Saturday, 31 January 2015

Clutching at straws
Searching for the origins of an elusive Byrne ancestor in Ireland is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Who am I kidding? These days, there are tools to make that search easier. Searching for my Byrne ancestor is more akin to searching for a specific blade of hay in the haystack - one with little to distinguish it from any other blade of hay. To make matters worse, my paternal great-grandfather was blessed with the popular name Michael and his parents with the even more fashionable names, John and Elizabeth. When that last clue came to light, an ancestral sleuth with any sense might have chosen a new hobby!

Michael’s occupation was of little help in narrowing the field of potential candidates, for, like so many of his contemporaries, he worked as a labourer, and sometimes as an agricultural labourer. The only saving grace, if indeed anything can rescue this search from near-certain failure, was his father’s occupation – John Byrne was said to have been a butler. I’m not suggesting ‘butler-ing’ was an uncommon profession then – just not as common and, together with everything else, it possibly could serve to shorten the list of potential candidates. 

If the 1901 and 1911 census returns are anything to go on, Michael was born between 1868 and 1870, or, as early as 1866, if you believe Peter Dignam, Michael’s son-in-law, who registered his death in 1927.  But, in my experience, Irish people in the past were very prone to ‘losing a few years’ off their age, especially as their lives progressed. I’d have happily lost a fair few years by now too, if the modern-day preoccupation with form-filling wasn't constantly reminding me of my true birth date. So, using the RootsIreland index to identify all (as in, all those in their index) the potential baptism records for my great-grandfather, I set the search parameters to include those born, in all Ireland, between 1856 and 1876. 

A list was made of all those Byrne (+variants) children, with names beginning with the letters ‘MI’, born to a father whose name began with ‘JOHN’, ‘JON’ or ‘JOA’ and a mother whose name commenced with ‘ELI’. Surprisingly, this resulted in only five Michaels, three baptised in Co. Wicklow, one in Co. Dublin and one in Co. Carlow. Perhaps one of these Michaels was my great-grandfather.

Date               Birth Place                            Father                      Mother
Feb 1858        Kiliney, Co. Dublin               John Byrne                Eliza [not recorded]
Oct 1862        Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow    John Byrne                Elizabeth Byrne
Oct 1863        Killaveney, Co. Wicklow      John Byrne                Elizabeth Kavanagh
Oct 1865        Arklow, Co. Wicklow           John Byrne                Eliza Dempsy
Sep 1868        Bray, Co. Wicklow               John Byrne                Elizabeth Toole

Although the father’s occupation was seldom recorded in Irish Catholic baptisms, it was normally available from the child’s birth certificate. Unfortunately, birth registration only commenced in Ireland in 1864, meaning the birth of at least three of these five children was not registered. If the father happened to be a butler by trade, it might only be confirmed by checking the birth register of one of his younger children - born after 1864. Laurence Byrne was the son of John and Elizabeth (Kavanagh) Byrne, baptised in Killaveney, Co. Wicklow in 1868, and was likely the younger sibling of the Michael baptised there in 1863. However, it is far more difficult to identify a sibling for Michael Byrne of Killiney, 1858, without the maiden name of his mother, so I’ll have to skip him for now.  I’ll also have to skip Michael Byrne of Bagenalstown, 1862. His parent’s marriage seemingly took place in that parish in 1861, confirming his mother’s maiden name was truly Byrne, but no subsequent children were found born to this couple in Co. Carlow. 

When I was checking the online birth indexes for the details necessary to order the copy birth registers from the General Register Office, a sixth potential candidate was identified. This Michael Byrne was born in Finglas, Glasnevin, on 15 June 1864, to John and Eliza (Kilbride) Byrne.  Glasnevin is only about fifteen kilometres from Malahide, where our Michael married my great-grandmother Elizabeth Mahon in 1892, and is in agreement with Michael’s own assertion that he was born in Co. Dublin.  So, I ordered a copy of his birth registration, along with those for the Michael born in 1865 and 1868 and the Laurence born in 1868… and guess what… the fathers’ occupations were gatekeeper, dairyman, labourer and labourer - not a domestic servant in sight! 

… so, back to the drawing board… or maybe… could a gatekeeper have been promoted to butler in the twenty-eight years between his son’s birth and my great-grandfather’s marriage? This was the Michael born in Glasnevin.

Sometimes, it feels like I’m clutching at straws!

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Dara, sounds like you are trying everything. I often wish my ancestors had unique names so they would stand out. But then I figure those names would probably be recorded incorrectly. ha!

    1. I'm trying everything I can think of, Colleen, but am running out of ideas.

  2. You certainly have your work cut out for you with names like Michael, Elizabeth, and John. Common names make it so difficult to know for sure which ancestor may be yours until you find something very individual. "Butler" seems like a slim thread but you have other clues, too. I hope it doesn't take you too long to narrow the field to the right person.

    1. I have very little to go on Nancy, but I'm hoping, if I can develop a hypothesis, I just might be able to prove it, with time. Nothing so far!

  3. Dara, I feel your frustration! Any chance those Catholic baptismal records are still accessible by microfilm copies? I know that is truly grunt work, but perhaps any other clues, such as sponsors' names, might reveal additional clues as to whether any of these candidates might be the right one.

    1. Jacqi, I do have the full baptism transcripts already, but do look forward to the online release of the 'originals' next summer (unless I visit the NLI in the meantime), they may contain an extra clue.

  4. Hi Dara,
    I have a direct ancestor who is reportedly a Byrne. I cannot locate anything on her or her husband.....yet. I am hoping that will change when I go to the FHL this spring. I have quite a few ancestors from Ireland and certainly have never located a single record. Why? Because I don't know how to begin, or more correctly, I'm a little intimidated by the process of parish records etc. When I had my DNA done I found out there's more Irish than Scottish in me, which was a surprise. 55% if you combine the two.


I look forward to reading your comments, even more especially if you're related to someone mentioned in this post.

Comments are visible publicly. You may also contact me privately by email - blackraven.genealogy [at] gmail [dot] com.