When my daughter and her husband bought me a DNA test for my birthday a few years ago, I was thrilled to confirm that I was almost as Irish as an old boyfriend had thought (he said I looked a lot like one of his relatives, still in Ireland).
That gave me a little thrill, knowing the looks of my mom-described “Heinz 57” face actually resembled a nationality I quite admired, made me smile.
I enjoy being Irish. But just how Irish am I?
The combination of my dark hair and blue eyes with red-headed glow-in-the-dark skin, are some of my most striking features. It was easy to fall into the “goth” fashion during my teenage years and young adulthood. I have loved my “Irishness”ever since I first learned of my heritage, but I had no idea where in Ireland my family originated.
One of my paternal great-grandfather’s names is “Foley,” which seems like a simple link to my Irish blood, right? Not so much. I have been unable to find any records of the original Mr. Foley who immigrated to the United States. Family rumor says that I have him and his (wife?) to thank for my native blood. Mr. Foley reportedly married a woman of Aboriginal American descent, who belonged to the Cheyenne Nation.
My furthest ancestor on the Foley line who I am able to identify is Pleasant Foley, my second-great-grandfather on my father’s mother’s father’s side. If his father came from Ireland as rumored, he would be one of three of my third great-grandparents to come from the emerald isle.
Sarah Thornhill, my third great-grandmother, also on my father’s side, but this time on his father’s side, was born in Ireland in 1828. Many sources confirm that fact. I have been yet unable to find where in Ireland she was born, but her parents left Ireland after some of their children were born and settled in England. Her father, Henry Thornhill, was born in County Fermanagh in Ireland, but is laid to rest in Manchester, England (not too far from where a Facebook friend of mine lives!)
Rebecca Sarah Clarke, Sarah Thornhill’s mother was born in 1808 in Londonderry, Ireland. She is laid to rest in their adopted Manchester.
Sarah Thornhill immigrated to Canada. Her death record indicates that she died at age 50, on 15 April 1878, six years after her husband, John Walsh passed away. I found her cause of death oddly familiar: “Constipation of the bowels.”
Many things seem to have been inherited from my Irish ancestors…
John Walsh, Sarah’s husband, was born in Birr, County Offaly, Ireland in 1812. His father was possibly Tom Walsh (with names like “John” and “Tom” without personal accounts, it is difficult to discern if it is actually my ancestor), and John’s mother was most likely Ellin Muleahy, both who lived all of their lives in Ireland.
John and Sarah (Thornhill) Walsh made their home in York in Ontario, Canada and both passed away in their 50s. Even though their deaths were over a century ago, as a woman in mid-fifties, it causes me to reflect.
The other side of my father’s father’s Irish line are the Cullens. Yes, I was more than mildly amused when this ancestral surname was co-opted by Twilight’s writer as the vampire clan’s chosen surname.
Thomas Cullen, born between 1802-1805 in Strokestown, County Roscommon, Ireland was possibly the son of Patrick Cullen (1783-1865) and Bridgide Hill or McGinn. Again, some of the details have been difficult to nail down. But what seems clear is that County Roscommon can be added to the counties from which I descend. Thomas is my fourth great-grandfather.
My fourth great-grandmother, Thomas’s wife, was Jane Bentley (1805-1881) from County Longford. Her parents were Christopher Bentley and Frances Cox.
My mother’s line has been a part of the building up of the United States of America since the early 1600s, so attempting to find her Irish lines was a bit more difficult. However, I was able to find a few who were born in Ireland in the 1700s.
Here is an interesting fact: My father’s Irish lines emigrated to the American Continent in the 1800s, and my Irish lines on Ancestry seemed (30%) stable, but those parts that have changed (both my estimate and my mother’s Ancestry DNA estimate changed after our tests), seem to be from the Irish lines that emigrated in the 1700s. Ancestry is now calling those lines “English,” but they are not.
That is, until Ancestry separated the Scotts from the Irish in their latest update. You see, the Slightes, previously Slight, before that, Sleight, and many derivations thereof, (I’m thinking they were a skinny bunch from the start?), seem to originate in Scotland.
Back to mom’s Irish for a moment:
Isaac G. Highley was (most likely) born to Thomas Highley and Margaret in Ireland in 1772. He is my 5th great-grandfather on my mother’s mother’s side. The Highleys married into the Parrs married into the Savage line on my mother’s line.
When Sara Christena Parr (my great-grandmother) married William Duncan Savage, she added more Irish into my mother’s line. William Duncan’s great-grandfather, William, my fourth great-grandfather, was born in Ireland in 1797.
William Savage and his wife Harriet Eisnaugle, married and raised their family with much of my Irish ancestors in the Ohio valley before the family moved to Wisconsin.
Although my mother’s Irish line was replaced by a generic term on Ancestry.com, this is one day that I would like to pick out those particular ancestors of hers that were born in Ireland and chose America to start over.
William Savage and Isaac Highley chose a different life for their families and for generations to come.
As someone who has known that her heritage included Irish from the time she could look in a mirror, it was WONDERFUL to have County names to associate my heritage with.
I understood that I not only come from Ireland, but I come from County Roscommon, County Longford, County Fermanagh, County Londonderry and Birr in County Offaly.
When updating this piece for St. Patrick’s Day 2021, I once again opened up my Ancestry DNA results to find that my Irish percentage had dropped again.
This time, Ancestry had separated my Irish from my Scottish heritage and my Irish fell to a mere 19%, while my Scottish blood overpowered it at 22%.
I have yet to find my tartan, and I’m still very happy that all my Celtic blood is being ironed out.
Knowing all of this means a little more on this St. Patrick’s Day. ‘Tis a good day to do a little family history!
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