In two previous postings in my series about Patrick Ryan (here and here), I’ve shared a few pieces of information about Pat’s Irish roots. As I told you in those postings (the first link has a copy of his baptismal record), his parents were Valentine Ryan (1810-1881) and Bridget Tobin (1818-1873), who married 21 September 1836 in Kilmacow Catholic parish, County Kilkenny, Ireland. Following their marriage and up to their emigration to America in 1852-1854, Val and Biddy Ryan lived in Buckstown, a sort of “suburb” of the town of Mullinavat in southern County Kilkenny (and I’ll explain more about that later).
Valentine left Ireland in 1852, arriving in New Orleans on or about Christmas day 1852, according to his declaration of intent to become an American citizen, which he filed on 10 October 1854 in Clarke County, Mississippi. I shared a photo of this document in the second link above, noting that no passenger lists for ships arriving in New Orleans in almost all of December 1852 have survived, so I can’t tell you on what ship Val Ryan took passage to America.
I also mentioned to you in the second posting linked above that my family’s stories say that Bridget came to America the following year with the couple’s three surviving children Margaret, Patrick, and Catherine (the records of their Mullinavat parish, Kilbeacon, show them with more children born to them than the three who survived). According to the story told to me as a child, Val had not gotten word that his wife and children were soon to arrive in New Orleans, and as they disembarked from their boat (I have not found a ship’s list for these folks, either), there he was walking down the street towards them.
I suspect that Val came over before his wife and children to begin working at some job or jobs, to earn money to buy the land he bought in Arkansas in 1859. This is likely what brought the family to Clarke County, Mississippi, soon after the family had reunited in New Orleans: the railroad was being constructed in that county at that very time, and was hiring Irish immigrant men as laborers.
As James J. Pillar notes in his book The Catholic Church in Mississippi, the first great wave of Irish immigration to Mississippi took place in the 1850s, spurred by new jobs for Irish laborers including building railroads and levees. Pillar notes that southeastern Mississippi had a number of small Irish communities in the 1850s. These included Enterprise in Clarke County and Paulding in Jasper County (which borders on Clarke), a community on the trade route from Mobile to New Orleans.
The Mobile and Ohio Railroad was hiring Irish workers to lay track at precisely the time Valentine Ryan brought his family to Clarke County. According to David Gleeson, by 1852 the M & O had entered eastern Mississippi at Lauderdale and Clarke Counties, en route to its final destination on the Ohio River, and the two counties had a large number of Irish railhands listed on the 1860 census. Jim Dawson says that the M & O came to Shubuta, the Clarke County community in which the Ryans settled, late in 1854 and was extended to Quitman by 15 March 1855, and to Enterprise by 3 October 1855. This caused Shubuta to thrive, with shops and roundabouts being built there, and Shubuta became a populous trade center. Shubuta was not officially incorporated until 1856, in large part because the railroad had made it into more than the local trading post it had previously been.
Paulding, which is some 37 miles northwest of Shubuta, was an early Irish center in eastern Mississippi. Its Catholic church, St. Michaels’s, is the second-oldest Catholic church in the state. The community also has a Cistercian monastery. Robert Allen Sumrall (1831-1900), who married Valentine and Bridget Ryan’s daughter Margaret in 1856 in Clarke County, had an aunt Mary Sumrall (1807-1866) who married Patrick Brogan (1796-1868), an Irish-born settler of Paulding who was born in County Meath. Both are buried in the cemetery of St. Michael’s church in Paulding.
As the second posting linked above also tells you, the 1900 federal census listing for Val and Bridget’s daughter Catherine Ryan Batchelor in Grant County, Arkansas, states that she came to America in 1853 — but I’ve now determined that Bridget and her children arrived in New Orleans in March 1854.
For many years, the handful of family stories I’ve just recounted is the sum total of what I knew about the Irish origins of my Ryan family. Valentine Ryan’s tombstone in the Orion Baptist cemetery in Grant County, Arkansas (a photo is above, and another is at the second link above) states that he was “born in Co. Kilkenny, Ireland.” Where the family originated in County Kilkenny, I didn’t know as I was growing up and hearing stories about this family and its emigration from Ireland. No one in my family seemed to remember.
My great-uncle Marion Monroe Batchelor (1885-1980) told me the last time I ever saw him at a family gathering in the 1980s that his mother Catherine Ryan Batchelor had kept in touch with relatives in Ireland (another indicator that, as I’ve previously said, Catherine was literate — something I already knew, since I have read letters and cards she sent her granddaughter Anna Glisten — though she signed documents in her brother’s Civil War pension file by mark). Uncle Monroe, who was very attached to his mother, told me that he had promised his mother he’d bring her back to Ireland, but she died before that happened.
Here’s a tintype photo I have of Monroe and his mother Catherine taken about 1890. It’s in an old album of family tintypes given to my grandmother, Catherine’s daughter Hattie, in 1900, on my grandmother’s twelfth birthday. A snapshot of the cover of the album follows. As you can see, the camera has faded my great-grandmother’s blue eyes to a ghostly white — but, otherwise, this is a fairly good photo of her when she was aged about 40 or 41.
When a grandson of Val and Biddy Tobin Ryan’s daughter Margaret Ryan Sumrall — this was Robert Edwin Harper — came to see my grandmother in 1938 (I discussed that visit here), he told her that Margaret’s children had also kept in touch with relatives in Ireland. But if he shared specific information about who those relatives were and where they lived, my grandmother made no note of it.
As I was growing up, the stories about my family’s leaving Ireland, their dramatic crossing of the Atlantic, their arrival in New Orleans: these inflamed my imagination, made me want to know more. When I was about fourteen years old, I began writing naïve, childish letters to newspaper editors in County Kilkenny, asking if anyone had information to share about this Ryan family. These letters did not, of course, ever receive any replies.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when I learned about Griffith’s Valuation, and realized that if any record of the precise location of my Ryan family in County Kilkenny prior to its emigration had survived, it would be in Griffith’s, which functions as a quasi-“census” of many of the Famine Irish emigrants, in the absence of almost all other documentation of their lives. Created for taxation purposes, it’s a snapshot of many people just on the verge of leaving Ireland in a mass exodus following the Famine, and is a precious resource for that reason. I’ll discuss what Griffith’s is all about in more detail in a later posting in this series.
After I’d informed myself about this resource, I looked for places near me that had copies of Griffith’s Valuation. This was in the pre-internet age of genealogical research; Griffith’s has now been digitized and indexed, and is available at a number of online sites including FamilySearch and Ancestry. At the time I first searched Griffith’s in the 1980s, it was indexed in only a very rudimentary way: all surnames in a given county were grouped together in an index, with no given names attached, and then the index told you in which of the townlands in the county that surname appeared on Griffith’s survey. The only copies of this research tool available in most American libraries were microfiche ones.
The name Ryan is as common in County Kilkenny as spots on a Dalmatian dog. The only bit of luck I could hope to rely on in my search was that the given name Valentine was not very commonly used at the time when my Valentine acquired his name. If my ancestor had been a Pat, John, James, or William Ryan — of whom there were oodles in County Kilkenny at the time of Griffith’s valuation — I’d have been out of luck. How would I have known which of those men to pick as my Ryan ancestor?
After I’d heard about Griffith’s and how useful it might be to my search to pinpoint my Ryan family’s roots in County Kilkenny, I did a bit of digging to identify nearby libraries or research centers that had copies of Griffith’s. I was teaching in New Orleans at the time, and the closest place I could find to search Griffith’s was a library in Hattiesburg, Mississippi — at William Carey College.
So I drove there from New Orleans, several times, and pored over the microfiche copies of Griffith’s held by this library. The search was laborious. First, you had to peer at the tiny names on the microfiched index and identify all the Ryans there. Then, you had to copy down the townlands in which Ryans appeared. Then you had to go to the townlands themselves, in Griffith’s survey, and search the entire townland, where people were listed according to locations and not with names arranged alphabetically, to spot the Ryan names.
I searched Griffith’s for hours and hours on several trips from New Orleans to Hattiesburg, and finally spotted a Valentine Ryan in County Kilkenny — one single, solitary Valentine Ryan. Has to be my ancestor; only one in the county! I thought, patting myself on the back for finding him. This Valentine was in Graiguenamanagh in eastern County Kilkenny on the border of Carlow.
June 1990: I made my first trip to Ireland, eager to go to Graiguenamanagh and look at the records of the Catholic parish there. I wrote ahead to the parish priest and told him I’d be in Ireland in June, staying first near New Ross, where the mother and brother of a nun I had taught in the previous year, who had died suddenly as I was teaching her, lived. I wanted to visit her family and give them my condolences. (I did so, and found them warmly hospitable and gracious; I also learned on that visit the importance of sipping slowly any glasss of whiskey that warm, hospitable Irish hosts offer to you, since the moment you empty a glass, your host will refill it, and you’ll rue the consequences if you don’t sip slowly.)
It’s only a hop, skip, and jump from New Ross to Graigue, and my next stop — after I had recovered from the hospitality of my New Ross hosts the previous day — was to that County Kilkenny village. When I arrived there, the parish priest kindly opened the parish records to me, and I found the Valentine Ryan I had spotted on Griffith’s valuation . . . only to discover that he had a wife whose name was not Bridget but Ellen, and a family of children none of whom matched the three I knew my Valentine and Bridget Ryan had had.
To say I was crestfallen would be a vast understatement. I was crushed. “To heck with it all,” I decided. I’ll just give up this dead-end roots quest and enjoy touring Ireland with the three friends traveling with me. I did just that, but in Kilkenny city, as we browsed at Cody’s bookshop in the days after the stop in Graiguenamanagh, I decided to mention to the staff at the shop my failed attempt to find my ancestor Valentine Ryan in County Kilkenny, and they encouraged me to contact a writer and retired teacher living in Piltown, John Ryan, who had published an historical novel about the ancient Cistercian abbey in Graiguenamanagh, Song of Duiske.
“If anyone knows something about Ryans in County Kilkenny, John Ryan will know,” the Cody’s staff told me. They kindly wrote John’s name and address down for me, I tucked the card into my travel journal, and then I forgot about this quest for a number of years. I was tired of searching for elusive, needle-in-a-haystack Ryans in County Kilkenny, and doubted I’d ever make any headway with this search.
Then several years later, this happened — and I’ll tell you what “this” is in a subsequent posting. Meanwhile, there are several points I’d like to emphasize in conclusion about doing Irish research: though things have changed considerably now that many of the resources I’m citing — which had in the past to be found either on the spot at parish churches in Ireland, if you knew where you needed to look, or searched laboriously, as with microfiched and badly indexed copies of Griffith’s Valuation — it’s still worth your while to go to Ireland and do research, if you’re doing serious research on an Irish family. Or to hire a skilled researcher you trust in Ireland, if you have the funds to do that (I have not ever had such funds at my disposal, so I don’t know much about this side of things).
If you do go to Ireland for research, it’s important to do your homework ahead of time. Find out where the record repositories you need to visit are. Note their hours; closing times and closing days can be unexpected. If seeing Catholic parish records requires letters of permission from parish priests and even bishops, write for those well in advance of your visit. I’ve sat in the National Library in Dublin and heard an American or Canadian woman asking to look at microfilmed copies of a parish register in the west of Ireland, only to be told that she needed a permission letter from the bishop of that diocese to view those records. She had only that single day to do this research, and was out of luck.
Now that Irish parish registers are — many of them — scanned and available online via the NLI, it’s possible that this is no longer a problem. Even so, if you go to a particular parish and expect to see the parish registers, you may well find that the pastor is unwilling to let you see them. I have had this happen. Writing for permission in advance can save you a world of trouble.
Finally, as I hope this posting also persuades you, don’t give up. In my series about Patrick Ryan, I noted I went almost forty years after I initially failed to search for a Union Civil War service record for him when I restricted my first search to Confederate records. Then I thought to search for a Union record, and lo and behold, I found not only a Union service record but a pension file full of valuable information.
In similar fashion, I stopped working on the Irish roots of my Ryan ancestors after my initial foray into Griffith’s Valuation and a trip to Ireland led me to a dead end — to the “wrong” Valentine Ryan. But then I decided at a later point — and I’ll discuss this in my next posting — that I’d take up that search again, and I struck gold.
I have a genealogy friend who tells me that, after she has set a family line aside for a while because she has met infuriating dead ends, she sits down with records of that line arranged around her and says, “Okay, who’s willing to talk now?” Then she picks up a document and starts digging, and she often finds that, in the time in which she let her research go fallow a while, a new way of seeing the data has occurred to her.
New doors often open when we reframe how we look at genealogical problems — usually, after we’ve taken some time to inform ourselves better and have consulted folks wiser than ourselves. Don’t give up. There’s always more to learn. Here’s some advice I offered researchers in a talk I gave several years back to a local genealogical research group:
This posting is the first in a multi-part series about the Irish roots of Valentine Ryan and Bridget Tobin. The next posting in this series is here.
According to the New Orleans paper the Times-Picayune on 26 December 1852, on Saturday, 25 December, the ship Eglantine from Boston, under Capt. Gleason, and belonging to C.A. Farrell, had cleared customs in New Orleans. The same issue says that the following ships arrived in New Orleans on the 25th from the British Isles: the Herald, Capt. Gemmell, which had left Liverpool 43 days before, belonging to P. Maxwell Co.; the Columbia, Capt. Kelly, which left Portsmouth 28 October and London 5 November, belonging to W.J. Dewey; and the British barque Midas, Capt. King, which left Liverpool 66 days before, belonging to James Wilson. On the 26th, the British barque Fleetwood, out of Liverpool, was nearing New Orleans.
On the 27th, the Picayune indicated that no ships had arrived from the British Isles on the 26th. The Picayune had reported on the 25th that on the 24th, the following ships arrived: the Queen, Capt. McCartney, from Liverpool, Megget & Co.; the Atlas, Capt. McGinnis, Liverpool, Chas. Deake & Co.; the Eberhard, Capt. Wiegemeyer, Liverpool, J.P. Whitney & Co.; and the Atala, Capt. Thompson, Liverpool, P. Maxwell & Co.
The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837-1865 (New Orleans: Hauser, 1964), p. 122. As Pillar also notes, in 1849-1850, the U.S. Congress transferred title to more than 3,000,000 acres of swamp and overflow land to the state of Mississippi, after which more than 310 miles of levee were constructed in this decade, mostly by Irish labor (pp. 113-4). Most of this construction took place along the Mississippi River; by 1861, Vicksburg was one-third Irish (p. 105).
Irish labor rather than slave labor was used to build levees and dig drainage ditches because such work took a heavy toll on human life, and slaves were considered valuable property. The marshy land bred mosquitoes that carried yellow fever and malaria. Historians of New Orleans sometimes suggest that the city would be more Irish than Boston today, had so many of its Irish immigrants not died as a result of the fevers they contracted doing this kind of work. On Canal Blvd. in New Orleans, the Irish Heritage Society constructed a monument in 1990 to commemorate the many Irish men who died and are buried in unmarked graves, as they dug the New Basin canal in New Orleans.
An astute observer of Southern life before the Civil War, Frederick Law Olmsted, speaks of the exploitation of Irish labor in the antebellum South. Olmsted notes that slaves were too valuable to do some of the dangerous work commonly assigned to Irishmen: he cites an interview with a steamboat mate at Claiborne, Alabama, who observed that Irishmen were given the dangerous task of stacking cotton bales on steamboats, because slaves were “worth too much to be used here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything!” (see The Kingdom: A Selection, ed. David Freeman Hawke [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971; reprint of 1861 original], p. 100). See also p. 70, where Olmsted tells a Southerner that he himself hires Irishmen on his farm in New York, and that they cost less to hire than Southerners paid to hire slaves. During his New Orleans sojourn, Olmsted noted that slaves themselves sometimes referred to other slaves doing hard labor as Irishmen (p. 107).
Pillar, Catholic Church in Mississippi, pp. 94-5. Pillar cites Robert C. Lowry and William H. McCardle, A History of Mississippi (Jackson: R.H. Henry, 1891), p. 501.
The Irish in the South (Chapel Hill: Univ. of NC Press, 2001), pp. 34-5.
History of Shubuta Methodist Church (Meridian: Lauderdale Co. Hist. Soc., n.d.), pp. 1-3. See also Robert and Mary Margaret Mallard,”A Brief History of Enterprise, Clarke County, Mississippi,” an article formerly on the Clarke County USGenweb site and now mirrored at OOCities. At the Southern Trails discussion site at Google Groups, which now appears to be defunct, on 23 April 2006, Bennie White states that the community of Sumrall in Clarke County was a stop on the M & O by the early 1850s. This Sumrall settlement was not the present-day town of the same name in Lamar County near Hattiesburg, to which the railroad came in the early 20thcentury. The Clarke County Sumrall settlement was on the Chckasawhay River in south-central Clarke County between Quitman and Shubuta, a little north of Shubuta, on present-day highway 45. It was named for the Sumrall family to which Robert Allen Sumrall, husband of Margaret Ryan, belonged. Robert’s first cousin Jacob Sumrall had ties to the M & O at Shubuta. In a 25 April 2006 posting to the now defunct Southern Trails discussion group at Google Groups, Lola Maroney states that the Sumrall-Albritton House just north of Shubuta on highway 45 was built about 1859 by Jacob Sumrall, a railroad man who began his connection to the Mobile & Ohio Railroad in 1855. The site became a community center and was known as “Sumrall Switch” because the train would stop here to offload groceries distributed from a store behind the house. This possting says that the Sumralls had a brick kiln and ground their own feed, and that Sumrall Switch was the site of the first church and school in this vicinity.
See Glynda Phillips, “Small Towns Shape Character of Citizens” Mississippi Farm Country, a publication of the Farm Bureau formerly on the Google Groups site of the Mississippi Farm Bureau, which now appears to be defunct; the site provided no other bibliographical information about this article. Phillips notes that the town was settled in the 1830s in fertile land and was known as the Queen City of the East, reaching a population of 2000 in its heyday, and that it had a large community of Irish immigrants in the 19thcentury. The Irish presence is southern Mississippi actually predates the 1850s. The early French and Spanish settlers of this part of Mississippi intermarried with Irish immigrants who came to the Gulf Coast earlier than the 1850s. The True Democrat of Paulding announced on 28 October 1846 the death of one John Dease, 77, who had died on the 22nd, and was a native of West Meath, Ireland, who was among the earliest European settlers of the region between Pascagoula and the Pearl River.