Missing years

How old was Catherine Dwyer when this photo was taken in Newport’s Leavitt Studio, around 1882?

Before the internet and the digitization of some Irish records, one needed patience, persistence, and problem-solving skills to connect the lives of Irish immigrants here in America to the world they left behind. Guessing someone’s true age and their birth order within their parents’ household amounted to a shot in the dark.

In January 1941, the death certificate of my great-grandmother, Catherine (Dwyer) Dwyer, recorded her age as 76 years and ten months. She had lived in Newport, Rhode Island, for sixty years, and in that time knowledge of her specific birthplace had vanished from her children’s memory. One of her sons, who acted as informant, also misremembered his mother’s maiden name! Catherine’s obituary mentioned no siblings.

My imagined time line in Ireland of vital events for these Dwyers erred by an entire generation. After an Irish research firm extracted church records for me, I was stunned to learn Catherine’s parents, Michael Dwyer and Abbie [Gubnetta] Brennan, married in Caherdaniel, County Kerry, just before the start of Lent in 1835. Their firstborn son, Philip, was baptized nine months later.

Seven other children followed over the next 20 years, but Catherine’s baptism could not be found. That begged the question: Was she truly born 29 years after her parents’ marriage? I had my doubts because her brother Philip Dwyer, the first of his siblings to emigrate, left a bewildering trail of dates in the United States. His gravestone, with 1854 as a birthdate, would have made him ten when he married! Someone obviously did not consult his January 1917 death certificate, which stated he was 75, only off by seven years.

Mary Ann (Sheehan) Dwyer and her husband, Michael D. Dwyer, in front of their Newport home, around 1910.

Catherine’s next brother to leave Ireland, Michael Dwyer, likewise shed some years crossing the Atlantic. In 1875, he married Mary Ann Sheehan in Willimantic, Connecticut. She too was part of this County Kerry kinship network: her aunt Julia Sheehan had married Michael’s uncle, another Philip Dwyer (ca. 1816–1904). Michael’s children and grandchildren knew he was “much older” than his wife. But how much?

Estimates vary from the 1880 census, when the couple was seven years apart, to a difference of 16 years in the 1910 census. On his naturalization record, Michael guessed 1844 as his year of birth. His baptismal record, however, confirms 1839 as the year of his birth. Mary Ann, Michael’s widow, also lost several years by the time of her death in 1930.

Catherine’s mother gave birth to her last known child in 1855. Catherine therefore would have been in her early forties, not 37, when her seventh and last child was born in 1901.

Given this pattern of fluid dates, I wondered how old my great-grandmother was when she died. (Probably around 82.) In all-but-one American record, she stayed with 1864/1865 as her year of birth. In the 1930 census, however, she disclosed that she was 30 when she married – a revelation that proposed 1859 as her birth year, a date more plausible than the mid-1860s on two counts. Catherine’s mother gave birth to her last known child in 1855. Catherine therefore would have been in her early forties, not 37, when her seventh and last child was born in 1901.

Irish Catholics were not required to register births until 1864. Granted that Catherine and her family never had to answer today’s recurrent questions of “date of birth,” and “last four digits of your Social Security number,” some of my Kerry kin nonetheless conveyed their ages with wild abandon.

Their imprecision led me on many a wild goose chase. Take, for example, Catherine’s aunt, Abbie (Dwyer) (Mahoney) Sullivan, of Holbrook, Massachusetts, who died in 1905, supposedly at the age of 76. A birthdate of around 1829 made it impossible for her to have been the same woman who married John Mahoney in 1836. Given the Dwyers’ pattern of inaccuracy, I cast a wider net with confidence: Abbie had to have been at least a dozen years older than the age written on her death certificate. Eventually, I proved that fact, but it took years.

In this era, before government pensions required proof of age, my family was not alone in how they disregarded evidence from an ocean away that divulged their true ages.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

34 thoughts on “Missing years

  1. Not only did many fudge on their ages, I have found throughout my 50 or so years of Irish research in Wisconsin and Minnesota that residents did the same with the spelling of their names !!

    1. They were likely not fudging. Most Irish names have numerous variations in spelling. Also spelling of names was not standardized at the time. Siblings might use different spellings, such as my Riley/Reilly ancestors. See John Grenham on all of this. This is another basic lesson in doing Irish family history–and perhaps other ethnicities, not my area.

      1. You’re not kidding about spelling. You have to be extremely flexible in researching some names – different family members oft times spelled their surnames differently. In the case of my great great grandfather, Patrick S. Wren, a native of County Leitrim, I have encountered the following versions of the Leitrim Wrens: Wrenn, Wrin, Wrinn, Rynn, Renn, Reen, Rinn, Wrynn, McCrann, and McRann.

  2. Civil (governmental) registration of births in Ireland did not begin until 1864 so no one of any religion could register births before that. The 19c Irish censuses which included ages were almost all destroyed. Catholic parish records, free online thanks to the government of the Republic of Ireland, are invaluable. They are not indexed. Several pay sources–Ancestry, FindMyPast–have indices but they are far from perfect.

    Age variance (ahem) should be one of the first and most basic lessons of family history research in Ireland and perhaps elsewhere.

  3. “How old was Catherine Dwyer when this photo was taken in Newport’s Leavitt Studio, around 1882?” To your question, my first thought was, “How do you know this was taken around 1882?” It looks like a carte-de-visite from the early to mid 1870s. By the mid-1870s, cabinet cards were replacing or had replaced CdVs. That aside, she looks to me like she could be as young as 16 or as old as 30 (I suspect on the younger side of that range). If the photo really dated to 1882, and if she were 18 at the time, then it is plausible that she was born 1864 as suggested by death in 1941 at age 76y 10m. But if it was taken in 1882 and she was in her late 20s, then she could have been born in the latter 1850s as you suggest–regardless of her age given at the time of her death.

    1. You’re right about all the variables. I date the photo around 1882 because of the address and the studio’s location in the Newport Directory. Only one other photo of her survives from when she was married.

  4. My great grandmother in England got younger as the years went on also. Her baptism was 1718, so this is where I base her age. Otherwise she was baptized before she was born!
    So this is not limited to just Irish research.

  5. My Irish ancestors’ ages are all over the map. My great grandfather seems to have lost years on the way over (likely to be able to get an education) – his birth is calculated from various documents as being anywhere from 1853-1859, but in reality it looks like it was around 1848-1849.

    Conversely, his mother-in-law made herself younger in her later years (as if she had been born as late as 1850-1852,) when in reality it appears she was really born in about 1841.

    Not having vital records that could document either of these, plus the variety of spellings, it’s been a challenge to make sure I’m chasing down the right people’s information!

  6. I was interested in the origin of the photograph – The Levitt Studio in Newport. I have a photo from Harvey Porch whose studio was in Newport and would love to find out more about this studio. My ancestor, John Carroll, was clothed in a military uniform and would date it in the mid 1890’s. Anyone know anything about these photographic studios?

    1. Harvey W. Porch, photographer, at the corner of Fair and Thames Streets, is listed in the 1904 Newport directory. I don’t think he stayed there very long.

    1. Gubnetta/Gobinet are Irish various of the name Abigail. Most Irish women who came to the US with this name went by Abbie. Gobinet is also translated as Deborah. Abbie Sullivan, whom I mention, was actually listed in the Griffith Valuation as Deborah Mahoney.

      1. Tracking an ancestor who was alternately known as Abbie and Deborah, I stumbled on another variable for that name: Gubby. That’s what she was shown as on the ship record with her family. Another relative verified that these three names were interchangeable in Ireland.

        1. You will find Gobnait frequently in West Cork and Kerry as the saint is associated with Ballyvourney. And yes interchangeable with Deborah, Debbie, Abby and Abigail, all of which I think might be preferable perhaps to being called Gubby. 🙂

        2. I have another missing “Abbie” in the family. She came to the States around 1868. You’ve reminded me to keep looking under all the variants.

  7. I have some ancestors who, it is clear, systematically lied to government officials at any level (census-taker, town clerk, etc.) regarding age. In their cases, I attribute this to bitterness following the result of the U.S. Civil War. I wonder if perhaps the Irish, in the 19th century, were in a situation where it made no sense to report these matters truthfully. Perhaps it made a difference in their taxes? Perhaps they resented the English impositions on their land? I’m speculating.

    1. Many Irish immigrants in the 19th century didn’t really know their age/birth date,nor were they interested in spelling! Many could not read or write. Having said that,there were advantages to being older/younger at various times. So I wouldn’t accuse them of lying,exactly, more being creative and trying to survive.

      1. Your post triggered a few other thoughts: The Irish have quite a knack for storytelling; that’s one of the coolest things about that culture. How much do you suppose that affects the lack of facts recorded by their families?

        Families tended to be very large Catholic clans. Did they lose track, or not have a reason to keep track?

        Families in Ireland also led lives of extreme poverty and misfortune. The female ancestor I’m researching, Abby/Deborah/Gubby Casey, may have been born in 1872, 1875, or some other year. Gubby arrived here with her mom and 12 brothers and sisters in 1884. Her dad had died in County Kerry. When they got here to Minnesota, they lived on the river flats
        (http://www.mnopedia.org/place/west-side-flats-st-paul) that was crowded and regularly flooded, probably in a shack. Even when the kids married, moved, and started buying houses, the siblings huddled together; I tracked them through the city directory. My gut feeling is that the stress of living in unfortunate situations like this probably made recordkeeping a pretty low priority compared to their survival.

        1. You raise a very important point about that struggle to survive. The Irish were great story-tellers, but sometimes these tales masked the grinding circumstances in which they lived. Much can be learned about extended families through the names of pall bearers and out-of-towners who came to family funerals.

    2. I agree with Joanne. It’s very hard to know your birthday or how to spell your name when you can’t write…which was very common.

    3. In summary, I think when age did not matter for any specific purpose, then it showed in how they recorded it. But when pensions came into being, a different story. The same was true in Ireland when old age pension commenced around 1907. Between 1901 and 1911, one great-grandmother aged 23 years to catch up.

  8. When I encounter a youngest child in a large family who was born after a space in years, I also consider whether the child might be an out of wedlock child of one of the older children, who ended up being raised by his or her grandparents. More than once, this has proved to be the case!

  9. I also think that since most ordinary Irish people could not read or write they didn’t know their actual birth date. The parents forgot or got it mixed up with the other children. My husband’s grandmother always gave her birth date in America as 11 Nov 1891. When I found her Irish Civil Birth record it said 1 Nov 1888. Then I found her parish baptismal record and it was dated 10 Oct 1888. Her brother was born in 1891. But in the 1901 Census he was listed as 12 (b. 1889) and she was listed as 11 (b. 1890). You’d think that you’d know that a child was three years older than another child. Anyway I take the earliest date as correct. And certainly as an adult his grandmother could have wanted to seem younger than she was!

  10. As far as the reading/writing ability of Irish immigrants, I offer this not in a defensive way but for accuracy. While you will find folks in the 1901 census who are indicated as illiterate, in the majority of cases, they are older than 50 or 60. The National School system (and yes I know that with it came cultural imperialism) was introduced in 1831. Not really sure how quickly those schools spread around the country but even today in Ireland the location of private “Hedge Schools” pre-dating and co-existing for awhile with the local National School, can be pointed out. So for the folks who came during the Famine, yes indeed lots of folks were illiterate but lots were not. In an 1890 pension application by Catherine Wren, the widow of Peter Wren, who served in the Civil War with the NY Irish Rifles, Catherine who was born Leitrim in 1820 signs with an X. However, her sister-in-law, Ann Wren, born 1828 in Leitrim, provides an affidavit with her own signature.
    Among some of my older Irish born friends, several have remarked that really their birthdays were not significantly commemorated growing up if at all. Likewise most Irish Catholic families did not have Bibles to enter a family record each time a birth occurred. So the actual dates perhaps were not remembered.
    And of course vanity came into play. My County Clare born (1858) great grandmother increasingly chopped years off for census records until she was 15 years younger than she was.
    Also I remember my mother saying that for life insurance (in days when policies were small and fact checking not so easily done) people chopped years off because then their premium was less.

    1. I also have heard the life insurance story about chopping off some years. A fascinating and much-understudied topic is how some immigrants managed to acquire literacy in the United States. Catherine Dwyer, my great-grandmother, is an example. In Ireland, she was the witness, marked with an X, to her father’s death in 1879. By the early 20th century, she was reading the Newport Daily News and signed her name to a couple of documents.

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