Unravelling the McKenna family

It has long been thought in the Cass family that James McKenna, aged 17.5 yrs, arrived Marion 1848 was part of this family even though it was a leap from Melbourn, Cambridge to Newcastle where he was tried in January 1845 for stealing a hank of worsted. Then sent to Millbank & Parkhurst, thence to prison hulk before being sent to Oz as an “exile”. Sentence was 7 yrs, and pardon granted immediately on arrival.  (Various documents are available on Ancestry).

It now seems unlikely this is the case. I also suspect the Melbourn Cambridgeshire may be a mistake against the shipping records obtained by my father-in-law some 30 odd years ago. Another immigration document on Ancestry shows Catherine and Peter coming from Monaghan but immediately under someone from Melbourn and I suspect this may have muddled the picture.

McKENNY aka MCKENNA Cath and Peter 1848 per Adelaide
Catherine and Peter McKenna at the bottom of image, on the Adelaide to Melbourne in 1848.

The situation now seems to be that the family most likely stayed in Ireland the whole time before emigrating some time after Elizabeth’s husband (Owen or Bryan?) died, pre 1848.

Elizabeth’s immigration says she’s leaving on her own account and looking for her son James McKenny.[i] Other researchers suggest that James McKenna who died in 1907 was part of this family.

McKENNA Elizabeth to Jas McKenny
Disposal list of immigrants on the Adelaide 1848, extract for Elizabeth McKenna, William and Catherine.

The immigration records also show that the family comes from Arragall Monaghan. This is neither a townland or a place and we have concluded that it is actually Errigal, Monaghan. Some family trees indicate that it is in the townland of Mullanacross aka Mullinacross in the Errigal Trough Civil Parish, but I can find no source for this information, which doesn’t mean it isn’t correct.

On the immigration records obtained by Les Cass back in the late 1980s, the family is shown together under the surname McKenny. The two youngest, Catherine 13 and Peter 12, are listed as having been born in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire. As per above I now believe this may have been an error. This is further reinforced by the fact that I’ve been unable to find Elizabeth, Peter or Catherine on the 1841 English census, even searching by first name and age.

So what was the family which arrived in Australia per the ship Adelaide on 22 June 1848. They had sailed from Plymouth on 1 March 1848[ii].They had been enumerated on the nominal lists as follows:

McKenna Elizabeth 44    house servant    neither

McKenna William 22       farm labourer    both read & write

McKenna Sarah 20           farm servant      both

McKenna Mary 17            housemaid         both

McKenna Catherine 13   daughter             read

McKenna Peter 12           son                         read

All were Roman Catholic and depending on which immigration documents, all state their home place as Monaghan.

Now let’s look at which James McKenna might have been the son who Elizabeth was looking for. We’ve discounted (at least for now), the convict from the Marion.

And in an oops moment I missed this notation on the bottom of the disposal lists.

McKENNA Elizabeth see re children 1848

Ancestry trees suggest that James McKenna arrived ahead of the rest of the family (which fits with the annotation mentioned). There are two possibilities then:  the George Fyfe on 23 July 1841 or the Frankfield also in July 1841.  James McKenna on the George Fyfe is aged 21, a labourer and a Catholic, who can neither read nor write. He is travelling with a Sally McKenna also aged 21, a dairymaid who could read and is also Catholic. At 21 he would be the eldest of Elizabeth’s children that we know about.

The James McKenna on the Frankfield is 19 and is Presbyterian. Given the religion of the rest of the family, it suggests to me that he is likely not the right one.

The James McKenna on the George Fyfe is 21 and is accompanied by his wife, Sally (not his sister as some seem to think[iii]) also 21, both Catholic and both from Monaghan[iv].  Sally is a nickname for Sarah so I went searching for (1) children and (2) her death. I was also puzzled (still am, really) about the listing of marriage details and children for James McKenna and Mary Tyrell. Is this the same James McKenna or a different one?

MCKENNA Sarah and Mary per Adelaide 1848
James and Sally McKenna on the George Fyfe, 1841


But first let’s look at Sarah McKenna. I found her death, aged 77, in Purnim shire, Warrnambool, Victoria on 20 October 1894. Her parents were Arthur McElmeal, farmer and Margaret Hacket. The informant is her grandson whose name is illegible due to fading. She is stated to have married in Donagh, Co Monaghan, Ireland at age 22 years to James McKenna[v].

James McKENNA & McELEEL Sarah Donagh parish Monaghan

I then looked at the Ancestry Catholic marriage records for Donagh (from the National Library of Ireland registers). I found the marriage by banns of James McKenna and Sarah McElmeel of Donagh on 17 February 1841 in the Catholic parish[vi].  It’s unclear to me whether it’s James or Sarah who comes from Donagh. The marriage had taken place just under a month from when the couple would sail on 15 March ex Plymouth.

Victorian indexes and Sarah’s death certificate provide the names of children to this couple: James 1841, Sarah (later McDonald) c1844, Mary Ann 1846, Susan (later McGrath) 1848, John 1849-1864, Peter c1852, Eugene c1855 and Margaret c1857. To confound things further, Sarah is stated to have spent three years in Tasmania and 50 years in Victoria – the initial year of arrival fits but not the stint in Tasmania for which I can find no records. I also can’t find the death of Sarah’s husband James in Warrnambool or buried in the cemetery.

Returning to the second option for James McKenna. There is a marriage for James McKenna in Victoria in 1846 to Mary Tyrell (various spellings in indexes). From the death certificate and the Victorian indexes their children are: William 1845, Elizabeth 1846, Sarah 1846, Thomas 1850, Owen c1852 , Peter c1852, Catherine c1860, Mary c1864, and James 1848 deceased. James died, aged 85, in 1907 at Penshurt, Victoria and was buried in the Boram Boram Cemetery by Rev Fr Walsh. James had been born in Monaghan and spent 66 years in Victoria (making his arrival c1841).  His father is stated as Owen and his mother as unknown.

It would suggest that there are two different James McKennas from Monaghan yet they don’t match up with the immigration records. I remain befuddled. There is nothing on either certificate to indicate whether Sarah was a widow or James a widower.

So which James McKenna is which, and does either belong to the family of Elizabeth McKenna?

Does it even matter, given that Mr Cassmob’s ancestry is through William McKenna from the Adelaide?  A further subject for analysis.

Thanks for listening. I’ll be back with Part 2 of my ruminations.

[i] Series: VPRS 14; Series Title: Register of Assisted Immigrants from the United Kingdom (refer to microform copy, VPRS 3502) on Ancestry

[ii] 1848 ‘Shipping Intelligence.’, The Port Phillip Patriot and Morning Advertiser (Vic. : 1845 – 1848), 20 June, p. 2. , viewed 23 Aug 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article226354034

[iii] James and Sally are among the couples and families, the unmarried males and females are listed separately and neither name appears there.

[iv] Series: VPRS 14; Series Title: Register of Assisted Immigrants from the United Kindom (refer to microform copy, VPRS 3502) Original data from Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (British Ports). Microfiche VPRS 7666, copy of VRPS 947. Public Record Office Victoria, North Melbourne, Victoria.

[v] Victorian death certificate 116/1894 #14731.

[vi] Through Ancestry or Findmypast from registers held at National Library of Ireland and digitised at registers.nli.gov.ie Catholic Parish Registers, The National Library of Ireland; Dublin, Ireland; Microfilm Number: Microfilm 05574 / 09


14 thoughts on “Unravelling the McKenna family

      1. I know of McKenna family who lived in Brunswick West Melbourne Australia Frank ( Francis Lawrance Amborse McKenna he past in 1985 born 1912 his father Peter Nathaniel Mckenna Peter’s father Patrick McKenna l really don’t know much about them due to that on my mother’s adoption papers was father Frank McKenna… On Ancestry on the notice board l have put up names an some Date of births ect l know there was two Mary with in this side of the family one was Peters sister an one was Frank McKenna sister one of Peter’s sister was a nun from the information l have got off Ancestry … I know Patrick father was live in PEI Felix McKenna an the family came from County Monaghan. Hopefully l could be onto something here


  1. My ancestor is the James McKenna who came out on the George Fyffe. His wife was Sarah McElmeel (McElmeal) and we’re descended from their son, Peter. I’m pretty sure that it was the two of them on the George Fyffe – Sarah must have been known as Sally, as she’s mentioned as Sally McKenna in the Launceston Courier, 6th Feb, 1842, as an arrival in the shipping list. The Tasmania mystery is one my family would like to solve – we don’t know why she went there and not James, it seems. Their second child, Sarah McDonald (m.n. McKenna), was born in Launceston, according to her death certificate (number 17157), so maybe the elder Sarah was pregnant going over there or James visited, or???. I’ve checked convict lists but haven’t found anything. Sarah came back in 1845 according the the Port Phillip Herald (both shipping list details for Sarah found on ReoCities website – Victoria before 1848).
    The elder James died in Jan 1909 and is buried with Sarah, according to the Warrnambool Cemetery grave numbers and rows (row 23, grave number 15). No inscription for him on the headstone, though. His death certificate says nothing about Tasmania and that he was in Victoria for 67 years, which almost matches up with his age at arrival. He was 90 when he died. The younger James died in June 1909 but I can’t find where he is buried. According to the South West Genealogist paper, the original James started up a school on his property in Purnim in the 1850s, which lasted about 20 years. He’s listed as a farmer on his death certificate (Number 2946).
    I visited a genealogist in Monaghan town, County Monaghan, in the late 1990s and he had heaps and heaps of James McKennas from the same era – I didn’t have as much detail then as I do now, so couldn’t confirm anyone. I’ve been looking into the Errigal area and there are McKennas everywhere up there! Also McElmeels – Sarah McElmeel’s death certificate says she was born in County Tyrone but they could have all come from Errigal Trough parish, which covers area in both Tyrone and Monaghan. Then married in Donagh, for whatever reason. The genealogist said it was usual to be married in the bride’s parish and county, so maybe her family moved there.
    Lots of mystery but hopefully will be able to work it all out one day! Planning another trip to Ireland down the track to fully search the Errigal area.


  2. The majority of the McKenna trees on Ancestry are incorrect, it appears that people have just copied off one and other, there are no resources listed. Very poor research indeed. Unless a source is provided then it did not happen.
    ie. Sarah McKenna died in 1894. There is only one Sarah McKenna from Purnim listed on the BDM Vic index. That being Sarah McEmeel.


    1. Good morning Ms. McKenna: I’m reaching out to see if you’re the same one that oversees the McKenna family tree on Ancestry? I’m a historian for the Coast Guard and want to find out more about Levi Ashton, who is a member of that family tree. He happens to be a big service hero from 100 years ago whose story we’re now researching. My name and contact information is listed below. I hope to hear from you! Sincerely, Bill Thiesen

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi! I commented a while ago but I don’t think the post saved properly. James McKenna and Sarah McElmeel were my great x3 grandparents who arrived from Ireland in 1841 on the George Fyfe. They lived in Melbourne for a while (James is listed as a labourer in the 1847 directory) then moved to Warrnambool when land became available. Their first child, James, was born in Melbourne in 1841, then their second child, Sarah Jane, was born in Lauceston, Tasmania in 1844, according to her death certificate. Sarah McKenna (nee McElmeel) spent 3 years in Tasmania, according to her death certificate. I can’t find any information, other than a Sally McKenna on the shipping arrivals and departures, in and out of Melbourne. Bit of a mystery! In 1846, 1848 and 1849, Mary Anne, Susanna and John were all born in Melbourne, The family must have moved to Purnim, which is just outside of Warrnambool, in about 1850. Their children Peter (my great x2 grandfather), Eugene and Margaret were born in 1852, 1855 and 1858. I can’t find birth records for them but Peter’s first marriage certificate states that he was born in Purnim. Peter’s daughter, Annie Agnes McKenna, was my great grandmother.
    James McKenna senior was the son of James McKenna and Sarah Cassidy, according to his death certificate, and it also states that he was born in Donagh Parish, County Monaghan. Sarah McElmeel was born in County Tyrone, according to her death cert., and was the daughter of Arthur McElmeel and Margaret Hacket. Both certificates state they were married in Donagh Parish, County Monaghan, and the marriage entry in the Roman Catholic records in Ireland states that they were both from Errigal.
    James senior died in January 1909 and the eldest child James also died in 1909, but in June. I believe the elder James is buried with Sarah and with their son John, who died aged 14 – his name isn’t on the headstone but it’s listed as being the same row and grave number as Sarah in the cemetery records. James senior had two brothers who also came out to Australia, and they were Peter and Hugh. Hugh died unmarried with no issue and Peter married Bridget McGinnis, as stated in your blog.
    I’m still searching records and places in Ireland and I hope to go back again one day (went there on holiday in 1999). I’d love to solve the Tasmania mystery – I’ve looked at convict records, etc, and can’t figure out why Sarah was there but not James. Maybe due to work for them both? If she was the Sally McKenna arriving in Launceston in Feb 1842 (Launceston Courier shipping notices), then she would have had a 6-month old baby at the time. James didn’t leave anything to Sarah Jane in his will, so maybe she wasn’t his? She’s listed as issue on both death certificates of James senior and Sarah senior. Very strange and interesting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.