23. First Fruits of the Ancestry.com Irish Catholic Parish Records Release

A couple of weeks I ago I noted on my Bolesbooks Facebook site that Ancestry.com has released a vast collection of Irish parish records. As reported by the Associated Press:

BOSTON (AP) — Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, genealogical research website Ancestry.com is making 10 million Catholic parish records from Ireland — some dating to 1655 — available online…

The goldmine of information… includes baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial records from more than 1,000 parishes in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland….

It would be hard to overstate the potential importance of this collection to genealogical research involving Irish Catholics. Prior to the release, it was necessary to determine – or in many cases, guess – the parish from which an ancestor might have come, followed either by renting microfilm (if available) or by actually visiting record repositories in Ireland.

But unfortunately, for many an Irish ancestor not only the parish but even the county of origin is unknown. In such cases there has been no practical hope of locating the relevant records. Having a searchable database of the records should allow a major leap forward.

But how useful is the collection really? A first glance suggests it is quite useful indeed.

Patrick and James Hickey, of Decatur, Macon county, Illinois

One of my family’s mysteries most resistant to solution is the origin of my wife’s ancestor Patrick Hickey (1828?-1902), and his presumed brother James (1829?-1907), both of Decatur, Macon county, Illinois. While an abundance of records establish that the pair came from Ireland, and that they married the Irish-born sisters Catherine and Anastacia Sinnott [1,5], no reliable record of their exact origin has been found this side of the Atlantic.

Family legends have proved contradictory, with a granddaughter of Patrick having claimed that the family was from co. Wexford [2], while the wife of one of his grandsons stated that Patrick was from co. Cork [1,5]. Both locations are problematic, Wexford because Hickey is not a common name in the county and because there may have been some confusion with the Wexford origin of Patrick’s wife; and Cork because the grandson’s wife later denied having made the statement! [1,5]

One origin-related fact has seemed fairly clear, however. In the 1900 census of Macon county, Illinois, Patrick was stated to have immigrated in 1849. If so, then he was probably the Patrick Hickey who arrived at New York on 28 June 1849 on the ship Guy-Mannering, from Liverpool, England [1,5]. At the time Liverpool was the intermediate destination of most Irish immigrants to America. Furthermore, Patrick’s arrival was shortly preceded (2 May 1849) by that of a James Hickey, who may have been his brother. James’ ship was the Silas-Grimshaw, likewise from Liverpool and arriving at New York [1,5].

The stated ages of both men were roughly in accordance with other records. At arrival Patrick was stated to be age 22 (b. 1826/7), and James age 20 (b. 1828/9) [1,5]. Neither is a perfect match, however. If Patrick was age 22 on 28 June 1849, he was born between 29 June 1826 and 28 June 1827. But in the 1900 census, his birth month was stated as March 1828. James’ circumstances were similar, as he was stated to be age 40 on 22 July 1870, at the time of the 1870 census of Decatur, Macon county. Thus he was born between 23 July 1829 and 22 July 1830 according to the census, and between 3 May 1828 and 2 May 1829 according to the arrival record [1,5].

Records of age are notoriously unreliable, however. The real problem was that no corresponding Irish records had been found.

Convergence Between Patrick and James

As I pointed out in a recent post (21. The Power of Convergence, Part 2: O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the use of converging records involving brothers affords a major way of extending ancestral lines across the Atlantic. The recent release of Irish Catholic records by Ancestry.com was well suited to a search for records pertaining to Patrick and James Hickey, both of whom were Catholic [5].


St. Michael's Church, Tipperary
St. Michael’s Church, Tipperary Town, Built 1859

It did not take long to find a match. As extracted from church records [3]:

Patricius [Patrick] Hickey, bap. 17 Mar 1827 in Tipperary, co. Tipperary, son of Joanne [John] and Maria [Mary] Gleeson [no sponsors shown]

James Hicky, bap. 9 Nov 1828 in Tipperary, co. Tipperary, son of John Hicky and Mary Leeson [sic], [sponsors] Joe Nacholson and Mary (C?)—

Also recorded was the marriage of their parents [3]:

12 Aug 1828 — Marriage of John Hickey and Mary Gleeson, witnessed by Thos Morany and (Mary?) Doherty, “Gratis”

Thus the couple had their first child, and conceived their second, prior to their marriage. It can only be a matter of speculation that the priest had volunteered to perform the marriage “Gratis” (free of charge) to end what he regarded as living in sin [4].

A Close Enough Match?

 The correspondence between “Patricius” and James Hickey of Tipperary to Patrick and James Hickey of Decatur appears close enough to support the conclusion of a probable match. In both cases, Patrick was the elder brother, and the baptismal dates closely match the inferred birth dates of the 1849 immigrants. However, the birth dates of the immigrants are not perfect matches to those inferred for the Decatur residents.

Although Tipperary Catholic marriage records appear available (thus containing the record of the John Hickey – Mary Gleeson marriage), neither Patrick or James seem to have been married there. That is consistent with immigration. There is also the fact that no other Patrick-James pairing emerges from the parish records that provides nearly as good a match to the Decatur men.

Yet for now, I feel this remains a probable and not quite proven match. For one thing, Catholic burial records appear not to be available yet, at least not from Tipperary. Finding an Irish burial record for either man would be highly problematic, while failing to find any such record would lend an incremental amount of confidence to the match.

Although it may be wishful thinking, finding any kind of record suggesting that one or both of the Decatur men was from co. Tipperary would certainly lend considerably greater confidence in the match. After all the family legends, though problematic, stated that Patrick came from counties Wexford or Cork. As for the failure of other Patrick-James matches to appear in the parish records, there is simply no good reason to believe that Irish Catholic baptismal records are 100% comprehensive.

The bottom line is that the Ancestry.com records release allows just what it should allow: A search of Irish Catholic records with the aim of uncovering evidence pertaining to the likely origins of families. That the evidence may not always be conclusive is simply the normal state of genealogy.

As always, patient application of the genealogist’s craft is required to locate and combine records meeting a reasonable standard of proof. The Ancestry.com database, available in many public libraries, is certainly a good start.


[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry: 589 Documented American and European Lines, 2nd edition. Available for download through Lulu.

[2] Muleady, A.F. (ca 1964). Muleady Family Record. Typescript, copy in my possession.

[3] Ancestry.com. Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.

[4] An account written in 1877 indicated that there were three fees associated with Irish weddings: Typically 5 shillings for a certificate allowing the groom to contract marriage with any woman who was free of impediments; 7 shillings sixpence for the license to marry; and an unspecified marriage fee to the priest performing the marriage (information retrieved from http://cbladey.com/wedding/Iwed.html, 2016). It is easy to understand that these could have posed substantial hurdles to an impoverished couple.

[5] Boles, D.B. (1993). Barth-Hickey Ancestry. Troy, NY: Private print. Available for purchase at Bolesbooks.

Picture attribution:

© Copyright Graham Horn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License