I’ve stood in Ireland exactly where my great-great-great-great (4x) grandmother stood. I’ve touched the baptismal font where her daughter, my great-great-great (3x) grandmother, was baptised. And I’ve walked amongst the unmarked famine graves of her parish church that, were it not for the tenacity and courage of my ancestors, could very well have contained their bones.
Surprisingly, I’ve been able to do all of this because of a census enumerator in Upper Canada, named Will D. Pigott, who himself was a native of Ireland. He carried out the task of recording all of the souls living in Fitzroy Township in the County of Carleton in the year 1852 (the year the 1851 census was actually taken). I doubt he realized at the time the incredible wealth of information he had captured – but I fully appreciate the gift he has given me.
One of the most challenging aspects of tracing our ancestors back to Ireland is determining which county they came from. Without this information, it is extremely difficult to find out more about our Irish ancestors. Unfortunately, the County in Ireland from where our ancestors originated isn’t always captured in Canadian records. Which is what makes Will D. Pigott, enumerator of the 1851 census in Fitzroy Township, a unique and pivotal character in my family history.
One of the columns on the 1851 census was “Place of Birth.” In most census records I’ve found, the country of birth is captured here. UC (for Upper Canada – what is now Ontario) was a common response as were the countries of Scotland, England, and Ireland. Perhaps it was Will’s love of his native Ireland or simply the fact that nearly everyone in Fitzroy Township at that time was born in Ireland; but for whatever reason, Mr. Pigott went above and beyond the call of duty. For each person born in Ireland and living in Fitzroy township in 1852 he recorded the county in Ireland where they were born. And because of his efforts, I’ve found my roots.
For my 4x great grandmother, Mary Riley, Mr. Pigott dutifully recorded County Roscommon, Ireland as her place of birth.
Prior to this, I had no idea where in Ireland this branch of my family tree originated or that we had any connection to Roscommon. But fortunately, knowing from the census her name, age and place of birth, I was able to find a transcription of her marriage record, as well as a transcription of her daughter’s baptism (my great-great-great grandmother) on RootsIreland.ie. And now I had so much more than just the county she was born in.
My 4x great grandparents were married in Ardcarne Parish Church of Ireland on the 17th of July 1844. Her address at the time of the marriage was Ardcarne, the townland surrounding the church. On the 22nd of November 1845, their first child, a daughter, was born. She was baptised on December 11, 1845 in Ardcarne Parish Church. And 171 years later, in December 2016, I stepped onto the grounds of that very church.
It was a bitterly cold day, and not long after we arrived, poured rain. The atmosphere was very different from the first time I had visited a parish church of my ancestors from a different line of my family tree in County Cavan (an overwhelmingly joyous occasion). But, as it turns out, the sombre mood and bitter cold was exactly fitting to the occasion. One of the first things I encountered on the grounds of Ardcarne church was a memorial to the victims of the famine from that parish who had lost their lives. One would have to be made of the very stone of the monument not to be moved by its inscription:
This sculpture was erected in memory of victims of famine. We remember in particular the people of Ardcarne Parish who perished during the Great Famine. In the first 50 days of 1847 alone one hundred and ten victims were buried in this cemetery.
Below the plaque with the inscription is a quote from Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
Heads bow, trunks bend, hands fumble towards the black Mother.
It was an incredibly moving moment and despite my frozen toes and soaking clothes, I was reluctant to leave.
It was only when back at my mother-in-law’s house and going through my family tree, that I realized how poignant that memorial truly was to me and my family. Going by the dates of birth of the other children of my 4x great grandmother (who were all born in Canada), the most likely year that my 4x great grandparents left Ardcarne, Co. Roscommon was 1847, the year memorialized in the Ardcarne church yard. And they would have done so with my 3x great grandmother in their arms.
Since that time, I’ve been lucky enough to return. But this time, my brother – on his very first trip to Ireland – was there to see it too. And we were fortunate enough to actually stay on the grounds of the Old Rectory for Ardcarne Parish Church. In fact, as I stood on the threshold of the Old Rectory to meet the owner, he reminded me that that was exactly where my 4x great grandmother would have stood when they came to meet the parish minister to make the arrangements for their marriage.
Our host was also kind enough to arrange for me and my brother to see the inside of the church – something I wasn’t able to do on my first visit. There had once been a fire in the church and everything wood had been lost. But the marble baptismal font was one of the original pieces of the church – the same baptismal font that would have been used for my 3x great grandmother’s baptism.
After seeing the church, we walked through the beautiful, serene grounds of the church cemetery and came across an area of rough, unmarked graves. The famine graves.
I don’t yet know exactly how my ancestors escaped such a fate and instead ended up living in a shanty in Fitzroy Township in 1852. But I do intend to find out.
I’ve been fortunate to find out this much using records in Canada and online, but the next step to finish their story is a visit to the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland…where I suspect I may find records proving that my ancestors were given passage to Canada by a benevolent landlord to allow them to escape the famine. I owe my life to my ancestors who survived famine and what was most likely a perilous journey to Canada. The least I can do is to tell their story.
As a footnote, after Fitzroy Township, my 4x great-grandmother, her husband and four children (including my 3x great-grandmother) made their way to McKillop Township in Huron County, not far from where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. She died in 1888 at age 75 and is buried with her husband in Maitlandbank Cemetery in Seaforth.
As for my favourite census enumerator, Will D. Pigott, he lived to the age of 91, dying in 1882 in Renfrew, Ontario.