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 I

Pierse Flahavan, a client’s great-great-grandfather, was born in about 1826 in the tiny “townland” of Carrickavarahane, located in the Civil Parish of Reisk, County Waterford, Ireland. The townland is about three miles northwest of the center of Tramore, on the southeastern coast of Ireland. Tramore at the time of Pierse’s birth was a small, sleepy fishing village. Pierse’s father’s name was Philip, and his mother’s name was Catherine Power. Pierse had at least three siblings, Maurice (probably born before 1829),  Jacob (born in 1829), and Ellen or Eleanor (born in 1832). Early records note their name as “Flavahan”, which morphed into “Flahavan” in the late 1850s, and then the name changed again to Flavin (both in Ireland and America) a little before the turn of the 20th century.

Flahavan, Jacob Baptism

Baptismal Record, in Latin, of “Jacobum” (Pierse’s brother), son of “”Philipi Flavahan & Cath. Power”

Flahavan, Ellen Baptism

Baptismal Record of “Ellonoram” (Pierse’s sister), daughter of “Philipi Flavahan & Cath. Power”


The Flahavan family was Catholic, like the vast majority of families living in County Waterford. They would have walked to a local church in Carrickavarahane or another nearby community to attend mass at least once a week.

Griffith's Valuation, Philip Flahavan 4

Note plot 9, Philip Flavahan, Griffith’s Valuation, 1853, for Carrickavarahan (used with permission,

Griffith's Valuation, Flahavan 1

Griffith’s Valuation map, 1853, Philip Flavahan leased plot #9 (used with permission,

Records from 1853 (Griffith’s Valuation), right after the Irish Potato Famine, indicate that Pierse’s father Philip leased 24 acres. Like most of his neighbors, he would have been considered a small farmer. We also know from later court records that he grew cabbage and barley, and it was likely that he grew potatoes and other vegetables as well.

Reports written in the mid- to late 1830’s (less than a decade before the Great Famine) describe in detail some of the counties of Ireland. Unfortunately, County Waterford is not included. However, the reports are instructive in their descriptions of the peasant population. A typical description in one of the reports describes the “Habits of the People” as follows: “Their habits are bad, being very much addicted to whiskey and party fights. Their houses are of limestone but very little of it is expended in white-washing the cabins either inside or out. The cow, horse or ass lives in the same room with the family, and dirt and filth are the common characteristics of  their dwellings. In this state of things, some drag out existence for 100 or more years. They do not marry very early.” While these words were written by an Englishman, and it is clear that the English had nothing but contempt for their Irish subjects, the words are likely an accurate description of peasant life.

And these words were written prior to the Famine (1845 – 1852). One can only imagine the suffering that a typical Irish peasant would have endured during that crisis. Pierse’s family, one could easily speculate, probably lost at least one member, possibly more, during the Famine, due to starvation or disease. While Pierse obviously survived, the crisis would have certainly had a profound impact on him, occurring during his young adulthood when he was roughly 19 – 26.

Marriages were often delayed during the Famine, when people were concentrating on mere survival. And Pierse’s marriage may have been delayed. He got married at the age of 29 in 1855. His wife, my client’s great-great-grandmother, was named Mary Murray. She was 19 at the time of their marriage and her family lived about two miles away in the neighboring “townland” of Munmahoge. Her father’s name was also Pierce, oddly, since it is not a common name. He was also a small farmer, leasing about 13 acres in 1853.

After Pierse and Mary’s marriage, it is clear from court records that they then lived in Munmahoge, likely in the house or at least on the property initially leased by Mary’s father, Pierce Murray.

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;

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.

It is clear that life for the Flahavan family in Carrickavarahane and Munmahogue was not easy. Court records indicate that both father Philip and son Pierse, as well as other members of the extended Flahavan clan, had many disputes with neighbors and other members of the community, and they were also likely well-known to the local authorities. Records of the Petty Session Courts in Tramore reveal a total of 13 disputes and citations involving father Philip and son Pierse over the years, for everything from “allowing 15 geese to trespass on neighbor’s property” for which Philip was ordered to pay 2 shillings, 6 pence, plus 1 shilling court costs, to a citation against Pierse for having an unlicensed dog, to a citation against Pierse for “appearing drunk in public at Tramore,” for which Pierse was ordered to pay 2 shillings, 6 pence, plus 1 shilling court costs.




Flahavan, Pierce Petty Court 8 Oct 1883

A typical Petty Sessions Court record from 1883 where Pierse, the defendant, was sued for allowing two goats and one ass to trespass on a neighbor’s property and ordered to pay 6 pence, plus 1 shilling court costs

Petty Sessions Picture

The Petty Sessions were the lowest courts in 19th century Ireland. They handled both criminal and civil matters, many extremely petty in nature. The court rooms were crowded, loud and hot, drawing criticism from many, including the legal professionals handling the cases. Magistrates were usually from the Protestant landowning class (from

To be continued . . .

Sources: Baptismal Records of Jacobum Flavahan and Ellonoram Flavahan:
Catholic Parish Registers, The National Library of Ireland; Dublin, Ireland; Microfilm Number: Microfilm 02448 / 03; Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915;; Operations, Inc.; 2016; Provo, UT.
Griffith’s Valuation, Townland of Carrickavarahane, Parish of Reisk, County Waterford, Ireland,
Griffith’s Valuation, Townland of Munmahoge, Parish of Kilburne, County Waterford, Ireland,
Ordinance Survey, Memoirs of Ireland: Counties of South Ulster 1834-8, Vol 40; Edited by Angelique Day and Patrick McWilliams; The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast; 1998; Reprinted by Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006, pg. 53.
A Brief History of Ireland: Land, People, History; Richard Killeen; Running Press; Philadelphia, PA; 2012.
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.
All Irish Petty Sessions Registers records from
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,