Searching for a mythical patriarch I found an impressive feminist…

My mother’s grandmother, Mary Agnes, was born on the outskirts of Derry in 1872. Her family, the McKeevers became the McIvors and moved to Quigley’s Point when she was about ten. She married Hugh Harley, ten years her senior, in 1897 and their fourth child, my grandfather Joseph Harley, was born in 1901. I found the young family in the 1901 census living at Tromarty, Co Donegal with three servants, one an Irish speaker, with Hugh head of the family. In the 1911 census, things were very different. My great-grandmother, owner of an egg store business, was now head of the family, there was no sign of Hugh and there were eight children, the youngest was born in 1907.

I asked my mother about her grandfather but she knew very little. As a child, she frequently stayed with her grandmother at Tromerty in the 1930s and 1940s up to Mary Agnes’s death in the early 1950s. Hugh, her grandfather she was told was according to the family “a great fella”, working in America and coming home soon. In 1932 Mary Agnes sailed to America to find him but came home disappointed and after became very depressed and withdrawn.

Six months ago, a patient handed me an extensive list of medical conditions and asked me to explain. Scrofula, Wasting Disease and Decline were among many that are not current medical diagnoses but were the conditions recorded on his ancestors’ death certificates back in the 1700s. He had developed some considerable skill in tracking down his antecedents and had succeeded in tracing them back to England and Scotland. He offered to pay me for my time but instead, I asked him to find Hugh Harley and gave him what little details I had.

He has now given me detailed documentation on Hugh Harley so I can finally clarify for my mother at least some of the mystery about her grandfather. Hugh, we knew was in the 1901 census in Donegal, and then we find him in court records for Moville in 1906 charged with a violent attack on Bridget Harley who was not only a neighbour but his sister. For this attack and attempting to burn down Bridget’s house, he was committed to the lunatic asylum in Letterkenny. Leaving that institution, he boarded a ship outside Moville in 1908 and travelled, according to the ship’s manifest, to Ellis Island. We find him in Ellis Island records entering the US in November of that year.

We then find him in the US census of 1920 living in Philadelphia and then his death certificate tells us that he died of Tuberculosis complicated by myocarditis in 1921 aged 55 years. We even know where he is buried. He was also a bigamist.

His son, also Hugh, travelled as a teenager to the US in the 1920s but did not have any contact with his father. He complicated the ancestry search as he kept appearing. He lived in New York, married an American and was killed, according to his death certificate, in a road traffic accident one year after becoming a US citizen in 1940. The family knew he had a serious alcohol problem and Mary Agnes was always disappointed he did not keep in touch.

Finding this information is strangely addictive and I feel I need more and more. I have become obsessed with men I never knew and who were certainly of questionable character. What is it in our DNA that makes us so obsessive about DNA? We are haunted by not knowing about kin.

My mother has now filled in the blanks on her mythical grandfather. She now knows he was likely alcoholic. He was certainly violent, very probably towards a young wife who had a child every year. Finding Hugh Harley only enhanced my mother’s respect for her stoical grandmother, Mary Agnes. It was clear he did not go for work to the US. She got rid of an abusive husband, then built a successful business exporting Donegal eggs to Glasgow and she raised a large family all on her own. Yet she must have still loved him travelling to America in 1932 to find him unaware that he had been dead for over 10 years.

Magheroarty View” by Philip McErlean is licensed under CC BY-ND