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Breaking Down Those Brick Walls

Anne with her Irish cousins in a Pub in Leitrim

The blog post today comes from Anne Meehan Merritt who joined me in October of 2023 on the Ireland Research Trip. She wrote me recently to let me know she had made a huge breakthrough in her Irish Research and accepted my invitation to do a Guest Blog Post.


I have spent the better part of the last twenty years trying to find my Meehan ancestors in Ireland. I ignored all the warnings about how hard it is to “cross the pond” and how “all” the records had been destroyed, and naively began my search. Armed with a notated picture of my great grandfather Bernard Meehan, his wife and five children in front of their home in Brooklyn, NY, I figured how hard could it be to find where in Ireland he was from!

Census records from Brooklyn were a start, then I quite serendipitously found a newspaper article about a man killed after falling off a cart in a coal yard where he worked and, sadly, realized that was Bernard. From there it was a pretty easy jump to finding a death certificate and subsequent cemetery information.

Bernard’s death certificate from 1906 listed his parents as Cornelius Meehan and Catherine McGrath. Using John Grenham’s site, I learned that County Leitrim was one of the few places where both Meehan and McGrath were commonly found. Turning to Roots Ireland, I found a Roman Catholic baptismal record for a “Bernardus Myhan” son of Cornelius Myhan and Catherine McGrath from Cloonclare, County Leitrim. I could understand the Latin Bernardus, questioned the Myhan surname and had no way of definitively saying this was my great grandfather. However, I used the locale information to carefully comb through records available online from The National Library of Ireland and was able to find a marriage listing for Cornelius and Catherine as well as a baptismal record for a daughter, Catherine, born two years before Bernard.

I still had no way of knowing if this one Bernard Myhan in all of Ireland was my Bernard Meehan. Around this time I started getting many 3rd cousin DNA matches as well as one 2nd cousin match just when Ancestry first started identifying communities along with ethnicity estimates. Mine overwhelmingly listed North Leitrim and bordering counties! I then learned about the Facebook DNA groups and made many amazing connections with folks from Leitrim. As soon as I listed my Meehan name, I started hearing from many, many people with Meehan connections. The names Sweeney, Rooney, Keaney and McSharry meant absolutely nothing to me, yet I was intrigued and a bit overwhelmed.

After many trips to the Family Search Library in Salt Lake where I was able to access maps and books in addition to records, learning more about DNA and starting to build back trees for my Meehan matches, things started coming together.

Then things got interesting. My DNA pointed to my being a HALF 2nd or HALF 3rd cousin to my matches. All of the cousins I researched were able to point to a common ancestor in Cormac Meehan who married Margaret Rooney and had a daughter named Margaret Meehan who married Patrick Sweeney. It began to look like Cormac was in fact my Cornelius, but why did he marry Margaret Rooney and what had happened to my 2x great grandmother Catherine McGrath? I put all that I knew into WATO (the What Are The Odds tool in DNA Painter) and ended up with a few different hypotheses, the strongest was that Bernard was the half sibling to Margaret Meehan who married Patrick Sweeney.

Next, I started back at the beginning and carefully reviewed all of the census records in Brooklyn and suddenly realized that I had no documentation of Cornelius being with Catherine and Bernard in NY! So many questions–why did Catherine emigrate with Bernard but without Cornelius? Did that make Cornelius eligible to freely remarry? Was Cormac really my Cornelius? Who had provided the information for the death certificate naming Cornelius?

By now it was January 2023 and I heard about Donna Moughty and her Ireland Research Trips through a friend and decided to enroll. Donna is an extremely knowledgeable professional and quite the taskmaster! I embarked on a lengthy research and organization project to get ready for the trip. I was proud of myself for knowing the province, barony, county, and parish where I “thought” my Meehans were from, but Donna wanted me to know the townland. So, I went back through all the Griffiths Valuation that listed a Meehan and was again overwhelmed. I contacted a genealogist in Dublin who looked through what I knew and encouraged me to pay close attention to the Meehans in the townland of Carraun. That was a huge breakthrough as I was able to then trace Margaret Rooney, Margaret Meehan, Patrick Sweeney and others to that tiny, one street hill town of 0.44 sq miles!!!! Now I felt ready to go to Ireland!

Under Donna’s tutelage, I did research at the National Library, National Archives, and the Valuation Office where I was able to search through the original Griffiths Valuations and see the actual changes in lease throughout the years. As part of the trip, I had an appointment with a genealogist at the Irish Family History Centre. I really that short initial consultation, the genealogist was able to move me forward and provide some areas for me to consider in my research.

I next headed to Leitrim to travel with one of my “DNA cousins,” meet other cousins and see the heritage areas I had been hearing about! This was better than I ever could have imagined-I met six cousins in three days, drove along the hill road of Carraun, randomly met a cousin on the street in Kiltyclogher, and loved everything about the area! However, each time I met someone new and explained my connection in the family tree, a little question mark would light up in my brain still questioning the Cornelius/Cormac uncertainty and my “half-cousin” connection to the Sweeney and Rooney cousins I was meeting.

After returning home and mulling over this again and again, I decided to contract with the genealogist I had met at the Irish Family History Centre, Kayleigh Bealin, to see if she could uncover the link I was still missing. Well, the good news and ending to this genealogical brick wall is that she could and did!

Included in the 33 page report I received were all the steps she followed, most of which I had also done, many valuable historical explanations and two very important details that eluded me. One thing she pointed out was the interchangeable use of Cornelius and Cormac on the various records which I had also noticed. It seemed that Cornelius was used mostly in church records, whereas Cormac was used on Griffiths, census, and deeds.

The first important surprise finding was that the Catherine that I saw listed along with Bernard’s family in the 1875 NY State census and had assumed was his mother was really a single boarder named Catherine Maher and not Bernard’s mother Catherine Meehan. I had been so certain that her name was Catherine Meehan, probably because I so desperately wanted it to be, that I ignored the slight difference in penmanship between Meehan and Maher. Based on that, the history of Leitrim and the timing of Cornelius’ marriage to Margaret Rooney, it seems very likely  that Catherine died during the famine leaving Cornelius with two young children.

The second and most amazing thing that Kayleigh found was the following document. When Ellen Meehan, the eldest sister of Margaret Meehan Sweeney, applied for her pension she requested a copy of her family’s 1851 Census record. Ellen listed all of her siblings, giving those who were born in 1851 an age beside their name. Notably, Ellen listed two half-siblings named Catherine and Brian—a common form of Bernard!

That faint notation on the left side of this document was the definitive connection I had been missing. It confirms the DNA matches, validates the WATO hypothesis, neatly ties everything together and, in effect, breaks down the last of my Meehan brick walls!

Anne Meehan Merritt

June 2024


Thanks to Anne for this great case study. Note that Anne's solution came well after her family had left Ireland, through a descendant who remained in Ireland and filed for her pension after 1908. If you want to learn more about the Census Return Form which solved Anne's long term brick wall, I wrote about it back in 2021 in a blog on Census Substitutes.

If you have a case study you would like to share, email me and let me know. I'd be happy to host it on my blog.

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Anne! That's wonderful. Congrats on solving your mystery. What a fun ride. Our research trip was so much fun as it was, but I bet you're now on another level of joy! - Kira



Anne, great research. Kayleigh is the best. Wish Donna would schedule another trip.

Kathy Sullivan


Wonderful! I really like to see your systematic research process and reasoning, and how you have consulted knowledgable others following up on their advice and recommendations.

Could you please elaborate on the specific areas suggested by the genealogist at the Irish family History Centre?


Dale Fogarty


Dale, it was a short consultation but mainly Kayleigh looked at my Ancestry tree, my DNA matches and the WATO hypotheses I had run. She pointed out who she thought was my strongest DNA match to build back and concurred that, based on my research, I should research the Carraun Meehans at the Valuation Office. That research later actually helped me find when the property turned over to Margaret and, thus, helped me find Cormac’s death.

Her other tips were: using, and using www.Irish for BMD records, both of which I already used. However, she showed me how to layer maps by using My Maps on Google to layer info such as Griffiths, Census location, barony and townland…


Wonderful find & wonderfully captured!

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