I recently attended the excellent 2018 Famine Summer School held at the National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park House in Co. Roscommon. I was speaking on what pension files can reveal about the remittance of money from America to Ireland, and the maintenance of local community links across the Atlantic. Not far from Strokestown Park House is the townland of Cargin’s Demesne near Tulsk. On my journey home, I took a few minutes to swing by the area, to see the fields where a former Union sailor returned home to die in the 1870s. His death led to a series of remarkable interviews with nineteenth century Roscommon emigrants, recorded in the first-person, which offer us insight into both their lives and the importance of place of origin for those in the United States. They are reproduced for the first time below.
On 9th February 1863 John Dolan enlisted in the United States Navy. During the three years that followed he spent the majority of his service aboard the sidewheel steamer gunboat USS Tioga. The Second Class Fireman’s war was mainly one of chasing blockade runners as part of forces such as the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, before yellow fever forced the vessel north in mid-1864. John left the Navy on 12th February 1866. A decade later, suffering from a lung complaint, he was advised by his Physician to return to Ireland. Many in New York were aware they would never see him again. He died just three days after arriving at his father’s farm in Co. Roscommon, and was laid to rest in his local cemetery. The choices John had made on 9th February 1863 caused considerable problems for his widow Ann. In order to claim a pension based on his service, Ann had to prove her relationship to the sailor. But she had not been married to John Dolan, but rather to one John Tierney– her husband had enlisted under an alias.
Using affidavits, Ann successfully proved her relationship with John, but doubts about the veracity of her claim led to the appointment of a Special Examiner to her case by the Pension Bureau in 1892. Though a terrible experience for the pensioner (their pensions were stopped until the examination was complete), the detailed interviews they elicited represent an incredible historical resource. Leon Turner was the Examiner appointed to Ann’s case, and he conducted all his interviews in November 1892. In his report he explained that the “claimant is a respectable woman, but very ignorant, living in a large tenement house at No. 494, 9th Ave”, further elaborating that the “claimant and all the witnesses are natives of the same locality in Ireland and were acquainted to some extent with each other over there. They are of the same class of society…poor working people.” Thankfully Turner quickly recommended reinstatement of the pension, which Ann continued to receive until her death on 15th August 1895. The interviews are largely reproduced below.
Turner interviewed Ann Tierney on 2nd November 1892:
My name is Ann Tierney. My age is 49 years, occupation washing and ironing and my post office address is 494 Ninth Avenue, New York City, N.Y. I am the widow of John Tierney who was a sailor on the U.S. Steamer Tioga during the war. He died in Ireland Jan 3, 1876. I have not married since his death. The Navy is the only service he was ever in. I first met John Tierney about two years before he enlisted. He was courting me when he went in the Navy. I corresponded with him during the war and I always addressed my letters to James Dolan. He enlisted under the name of James Dolan, because he said he did not want his people to know where he was. His mother’s maiden name was Dolan. His father’s name was James Tierney or James Tiernan. I married to John Tierney shortly after his discharge by the Rev. Mr. McAleer at St. Columba’s Church in this city. He never went by the name of Dolan after he came out of the Navy. I had four children by John Tierney but they are all dead but one, a girl around twenty two years old, her name is Mary Tierney. After we were married we went to housekeeping on Christopher Street, near the ferry. I lived there about a year when I moved to West Tenth Street near Waverly Place, where I lived about a year and I then moved to West 18th Street near 7th Avenue. I don’t remember the number of the houses I lived in. I lived in West 48th Street, I forget the number, in May 1876 when he (my husband) went to Ireland. His health had been poor and he went to his father’s house at Cargin’s Demesne, Strokestown, Roscommon County, Ireland. He had only been there a few days when he died of some trouble with his lungs. He died at his father’s house. his father’s name is James Tierney, but in the Old Country Tierney is called Tiernan. He has a brother also at Cargin’s Demesne by the name of Michael Tiernan. My husband had been sick some time with something like consumption, and went to Ireland on the advice of his physician, and it was his intention to return to me upon his recovery or in case he got better. He contracted his disease in the Navy. Before he went in the service he was a stout hearty man. Shortly after his return his health began to fail and he got worse gradually until he went to Ireland. Three days after he got to his old home he died. I claim pension as the dependent widow of John Tierney who enlisted in the Navy under the name of James Dolan. In the Old Country the name is Tiernan…I do not know the name of my husband’s shipmates, I have none of his old letters or papers.
Ann’s interview provides much interesting detail. Of the many reasons for enlisting under an alias, John seems to have done so so as not to be easily found by family and friends. Ann and John had courted prior to John’s enlistment, and were from the same place in Ireland, i.e. that part of Roscommon near Tulsk and Strokestown. They suffered the loss of three of their four children, a mortality rate all too familiar to Irish immigrants in New York, and also moved frequently within their New York community, again something regularly seen among the Irish, who overwhelmingly lived in rented accommodation. Ann also adds the interesting detail that the family, who were Tiernans in Ireland, were known as Tierneys in America– a demonstration of how surnames could be altered from one side of the Atlantic to the other. The next interview Leon Turner conducted was with Catherine Burns, Ann’s sister:
Catherine Burns, 47, 409 West 24th Street.
I knew John Tierney in the Old Country over forty years ago. We were children together in County Roscommon, Ireland. His father’s name was James Tierney and he had a brother by the name of Michael. His mother’s name was Ann Dolan. I knew the family very well. In the Old Country (Ireland) they are called Tiernan. I came to this Country some time before he did. He came over just about the beginning of the War. He had been well to do in Ireland. His father was a farmer and in comfortable circumstances. He got knocking around here and as he had not been accustomed to hard work he enlisted in the Navy. I saw him about a week before he enlisted. He called ay my house on Twenty-third Street. He did not tell me then that he was going to enlist, but a short while after, I don’t remember how long, I received a letter from him and in that letter he told me to write to him and address my letter to James Dolan, U.S. Steamer Tioga. The reason he took his mother’s name was he did not want his people to know where he was. When he returned from the Navy I don’t remember the date, but it was the same month he married my sister…They lived together until about 1876 or up the the very day he left for Ireland…
Although Leon Turner had remarked that these Roscommon emigrants were “poor working people”, Catherine’s statement demonstrates that John’s father had been a well to do farmer in Ireland, and John had grown up in a privileged setting that didn’t require him to do hard work. This tallies with the fact that many Irish emigrants, though poor by American standards, were not among the poorest in Ireland (who could rarely afford to leave). Catherine’s testimony indicates the close links that people from the same locality sought to maintain in cities like New York, something common to the Irish emigrant experience across the United States. Our next interviewee is Mary Carley:
Mary Carley, about 60, 539 West 29th Street.
I have known John Tierney from the first day he landed in this city. He came from Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, Ireland. I don’t remember the date. I came from that place myself and when he came here he came to my house. I knew his people well in Ireland. I lived about two miles from them…I don’t remember the date he enlisted but sometime in the early part of the War I missed Tierney. He was boarding with me at the time. My husband heard that he had enlisted and went out to look for him. I don’t remember where he went but it seems to be now that he went down to Castle Garden, they were recruiting there at the time, and to all the recruiting offices but he could find no trace of him, because it seems he had enlisted under another name. He afterwards heard that he had taken the name of Dolan, which was his mother’s name…He left New York on the 20th of May and died at his father’s house June 4th, 1876 or rather he was buried June 4/76. I was one of the friends who went to the steamer to see him off, because he was in poor health and we never expected to see him again alive…His name properly is Tiernan, but in this Country people shorten it by calling it Tierney. I knew his brother in the Old Country they are all dead but Michael.
Mary Carley had never met John until he landed in New York, but she came to know him there because they were from the same place in Roscommon. This is significant, as it demonstrates not only the maintained links between locals in Ireland and America, but how those networks were vital to help “bed in” new arrivals from those communities. Many married Irish emigrant women supplemented their income by taking in boarders, usually young unmarried Irish men. Again, Mary’s testimony indicates that these boarders were often either relations or young men from their former localities in Ireland. The next interview was with Peter Burns, the husband of Catherine Burns, and brother-in-law of Ann:
Peter Burns, 51, Laborer, 409 West 24th Street.
I first met John Tierney at Strokestown, County of Roscommon, Ireland. I can’t give you the date but we were both boys together. I knew his mother and father well. I lived about two miles and half from them…I came to this Country, April 20th, 1861. John Tierney came over before me. Soon after I got here I again met John Tierney. We were both young men, unmarried, and were very friendly having known each other in the Old Country. It was about the beginning of the war. He was out of work and had told me if he did not get something to do soon he would enlisted on a Man-of-War. He had been pretty well to do in the Old Country and was not used to hard work. He told me at the time that if he enlisted he would take his mother’s name, Dolan, and that when I heard from him again it would be from James Dolan. Shortly after that I shipped as a Coal Passer on the “Star of the South.” I did not see Tierney again until he had served his time in the Navy and had come home, but I heard from him occasionally when he was in the Navy, through Ann Collins, who used to receive letters from him and whom he afterwards married…After he came out of the Navy he married Ann Collins. I was present at the marriage. He lived with her up to the time he went home to Ireland to die…I knew the whole family well at home, knew his brothers and sisters, but I can only recall one of his brothers now, his name is Michael. I think he is there yet. It has been so long since I was there I have forgotten the names of most of them. In the Old Country the family name is Tiernan.
Peter was also from the same part of Roscommon. In America the two Roscommon men had married two Roscommon sisters from the same locality. Irish emigrants were extremely cohesive in the nineteenth century United States, and rarely married people outside of the Irish American community. Such detail as this suggests that many of them also chose to take that one step further, and marry explicitly within their local emigrant community. Evidence in the files also suggests that brides were occasionally sent for, travelling from Ireland to America with the pre-arranged purpose of marrying a man from their locality. The next interview was with Nora Carroll:
Nora Carroll, 45, Cook, 1730 Broadway.
I knew John Tierney when he was a boy in the Old Country. He lived at Cargin’s, Roscommon County, Ireland. They lived four or five miles from me…He left Ireland long before I did. I was in Ireland during the War. I did not come to this Country until 1872. I met him a few days after I arrived here. I know his wife very well. Her name is Ann Tierney but before she married her name was Ann Collins. I knew her home in Ireland. From the time I first met him he lived with Ann as her husband…
Irish American cohesiveness and maintained links with Ireland enabled a constant stream of new arrivals to join their fellow Roscommon emigrants in New York. The importance of that network in their new homes is again demonstrated here; Nora met with her fellow locals shortly after she arrived, and stayed in constant contact with them in the years that followed. So did Catherine Brady:
Catherine Brady, 53, Housekeeper, 450 De Kalb Avenue, Brooklyn.
I knew John Tierney from the day of his birth. He was my cousin. He lived in Cargins, Roscommon County, Ireland…He has only one brother living now. The family name is Tiernan, although they call it Tierney here. I don’t know why they call it so. I lived in the same Parish with the family. John Tierney came to this Country long before I did. I came here about April 1889. I did not see him during the War. I never knew him by any other name than John Tierney or Tiernan. I was home at Cargins when he came to his father’s house sick. I can’t remember the date but it was in the Summer of 1876. I was present when he died and I attended his funeral. He was buried in the burying ground called Killcooly County of Roscommon in Ireland. I knew Ann Tierney when she was a girl in the Old Country. She lived near me. Her name then was Ann Collins…I did hear while in the Old Country that he had gone by the name of Dolan, but I never asked him anything about that for when he came home he was too sick to talk much. He died three days after he got to his father’s house. I know what I have stated to be facts because I know the family in Ireland and Tierney’s family here. My maiden name was Tiernan.
By 1892, there were Roscommon people in the Empire City who had been in Ireland when Ann’s husband died, and remembered it. Indeed Catherine Brady had even seen him sick in his father’s house, and attended his funeral at Kilcooly Graveyard. Catherine also spoke of what she had heard about John’s service while still in Ireland, testament to the constant correspondence between this part of Roscommon and New York. Another who remembered the veteran’s death in Ireland was Thomas Byrne:
Thomas Byrne, 25, Laborer, 356 East 13th Street.
I was at home at Cargins, Ireland when James [sic.] Tiernan died. I attended his funeral. I don’t remember the date of his death but it was about fifteen years ago. I did not know him very long before he died. I have known his father and mother since my childhood…I don’t know the cause of James [sic.] Tiernan’s death but he came home from America very sick and died shortly after he arrived at his father’s house. He was buried at Killcooly. The family are called Tiernan at home but over here they call it Tierney.
The final interview is with James Connolly, who provided evidence that indicates how men from the same locality maintained close friendships in their new homes, and often worked together:
James Connolly, 48, Sailor, 310 West 42nd Street.
I first met John Tierney at home in Roscommon, Ireland about 1858 or 1859 also knew him when he lived at Cargins, Ireland, sometime before he emigrated to this Country. I knew his parents…I landed in this City from Ireland in September 1863. I don’t know when John Tierney came over. I did not see [him] again until after the close of the War, in the Fall of 1866. We were friendly. I lived then [at] 409 West 24th Street. He used to visit there and I met him out often…We were working together for the same firm here in New York in 1866, weighing logs for Flandran and Hardy. We were quite intimate. He got me the job. Being from the same place at home and working in the same place, we were often together. I did not know Ann Tierney before she married although I knew her people in the Old Country. Her father’s name was Martin Collins.
The series of interviews recorded as part of the Examination into Ann Tiernan’s case are a perfect example of the incredible value of Civil War pension files for the study of Irish emigration. They firmly indicate the key importance of locality of origin, and how maintained links across decades led to a continual relationship between these intertwined communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Aside from describing an extremely poignant story of a veteran going home to die, they allow us a rare opportunity to “hear” the voices of these poor people, the majority of whom were illiterate. That alone makes them an invaluable resource.
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*None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online. A team of archivists from NARA supported by volunteers have enabled access to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
Ann Tiernan Naval Widow’s Pension Certificate, National Archives.