Saturday, 4 June 2016

Thomas McGrane - Merchant seaman

Thomas McGrane (born in Dublin in 1898, died in New York in 1964)
Thomas McGrane, c. 1919
Thomas McGrane was a first cousin of my great-grandfather, James Byrne. He was the youngest son of Francis Joseph McGrane and Margaret Byrne, born on 30 November 1898.[1] Thomas grew up in Lower Jane Place, off Oriel St. in Dublin city, where he was closer in age to James’s children than he was to James. 

His mother died when he was barely two years old, leaving his father with six surviving children - Elizabeth (14), Francis (10), Margaret (8), Bridget (6), Maryanne (4) and Thomas (2). His father married Mary Fay in June 1902, and it was Mary who reared Thomas. 

Like his cousin Benjamin Byrne, Thomas joined the British Merchant Navy in 1919. He first served on board the RMS Aquitania, travelling between Southampton and New York. Subsequently in 1919, he joined the crew of the SS Orbita,  again working on the North Atlantic route.[2] Presumably, on one such trip, he fell in love with New York and decided to make it his permanent home - at least, from 1922 onwards, New York became his base when he was not travelling the high seas.

SS Orbita, built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff, 1915

In November 1926, Thomas successfully petitioned for U.S. citizenship. At that time, he was living at 25 South Street, the address of the Seamen’s Church Institute, in New York.
[3] Many sailors of this era had no permanent home and instead used such ‘sailors’ accommodation’ when they were between ships.

The year after Thomas obtained American citizenship, while docked at the port of Los Angeles, he applied for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate.[4] Sailors often used these as passports, to prove their identity and nationality.

Various crew lists describe him as having brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion, and his height, though inconsistently recorded, was mostly given as about five feet, four inches tall. He was just a titch – like all the Dubs, then. His hair turned grey when he was still in his twenties.

Thomas McGrane (born in Dublin in 1898, died in New York in 1964)
Thomas McGrane, c. 1927

In common with many sailors then, Thomas wore tattoos. His right forearm featured a sailor’s grave and clasp hands, and the words ‘true love’. On his left forearm, he wore a cross in memory of his sister Margaret, who died, aged only thirty-two years, in 1924.[4]

Thomas continued to work as an able-bodied seaman for the next twenty years, first on steamships and then on motor-ships. The crew list of the Jeff Davis of New Orleans, arriving from Australia in 1935, records his next of kin as his mother ‘Mary of 6 Oriel Street, Dublin'.[5] He must have known his father died in 1931 - maybe the Seamen’s Church Institute operated a post-office service. Perhaps his travels even took him back to Dublin city every so often, where he got to spend a night or two with his family.

On 6 January 1946, Thomas arrived in Philadelphia from Gibraltar, on route to New York. This trip on the Royal S Copeland, a Liberty ship of World War IIwas his last ever voyage as an able-bodied seaman.[5] A few months later, on 22 April 1946, he suffered a 'paralytic stroke', changing his life forever.[6] He was forty-seven years old and no longer able to work. He must have been heart-broken.

For many years afterwards, he survived on social welfare and the kindness of friends. Then, in 1953, he successfully applied for admittance to the Sailor’s Snug Harbor, a retirement home for merchant seamen, on Staten Island, New York. There, he spent the remainder of his days. He passed away on 2 January 1964 and was laid to rest in the Sailor’s Snug Harbor Cemetery.’[6]

Genealogy Quick Tip:
In May 2016, Ancestry (subscription site) released a collection of U.S. Applications for Seamen's Protection Certificates, 1916-1940, containing over 300,000 records of ‘seamen’s passports’ issued by U.S. customs officials. A small percentage of the records relate to Irish- born sailors with U.S. citizenship. Typically the application form contains the seaman's name, birthdate, and place of birth, as well as his father’s name and birthplace. It also contains the applicant’s photograph, physical description, signature and thumb print.

[1] Copy Birth Register, General Register Office.
[2] Irish Mariners, transcription of ‘CR10 series’ index card’, held by the Southampton Civic Archives.
[3] New York, Naturalization Records, 1897-1944,
[4] U.S., Applications for Seaman's Protection Certificates, 1916-1940,
[5] New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,
[6] Thomas McGrane, 1953, Application for Admittance to Sailor's Snug Harbor, accessed on 6 Generations Dublin.

Image Credits: Thomas McGrane, c. 1919, The Southampton Civic Archives; SS OrbitaBj√∂rn Larsson collection; Thomas McGrane, c. 1927, U.S., Applications for Seaman's Protection Certificates, 1916-1940,

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. This is an interesting look at the seaman's life although it's still rather sad that he relied on welfare.

    1. Wendy, it's sad he died alone, so far away from his family, but perhaps he wanted it that way; he certainly seemed to have friends in New York.

  2. Very interesting, he was a handsome fellow!

    1. Thanks Ellie, and yes, he was good looking as a boy.

  3. He was really a handsome man. Having lived such an active life, it must have been so frustrating to him to have a stroke at such a relatively young age and be so limited.

    1. I'd say the sea called to him for the rest of his life, Michelle, he probably had salt-water in his veins - poor man.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!