Part of the family lore I absorbed long ago was the emigration of my mother’s mother’s family — the O’Malleys and Morans — from a place called Clare Island. I’ll call it a speck of rock standing at the very edge of the Atlantic on Ireland’s western coast, but with the stipulation it’s a good-size speck, maybe three miles wide at its widest point by five miles at its longest. The terrain is dramatic. Cliffs dominate much of the island’s coastline, and on the northwestern quarter of the island, a mountain rears up 1,500 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.
I went to the island once, long ago, and it seems hardly a day passes that I don’t think of it. Maybe that journey was left unfinished in some way. That’s another story for another day.
I have accessed my family’s story there another way, though, one that has involved scores if not hundreds of hours of looking at census returns and other genealogical records online. It’s been sort of thrilling to find the family I grew up hearing my mother describe in the census registers and to seize a few kernels of the family’s story.
Just one example: In 1894, my great-grandfathers Martin O’Malley arrived in the United States and settled with his in-laws, John and Bridget Moran, in a neighborhood just east of Chicago’s Union Stockyards. I’ve got the date of his emigration from his 1910 naturalization papers; and the address comes from the Morans’ longtime domicile on West 47th Place. In 1897, Martin’s wife, Anne Moran O’Malley, brought their eight children to Chicago.
The family shows up in the 1900 census on West 47th Street, about half a block from the Morans. Under “Occupation,” Martin and his two eldest sons, Patrick and John, are listed as “labor at yards.” The third eldest son, Mike, was listed as a “messenger boy,” and I’m guessing he worked in the yards, too (he later became a butcher and owned his own shop a couple miles south of the yards). So, we have documentary proof of the family’s existence, with enough specificity about ages — someone went through the ages of the O’Malley kids and “corrected” them at some point — to make you feel like your looking at something precise.
One thing I noticed looking at the various records for the O’Malleys — and the Morans, too, though I won’t go into that here — is how much their ages move around. Take Martin O’Malley and Anne Moran, for instance: In the 1900 census, he’s listed as having been born in July 1854, which made him 45 as of the 2nd of June, 1900, the day the O’Malley household was enumerated by someone named John P. Hughes. Anne Moran is listed as having been born in July 1864, which made her 35.
All fine. The problems — no, not problems; discrepancies — start the moment you look at any other record concerning the family. I haven’t found the 1910 census record for Martin O’Malley and Anne Moran and their clan. But there is a 1910 naturalization record for Martin, witnessed by two of his brothers-in-law, Anne’s brothers Edward and John. What does it say about Martin’s age? That he was born Nov. 9, 1856, more than two years after the date recorded in the 1900 census.
But let’s not get hung up on one tiny little difference. Turn to the 1920 census record, taken at the O’Malley home on South Yale Avenue on Jan. 6 by a Mrs. Grace Cawley. The birth month and year for household members are not recorded, but ages are. Martin is listed as 60 years old — meaning he was born in 1859 or 1860, a five- or six-year jump from the date listed in the earlier census and three or four years from the date listed on his naturalization. Meantime, Anne’s age had advanced a full 20 years, and she was listed as 55.
Martin died in June 1929, so he wasn’t around for the 1930 census, taken April 9 by a Marion Baker. But Anne was. She’s 67 — meaning her birth year has now shifted backward a couple years, to 1863 or even 1862. Most of her children, all well into single Irish Catholic adulthood by now, were living with her on Yale Avenue. The one daughter born in Ireland, Mary O’Malley, is listed as having been 35 — or born in 1894 or 1895; the 1900 census, which may even be accurate, gives her birth year as 1887.
In 1940, census enumerator Katherine Johnson visited the 6500 block of South Yale on April 6. She recorded Anne’s age as 78, which moves her birth another year back, to 1861 or 1862. Let it be noted that the 1950 census has not yet been released, and won’t be until 2022, so we don’t know what Anne or her household informants said her age was that year. But that is one more historical/actuarial data point to consult moving into the 1950s — the headstone on her grave in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, the big Catholic marble orchard — my dad’s term — out on 111th Street at Austin Avenue. There, her dates are listed as 1865-1952.
Well, the 1952 part is pretty reliable. But the 1865 part?
Anne was buried right next to Martin, and his dates are given as 1851-1929. Again, the later date is pretty well fixed. But remember that his explicit or implied birth year moved from 1854 to 1856 to 1860 in the census and naturalization documents. Where the heck did 1851 come from? And was he really 14 years older than his wife?
Now enter a parish baptismal register for Clare Island digitized sometime in the last few years by the National Library of Ireland. It’s hard to know how complete it is, but it does appear to contain birth and/or baptism information for Martin O’Malley — or Malley, as virtually all of the O’Malleys are listed in the book — and for Anne Moran and eight of her siblings.
Martin’s parents were said to be Patrick O’Malley and Alice O’Malley, and the book lists just one Martin with those parents. He was born, almost certainly, on June 20, 1852. So if you’re keeping track at home, I think we have five different dates for him from five different sources. Me, I’m inclined to go with the earliest dates, especially since there’s something like a contemporary record of his birth.
Now let’s look at Anne, whose birth has been hovering in the early 1860s. She was the first child recorded for John Moran and Bridget Prendergast. The parish register gives her date of birth and baptism as July 19, 1860. Again, virtually every later record gives a different actual or implied birth year for her.
I grew up with the notion that chronology was something that was definite, fixed and objective, or at least could be. I grew up with a web of family dates in my head — birth dates and anniversaries and dates of death, dates we moved from one place to the other — and I’ve always been the pain in the ass who remembers what date Lincoln was shot (April 14, 1865) and reams of other key historical moments. I can tell you that I was born one April morning at 9:21 a.m. — or at least that’s what the records say — and 9:21 a.m. therefore bears some significance for me.
So the floating dates with these not-so-distant ancestors throw me a little and make me wonder how it all happened. It must have been a combination of things: perhaps a lack of specific records; census interviews in which the informant had only a vague idea of everyone’s age, census enumerators and immigration clerks who were inattentive and sloppy or rushed, and interviewees who might have been a little vain or reluctant to give up personal information or just not too concerned with exactitude.
More gleanings to come.