52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Week 5 Life experiences: Finding Mary O’Brien

Amy Coffin of the We Tree blog, in conjunction with Geneabloggers, has a new series of weekly blogging prompts for 2012 and the theme is 52 Weeks of Abundant GenealogyWeek 5’s topic is Life Experiences: Sometimes the challenges in life provide the best learning experiences. Can you find an example of this in your own family tree? Which brick wall ancestor are you most thankful for, and how did that person shape your family history experience?

This gorgeously framed photo of Mary O'Brien was given to me by my Sydney cousins.

This is a tricky one and after some reflection I decided on my ancestor Mary O’Brien from County Clare.  Why? Well for two reasons really. Firstly, with a name like that from Clare, you’d have had more chance of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack and secondly, her own life experiences gave her the fortitude to make her new life in Australia.

So how do you solve a problem like Mary O’Brien from Co Clare? I’d have to say that to a large degree I got lucky. I’d been doing my family history less than 12 months when I sent out a barrage of letters to people with the Kunkel surname in and around Toowoomba. What’s Kunkel got to do with it? You see Mary O’Brien, an Irish lady, married George Kunkel, a proud Bavarian and also a strong Catholic. Luckily for me, the Kunkel surname is an unusual one and my father always said anyone with that name in Australia was related…not 100% correct as it happened but about 97%.

Anyway, by pure chance one of my letters went to an unknown cousin who had close links to the surviving grandchild of Mary & George Kunkel and after they’d spoken to her, got in touch with me. Before long we’d organised a meeting in Toowoomba…it was the strangest feeling to find myself amidst a group of equally tall strangers who were really 2nd or 3rd cousins. Anne Kunkel, the granddaughter, was by then in her mid-80s and steadily going blind but her memory was as sharp as a tack. She quickly told me the family tree, who was whom, where they lived, and where they fitted in. She confidently knocked on the head that George and Mary had a daughter Elizabeth, but did have one called Louisa….one and the same person as it turned out.

During a few visits over the coming year or two, we met up again and Anne filled in gaps for me about her grandmother Mary O’Brien, telling me she came out to work for a sea captain, that she had a job lined up “before ever she got here”, that she was 16 when she left Ireland and was six months at sea. Despite the fact that Anne thought two of her sisters, Bridget and Kate, came to Australia with her, I have proved that Kate came later but have never found Mary and Bridget’s immigration records. Anne also knew the names of Mary’s siblings who stayed behind in Ireland.

Anne couldn’t remember Mary’s place of birth but thought it was something like Longford. She did however remember the name of Mary’s sisters in Australia including Bridget’s married name of Widdup. Mary’s death certificate hadn’t obliged me with anything more than the usual “Co Clare”. Luckily her sister’s death certificate was more helpful and named Broadford as her place of birth though mixing up the parents’ names. It also enlightened me that Bridget had spent a year in Queensland and the rest of her Australian life had been lived in New South Wales. This tends to support the story that Bridget and Mary arrived together. The benefits of tracing siblings!

Another of Anne’s historical gifts was the name of family members in Sydney. Through these cousins I was able to combine their personal knowledge with archival and other research to confirm the links in Australia and Ireland.  Through them, too, I was able to link up with some of Mary’s sister’s descendants who live in the USA.  The triangulation of the family names in the record sources meant I could pin down the family in the townland of Ballykelly in the Parish of Kilseily, Broadford, Clare.

I’ve never regarded oral history as one of my strong suits so I’m eternally grateful that Anne Kunkel was the perfect interviewee, clear and accurate in her responses in ways that could often readily be verified in the official records. Her closeness to her grandmother as a small child meant that she had kept these stories close to her heart through all those years, to pass on just before her own death. But her gifts didn’t stop there. She also provided me with stories of their farm and the day to day life (she, her brother and her parents had come to live with the Kunkel grandparents in their old age). The stories of George Kunkel preparing his sausages and the ways of the farm are treasured parts of our family history. Without Anne Kunkel’s gifts, her grandmother would have remained just another Mary O’Brien from Co Clare, never to be distinguished from her many compatriots of that name.

Mary’s own life experience and stamina

Mary O’Brien was born around 1834 in rural Clare. She would have been about 12 when the Irish Famine decimated its people. Because the parish registers only start in 1844, there is no record of Mary’s birth, nor that of any siblings born before that time.  Catholic registers don’t usually record deaths and the Church of Ireland records, which did sometimes include all burials, no longer exist, so there is no way of knowing how many of her family may have died, though if they were typical perhaps as many as half would have fallen victim through this terrible time. What is clear from the registers is how the marriage and baptism rates plummet during the Famine.

Mary’s survival will no doubt have given her a high level of immunity to illness, as well as the strength as an adult to persevere when life’s challenges may have seemed insurmountable. She was a country girl, used to hard work and few frills, and life as a pioneer demanded all the skills, courage and stamina she could bring to bear. In her old age she was able to travel by train to Sydney to see her daughter and her sister’s children. I wonder did she ever meet up with her sister Bridget again after they parted in Moreton Bay in the 1850s? No one seems to know. Although she herself couldn’t write, the families plainly knew where each was, and must have kept in touch somehow. Perhaps her husband, who could write, had been able to keep them connected. Sadly no letters survive from their life in Murphys Creek, either in Australia or Ireland…at least as far as I can determine. How strange then, to meet with the inheritor of the O’Brien land in Ballykelly and both be astonished at our mutual knowledge of the family.

The power of oral history and personal knowledge! Oh, yes, and someone, somewhere has photographs.

26 thoughts on “52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Week 5 Life experiences: Finding Mary O’Brien

  1. What a wonderful story, and what fortune to have met with Anne Kunkel. I do hope you come across those photographs one day.. I love the one you featured. Mary O’Brien has such a soft and caring manner about her. Thank you for sharing.


    1. Thanks Chris. I was indeed fortunate. Her photo is both caring and strong. The graphic designer used this image on the cover of my book and her strength of character, and George’s, really shines through.


  2. What a wonderful post Pauleen. How fortunate you were to find Anne and hear her talk about Mary. Personal stories are gold to a family historian aren’t they. Are you still hopeful of finding more photos out there somewhere – you never know!


    1. Thanks Tanya. What I’d really love are some letters (greedy aren’t it?). However I’m told the inheritor’s house in Ireland had a fire and Anne’s family burnt a lot of family stuff before they moved out of the original home. (I could cry!). Not even the Sydney rellies have any. Still I’ve been so fortunate I shouldn’t want more.


  3. cass, I think that your story today was amazing and I think that the ancestors are looking after you by giving you contacts to relatives who may assist because you are so generous with your time and the very fact you found Mary is a godsend. All the best and good luck with all your research. I love reading it and has inspired me to look further for my County Clare ancestors.


  4. Pauleen, I have never been a fan of the series prompts — However, stories such as your Mary O’Brien are making me rethink my prejudice. You easily take a rather generic prompt and turn it into a human interest story and a story of discovery, as well a road map for those who would do the same. Kudos for your skill and generosity of spirit.


    1. Thanks for your very kind comments Joan. I always worry that the story is too long but I wanted it to BE a story. I enjoyed last year’s 52 weeks prompts as a way of rekindling my own memories but having done all 52 I didn’t think I’d do this year’s. So far so good.


    1. Yes it’s been one of the big successes of this family story. We’ve since had two family reunions -none of us had any idea before the family history adventure how many of us there were. Thanks Sheryl.


    1. Thanks Angela. Yes, I wish I could have met her. It’s a shame because my grandfather, as the oldest grandchild, would have known her well. I didn’t know that though because he wasn’t much of a talker.


  5. Pauleen,
    Mary was a remarkable young lady and woman. It’s the stories of tough young people, most of the immigrants who made this country, that impress me the most. Oh, I supposed it’s nice to say one descended from royalty, but that’s not the grit that imbued Americans with the can-do spirit, creative thinking, and boldness that we still see today. Oral history is a treasure as well. You were well-served by your letter blitz — it paid off handsomely in this story. Thank you for it — and for your comments on “Un-American Hobbies.”


    1. Thanks for your comments Linda! I always knew I came from run-of-the-mill people but that doesn’t bother me…it’s often ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They were at the forefront of pioneering, railways, wars etc. That’s why I called my family history book Grassroots Queenslanders. I’m proud of my ancestor’s achievements, and Mary stands out among them. Pauleen


  6. Fantastic! How wonderful that you were able to meet with Anne and obtain so much information. Also it is great that you were able to got to Ireland and visit. Maybe I should get your help with my Irish ancestors – all brickwalls!


    1. I was so lucky that my massed letter drop wound up with Anne – she really was the key to linking the families and finding my way back to Mary’s family. Without her I’d still be at a loss. Don’t worry -I too suffer from Irish brick walls with my other families which may never be broken down. With some the doors have opened a little (see recent Gavin stories), but the McSherry/Sherry crowd are defeating me entirely. Happy to chat sometime if brainstorming together would help.


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