In my last blog article, I discussed how I found out where in Ireland my great-grandfather (paternal line) was born. To find out my great-great-grandmother’s (maternal line) Irish county of birth, I had to use a different approach, because Mary Shea ( Bowler) was known to be born about 1845, approximately two decades before the Irish civil birth records began. According to family folklore she was born in Kenmare, County Kerry and immigrated to the Five Points neighborhood of New York City in the 1870s. Shea is a common County Kerry surname, so I kept this in mind, but I began my research by going through New York City records, not Irish records. I first looked at Mary’s 1907 death certificate at the Municipal Archives in New York City. This gave me important identifying information, in particular the names of her parents (Jeremiah Shea and Mary Murphy).
A relative informed me that Mary Shea married John Bowler in 1874 in New York City, but I could not find a civil marriage certificate. It is fairly common not to be able to find a civil record for New York City Catholic marriages that occurred during the 19thcentury outside of national (ethnic) churches. For that reason, I contacted the church directly (luckily my mother knew which one it was), and they gave me the complete information from the registry book. Because church registries will sometimes include the county or town an immigrant was born, you should ask for this information when communicating with the church. Unfortunately, the registry for Transfiguration Church did not include that information.
My next step was to look at Mary Shea’s headstone, as it was a fairly common custom for Irish immigrants to have stated on their tombstones where in Ireland they were born. The death certificate of Mary Shea Bowler said that she was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, so I looked in Rosemary Muscarella Ardolina’s books Old Calvary Cemetery: New Yorkers Carved in Stone and Second Calvary Cemetery: New Yorkers Carved in Stone (R 929.5 Ardolina) to see if it listed my ancestor. Unfortunately, it did not. Therefore, I went to Calvary Cemetery to double check for if a headstone existed, but there was none, again not an uncommon occurrence for the old grave of an immigrant.
I then searched for a death notice in New York City newspapers. Death notices for Irish immigrants sometimes include the county of origin. I visited the New York Public Library and searched through New York City newspapers, including the ethnic newspaper Irish- American, for a notice, but did not find one. It is quite possible, that she did not have one in any paper. Other resources I looked at with no success were the New York Emigrant Savings Bank Records and the Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements.
At this point, seemingly running out of leads and resources, I gave up on Mary Shea and decided to turn my attention towards a sibling of hers who also immigrated to New York City. Her sister’s name was Ellen and I knew that she had never married. Being unmarried with no children and having worked all her life, Ellen probably left money to relatives when she died. My hope was that she had a will that listed relatives in Ireland. I found Ellen’s death certificate at the Municipal Archives in New York City, and armed with her date of death, I went upstairs to the Surrogate’s Court. I requested to see her will, and finally I hit paydirt! It did indeed list her nephews and nieces in Kenmare, County Ireland. I was able to confirm I had the right person, because my great-grandmother Charlotte O’Donnell was listed as having received a dollar from her aunt, a fact that gave me something else to think about and to research, but that’s another story.