So Much To Learn About Your Irish Ancestors

By Peggy DeStefano
   My sister Mary Sikora has spent her life researching our ancestors. She spent an awful lot of time tracing our mother’s side but has at times dabbled in my Dad’s story. He was 1/2 Irish and 1/2 German. It is so much fun to learn the results of her research. I am forever grateful to her. I thought I would share it with our readers.
   Here is what my sister Mary discovered about my Dad’s Irish 1/2:
   “Searching for my father: Harold Patrick Sweeney. Discovering his family has been a journey obscured by half-remembered tales and lost stories.
   I knew we had a German grandmother and that our father always liked “sour meat,” otherwise known as sauerbraten. And it began with the surety of the older ones that the Irish ones came from County Cork. I also heard that someone was born on the ship over. One heard something about a Sweeney ancestor that jumped off the boat in the harbor to make it to the American shore rather than go down with a sinking ship or something. Some of you may have heard the variation. That’s all I remember hearing.
   They are part of the huge Irish exodus to America that began mid-18th century in Ireland. And, they appear to be part of the great amnesia the Irish in Ireland and in America share. Many say it was because they wanted to forget the hardships. The poverty. The famine.
   Here’s what I had to begin the search:
   A carbon copy of a letter my father sent to a company in Ireland, saying he was coming over and that his great-grandparents’ names were Owen and Hattie Sweeney. I didn’t have a return letter, so I don’t know what the company sent back to him.
   I also had a letter from Ellis Island, thanking him for his contribution.
   Here’s what I learned as I searched:
   In the 1870 census, Patrick Sweeney (the first to come) and his wife Margaret are living with daughter Margaret (age 7 months). His age is given as 37, which puts his birth date around 1833. He says he works in an ice house. There is another daughter there named Annie. She is age 12 and is attending school. Annie is apparently born in Ohio. In the 1880 census, he is listed as living at 215 Broadway Street. He says he is 55. That would date his birth to around 1825.
   Patrick’s granddaughter, Gertrude Troxel, whom I interviewed in a Cincinnati nursing home, said her mother was Annette Kaveny and her grandmother was Gertrude Sweeney Harnish. She said there was a first marriage for Patrick and among the children of that marriage were Anna Sweeney Spear who lived in Serinac, NY, (near Oneida). The cemetery lot in New St. Joseph Cemetery was owned by someone named Spear which, according to Gertrude Troxel is the married name of one of Patrick’s children from his first marriage.
   She said that Patrick’s daughter, Margaret (from the second marriage), died in a fire in the Over-the-Rhine district in Cincinnati. She said that John Sweeney (from the second marriage) had an “open leg,” whatever that meant at the time.
   It is my belief that Margaret (of the second marriage) changed her age frequently. She appeared to get younger in each census. In the census data, we see that Margaret reports having had five children, but four are alive. That appears to account for the younger Margaret’s death. John, the one with the “open leg” is almost always living with his mother. After she dies, he becomes a boarder in various Cincinnati homes. He is always listed as a laborer.
   Margaret Dyer (Dwyer) was Patrick’s second wife. We have her death certificate on file. It says her father’s name (as we look at it) was Hugh “Dyer” born in Ireland. And her mother is Margaret, that from the New St. Joseph Cemetery records. It also says she died of “acute dilation of heart.” The New St. Joseph Cemetery records indicate she was 60 years old when she died (same as the death certificate).
   All this did not prepare me for Ireland. Not at all. My husband John and I went over in 1998 to begin that search. Everywhere we went in County Sligo, we met with Sweeneys. They all agreed we were related because they all were in Sligo.
   Yet, no one knew which of the many Owens and Patricks were ours. These were common names for the Sweeneys in Sligo and the connections were blurred. The Dyers (or Dwyers, depending on the records) were the same. When I went to the Family Research Center, they found a lot of Hugh Dyers married to Margarets. There was simply no way to know for sure, given my prediliction for proofs.
   I hired a driver one day while John was playing golf in Donegal. The driver took me to every possible Sweeney abode he could find. We knocked on many doors and we found . . . are you ready? We found a Harold Patrick Sweeney. I took John back to meet him later. Harold had checked with his family and he said they knew only that he’d been named for someone in America. But his family assured him it wasn’t our Harold Patrick. Of course, they were just guessing, he said.
   Then, the Irish Harold Patrick Sweeney (who looked like a version of our Uncle Jimmy, as did many of them) took John and I to the ruins of the old homestead. He’d taken the stones from the old building to help build his new house. But he’d left the stables up. You see, he said when he took over the property, he realized the stables had been whitewashed. He heard that Sweeney families had come to live in the stable rooms in the worst times. One family to a stall. He thought he should leave the stables up. The Irish do that a lot. It’s a visual memory as opposed to a visceral memory.
   It was then that the horror of the Irish starving times came to us. And we understood how they chose to forget who was whom back then. The Irish Sweeneys were living better in 1998 than they had lived since the time of Oliver Cromwell who had them crushed. Sligo was the last bastion of Irish freedom then. They weren’t going to remember the horror that followed.
   It was then that the realization that what we’d heard about the Sweeney family was true. They were mercenaries. They took money to fight. They taught others to fight. They went to Scotland in the year 1000 A.D. for 300 years to fight for and to teach the MacDonalds. They came back to Ireland after the battle of Bannockburn, which they lost. They took up the battles of the O’Donnells then.
   In Dublin, I talked with the head of the younger clan (not the Banagh, because our clan head is in Canada), but Loughlin Sweeney. I discovered that many of the defensive castles around the northern part of Ireland were built by the Sweeneys. I also discovered that they earlier had married into the Vikings. That explains the periodic tallness I saw. That explains the taller Uncle Jimmy, too. Or, so I think. (Peg’s note: My Uncle Jimmy, my Dad’s brother, was over 6 feet tall. The other Sweeneys were shorter including my father.)
   So, we came from County Sligo in Ireland. (On the German side, we came from Dinklage, Oldenburg in Germany. That’s another story.) And our grandparents met because they were living in the same neighborhood in Cincinnati, working in the same factories. They were chairmakers, shoe lacers, buttermakers. Flora, our grandmother, was a laundress right before she married Grandpa.
   We didn’t come from Cork. And we came much earlier than Ellis Island. And there are no records of ship jumping or birthing, as it were. I’ll continue my research.There is so much to learn.”
   Thank you, Mary!

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