After my wife's Aunt Isabella passed away in 1987, while looking through her keepsakes, we came upon a small Roman Catholic missal with the words "Mary McIlroy, Springwell St, Ballymena". My wife, Maureen, excitedly reported that it was her great grandmother's book that Mary McIlroy brought over from Northern Ireland. Intrigued, I began to research her life from family memorabilia, interviews and using ancestry.com. Although we knew her birthdate (1 Mar 1866) and her father's name (William), listed on a death certificate, nothing we researched added up. Even investigating PRONI and GRONI were of no avail. The one standard fact that was passed through family lore was that Mary hailed from Toomebridge, Antrim and was somehow connected with Cargin Chapel, a Roman Catholic Church in Duneane. Another fact was that Mary "came over" with two "old" aunts.
Although Mary McIlroy emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1885 to be a domestic servant, I decided to research the 1901 Irish census for "Ballymena", particularly Springwell St. This street is a rather small street with a limited number of residents. At one house, I noticed two spinsters, with the name "Rea". I recalled seeing the death certificate of a "Nathaniel Marks" who the family considered was a "poor soul" with whom Mary was acquainted. She had Nate buried in the cemetery plot with some of her young children who died (Mary had married James (O')Kane in Phila. in 1889). This Nathaniel, from Antrim, had Mary Ray (Rea?) listed as his mother. Also two McLernon sisters from Toome, Antrim sponsored the baptism of three of Mary's children. These McLernons' mother was listed as Sarah Rea on their death certificates. What if these two spinsters were "the old aunts" that the family referred to in their stories?
My wife, Maureen and I decided to test out our theory that the aunts did not travel with Mary McIlroy to America, rather they raised her as a teenager in Ballymena. Family Lore did place Mary working on lace in a textile mill. We decided to travel to Antrim, Northern Ireland to test our theory. With the help of Elwyn of "Ireland Reaching out", we visited the church where the baptismal records were meticulously kept and due to the kindness of the pastor we were able to view the books for several minutes. As we came to March of 1866, to our surprise the page we needed was missing! Apparently it was removed purposely, or by accident, at some point over the years. What a disappointment! Hoping that the birthdate might be wrong (as Irish dates often are!), I looked back into 1865. There, in April of that year, we noticed something curious. There was a "Jane Rea" who was baptized as an adult! Elwyn had advised us that, generally speaking, "Rea" is a Protestant surname. I remembered the two old aunts in Ballymena were listed as Roman Catholics.
Now that we are back in America, we may have a story of Mary McIlroy that may never be answered. Was it possible that she was illegitamate? Or did her mother die shortly after birth and she was raised by these aunts? Regardless of the truth of her origin, the opportunity to stand on Springwell St in Ballymena, to walk beside the mill where she worked, to walk around the ruins of the old chapel and view the graves of familiar names McIlroy, Kane, McLernon and Rea, and finally to witness that beating heart of Antrim, Lough Neagh! It was a memory to be cherished forever. Thank you Elwyn and the Ireland Reaching Out team.
|Date of Birth||1st Mar 1866|
|Date of Death||22nd Dec 1941|