This week’s theme in the ” 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is about large families. I covered this topic a little in my recent post “How Big Were the Heenan families?” so this week I am going to take a slightly different approach.
I thought I’d give an update on one aspect of my study of the Heenan surname which involves family reconstruction. This is where I use data in records such as the census returns, civil registration of births, deaths and marriages, and parish records to create family trees.
These family groups often start small – just one set of parents and their offspring. Over time I add more and more names to the tree, and – ideally – combine two separate trees. It often happens that I believe there is a connection between two families but can’t find the evidence to prove my theory. So I just have to wait and hope new information comes to light as new records get digitised and made available.
The largest family trees in my study all originate in Ireland.
My own family tree currently has 53 names and spans six generations. It starts with Patrick Heenan, my GG grandfather who was born in County Limerick, Ireland in around 1836.
There is a larger Heenan family (group 127 in my database) which originates in Birr, currently County Offaly. This group of 61 individuals begins with Dr John Heenan who was born in about 1787. One branch of the family, who began using Hammersley as part of their surname, included civil engineers responsible for developing Port Elizabeth in South Africa and Blackpool Tower in England.
Pride of place for the largest group so far goes to a family that also began in Birr but migrated to New Zealand in 1849. For many months I believed there were two separate families who made that journey:
- One family group headed by Dennis Heenan and his wife Joanna who arrived in New Zealand in 1850 on the ship The Mariner. He became a farmer in a valley just outside Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand.
- A separate family group headed by Denis Heenan who arrived in New Zealand in 1849 on the ship The Mary. He tried his hand at gold mining but switched to trading and then opened a hotel in Dunedin.
It was only in the last two weeks that I’ve been able to confirm that these are part of the same family – Denis Heenan the former gold miner, turns out to be the son of Dennis Heenan, the farmer. So the son went to New Zealand ahead of the rest of the family.
This takes the size of this family (number 134 in my database) to 64 names beginning with Dennis who was born in about 1789.
Based on some information I just received from a descendant of Dennis Heenan it’s possible that there is a connection between him and the family of Dr John Heenan, that they are in fact brothers. It’s likely to take some time to establish this one way or another – research in Ireland is always challenging because we don’t have the benefit of census records before 1901.
The further back you go, the more difficult it becomes, especially where church records of birth and marriage haven’t been indexed and you have to try and decipher the priest’s handwriting and understand the Latin version of people’s names.
An added challenge is that these families do like to recycle the first names of their children. Versions of Patrick, Michael, and Thomas appear frequently making it hard to differentiate between different individuals. I’m losing hair trying to work out which Michael is which (they often seem to marry women with the same name ….)