My “Irish” Ancestor

One of the family stories passed down to me from my childhood was that my great-grandfather, Thomas Fitzgerald, was Irish. One of the very first family documents that I saw when I started my research was a baptism certificate for him, which stated that he was the son of James Fitzgerald and Honora Coughlin, he was born on 28 September 1871, and he was baptised on 8 October the same year at the Catholic Church on Commercial Road in London. That immediately put paid to that family story! But was he from an Irish family?

I found James and Honora’s marriage in August 1867 quite easily, and then their entry in the 1871 census. At that time they were living in the same house (but listed as a different household) as Honora’s father John, his wife Catherine, and his sons John, Dennis and Jeremiah. Neither James nor Honora was born in Ireland, but John and Catherine were; the writing is hard to make out but looks like it says ‘Ireland Kild’. As mentioned in my first blog post back in 2011, at the WDYTYA Live event that year I spoke to a representative of the National Archives of Ireland who said that the names Honora and Jeremiah Coughlin suggested that the family came from the province of Munster; if ‘Kild’ is short for ‘Kildare’ then they were from Leinster. But unfortunately neither the 1881 or 1861 censuses give any more information on their place of origin and although I’ve looked through the whole Ratcliff section of the 1851 census on I haven’t been able to find the family in that year.

One significant barrier to my research into this branch of the family has been the number of variant spellings of Coughlin. So far I have found:

  • Coughlin
  • Coughlan
  • Caughlin
  • Cochlin
  • Cocklin
  • Cockling

– and these are just the variants found in documents relating to my family (I have seen other variants too).

I did manage to track down birth certificates for Honora’s two youngest brothers; they were Catherine’s sons and her maiden name was Sullivan. The marital history of one of them, Jeremiah, explains why I am not willing to identify Catherine as the mother of all of John’s children… In 1901, Jeremiah was living with wife Elizabeth and daughter Catherine. Catherine was born in 1884, the daughter of Jeremiah and his wife Elizabeth Stevens. But the Elizabeth in the 1901 census is Elizabeth Flood, whom Jeremiah married in 1889 following the death of Elizabeth Stevens nine days after Catherine’s birth. Honora too was widowed young and remarried. James died some time between the 1871 census and July 1875, when Honora married George Black.

The most likely death certificate I have found for James is from April 1873: James Fitzgerald aged 24 died at the Sick Asylum in Bromley. The age at death isn’t consistent with the age given for my ancestor in the 1871 census or on his marriage certificate, but those two documents suggest different years of birth anyway. (In September this year I visited the Royal London Hospital Archives to try to get more information about the James Fitzgerald who died in the Sick Asylum. Excitingly, the admission entries for the Sick Asylum include information on nearest relative and address; frustratingly, the first register that the archive holds begins in March 1873, presumably after James’s admission as I couldn’t find a record of it.) Given the inconsistencies in his recorded age I have not been able to trace James prior to his marriage to find out if he, like his wife, was of Irish descent.

So after five years of research all I can say with confidence about my “Irish” ancestor is that he had at least one Irish grandparent!

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