On 17th September 1862, 27-year-old tailor Denis Barry from Dunmanway in West Co. Cork ventured into Antietam’s West Woods with the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. He never came out again. One of the legacies of Denis’s death is the extraordinary detail it has left us about the life of his wife Johanna, covering her time in both Ireland and the United States across more than half a century. His death also allows us to examine the close links that many Irish emigrants maintained with those who remained in Ireland, as well as their friends and former neighbours who had made new lives in America. It is yet another exemplar of why the widow’s and dependent pension files are surely the greatest source on the individual experiences of 19th century Irish people available anywhere in the world. (1)

Maids draw water from a well, 1864. Johanna spent the majority of her life in domestice service in Ireland and America (Oscar Gustave Rejlander)

Maids draw water from a well, 1864. Johanna spent the majority of her life in domestice service in Ireland and America (Oscar Gustave Rejlander)

Denis was born on Cat Lane in the town of Dunmanway to John and Johanna Barry (née Brennan). The couple’s eldest son, he was baptised on 27th November 1835. The following year, Johanna Sullivan was born in the same locality, and the two children grew up knowing each other. Between 1845 and 1852 both witnessed the full brunt of the Famine in West Cork, living as they did in one of the most severely impacted areas on the entire island. A measure of the conditions that were being reported from there can be visualised in this 1847 letter written from Dunmanway:

Truly the land is becoming…one vast Lazar house of the dead and dying. Literally the cry of famine is never out of our ears from dawn till late evening. And now the pestilence is raging, the poor creatures previously weakened by want of food, have no strength left to contend with fever, and are swept, away, notwithstanding all we can do to save them. Our own Poor House, intended for 400 persons, is now never without 800 inmates. We still have here the luxury of coffins, but how long that privilege of decent burials will be continued, we cannot tell…In some places near us, the dead are buried without coffins in heaps, and hungry dogs drag the corpses from their graves, and eat them. A man saw his wife’s head in a dog’s mouth… (2)

Dunmanway from the Bridge on the Cork Road, 1848

Dunmanway from the Bridge on the Cork Road, 1848 (The Felon’s Track)

Denis and Johanna survived these hazardous times, but the two approached adulthood in what was a fundamentally changed country. Denis learned the trade of tailoring, possibly from his father. Meanwhile Johanna entered into a life of domestic service, obtaining a position as a servant in the priest’s house in nearby Enniskeane. On the 8th September 1857 in the parish Church of St. Mary’s the couple, who had spent all their lives in the same circles, married. They were united by the Reverend Father James Bowen with their friends Michael Kearney and Eliza Hurley standing as witnesses. At the time, Denis was 22 and Johanna 20. Before they wed the couple had already determined that their married life would not be in Ireland. Like many other newlyweds at the time, they decided to almost immediately make for the emigrant boat. Within days they were spending their last night in West Cork– under the roof of Denis’s parents on Castle Street. Perhaps they had something like an “American Wake” there, as they said farewell to many family and friends for the final time. (3)

Marriage Certificate of Denis and Johanna Barry (NARA/Fold3)

Marriage Certificate of Denis and Johanna Barry (NARA/Fold3)

Denis and Johanna Barry made their way to Liverpool, possibly via Queenstown and Cork Harbour. There they took passage on the Ship Australia bound for New York. On 4th November 1857, less than two months after their marriage, the couple arrived in Castle Garden on the southern tip of Manhattan. Their new life in the United States had begun. However, it dosen’t seem to have lasted long with the couple under the same roof. About a year after they first landed, Denis’s first cousin– also called Denis Barry, and also a tailor– came over from Cork. The two Denis’s struck out for Boston on the look out for employment, while Johanna stayed in New York and continued her work as a domestic. Whether there was more to their parting than just economic necessity is unknown, but according to Johanna the couple stayed in touch. She remembered:

She [Johanna] came once…to Boston in 1859, and went with her husband to East Cambridge in search of friends who had recently come from Ireland. She stopped with her husband four days at his boarding house and returned again to New York [as she] had no acquaintances in Boston and did not wish to remain…[Denis] came frequently to New York to see her and both her husband and his cousin came to see her in New York in March 17th St. Patrick’s Day 1861. (4)

Castle Garden record pertaining to the arrival of Johanna and Denis in New York (NARA/Fold3)

Castle Garden record pertaining to the arrival of Johanna and Denis in New York (NARA/Fold3)

Johanna might have been reluctant to move on from New York because she had obtained a good position. She may be the 24-year-old Joanna Barry recorded in 1860 as a domestic in the 16th Ward, living in the home of Ethan Watson, a New Yorker with a personal estate valued at $25000. Alternately she may be the 25-year-old of the same name who was a live-in servant with the Irish Mahoney family in the First Ward. Either way Johanna was still in New York in August 1861 when she received a letter from Denis informing her that both he and his cousin had enlisted in the army. On his enlistment Denis was described as 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall, with blue eyes, a dark complexion and black hair. Unsurprisingly, the military records of Denis and his cousin were easily confused, particularly so after his cousin deserted the unit at Lynnfield, Massachusetts before the regiment left the state. According to Johanna, her husband’s cousin did so in order to travel to New York and join the Irish Brigade (he may be the Denis Brady who enlisted in the 69th New York on 30th September 1861, and was discharged following a wound at the Battle of Malvern Hill). Johanna’s Denis stayed with the 19th Massachusetts, and was with the regiment when it marched up Broadway on its way to the front. While stationed in New York Denis met Johanna, and “placed in her hands seventy-five dollars” which she immediately lodged in the Emigrant Savings Bank at 51 Chambers St. Over the course of the next year Denis corresponded regularly with his wife. At Glendale during the Seven Days’ fighting he was wounded in the head and apparently captured, but had recovered and was exchanged in time to participate in the Maryland Campaign. There his luck ran out, when he was killed in action somewhere near Antietam’s West Woods on 17th September 1862. (5)

Dead at Antietam (Library of Congress)

Dead on the Antietam battlefield (Library of Congress)

Johanna applied for a pension based on Denis’s service, which was granted in 1864. We can follow her through records like those of New York’s Emigrants Savings Bank. In 1863, while living in Cliff Street and working as a domestic, her account– 33449– bore a note to say she was “a widow of Denis Barry Co. E. 19th Mass. Vols., no child. In case of death she wishes her mother who is coming from Ireland to get the money.” Johanna seems to have been fastidious about keeping up contact with home, and in remitting money for the care of both her direct family and in-laws in Ireland. Although her mother may never have made the trip, in 1866 Johanna was reunited with a most welcome visitor from Ireland when her best friend arrived in America. Her name was Catherine Murray, and she stayed a while with Johanna in New York before making for her new home in East Cambridge, Massachusetts– the very place where Johanna had visited friends in the late 1850s. It is evident that East Cambridge was a major centre for emigrants from Dunmanway and Enniskeane, and it is little surprise that Johanna herself elected to move there by around 1870. (6)

Irish emigrants sending money back to Ireland from the Emigrants Savings Bank in 1880 (Library of Congress)

Irish emigrants sending money back to Ireland from the Emigrants Savings Bank in 1880 (Library of Congress)

When Johanna first moved to Massachusetts, she sought out her friend Catherine (whose married name was Barrett). The two “shared a yard” for four years, and the widow also spent two years living with the Fee family. She spent a year in the service of Edward McMahon, and two years as a tenant in his house. Edward would describe Johanna as of “very good character.” By 1880 she was boarding with Hannah Doran and her family. That was also the year her life began to unravel. Having claimed her pension for 16 years, she was notified her future payments were being suspended, as another woman had also been claiming benefits based on Denis’s wartime service. Her name was Catherine White; she maintained that she had married Denis Barry in St. Mary’s Church, Boston on 29th December 1858, and had borne him two children, William (b. 1860) and Catherine (b. 1862). Catherine had subsequently remarried, but her children had continued to benefit from pension payments. What was the truth of the matter? The dates that Catherine White put forward certainly did overlap with the time Denis was living away from Johanna in Massachusetts. Unsurprisingly, in all her future correspondence, Johanna (and the Barry family) claimed Denis had never remarried. The truth may be found in an account given by Johanna’s priest in East Cambridge. He wrote the following in support of her quest for reinstatement of the pension:

I am assistant pastor of the church at which she [Johanna] worships…I obtained her marriage certificate for her from her pastor in Ireland…Catherine White is not the lawful wife of…Denis Barry…Barry lawfully married…Joanna in Ireland and…sometime after emigrating to America he married Catherine White but without having his first marriage annulled and without divorce from his first wife. (7)

East Cambridge in 1854 Walling)

East Cambridge in 1854 (Walling)

The loss of her pension caused Johanna significant financial hardship. In an effort to re-assert her claim, she drew on the strong connections that she had maintained with Dunmanway/Enniskeane emigrants, as well as those that had never left Ireland. In so doing she left us a record of how strong these ties often were– all the more notable as we know that Johanna was unable to either read or write. Among those who gave statements on her behalf was her childhood friend Catherine Barrett (Murray). Another was Catherine’s mother, Johanna Murray, who in 1880 was living at 20 North Street in East Cambridge. One of the lesser studied aspects of 19th century emigration is how those who left often later sent for their elderly parents. Johanna Barry had intended to do this, and Catherine Barrett (Murray) certainly did. When Johanna Murray gave her evidence she stated that she was 75-years-old, and that until her early 60s she and her husband had lived all their lives some five miles outside Dunmanway and a mile from Enniskeane. She had known all the Barrys well, and Johanna from the time she was born, as her Sullivan parents had their home only a half mile from her own in Cork. As a testament to how these emigrant communities stuck together, Johanna Murray noted that she had seen Johanna Barry almost every day since she had moved to East Cambridge. (8)

Immigrants arriving at Castle Garden, 1880 Harpers Weekly

Immigrants arriving at Castle Garden, 1880 (Harpers Weekly)

We know that the remittance of money by emigrants back to Ireland was an extremely important financial aid to many who never left the country. Johanna not only sought to do this for her own Sullivan family, she also tried to help her in-laws, Denis’s Barry family in Dunmanway. That she did so is clearly communicated in the following letter, which her mother-in-law, Denis’s mother (yet another Johanna!), had penned in late 1880:


December 6th 1880

My Dear Daughter

I received your welcome letter, and I feel very glad to hear you were well in health, as this leaves us all in at present thanks be to God. You told me to go [to] the workhouse for your brother’s child. I went there and he was taken out a fortnight before by his aunt. If I had known before that he was there I would have taken him without you telling me in compliment of yourself if I never got a farthing for it. There was a good deal of money left after your mother, and they had no occasion to put the child in the workhouse. Any time that I can I’ll take the child. As soon as I’ll get him and send him to school. Let me know which of the neigbours put in the claim against you about your pension. Also let me know if there is any proof required that you are the right woman. If there is I am ready to prove that you are my first daughter-in-law, the wife of my eldest son Denis Barry. I hope it will be all right, and that there will be no occasion of having any bother about the matter as of course it is your right to get it. For my part I can only say you are one of the best daughter inlaws that ever went to America. You are better for me in the latter end of my days than all I ever had and the Lord will reward you for it even without my prayers and hearty thanks. You can show this to the people who spoke against you and my letter will make liars of them and make them be ashamed of themselves. When you send me your picture at Christmas please do let me know if there was anymore said about it and if there was I will go to the parish priest, and get your marriage certificate and send it to you. Don’t fail in sending your picture and writing for Christmas as I would spend the Christmas time happier if I had a letter from you. Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year I remain with fond love,

Your affectionate mother,

Johannah Barry. (9)

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m0!4v1500056418546!6m8!1m7!1sJiY6yZFGF6fmXhWUIwocjQ!2m2!1d51.72162998451437!2d-9.115067212039406!3f264.8119721194985!4f0.6150760467857452!5f0.7820865974627469&w=600&h=450] Castle Street, Dunmanway as it appears today, and where the Barrys lived.

This fascinating letter reveals that our Johanna’s nephew had gone into the local workhouse in Dunmanway, and that she had become aware of it despite living in America. Johanna evidently felt a keen responsibility to make sure he was looked after and had requested of her mother-in-law that she see to his welfare. It also suggests that Johanna’s mother had never succeeded in making it to the United States and had died in Ireland. Another element that comes out of this correspondence is that Catherine White, the woman who also claimed to have married Denis, may also have been from Dunmanway. In anycase, it is evident that Denis’s mother was unaware there may have been a second marriage. What pours off the page is her mother-in-law’s gratitude for all the aid sent back to Ireland over the years, presumably financial. It is worth remembering that at the time of writing the two women had not seen each other in well over twenty years. It was not only Denis Barry’s mother who benefited from this remittance. At the end of the letter the following note was added, from Denis’s siblings:

Dear Sister

We also join in sending you our thanks, for your present, and hope you won’t forget us when you are writing to mother so far as remembering us. Of course we would wish you as well as anyone could and send you the compliments of the coming happy season of Christmas.

From your fond

Brother & Sister

Johannah & Jerry Barry

Kisses from all


P.S. It is just six years since your fatherinlaw died

J. Barry

Write soon. Answer this.


Direct your letter to the Widow Johannah Barry

Castle Road


Co. Cork

Ireland. (10)

Johannas mark

Johanna was unable to read and write, but that did not stop her corresponding by letter. Here is her mark from one of the documents in her file (NARA/Fold3)

As promised, Johanna’s mother-in-law provided an official statement with respect to her son’s marriage. It was sent in 1881 via the U.S. Consulate in Queenstown (now Cobh), Co. Cork; the Consul E.P. Brooks noted that “the ordinary fee…is one guinea, but I presume the parties are poor, as pensioners generally are, & I therefore ask you to send me only 10/6.” The evidence was clear– even if her husband had married twice, Johanna had been the first. Her pension was duly reinstated, and she received it for the rest of her life. Around this time Johanna was living in 96 Gore Street in East Cambridge, where she spent a number of years before moving to rented accommodation at 1126 Cambridge Street. The evidence suggests that Johanna continued her policy of looking after family. The 1900 Census records her living with her nephew Daniel Sullivan, a day laborer, who had been born in Massachusetts and who provides further evidence of local Dunmanway/Enniskeane emigration to the area. The 1900 Census provides another insight into Johanna’s life. That tells us that she had given birth to a child, which had not survived. This tragedy must have occurred in the late 1850s, presumably while she was living in New York. By the time of that census Johanna was approaching her mid-60s, and had been in the United States for 43 years. (11)

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m0!4v1500056663557!6m8!1m7!1syDM_e7hTSj6T_rDNQb3vXg!2m2!1d42.3720006984118!2d-71.0819374374379!3f86.18277982915185!4f0!5f0.7820865974627469&w=600&h=450] Gore Street, East Cambridge, where Johanna spent a number of years.

Unfortunately, Johanna’s final years were difficult ones. On 5th June 1906 a solicitor called Minnie B. Winward was appointed her legal guardian, and claimed the pension on Johanna’s behalf. The reason for the appointment was that Johanna had been “adjudged insane.” In the early 20th century this term was used for a broad range of ailments– it maybe that Johanna was beginning to experience the onset of dementia. Her condition had not improved by the time her guardianship was transferred to solicitor John J Coady, nor would it ever again. Johanna’s final decade of life was lived under guardianship until her death at the age of 80 on 1st June 1916. I have been unable to determine where Johanna spent that final decade, or where she was buried. For a woman who had taken such care to look after others during her long life, it is to be hoped that she enjoyed the comfort of family and friends in her final years, but given the state of her guardianship that was perhaps not the case. The widow’s pension file relating to her case when combined with other sources, allows us to build a picture of an ordinary emigrant life. Despite its undoubted hardship, in many ways her life seems remarkable to us now, given the breadth of her experiences. Aside from gaining an insight into Johanna’s own life, the story further reinforces the extent to which local communities maintained bonds– both social and financial– in both America and Ireland across the decades. (12)

An elderly woman in the early 20th century Library of Congress

An elderly woman in the early 20th century (Library of Congress)

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) WC13083, Denis Barry Service Record; (2) Irish Catholic Parish Registers: Dunmanway, WC13083, Tri-Weekly Ohio Statesman 1847; (3) WC13083; (4) WC13083; (5) 1860 Census, WC13083, Denis Barry Service Record, New York Muster Roll Abstracts; (6) WC13083, Emigrant Savings Bank Records; (7) WC13083, 1880 Census; (8) WC13083; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid.; (11) WC13083, 1900 Census; (12) WC13083;

References & Further Reading

WC13083 of Johanna Barry, Widow of Denis Barry, Company E, 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Denis Barry 19th Massachusetts Infantry Service Record.

New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts.

1860 U.S. Federal Census, New York Ward 16, New York.

1860 U.S. Federal Census, New York Ward 1, District 2, New York.

1880 U.S. Federal Census, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

1900 U.S. Federal Census, District 0964, Cambridge Ward 2, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

Emigrant Savings Bank. Emigrant Savings Bank Records. Call number *R-USLHG *ZI-815. Rolls 1-20. New York Public Library, New York, New York.

Irish Catholic Parish Registers, Diocese of Cork and Ross, Parish of Dunmanway, Baptisms June 21, 1818- April 24, 1838 (Microfilm 04805/03).

Tri-Weekly Ohio Statesman 19th May 1847. Dreadful Disasters in Ireland.

Antietam National Battlefield.

Civil War Trust Battle of Antietam Page.