Tracing My Irish Roots

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The Titanic Quarter of Belfast – PRONI is around the corner

Very quickly I realized I was grossly underprepared. With our valuables in a clear, plastic bag, and a brand new membership card in my pocket, we sat down in the archive room at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) and I was at a loss of where to start.

I came with a name (Hugh Davis b. 1824), townland (Lisarearke in Co. Monaghan), a handwritten note from my Grandma about the Christies, and the Ancestry.com information with which it didn’t correlate at all. I was hoping to get a better picture of where the Christies and the Davis’ came from.

I quickly learned that finding ancestry information is like searching for a needle in a haystack unless you have specifics or an uncommon name. Luckily, both Davis and Christie are fairly uncommon names in Ireland. Davis is a Welsh name, while Christie is Scottish. I learned the former from a souvenir shop in Galway.

DAVIS – This is basically a Welsh surname from the personal name David, meaning “Beloved”. It occurs in Wales in a number of distinct variant forms include Taffe. An Irish family of this name is first recorded in Co. Louth in the 13 Century. They are believed to have arrived in Ireland with Strongbow in 1172. The motto for Davis is “Decide”.

I quickly discovered that there weren’t records far enough back in the archives to find any Christie information, but there was a church record for Hugh Davis’ burial.

Richard, the archivist even seemed genuinely surprised when I told him I found my g-g-g-great grandfather record on the microfilm. I realized that finding something is like hitting gold, so he helped me pull the record up on the printer and ran off a couple copies to take with me.

He then showed me how to find the exact location of the farm that Hugh Davis was registered on as a tenant in the 1860 Griffith’s Valuation. I was excited – we were going to go find the original farm where our family came from, or thereabouts!!

Griffith’s Valuation was the first full-scale property assessment carried out in Ireland to detemine the value of the land, and ultimately the tax that had to be paid to support the Poor Law Act and the Poor Law Union, which put the workhouses (or poor houses) in place.

FindMyPast.com has 2 excellent guides online that explain the terms used in Griffiths and what the data tells us. I also created a document with screen shots showing how we used it to locate the exact location today where Hugh Davis lived in 1860. 

Using these sources, it’s pretty fair to conclude our Davis ancestors lived a pretty meagre life as farmers. Their house was likely a mud house with a thatched roof based off the very low tax assessed on their home.

As the PRONI was soon closing, we had to wrap up our search. I showed Richard the letter from my Grandma and he advised I start with it and work backwards and ignore whatever I had found in Ancestry. That advice was again shared by the dairy farmer we stayed with who also works part time at the local library. “Don’t trust what you find there,” she warned me.

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“King Billy” mural in Sandy Row in Belfast –  Protestants in Northern Ireland still celebrate his defeat over Catholic King James in 1890. One of the many seeds of turbulence in Irish history.

Tracing your genealogy really is like building a jigsaw puzzle without the picture. You take whatever information you can find and piece it together with family stories and local history to try to form a rough idea of the past. Due to a turbulent history, many Irish records were destroyed, so short of church records it’s difficult to find much before the 1850’s.

When we arrived in Co. Monaghan a few days later, we went right to the museum. It wasn’t as informative as we’d hoped so we headed to the library in Clones next. The Clones library appears to be one of the only thriving businesses in town. Unfortunately, the proximity to Northern Ireland and cross-border shopping has led to most of downtown Clones being shuttered.

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A typical street in Clones. We didn’t even find a restaurant here sadly.

The library looks brand new and has a significant historical research area and I had another “a-ha moment” where I realized how unprepared I was. The research room has records on everything from marriages and deaths in Canada of former Co. Monaghan residents to cemetery records, newspapers and more. We should have come here first!

A lot of the information has been catalogued so while it still takes time, it’s a little more systematic to find information about specific people. There are also a lot of records online, but until recently much of the Irish database was not accessible without a subscription. Nonetheless, being there in person let us search the local archives for information you won’t find online.

I am extremely grateful to Katrina, the local historian, who made time to search through the records and showed me how to find information, despite not having an appointment. As a result, we found a gravestone for a Hugh Davis, and several baptism and marriage records for my relatives, including my g-g-g grandfather Hugh Davis’ baptismal record.

As it turns out, much of what she found had already been documented by family members in their search. But from all the information I learned and the comments Katrina made while searching our family, this was still an valuable experience.

The insights I took away include:

  • My ggg grandfather Hugh Davis had a twin brother named William. Not sure if he survived and stayed in Ireland or if he emigrated with them.
  • Hugh and Eliza had a lot of children. Moreso than was typical for a Protestant family of the time.  
  • There were two daughters named Ellen. One born in 1820 who likely died as a baby, and another in 1835. It was not uncommon to name another child by the same name if one died. Ellen Davis (b. 1835) married Thomas Crozier in 1852 at Scotshouse.
  • John Davis was married on September 3, 1849 to Maria Bell, and their son Hugh was born on June 19, 1850, right before they left for Canada in the fall of 1850 (according to the obituary for Hugh which Carole had found.)
  • A few of the children were born in Skerrick, while the later few including Hugh and John were born at Liserearke. Several family members were baptized and married in the St. Andrew’s Church of Ireland in Scotshouse. The family always lived within the Currin Parish district which is an area that would include many townlands, just as our country churches would draw people from several different townships. A townland is even smaller than a township though and it seems it might even be just a farm. Skerrick and Drum are not far from Lisarearke.
  • There is a Hugh Davis buried at St. Andrew’s Church of Ireland cemetery. Katrina explained to me often families used the same burial plot, so it’s possible that Hugh Davis (d. 1870 & father of Hugh & John who emigrated) was also buried there but the stone has been since updated for the latest family members buried. This Hugh Davis is the son of James Davis (b 1819) and Ann. He was one of John and Hugh’s brothers and he stayed in Ireland and lived in Tullynample when they emigrated to Canada.

IMG_7620Unfortunately, much of the grave is illegible, but a record of cemetery plots in the library had recorded the grave as reading: DAVIS, In loving memory of HUGH DAVIS who died 29th May 1910, aged 61 years. Also his wife MARY ANNE DAVIS who died 14th April 1918, aged 67 years. Also their daughter MARY ELLEN DAVIS who died 22nd May 1957, aged 64 yeras buried at [Rayshill] Cemetary, Doncaster, England. And their son WILLIAM who died 27th Dec 1963, aged 75 years. Erected by their son James.

  • Davis is an uncommon name so searching meant there weren’t thousands of results to sift through. It also meant if we were to ask at the local pub about the Davis’ perhaps there would be folks who remembered them.
  • It was also common for emigrants to name their children after their parents or family members they left behind. In our case, the name Hugh was commonly given to sons and we see Elizabeth and Lizzie throughout the tree as well.

Once again, my time searching was cut short by the library’s closing. I left with a dozen printouts of family records and excitement at knowing we were going to find something in Scotshouse.

After wandering around the little, boarded-up town, we headed out to find the townland the Davis’ rented in 1860. The roads were the typical Irish backroads. Narrow and nearly-one lane, grass down the centre, curvy and hilly and grown up on both sides. I had saved the location on a Google Map downloaded on my phone, so we used this to navigate to the exact laneway.

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Without hesitation we pulled in and drove up the farm lane. In hindsight, we were definitely trespassing and should’ve asked permission before driving onto the property. Don’t do this if you ever go looking for your family.

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The last house that stood here was in the 1950’s.

At the top of the hill at the end of the lane, there was what seemed like a clearing in the past with a cluster of tall, old trees. You could imagine a house here in the past. There were stinging nettles all over so we didn’t linger long or attempt to find any traces of a house or foundation.

Back on the road, an older man was sweeping the driveway in front of the dairy farm across the road, so we pulled over to introduce ourselves and ask about the property. He told us he had grown up on this farm and they had owned the land across the road for the last 20 years.

It was formerly owned by the Croziers and the house was torn down when they bought it. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the connection at that point. Ellen Davis had married a Crozier! The older man did remember his mom talking about a William Davis when he was growing up and this is probably the same William who is listed on the gravestone in Scotshouse. His mom was born in 1901 and William in 1888. The man was probably in his late 70’s now and the dairy farm is operated by his son.

We then met his son, who was all too happy to show us the farm and visit. It was milking time, so we walked to the back of the field to bring the cows up and from the hill, he pointed out the six counties that could be seen from his property. It was beautiful. 

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The view from the back of the farm. The clump of trees on the hill to the right of the photo is where the Crozier home sat 20 years ago and this would have been land Hugh Davis (b 1800) farmed and lived on in 1860 and where Hugh Davis (b 1825) and John Davis (b 1819) grew up.

After visiting the church, we carried on. In the local pub, the Davis name didn’t ring any bells for anyone either. Likely the family had been so long gone, no one today would have any connection.

Visiting the Portumna Workhouse in Co Galway a few days later gave us a poignant lesson on the great famine and the poverty in rural Ireland during the early 19th century. This was excellent context to understand the conditions our ancestors lived with before emigrating.

We were glad we went and were both deeply moved by the experience touring the workhouse and taking in Kieran Tuohy’s “Dark Shadows” Irish Famine Exhibition.

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The sculptures were powerful. Important moments of the great famine carved in bog oak, illustrating the horrific and often ironic destitution of the Irish people, while the British government turned their back and continued to export grains from Ireland for profit.

Throughout our time in Ireland, we learned a lot about the long history of religious and political tension that existed. Protestant settlers from Britain received preferential treatment and at times, Catholic residents were kicked off their land and persecuted by the colonizers.

Both the Davis and Christie families were Protestant. Though both practiced the Methodist faith in Canada, when they left Ireland, Methodism was just in its infancy. My great-great-great grandfather Hugh and uncle John and and aunt Maria Davis and baby Hugh left during the middle of the famine (1850) and traveled to Peterborough County first, to the best of our knowledge, before settling in Arran Township around 1858.

I wonder what awful conditions they must have endured to come to Canada and the hardship when they arrived here. I have yet to find any record of their crossing. Not surprising since Canada, the U.S. and Ireland didn’t start tracking immigration or emigration really until this time period.

I would assume because of their religion, they received some higher privileges than their Catholic neighbours would in Currin but they were nonetheless still poor farmers. Perhaps, the Davis’ benefited from a generous landlord who helped pay for their emigration or the blight did not hit the area so bad so they could save the money. Hopefully they afforded a better passage to America than those who traveled in the coffin ships.

Seeing it was still almost 65 years before Titanic would have a third class cabin that seemed mildly hospitable by our standards today, we can assume it was likely still extremely difficult conditions.   

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