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Mackeys and Johnstons of Kinlough, Leitrim

Updated: Apr 29

Unknown Couple - Picture taken at Miss Miller's in Ballyshannon

My trip to Ireland in June/July is a combination of client research, a choral tour and personal research. After spending a week in Dublin doing client research, my husband is flying over to join me and we're headed to Shannon to meet the Key Chorale for our tour of Ireland and Scotland. On our way, we're taking a side trip to Cobh. This is the port, formerly known as Queenstown where many of our ancestors spent their last days in Ireland before departing for America. Then, after our last concert in Edinburgh, we're flying back to Belfast and driving the northern coast, visiting the Giant's Causeway and then spending a day in northern Leitrim. What can I find in a day…I'm not sure. I've posted a note on the Leitrim Rootsweb site hoping to make contact with someone from the area. I’ve done some research in the past on these families in both Dublin and Belfast, but I haven’t been to the area to do any research. Part of the difficulty may be the family stories I remember from my grandmother who has turned out not to be a very reliable source!

My grandmother always told me she was from the North of Ireland. When I started researching it seemed that every piece of paper my grandmother filled out had different information, including birth dates, both year and month, as well as different locations...some said Ireland and some said Scotland. It should also be noted that my grandmother emigrated before Ireland was split and today both Leitrim and Donegal are part of the Republic of Ireland. I also remember her telling me that her full name was Rachel Harriet May Isabelle Sprague Mitchell, however she had always been called Minnie. Sprague is not a very common name in Ireland, and I was able to quickly find her birth certificate at the General Register Office in Dublin. According to her birth certificate, Rachel Hewston (don’t know where all the other names came from) was born 12 December 1892 in West Rocks, Donegal. This is just over the border from Leitrim. Her parents were James Sprague, a Plasterer and Rachel Mackey Sprague. I was also able to find the birth records of her four siblings.

Next step, knowing my grandmother was the oldest child, I went back one year and began looking for her parents’ marriage. After going back a few years and not finding anything, I started to work forward. James Sprague, a bachelor, plasterer and Rachel Harriet Mackay a spinster, servant, were married on 14 July 1892 at Christ Church in the Parish of Finner in Donegal. So I guess my grandmother was a premie😀. Something else that was interesting was although my great grandmother had 10 brothers and sisters, none were witnesses for the marriage.

I’m in good shape with my research back about three generations. I know all of my great grandmother’s siblings, although I’m not sure what happened to a few of them. Six, including my great grandmother emigrated to the US settling in Connecticut; one married and went to Scotland; one married and went to England; one married, had no children and probably died in Belfast, and two I’m still looking for. Since they were all born after civil registration in 1864, I have tried to find them in the FamilySearch Civil Registration database. In some cases, I have two or three possibilities, so I’m going to purchase the certificates while I’m in Dublin and see if I can confirm the correct individual.

The oldest son, Henry William Mackey, I found in the Index to Old Age Pensions. In 1908 when the Irish Old Age Pension started, individuals had to prove their age in order to collect. If they didn’t have a birth certificate (which many didn’t because they were born before 1864) they could request a check of the 1851 or 1861 census (which had not yet been destroyed). If the individual was found in the census the information was written on the form documenting not only the individual but in many cases, the family. Since all of the census records have since been destroyed, this may be the only record. The National Archives in Dublin has those forms, and I found Henry William Mackey listed. Since he wasn’t born until 1867 he wasn’t eligible, and no information was found, but it did provide me the name of his wife and that he was living in Belfast.

When I began my research I received a package of information from my uncle. In it he stated that Rachel Johnston Mackey’s homestead “was a farm house called Unshenaugh in Tulligan, County Leitrim.” The marriage certificate of Rachel Johnston and James Mackey in 1866 lists her father as James Johnston and a check of Griffith’s Valuation for the townland of Unshinagh shows a James Johnston holding “house, office and land” totaling over 35 acres with the landlord as William Johnston. In 1997 when I was in Ireland, I used the Revision Books at the Valuation Office in Dublin to follow the property which moved to William to Jane to Wesley Johnston. Although the pieces fit with the family tradition, the more research I did, the more questions I had.

During a lecture I was giving on Griffith’s Valuation in Fairfield, Connecticut a few years ago, I used an example from Leitrim...the family of Matthew Mackey. Here the pieces fit together properly. Matthew held a little over 21 acres in Laghta. The Revision Books showed his land passing to his son James, to his son James (In Fee) to George and out of the family in 1932. One of the attendees pointed to the name immediately below Matthew, a George Curry, as being his ancestor. After the seminar we got together and discovered our great uncles had owned a bar together in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the early 1900’s. It appears that his great great grandmother, Margaret Johnston, who married John Curry and my Rachel Johnston, who married James Mackey were sisters. The marriage records for both Rachel and Margaret list their townland as Cornagee and their father as James.

There is another James Johnston in Griffiths who rents just a house from William Moneen. Now I have three different locations with two James Johnstons. A map shows these locations are within abt 3 miles. I’m thinking that the family farm at Unshinagh could be just another incorrect story!

One of the issues I have is that both families were Church of Ireland members. After the Church of Ireland was disestablished as the State Church a law was passed in 1876 requiring the local parishes to send their records to the Public Records Office in Dublin for “safekeeping.” Those records were destroyed in the 1922 fire including the records for Rossinver parish (which includes Kinlough). Other than Protestant marriages back to 1845, there are very few records available. I’m hoping some local history books might shed some light on the family.

Remember, not all family stories or traditions are fact. Make sure you analyze them and keep an open mind. It may help you move through your brick walls.

Happy Hunting!

If you have ancestors from Leitrim, Donegal or Fermanagh please visit

my Photos page and let me know if you recognize anyone!

They could be Mackey/Mackays, Johnstons, Currys, Whittens, Roachs

or some other name I haven't come across yet.

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