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Why I Think Writing is Important

Updated: Apr 29

Over the years I've posted multiple blogs about writing, and why I think it is important for your genealogical research. Too often we're so busy collecting information that we can't see the forest for the trees. When I first began doing client work and had an assignment for 10 hours, I would research for 10 hours, and then it would take another 10 hours to write the report! Not good for business. Over the years I got better at writing as I went along, but that didn't transfer to my own research. I would sneak in my own family research when, for example, someone would contact me, or I received an email about a new database, but I would add the information to my database or file it away for future research. Well, now that I'm (almost) retired the future is here.

My research currently is on my Johnston family of Rossinver, County Leitrim. I began generally looking at all of the Johnston families from this parish, but due to a lack of records, I wasn't able to connect them. Over the summer I began to focus on just my family, beginning with my oldest known ancestor, James Johnston. I pulled out all of my paper files, as well as my electronic files and culled through them. What did I already know? I had lots of documents in both files and I began to organize them, making sure they were all named beginning with the date, so the electronic files would list chronologically. Where I had paper documents, I scanned them so everything would be in one place. I reviewed my genealogical database to make sure it was up to date. By focusing on just one ancestor (or ancestral couple) I was able to pull together lots of information without other distractions.

I then begin to put the information in a narrative form, asking myself how I knew the information, where did it come from, and did I have source citations. I would frequently have to stop to resolve one of those questions. Some of the information I had collected years ago, is now online and I could easily get an image of the document, and use a more up to date source citation. When I had a blank, I would look for additional sources, including online trees, not only at Ancestry, but at FamilySearch and MyHeritage...and that was sometimes a shock. (See my rant on Facebook on September 12.) But it's not all bad. I have also connected to cousins with or without a DNA match. Unfortunately there are a lot more I'd like to meet who don't respond. I've also joined the Facebook Group for Leitrim which has connected me to people still living there and I found there are no Johnstons left in the area.

Today's ancestor is my 2x great grandmother, Rachel Johnston Mackey. This is not a final document but a work in progress, but at least I now have a starting point. If you choose to read the document below, focus on the methodology and resources that you can use to research and write about your ancestor. And, if you are connected to the Johnston Family, email me! I have lots of additional information to share. Just remember, as you add information to your database to attribute the information to the place where you found it. If it's this blog or my family tree, cite it...that is only fair and another way for people to find me and share their information.😀

Happy Hunting!

Rachel Johnston

Daughter of James Johnston and Unknown

5. Rachel Johnston (James2, James1). Born abt 1846 in Unshinagh, Rossinver, Leitrim, Ireland. Rachel died in Laghta, Rossinver, Leitrim, Ireland, on 15 May 1929; she was 83. Buried on 17 May 1929 in Kilbarron Parish, Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland.

Rachel Johnston was born about 1846 in Leitrim, her age estimated from her marriage record. Her father was James Johnston, her mother at this time is Unknown. She married James Mackay/Mackey on 12 July 1866 in the Parish Church of Rossinver. James was the son of Matthew Mackay, and was a widower. James’ first wife was Margaret Beatty of Fermanagh, whom he married 30 Apr 1863. Margaret died, age 19, 17 May 1864 in Belleek, Fermanagh. [Note: Rachel’s half sister, Jennie Matilda, married the brother of Margaret Beatty, Edward Beatty, in 1877.] Witnesses to the marriage of James Mackey and Rachel Johnston were Stephenson Whitten and Glasgow Johnston. [Note: I have a DNA connection to descendants of Glasgow, however the relationship is unknown.] At the time of her marriage Rachel listed her residence as Cornagee [Cornageeha].

James Mackey and Rachel Johnston had the following children:

17 i. Henry William Mackay (21 Jun 1867-18 Oct 1916)

18 ii. James John Mackay (7 Jul 1868-)

19 iii. Isabella Jane Mackay (3 Nov 1869-)

20 iv. Rachel Harriett Mackay (15 Mar 1871-28 May 1939)

21 v. Mathew Mackay (26 Jun 1872-28 May 1955)

22 vi. George Johnston Mackay (12 Oct 1874-17 Feb 1938)

23 vii. Thomas Mackay (5 May 1876-3 Aug 1930)

24 viii. Emily (Emma) Mackay (26 Oct 1877-18 Aug 1959)

25 ix. Robert Mackay (13 May 1881-7 Aug 1953)

26 x. Arthur Mackey (12 Oct 1883-1 Sep 1943)

27 xi. Sarah Anne (Sadie) Mackay (1 Aug 1886-12 Nov 1983)

Rachel had 11 children, 10 surviving to adulthood. It appears that Isabella died young, but no record has been found after her birth. Rachel died 15 May 1929 at Laghta, the family homestead in Leitrim; her daughter, Emily Eglinton was present at her death. Rachel was buried 17 May 1929 at the Kilbarron Church of Ireland in Ballyshannon, Donegal. James likely died in September of 1902. Although no civil death record has been found, there is a burial record from the Kilbarron Church listing his burial as 17 September 1902.

Some of the early information I received was from Frank Sprague Mitchell, the grandson of Rachel and my uncle. In his introduction to the material he stated: “In the summer of 1977 I was appointed a Conservator for Mom and after she was at Nathaniel Witherell Hospital [sic - nursing home] and Tom and I disposed of the house. I discovered two strong boxes under Mom’s bed containing various papers. Among the Legal papers were documents such as a Marriage Certificate, Insurance applications and a formal change of name application. As a result of these papers I initiated investigation with government agencies, interviews and on visits to England met with Hector Walker [grandson of Rachel Mackey through daughter Sarah Anne Mackey] and his wife Kathy and what follows is the result of these inquiries.” Where information comes from this document it will be sourced as such. If further original sources show a conflict, I will source the original material.

Frank’s report stated that “Rachel Johnston Mackay was born about 1845 and died in 1929 at the age of 84. The family homestead was a farm house called ‘Unshenaugh’ in Tullaghan, County Leitrum.” It is not uncommon that information passed down may not match official records due to a lack of understanding of Irish jurisdictions. This is something that all new Irish researchers face. Also confusing is the spelling of localities and names. It’s important to remember that spelling doesn’t count! Names were frequently spelled the way the clerk, priest, minister or any other record keeper heard them. Johnston, for example, is not much of a problem (although I have seen it with an “e” on the end and sometimes as Johnson). Mackey can be found as Mackay, M’key or M’kay, Macky or McKee. The spelling of localities was standardized in the 1830s but you will still find spelling variations, i.e., Unshenaugh/Unshinagh or Laughta/Laghta.

To clarify, Unshinagh is a townland (not a farm house) in the civil parish of Rossinver in Leitrim. Think of a townland as a neighborhood with multiple families and houses. Because the family was Protestant, the name of the ecclesiastical or religious parish was also Rossinver. There were three Roman Catholic Churches in Rossinver and one Presbyterian church. Unshinagh is in the District Electoral Division of Kinlough where census records and some court records can be found and the Superintendent Registration District (also called the Poor Law Union) is Ballyshannon until 1922 and thereafter, Manorhamilton. It is in the Barony of Rosclogher which is used in some older records as well as early land records. The point is, you need to be aware of all of these jurisdictions and might find records in any one of them. Tullaghan and Laghta are also townlands in all of the same jurisdictions listed above.

I’ve always been conflicted over the information that Rachel was born in Unshinagh as her marriage record, as well as that of her sister Margaret who married two years earlier, gave Cornagee/Cornageeha, another townland in the same jurisdictions as above as their residence. There is a James Johnston in Unshinagh, however when James Johnston, the father of Rachel and Margaret married a second time in 1858, his residence was listed as the Kinlough Gate House. There were three Johnston families in Cornagee at the time of Griffith’s Valuation (1855-1857) so were they living with one of those families, or perhaps the family of their mother who likely died between 1852 (approximate date when brother William was born) and 1858 when James remarried? The name of her mother is unknown.

Referencing back to the sketch of James Johnston, sometime after his second marriage to Jane Johnston in 1858, he moved to the property in Unshinagh. It is likely that this James, the father of Rachel died between his second marriage in 1858 and 1862 when the Revision Books indicate a change of occupancy on the property in Unshinagh from James to Jane. What ties the Unshinagh property to James is the occupancy of his wife in 1862, when William the son of James was between 10 and 13 years old, too young to sign a lease. The property eventually moves from Jane to William in 1877. For those who have Jane as the mother of all of James' children, think again. The children were born between 1842 and 1852 and James and Jane were not married until 1858.

The 1901 Census states that James Mackey was born in Leitrim about 1827. We know from the marriage record of Rachel Johnston and James Mackey that James Mackey's father was Matthew and that Matthew was born about 1783 (based on his age on his death registration) and died on 9 Mar 1870 at Laghta; James Mackey was present at death. He was buried at the Parish Church in Kilbarron in Donegal (Church of Ireland) 11 March 1870. Isabella Mackay [sic] (74), Matthew’s presumed wife, died 25 Jan 1879 at Laghta and James Mackey was also present at her death. Isabella was also buried at the Parish Church of Kilbarron on 26 January 1879. There is one other burial in Kilbarron for an Isabella Mackay, age 32 who was buried on 8 February 1859 and lacking other evidence, or other Mackeys in the area, is presumed to be a daughter of Matthew. Why were they buried in Kilbarron? There were at least two Church of Ireland Churches between Laghta and Ballyshannon (in Rossinver and Finner). Was there a connection to Donegal? I have not found any record of baptisms or marriages in Kilbarron for the Mackeys.

Matthew Mackey, the father of James appeared in Griffith’s Valuation in 20 Feb 1857 in Laghta on Property 29 consisting of a house, offices and land totaling just over 21 acres. Matthew continued to appear in the Revision Books until 1870 when he is crossed out and replaced by James. As noted above, Matthew died on 9 Mar 1870. The property in Laghta where James and Rachel lived remained in the name of James until 1927. In 1918 James Mackey purchased the property through the Land Acts. In 1927 the property moved to George Mackey, the brother of James and then in 1932 to the property was sold to Miss Marion Horan.

As stated earlier, James Mackey, the husband of Rachel died in 1902, so the continuation of the name James in the Revision Books after 1902 represents the son, James. It is unclear what happened to this James (the son). No death record has been found for James nor was any marriage record found. In 1932 George Mackey moved to Hillsborough, County Down to live with his sister, Emily Eglinton and he died there in 1938.

James Mackey appeared in Moneen in Griffith’s Valuation on property 11 and 12. Property 11 consisted of a house, offices and land of 11 acres, and 12 being additional land of just over 1 acre. There was also a John Mackey in Moneen on property 1a with just a house. In the Revision Books for Moneen beginning in 1864, the James property in Moneen moved from James to Matthew in 1865, then back to James in 1870. James continues to hold Property 11 purchasing it in 1918 through the Land Acts and removing the house in 1926. In 1927 it moves to George Mackey who sells the property to Mrs. Marion Horan in 1932 (at the same time he sold the Laghta property).

John Mackey appeared on Property 1b with his name crossed out in 1868 when the property moved to a Frances Allingham. Other than one Petty Session Record in 1857 listed as Jno Macky of Moneen (for drunk and disorderly) I have not found any other record on John Mackey in the area…either a death or marriage. It is possible that either he died before 1864, or he emigrated. Also on page 32 appears another Mackey replacing Elizabeth Long on Property 4 in 1879. The Mackey name is clear, however the first name could be Wm or Ms. In the following Revision Book, Property 4 is in the name of William Long (Thos) however there was a Mrs Mackey with just a house on Property 3c. She was removed in 1896. No death or marriage was found between 1885 and 1900. Since there is no record that hints at an age for these individuals it is unclear if John was a brother to James or possibly an uncle (brother to Matthew). The only possible sibling identified so far is Isabella who is buried with Matthew in Kilbarron. It seems unlikely that James had no other siblings. Looking at a map, Laghta and Moneen are adjoining Townlands and you can see that the properties of Matthew and James Mackey are not all that far apart.

The 1901 Census of Leitrim, Barony Rosclogher, Parish Rossinver, and the Townland Laghta, House 6 shows James (Head) age 74, Rachel Harriet (Wife) 51, James (Son) 30, Sarah Ann (Daughter) 15, William James Spraig (sic) (Grandson) 6. William is the son of Rachel Mackey and James Hay Sprague. James Sprague, my great grandfather, was a stone mason and had moved the rest of his family to Dundalk, Louth where he was working on St. Nicholas, Church of Ireland Church. James Sprague died in Dundalk in 1899. The James Mackey house in Laghta was described on Form B1 as a 2nd class house with 3 rooms, 3 windows in front and a roof of perishable material (thatch or wood). There were 4 outbuildings. Living in the same townland and enumerated as family 13, was Glasgow Johnston, who was a witness to the marriage of James and Rachel. Glasgow Johnston was the son of Arthur Johnston and Margaret Brooks (property identified in Griffiths as the Reps of Arthur Johnston indicating that Arthur was dead) and moving in the Revision Books first to Barbara Johnston (before 1863) and then to Glasgow about 1865. I have a DNA match to descendants of Glasgow Johnston.

The families of Laghta are very much interconnected. The daughters of James Johnston married John Curry (Margaret) and James Mackey (Rachel). The Curry and Mackeys lived adjacent to each other on properties 29 (Mackey) and 30,31,32 (Curry). I first learned of this connection during a lecture I was doing in Fairfield, Connecticut when I showed a copy of Griffith’s Valuation pointing out my Mackeys and a participant indicated that his ancestor, George Curry was listed just below. Further research indicated that our great uncles owned a bar in Bridgeport, Connecticut called Curry and Mackeys.

Glasgow Johnston’s sister, Elizabeth Frances, the only other known child of Arthur Johnston, married Stephenson Whitten (who was also a witness to James Mackey and Rachel Johnston’s marriage). Stephenson was a the Registrar for the Kinlough DED. The oldest daughter of Stephenson, Elizabeth Frances Whitten married James Johnston, son of Robert Johnston of Cloonawillin. Another daughter Susan Whitten, married Robert Mackey, son of James and Rachel Johnston Mackey.

The 1911 Census of Leitrim, District Electoral Division Kinlough, Townland Laghta, House 24 shows Rachel Mackey as a Widow, Farmer, age 64. She could read and write and was born in County Leitrim. Under marriage particulars, the number of years married, number of children born live and number still living had been erased. If I were to guess at what was originally written I would say 44 years married, 11 Total Children and 10 still living. Additional people in the house include: James, son age 42, single, Farmer’s son, born Leitrim; George, son age 35, single, Farmer’s son, born Leitrim; Emily, daughter age 28 single, seamstress, born Leitrim and George Sprague, grandson age 14, Scholar born Louth. By 1911, Rachel Mackey Sprague had remarried and emigrated to the US in 1906 with her new husband, Robert Spooner and her youngest son, Thomas John A. Sprague. Her other children, Rachel (Minnie), my grandmother, Florey, William and George went to live with their grandmother in Leitrim. In 1909, Minnie, Florey and William, escorted by their aunt, Sarah (Sadie) Mackey travel to the US…George remained in Ireland with his Grandmother until October of 1911 when he joined his mother and siblings in Greenwich, Connecticut. Form B1 describes the property in Laghta as a 2nd Class House, with walls of brick or stone, a roof of perishable material, 5 or 6 rooms, and 4 windows. Form B2 indicates that there was a stable, cow house and calf house.

Not a great deal is known about the early Mackey family. James indicated he was born in Leitrim in the 1901 census. My sense is that at some point Matthew came into Leitrim. The burials in the Kilbarron Church of Ireland in Donegal perhaps is a hint, but I haven’t been able to find anything definitive.

As discussed in the sketch of Margaret Johnston, James Mackey also appeared regularly in both the Dog License database and the Petty Sessions. He seemed to have an aversion to paying his Poor Law Rates and in one case in 1885 did not pay the County Cess. Most of the cases related to neglecting his contract for upkeep of the County roads, along with others, typically John Corry and John Johnston of Moneen. In 1863 there was a case where Isabella Mackey was charged with assault on Mary McBride, the case was dismissed. At the same time, James Mackey was charged with “detaining wages of £1-7” from Mary McBride for which is had to pay £3-6 and court costs. The most serious charge was James Mackey and John Corry charged with an Assault in 1860 where they were ordered to be imprisoned for 2 month at hard labor. By the 1890s it’s hard to tell which James (father or son) was charged, however after 1902 there are multiple cases of drunk and disorderly, usually with John Corry. It appears that the brothers-in-law might have been a handful for their wives!


(The web software does not allow for superscripts so the endnote are not associated with the text. The word processing file does associate the endnotes.)

1. “Conversation with Frank S. Mitchell and his written report titled, “History of Frank john Mitchell, aka Fedor Mylytczuk, and Rachel Harriet Sprague, better known as Minnie Sprague”,” July 1995, with Donna Moughty, Port Charlotte, FL. Frank S. Mitchell passed away 27 Sep 2000.

2. “Civil Registration,” Marriage, Ireland, Digital Image,, 1866 Ballyshannon, Marriage of Rachel Johnston and James Mackay Group Registration ID 3135684.

3. “Civil Registration,” Marriage, Ireland, Digital Image,, 1863 Ballyshannon, Marriage of Margaret Beatty and James Mackay Group Registration ID 3319620.

4. “Civil Registration,” Death, Ireland, Index, 1864 Ballyshannon, Margaret Mackey (19) Death, Volume 7, p.4.

5. “Civil Registration,” Death, Ireland, Index, 1929 Manorhamilton, Rachel Mackey (85), Group Registration ID 1430476.

6. “Parish Registers of Kilbarron Parish, Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland,” Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Microfilm, MIC1/156/2, Register of Burials, Viewed 14 Oct 2015.

7. “Parish Registers of Kilbarron Parish, Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland,” Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Microfilm, MIC1/156/2, Register of Burials, Viewed 14 Oct 2015.

8. “Conversation with Frank S. Mitchell and his written report titled, “History of Frank john Mitchell, aka Fedor Mylytczuk, and Rachel Harriet Sprague, better known as Minnie Sprague”,” July 1995, with Donna Moughty, Port Charlotte, FL. Frank S. Mitchell passed away 27 Sep 2000.

9. “Conversation with Frank S. Mitchell and his written report titled, “History of Frank john Mitchell, aka Fedor Mylytczuk, and Rachel Harriet Sprague, better known as Minnie Sprague”,” July 1995, with Donna Moughty, Port Charlotte, FL. Frank S. Mitchell passed away 27 Sep 2000.

10. “Civil Registration,” Marriage, Ireland, Digital Image,, 1858 Ballyshannon, James Johnston and Jane Johnston Marriage, Parish Church of Rossinver (Church of Ireland), 1858 Ballyshannon, Group Registration ID 3280393

11. “Revision Books,” Republic of Ireland, Valuation Office, Dublin, Ireland. Viewed May, 2022, Leitrim, Kinlough DED, Unshinagh townland. 1895 p. 13.

12. “Revision Books,” Republic of Ireland, Valuation Office, Dublin, Ireland. Viewed May, 2022, Leitrim, Kinlough DED, Unshinagh townland. 1895 p. 40.

13. 1901 Irish census, County Leitrim, household return, Laghta, Kinlough (DED), house 6, James Mackey; digital image online, National Archives Ireland ( : accessed 1 Jun 2012).

14. “Mathew Mackay,” Register of Deaths, Ballyshannon, Kinlough, Leitrim, Registered: 15 Mar 1870, Volume 2, Page 13, Photocopy, Joyce House, Dublin, 18 Sep 2001.

15. “Parish Registers of Kilbarron Parish, Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland,” Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Microfilm MIC1/156/2, Viewed 14 Oct 2015, Register of Burials.

16. Isabella Mackay, death certificate, No 395 (Q1 1879 Ballyshannon 2-18), General Register Office, Dublin, Ireland.

17. “Parish Registers of Kilbarron Parish, Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland,” Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Microfilm, MIC1/156/2, Register of Burials, Viewed 14 Oct 2015,

18. “Parish Registers of Kilbarron Parish, Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ireland,” Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Microfilm, MIC1/156/2, Register of Burial, Viewed 14 Oct 2015.

19. Griffith’s Valuation,” database online, FindMyPast, 1857 Mackey, Matthew, Laghta, Rossinver, Leitrim, Property 29.

20. “Revision Books,” Republic of Ireland, Valuation Office, Dublin, Ireland. Viewed May, 2022, Leitrim, Kinlough DED, Laghta townland. 1932 p. 55.

21. GRONI, Index and Images Online, 1938 Belfast Death of George Mackey, Registration Number D/1938/146/1018/18/84

22. Griffith’s Valuation,” database online, FindMyPast, 1857 Mackey, James, Moneen, Rossinver, Leitrim, Property 11, 12.

23. “Revision Books,” Republic of Ireland, Valuation Office, Dublin, Ireland. Viewed October, 2022, Leitrim, Kinlough DED, Moneen townland #11 and 12. 1865-1880 p. 33.

24. “Revision Books,” Republic of Ireland, Valuation Office, Dublin, Ireland. Viewed October, 2022, Leitrim, Kinlough DED, Moneen townland #11 and 12. 1865-1880 p. 32.

25. “1901 Census of Ireland,” 31 Mar 1901, Digital Image, National Archives of Ireland, Household of James Mackey, Laghta, Kinlough, Leitrim; House 7.

26. “1911 Census of Ireland,” 2 Apr 1911, Digital Image, National Archives of Ireland,, 2 Apr 1911 Laghta, Rossinver, Leitrim, Household of Rachel MackeyHouse 23, Laghta, Kinlough (DED), Leitrim.

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Though my Irish are not of Northern Ire, I've found my birth family & have the ancestors. My biggest problem is the family has NO record of where in Ire came from. The given & surname are common ones, making it especially difficult, since to search Ire records you need a city /town to do research.

As to your saying to "write" the story of your search, I've been doing that all along! I began to think that it was "over kill" - so Thank You for this blog. I was about to delete all those writings of what & how I found data & what are possibilities, yet to be prooven. [Some of the last have since been proven!]


Sep 20, 2023

Holy Moly! I applaud the serious work here. Much appreciated and I hope I can replicate some of the rigor that you practice. Do not think we are related but I do have a Johnston in our family tree. It seems that their surname was really McShane but during one of the many conflicts in the south, they were "burned out by the RCs, fled north and changed their name to Johnston". This from an old family letter. McShane can be translated as "son of John" and hence, you can see the choice of Johnston. They came from near Cork and then settled in County Down. Ron

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