I’ve had great success researching my ancestors who arrived in New England 400 years ago but I keep running into stonewalls when I try to learn more about my Irish great-grandfather who came to New England about 150 years ago. Thomas Donnellan was a 20-year-old from Ireland when he sailed on the Ocean Wave from Ireland in 1865. I believe he married Margaret Cowan shortly thereafter and eventually fathered my grandmother, Mary Jane, in Manchester, Connecticut, in 1877.
I am hedging here because the birth, marriage and death records for the family are nowhere to be found online. Thousands of Irish immigrants flooded America back in those years but the record of their family milestones are hard to unearth. I know Thomas died in 1891 because I’ve seen his grave marker at St. Bridget Cemetery in Manchester but it tells me little about the man.
Manchester was a mill town back in the 19th-century, dominated the world-famous Cheney Silk Mill. Both my grandmother and her sister, Margaret, worked there but there is no trace of how their father was employed.
There is more information about Mrs. Donnellan, born Margaret Cowan in Ireland in 1849. She came to America with her parents and six siblings before 1860. The photos below show Margaret Cowan, 1830-1884 (left), and her daughter Margaret Cowan Donnellan, 1849-1921.
Margaret Cowan’s oldest brother, Francis, was listed as a weaver in the 1860 census but soon he was raising his sword high above his head in full uniform to pose for a photo before going off to fight with the Yankees in the Civil War, a fate common to many Irish immigrants.
Frank Cowan served for three years in the Connecticut Fifth Infantry, marching from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia to the battlefields of Manassas and Gettysburg. He survived, presumably unscathed, and died in Manchester in 1886.
I have few clues about how my great-grandparents met and married, where they worked or lived. I know they lost three infants early and two sons died young. Frank Donnellan got sick in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and died at age 23 in 1898. Here’s a photo he sent back home of him and his fellow soldiers in Cuba.
Another son, Johnny, died young and only my grandmother and her sister, along with their mother, saw the dawn of the 20th century.
Frustrated that there was hardly any trace of the parents of a man who died while serving his country, I decided to branch out to the Donnellan family in Springfield, Massachusetts who I understood were related to the Manchester clan.
John and Anna Donnellan were brother and sister who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts all of their lives. They died there in the 1960s, both childless and unmarried. I know they stayed close to my grandmother Mary Jane Donnellan Peckenham because when I was born in 1955, they became my godparents and may be watching over me still.
John was born in 1895, the son of Thomas Francis Donnellan. After graduating high school he joined the Army, where he joined the Chemical Warfare Service in World War One.
After the war, he became an accountant, then spent 30 years as a postal clerk in Springfield. His sister, Anna, was born in 1899, and was a teacher, then a social worker in the department of public welfare. They had two other brothers, Edward, who became a prosecutor in Boulder, Colorado, and Thomas F. Jr. who started to join the priesthood then joined the welfare department as an interviewer in the 1930s.
Their father, Thomas F. Sr., was born in Thompsonville, Connecticut, in 1865, the son of John and Bridget Donnellan, who worked as a laborer in the carpet mill in town. Before John and Bridget moved to Thompsonville,in 1860, they had been living in East Hartford, Connecticut, just down the road from Manchester.
By 1870, John had moved his wife and three sons to Springfield, where the census takers noted that the 38-year-old had no occupation. His ten-year-old son Matthew worked in a “picture store,” while the younger ones were at school. John died by 1885 and his sons worked a series of jobs.
In 1893 Thomas F. Sr. went into the grocery and meat business with his brother Matthew, parting ways in 1899. By then, Thomas had married Bridget Teresa Burke and started a family. Thomas worked for the next ten or fifteen years as a bartender, starting at the Russell Hotel in 1902. In 1930, at the age of 65, he lived in a house valued at $9,000 and his occupation was listed as vulcanizer in a tire factory. His wife died that year.
Thomas F. Sr., would have been cousins to my grandmother, Mary Jane, but despite hours of combing through online genealogy records, I cannot prove how they were related, or even better, what part of Ireland they called home. Neither his daughter, Anna, or his son, John, or their two brothers, ever had children and there are no cousins or aunts for me to contact to pick their brains.
I remember the Donnellans because they were family and I knew them when they were alive. History has been less kind to the family, and after a century, their time on this earth is fading from memory.
Names of My Ancestors
Puritans & Servants