Saturday, 6 February 2016

Chasing the elusive Michael Byrne, again

Michael Christopher Byrne, my paternal great-grandfather, has long been the bane of my life, genealogically speaking. Saddled with his way too common surname, and fettered by a lack of information, even though he was born after birth registration commenced in Ireland, I’ve been unable to find his origins.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, like any self-respecting genealogist might be, I even started to suspect Michael Byrne had something to hide and, from the grave, was actively thwarting my efforts to uncover his past. Now, I’m hoping his newly identified brother, Tom, will help us over this genealogy brick wall.

As discovered last week, when Tom died in 1876, aged seven, he was staying with Michael Power and his wife Mary (Leahy, Radcliffe) Power in Malahide, Co. Dublin.[1] With this information in mind, I started the search for Tom’s birth and of the many hundreds of boys with this name registered in 1868-69 one in particular somehow caught my eye.  Thomas Byrne was born in 19 November 1868, to John Byrne and Alicia Leahy – ‘Leahy’ as in Mary Power’s maiden name.[2]

We know from the register of my great-grandparent’s marriage, Michael’s father was John Byrne, but his mother was named as Elisabeth – not Alicia – which I admit is a tad inconvenient.  But, for whatever reason I was drawn to this family and when I discovered John Byrne and Alicia Leahy had one other child - Michael Byrne, born on 2 December 1867 – they really grabbed my attention. Could I have found my great-grandfather, notwithstanding his mother’s unexpected given name? 

Both Thomas and Michael were baptised in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) about as far away from Malahide as you can get, and stay in Co. Dublin.  

Event                                                          Sponsors [3]
Baptism of Michael Byrne, 1867                   Peter Radliff and Mary Radliff
Baptism of Thomas Byrne, 1868                  Thomas Evans and Anne Newton

Yet, I recognise Michael’s Godparents as being from Malahide. Mary Radliff [Radcliffe] was likely the same woman as Mary (Leahy) Power, with whom our little Tom was staying when he died. In 1867, she was married to Christopher Radcliffe, who died young. Peter Radliff [Radcliffe] was her brother-in-law. Coincidentally, Christopher and Peter were my third great-granduncles, on my mother’s side.

By the way, the copy pages of this baptism register are available on the National Library web-site, but check out the page with Michael’s details. Out of the entire book, that very section of the relevant page failed to upload.[4] Now do you see how he tries to thwart our progress?

The information in any marriage register is provided by the bride and groom to the priest and you would expect the groom to know his own mother’s name. So, it’s hard to know why Michael’s mother was down as Elisabeth, if her name was Alicia. But, sometimes people misremember pertinent facts or maybe the priest just erred when he wrote it down.

If it does turn out our Michael and his brother Thomas were baptised in Kingstown, this brick wall is well and truly busted. John Byrne married Alicia Leahy in St Mary’s Pro-cathedral in Dublin city on 27 January 1867. His parents were Andrew and Anne Byrne from Athgarvan, Co. Kildare and the bride’s parents were Michael and Bridget Leahy with an address at Cuffe Street, Dublin.[5]

Chris Mahon (our distant relative) was wrong. He said the Byrnes were blow-ins from Co. Wicklow and it now seems we were blow-ins from Co. Kildare!

Although I’ve convinced myself these are my ancestors, it really is only conjecture at this point. Hopefully, when I receive a copy of the birth and marriage certificates, it will show John Byrne worked as a butler. Otherwise, there will be one terribly disappointed genealogist in the family.

[1] Copy death register, Thomas Byrne, 1876, Balrothery, General Register Office.
[4] Baptisms 9 Aug 1861 – 7 May 1869, p. 133, Kingstown, National Library
[5] Marriage register, St Marys Pro-Cathedral, 

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 30 January 2016

A glimpse over the brick wall

I’ve just made a genealogical breakthrough – one that might lead me to the origins of my Dad’s paternal grandfather. Michael Christopher Byrne is my longest standing genealogy brick wall and I’ve travelled every conceivable avenue in the search of him - with zero results. Now, there’s more than a glimmer of hope he’ll soon be found.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, back in December, I was following up on a family story about Michael’s rumoured brother, Tom, the child who supposedly died when he fell out of a tree? Well, it seems that story was true after all.  

I found Tom!

Thomas Byrne was only seven years old when he died on 15 May 1876. He suffered from acute hydrocephalus, a condition more commonly known as ‘water on the brain’. And, one of the common causes of hydrocephalus is head trauma, which is not inconsistent with a fall from a tree. The poor little chap survived for three weeks before his death, yet the doctor could do nothing to save his life.

Tom’s death certificate contains a wealth of information. He was described as being the ‘son of a butler’. My great-grandfather’s marriage certificate confirms his father was a butler, though unfortunately, neither record gives any clue as to where the man worked.

The biggest surprise on the death certificate was Tom’s last address. He died in Yellow Walls - the same townland in Malahide, Co. Dublin where I grew up – where Michael Byrne married Elizabeth Mahon in 1892. So, the Byrne family was in Malahide at least sixteen years before my great-grandparent’s marriage.

People in rural villages have awfully long memories. More than 100 years after Tom died in Yellow Walls, the Mahons still claimed us Byrnes were ‘blow-ins from Co. Wicklow’. So, I had expected Michael Byrne was from somewhere other than Malahide, and now it seems he lived there from childhood. He probably did come from somewhere else originally, as chances are I would have found him by now, otherwise.

Back to Tom - Neither his father nor his mother registered his death. Four days after the sorry event, a man named Michael Power made his way to the village of Malahide and informed the registrar of the boy’s passing. Michael Power was with Tom when he died. I doubt Tom was out socialising while suffering from acute hydrocephalus, so he must have been living with the Powers in Yellow Walls.

The question is - why? And where were his parents?

I have come across Michael Power before. It is actually quite intriguing just how often the Powers turn up in my research. In 1873, Michael Power married Mary (Leahy) Radcliffe. Mary was the widow of Christopher Radcliffe, my mother’s second great-granduncle. In 1894, Mary Power was Godmother to Dad’s paternal uncle, John Byrne. And, at the time of the 1901 census, Dad’s mother and her elder sister were ‘living ‘in foster-care’ with Mary Power. Now, here they are, yet again, taking care of poor little Tom.

Michael and Mary Power lived in ‘Rose Cottage’, just up the road from ‘Black Raven’, on the corner of Estuary Road and the Swords Road. When my great-grandfather got married, he gave his address as Yellow Walls, and three months earlier, when he purchased his first dog licence, he said he lived on the Swords Road. Rose Cottage is in Yellow Walls, on the Swords Road.

Is it possible Michael Byrne grew up in Rose Cottage? Perhaps either Mary or Michael Power was a relation of ours. Or, perhaps the two Byrne boys were orphaned and were ‘fostered’ by the Powers. Or, maybe I’m just losing the run of myself.

Next… well, I’ll see if I can find Tom’s birth register. And, I’ll take another look at the Powers. I do have a good feeling this time. For the first time in ages, there are ‘next steps’ in the search for Dad’s grandfather.

Source: Copy death register, Thomas Byrne, 1876, Balrothery, General Register Office; Image credit: Pixabay

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Dublin Floods of 1954

I’m sitting here looking out at our sodden paddock, where the ponies Sam and Charlie, excited at being back together on terra (semi-)firma, chase each other with uninhibited delight. Many in Ireland are still struggling to recover from the storms that recently wreaked havoc across the country and I’m reading a piece about another relentless storm our family once faced.[1] 

Just over sixty-one years ago, on 9 December 1954, my mother woke up for school as usual, having spent the night with her Aunty Kay, in their home at number 80 Leinster Avenue. The rest of the family slept at Aunty Kay’s cottage in Lower Jane Place, further along the North Strand, closer to Dublin city. This was all quite normal. As Mam came down the stairs that morning, she noticed the floor below shimmering in the sunshine. Can you imagine her shock, when she reached the second from last step and freezing-cold ‘shimmering’ river-water filled her shoes?

She raced back upstairs to call Aunty Kay and together they opened the front door to a vast scene of chaos spreading out all across North Dublin. Mam and Aunty Kay somehow managed to sleep soundly, not only though the battering winds and torrential rain, but also through the sound of their neighbours banging on their door the previous night. The neighbours had tried in vain to alert them to the rising flood waters, as the River Tolka, then normally a foot-deep rivulet, burst its banks.

Many householders in the North Strand, East Wall and Fairview suburbs were marooned in upstairs bedrooms and in some cases the water levels even reached ceiling height. Hundreds of people were evacuated in rowboats. Truckloads of evacuees were taken to hospital and comforted with blankets and hot drinks.  Five acres in Dublin were under water and a state of emergency was declared as many were left homeless.  

Yet, a major disaster causing significant loss of life was narrowly avoided.  Within hours of the 9 p.m. Belfast passenger train arriving safely at Amiens Street Station, the railway bridge over the River Tolka collapsed. The railway lines were left hanging in situ and all trains were immediately cancelled.

The solid stone pillars, each four or five feet in width and erected over 100 years earlier, were washed away by the raging river. My grandfather, Kevin Wynne, had long predicted the bridge was unsafe. He had often warned his family to never linger beneath it for shelter as they chatted to friends, but to hurry on by to safety. 

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alderman Alfie Byrne, started a relief fund, raising thousands of pounds to help those worst affected by the floods. Our family did not submit a claim, but everyone in the area put to good use the £10 voucher received for Guiney’s Department Store.

I think the below photo shows children standing on the railway embankment, looking down Stoney Road, towards the River Tolka and number 80 Leinster Avenue is one of the corner houses facing the camera - maybe someone with a better memory than mine can pin-point which house it is exactly? 

North Strand Floods, Stoney Road, 1954

For more remarkable footage of the North Strand floods, see also this British Pathé film on Youtube.

[1] East Wall History Group, Facebook page, 8 Jan 2016 and blog.  
Image credit: same.

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 16 January 2016

My genealogy highlights of 2015

As 2016 begins, it poses an ideal opportunity to reflect on the year just passed. Wendy, one of my blogging pals, writing at Jollette Etc., recently shared her ‘Five top Five’ achievements, which got me thinking. Looking back, 2015 was a difficult year for my family; nevertheless, for Black Raven Genealogy there were many highlights.

Best Discoveries
While I’ve known for quite some time my second great-grandmother was Maryanne Donovan, I had trouble proving her maiden name was Coyle.  Oh, I had my suspicions, except no solid connection could be found. So, last summer I began a genealogy quest, retracing my footsteps and following up on all potential leads, no matter how small.

I was just about to admit defeat, once again, when I struck gold and found the long-sought after ‘evidence’. A burial register in Glasnevin Cemetery contained the names of fifteen people interred in a family plot and helped prove Maryanne Coyle was my ancestor.

This unexpected discovery gave me renewed hope that someday my other elusive ancestors might make themselves known too.

Another significant discovery I made was finding the death register for Jane (Daly) Byrne, who died in New York in 1901.  This led to her obituary, her gravesite, and even more amazingly provided the names of my third great-grandparents, William and Hannah Daly. Some further research on William and Hannah back in Dublin revealed Hannah’s maiden name was probably Dillon.

It was also fun to find our show-biz cousins – The Martell Sisters  those juggling colleens who performed circus acts.  No doubt, my great-grandfather, Patrick Wynne, who was a bit of a snob by some accounts, thought he had the antics of these nieces well and truly brushed under the carpet.  Just shows, the truth will come out, eventually!

Best Connections
By far the best new connection I’ve made this year was with my mother’s first cousins, the grandchildren of said Patrick Wynne and his wife Teresa Carroll, via their daughter Nora. These new found cousins have promised to share with me their first-hand memories of my great-grandmother, as well as some Wynne family superstitions. Could it get any better? So, if you’re reading this – Hint, Hint!

It is also always a pleasure to meet other researchers and quite a few contacted me during the year to share information and memorabilia. The connection that stands out most though was a young father. He casually ‘googled’ his grandfather’s name and happened upon my blog. His grandfather played football with my great-grandfather in 1914. He was absolutely delighted to receive a photograph of the team and its intrinsic link to his past.

Best Blog Posts
The blog posts resonating most with readers in 2015 or, those that received the greatest number of hits and comments were:

  1. Snippets from the life of a Grandfather I never knew
  2. Three little vignettes: ghosts, apparitions and porter (which was actually mostly written by my Uncle Colm)
  3. Cousin Violet
  4. A day in the life of my great-grandda
  5. The cartoonist, Bobby Pyke 

Thank you to everyone who reads my blog and provides feedback on the posts. It is very much appreciated. Here’s to 2016 being kind to us all and a year filled with many more genealogy highlights.

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Find A Grave ~ Jane Byrne’s Final Resting Place

Last month, I noticed a new (to me, at least) genealogy website, called Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of BrooklynI’ve known for a while my third great-grandmother, Jane Byrne, was buried in St John’s Cemetery, New York. She died in December 1901. Now, I’ve found the exact coordinates of her grave. 

So, I thought I’d try to find her headstone. It’s not as if I have to go to all the way to New York, although that has a certain appeal. You see, there is now a website called Find A Grave where volunteers, who visit graveyards around the world, record details of the headstones they find. 

This way, descendants, who no longer remember where their ancestors are buried or, who live thousands of miles away, can find their graves. They can pay their respects and even leave a virtual bunch of flowers. Really!! They can request a photograph of the headstone in the hopes someone might visit the cemetery and oblige.

When I first checked Find A Grave for a memorial for Jane Byrne, I found one had already been created, but only with the information contained in her published obituary. Obviously, this did not have the grave coordinates, so, I couldn’t request a photograph of her headstone.

St John Cemetery is one of the oldest and largest Catholic cemeteries in New York, encompassing some 190 acres. No one would find the grave, without specific directions - imagine addressing a letter to ‘Jane Byrne, New York’ and expecting it to arrive at its intended destination.

But, when I found the grave coordinates, I requested the photograph and sat back to wait.

And, within two weeks, I received a reply. Fancy that!

Gravesite, Jane Byrne, St John Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens, NY. 

There is no headstone marking Jane's grave. Once, I may have been saddened to discover this. But, Jane Byrne’s grave is not so unusual. Until my great-grandparents’ generation, few of my direct ancestors had headstones. Their families saved their hard-earned cash to sustain the living, and prayed for the souls of the dead instead. Maybe, a wooden cross, now long since perished, once marked the spot where she was buried.

Who do you think planted the tree right at the head of Jane’s grave? It seems well established now. I’d like to think Jane’s family planted it at the time of her passing - a living monument to commemorate her life and mark her final resting place.  What do you think?

With many thanks to Find A Grave volunteer, JP Rayder, who took the time to visit Jane’s grave, said a few prayers and took this photograph to share with us. You can visit her virtual memorial, here. Go on - leave flowers! 

How we're related to Jane Byrne

© Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Jane Byrne’s Arrival in the United States

Tracing my ancestors with the common surname ‘Byrne’ is one of my biggest genealogy challenges and wading through line after line trying to track down the U.S. immigration of a woman named Jane Byrne was a big ask.  Any one of the numerous so-named records in the late nineteenth century might well relate to my third great-grandmother, but, telling which one, if any, was a near hopeless task.   

One proven way to increase the probability of discovering the right record is to find her with her immediate relatives – especially those with more unusual surnames.  So, when Jane Byrne’s daughter Hannah married John Comiskey in 1869, and Jane was later found living with the Comiskey family, it greatly increased the probability I’d found a true match. This was how I first located her in New York

Now with the Comiskey surname, you have to be prepared for its spelling variations. Inscribers and transcribers were far more inventive with this surname than they ever were with the name Byrne. As well as Comiskey, Cumiskey and Cuminskey, each with either one or two ‘m’s, it took far more determination to follow the family when they were documented as Conningbery. But, tracing their movements proved to be worthwhile.

Hannah’s husband, John Comiskey, arrived in New York on 9 June 1880, paving the way for Hannah and their three girls to follow a few years later. Presumably, the family did not have the money to pay for their passage all together and John went first to find work and save up enough money to enable the rest to follow.

In 1883, Hannah sailed with Rosanna, Jane and young Hannah, on board the SS Germanic, although there was no sign of the two boys. Michael and Francis would have been six and four years old at the time and were seemingly left behind with family in Ireland.

SS Germanic

During the past few months, I ‘met’ Angela, my third cousin once removed, who descends directly from John and Hannah Comiskey. Angela knew her grandfather Francis was eight years old when he came to the U.S. She had even found a record of his immigration - to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1887.

With this information, I found the record of Francis and Michael ‘Cuminsky’, both of the right age, arriving in Boston, from Liverpool, on 22 September 1887. The passenger list for the steamship ‘Marathon’ confirmed their intended destination was New York. They were accompanied by Jane Byrne, aged fifty-five years, and even though she was said to have been married, when our Jane was by then supposedly widowed, presumably she was the children’s grandmother.

Jane’s daughter and namesake Jane (Byrne) Cunningham died in Dublin earlier that same year.  Perhaps this was the reason my third great-grandmother followed her two other daughters to New York, or perhaps she had always intended to accompany the boys, as soon as funds allowed. One thing is sure, if Jane had not been travelling with her two Comiskey grandsons, I would never have identified this Jane Byrne as my ancestor. 

Jane Byrne’s connection to my grandmother

Sources: 'Massachusetts, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1820 to 1963'; 'Passenger Lists of vessels arriving at New York, 1820-1897; ‘New York, Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in New York City, 1792-1989’,

© 2016 Black Raven Genealogy

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Kathleen Wynne, a little angel

Had she not passed away at the devastatingly tender age of 'about' nine days, next week my Aunt Kathleen would have celebrated her 69th birthday. Kathleen was born prematurely on or about 23 December 1946, the fifth child of Kevin and Annie Wynne. She was named after her maternal aunt, Kathleen Byrne. However, she never made it home from the hospital, so she never got to meet her brother and sisters.

Virtually nothing remains today of Kathleen’s short life and the few official records of her existence contain numerous errors and conflicts, many probably unresolvable today.

Holles Street Hospital in Dublin registered her birth, incorrectly recording her birthdate as 26 December. But, Kathleen’s elder sister remembers her parents visiting the hospital that Christmas Day and knows Kathleen was born before Christmas.

Her date of death was registered as 31 December 1946, again by Holles Street Hospital. Here, she was said to have been seven days old, so born on 24th December.  The hospital omitted her Christian name on the register and incorrectly described her as ‘male’ - yet another error in the record of her life. She was said to have been the ‘son of a painter.’ My grandfather was indeed a painter, but it was his home address, 80 Leinster Avenue, which definitively confirmed the record related to our Aunt Kathleen. Her cause of death was certified as ‘internal obstruction’.

Kathleen’s family believed she was interred in the Old Angels Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, where a section of consecrated ground was set aside for still-born babies and other children who died shortly after birth. Up to fifty babies share each unmarked grave, and in a strange way, it was comforting to know she was with all these other little children.

When Glasnevin Trust released the cemetery’s records online, I searched for Kathleen Wynne, buried in 1946-47, but did not find her.  When I contacted the graveyard, they advised I should search using ‘Newborn’ instead of Kathleen, as the hospital may not have provided her given name when they organised her burial.

And there she was, my little Aunt Kathleen, interred on 4 January 1947, again sadly unnamed in the register. The cemetery’s records show she died of ‘prematurity’ on New Year’s Day, 1947, aged one week and two days. This suggests her birthday was 23 December, two days before Christmas.  

Kathleen was laid to rest in the section known as St. Patrick’s in Glasnevin Cemetery, at grave UM 190, and not in the better known Old Angels Plot. There are a number of smaller unmarked ‘angels plots’ situated throughout the cemetery.

As Kathleen was born prematurely, it was quite probable her mother never got to hold her. Although her parents visited the hospital every day of her short life, they may not have been allowed in to see her. Her father may never have laid eyes on his baby girl. The hospital organised her burial and denied them the chance to attend her funeral.

This sounds cruel today, but was considered ‘for the best’ in Ireland then. Any opportunity for attachment was thought to prolong the grieving process. Parents were told to forget their loss. They were advised to have another child and to move on as quickly as possible and not to look for sympathy.  There was no understanding of the need to grieve. 

And this is what Kathleen’s family tried to do. Her grave was not visited over the years. The family’s grief was a silent one, and yet she was never forgotten.  All my life, I’ve known about my Aunt Kathleen, the little angel who never made it home.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam / (R.I.P.)

Sources: Birth and death registers, General Register Office; Burial register, Glasnevin Cemetery. Image: courtesy of The Graphics Fairy.

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy