Texture and depth

Like so many passionate genealogists, I descend from proud and feisty Irish famine immigrants. While the details of how my great-great-grandfather Thomas Healy made his way to the United States have not come down to us, his life here and in Ireland became clearer thanks to a tremendous amount of research time, more than a little bit of luck, and some rather unique research tools.

Thomas married Ann Knight at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Hudson, New York in 1854. Together, they worked hard, and through thrift and ingenuity purchased 40 acres of land in the neighboring town of Greenport by 1866 … land that their descendants remained on, and added to, for more than 100 years.

Knowing the painful struggles of Irish famine immigrants only adds to my immense pride and awe at what Thomas and Ann accomplished. The land that they purchased is land that my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father grew up on. It was part of their fiber, their souls, and made them who they were and are today. We have pictures of the farm at its most prosperous from the 1950s, newspaper articles from when the farm burned in the 1940s, pictures of life on the farm from the 1930s, and of the farm house itself from the 1920s. We have a copy of each deed for the land that was purchased and added to the original forty acres between 1866 and 1950. This is the texture genealogical research seeks. This detail is what allows us to get to know the lives of our ancestors better.

The land that they purchased is land that my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father grew up on. It was part of their fiber, their souls, and made them who they were and are today.

But what did Thomas leave behind in Ireland and what was his life like there? Answers to those questions are the point of genealogical research, after all. We want to know more than just names and dates. We want to know what it was like to be them in their time, to find the details of their struggles, their triumphs, and what made them who they were, and ultimately who we are today.

How do we collect this information on our Irish famine immigrants in the absence of the records lost to the Public Records Office fire in 1922? The answers are not simple, nor are the steps we must take to solve them. It takes a tremendous amount of luck, a lot of time, and some unique tools to get there.

First, let’s start with luck, because I’ve had a bit of it.

Anyone who researches Irish surnames knows the tremendous challenges that come with names like Murphy, Kelly, Sullivan, Walsh, or Smith. But my family name, Healy, is ranked #48 out of a list of 100 most common Irish surnames, and this factor helped.

Living with Thomas was Maurice Healy, 65 years old, father of the head of the household.

Additionally, New York conducted a state census in 1855, and it was in this census for the town of Hudson, and in the household of 28-year-old Thomas Healy, the one-and-only Thomas Healy in the area at that time, that I was able to take my family back one more generation. Living with Thomas was Maurice Healy, 65 years old, father of the head of the household.

Next, Thomas gave me the wonderful gift of stating on his 1860 declaration of intent to naturalize that he was not only born in Ireland (as many petitions stated during this time period), but that he was born in Kilkenny. Now that I knew Thomas was from Kilkenny, I also knew that Maurice had once lived there. It is this gateway information that helped me locate some of the details of their life in Ireland.

Anyone who has researched ancestors in Ireland in the early nineteenth century is familiar with Griffth’s Valuation, a property tax survey which created a value for land and buildings through an analysis of the factors that contributed to the economic position of a property. Using the search function and putting in these unique details (Maurice Healy, County Kilkenny), I was able to locate the Healys’ townland because, thanks to some good luck, there was only ONE Maurice Healy enumerated in the Griffith’s Valuation Field Books in County Kilkenny!

Griffith’s Valuation offers interesting yet somewhat confusing and meaningless information. (Am I alone in not knowing how 15 acres, 3 rods, 18 perches of land with a total net annual value of 7 pounds translates to their quality of life?) But thanks to the information in Griffith’s Valuation I knew that Maurice lived in the parish of Sheffin, in the county of Kilkenny, and had 15 acres, 3 rods, and 18 perches of land valued at 6 pounds, 3 shillings, I was able to input these facts into a unique tool called the Townland Valuation Translator, created by John Schnelle.

The Translator takes that information and paints a detailed picture of the ancestor’s existence on this land. Through the Translator I learned that Maurice Healy was considered a “family farmer,” which meant that every operation of the farm could be completed by members of the family. The family farmer was in the top 14.7% of the adult males, yet still part of the rural poor society.

Maurice and Thomas likely lived in a single-story cottage which they built themselves. The cottage would have been made of clay bricks that had been white-washed in limestone and water, both inside and out. The roof was thatched and there would have been a center hearth and chimney.

The land would have been shallow and thin, requiring liberal amounts of manure and deep plowing…

The land would have been shallow and thin, requiring liberal amounts of manure and deep plowing to yield a meager crop that required a considerable amount of time, labor, and investment. This land would have been suitable to grow various crops, but most likely rye, oats, potatoes, or buckwheat.

Maurice and Thomas each would have needed to eat approximately 12–14 pounds of potatoes each day to consume enough calories to farm this land, and Maurice’s wife Mary would have required about 9 pounds.


The details presented through the Townland Valuation Translator are engrossing. They add texture and depth to the lives of the Irish people in the first half of the nineteenth century and help genealogists to weave the details of their ancestors’ lives together, painting a more complex and colorful picture of life 170 years ago.

About Tricia Mitchell

Tricia Healy Mitchell is a genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and a graduate of the Boston University Certificate program in Genealogical Research. Her areas of experience and research interests include New York, Maine, Massachusetts, and Ireland. She authored the Portable Genealogist: Probate Records and she is a member of the team offering lectures and webinars at the American Ancestors Research Center and at AmericanAncestors.org. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from the University of Maine.

19 thoughts on “Texture and depth

    1. If they found a way to immgrate to another land, they certainly did Janet! I’m often struck by how much thrift and ingenuity it took our ancestors to survive.

  1. Hi Tricia, I have had similar experiences with my Irish family, except my(Mc) Sweeneys left from Limerick on 24 April 1827 to Canada. I know this only from a cousin’s family Bible entry, (fabulous luck) but that was the clue I needed. I have been to Doon, Cappamore Town, County Limerick where they lived, met some cousins there, though the connection is unproved, and in spite of the wonderful priest there, Father Tony Ryan, I have run into the end of records.
    Because they left so early, Griffith’s Evaluation is of no use. They do show up in 1826 Tithe Applotments with plots of land they occupied, but they were not owners, only renters.
    My question is this: Do the Land Records include tenants? Would I learn anything new in the upcoming workshop/seminar on Land Records?
    Thank you for listening, Sharon Phennah Alstead NH

    1. Sharon, I believe the conference will offer a lot of unique ideas for research. There may be tenant rent rolls or other associated records that could assist you in learning more about your ancestors. John Grenham offers a great resource for determining the availability of estate records. He outlines what is available for Co. Limerick at the link below. It is laid out by landlord, time period, lease or rental, type of record (all tenants, most tenants, major tenants), if the records are published or unpublished. Hope that is helpful!


  2. Truly an inspirational story for genealogical research for descendants of immigrants of all nationalities! Congratulations. I’d better get to work.

  3. Wow! That’s a great bit of research! I have been trying to figure out the what, when and how of my Frank East…my gg grandparents were.in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1850 US Census living with a C. Murphy and his wife.
    I believe that the man’s name was Conn Murphy in the next census. I have tried to find an immigration record for Frank East… or a marriage record in the US …but the only record I have for Frank is 2 US Census records saying that he is a “laborer” and his 1867 death index in Louisville.
    The only other information I have is that his wife’s first name is Catherine. They had 3 children, William, Frank and my great grandmother Mary Agnes East Figg.
    I find that “directional” names pose their own unique challenge. But I will keep looking…maybe DNA will point me in the right direction.
    Any suggestions greatly appreciated!

  4. Loved your post and did not know about the Townland Valuation Translator. I can’t wait to try it out. I too am the descendant of many Famine immigrants–everywhere from Cork to Antrim. We had no idea where any of them were from, not even the counties, but thanks to many subscription and free sites, and untold hours of work over ten years, I have found the origins of many, tho not all yet. And I have had two amazing trips to Ireland. To stand on their townlands was overwhelming.

    Just one important point. Not everyone was in Griffith’s Valuation. In fact, many were not. It is not a complete census by any means. I’m sure you’ve got the right Healy but there could have been others who were landless and thus not included in Griffith’s. I hope you can share DNA results with other descendants to make sure.

    And to all, if your ancestor was not in Griffith’s, it does not mean they were not there. They may just not have been included. Read John Grenham on this.

    1. Wonderful history and great Jfk in the translator. But I second the thoughts here about Griffith’s not being a complete record and the qualifier regarding others not to be found in the record. Also, Christian names are repeated over and over in many families so it’s entirely possible that this Maurice may have been a cousin, or not related at all, to the Maurice who settled in New York. Further research using the “cancelled valuation” records available in Dublin may reveal more about the family who farmed at the location of interest in Kilkenny. I had a similar experience for my McKeon immigrant ancestors who settled in Connecticut as farmers. Not a single record mentioned anything other than Ireland but through a combination of DNA testing and other circumstantial evidence found in the earliest records, it not only pointed us to the county, but the parish and likely townland where they were from!

  5. Such a worthwhile endeavor! Glad all the research helped you uncover another facet of your family’s history.

  6. Perfect article in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Thank you for the focus on the Griffith Valuation and for pointing out a new-to-me tool, the townland valuation translator. I have already enjoyed plugging in the variables to learn more about families that I have already researched.

  7. My Irish ancestors came over during the early 1700’s to before the Revolutionary war. How do I find info on them?

  8. Query on the DATES of the information provided in GV.

    A note on one of the sites says: Townland Valuation–1844, and Tenement Valuation–1857.

    So the information on occupiers, leasors, acreage amount and acreage valuation date to just when? 1844 or 1857?

    If the former, what are the date(s) for the rateables mounts?

    Do you know why the total valuation is not used in the Townload calculator?

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