Saturday, 5 September 2015

Genealogy quest: Niggling Doubts

Having finally identified John and Maryanne (Coyle) Donovan as the parents named by my great-grandmother on her marriage to Charles O’Neill in 1874, I find myself still harbouring some niggling doubts?  Don't get me wrong, I'm happily convinced that Mary Agnes considered this couple to have been her parents, but, well, could they have been her real parents? Would they, at least, have been the parents named on her baptism record, if only I could find a copy of it!

In Irish genealogical research, a missing baptism record is not that unusual, even when the search location is known. Maybe she was born sickly and baptised at home, or maybe there was once an entry in a baptism register, but it has since been lost, or is now illegible. Maybe I have just not found it yet. Either way, the parents of some of my other direct ancestors have been ‘proven’ only by establishing their relationship to a sibling, and with far less angst. So, why do I have such lingering uncertainty, in this case?

I keep coming back to the church records located for John and Maryanne and their children and wondering where Mary Agnes fits in.1

            Marriage of John Donovan and Maryanne Coyle on 9 February 1851
Thomas Joseph Donovan
born 11 March 1854
John James Donovan
born 18 November 1855
Thomas Laurence Donovan
born 20 June 1857
Francis Donovan
born 16 September 1858
Catherine Donovan
born 18 March 1860
Teresa Anne Donovan
born 18 May 1862

Not for the first time, I see the three-year gap between their marriage and the birth of Thomas Joseph. It's not unreasonable to believe a child, or maybe two, were born in this period, and I'm not even taking into account the possibility of a premarital pregnancy.  

Then I realised the cause of my concern. Mary Agnes said that she was a minor (less than 21 years of age) at the time of her marriage.2 And I believed her. This therefore gave her birth-date as after 19 April 1853 – less than twelve months before the birth of Thomas Joseph – a very small window of opportunity, maybe not impossible, but certainly tight.

In truth, however, the Donovan sisters have given no indication they were worthy of such trust when it came to reporting their ages. In the 1901 census, Mary Agnes estimated her age as 38 (which would imply she was eleven years old when she married by great-grandfather - not), while the census ten years later indicated she was 45 years old  so we can see she was definitely prone to ‘losing’ time.3 The 1901 census for her sister, Teresa, says she was born about 1876, when we know for a fact she was baptised in 1862.4 I cannot think of a reason why Mary Agnes would say she was a minor if it was not true, but maybe she truly did not know how old she was. Age was not of as much concern in the nineteenth century, as it is now.

So, I suppose it really is feasible that John and Maryanne were her real parents.

Perhaps, I will never be able to consider closing this this case, without Mary Agnes' baptism record.   

1 Church registers, St Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Dublin,
2 Copy marriage register, Agnes Donovan, Dublin North, 1874, General Register Office.
3 Mary Agnes Ellis, Mountjoy, Census of Ireland, 1901 and 1911, National Archives of Ireland
4 Theresa Corless, Manchester, Census of England, 1901,

Image from Pixabay. 

© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Dara, I don't think you are the only one who has doubts that are like a little tickle that keeps bothering you. We can just do our best: collect all the data we can; analyze it objectively; and perhaps add a splash of intuition. Then move to the next problem.

  2. You're right Colleen, I'm moving on, for now. I've even got ideas for Maryanne's parents, but with little actual evidence. I'll probably circle back again in a year or so and see what's new. ;)


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