You might ask why my first blog of 2018 is dealing with Kerry in the 19th Century.  Over the years that I have been concluding genealogical research for clients, it has become clear to me that there is one common denominator that crops up when descendants first embark on finding their Kerry ancestors.   It is a search for names and dates (of births, marriages and deaths) without the context.

This search is of course necessary but in my view it is just as necessary to dig deeper and get to understand the context – what was it like to live in Kerry in the 19th century?  Why did the ancestors emigrate?  Who paid for the passage?  Why did they decide on their individual destinations,  on Boston, Quebec, London, Sydney, Otago or wherever they settled?

So a few pointers to life in Kerry in the 19th century:

  • Very few Irish people knew (or even cared about) their exact year/date of birth. Even when they wrote down a definitive date, that was just a guess.  They weren’t trying to fool anyone or be evasive, it was just never of any imprtance at home and only on emigration did it become necessary in the new country for identification purposes.   So rather then settle on a particular date, take dates in a range, from x to y.
  • Most Kerry people married within neighbouring townlands.   They met through neighbours, relatives, friends.   In the first half of the century, Kerry men and women mostly married in their early twenties.  After the Great Famine 1845-1852, the average age was thirty and over.   After the Famine,  the more land they tenanted or eventualy owned, dictated that ‘matches’ were made. These of course, were the middle to ‘strong’ farmers.  To marry into oneof these farms, a girl had to have a dowry which in turn would provide the means for the husband’s sisters to get married themselves.   A man marrying into a wife’s farm (known  as a ‘cliamhán isteach’), needed to have cash/youth (preferably both) with a view to keeping and developing that farm.  Land, the ownership or tenure was everything (and still is!).  I can’t emphasise this enough.
  • For most of the nineteenth century, travel in County Kerry was walking or by horse or donkey & car.   A person walking will average 3 – 4 miles per hour, a person riding or on a horse or donkey cart will average 5 -8 miles per hour. Thus a person could travel up to 12 miles each day, have time to socialise or conduct business (market day) within a 12 mile radius.
  • The nearest port for emigration, with ships mostly to Canada, was Blennerville, the Port of Tralee from 1828 until 1867.    The railway came to Tralee in 1859. Stopping in Rathmore, Killarney, Farranfore and Tralee it was then possible to travel to Queenstown or Dublin by rail and onwards from there with most ships from Queenstown bound for New York (some via Liverpool).  Limerick Port was also used.   Charles Bianconi’s long cars started to serve Tralee to Cork at first c. 1828 and eventually called to Killarney, Killorglin and as far as Glenbeigh.  Mail cars also operated between Tralee, Dingle, Castleisland, Killarney and Listowel.  These would be used mostly by ‘the gentry’, ordinary folk could not afford them.
  • Taking into account the travel limitations, ask yourself where they might have attended church, where would they have gone for market and fair days and to purchase the ticket for their emigration?  Where did they go for court and legal affairs?  Were there actually roads in their native townlands?   As late as 1828, the Kenmare to Derrynane road was seven hazardous hours on horseback and according to Daniel O’Connell, best approached by Killarney or by sea.  Getting to north Kerry from Limerick was best achieved by boat to Tarbert and thence by poor and boggy roads to Tralee.
  • Why did your ancestors emigrate?  To get work is the immediate answer. Opportunities for education, particularly in the first half of the century,  were very limited, especially if you lived outside the main towns, and while education was highly prized, it was not always possible for all the children in large families to avail of it.  There was no employment for the vast majority, no land available to acquire and absolutely no ‘opportunities’ as they are now called.
  • Who paid the passage and why did they decide on particular locations?   This is probably one and the same question.  Single people emigrating got the fare from relatives already in the emigrant country, which would be paid back after arrival and employment.  This ‘passage money’ would then be re-cycled on to the next brother or sister whose turn would come to take the  boat.   The location was not chosen by the emigrant, he/she needed to go where there were already relatives, neighbours and friends who would try to have jobs already lined up on arrival.  Different Kerry parishes are well known for providing large numbers of immigrants who settled in the same destinations.  West Kerry and Ballyferriter/Dunquin/The Blasket Island natives almost all went to Springfield, Massachusetts.   Ballymacelligott natives went in large numbers to New Zealand and the Beara Peninsula people went to Montana.   The Five Points, Lr. Manhattan became home to hundreds of Lansdowne Estate emigrants.
  • Why are names of our ancestors all spelled in different ways?   Standarised spelling was not the norm, poor education meant that a lot of people could not read or write in English.   A majority of Kerry people spoke mostly Irish up to the Great Famine with those in the Dingle Penisula and South Kerry continuing to do so.  If a clergyman or government official wrote your name down as he heard it and you were unable to read or write yourself, you just went along with that spelling for the rest of your life and indeed so did your descendants.   I have just been tracing a family of ‘Corrigans’ who turn out to be ‘Corridons’ in Kerry and I could quote many more such examples.  And we won’t get into the Sullivans (or O’Sullivans) who ordinarlily went by a ‘branch’ name at home and still used that on arrival in the U.S., making it very very difficult to find ancestors later.
  • Aother query often received.  Yes both ‘Sullivan’ and ‘O’Sullivan’ are the same as well as all the other ‘O’s  – O’Connor, O’Connell, O’Driscoll, O’Neill, etc.,(Connor/Connell/Driscoll/Neill).
  • Last but not least, if your ancestor seems to have married two different ladies, or two different men, check that the first has died, or that the Church marriage register (pre 1864) or Civil Marriage record (post 1864) denotes widow or widower as no, we didn’t have divorce in Ireland (or Kerry) until June 1996.