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!


Pierse & Mary Flahavan, Quintessential 19th Century Irish Peasants — Part II

As mentioned in Part I, Pierse and Mary Flahavan were the parents of five children:

Philip J (my client’s great-grandfather), born Jan 1858, emigrated to Massachusetts in 1880 (who will be the subject of a future blog post);

Catherine, born 1863, emigrated to Massachusetts between 1880 and 1885;

Michael J, born 1864, emigrated to Massachusetts about 1885;

Margaret M, born 1866, emigrated to Massachusetts about 1886;

And probably a daughter named Mary, birth year unknown but before 1864, stayed behind in Ireland.

The four known siblings all emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1880s, beginning with Philip in 1880, who settled in Concord, Massachusetts, while the three other siblings who emigrated settled in Greenfield, Massachusetts. (Perhaps the litany of court cases sheds light on the children’s emigration.)

City of Chester Ship

S.S. City of Chester, the ship that brought Philip J Flahavan to America

After much research, the mystery of what happened to Pierse’s wife (my client’s great-great-grandmother) Mary (Murray) Flahavan has finally been solved. The case is a good example of some of the complexities of genealogical research. Exhaustive research of Irish death records revealed only one death record for the two Mary Flahavans of an appropriate age who lived in that part of County Waterford. That death record was for a Mary Flahavan who died in a lunatic asylum in 1889 at the age of 50, with an indication that the woman may have been from Kilmacthomas, which was a more appropriate match to the other Mary Flahavan.

So, one must finally turn to “outside the box” thinking to determine where my client’s great-great-grandmother Mary died. While her husband Pierse was still in Ireland, four of their children were in Massachusetts (Catherine, Michael and Margaret in Greenfield, and Philip in Concord). Was she there? There was a Mary Flavin living in Greenfield in 1900. Was it her? That Mary is listed as 64 years old (which could be right for the Mary in question) and married (not divorced or widowed). But she doesn’t live with a husband, but rather a 14-year-old grandson named Edward Power. Pierse and Mary’s daughter Catherine married a man named Edward Power, so this boy must be Catherine’s son. These facts (the right age, married but not living with a husband, and the grandson has the right name), taken together prove that it is my client’s great-great-grandmother!

Murray, Mary 1900 Census

1900 Census Record for Mary Flavin, Greenfield, MA

This is a somewhat shocking revelation, since it was uncommon  for  a  woman to live apart from her husband,  especially internationally,  in that era. (They did not divorce, which would have been very uncommon, but lived on separate continents for their final 15 years.)

With this record, along with Catherine’s death record, the story is revealed: Mary was living near her children in Greenfield. Her daughter Catherine had first married a man named Edward Power, and they had a son named Edward, Jr. The father Edward subsequently died, and Catherine re-married Edward Campbell. Catherine then died, tragically, on 15 April 1900 of “consumption” (tuberculosis) and “Bright’s Disease” (chronic inflammation of the kidneys). When the census was taken on 11 June 1900, less than two months after Catherine’s death, Catherine’s mother Mary was clearly assisting with the care of her 14-year-old grandson, who had by then lost both of his parents, and perhaps did not wish to, or was not welcome to, live with his remaining step-father Edward Campbell.

Flavin, Catherine Death Record

Catherine Flavin (Flahavan) Death Record


Murray, Mary 1900 Census

1900 Census, Greenfield, MA: Flavin, Mary, Head of household, white, female, birth: unknown month, 1836, age 4, married for 45 years, mother of 5 children, 4 still living, born in Ireland, father born in Ireland, mother born in Ireland, immigrated to U.S. in 1885, resident for 15 years, unable to read, unable to write, speaks English. Power, Edward, Grandson, white, male, birth: unknown month, 1886, age 14, single, born in Mass., father born in Ireland, mother born in Ireland, laborer, machine shop, employed for 10 months of the previous year, able to read, able to write, able to speak English.

A detailed look at the 1900 Census reveals more facts about Mary and her grandson Edward. Mary was born in 1836 and married to Pierse in 1855. She was, at the time of the census, the mother of five children (the four who emigrated, and a child remaining in Ireland, probably a daughter named Mary), four of whom were still living, accounting for the recent death of Catherine. She emigrated in 1885, undoubtedly along with at least one of her children. She was illiterate. Her grandson Edward, age 14, did not attend school and was already working as a laborer in a machine shop. While this was certainly not uncommon during this era, it is worth noting that Edward’s cousin Philip Thomas Flavin (John’s grandfather), son of Catherine’s brother Philip J. Flahavan, was also age 14 in 1900. He was, however, living in Concord with two living parents, attending school, and would go on to become a dentist. Such were the vagaries and varied outcomes that resulted from the “luck of the draw” in an era where parents routinely died while their children were still young.

As for Mary, Pierse’s wife, she died in Greenfield on 10 Dec 1900 at the age of 64 from chronic bronchitis. Her husband is listed as Pierse on her death record, so again, this confirms that the Greenfield Mary Flavin is John’s great-great-grandmother.

Murray, Mary Death Record

Mary Flavin Death Record

Her parents are listed as Michael Morrissey and Margaret Murray. We know from a wealth of other records that her maiden name was Murray, and such information on a death record is only considered indirect evidence, and it would be understandable that whoever reported the death (probably one of her children or grandchildren) confused the last names of her parents. So, one could infer from this record that Mary’s mother’s maiden name was probably Morrissey, but one would want to confirm this with other records. As for the assertion that her father’s name was Michael, that is also suspect. It is known that a Pierce Murray lived in Munmahogue, and that Mary and her husband Pierse lived in Munmahogue after their marriage in 1885. One would assume that Pierce Murray would be Mary’s father, but he could also be a grandfather, an uncle, or another family member old enough to have leased land at the time of Griffith’s Valuation in 1853.

As for Pierse, back in Tramore, he is listed in the 1901 Census of Ireland living alone on Convent Hill in Tramore at the age of 74. He is Roman Catholic, a laborer, married (he was actually widowed by this time, but perhaps he was not yet aware of his wife’s death in Massachusetts in December — they were clearly not close as they had been apart since 1885), born in County Waterford, unable to read or write, but able to speak both Irish and English.

Flavan, Pierce 1901 Census

Pierse Flavin Census Record, 1901

Pierse then died on November 29, 1906 at the age of 80 in Tramore of senectus (old age). Mary Foley, who was almost certainly the daughter who stayed behind while her siblings all emigrated was listed as present as his death.

Flahavan, Pierse Death Record

Pierse Flahavan Death Record, Tramore, County Waterford


Mary Flavin, 1900 Census: Year: 1900; Census Place: Greenfield, Franklin, Massachusetts; Roll: 648; Page: 16B; Enumeration District: 0480; FHL microfilm: 1240648, 1900 United States Federal Census,, Operations, Inc., 2004, Provo, UT.
Philip Flahavan, Catherine Flahavan, Margaret Flahavan Marriage Records:
Massachusetts, Marriage Records, 1840-1915,, Operations, Inc., 2013, Provo, UT.
Michael Flahavan Birth Record:
“Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620-1881,”
database, FamilySearch ( : accessed 10 October 2015), Pierse Flahavan in entry for Michael Flahavan, 24 Sep 1864; citing 0876, Tramore, Waterford, Ireland.
Philip J Flahavan Ship Passenger Record: Year: 1880; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 426; Line: 18; List Number: 591, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,, Operations, Inc., 2010, Provo, UT. Michael Flavin Census:
Year: 1910; Census Place: Greenfield, Franklin, Massachusetts; Roll: T624_588; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 0501; FHL microfilm: 1374601, 1910 United States Federal Census,, Operations Inc, 2006, Provo, UT.
Margaret Finn Census:
Year: 1910; Census Place: Greenfield, Franklin, Massachusetts; Roll: T624_588; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 0501; FHL microfilm: 1374601, 1910 United States Federal Census,, Operations Inc, 2006, Provo, UT.

Pierce Flavan, 1901 Census: National Archives of Ireland,
Catherine Flavin Campell and Mary Murray Flahavan Death Records:
Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915,, Operations, Inc., 2013, Provo, UT.
Mary Flavin, 1900 Census: Year: 1900; Census Place: Greenfield, Franklin, Massachusetts; Roll: 648; Page: 16B; Enumeration District: 0480; FHL microfilm: 1240648, 1900 United States Federal Census,, Operations Inc., 2004, Provo, UT, USA.
Philip Flahavan 1900 Census:
Year: 1900; Census Place: Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts; Roll: 658; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0736; FHL microfilm: 1240658, 1900 United States Federal Census,, Operations Inc, 2004, Provo, UT.



The Troubled Life of Stephen J. Olson — Part I

“I know nothing about my family history, except that my grandfather ran out on his wife and family when my mother was a girl,” a client from Baltimore told me on our first meeting. “He started a new family in Salisbury . . .” His voice trailed off. “That’s about all I know.”

So began my search which would eventually lead to a family tree that included, among others, a Civil War soldier, a Pennsylvania Dutch family with American origins dating to the mid-1700s, an Irish immigrant from Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim (the daughter of parents who lived through the Great Famine), a Scots-Irish immigrant to Baltimore around 1800, many early deaths of children and spouses, and a number of underage marriages and divorces when that was not common. And the kicker was the story of the grandfather who had run out on his family, who I discovered had been in jail in two states. His story is told here:

Stephen Joseph Olson, my client’s grandfather, was born in the East End of Boston on the day after Christmas in 1900, the first child of Olaf & Rose (Gallagher) Olson (who will be featured in a future blog post), immigrants from Norway and Ireland. His birth record taken at the time clearly shows that he was born on the 26th, but by the time he was 9, he and his family had already adopted Christmas Day as his birthday — one of the quirky little things that happened frequently in the days before record-keeping became as exact as it is today.

It is clear that Stephen’s early life was challenging, as the family struggled economically and with illness and death. He was the oldest of four sons born to his parents, but two of his brothers died as children — Joseph, in 1908 at the age of 3 from meningitis, when Stephen was 7; and then Andrew, in 1909 at the age of 1 year and 9 months from gastro enteritis, when Stephen was 8. He also lost three of his uncles who were living in his neighborhood in Boston, all before he had reached the age of 7. And then, the ultimate loss, that of his mother Rose (Gallagher) Olson in 1908, when she was 34 and Stephen was almost 8.

Home for Destitute Catholic Children - building

The Home for Destitute Catholic Children

The family clearly struggled even more after his mother’s death. In March of 1910, Stephen, then age 9, and his little brother James, age 6, were put in an orphanage, the Home for Destitute Catholic Children. Located at 788 Harrison Avenue in Boston and staffed by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, the orphanage housed roughly 450 children at the time. Their stay was only a couple of months, but one must wonder about the impact on the two young boys, after already suffering so much tragedy in their young lives.

Their lives likely stabilized somewhat upon their father’s re-marriage to a widow named Frances Nugent. However, given that she brought two children into the marriage, and she and their father Olaf went on to have additional children, one can suspect that there was additional strain on the family.

At any rate, in 1919, at the age of 18, Stephen Olson’s life took another decidedly negative turn. Boston court records reveal that Stephen was arrested on the charge of “getting a woman with child, he not being her husband”. This was a crime in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the time, as it was in many states. The arrest was likely further prompted by the fact that the mother of the child, Violet Courier, was only 15 years old at the time. While a charge of statutory rape was not made, probably because Stephen was just over the age of maturity himself, authorities during that era often prosecuted such cases to try to ensure the support of the child.

While the exact date of arrest is unknown, Stephen is listed on the 1920 Census, taken on Jan. 8th, as an inmate at the Suffolk County Jail (see sidebar). The child, Paula Courier, was born Jan. 25, 1920. Stephen was brought from the Suffolk County Jail into Superior Court on Feb. 2. He pleaded guilty, and the judge placed him on probation and ordered him to post a bond of $300 to ensure his further appearance before the Court.

Suffolk County Jail

The Suffolk County Jail, located at 215 Charles Street, Boston, near Beacon Hill, where Stephen Olson spent an unknown number of days and nights, has a fascinating history. Opened in 1851, over the course of its life as a jail, it housed many famous felons including James Michael Curley, Malcolm X, and anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Treatment there was notorious, and in 1973, a court ruled that because of overcrowding, the jail violated the constitutional rights of its prisoners. It was not officially closed until 1990. The building has, since then, been converted to a luxury hotel called The Liberty Hotel. They have kept the prison motif, retaining the exposed brick of the original building, and calling their restaurant “Clink”.

Apparently, the bond was not posted at that time, and the Court on April 16, 1920 again ordered him to post the $300 bond. The bond was not posted, and on July 9th, 1920 Stephen was put back in the Suffolk County Jail. This apparently got his attention and he posted the bond four days later.

On October 7th, 1920, Stephen was called into Court and did not appear. In other words, he “jumped bail”. On December 15th, 1920, the Court ordered that he be re-arrested. There are no further records in the Suffolk County Court, as he, undoubtedly, fled the state to avoid arrest. Nine days later, on Christmas Eve, 1920, the child Paula Courier died at the age of 10 months from pneumonia. The mother Violet Courier, went on to marry years later and she had another daughter.

So ended a troubled time for Stephen Olson in Boston, where he likely never returned. His father, Olaf Olson, remained there until his death in 1927, as did his younger brother James, who, by all the evidence, led a very stable life there. Stephen’s life was anything but stable, as he moved from Baltimore to Wilmington to Salisbury, served an additional year in jail, and married and divorced again and again (to be covered in Part 2).


Liberty Hotel

The Liberty Hotel

Sources: Social Security Card Application, Stephen Joseph Olson, #220-10-9825, SSA, Washington, DC.
Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915,, 2013, Provo, UT, USA. Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915,, 2013, Provo, UT, USA.
Orphanage Record,1916, Home for Destitute Catholic Children, Stephen J. Olson & James Olson, Obtained from Catholic Charities, Boston, MA.
1910 United States Federal Census, Boston Ward 12, Suffolk, Massachusetts; Roll: T624_618; Page: 17A; Enumeration District: 1442; FHL microfilm: 1374631,, 2006. Provo, UT, USA.
1920 United States Federal Census, Boston, Ward 2, Suffolk, Massachusetts; Roll: T625_728; Page: 13B; Enumeration District: 27; Image: 742,, Provo, UT, USA. Superior Court, County of Suffolk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Stephen Olson, Complaint, Feb. 4, 1920, No. 1549.
Superior Court, County of Suffolk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Stephen Olson, Order of Probation, April 16, 1920, No. 1549.
Superior Court, County of Suffolk, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Stephen Olson, Order for Re-Arrest, Dec. 15, 1920, No. 1549.
Charles Street Jail,
The Liberty Hotel,