Missing years

How old was Catherine Dwyer when this photo was taken in Newport’s Leavitt Studio, around 1882?

Before the internet and the digitization of some Irish records, one needed patience, persistence, and problem-solving skills to connect the lives of Irish immigrants here in America to the world they left behind. Guessing someone’s true age and their birth order within their parents’ household amounted to a shot in the dark.

In January 1941, the death certificate of my great-grandmother, Catherine (Dwyer) Dwyer, recorded her age as 76 years and ten months. She had lived in Newport, Rhode Island, for sixty years, and in that time knowledge of her specific birthplace had vanished from her children’s memory. One of her sons, who acted as informant, also misremembered his mother’s maiden name! Catherine’s obituary mentioned no siblings.

My imagined time line in Ireland of vital events for these Dwyers erred by an entire generation. After an Irish research firm extracted church records for me, I was stunned to learn Catherine’s parents, Michael Dwyer and Abbie [Gubnetta] Brennan, married in Caherdaniel, County Kerry, just before the start of Lent in 1835. Their firstborn son, Philip, was baptized nine months later.

Seven other children followed over the next 20 years, but Catherine’s baptism could not be found. That begged the question: Was she truly born 29 years after her parents’ marriage? I had my doubts because her brother Philip Dwyer, the first of his siblings to emigrate, left a bewildering trail of dates in the United States. His gravestone, with 1854 as a birthdate, would have made him ten when he married! Someone obviously did not consult his January 1917 death certificate, which stated he was 75, only off by seven years.

Mary Ann (Sheehan) Dwyer and her husband, Michael D. Dwyer, in front of their Newport home, around 1910.

Catherine’s next brother to leave Ireland, Michael Dwyer, likewise shed some years crossing the Atlantic. In 1875, he married Mary Ann Sheehan in Willimantic, Connecticut. She too was part of this County Kerry kinship network: her aunt Julia Sheehan had married Michael’s uncle, another Philip Dwyer (ca. 1816–1904). Michael’s children and grandchildren knew he was “much older” than his wife. But how much?

Estimates vary from the 1880 census, when the couple was seven years apart, to a difference of 16 years in the 1910 census. On his naturalization record, Michael guessed 1844 as his year of birth. His baptismal record, however, confirms 1839 as the year of his birth. Mary Ann, Michael’s widow, also lost several years by the time of her death in 1930.

Catherine’s mother gave birth to her last known child in 1855. Catherine therefore would have been in her early forties, not 37, when her seventh and last child was born in 1901.

Given this pattern of fluid dates, I wondered how old my great-grandmother was when she died. (Probably around 82.) In all-but-one American record, she stayed with 1864/1865 as her year of birth. In the 1930 census, however, she disclosed that she was 30 when she married – a revelation that proposed 1859 as her birth year, a date more plausible than the mid-1860s on two counts. Catherine’s mother gave birth to her last known child in 1855. Catherine therefore would have been in her early forties, not 37, when her seventh and last child was born in 1901.

Irish Catholics were not required to register births until 1864. Granted that Catherine and her family never had to answer today’s recurrent questions of “date of birth,” and “last four digits of your Social Security number,” some of my Kerry kin nonetheless conveyed their ages with wild abandon.

Their imprecision led me on many a wild goose chase. Take, for example, Catherine’s aunt, Abbie (Dwyer) (Mahoney) Sullivan, of Holbrook, Massachusetts, who died in 1905, supposedly at the age of 76. A birthdate of around 1829 made it impossible for her to have been the same woman who married John Mahoney in 1836. Given the Dwyers’ pattern of inaccuracy, I cast a wider net with confidence: Abbie had to have been at least a dozen years older than the age written on her death certificate. Eventually, I proved that fact, but it took years.

In this era, before government pensions required proof of age, my family was not alone in how they disregarded evidence from an ocean away that divulged their true ages.

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.View all posts by Michael Dwyer