Researching Irish Ancestors

March 17th, 2011

Last year for St Patrick’s Day I wrote a blog Letters Home – My Irish Families (6 Mar 2010). It reunited me with three distant lines of my Jeffers family of Portadown, Ireland which was exciting for all of us. This year my tribute to St Patrick’s Day will be sharing some of my favourite Irish websites and resources.

For anyone who is just starting their family history, I have an article How Do I Start Tracing My Family History: A Brief Introduction which readers might find useful.

One of the hardest things I’ve found in tracing my own Irish ancestors is trying to establish where they actually came from in Ireland. For example, with my gg grandfather Adam Johnston I ended up buying all of his children’s birth certificates so that I could pinpoint where he was from. Listed below is a table showing each child, Adam’s surname and place of birth as listed on each certificate. Note the variations in spelling of each.

James 1865 & Sarah Jane 1867 - Adam Johnston, Co Cavan Ireland

William 1868 – Adam Johnston Coy Cavan Ireland

Margaret 1873 – Adam Johnson, Cavan Ulster Ireland

Margaret 1876 – Ballyborough Cavan Ireland

Elizabeth 1879 & Maria 1882 - Adam Johnston, Kenningstown/Keningstown, County Cavan, Ireland

Adam John 1884 – Adam Johnston, Cavan, Ireland

Adam’s death certificate 1900 had Caragn, Ireland and from his siblings’ certificates I also picked up Knockbride, Cavan. His brothers Thomas, William and James and sister Elizabeth all came out to Queensland as well so sometimes if you can’t find the information on your direct line, it can be worthwhile to follow siblings as well.

From this I knew it was County Cavan, with particular places Ballyborough, Kenningstown/Keningstown and Knockbride. Looking at a map soon revealed that the places were really Bailieborough, Canningstown and Knockbride all close together in County Cavan. But without the evidence from the certificates I might have had a hard time narrowing down a common surname like Johnson/Johnston/Johnstone. Variations in the surname were found on all lines of the family in Queensland.

When I first started looking for my Irish families in 1977, it was very hard with lots of letter writing but with the Internet and Google, it can be a lot easier. More and more records are being indexed and placed online, often for a fee, so I still live in hope that I will be able to progress some of my Irish lines further back.

For example, I know little about my Finn and Fegan families from County Wicklow. John Finn (son of Francis Finn and Rosa Beakey) was born ca 1856 at Ballygannon, County Wicklow and married Sarah Fegan in Rathdrum, Wicklow on 29 May 1879. Sarah (daughter of Robert Fegan and Sarah Kane?) was born ca 1862 at Glasnarget, County Wicklow. They arrived in Queensland, Australia in 1882 with their son Robert Finn born 1880 and another son James Joseph Finn born on board the Mairi Bhan during the voyage. Nothing is known about my Finn family in Ireland apart from these brief facts.

I advertise my research interests and an Australian site is the Online Irish Names Research Directory maintained by Graham Jaunay. He also maintains lists for other countries and I like to advertise widely as you just never know who will see your listing.

Another very useful Australian site is the National Library of Australia and in particular its eResources. This is a free service available to all Australians who register for an eResources card. Of particular interest to those with Irish ancestors is free access at home to the Irish Newspapers Archive via the eResources card. This is the largest online database of Irish newspapers in the world and dates from 1763 to the present including out of print titles. There are too many titles to list here but definitely worth a look.

To assist others I have listed some of my favourite Irish websites. They are listed in no particular order as some may be more relevant to your research than others.

Genuki UK and Ireland Genealogy

National Archives of Ireland

Public Record Office Northern Ireland

National Library of Ireland

Census of Ireland 1901 & 1911 (online free)

Ireland GenWeb Project

Irish Ancestors

Irish Family History Foundation

Irish Roots Cafe

The IreAtlas Townlands Database

Topographical Dictionary of Ireland

Ask About Ireland – Griffiths Valuation (free)

Ireland Genealogy Project & Ireland Genealogy Project Archives

Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) – gateway site to many other Irish sites

I encourage everyone to take the time to explore them as there is lots of advice and research tips on all of them. There are many other websites that can be useful for Irish research but the above are some of the sites I use on a regular basis. If readers have a particular Irish favourite not listed here, please share – who knows one of them might just have my Irish ancestors lurking on them!


Letters Home – My Irish Families

March 6th, 2010

This week’s blog is my contribution to the Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture, 18th edition

With four gg grandparents born in Ireland it is no wonder that I am interested in Irish heritage and culture. Of the four it is only my gg grandmother Maria Jeffers who gives me any real insight into her life back in Ireland. However, I will also outline the other Irish gg grandparents just in case someone else is interested in those families.

Maria Jeffers arrived in Brisbane in 1864. Maria (daughter of Isaac Jeffers and Harriet Ballantyne) was born in Portadown, County Armagh in 1844. Maria came to Queensland, Australia on board the Legion of Honour in 1864. She married Adam Johnston (see below) in 1864 in Brisbane, Queensland. In later life she had a close friend Abraham Francis and she is seen with him in this photograph.Abraham Francis and Maria Jeffers

Of my four Irish ancestors, Maria Jeffers is the only one known to have kept contact with her family back in Ireland. A few surviving letters to and from one of her brothers who stayed in Portadown confirms this. The letters were in poor condition with pages and pieces missing and had been given to one of Maria’s grandsons on a collateral line who kindly let me photocopy them many years ago.

One of my father’s elderly cousins also said that Maria wrote to a brother in the USA but we had no proof until I recently received an email from someone in the USA descended from that brother. We are now exchanging information and pooling what we know on the family in Portadown.

The first letter I have is undated but seems to be re-establishing contact, possibly ca 1904.

Dear Maria

Just a line to say I got your letter all right. Am glad to hear from you would be well pleased to hear from you at any time, perhaps you will come over and see us all. If so, I would give you a good reception, and would keep you as long as you liked or in fact altogether.

Excuse writing bad pen

With love from all to all

James Jeffers

Another letter from James dated 30 Jan 1904 from Cabra, Tandragee includes more family information including the exchange of Christmas cards. Snippets include:

We have none of photos just, this weather is gloomy and dark, but in a few weeks when it brightens up, we will get them all taken, and will send you a copy as soon as possible.

My second wife has two daughters, will send them too, I have no great news to tell you of, except we are buying out our farm off the landlord at about 160 pounds sterling.

The names of the two girls are Minnie she eldest about 18 years of age and Annie about 14 years.

Minnie would willingly correspond with Maria is she cared to do so but in writing address put Minnie Calvin. NB Maria was Maria’s youngest daughter born 1882.

In another letter dated 2 April 1906 James gives some information on changes to the area since Maria left in 1864. Snippets include:

There are a great many changes here since you went away all the old neighbours are either dead or left long ago. John Woods is living (where Willie Brann lived) married one Bella Moore but he is dating long ago. All the other old neighbours are all away, the most of them dead. Mary King is still living in Richhill yet, she goes about the country with a pack and she has gathered money.

The old mill has gone to ruin not a soul living about it now. Mr Orr’s have left the course.

In a letter dated 9 March 1910 written by James’ wife Ellen, Maria is informed of the death of her brother James. The handwriting and spelling is very bad but snippets include:

We did not expect it he was just ill from Friday to Monday the docter ……thought it was influanzea and turned to newmonia on the lungs the minister was here

I wont beelong behind my James then we will meet to part no more the children are all with me yet I have it hard with them but will do what I can to Albert is left school I will do it for his father’s sake. They want the farm sold but it was so far in debt nothing is left when the first wife died the place was sunk in debt……..

In an undated letter, Ellen Jeffers now living at 96 Park Road, Portadown wrote to Maria complaining about no letters being received and her poor health and how much she missed James. Bad handwriting and poor spelling make it hard to understand Ellen plus she seems to be rambling at times. Snippets include:

I herd harriet was married in America sarah will bee in a sad truble she expected them home she com down and stoped with me a day and a night

Albert is got so wild I cant guide him harriet is not much …. I often want them to right you there is no love in them I don’t no how they will do when they lose me the one wont help the other

Another letter dated 2 Dec 1910 from Ellen indicates that she is not well again, still missing James and that she has included a photo of him with the letter. Sadly that photo doesn’t seem to have survived or no one knew who it was when going through Maria’s things after she died in 1930. However I have a copy of one photo of two girls believed to be Minnie and Annie Calvin, James two step-daughters. It is inscribed ‘to Auntie from Minnie’.

I am really grateful that these few letters have survived and it lets me know that Maria did make contact with her family again although after an absence of almost forty years. I wonder why she did after such a long time – what prompted her to make the effort to reconnect?

My other Irish gg grandparents are briefly outlined below and I am always happy to share information with family members.

Adam Johnston (husband of Maria Jeffers, son of James Johnston and Sarah McElwain) was born in 1842 in Knockbride, County Cavan and he arrived in Queensland, Australia with his brother James on board the Mangerton in 1861. Adam and Maria had nine children but separated sometime in the 1880s and Adam had a relationship with Mary Tyrell and had another three children before his death in 1900. Numerous members of the Johnston family from Knockbride also came to Queensland and there are many descendants actively tracing the family. A number of meetings have been held in the last twelve months to pool information and to sort out the various lines and how they connect.

John Finn (son of Francis Finn and Rosa Beakey) was born ca 1856 at Ballygannon, County Wicklow married Sarah Fegan in Rathdrum, Wicklow on 29 May 1879. Sarah (daughter of Robert Fegan and Sarah ?) was born ca 1862 at Glasnarget, County Wicklow. They arrived in Queensland, Australia in 1882 with their son Robert Finn born 1880 and another son James Joseph Finn born on board the Mairi Bhan during the voyage. Nothing is known about the Finn family in Ireland apart from these brief facts.

If anyone has more information on the families above, I would love to hear from you and expand my knowledge of my Irish heritage and culture.


Finding My Long Lost Jeffers Cousins Online

February 21st, 2010

I have written before about why it pays to advertise your family research interests online and this is another example with my Jeffers family from Portadown, County Armagh Ireland. I placed a query about the family on an Ancestry.com message board in November 1998 and my first direct reply was in October 2001, almost three years later. Unfortunately that person never wrote back after establishing we were interested in the same family.

Now in February 2010 over eight years later I have yet another contact. So the first important  lesson is be patient and don’t expect instant success.

My gg grandmother was Maria Jeffers born ca 1844 in Portadown, County Armagh. She migrated to Queensland, Australia in 1864. She left behind her parents Isaac Jeffers and Harriet Ballantyne and siblings Isaac, Jacob, William, James and Mary Anne. From some surviving letters we know that Maria continued to write home to her family and in particular her brother James. We have a letter from his wife advising of his death in 1910.

One of Maria’s granddaughters told me that Maria also wrote to family in the USA but there were no surviving letters and a quick look at the Jeffers name in the US revealed that without a State and some idea of family names it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Coming back to my most recent contact, it is from descendants of Maria’s brother Isaac who went to the US in 1894 without his family and then returned for them in 1895. They settled in Pennsylvannia and moved to New Jersey in the 1900s where members of the family still live today.

It is interesting to speculate why didn’t he come out to Australia with his family to be closer to his sister and her family. Or did he come out here and decide that he didn’t like the Queensland climate, too hot and tropical? Certainly the trip to the US was quicker than to Australia, or perhaps there was a more attractive immigration scheme and so on.

My new contact is only starting out on family history so I can assist with what I know of the family in Ireland and it has spurred me to relook at the Jeffers family as there are more resources available now than when I last looked.

It is also interesting to add the American cousins to the Australian cousins and should I now also try to find again the descendants of the brother James who stayed in Portadown. He only had daughters which makes it a little more difficult as they probably married. What about the other brothers and sister – what happened to them?

One unexpected email to a message board posting nearly 11 years ago has triggered a whole range of questions and a renewed desire to look at my Jeffers family again. It will be interesting to see what I turn up. Stay tuned for the answer!


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