Old Irish Family Letters

Old Irish Family Letters

Detective work can sometimes be one of the most appealing aspects of Irish genealogy. If you are lucky enough to find old family letters sent from Ireland to emigrant siblings, children, cousins or neighbours, it might be time to put your detective hat on. Old family letters can contain all sorts of clues that could identify your family origins in Ireland. One such case researched by Timeline related to the Kelly family who originated in Co. Roscommon.

The Kelly Family of Roscommon

John Kelly was born ca. 1843 in Co. Roscommon the son of George Kelly. He emigrated to the United States in 1862 where he married and had children. John Kelly was born in Ireland prior to the start of civil registration and his early years were spent in a county that was one of the hardest hit during the famine. All that was known about his origins were his county of birth and his father’s name.  Kelly is a common surname and at the time of Griffith’s Valuation for Roscommon, ca. 1855-1857, there were over 800 Kelly households, at least six of whom were headed by men named George Kelly. Our challenge was to identify the correct family in Roscommon.

John Kelly’s descendant found two letters sent from Ireland in the 19th century that contained the clues that would help us to identify the correct family. The first was a letter written by John’s sister, Bridget, dated 1st April 1881. The second was written by his sister Ann and dated 28th March 1890. The first letter refers to ‘Mr. John Burke, our Master, is dead and buried since last December. God have mercy on him. The cow he got for us my father is going to sell her in the Spring.” The letter also contained a reference to a Brother A. Henegan and to Charles Kelly, who was married and may have been John’s brother. The second letter, written by John’s sister Ann, is to notify John of the death of his father. “He was up and said to me ‘Ann if was over in the fields I would feel better.’ That was the last word he ever spoke …to me. He called Charles child to him and said to him, ‘Come here Tommy’.” The brief references in these letters contained valuable clues that identified the Kelly family in Co. Roscommon.

Death of George Kelly

John’s father, George Kelly, died in 1890 and a search of the civil death index at familysearch.org found one death registration for a 67 year old George Kelly in Co. Roscommon. His death certificate recorded that he was a widower and shepherd (herd) residing in the townland of Carnageelogue, Co. Roscommon who died of paralysis. His death was registered by his son, Charles Kelly. While this death registration would appear to be relevant to the subject of our search. The sheer number of Kelly families in Co. Roscommon meant that we could not assume that this was the family that we were searching for, even though it appeared most likely.

Master John Burk

The address recorded for George and Charles Kelly at the time of death was Carnageelogue, which is possibly the townland of Carrownageeloge, in the Civil Parish of Oran, Co. Roscommon. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation on 6th March 1857, Carrownageeloge was a townland that consisted of 185 acres of land which was owned by Sir Charles Henry Coote, Bart. The only occupier in the townland was a Walter Burke, who leased a Herd’s House and the entire 185 acres of land. At the time of his death in 1890 George Kelly was described as a herd. It is possible that the Kelly family were tenants or employees of Walter Burke and occupied the Herds House in Carrownageeloge. It is also possible that Walter Burke had a son, John, who managed the property when Bridget wrote to her brother about John Burk’s death. Of course, it could still be a coincidence that the occupier of this property was named Burke.

Charles Kelly

Charles Kelly was presumed to be the brother of John. Charles was married by 1880, when Bridget Kelly wrote to John in the United States. The search function on www.rootsireland.ie allows you to search for civil marriages using the name of the father of the bride or groom, provided the civil marriage registers have been indexed and included in their database. A search was made of the civil marriage index for Co. Roscommon for all marriages of individuals named Kelly who recorded their father’s name as George on their marriage certificate. This search identified the 1879 marriage of a Charles Kelly, son of George Kelly. Charles Kelly was a 25 year old bachelor and farmer residing at Carnageelogue. He married Anne Henigan in the Roman Catholic chapel of Cloverhill. Cloverhill is a chapel in the Roman Catholic parish of Oran. The address given by Charles Kelly at the time of his marriage was Carnagloeogue, which is similar to Carrownageeloge and most likely an incorrect transcription of the same place name.

This would appear to be the same Charles Kelly who registered the death of George Kelly in 1890. Charles married an Anne Henigan. The letter from John’s sister Bridget, written in 1881, refers to a Brother A. Henegan, who may have been a brother-in-law. If Charles married into the Henigan family, a brother of Anne Henigan may be considered a brother of the Kelly family.

All of the clues found in the old family letters point to the Kelly family of Carrownageeloge in the civil parish of Oran, Co. Roscommon as being correct. Their landlord or employer was named Burke, George Kelly of Carrownageeloge died in 1890 and his death was registered by his son, Charles, who was married to a woman named Henigan.

Interestingly, the civil parish of Oran corresponds with the Roman Catholic parish of Oran but the baptismal registers for this parish only commence in 1865. This means that no matter how many times a search was carried out of the indexed parish baptismal registers for Roscommon, no baptismal record would be found for a John Kelly with siblings Bridget, Ann or Charles. The only way to locate this family in Ireland was to use the clues extracted from two old family letters.

An Old Irish Letter Of Dubious Origin? 

The value of old family papers for genealogical research is undeniable. However, I have recently come across a case where a treasured old family letter became an obstacle to our research.

Although the family in question had a surname that placed them in Ulster and documentation from the United States gave a place of birth as Co. Antrim, they had in their possession a letter, written in Cork and addressed “Dear Cousins” and signed by “Your Devoted Cousin Sean Mulvaney” which reads as follows:

County Cork, Ireland

Dear Cousins

Your welcome letter received and me and your Aunt Bridget thank you for the mercy. We had seven masses said for Grandfather and Grandmother….God rest their souls. You have gone high places in America, God bless you. I hope you will not be putting on airs and forgetting your native land. Your Cousin Hughie O’Toole was hung in Londary [Londonderry] last week for killing a policeman. May God rest his soul, and may God’s curse be on Jimmie Rodgers, the informer, may he burn in hell – God forgive me.

Times are not as bad as they might be. The herring is back and nearly everyone has a heart in making both ends meet and the price of fish is good, thanks be to God.

We had a great time at Pat Muldoon’s Wake. He was an old blatherskite, and it looked good to see him stretched out with his big mouth closed, as he is better off dead, and he will burn in hell until the damned place freezes over. Had as many friends among the Orangeman, God curse the lot of them.

Bless your heart, I almost forgot to tell you about your Cousin Dinney. He took a pot shot at a turn coat from the back of a hedge but had too much drink in him and missed. God’s curse on the drink. I hope this letter finds you well and may God keep reminding you to keep sending the money.

The McCarthys are 100 per cent stronger around here since they stopped going to America. They have kids running all over the country. Father O’Flaherty, who baptised you is now feeble minded and sends you his blessing. Nellie O’Brian who used to go to school with you has married an Englishman, she will have no luck and bad cess to him. May God take care of you, and keep you from sudden death.

P.S. Things are bright again. Every police barracks has been burned down to the ground in County Cork. Thanks to God.

P.S. Keep sending the money.

Your devoted Cousin,
Sean Mulvaney

Dubious Old Irish Family LetterIn the letter are references to Hughie O’Toole, who was recently hanged for killing a politician, Jimmie Rodgers, the informer, Pat Muldoon, who had recently died, but kept friends among the Orangemen. There were also references to Nellie O’Brien, who went to school with the recipient of the letter and who married an Englishman and Fr. O’Flaherty, who baptised the recipient. Finally, at the end of the letter, is a reference to the burning of police barracks in Cork. The burning of police barracks suggest that the letter was written during the War of Independence (1919-1921). If the author of the letter was alive in 1921, he was surely alive in 1911 and a search was carried out of the 1911 census to try and locate the various characters mentioned in the letter in Cork, but we could not put these characters in the same location and they certainly did not intersect with the family who originated in Co. Antrim.

Continued online research for a reference to the hanging of Hughie O’Toole, found two websites that detailed not his crime or punishment, but rather copies of the same letter, almost word for word exactly the same as the copy we had been working with. In both cases the letters were found in old family papers, as was the case in our search:



It would appear that this letter was not related to the family we were searching for. The reason behind this letter is unclear, it certainly makes for entertaining reading, it may have been circulated in Irish American communities and a copy was kept with family papers. The many reminders found in the letter requesting the reader to send money home may be significant, but this document is clearly a red herring.

Old family papers can be filled with clues that might progress your research, but always be careful about the provenance of found documents and don’t automatically assume that they were initially addressed to your own ancestor, unless specifically stated.