Irish Gaelic Speakers in Mayo, Ireland and Scranton, Pennsylvania

At first it did not occur to me that my father-in-law’s immigrant ancestors would have spoken any language besides English-with-an-Irish-accent.  Looking at his relatives’ 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland returns, I realized they were probably all bilingual.

Both census forms contained a column asking whether the people enumerated spoke Irish or else spoke both Irish and English.  The space was to be left blank for people who could not speak Irish.  The completed forms for my father-in-law’s relatives who had remained in Ireland indicated that all excepting some in the youngest generation spoke both Irish and English.

In the 1920s the Irish Free State defined the Gaeltacht—the districts in which Irish Gaelic was the predominant language spoken in the home.  In 1926 these areas were still quite large and included a good portion of County Mayo as shown on the map below.


The Gaeltacht in 1926.  By at English Wikipedia.

The British government had strongly discouraged the use of Irish in the National Schools and elsewhere during the 19th century, but people’s interest and pride in Gaelic language and culture grew along with nationalism at the same time.  The Irish in America felt the same interest and pride, and were probably also afraid of losing touch with their heritage.  Around 1900 many Gaelic Clubs formed in American cities with large Irish communities, primarily for the study of the Irish language.

Although a club meeting weekly in West Scranton had already been organized, another similar club with just under 200 members formed in Scranton in 1904.  From newspaper accounts it seems to have appealed to many young people.  The first meeting was held November 2 and consisted of scholarly lectures and speeches.  My husband’s third great uncle, Dr. William Henry McGreevy, was one of the speakers.  The group planned to meet every Monday and Thursday night, which seems very ambitious.


Article from the Scranton Truth 2 Nov 1904 found on

In December of 1905 the Scranton Truth reported that members “will continue the study of the language with unabated zeal.”  They were learning to translate Irish texts into English, and also to use the language in conversation.  In 1906 the club was extremely pleased to get Dr. Douglas Hyde (1860-1949) to lecture.  Hyde was a leading scholar of Irish language and literature, and was president of the Gaelic League, an organization promoting Irish language and culture.


Dr. Douglas Hyde.

The Willis Family of Ardnacally, Big Park, Parish of Robeen, County Mayo, Ireland

Willis is a patronymic English surname from the personal name Will and is fairly common in England and the United States.  Knowing that my father-in-law Bernard John Willis’s ancestors were all from Ireland and probably all from County Mayo, I was glad to learn that the name is rare in Ireland except in the north where there was heavier English settlement.

Willis in Mayo 2

Map with the blue spots showing the areas where Willises occupied land in Mayo in 1856, and with the townland of Arnacally marked.  I was able to make this map on the website of the Mayo County Library.

It was fairly easy to figure out where the Willises were from.  The Pennsylvania death certificate for my husband’s immigrant ancestor Richard Willis (1861-1911) gave his parents as William Willis and Mary Naughton.  Though Richard was born several years before Irish Civil Registration began in 1864, I was able to find the births of five younger siblings on  twins Michael and Patrick (1864), Susan (1869), Mary (1870) and Margaret (1875).  All of these children were born within the Hollymount Registrar’s District in southern County Mayo.  I would eventually learn that besides Richard this couple had four other children born before 1864:  John (1854), Rose (1856), William (1859), and Thomas (1862).

Connemara Pony

A Connemara pony we saw on our 2013 trip to Mayo.

I then wrote a letter to a gentleman surnamed Willis who was listed on the web as a breeder of Connemara ponies in the Hollymount area.  Unfortunately he had passed away, but his eldest daughter answered my letter.  It turned out that she was my husband’s 4th cousin and had been researching the family for years.  We started to work together, trading information and figuring things out.  We have been doing this for several years now and have made great progress.  Besides her original research, she has a wealth of local knowledge and passed-down stories.

Willis, Robeen Graveyard List

Willises buried in the Robeen graveyard, which we were able to visit in 2013.

The Hollymount area falls within the Roman Catholic parish of Kilcommon and Robeen.  Unfortunately the records for this parish do not begin until 1857, so no marriage record survives for William Willis (c. 1830-1877) and Mary Naughton (c. 1830-1890) who probably married about 1853.  Their firstborn John married Bridget Conroy in 1880, and this family left for Youngstown, Ohio in 1892.  Conroy relatives were already established there, working in the steel mills.  John was still working in a steel mill as of the 1910 census, but by 1920 was a watchman for the Erie Railroad.

Conroy, Thomas Youngstown Steel Mill

Youngstown, Ohio Irish steel mill workers (including a Conroy) from the website of the Center for Working Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

My husband’s ancestor Richard and his older brother William went to Scranton, Pennsylvania where coal mining jobs were plentiful, though Richard had established himself as a grocer before he married in 1887.  The rest of William and Mary’s children remained in Mayo.

When asked to name their residence, this family did not usually give their townland (Ardnacally) but instead said they lived at “Big Park” which was a property encompassing the adjacent townlands of Ardnacally and Cashel.  William’s first cousin Richard lived on the Cashel side of Big Park, farming and running a pub which still exists today though it has passed from Willis ownership.  My Willis research collaborator is descended from these publicans.


Ballinrobe today.  (Fetler at English Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons)

We can trace this Willis family back two more generations to a William (c. 1763-1838) and Margaret (_____) Willis (c. 1765-1845).  Some of their descendants did very well as landholders and as shopkeepers in the towns of Hollymount and Ballinrobe.  Besides Youngstown and Scranton, some of their descendants left for Boston, Chicago and other places, including one for New Zealand, with Chicago and Youngstown being the most popular destinations for this family.

Willis-Tillman Wedding 2 (2)

My father-in-law and mother-in-law after their wedding in 1950.

The origin of this family in Ireland is a mystery, but it is likely that a Willis man or family came to Ireland from England in the 17th century, possibly under Cromwell, though any association with Cromwell would not have pleased my late father-in-law.  I don’t know how many of the sprinklings of Willises found here and there in Ireland in the 19th century were related to my husband’s family, but his Y-DNA has matched one other Willis gentleman on 66 of 67 markers.  This means there is a 99% probability they share a common paternal ancestor within 8 generations.  This other man descends from a Christopher Willis who left Ireland for Hardin County, Ohio about 1850.  One record indicates that Christopher was from Dublin, though his wife was from County Kerry.

Willis, Thomas 1890

Memorial in the Robeen graveyard for Thomas Willis (1847-1890) who died and is buried in Chicago.


Robert McCarthy (1812-1870): Harbour Master of Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland

Researching Robert McCarthy of Tralee has been  difficult because of the loss of so many Irish records and because County Kerry has so many McCarthy families, though thankfully few McCarthy men were named Robert.  I know he was born about 1812, probably in the Tralee area.  He must have married Elizabeth Neil about 1840, though I have found no record.  This couple had six children that I know of.


Blennerville windmill, Tralee.  By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth was born about 1841, and was described as Robert’s “eldest daughter” in the newspaper announcement of her 1864 marriage to John Chard of the Irish Coast Guard.  They were married in a Church of Ireland ceremony at St. Anna’s in Blennerville, and  the McCarthys seem to have been Protestant.

Like most men of the Coast Guard, John was already an experienced sailor before he joined.  He had served several years in the British Navy, including a long stint on HMS Encounter during the Second Opium War (1856-1860).   I was surprised to find him in the 1861 Census of England and Wales, enumerated as a seaman aboard Encounter anchored at Yokohama, Japan.  His Coast Guard career was cut short by his death at age 36 in 1873.  Elizabeth then married John Watson of the Royal Irish Constabulary.


A second daughter, Anna, was born about 1846.  She was named administratrix of her mother’s estate in 1881, and died unmarried in 1886.

Their third child Joseph was born in 1848 and is the only one for whom I can find a baptism.  This record gives Blennerville as the family’s address and Robert’s job as Lock-Keeper of the Tralee Canal.

McCarthy, Joseph 1848 Baptism (2)

The canal was built to enable larger ships to sail directly to the town of Tralee.  It was completed in 1846, so Robert could not have had the job for more than two years when Joseph was born, and I am not sure what he did before this.  The family lived in the three-room home that was built for the lock-keeper, the ruins of which are standing today.

Tralee Canal Lock Keeper's Lodge 5

Robert and Elizabeth’s fourth child Mary Jane was born about 1850 and was my father’s great-grandmother.  She married Killarney forester and land steward George Maybury at St. Anna’s in Blennerville in 1871.  Like many other natives of County Kerry, this couple emigrated to Quebec, arriving in Montreal in 1874.

Their fifth child Harriet was born about 1854 and also went to Montreal in 1874.  She married a Scotsman named Alexander Mitchell in Ontario, Canada in 1882.  Harriet’s marriage record is the only document I have found that provides Robert’s wife’s maiden name, so I continue to search for more evidence as to her identity.

Their last child, Robert, was born about 1858 and served as Harbour Master after his older brother Joseph, who took the post between their “universally respected” father’s death in 1870 and his own early death in 1880.  Robert II was still serving in the post as of the 1911 census.

McCarthy, Joseph 1870 Harbour Master Tralee Chronicle 15 Nov

Announcement of Joseph McCarthy’s appointment as Harbour Master, from the 15 Nov 1870 Tralee Chronicle, found on

Records of Ireland’s Valuation Office show that Robert I was still living in the lock-keeper’s house in 1849 and 1852.  By 1853 he began to be listed as Harbour Master on complaints heard in the Petty Sessions Court, searchable at Findmypast.  Mainly he reported “riotous and disorderly” people who disturbed the peace in the harbor area, but sometimes he issued complaints against people who created unsafe conditions in the harbor with bad seamanship or disobedience to his orders.

I hope to uncover more about Robert’s earlier life and to determine something about his parents.  My Dad’s autosomal DNA does match people with McCarthy and Neil ancestors from Tralee.

Quelle Surprise: French Canadians in the Family Tree

No one in my Dad’s family knew that they were partly descended from French Canadians.  Though her last name seemed unusual, I did not guess that his Vermont-born second great-grandmother Lucinda Degoosh (1810-1894) had Québécois ancestry.  Then another researcher told me that all New England Degooshes were descendants of Ephraim Degoosh and Lydia Hall, and that Ephraim Degoosh was baptized as Yves Degauche 24 Nov 1770 in  La Pocatière, Quebec.  I now believe that Lucinda Degoosh was the daughter of Yves / Ephraim and Lydia, and that her brothers Moses (named for Lydia’s father), Joseph and Alexander were the progenitors of the New England Degooshes.

Degoosh, Ephraim 1810 Census Barnet

“Eve De Gush” in the 1810 U.S. census, in Barnet, Vermont near his in-laws the Halls.  Found on

When first in Vermont Yves used his French given name, which Americans heard and spelled as “Eve.”  At some point he must have decided to use Ephraim, a somewhat similar man’s name that was fairly common in Vermont.

When I began to research Yves’s ancestors, it seemed that the work had already been done.  The extremely detailed church records extant in Quebec and the strong efforts already made by several organizations to document all French Canadians to or into the 19th century meant that he and all of his ancestors were “known quantities,” even as to the places of origin (and parents) of the immigrant generation in France.


The Rance River at Pleudihen-sur-Rance in Brittany, home of Yves Degauche I.  Photo by Thérèse Gaigé (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

I learned very quickly that Yves’s father was another Yves Degauche, from the parish of Pleudihen on the Rance river in Brittany, who had only arrived in Quebec about 1757, while his mother Marie-Angelique Boulet’s immigrant ancestors had all come in the 17th century.  They were from Normandy, Brittany, La Rochelle and Paris, and some of them had “walked with Champlain.”  Among her more notable ancestors are:

Louis Hébert (c. 1575-1627) and his wife Marie Rolet (c. 1580-1649).  Hébert was a Parisian apothecary who moved his family to Quebec in 1617, having previously gone to Acadia with Samuel de Champlain in 1606.  This family is considered the first European family to have settled permanently in Quebec.

Louise Faure dite Planchet (c. 1640-1715) Louise was one of the approximately 800 “Filles du Roi” who immigrated to Nouvelle France between 1663 and 1673 under a government program that provided young women with passage and dowries.  The aim was to fix the gender imbalance in the colony and to encourage family formation.  Louise did her part, marrying Pierre Gagné in 1668 and having eight children.

Hélène Desportes (1620-1675) The first child of French parents to be born in Quebec and survive.  A very interesting biography entitled Hélène’s World: Hélène Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec by Susan McNelley came out in 2013.


The old provinces of France.

Having gotten names and dates for this branch of our family so easily, I have never really “worked” them very hard.  I need to verify their life events for myself, to capture images of all the relevant documents, and to find out more about their lives.

I have listened to the great French-Canadian genealogy podcast Maple Stars and Stripes since it began and I recommend it to all researchers.  Recent episodes have inspired me to try to find marriage and land contracts to help flesh out these people, and to look online for records in French archives.  Just yesterday I found an image of Yves DeGauche I’s 1734 baptism in the parish of Pleudihen on the Côtes-d’Armor archives website.  I am very happy I studied French in college!