‘Herring choker.’ Today, it’s a somewhat pejorative term used in some circles to refer to Scandinavians or possibly folks from the Canadian province of New Brunswick. In our family (which has neither of those connections), it’s remembered as the term my great-grandmother used when referring to my grandfather’s (her son-in-law’s) Owen family.
By the time I took up genealogy, both my great-grandmother and my Grandfather Owen were long dead. The herring choker story remained, though, and older relatives speculated quietly that the term was meant to suggest that the background of my grandfather’s supposedly Irish-Catholic family wasn’t so Irish or so Catholic. In my Depression-era Irish Catholic family, no assertion could be more disparaging.
When he was alive, my grandfather hadn’t spoken much about his family’s origins. We always ‘knew’ the Owens had Irish roots, and overlooked the earlier (and unsubstantiated) doubts that his wasn’t the Irish Catholic background we always understood it to be. He had been born around the last turn of the century in a small upstate New York town called Clayville, near Utica. His parents had come from Canada – and their forebears had come from Ireland before that. Of course. Plain as that. We might have even descended from St. Patrick himself, most surely. And my first foray into genealogy showed that my grandfather had indeed been born, baptized, married, and buried through the Catholic church, as had his parents before him.
Still the ‘herring choker’ accusation nagged. Where had it come from? Surely, we couldn’t have Protestants in the family line. Someone would have said something. No one alive could, or did. And so, for years, that branch on my family tree ended three generations up – with my great-grandparents William and Elizabeth Owen being born, Catholic, in what US records defined broadly as ‘Canada’. I had met my first ‘brick wall’, a term used in genealogy to refer to a research dead-end.
A few years passed. I researched other ancestral lines. One day on a trip to the public library in Lawrence, Massachusetts, I came across an obituary for my great-grandfather, William George Owen, in his local paper, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. Neatly listed within the obituary, I found his place of birth: Grey County, Ontario. A new lead! The brick wall wasn’t so foreboding. In the days before Ancestry’s online census records, getting access to the Canadian National Census required some work – and I eventually found microfilmed copies at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. The 1871 Census for Ontario had a good index, and I was able to find my two-year-old great-grandfather, complete with his parents and siblings, in his native Grey County. I could even now trace him to a particular plot of land in a specific township. And – unlike their US counterparts, 19th century Canadian census records provide religious denomination. The entire family was Catholic. There were no herring chokers here – the Irish Catholic legacy stayed intact, safe.
Then, I looked at the neighbors – right below my toddler Catholic great-grandfather. Another Owen family was listed – Protestants – Presbyterians even. Maybe they weren’t related. . . . They lived on the same farm, shared similar names, had similar ages. My genealogical intuition advised that I was looking at my 2nd great-grandfather’s brother and his family – cousins to my great-grandfather. I printed the record, recorded the names, professions, and general ages that the census provides, and reopened the herring choker investigation.
Maybe Uncle George married a Presbyterian and converted? Maybe the census enumerator made an error all those years ago. All those things could happen. I looked to the next census, unindexed at that point, for confirmation. But, by 1881, both brothers had moved from Grey County and disappeared. By the time my great-grandfather’s family resurfaced in New York in 1900, everyone else had vanished.
I was stuck. I stayed stuck until several years later when the 1930 US census was released. The 1930 US census was the first to be released after the creation of Northern Ireland, and the first to distinguish between the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, and the six that had separated off to create the North. Shortly after its April 2002 release date, I looked up my great-grandfather in the record, and while he listed No. Ireland as the place of his father’s birth, another brother had listed only ‘Ireland’. It was probably another lead: my second-great grandfather may have been from Northern Ireland, which would narrow my search for his Irish geographical and religious origins to just six counties.
I researched the six counties of Northern Ireland, the Plantation of Ulster, how that had brought the Presbyterians to Ireland, and the effect all of this had on the earlier Catholic population. I wasn’t really sure which side my family fell on. I found lots of great general information that helped me understand the context of their times, and provided some color for the world of my ancestors’ ancestors, whose names have been lost to history. I found some distant cousins on the Internet, and learned about stories that had been passed down their lines connecting our common ancestors to King Henry VIII. Some research into obscure listservs from a decade ago pointed to a David Owen, a Welshman and a cousin of the monarch. I had considered concluding there, fairly certain that I had researched the family to the greatest extent I could, given the limited availability of records for so long ago.
Then came the Drouin records, a resource I had never heard of before it appeared on Ancestry a couple of years ago. Those quickly yielded the marriage record of my second-great-grandparents, in French. With my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, I was able to translate its faint, elaborate 19th century French handwriting. I learned that my second-great-grandparents had been married at the (Catholic) Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal in August 1856.
Before Ontario, my family had lived in Montreal and were still Catholic. No herring chokers here, no way. Having the date and a new location was great, but . . .
I pondered the obscure, barely legible French text at the end of the record. My 2nd great-grandfather received a special dispensation by the priest, because . . . he was not Catholic. He had converted from Presbyterianism to marry my second great-grandmother. My grandfather’s grandfather had been a Protestant. I met some more internet cousins and learned that my line had been ‘excommunicated’ from the rest of the family over the marriage. That explained why there were no Owen witnesses at the marriage, and the family’s flight to Ontario soon after. They had been cut off.
A further search of the records found the rest of the family in Montreal – the rest of an ardently Presbyterian family. I found a photograph of my 3rd great-grandfather’s grave on Ancestry. His epithet, ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord’, etched just five years after his son’s Catholic wedding seemed to seal off any doubts about how he felt about my branch of the family in his last days.
I wrote up what I thought would be the final version of the family history. They had been Presbyterians, probably from No. Ireland – from a county unable to be determined. It’s a common story in Irish genealogy.
And there it stayed. Until earlier this year. Like a lot of genealogists out there, I was excited to see Ancestry’s Who Do You Think You Are? appear in the TV listings. I watched each Friday night episode religiously. I found the episodes interesting, but didn’t really learn any new techniques or resources.
Then came the Rosie O’Donnell episode. Rosie had Irish roots, but didn’t know where in Ireland her family hailed from. The show traced her ancestors to Montreal and then found vague references to Ireland. My story exactly. Then, the professional genealogists helped her came up with the obvious – newspaper obituaries.
For my local relatives in New England, I had extracted and scoured each word of each obituary years ago, with relative ease. But, Montreal’s papers had never been accessible to me, and, in my experience, 19th century obituaries were never very informative – the best might include someone’s age or possibly last address. Not so with Rosie’s ancestors. Who Do You Think You Are? showed that the birthplace of her Irish ancestors had been recorded in the Montreal papers. I figured I’d need a trip to Montreal to view the microfilmed newspapers, or at least hire a professional genealogist to do that for me.
Before going to bed that night, I looked to see which Canadian newspapers I could find online and quickly found the Montreal Daily Witness, available through the Google News Archive for free. The search feature didn’t work so well, but the Drouin Records had already given me the exact dates of death. All I had to do was browse the four- and five-page newspapers from those dates.
Minutes later, I found the obituaries of my family – and their birthplace – Co. Monaghan, Ireland. I stared at the text, searched all of the other siblings and in-laws of that family. They had all hailed from Co. Monaghan. This made sense and explained why the 1930 census showed both Ireland and No. Ireland for my second great-grandfather’s birthplace. Co. Monaghan is considered part of the Ulster region of Ireland, but wasn’t included in Northern Ireland when it was created in 1921. And, at a present-day population of about 60,000 people, it’s one of the smaller Irish counties. I joined the email listserv for Co. Monaghan, posted a message, and within a few hours, received an email from a local genealogist who had indexed the Presbyterian baptismal records for my family in Co. Monaghan.
With his help, I traced the birthplace of my ancestors to a 158-acre townland in Co. Monaghan and even identified their church: Ballyalbany Presbyterian Church, a church that was rather ardent in its interpretation of Presbyterianism. I poured through its records, and found my own 3rd great-grandfather. Several hours later, it became quite clear that he too had converted to marry. He had left the Anglican church to marry my Presbyterian 3rd great-grandmother a generation before his son did something remarkably similar.
In genealogy, brick walls can be a source of significant frustration, but breaking through those walls can be quite rewarding. Readers: what was or is your toughest brick wall in your family tree? Have you uncovered any surprises in past brick walls you’ve managed to break through?