsors at her marriage and for her children’s baptisms. Strangely her death is not in the Civil Records either, though I did eventually find a death notice for her in the Wicklow People.

  15. DNA can help, if living descendants of candidate ancestors can be tested. But it may not be easy!

  16. Using just that method, I found my John Dunn family (they left Ireland in 1844) in Mocklershill, Co Tipperary after nearly thirty years of looking. Wonder of wonder, once I found them the records went back another two generations in the parish registers!!! Still looking for Michael Murphy….

  17. I am immensely comforted that even an expert genealogist like yourself has the same trouble! I am really lucky in that some of my family names are relatively uncommon but I recently had a lucky break with my great-great grandfather, Jeremiah Coughlan. Now for Daniel Sullivan…

  18. You’d think with the surname Forehan, it’d be easy. It hasn’t been. We know the great great grandparents were born in Ballybunion, married possibly in Listowel, and emigrated around 1850-something.
    In 1995, I Google our last name and “Kerry” and found a fellow who looks like us living near Tralee. He and my brother corresponded, my sister visited him in Ireland, and we all agree we’re probably related but no one is left alive who’d know how.

  19. I got quite a chuckle out of this blog, as it speaks directly to the challenge I have found in tracing my husband’s Flynn ancestors back to Ireland. I will persist in my quest but don’t hold out a lot of hope. Using the names of children to help locate the correct family is a strategy that I have found helpful in other cases.

  20. Good to know that I am not the only one!!
    My families are Douglas and Hughes
    All with first names of John James Thomas and Robert.
    I have about 5 trees on the go. Not sure if any of them are my family but it’s intriguing trying

  21. I feel your pain. I re-created the entire village of Rushestown in eastern Galway. Someone had accused me of getting the life of his grandfather all wrong. His Mike Martin (buried near Mountbellew) was the son of John and Bridget, with a sister Honoria who married a Crehan. So was mine (an emigrant to the U.S.). We got it straightened out finally!

  22. Thank you John, I loved this blog! How very true yet still we go on researching. Like everyone else, my family of Co Roscommon Keenans (of course with 10 different spellings in the past documents) has a plethora of Peter, James, Bernard, Michael, Owen, John, Patrick, Bridget, Mary, Honora, Catherine/Kate, and Ellen/Eleanor/Eliza. And the traditional naming pattern has certainly helped… as long as I’ve found all the children/baptisms. But we keep on going with good advice because you never know when we’ll hit pay dirt lol! The best success to everyone.

  23. Yes, I know. I am trying to trace John Kelley, a famine emigrant to upper state NY, back to Ireland. Even with DNA I am struggling. . .

  24. I am A Ryan. My great great grandfather came from Tipperary to New York state in 1844. Laurence Ryan is a huge brick wall!

  25. I have the opposite problem, I can’t find anyone of my family “Andrews” I know my G Grandfather George Andrew/s was born in Hillsborough, Down in 1883, I can’t find his death record nor emigration, I can’t find his wife, my GGrandmother in any cemetary or death record. I have my brother’s DNA on 4 different databases, not a single Irish relative, so frustrating.

  26. After generations of John and Mary I was excited to find a Bartholomew! That is until I found a passel of cousins all with the same name!

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