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.
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 familysearch.org: 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.