Catholic Records, Census, Military Records

Irish Origins through Canadian Sources: Introduction

On my father’s side, all of my ancestors came from Ireland, some arriving in Canada as early as 1820 or so, some arriving during the Famine. On my mother’s side, a little over half of my ancestors came from Ireland, with all but one branch emigrating during the Famine (the other almost half of my maternal ancestors are French Canadian).

So that’s a lot of Irish ancestors, and they came from the north and the west and the south and the southwest of Ireland (though not, so far as I have yet to discover, from the east). Once in Canada, they tended to marry as one Irish Catholic joining up with another, which probably tended toward the construction of a new, colonial Irish identity (back in Ireland, they never would have met one another, let alone married, since one came from Armagh, and another from Cork, and so on and so forth: but in Canada, they were all the same people who all came from the same place). When I was a kid, come to think of it, “The Wild Colonial Boy” was a song that I and my sisters used to sing for the company, it was something of a party piece for us, which we had learned from a couple of uncles. That song has to do with Irish emigration to Australia not Canada, of course, but I think the colonial theme resonated with us, or at least with our uncles.

In any case, I have so far found at least an Irish county (and in some cases a specific townland in an Irish county) for the majority of my Irish-born ancestors. Moreover, and more significantly, I have done so using only Canadian sources. Or without using any specifically Irish sources, perhaps I should say, since in a couple of cases the sources might be described as British or British colonial (except that these sources are also Upper Canadian, so perhaps “only Canadian” is reasonably accurate after all). 
These sources include: the McCabe list (of which more detail in a later entry, since this is a very important source for early Irish in the Ottawa area); Catholic parish records (for Canadian parishes, but in some of the early [especially marriage] records, the priest [whether Irish or French Canadian] might identify someone or someone’s parent as a native of a county in Ireland [“formerly of the Co. Cavan in Ireland,” e.g.]); military records (one of my ancestors, Denis Killeen, served in the 97th Regiment of Foot, and there are a couple of military records which identify his birthplace as Meelick, Co. Galway, and which also provide a physical description: apparently he was 5 foot 10 [or was he 5 foot 8? the records conflict on this point], with blue eyes, dark hair, and a “swarthy complexion”); census returns (which will mostly only give you a country of birth, but in the 1851 census of Fitzroy township, Carleton Co., Ontario [Canada West], William D. Pigott, census taker extraordinaire, included information about Irish counties (and also Scottish counties too); headstones; obituaries; and civil death registrations. These sources are all Canadian (with the possible exception of Denis Killeen’s military records, which are perhaps British/British colonial, but housed at Library and Archives Canada, so: also Canadian).
The thing is, while it’s not true that all the Irish records were destroyed in 1922, it is true that the Irish records are sadly sparse and patchy, and sometimes nonexistent. The loss of the 19th-century Irish census is a real loss (for genealogists/family historians, of course, but also for social historians). The lack of RC parish records (which had nothing to do with 1922, by the way, since the Catholic records were not housed in the Four Courts building in the first place) is also a real obstacle (for many Irish RC parishes, the records do not begin until at least the middle of the 19th century, if not later: that’s a “brick wall” that’s very hard to scale, no matter how hard you try, or how energetically). On this point, to compare and contrast the pursuit of my Irish ancestors with the pursuit of my French Canadian ancestors is instructive, I think: in both cases, I’m looking at/looking for humble folk who were (mostly) non-literate (so they didn’t leave diaries or letters or family bibles or what have you). But (thanks to the very well-preserved RC records of French Canada) I can trace most of my French-Canadian ancestors back to sixteenth-century New France (and sometimes back to sixteenth-century France too), whereas I doubt I will ever find a county of origin for my Irish-born (born c. 1796-1800) gr-gr-gr-grandparents James Moran and Margaret Jamieson (though I haven’t quite given up, and am still searching). 
That said, I have found Irish counties (and sometimes even Irish townlands within Irish counties) for a boatload of Irish ancestors, and using no Irish but only Canadian sources.
The thing to realize about Ireland-to-Canada ancestors is that, once they’re in Canada, they are on the grid (the early precursor of, or dress rehearsal for, our modern information grid, is how I like to think of it). And if you look long enough and hard enough at the Canadian records for those Irish-born ancestors, you will often find some clues which will sometimes lead you to something which leads you back to a place more specific than just Ireland. Not always, I hasten to add. But often enough, if my own family is anything to go by, that it’s worth making an exhaustive (not to say obsessive) search of all available Canadian records.