Sometimes You Should Break the “Rules”! — Finding the Ancestral Villages of My Irish Great-great-great Grandparents

After 20 years of looking, I finally found the place where my 3x-great grandparents lived in Ireland before they emigrated! And I did it by breaking the rules!

For 20 years, I followed the usually sage advice to look for records in the United States that would indicate where my Irish ancestors are from. But all I knew was that my immigrant ancestors’ child was born in Pittsburgh in about 1850. And this was not even certain, since it was from the child’s death certificate some 80 years later and the notes of the town historian from where the child later lived in western New York. Pennsylvania did not collect vital records at that time, so I looked for census records everywhere, I wrote to churches all throughout western Pennsylvania, I checked city directories, cemeteries, anything I could possibly find for any record of the family anywhere in Pennsylvania. But over the course of 20 years, I was never successful at finding a single indication that they ever lived in Pennsylvania. All I ever had were later census records in New York State and a death record for my immigrant 3x-great-grandmother that said she was from Ireland. And I had her maiden name.

Then I was told about the web site I had heard of it before. On the site, you can enter the surname of your ancestor and see where those names were found in Griffith’s Valuation, a survey of Ireland that was conducted in from 1847 – 1864, during and after the Great Famine. Then, you can add a second surname to see where the two surnames might appear within the same parish. For common surnames it won’t provide any insight, but if both your surnames are uncommon enough, it could be revealing. I thought I had already tried this, but something made me try again. I entered my 3x-great-grandfather’s surname, Madigan. The Irish map came up with green and blue dots clustered in three regions. I typed in my 3x-great-grandmother’s maiden name, O’Dea. Only one parish came up, Kilkeedy, located in County Limerick. My heart jumped! Could this be the parish of my immigrant ancestors?

I went to, a site I have often used recently to find the exact plots of land where clients’ ancestors lived at the time of Griffith’s Valuation. Now I was able to do it for my own ancestors. I found both the surnames on Griffith’s Valuation, living in the neighboring townlands of Ballyanrahan East and Ballyvalogue. Since my 3x-great-grandparents were already living in the U.S. by 1853, when the survey was done for County Limerick, this listing would be, presumably, their parents. The given names were the same as the name given to my immigrant ancestors’ child, and to a known relative (not dispositive, since Irish given names are almost all quite common, but it seemed to be a match). I looked at the Griffith’s Valuation maps, and found the houses just over a mile apart! Over the next several days, I began to look for parish records to confirm that I had found them, and I found enough matching records to get back another generation.

O'Day, Bridget flipped compressed2

Bridget O’Dea Madigan Roach, image of a tintype, circa 1870

The above picture is of Bridget O’Dea (pronounced “O’Day”) Madigan Roach, my 3x-great-grandmother. I believe she and her husband James Madigan (my 3x-great-grandfather) emigrated in 1847 or 1848, when people in Ireland began to die in large numbers as a result of the Famine. This photo is an old tintype, taken in about 1870 after the death of her third husband, Thomas Roach. The map below is from Griffith’s Valuation, conducted in 1853 in County Limerick, overlaid over the current Google Earth. I added the arrows where their houses were.

Madigan map1

Griffith’s Valuation Map, 1853, County Limerick, from (used with permission)

I’m reminded again of the incredible age we live in where technology can allow us to break the “rules” to find information on our ancestors that was impossible to find only a decade ago. And technology further allows us to view the exact spot where they lived over a century and a half ago from nearly a half a world away. What a remarkable time it is to be a genealogist!


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