Transient labourer

One of the more difficult searches in the field of genealogy is that which seeks to trace the migratory labourer who followed his trade. We take as our example the most interesting case of Andrew McCormack and his wife, Hannah, parents of the noted Irish tenor, John McCormack. Among the few details of information available to the researcher was that the family had come from Scotland and that there was a tradition that Andrew McCormack’s ancestors originally came from Co. Sligo.

In the case of persons who made their mark it is advisable to consult, in the first instance, biographies and biographical dictionaries. Various biographies of John McCormack provide useful genealogical information; the singer was born in 1884, his parents, Andrew McCormack and Hannah Watson, having come from Galashiels, Scotland, to work in the woollen mills in Athlone. At that time the family were Catholic.

A search of the civil birth registers produced the birth record on 14 June 1884 of John Francis McCormack son of Andrew McCormack labourer and Hannah Watson. The couple were living in Mardyke Street, Athlone.

The Catholic parish registers for Athlone are available. Records of Saints Peter and Paul in Co. Roscommon (Diocese of Elphin) are extant from 1764-1880 on microfilm in the National Library. Another parish which covers Athlone is St Mary’s in Co. Westmeath (Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise) which records are only available from 1813-1868 on microfilm. However this approach would involve a lengthy and possibly fruitless search for new information. Instead we assume that the family were still in Athlone in 1901 and check the 1901 census in the Public Relations Office in Dublin. All of Athlone is searched because of the greater mobility in the towns. The family was found at 5 Goldsmith Terrace, St Peter’s parish, living in what was classed as a comfortable second quality house with five or six rooms and three front windows. John, then aged seventeen, was not listed because he was away at school:

  • Andrew McCormack, head of family, Roman Catholic, can read and write, aged 45, tweed finisher, married, born Scotland
  • Hannah McCormack, Roman Catholic, can read, age 44, born Scotland
  • Jane Ann, daughter, Roman Catholic, age 20, can read and write, dressmaker, unmarried, born Scotland
  • Mary, daughter, Roman Catholic, can read and write, age 12, scholar, born Athlone, Co. Westmeath
  • James, son, Roman Catholic, age 7, can read and write, scholar, born Athlone, Co. Westmeath
  • Agnes Clare, daughter, Roman Catholic, can read only, scholar, age 5, born Athlone, Co. Westmeath
  • Marjory Florence, daughter, Roman Catholic, age 3, born Athlone, Co. Westmeath

From this information we see that Andrew McCormack was born c.1856 and married in Scotland. Their first child Jane Ann was born. c.1881 also in Scotland. The age of Andrew or of Jane Ann may not be correct. Census ages are notoriously unreliable; however we at least have approximate dates for civil and parish register searches in Scotland.

Civil registration of births, deaths and marriages began in Scotland in 1855. A written inquiry with the appropriate fee to the General Register Office, New Register House, Edinburgh, produced the marriage record of Andrew McCormack:

  • 1874 on the Sixth day of November at the Catholic Chapel, Ladhope, after Banns, (of) Andrew McCormack aged 21, bachelor, Tweed finisher and Hanna Watson, age 21, spinster, Powerloom Weaver.

Andrew’s usual residence was Comely Bank, Ladhope and his bride lived at Haliburton Place, Ladhope. Andrew’s father was Peter McCormack, Quarryman; his mother was Isabella Hill. Hannah Watson’s parents were John Watson, a shoemaker and Marjory Gallocher. Witnesses were Francis McCormick and Mary Watson. The wedding was registered in the District of Ladhope, County of Selkirk, Scotland.

According to this source Andrew McCormack was born c.1853, therefore the next step would be a search for the marriage of his parents Peter McCormack and Isabella Hill in Scottish parish registers prior to 1853 which would give the next generation back.

Finally we come to the proverbial hopeless case when there is little information beyond the name and no precise location. A search of this nature may be successful if the surname is rare and if luck is on our side. The approach to this type of search is to localize the surname in the Index to Surnames. In the event of a northern origin, the surname index in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland is useful in tracing the general location of an uncommon surname

Once a possible area has been found, the existing Presbyterian and Church of Ireland parish registers should then be searched. This type of search is better left to professional genealogists.

Regardless of the nature of the case, research in the home country must be completed for the best possible results in Ireland.

As has been shown a proper approach to research problems is vital if worthwhile progress is to be achieved. In the course of our discussion the reader will have been made aware of the names of Irish archives, registries and record offices. Worldwide interest in family history has placed considerable pressure on Irish archives and professional staff. Accordingly most amateur genealogists find that they have to rely largely on their own efforts when record searching in Ireland.

Besides northern Presbyterian and Church of Ireland registers on microfilm, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has an invaluable collection which is indexed by surname, location and contents. Record of their holdings is available in the indexed volumes of the Deputy Keeper’s Reports of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

The Public Record Office in Dublin contains the original Tithe Applotment Books for the Republic of Ireland. They also have the remaining eighteenth and nineteenth century censuses, and the 1901 and 1911 censuses for all Ireland. Further they have the indexes for the marriage licence bonds, wills and administration bonds for all of the dioceses of Ireland. They also have many southern Church of Ireland parish registers on microfilm. The best source for their holdings is Hayes, Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilization.

The National Library, Dublin contains the Tithe Applotment Books for the six counties of Northern Ireland on microfilm (Special List 65). They house most of the Catholic parish registers on microfilm, the surviving Hearth Money Rolls, and innumerable manuscripts and printed works of a genealogical nature.

The Genealogical Office, Dublin Castle contains registered and unregistered pedigrees, funeral entries, county histories, printed family histories to mention only a few. Again the most complete reference to its holdings is in Hayes.

Finally, the Office of the Registrar General, Dublin, has civil registration of Protestant marriages from 1845, and civil registration of births, marriages and deaths, all religions, from 1864.