Saturday, 20 February 2016

All about John Byrne

Carrickbrennan Graveyard, Monkstown, c.1835.

Sometimes, when seeking out our elusive ancestors, all that remains of them are documents recording their births, marriages and deaths.  Don’t get me wrong, I count myself VERY lucky to locate these vital records. But, once I have them, usually I want more. I want to know an ancestor’s true character. I want to know their life-story.

Yet, as we go further back in time, memories of past lives fade into oblivion. After a century or more has passed, there’s often no other option but to read between the lines of these fragmented BMD documents, to get a sense of the person they once were. And, that’s how it was with my paternal second great-grandfather, John Byrne. Nothing at all was remembered about him.

So, I set about piecing together an account of his life:-

He was barely eighteen years old when he left behind the tiny village of Athgarvan, Co. Kildare, where he had spent his childhood.  This was in the immediate aftermath of the Great Famine. Perhaps John was too poor to afford the boat fare to America, because, like so many of his poorer countrymen, he moved to Dublin city instead.  There, he lived at 29 Upper Mercer Street with his friend John Darcy, and presumably he found work as a domestic servant.

Once in Dublin, he met a girl named Mary Markey. Mary also lived in the city, away from her parents. Perhaps she too was a domestic servant and met up with John at work. It wasn’t long before the young couple found themselves in a spot of trouble.

Unmarried, on 10 December 1859, Mary Markey had a baby daughter who she christened Mary. John Byrne was named as the father. His friend, John Darcy and Catherine Byrne, maybe his sister, were the child’s Godparents. Can you imagine how difficult this time must have been for them? 

The young parents were probably barely able to support themselves, let alone raise a family. They waited until after the child was born alive and healthy before they agreed to get married. Or, maybe that decision was made for them by someone else.  Either way, the following month, on 8 January 1860, John Byrne and Mary Markey wed in the Church of St Nicholas, Dublin. Their witnesses were John Darcy and Catherine Byrne.

And that was the last record so far found relating to Mary (Markey) Byrne and her daughter. Seven years later, on 27 January 1867, John married my second great-grandmother, Alicia Leahy, in Dublin. Strangely, at the time of this marriage, John said he was a bachelor, i.e. not married previously. His friend John Darcy witnessed his second marriage too and 'overlooked' his claim.  Presumably, John’s first wife had died.

By 1867, John was a servant living at Yapton, in Monkstown, Co. Dublin. This must have been his employer's address. John still resided at Yapton later in 1867 and in also 1868, when he registered the births of his sons Michael and Thomas. The boys were born nearby at Mounttown, in Kingstown. Perhaps John lived with his employer and only saw his family on his time off.

Sadly, shortly after Thomas was born, tragedy struck again and John was widowed a second time. Alicia Byrne died at Mounttown, on 9 January 1869. She was only about twenty nine years of age. She suffered from heart disease and acute rheumatism for ‘some weeks’ before the illness finally took her life. John did not register her death and may not even have been present at her hour of passing.

What became of the boys?  It seems the family could not live with John when Alicia was alive. So, presumably, it was even less feasible after her death. My guess - this is how my great-grandfather ended up in Malahide, being raised by his aunt, Alicia’s sister, Mary (Leahy, Radcliffe) Power.

What became of Mary Byrne, John's eldest child, born to his first wife Mary Markey?  I wonder if she survived. Perhaps she was raised by her mother’s family too. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Mary Markey’s parents were from Malahide. My great-grandfather may even have known his half-sister growing up.

What became of John Byrne himself?  Well, maybe time (and a whole lot more research) will tell.

Source: Church records on; Copy birth, marriage and death registers, General Register Office; The Dublin Penny Journal, 31 January 1835, JSTOR

© Black Raven Genealogy

See more about where John Byrne came from at: Escape to the country.


  1. How frustrating when all that's available is to presume or read between the lines of the few documents available. However, it looks like you are making some progress with the discoveries in the past month. How exciting, Dara! You are substantiating the narrative quite handily, bit by bit!

  2. It is exciting Jacqi, I'd nearly given up on ever finding Michael Byrne's parents, and now I even 'know' his grandparents. and, it's amazing what you can learn from a few BMD type documents!

  3. Dara, it looks like you're doing a great job 'reading between the lines.' You did a great job telling Jonh Byrne's story. Hopefully, you'll be able to uncover more details about him & his family.

    1. Thanks Dana, it's sometimes amazing how much you can learn about someone from just their BMD records, but it's usually impossible to really learn anything of their character.

  4. You put together a great story for him, I thought. Good luck in finding more bits.

  5. Thanks Jo, it's good to hear from you.

  6. Dara, you're quite the sleuth, finding & putting together all those pieces. I love reading your stories. It inspires me to keep looking for my ancestors 'stories'.


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

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