Going back to my Roots – deep and muddy

This has very little to do with weaving, but perhaps it warrants a bit of space on my blog as it took up so many of my evenings in January and February this year (time when I could / should have been weaving!).

In December last year (that would be, “super freezing December”), when I was home, I needed keys cut, so I went very early in the morning to a key cutters in Newry – while waiting for them to get organized, I noticed a brochure for an exhibition in the local museum, on the Merchant Navy and Maritime History in Newry & Mourne.

Are you still with me?!

This was curious, mainly as my grandfather and great-grandfather had been in the merchant navy – and the best thing about this little brochure was that it had lots of old pictures. Newry from its hay-day and photos of seamen long dead.

So, back to the key cutting shop.

They couldn’t help me with my keys – but that didn’t matter, the brochure sparked interest as I found a picture marked “lamp trimmer – “Patrick O’Neill – Fathom”. I’m from Fathom (a wee townland on the side of an inhospitable hill that is now called “Fathom Mountain”). The curious thing is, my grandfather was called Patrick O’Neill, and he hailed from Fathom. And O’Neill is not the most popular name for Fathom (“Hollywood”s on the other hand, are as populous as the rabbits!…I’m also a Hollywood – so I can’t say much, can I) He didn’t completely look like my grandfather – but there were similarities, and the ears were definitely O’Neill ears!

So, armed with knowledge that there had been an exhibition, I headed up to the museum in Bagnal’s castle to see what I could see… (and to warm up, as it was bloody freezing).

The exhibition was long gone, but I did get my own brochure which started a curious paper trail.
The nature of Newry, and probably most of Ireland, is still quite insular – families have been there for, literally, generations. We might be potato eating peasants, but most of us can easily trace back 4 generations or more. I knew we were no exception to this rule, but it was a curious thing to find out the details. Something I’d never been too bothered about.
The Patrick O’Neill in the picture was not my grandfather, but either an uncle or an older cousin (unfortunately Irish are not very inventive about their names, and believed in big families – hence “Patrick” occurred regularly in multiple generations…I’m sure at the time they all knew each other apart!)
My grandfather’s father, Hugh, was also in the merchant navy and served as a Fireman on the SS Scotia, he never seemed to be home during census time though and popped up in boarding houses in Dublin or onboard ship… (No bad thing according to accounts from my mother and my uncle, he was not missed – but that’s another story).
My great-grandmother ran the small farm they had on Fathom (where our house is built now), and raised 3 daughters and a son (my grandfather).
Her parents lived in the farm across the lane. In fact the land her farm was on was given to her by her father in the late 1800s. Her brother lived next door (in the field that we’ve always called “the bramble field” – it’s just full of bucky briars and blackberries). Her mother, (so, my great-great grandmother), née Jackson, came from the other side of the hill.
The land my parents live on now, was owned by my great-grandmother’s grandmother – who probably got it from her father. Her name is on the freeholders list for the Griffith’s tithes for 1861; and her father’s name is listed as freeholder for most of the surrounding land.

You see, little or nothing to do with weaving. (They had sheep, maybe they wove or spun…that link is tenuous though).

I started to understand the fascination that some people seem to have for tracing back their ancestry. It was like digging in a Lego box for that ONE brick you know is in there somewhere! With clarity, I could go back as far as 1861, to find weddings, births, deaths, census records and freeholders list. Beyond that there was sketchy information going back to 1811.

What I did discover overall, was that the Fathom peasantry were well fed, long-lived (living well into their 70s, 80s and in some cases, 90s) and held relatively large pieces of land. They were a mix of Catholic and Church of Ireland – and (by their names) appear to have intermarried more than modern history might lead us to believe. Some families (both Catholic and CoI) had servants and farm hands listed in the censuses – indicating that they were not exactly living on the bread line. The names of the servants / farm labourer were local to Newry, but not indigenous to Fathom…funny though that you can see there names there now – so a few of them got lucky! My uneducated guess is that this trend started during the famine (the “Famine” is to blame for everything in Ireland!), cheap labour in need of food and work.

Another curious thing – they married late, had relatively moderate sized families (for the time) of 4 – 8 children AND (and this was surprising to me), from correlating the births / marriages / deaths and the census records from the townland, you could see that the infant mortality rate appeared to be relatively low. The most poingant of these facts for me were looking at the details for my great-grandmother Lyons (née Campbell) who lived in Newry. In the 1901 census, she’d delivered 7 children with only  3  still living.  My Fathom g-grandmother delivered a total of 5 children – 4 lived to old age and grandparentage. This issue wasn’t specific to Mrs Lyons, it appeared to be an unfortunate trend.  

On this I have no concrete evidence, but for myself, I concluded that healthy woman, NOT marrying in their teens or early 20s, who worked on a farm, had slightly smaller families, but healthier pregnancies / babies…(either that or as a lot of the men went to sea, it acted as a natural birth control method). Was this a backlash to the famine or a regional trend? Healthier environment, diet, quality of life?  No idea.

The names from the early records of the late 1700s and the early 1800s (PRONI freeholder records) are the same family names as appeared in the Griffith tithes of the 1860s for the region – so my simple conclusion was that these people survived the famine relatively well. Relative, that is, to the surrounding counties and Newry Town which was decimated by the famine – I’m not saying any of these people had it easy – Fathom is an inhospitable granite hill, covered with heather, gorse, forest and bog – on paper, you wouldn’t have thought it was a place to thrive.

So, why am I boring you all senseless with this (eh, “all” – 3 or 4 people?!) – well, as my grown-up paid job involves research and digging for information, it naturally armed me with a wee bit more cunning when it comes to rooting out information – and for this reason I’m listing here the sources I used and some tips on how to use them efficiently before you have to start putting money on the table.


Direct search link to the Freeholders records in PRONI

The Irish census of 1901 and 1911 which greatly enriches any details you can get from the above sources.

Griffith’s Valuation (All Ireland, detailed by family name, individual, townload, parish, county – Also has an exceptional map overlay function to display old tith maps with current maps – truely an online gem and free)

Free site, that is apparently global – I’ve only focused it for Ireland. Results are poorly displayed but resources are very complete and comprehensive. DON’T refine your searches too much or you will end up with nothing, as the source is free, it’s easier to start broad and browse through the results. Best used to clarify or refine details you get from the Census, Griffith, PRONI and Roots Ireland.
https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/list#page=1&countryId=1927084 (specifically searching within Irish records)

Selection of pictures and records of Irish merchant Navy.  There are a few images, all very interesting – but there are more details in the records database.

Place names, family names and other little interesting details – A useful site to augment the hardcore records from official sites: Relevant to Co.Down ONLY

Place name search in Ireland, will also search (very accurately) Townland names, both anglicized spelling and gaelic

Irish ordnance survey Maps – interactive Online, with visible layers of older maps

Ulster ONLY townloads (This is NOT complete…my own little townload is missing!) but it’s free, and if your townload is here, it’s a good start.


PAY for Actual Records:

Now, you need to put money on the table here – but if you maximize the sources above, you can get the most bang for your buck from this site:

Registration is free, searching is free, and basic listing results are free. IF you filter accurately by parish, townload, county, name (remember the variation in spellings), you could be lucky enough to limit results to 3 or less. Correlate your results with a further search in the familysearch.org page (based on names / dates visible here).
I’m sure you’ve heard this before if you are looking for ancestral records, but from my experience here are the main kickers:

  • The general populous of Ireland – and notaries alike – were inventive about how they spelt their names, and the same person could exist with 3, or more, different spellings for their surnames.  Try multiple spellings, with spaces and without (where Mac / Mc / o’ is concerned it becomes more work – but stick with it)
  • Remember that lots of christian names were abbreviated too – or changed slightly if there were multiple people in one family with the same name (Patrick, big Paddy, Paddy Og, wee Paddy, Pat – they could one person, or 5 “Patricks” within the same family – You need multiple pieces of evidence to cross reference your names) OR (and this is worse!) children named for their parents, but were actually known by their second name – i.e. “Ellen Rose” named after her mother Ellen, but all her life called “Rosie” or “Rosaleen” (wee rosie): Her birth cert, would say “Ellen Rose” but a death cert., or grave stone record might say “Rosie”…you need to collect all the evidence and then work out age, marriage, parentage etc to confirm they are who you think they are.
  • Townlands and parishes are very important for Irish records. Unless someone actually lived IN a town, they are of less importance for classifying residential location – and may or may not appear after the Townland, but before the county in an address – IF they appear in the information.  The Griffith’s site has the map function that can show you Townlands, but it can be tricky, if you are outside Ireland, to know what TL your family would have hailed from.  I would recommend, IF you know the full name of a person, then use the census search, along with County to filter and find the townland, and maybe parish. This will then allow you to refine your searches in the Roots Ireland and Family Search pages. Basically if you can’t confirm a townland, you’ll have difficulty confirming you’ve found the right person!
  • People may be buried, married or baptised in parishes other than their own. Keep in mind that if you are looking at records from the late 1800s and then records from the early 1900s and comparing things with modern times, then churches may have been built or destroyed, meaning people would have had to travel further (or not) for their religious activities.
  • Actual birth date, date of registration and date of baptism might not all happen together. In rural areas a baby might have been born in January, but not registered until February, March, April (depending on weather and available transport). The same for baptism…Don’t look at the date of registration, but at the actual birth date.

Published by Ruth

I am a native of Ireland, but have been living and weaving between Barcelona and Ireland for over 21 years now; mostly in Barcelona. I studied woven textiles (and dyeing and felting) at Winchester School of Art, UK and have lived and worked in Ireland, UK, Japan and now Spain. Weaving takes up the space in my brain that is not filled with my daughter, son, husband and family - and "grown-up paid non-weaving work"...(the "mortgage paying" kind that takes up most of my time! As well as housework and sundry other things which I usually try to ignore as long as possible).

One thought on “Going back to my Roots – deep and muddy

  1. My husband is connected to the Hollywood’s of Upper Fathom…not sure how yet. Would you know anyone there that is working on the genealogy of the Hollywoods of Fathom?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: