Genealogical instincts

Over time and practice a family historian develops an instinct for when a recorded fact does not make sense. The following examples may serve as illustrations of genealogy as more art than science.

Thirty-seven years ago, my uncle-by-marriage, Bill Shea, made an ancestral pilgrimage to Ireland in pursuit of his County Cork great-grandparents, Dennis Shea and Eva Bard. He did not find them. Later I commented to Bill that Eva Bard was not an Irish name and seemed an unlikely match with Dennis Shea in Catholic Ireland during the last third of the nineteenth century. “How do you know her name was Eva Bard?” He replied, “That’s the name of the mother on grandfather’s death certificate.”

Bill’s grandfather, John F. Shea of Fall River, died suddenly at home on 5 April 1925, age 53, from an asthma attack. The doctor who signed the death certificate acted as the informant. My skepticism proved correct: there was never an Eva Bard who married Dennis Shea. John Shea’s obituary in the Fall River Herald News disclosed his mother’s name was Ellen Donegan, a fact confirmed by John’s marriage certificate in 1903. Typical of many Irish immigrants of that time, John Shea deducted several years from his true age. He was born in August 1865, in the townland of Cooradonochu, County Cork. Around 1873, John’s  parents and siblings emigrated to Fall River, where Ellen “Dunnegin” Shea died in 1910. A portion of her death certificate appears above.

Who, then, was Eva Bard?

Who, then, was Eva Bard? Until now, I attributed her existence to the doctor’s clerical error, but there really was an Eva Bard of Fall River who died in 1981, age 89. And, yes, she was not Irish – her parents were French-Canadian immigrants!

A query from one of my Irish-born cousins led me to research the family of Helen “Nellie” Donley, née Dwyer. “How is she related to us?” My quest started with the 1900 census of North Attleborough, Massachusetts, which listed Nellie Dwyer, age 21, born in Ireland, immigration year 1889, a servant in the household of jeweler Frederick Heffron. She seemed to match the infant baptized in Sneem, County Kerry, in January 1879, daughter of Patrick Dwyer and Norry [Hanora] Doyle from the townland of Direenauliff. If Nellie’s parents emigrated to Massachusetts, I could find no trace of them. Whom did Nellie marry? The only Dwyer/Donley marriage to fit the time frame was that of Nellie Dwyer to Charles Donley in North Attleborough on 26 June 1905. Their marriage record, however, suggested a different set of her parents: Patrick Dwyer and Frances Smith.

Their marriage record, however, suggested a different set of her parents: Patrick Dwyer and Frances Smith.

Once again, I doubted this pairing, that Frances Smith was the wife of Patrick Dwyer. Another mistake in a record? I checked the original entry in town records as well as the copy from the marriage register of St. Mary’s Church in North Attleborough. Same mother, Frances Smith! Still, I stubbornly persisted that someone had erred. Was Norry (Doyle) Dwyer the mother of Nellie (Dwyer) Donley? Widening my search, I documented the rest of Nellie Donley’s life. She died in 1950, age 71, and her death certificate listed her mother as Norry Doyle and her father as Patrick Dwyer. Nellie’s obituary also listed a brother, John Dwyer of Attleboro, whose death certificate matched him to the same parents as Nellie. Examining John Dwyer’s life revealed a new discovery: he and Nellie had a half-sister named Mary Fitzgerald. The key to reconciling these relationships was the marriage certificate from Sneem (at right).

No wonder I couldn’t find Patrick Dwyer in Massachusetts. He died in Ireland during Nellie’s childhood. His widow Honora (Doyle) Dwyer married Patrick Fitzgerald as her second husband. The Fitzgerald and the Dwyer children moved soon after to Massachusetts, living first in Cambridge and later in North Attleborough. Thus, a complete family exploration beyond Nellie Dwyer’s marriage expanded my knowledge of this branch of my Dwyer family and confirmed my initial judgment that Frances Smith simply did not belong within it.

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.

16 thoughts on “Genealogical instincts

  1. Always enjoy your posts, Michael, and since I have Kerry Dwyers in my ancestry, albeit a bit further north of Sneem in Farranmanagh in the Parish of Milltown, I am that much more interested when your blog adverts to some of your paternal roots.

    1. Thank you, Ed. Legend has it that all the Kerry Dwyers came from Tipperary by way of the Beara Peninsula. I know less about the Sneem branch of the family than I do the Caherdaniel branch. Every scrap of information helps. If you would like to share information on your Dwyers, please contact me at

  2. Loved this article. Just had to ask are you related to Otis Dwyer Sr or Jr of Rehoboth, MA? They were surveyors and took a great interest in genealogy. Great help to me. Sadly both departed.

    1. Though I grew up not far from Rehoboth, I never knew of any Dwyers related to me there. The surname Otis is in my mother’s family but has not yet appeared in my father’s family. With DNA, I am acquiring new relatives, to my surprise at times. THanks for writing.

  3. Great post and great research. So many people think that if it’s on a death cert or other ‘official’ document, it must be right. That has definitely not been true in my own research. You have given an excellent example to illustrate this.

  4. I am curious of your comment that many Irish immigrants deducted several years off their true age. I have noticed this and wondered the reason? Thank you.

    1. First, I think we need to consider what life was like before the age of government pensions. No one ever asked them, “Birthdate and the last four digits of your Social Security number. For many, they had better job prospects saying they were 25 instead of 30. Similarly, women losing a few years made them better marriage prospects. Both of my father’s Irish-born grandmothers adjusted their age to make them younger than their husbands when the opposite was true. Of course, there were some people who just didn’t know when they were born other than an expression like “born the year of the big wind.”

  5. i have found the same issue in Vermont Vital Records. One entire family, the Nathan Allan’s have the wrong mother on the documents submitted to the state of Vermont. When transferring the information from the Town Ledger books, the Town Clerk listed the daughter-in-law as the mother of the children. That error created a brick wall for me so I contacted the current Town Clerk and she sent me photocopies of the original pages showing the correct mother. That brick wall came down and I followed that line straight back to the Mayflower with in a couple of hours! You are correct, if it doesn’t seem right, check it out.

    1. Similarly, the NYC birth certificate for one of my Reinschreiber relatives transposed the father’s and son’s names. The mistake was easily disproven through census records and his sibling’s birth records, all of which confirmed who was really who.

  6. Great post and personally interesting as I live in the vicinity of North Attleboro and share the little frustrations and occasional victories of researching Irish ancestors [ my wife’s family ]. Likewise, I have discovered birthdates, ages, immigration dates that vary by years for the same person in various documents. I guess that is what keeps genealogy research interesting. Lots of detective work and deduction.

    1. Thanks for the comment. One of my grandmother’s cousins, Annie Driscoll, lived in Attleboro. I have some wonderful pictures of her and her family, taken in the early 20th century. Perhaps one day I will connect with descendants.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.