The Genealogists’ Tale

40 years sorting out the Sullivans, Sheas and others on the Beara

Mr. O’Dwyer, Irish Genealogy Expert
Mr. O’Dwyer, Irish Genealogy Expert

An accordian might seem an unusual tool for a genealogist. But when Riobard O’Dwyer started researching family-trees some 40 years ago on the Beara Peninsula, he found that some traditional Irish music could help draw out genealogical information from local elders.

Now, four decades later, it seems likely that Mr. O’Dwyer knows more about family histories of this rugged southwest corner of Ireland than anybody else on earth. Many of the Sullivans, Harringtons, and other Beara descendents here in America are aware of his skill, which is why you’ll find his name popping up in internet genealogy boards they frequent.

The early part of Mr. O’Dwyer’s resume is lively. Besides appearing on Radio Eireann with his accordian in his young days, he won the All-Ireland Senior Triple Jump Championship (or “Hop, Step and Jump” competition) a record 7 times. He got involved in genealogy in 1963, while teaching school in Eyeries parish. During a history lesson on the great Irish famine, he decided to look into how his students’ ancestors had “suffered so much between the famine and the landlords” in this time (1845-1850). The accordian worked wonders when he showed up to try and get older people to give him “oral records” about families in the area.

Hard To Believe

But the project also introduced him to the daunting limitations of old Irish Church documents. He found that hundreds of baptisms were omitted, some boys were given girls’ names (and vice versa), grandparents and godparents were listed as the parents of children, a man was put down as the mother of a child. That was just the start. One man was listed as having been buried a month before he died, several children listed as born twice, several baptised before they were born and twins born as much as two months apart (“we must have had some very prolonged pregnancies in those days” he notes). Particularly interesting was a man listed as being married in New York 72 years before he was born in Ireland.

Following his school project, he began to take on research jobs for local families. Mr. O’Dwyer began the first of thousands of family trees he’s now completed. Along the way, he’s seen some emotional moments unfold, when American visitors come face to face with living relatives – whom they may not have been aware existed – as a result of his work.

A favorite job was tracing the ancestry of the last US Ambassador to Ireland (and former governor of Wyoming) Mike Sullivan. The Ambassador’s great grandfather, a copper miner, had emigrated from the township of Cahirkeem (Eyeries Parish) to the Upper Michigan Peninsula. Though he married in Michigan in 1866, and the first few of the children were born there, the family did not remain in Michigan. Along with other former Beara copper miners in the area, they were led to a farming homestead in Holt County, Nebraska by General John O’Neill (for whom O’Neill, Nebraska was ultimately named). Their new home became known as the “Michigan Settlement,” and the miners – with surnames like Sullivan, Harrington, Cronin, Hanley, O’Dwyer and Murphy – became known as “Michiganders.” Mr. O’Dwyer’s ability to track the Ambassador’s great grandfather from the Beara to Michigan and Nebraska ultimately resulted in Mr. Sullivan visiting the Beara. He came “sporting his ten-gallon hat” O’Dwyer says, to open a walking and cycling route in Cahirkeem named for his ancestor, and to officially open work on the new Allihies Mining Museum.

Why do so many of us want to know about our ancestors? The “short answer,” Mr. O’Dwyer says, is “How do we get the feeling for who we are and the pride in who we are, unless we know where we came from? You look at the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all over the world. Therein lies a big part of your answer.” He enjoys looking into history, but has no illusions about life in past centuries, speaking of “ancestors who were forced to emigrate in the sailing ships and ‘coffin ships’ through the terrible storms of the Atlantic to try and make a better living in those terrible far-off days.”

Branch Names

Mr. O’Dwyer’s advice can help the do-it-yourselfer, or it can help you create a file that will make a hired genealogist’s work a lot easier.

In most parts of Ireland you research, you’ll quickly encounter the problem of multiple families with the same surnames. “There are approximately 80 different Sullivan/O’sullivan branch-names in the Beara Peninsula,” O’Dwyer says, “and if you weren’t aware of what they were, you may as well be searching through the Amazon Jungle for your O’sullivan.” A tool that’s helped him trace many families is the “branch name,” a concept foreign to most Americans. In areas where a name like Sullivan was particularly dominant, families were often distinguished by branch names based on the occupation of a senior member. If a man was a land-steward, “reachtaire” in gaelic, his descendents would be known as “Rochtirres.” Decendents of a forge owner, “cearta” in gaelic, would be known as Ceartans. Parish priests often put these branch names into church records instead of the real surname. As a result, it’s often possible today for a genealogist to distinguish members of the Sullivan Rochtirres, for instance, from the Sullivan Ceartans.

Location, Location, Location

Another key piece of information – an ancestor’s true point of origin – can be surprisingly tough to obtain. Mr. O’Dwyer receives numerous letters with vague statements like “My grandfather Patrick O’sullivan threw stones into Bantry Bay,” that give him little to work on. There are about 800 townlands around the bay. The only town (as distinct from the villages) on the Beara Peninsula is Castletownbere, a fishing port (and once a Naval base) well-known outside of Ireland. People from all over the peninsula frequently identified themselves as being from Castletownbere, never stating which of the many townships and parishes in the area they actually originated from. To make things even more complicated – numerous records in America name an Irish immigrant as coming from “County Cork,” when he might have been from a completely different county. Why? Because Cobh, formerly known as Queenstown (in County Cork) was a major port of embarcation for trans-Atlantic ships. Arriving in the US, people often stated that they had, quite literally, come over from County Cork.

Necessary Steps

Before hiring a family researcher, it’s important to do some homework. “Here is what is vitally necessary,” Mr. O’Dwyer says, “for a successful genealogical inquiry.”

  • Name and approximate date of birth of the ancestor.
  • Christian name of the father.
  • Maiden name of the mother.
  • Name of the ancestral parish, and, if possible the townland within the parish.
  • Maiden name of the ancestor’s wife (any details on her parents are also helpful).
  • Where in the US the ancestor went.
  • Names and approximate dates of birth of ancestor’s siblings, with any marriage information about them.
  • In many cases a sibling may have stayed in Ireland and settled on the home farm, or nearby – information on who he/she married can be valuable.

For a good list of heritage centres that can help with your research in Ireland, Mr. O’Dwyer recommends the second quarter 2002 issue of “Irish Roots” magazine, available from publisher Tony McCarthy at (a yearly subscription costs $20).

More Difficult Today

In spite of numerous attempts to codify and reorganize old Parish Church records, Mr. O’Dwyer warns that they’re actually tougher to work with now than when he started out 40 years ago. In those days, there were alot of very old people on the peninsula with a deep knowledge of area families, whom he could go to and double check the written records. Now these old people are all gone. Unfortunately, he doubts anyone ever “double checked” records in other parts of Ireland the way he has done with his local records.

Another problem is the tendency of modern transcribers to simply carry forward the errors in old documents. “The old church records, especially the baptismal records, are littered with mistakes. Those mistakes are being transcribed from Latin into English, or perhaps into Gaelic in Irish-speaking areas.” The danger lies in accepting the information in these new records as gospel. Verifying your records is even more important today as a result.

At times, Mr, O’Dwyer says, he’s handed unrealistic requests. Some people have turned up on his doorstep, having done little or no research on their own, asking if they can be introduced to a relative, some John O’shea or “the inevitable Patrick O’sullivan,” during a brief visit to the area. “A lot of time can be needlessly wasted,” he says, “trying to perform miracles on such occasions.”

Stick With It

For all of Mr. O’Dwyer’s diligence, some of his best moments have required a bit of luck. When putting together his first genealogy book 30 years ago, he left out over 1200 families about whom nothing, beyond the names and dates of baptism, was known. But he kept his hand-written data on them, just in case a connection might pop up out of the blue later on. One day, an American woman turned up who was clearly descended from one of these “missing” families. Having kept the records made it possible for Mr. O’Dwyer to draw a direct connection to her Irish ancestry, and quickly trace both sides of her family in the Beara Peninsula, turning up many ancestors she’d never been aware of. Two of her great, great, great grandfathers, as it happened, were born in the same year: 1796. “It was a very happy lady who returned to the United States with her Family-Tree that she had almost despaired of finding” O’Dwyer recalls, adding: “The important thing to bear in mind for people out there trying to trace ancestors is never give up. Stick with it. Success comes to those who persevere.”

Where Riobard O’Dwyer works:

Mr. O’Dwyer, who has lectured on his work in places like Salt Lake City, Butte, Boston, Tampa and the Irish Genealogical Congress, researches only on ancestries of the the Beara Peninsula parishes of Adrigole, Allihies (Copper Mines Parish, including Dursey Island), Bere Island, Castletownbere, Eyeries and Glengarriff, all of which lie in County Cork. The only part of County Kerry he does work on is the Bonane District closer to Kenmare. He lives in Eyeries Village, County Cork. Email: