Kimmitt Genealogical Research

25 June 2011

An Iota of Help for Finding Your Irish Immigrant Ancestor's Origins

We all know how difficult it is to find the townland of early Irish immigrants. There are countless reasons why this is so. The first big wave of Irish who came over during the potato famine (1845-1852) were so numerous, so poor and therefore so faceless that they were seldom even accounted for. Ship manifests from that time period did not always list passengers, and when they did, it was just a name, age and occupation, if that. Many of the manifests did not survive. My grandfather, Patrick John FitzGerald, came over later, in either the early 1880s or early 1890s (depending upon which source you want to believe), and there was no more information then than earlier. Can I isolate him from the other hundreds of Patrick Fitzgeralds? Nope! In fact, the ship I really believe he was on had three Patrick Fitzgeralds, 22, 24 and 19 years old, all laborers. I am lucky to know that my grandfather was from Castlemaine, Kerry, only because he was such a close relative: my father's father. So my father had heard stories and even went to visit Castlemaine in his later years. I am very lucky. 

What does everyone else do? We hope that there is an accurate family legend, maybe bolstered by some letters from the old country. We search for obituaries of everyone in the family, including cousins, aunts and uncles. We look at people the family hung around with, better known as associates: people in the same neighborhood, church, school or club. We look at parish records, funeral home records and gravestones. And we keep our fingers crossed. Occasionally a marriage or death record will give an Irish county or origin. Mostly not, though.

One place that usually is of no use whatsoever is the US census. Every census prohibits the enumerator from taking down the city or county if in another country. So for the US and Canada we get a state or province only, and for everywhere else, we get a country. Most 1860 Boston census pages read like this in the place of birth column: Mass., Ire., Ire., Ire., Ire., Ire., N.S., N.S., Mass., Mass., NH, Ire., P.E.I, Mass., etc.

Boston Wards 1 and 3 in 1860. Ward 1 is where the North End is now.
Courtesy of
But one night a little leprechaun led me to a magical place. Lucky the genealogist who stumbles upon Ward 1, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, in the 1860 census, where that lovable rule-breaking enumerator, Wm. B. Tarltan provided not only state or country of birth, but added the city for the US and Canada or the county for Irish and other nationalities. I love this guy! His spelling is sort of phonetic and handwriting could use some work, but he provides more useful info than he should and for this we should all be grateful!

1860 US census, population schedule, Suffolk, Massachusetts, Boston, Ward 1, p. 6, col. 10 "Place of Birth, Naming the State, Territory, or Country"; ( : 10 Feb 2012).

On just one page he lists the following places of birth: Boston, Mass.; Halifax, N.S.; Waxford, Ireland; Lathram, Ireland; Killarney, Ireland; Cork, Ireland; Concord, Mass.; Londonderry, Ireland; Newfoundland; Newbury Port, Mass.; Kings County, Ireland; and St. Johns, N.B.! How 'bout that!!

William B. Tarltan is not the only enumerator to have broken the rules, so always check every census because you just never know when you'll get a renegade census taker who saw the value in reporting more detailed places of birth.

Map of Boston Wards in 1860. Ward 1 is near the top of the map.
Courtesy of


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

Henry Hobbs, the enumerator in the 1870 Federal Census of Essex, Essex County, Massachusetts, was another "rule breaker". He lists the town and state of everyone- Essex, Mass or Shapleigh, Maine or Ipswich, Mass or Halifax, Nova Scotia or where ever. I love you Henry Hobbs!

Celia Lewis said...

Weren't you thrilled! For my N.Irish greatgrandparents I was able to get a smidge closer to a town for both, but still am digging (flailing?) for more information. Looking at every column is so important on Censuses. Thanks for posting this.

Jacqi Stevens said...

That's exactly how I felt when I discovered a NYC census taker who took the renegade approach and entered "Posen" for place of birth of my mystery great-grandparents. We had been raised with the tale that we were Irish, and that was a well-kept family secret that I was grateful to stumble upon. It's surprisingly nice to be grateful for some rule-breakers!