This week’s topic is inspired by a recent blog post by my friend & fellow genealogist, Sophie Kay.
Do have a read of her post, but I’ll summarise here. We never really have a full picture of someone’s life through official records. In most countries, there are 10 years between censuses and anything happening in between could be missed. If a person never married, then they’ll have one less entry in the civil records. If they moved, you might not know it’s the same person over there in Navan that was once in Drogheda. Sophie suggested an experiment using your own life. You compare what official records you’d show up in with what you know is the case. For me, it exposed that nothing official would show that I lived in St Petersburg, San Francisco or Rome. It also reminded me that on one census I’m recorded with my family, but I actually wasn’t living with them then.
To that end, and building on some recent very enjoyable work for a client, I present an example of negative space.
My subject is Andrew J. Byrne. He was a Dubliner who happened to be a US Civil War veteran. He left a handwritten memoir, which was published in 2008 by another descendant of his. I got a copy from the library. I acknowledge here the assistance of Damian Shiels AKA Mr Irish in the US Civil War, who alerted me to the existence of this book. What’s more, this book was actually edited by another colleague, Nicola Morris, whom you may have seen on genealogy-related TV shows based in Ireland.
Here’s what I knew before I got a hold of the book.
Andrew Byrne was a direct ancestor. The client held some papers which showed Andrew had been involved on the Union side of the war. We didn’t know his occupation outside the army or how he even came to be in America, with descendants back in Ireland now.
The only reference to him was on a marriage certificate for his daughter. He was recorded without occupation, which sometimes means the person is dead. With no occupation, trying to find him in death records or the census (by which time, he might have been dead) was a needle in a haystack.
The corresponding church record told me his wife was called Mary but crucially did not give her birth surname. Their daughter was born before the beginning of civil registration (1864) so wouldn’t have a birth certificate. There were a few marriages of an Andrew Byrne to a Mary X in Dublin the relevant period and a few babies called Mary born to and Andrew and Mary but no way to know which ones were correct, so genealogically, the research was likely to be at an end.
Enter the book. It’s out of print now, but I link to a review from Damian Shiels.
Andrew’s own opening introduction gave the names of his parents: John Byrne and Mary Gilliam. His paternal grandparents were Andrew Byrne, a bricklayer from Co. Wicklow, who moved to Dublin in the late 18th century and married a “Miss Dun of Kilmacud”. Mary Gilliam’s father was named Patrick. I found none of these people in any surviving parish records.
Here’s a timeline summary of Andrew Byrne’s life, as presented in his memoirs. Note that I have not had access to the manuscript, so there might even be more in that. In each case, I mention what evidence I found in the records for it. My focus here will be on the Irish elements of his life, rather than his time in America. I searched the passenger records on Ancestry.
|22/2/1830: born at 32 Church St, Dublin & baptised in Old St Michael’s church.||No surviving record. There is no St Michael’s church in Dublin. However, Church St is in the parish of St Michan’s, so I suspect Andrew probably had the name wrong.|
|1/11/1849: married Maryan Cassidy in Dublin.||No surviving record. She is recorded as Mary on her daughter’s marriage.|
|2/11/1849: sailed to New Orleans on a ship called the Confidence.||Possible matching entry on Ancestry but not enough information to be sure.|
|1853: returns to Ireland via Liverpool on the John & Lucey, then Old Duchess of Kent.||No evidence. Passengers travelling between Ireland and England were not ever recorded.|
|1853: worked on the building of Rosenalis in Co. Laois.||No evidence – but would not expect it.|
|1856: returns to New York on Collumbia.||No definitive evidence.|
|1856: wife and child travel to New York on the John Bright.||Mary A. Byrne recorded arriving in New York on the John Bright with son John.|
|1860: Returns to Ireland via Liverpool on Dreadnought.||No evidence. Also no evidence that wife returned to Ireland yet…|
|1861: Brings 6 year old daughter back from Dublin to New York via Quebec on North Brittin. No mention of wife or son. Leaves daughter there and rejoins army.||No evidence. No suggestion wife comes back to America yet…|
|Records for Andrew Byrne in the Union army.|
|1/6/1865: Near Washington DC with the army, he received a telegram to say his wife was seriously ill in New York. Travels there but she died and was buried the day before he arrived.||June death of a Mary A. Byrne in New York but not enough detail to confirm it is her.|
|Summer 1865: resolves to bring his 2 children back to Dublin to live with his mother.||No evidence.|
|Late 1865: returns to America aboard the Helvetia. Discrepancy here as he also mentions being arrested in Dublin as a Fenian and spent 6 months in Mountjoy prison.||Not listed in prison records.|
|2/2/1873: married Nora Connors in Albany, New York.||Marriage not found.|
|1875: Returned to Ireland permanently with second wife and 2 children.||No evidence.|
So what does this show? There are huge gaps in what we can find about a person’s life. They are more than just a birth, death or marriage record. The memoir also gave Andrew’s civilian occupation, a bricklayer, a family trade. Now that I knew he returned to Ireland, I easily found him on both censuses here. He’s buried in Glasnevin, but their website is currently out of commission. In putting together this timeline, I only discovered his wife’s passage for the first time.
We’re almost never gifted with the treasure trove of someone’s memoirs, and this exercise shows just what we’re missing!
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