Gweebarra Bay, County Donegal. this photo was taken not far from my great grandparents home.
Our names are who we are. This grouping of words define us in society from birth to the grave and everything in between, including education, chosen careers, marriage, parenthood, pensions and accomplishments, as well as who our parents were, and who our ancestors were. Nicknames or pet names are common in every family and can be either totally different to the given name or a version of it. For example my eldest granddaughter is called Bibi by her younger siblings, even though she is Sophie, and I was always known as ‘Wee A’ pronounced ( ‘aaah’) in our family. In fact I used think it was my real name!
Then there are common substitutes in Ireland. My great-aunt Margaret was known as Peg and signed herself thus. Delia was used for Bridget or Una or Uney for Winifred. This goes beyond shortened version of names, such as Dan for Daniel or Mandy for Manus. Formal registration normally adopts the formal version of first names as in Edward for Ted or Patrick for Paddy or Pat. There is no issue here as we are generally familiar with the substitute names.
I was born into a family having one of Ireland’s most common surnames. In the 1901 census, we have almost 20,000 with this surname with in excess of 2,000 named Mary and about 1,600 named John. A nightmare, if a family historian does not know the location of their family! Even if we know for example that the family came from County Donegal, there are still over 900 incidences of Mary recorded on the 1901 census in that county. So researching my Gallagher family would have been almost impossible but for the fact that at least five first cousins that I knew about were named Isabella. So where did that come from? My father and his siblings never knew the surname of their paternal grandmother or where she was from. We knew that their grandfather was Daniel. Of the 16 houses in their townland in 1901, there were no fewer that 12 Gallagher families, but only one had a Daniel married to an Isabella. I was fortunate in that I knew the townland as I had often visited there as a child. In 2001, I asked my father to give me the names of his father’s siblings and he wrote them down on the back of an envelope. This envelope is now a treasured possession!
Priceless information written by my father on the back of an envelope, in 2001.
The 1901 census for my paternal great grandparents and their children including my grandfather. Uncle John, mentioned on back of the envelope above is ‘missing’.
So I was very fortunate to have all this information to hand for my paternal forebears, making research a bit easier.
The absolute delight of having a maternal line with reasonably unusual surnames cannot be described. Add to that the relatively unusual first names such as Amelia, Robert, Richard, Eva, Maud…..not a John or a Mary in sight! Oh joy unbounded! In total contrast with my challenging paternal family research, this was going to be a joyride. With fewer than 1,000 with the surname in 1901 and only 50 or so recorded in the 1901 census in Westmeath, this had to be a doddle. Famous last words! My grandfather’s family was relatively easy to find on the census as they were railway men and they had slightly unusual first names. BUT there was still a hurdle. My grandfather was named Christopher Robert, his brother was Richard William. However, they were referred to by the second given name – my grandfather being Bob and his brother was Willie! Who would have thought!
Then there is a traditional girl’s name in our family that has come down 4 generations that we know of. This is Eva Maud.. and we have my great-aunt on the 1901 census. But where is her birth certificate? Where is her baptismal record? Where is her marriage certificate? These cannot be found, or could not be found until last week! Last week I discovered that Eva Maud was baptized and registered as BRIDGET EVALINE! Bridget Evaline???? I can only presume that Eva Maud was not acceptable to the catholic church as baptism names and a compromise had to be made. I am basing this guess on the fact that my younger sister Eva, had to have the name Mary added at baptism as the priest insisted that a saint’s name be included. Eva, whoever she was, apparently was no saint!
So certificates have been requested to see can we have evidence for going back another generation. So what is in a name? Not a lot on one side of my family at least… as things are not always as they seem!
Swinford Railway Station, now disused, where my maternal great-grandmother lived until her death in 1953.