Hot on the Trail of the Walshes: Determining Place of Origin in Ireland

In a previous post, I wrote about some progress I’ve made toward identifying potential parents for my 3x-great-grandfather, Robert Walsh. Thomas Walsh and Bridget Maria Walsh McNamara may or may not have been his siblings, but it’s clear that they were some kind of close family members to Robert, and that they were also full siblings to each other, since marriage records indicate that both Thomas and Maria were children of James Walsh and Catherine Cavanagh. Knowing the name, approximate date of birth, and parents’ names for an immigrant ancestor could potentially provide enough information to start looking for that ancestor in records from the Old Country, if the surname is relatively uncommon. However, the surname Walsh is the fourth most popular surname in Ireland today, and Cavanagh (or Kavanagh) is ranked at number 53 for popularity, with both surnames found throughout Ireland.1 For this reason, it makes sense to try to determine a precise place of origin for my immigrant Walsh siblings, rather than trying to leap into Irish records prematurely.

So far, this has been an uphill battle. Most of the strategies that have been successful when determining place of origin for my Polish ancestors have not worked here. Robert Walsh was already in Canada by the time of his marriage to Canadian-born Elizabeth Hodgkinson circa 1843. There are no surviving passenger manifests for immigration to Canadian ports prior to 1865, so we can’t hope to find a passenger manifest which states his birthplace or last residence within Ireland.2 Although a passenger manifest might be found if he arrived first in a U.S. port and then made his way to St. Catharines, I have no reason to believe that this was the case, and no identifying information that might help me to distinguish my Robert Walsh/Welch/Welsh from the scores of Irish immigrants by that name who immigrated via U.S. ports. Since Canada and Ireland were both part of the British Empire prior to Canadian confederation in 1867, naturalization was not necessary for Irish immigrants to Canada, which eliminates the possibility that a naturalization record will state place of origin.3 Neither have any of the church records provided any clues, since available baptismal records and marriage records for my known Walsh relatives do not specify immigrants’ place of origin, and burial records are not available. However, cluster research might help with this question, just as it did with identifying potential parents for Robert Walsh.

Chain migration is defined as “the process by which migrants from a particular town follow others from that town to a particular destination,”4 and it’s a phenomenon that many of us family historians have documented. In my own research, I’ve discovered that many of the Polish immigrants to North Tonawanda, New York in the period from 1900–1918 were from Sochaczew County, and many of the German immigrants to Detroit in the 1830s–1850s were from the area around Neustadt in the Marburg-Biedenkopf district. Could there be a similar, common place of origin for many of the Irish immigrants who chose St. Catharines as their destination? More importantly, can we identify that place of origin using existing data?

The cathedral parish of St. Catherine of Alexandria was established to serve the Irish laborers who built both the first Welland canal which opened in 1829, as well as the second Welland canal which was built in the 1840s.5 This work on the canal may have been a factor in Robert Walsh’s decision to immigrate. Although he was a merchant tailor rather than a laborer or canal worker, it may have been that Robert decided to leave Ireland for Canada to serve the clothing needs of this growing Irish community. Moreover, it is perhaps significant that Robert emigrated prior to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845–1849. In times of major crisis such as that famine, one might suppose that emigrants would be less particular about their destination. However, since Robert was a pre-Famine immigrant, his decision to go to St. Catharines may have been made in light of more ordinary considerations.

Of course, it’s too much to hope that all of the Irish immigrants to St. Catharines came from one location in Ireland, but it could potentially direct future research if I were to discover that, for example, most of the immigrants turned out to be from one or two counties within Ireland. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to examine church records from St. Catharines dated prior to the Great Famine. The earliest available records start in 1852, which suggests that any early chain migration patterns which may have existed will likely be obscured by the sheer volume of Irish immigration to Canada after the Great Famine. Nonetheless, desperate times call for desperate measures, and at this point I can’t think of any available genealogical data sets which might be more useful than church records in providing clues about migration patterns from Ireland to St. Catharines. To borrow an aviation cliché from my dad, I’m running out of altitude, air speed, and ideas.

So, here’s the plan:

  • Analyze the data from the earliest available collection of church records from the cathedral parish of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the parish in which my ancestors settled, to see if any trends emerge regarding specific place of origin of Irish immigrants.
  • Pay special attention to data from any records of individuals known to be associated with my Walsh ancestors.
  • Use this information to prioritize searches for my ancestors in records from Ireland.

I’m planning to use John Grenham’s Irish genealogy site, Irish Ancestors, to identify the various collections which might be useful in tracking down my Walshes, and I purchased a short-term subscription to RootsIreland, which offers a number of databases of indexed records. (Spoiler alert: I’ve searched both these sites for “low-hanging fruit”—easily-found indexed records relevant to my research—and come up empty.) John Grenham’s site has a helpful feature which allows one to search by a surname (e.g. Walsh), and then cross-reference with a second surname (e.g. Cavanagh) to identify civil parishes in which both surnames were found in Griffith’s Valuation (1847–1864). Unfortunately, the Irish Ancestors site identified close to 200 parishes in which both surnames, Walsh and Cavanagh, were found. Given my research background in Polish records, that number seemed ridiculously high to me. I thought there had to be a better way to narrow the focus before attempting research in Irish records. However, after chatting about this research with Irish genealogy expert, Donna Moughty, at the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium (NERGC) conference in Manchester this past April, I learned that refinement might not be possible here. In Donna’s opinion, finding specific place of origin for pre-Famine immigrants from Ireland is generally so difficult that she thought my best bet under these circumstances would be that “brute force” method, systematically going through all the parishes identified at John Grenham’s site in which both the Walsh and Cavanagh surnames were known to exist. So be it.

Did I mention that I’m also in a race against the clock? I have an opportunity to follow my husband to Dublin on a business trip in a few weeks and it would be wonderful if I could squeeze in a day trip to the birthplace of Robert Walsh while I’m there. Of course, real life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of genealogy, so it’s not possible for me to devote myself full-time to the pursuit of the Walsh Ancestral Village. The unfortunate reality is that there’s a good chance I will not be able to identify the birthplace of Robert, Thomas, and Bridget Maria Walsh prior to setting foot on the Emerald Isle. At least I want the satisfaction of knowing I gave it my best possible shot.

So, I made a careful study of the available marriage and baptismal records for St. Catherine of Alexandria parish. The earliest available records are found in the collection Baptisms, marriages 1852–1860, and I focused on these primarily since the marriage records from this book typically mention the specific place of origin of the bride and groom. This is in contrast to the later book of Marriages, 1858–1910 in which only the immigrant’s country of origin is typically specified, although there was a span of years (images 12–16, with a few additional entries on images 10, 20, 23 and 27) when some thoughtful priest recorded the county of origin for Irish immigrants as well. I did not observe any examples of baptismal records where the place of origin of immigrant parents was noted. In the interest of time, I did not include the data regarding county of origin when it was mentioned in the book Marriages, 1858–1910. Instead, I focused only on the earliest records.

As the title suggests, the book Baptisms, Marriages 1852-1860 contains both baptismal records and marriage records, intermingled on the same pages through 1857, when the parish began recording marriages in a separate book. I began by making a spreadsheet indexing all the baptisms which mention surnames Walsh/Welsh or Cavanagh in any capacity (mother, father, godmother or godfather). I did the same with the marriage records, indexing all those records in which the bride or groom was a Walsh, one of the witnesses was a Walsh, or the maiden name of the mother of either the bride or groom was Walsh. I also included all the marriage and baptism records that mention the known godparents of the children of Robert and Elizabeth Walsh. By doing this, I gained some interesting insights into the Walsh family’s network within their parish community in St. Catharines. However, it’s impossible to say which of these relationships were forged after immigration and which, if any, might stem from a common community in Ireland.

Among the potentially relevant discoveries were the following:

  • Thomas Walsh’s wife, Maryann Cronin, had a full brother named Michael Cronin who married Jane Alcox in 1856. Their marriage record stated that Michael was from County Limerick, while Jane was a native of St. Catharines, like Elizabeth (née Hodgkinson) Walsh.6
  • Michael and Maryann Cronin had another full sister, Margaret Cronin, who married Robert McNamara in 1861.7 One of the witnesses to the marriage was John Fitzgerald—probably the same John Fitzgerald who served as godfather to Elizabeth Walsh (daughter of Robert Walsh) in 1854.
  • In 1858, Margaret Cronin was named as godmother to Thomas Cronin, son of John Cronin and Winifred Walsh.8 It’s tempting to speculate that this is the same Margaret Cronin who was sister to Michael and Maryann, and that Winifred Walsh might be related to “my” Walshes. However, there’s not enough evidence at this point to support that conclusion, and in any case, no marriage record for John and Winifred was found which might indicate her specific place of origin within Ireland.
  • Patrick McNamara, the husband of Bridget Maria Walsh, had a brother named John McNamara, who married the widowed Margaret (née Battle) McBride in November 1854.9  Margaret was the godmother of Elizabeth Walsh (Robert’s daughter) in May 1854.10 John McNamara was noted to be a native of Killuran, County Clare, while Margaret Battle was born in County Sligo. It’s not clear if Patrick and John McNamara were related in some way to Robert McNamara, husband of Margaret Cronin. However, it’s clear that any relationship that might have existed was more distant than siblings, since Patrick and John were reported to be sons of Timothy McNamara and Catherine Sullivan, while Robert was the son of Michael McNamara and Mary Gleeson.
  • Thomas Coil (or Coyle) and Jane Parks, who served as godparents to Nellie Walsh in August 1857,11 were married to each other in February 1857,12 exemplifying the priest’s tendency to record women under their maiden names, or under both married and maiden. Thomas Coyle was noted to be a native of County Tyrone, while Jane Parks was native to St. Catharines.
  • Although there were a couple baptismal records for a child of a Cavanah/Cavanagh mother or father, as well as a couple of baptismal records in which a Cavanagh served as a godfather, there’s no evidence that the individuals mentioned in those records were connected with each other, or with my Walsh/Cavanagh relatives.
  • There seems to be a connection between the Walsh family and the O’Driscol family, but the significance of that connection is unclear. Robert Walsh (presumably “my” Robert Walsh, since he was the only adult by that name living in St. Catharines in the 1861 census) served as godfatber to Helena McGuire in 1854, daughter of Daniel McGuire and Mary O’Driscol.13 In 1858, he was named as godfather to Edward O’Driscol, son of Michael O’Driscol and Catherine O’Driscol.14

 

To recap, the individuals mentioned above were the closest FANs (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) of Robert, Thomas, and Bridget Maria Walsh for whom I can identify some place of origin. The diversity of locations in Ireland associated with them underscores the difficulty in the task of locating my Walsh ancestors in Irish records. While it may be possible that one of these individuals happens to be from the same hometown as my Walshes, it may also be that all of them met in St. Catharines and were brought together by the common bond of being couples in which one spouse was a native of Upper Canada (in the case of Jane Parks, Jane Alcox, and Elizabeth Hodgkinson) while the other spouse was an immigrant from Ireland. In any case, my starting point in Irish records will be the locations mentioned in the records for these FANs of the Walshes: County Limerick, County Sligo, County Clare, and County Tyrone.

Sources:

1 “Top 100 Irish Surnames & Last Names (Family Names Ranked),” Ireland Before You Die (https://www.irelandbeforeyoudie.com : 7 June 2019).

2 “Passenger Lists, 1865-1922,” Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca : 7 June 2019).

3 “Canada Naturalization and Citizenship,” FamilySearch, (https://www.familysearch.org : 7 June 2019).

4 “Chain Migration,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/ : 7 June 2019).

5 “History of Our Parish,” Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria—Diocese of St. Catharines (https://www.thecathedralinstcatharines.com/history : 7 June 2019).

6 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, unnumbered entries, unnumbered pages in chronological order, 1856, “Marriage Mich’l Cronin ac Jane Alex,” 19 August 1856, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 7 June 2019) path Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 59 of 104.

7 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Marriage Register, Jan. 19, 1858–May 11, 1911, unnumbered pages, unnumbered entries in chronological order, 1861, Robert McNamara and Margaret Cronin, 10 January 1861, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” Family Search (https://www.familysearch.org : 7 June 2019), path: Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Marriages 1858-1910 > image 9 of 48.

8 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, unnumbered entries, unnumbered pages in chronological order, 1856, “Baptism Thomas Cronin,” born 1 November 1858, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 7 June 2019) path Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 86 of 104.

9 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, 1854, unnumbered pages, “42nd marriage, John McNamara and Margaret Battle,” 23 November 1854, accessed as browsable images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org: 7 June 2019), path: Lincoln County > St Catharines > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, Marriages 1852-1860, image 36 of 104.

10 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, unnumbered pages in chronological order, 1854, “88th Bapt. Elizabeth Walsh,” born 21 May 1854, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 7 June 2019) path Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 28 of 104.

11 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, unnumbered entries, unnumbered pages in chronological order, 1854, “Baptism Ellenor Walsh,” born 24 December 1856, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 7 June 2019) path Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 72 of 104.

12 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, 1854, unnumbered entries, unnumbered pages in chronological order, “Marriage Thos. Coyle and Jane Park,” 19 February 1857, accessed as browsable images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org: 7 June 2019), path: Lincoln County > St Catharines > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, Marriages 1852-1860, image 66 of 104.

13 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, unnumbered entries, unnumbered pages in chronological order, 1854, “9th Baptism Helena McGuire,” born 11 December 1853, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 7 June 2019) path Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 22 of 104.

14 Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), Baptisms & Marriages 1852–1860, unnumbered entries, unnumbered pages in chronological order, 1858, “Baptism Edward O’Druscol [sic],” born 9 May 1858, accessed as browsable images, “Ontario Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ : 7 June 2019) path Lincoln > St. Catharines > Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, marriages 1852-1860 > image 81 of 104.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Hot on the Trail of the Walshes: Determining Place of Origin in Ireland

  1. Irish research sounds daunting. I’ve researched my kids’ and my Polish ancestors, but have not yet tried to follow their Irish ancestors back across the pond. Thanks for sharing your strategy, and good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

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