Tips for Researching Desmond (& other Irish Surnames)

Last week I received an email from a fellow Desmond named “Claire” via the GeneaJourneys blog you’re reading right now.

She’s  been researching her genealogy for a fairly short time and wondered if perhaps we were related due to having Desmond ancestors who also had similar given names as well.

While some of the names of her Desmond ancestors did match a few on my tree, I knew we probably weren’t related–at least not closely related–because the birth and death dates were pretty far off and our ancestors didn’t live in the same locations.

Her inquiry (which appears at the bottom of this post) was both earnest and hopeful. She’d clearly done her homework and had garnered much data about her ancestors’ lives in a short time. She also reminded me of myself about eight and a half years ago when I first began the geneajourney of researching my Desmond ancestors.

Back then, when I left similar inquiries on genealogy message boards (like most people I suspect), I rarely got more than a one-line answer from those I reached out to. Most responses–if I got one at all–simply and succinctly stated that “No. We’re not related.”

Pretty discouraging for a beginner…

Ultimately, that surprise inquiry from Claire got me to thinking—particularly about just how much I’ve learned over the past 9 years (primarily on my own) through reading, classes, workshops, conferences and plain old trial-and-error. Claire’s heartfelt email made me realize I would have been much further ahead in my research by now if I’d only had a few tips from a mentor who’d been at it a little longer.

So in the spirit of helping my younger self, I answered Claire’s inquiry—first letting her down easy (please read on), but then offering a host of suggestions that I hope will kick start her entry into Irish research with much more success than I initially had. My response appears below, which I later learned was both encouraging and helpful to her.

At the bottom of this post is an edited version of Claire’s original inquiry just in case there are other readers researching Desmonds who have names, dates and locations that match those of Claire’s ancestors. Perhaps that will be just the connection you both need to break a stubborn brick wall.

Desmond, or not, May the Luck of the Irish be with ALL of us who continue to seek out our hidden Gaelic ancestors.


Hi Claire ~

Thanks for reaching out to me to see if we’re related. Always nice to hear from another Desmond family history researcher. While many of our mutual ancestors’ given names are similar, based on the dates and locations you’ve provided, I don’t believe you and I are closely related, though we may be very distant cousins.

Like yours, my Desmonds also come from Cork (where I understand the Desmonds were–and still are–concentrated).  I’ve also seen many Desmonds listed in databases as coming from Macroom. Mine settled in upstate New York when they came to America, though numerous Desmonds settled in  Minnesota, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, so you’re probably correct about where your Desmonds settled when they arrived here.

I’m sure you’ve heard or read that Irish research can be difficult, and that it’s best to work backwards by exhausting all record sets on this side of the pond first. As one who is still new to Irish records, I can tell you I’ve definitely found that to be true.

But…the data in American records (if the person you’re following is truly your ancestor) should provide unique details about him or her that will enable you to then search more successfully for them in records abroad.

Here are some ideas for doing Irish research that have worked for me:


You mentioned I’ve found FAG to be a mother lode for hints on other family members and have been able to greatly expand my tree that way. I caution you, though, that those hints are exactly that—only hints—and they should always be confirmed in other ways (vital records, obituaries, census, newspaper articles, etc.) If not, you may end up following someone who’s NOT your ancestor—a big disappointment and an even bigger waste of time.

The good news is, there’s a man named William Desmond who goes by “Des” on FAG who keeps track of all the Desmonds that he comes across. Here’s his FAG bio:

One-name researcher with info on thousands of Desmonds. Your queries are welcome. Leave a message. Be sure to check the “Desmond Variant Spellings” Virtual Cemetery below. There are many more Desmond obituaries, death and funeral notices, and other information, at my Desmond Archives website:

Try contacting Des for some guidance on that. Here’s a link to Des on FAG:

A U.S. Expert in Irish Genealogy

Have you heard of Donna Moughty? She’s a U.S. based expert on Irish research who uses her website, speaking engagements, and Facebook page to educate others in Irish research. I attended several of her sessions last year at a local conference and have been following her ever since.

She (like others) also publishes Quick Reference Guides on Irish research topics, and offers coaching in Irish research. She even organizes research trips to Ireland for those who are far enough along in their research to make that worthwhile. (Not me, yet, but perhaps someday!)

An Expert Based in Ireland

Do you know about John Grenham? Based in Ireland, he has a website (part free; part fee-based); a Facebook page; and an indispensable book called “Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide” which I highly recommend. It’s loaded with details on how to go about doing Irish research from getting started; to church, land and county records in Ireland; to research services, Irish repositories, and publishers. (There are dozens of books on Irish research but this is the most comprehensive and useful one I’ve found so far.)

A Specific Database on

Do you know about the database entitled “Ireland, Catholic Parish Registers, 1655-1915″? Try it! Plug in one ancestor’s name at a time and see what pops up. You may be as lucky as I was.

Using that specific  collection, I was able to find baptismal, marriage and death records in Ireland that took me back two more generations on my direct Desmond line and I was also able to find similar records for siblings of those direct ancestors.

One-Name & One-Place Sources

There are also organizations, websites and Facebook pages dedicated to researching the genealogy of a single surname or a single location in both the U.S, and other countries.  (Full disclosure: I haven’t fully researched any of them but I know they exist.)

Examples I’m aware of include the Guild of One-name Studies  and Wikitree’s One Place Study project. To thoroughly investigate this topic, try googling “one name study” or “one place study” to learn more about how they can help you with your Irish Desmond research.

Online Courses in Irish Research

The National Institute of Genealogical Studies (NIGS) also offers a series of classes on Irish research. Two very basic ones I’ve taken are: Irish: Understanding Ireland, History and Source Records and Research: Irish Ancestors. You can learn more about these courses (and many others) by going to:

Other online providers offer general courses in genealogy as well.

Books for Your Own Personal Genealogy Library

Eventually—when you’re further along in your Irish research—you may want to pick up a few of the reference books mentioned below.

Some are introductory guides to pursuing Irish research; some are guides to Irish surnames and places; one focuses on records located in Ireland; and the other is about the social history of everyday life in Ireland in the 1800s. (Can’t wait to dig into that one!)

Some you’ll refer to often and others, for the most part, will remain on your bookshelf but  come in handy when you need them. A sampling:

Finding Your Irish Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide by David S. Ouimette (c. 2005)

Tracing Your Irish Ancestors by John Grenham. (c. 2012)

The Surnames of Ireland by Edward MacLysaght (c. 1999)

Special Report on Surnames in Ireland by Sir Robert Matheson (c. 1909)

A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland by Brian Mitchell (c. 2002)

Irish Place Names by Deirdre and Laurence Flanagan (c. 2002)

General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland as reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. (c. 1851).

Irish Records: Sources for Family & Local History by James G. Ryan (c. 1997)

Everyday Life in 19th Century Ireland by Ian Maxwell (c. 2012)

By the way, when it comes to buying books, you don’t have to buy them new. I often use online booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble to find gently used copies that are in “very good” to “excellent” condition for a very reasonable price.

(For other tips on buying books see this 3-part series of posts I wrote a few years ago for this GeneaJourneys blog.)

There are a host of other resources (websites, webinars, conferences, institutes, archives, specialty libraries, etc.) that are available for doing Irish genealogy research as well, but the ones above should give you a good start.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll find out we’re more closely related through the Desmond line than we thought!

Best of luck in your research, Claire.

Pat Biallas

Following is an edited version of the original inquiry I received from a fellow hunter of Desmond ancestors whose origins are in County Cork, Ireland.

If any of the facts from your family tree match those of Claire’s, feel free to reach out to me through the “Contact page” on this blog. I’ll be happy to forward your name and information to Claire so you can contact her directly.


Hello Patricia,

I joined four months ago, completed two genealogy courses, and am a member of my local genealogical society. My current research relates to my great grandfather, Timothy Desmond who was born in 1838, Macroom, County Cork, Ireland. His father was also named Tim Desmond and his mother was Johanna Foley. They immigrated from Dublin to America in 1849. Sadly, Johanna died on board their ship (Bark Argyle). I have not found my great grandfather’s name on the ship’s registry, however every document I have confirms that he immigrated in 1849.

Timothy Desmond settled in Massachusetts. He had at least three older sisters.  One sister was named Johanna Desmond. Johanna was also born in Macroom, Cork, Ireland in 1824. I was intent on learning more about her and eventually found a listing for “Johanna Desmond Holland”. From there I went to Find-A-Grave and found your name.  I now realize that it’s a coincidence that there were two Johanna Desmonds born in Ireland around the same time, who were both immigrants.  I’m just wondering if there could be any family connection between us?

As I said my great grandfather immigrated as a youth, settled in MA, was a boot maker, and eventually married Margaret Gertrude Lyons in 1906. They had 2 sons Clarence F. Desmond and Walter J. Desmond, who all lived in the Waltham, Milford and Worcester area of MA. I am a descendant of Walter J. Desmond, my paternal grandfather. Hoping to hear from you!

Thanks for reading this.


No, Claire, thank YOU for reaching out and inspiring me to write this post. I hope that the tips above on pursuing Irish research will prove useful to you and others like you who are just getting started on their Irish geneajourney.

(…and an early “Happy St. Patty’s Day” to you and yours!)

Copyright © 2018 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in Ireland, Research, Research Tips | 2 Comments

Oh, Those Awkward Family Photos (c. 1940, Chicago)

For genealogists, one of the best parts of discovering living cousins (after simply learning you have them and meeting them, of course) is being introduced to family photos you’ve never seen before.

Such was the case for me last week.

That’s when I received a Facebook message from Anne, one of my east coast cousins in the Desmond line, whom I met online in 2011 and have kept up with ever since. Her message, which included a photo of a tarnished silver picture frame containing two photos from a bygone era, was short but arresting:

A newly discovered Desmond family photo provided by a cousin I met just seven years ago.

  “Have you seen these before? Sorry for sideways and low quality. Will take better photo during day.

My abbreviated response:

“No! I’ve never seen the one on the right before!”

I had a copy of the photo that resided in the left side of Anne’s picture frame, but I’d never seen the one on the right, and that one looked like it could be a real doozie.

It appeared to be an attempt to take a family portrait of the first four of my seven siblings, with our grandparents, our mother, and a family friend  around 1940 in Chicago—13 years before my brothers and I were added to the final collection of eight Desmond offspring.

For numerous reasons I was anxious to see an upright, clearer scan of that image so I could examine it more closely. Among them:

  • It was a family photo taken long before I was born.
  • I’m greedy to see more images of my Desmond grandparents. I never met them. Nellie died shortly before I was born and Owen died a few months after. I only know them through photos, family stories, and  research I’ve done over the past several years.
  • I also never knew my sisters when they (or I) were children. I wasn’t around when they were kids and they weren’t around when I was. They were grown and out of the house by the time my brothers and I were growing up in the 1960s and ’70s.
  • And lastly: I didn’t know my mother when she was a young woman. In fact, I had little time to know her at all.  She was 42 when I was born and she died 16 years later.

Needless to say, this was an image I awaited with much anticipation; and, as promised, Anne came through with a much clearer copy of that photo for me 24 hours later. (Thanks so much, Anne!)

So here it is. Take a look:

An “awkward” family treasure.

Even a non-family member can see that this is no ordinary family portrait. Rather, it’s what would be known today as an “awkward” family photo like some posted on social media to point out how clothing or hairstyles are vastly out-of-date, or the subjects photographed are posed in odd or bizarre ways.

Why wouldn’t this  photo qualify as “awkward” too, considering what’s going on here and how the eight people in it are configured?

In the front row are my grandparents, Owen Desmond (1861-1953) who’s seated on the left, and Nellie Keating Desmond (1868-1952) standing on the right.

Owen, about 79 at the time, is looking just like the successful, dignified, dapper patriarch he’s always appeared to be based on the snapshots we have of him in the family photo album. Nellie, wearing the same long coat worn in a different photo taken that  year for their 50th wedding anniversary, is standing sentry to the right.

Both of them are book-ending my two eldest sisters, Barbara Desmond, 4, (born 23 Mar 1936) and Diane Desmond 3, (born 19 Nov 1937) who are squeezed into a chair between them. (It’s quite subtle, but if you look closely, you’ll notice each grandparent has a hand on one side of that chair—presumably so it won’t topple over.)

It must have been a sunny day—or at least too sunny for Diane (in the chair on the right), as her hands are completely obliterating her eyes. Barbara (left of Diane) seems to agree that it was too bright out as she’s clearly squinting her eyes. As the oldest who just turned 4 though, she apparently realized she should at least attempt to look directly at the camera.

Now for the back row:

At left is our mother, Dorothy May Donar (1911-1970), a Chicago model in the early 1930s, well before babies were her daily reality. She’s holding—and apparently comforting—the youngest of the four girls, Colleen Desmond (born 5 Oct 1939), who appears to want no part of visually recording an image of the Desmond clan for posterity.

(May I please just digress a bit? What woman today has a figure like Mom’s after she delivered back-to-back babies, four years in a row, between the spring of 1936 and the fall of 1939? Clearly she kept the calories off just keeping up with those eight little legs and the places they carried them. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the only time our Mom had three other adults around to help her care for her four toddlers were on auspicious occasions like this one—a family photo–and  those opportunities for assistance probably lasted all of 60 to 90 seconds.)

But, back to the photo:

Back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder with our mom, is Hannah Hourihan (1887-1968), who seems to be successfully entertaining daughter #3, Dorothy Desmond (born 19 October 1938). Hannah, who was listed as a “servant” and “maid” on numerous U.S. censuses, lived with Owen and Nellie Desmond for over 40 years—from at least 1910 when my dad was an infant, through 1953.

Not in name, but certainly in spirit, Hannah was a full-fledged member of the Desmond clan, who, over time, went from serving as nursemaid to Nellie’s youngest children to serving the household in a variety of ways: cooking, shopping, and keeping house. And, as this photo shows—she went on to care for and enjoy many of Owen’s and Nellie’s grandkids over the decades that followed.

Hannah remained with our grandparents throughout their old age evolving from “servant” and “maid” into a beloved companion and member of the family until Owen and Nellie died in the early 1950s.

Other points of interest regarding this image:

  • Noticeably absent from this family photo is our father, Gerald Desmond (1909-1979), who I suspect may have been the photographer.
  • I’m also guessing the photo was taken in the spring of 1940 based on the age of the youngest child—Colleen—who was born in October 1939, and who appears here to be about 6 months old.
  • Today, more than 70 years later, my four sisters–the little girls in this photo–are  (on average) about the same age as their grandfather was when this picture was taken of all of them back in 1940.


Is this family photo a bit awkward looking? Oh, yes, of course–due  to much of what was explained above.

Is it revealing? Certainly.

It captures the essence of what young (and apparently, growing) families looked like decades before birth control was commonplace. It also provides a glimpse into the social history of America in the mid 20th century.  It illustrates what extended families—with grandparents and nursemaids—looked like in the 1940s for those that were fortunate enough (both financially and personally) to have grandparents and nursemaids in their lives.

But does this (awkward) photo qualify as a family treasure?



One. Hundred. Percent.

So thank you again, Anne, for passing on this treasure of  our personal family history to your Desmond cousins.

Perhaps I can return the favor some day with a photo I discover of ancestors in your branch of the Desmond family.

A more traditional family portrait of the Gerald and Dorothy Desmond family taken about 1944 before three boys and another girl were added to the brood.


Next up:

Irish Twins, Irish Triplets and maybe even more. Stay tuned…

Copyright © 2018 Patricia Desmond Biallas


Posted in Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories, Social History | 2 Comments

Hallowe’en Hijinks in Upstate New York, c. 1912

In honor of Halloween I post this little ditty related to an ancestor of mine. It pertains to the antics of second cousin, Maurice J. Dullea (1895-1934), who got into a wee bit of trouble with the federal government back in 1912 when he was up to no good with a couple of friends skylarking on All Hallow’s Eve.

He was 17 years old at the time.

The article appeared on page 4 of the Courier & Freeman Newspaper, Potsdam, NY, on 13 November 1912.  I found it on the website NYS Historic Newspapers—a goldmine for genealogists researching ancestors in upstate New York. To read the story for yourself, slide the image onto your desktop and enlarge. For less effort on the eyes, a transcript of the news story follows:

01_NYS header




03_News Article.gif

Boys Tore Down R. F. D. Boxes


U.S. Marshalls Arrest Them For

Hallowe’en Prank.


     On Hallowe’en night three young men not appreciating the fact that they were monkeying with Uncle Sam’s property, tore down several R. F. D. mailboxes on the Hopkinton road. As a result Deputy U. S. Marshal E. C. J. Smith of Ogdensburg came to Potsdam Saturday and placed under arrest Maurice Dullea, Fred Brown and John Walsh on a complaint charging them with violations of section 198 of the United States criminal code of willfully and maliciously tearing down letter boxes on a rural free delivery route.

     The warrant was sworn out before U. S. Commissioner Walter G. Kellogg on the complaint of Henry Curran, a post office inspector.

     The three young men were taken to Ogdensburg Saturday afternoon where they were arraigned before Commissioner Kellogg who held them in $500 bonds for examination. They were unable to give the required bail.

      The penalty for tearing down a box of this kind or willfully aiding or assisting in this offense is a fine of not more than $1000 or imprisonment of not less than three years or both.

In the weeks that followed, local newspapers reported several more stories related to legal proceedings of the case.

The good news is Maurice ultimately managed to get out of that little scrape with the law. He was mentioned in the local papers numerous times in the years that followed though, but for a much more positive reason: for serving with honor in World War I after being wounded in battle.

The newspapers even ran a few of his letters home to the family, one of which I’ll transcribe in a future post here on GeneaJourneys.

Nothing better than a first-person, contemporary account of a soldier on the battlefront recounting the adventures (and often mundane routine) of life (literally) in the trenches.

Stay tuned…


Copyright © 2017 Patricia Desmond Biallas




Posted in Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories, Holidays, Military, Newspaper Research | 2 Comments