Tony Hennessy M.A.G.I.

I quite recently received a research request from an American woman called Margaret who was due to visit Ireland in August and was wondering if I could help trace her Irish ancestors. Margaret’s great grandmother Julia Geary had left Ireland as a young woman not long after the Famine and settled in Montana.

Julia’s memorial stone

As a stepping off point for my investigations I was given this wonderful photograph of Julia’s memorial stone. It clearly states that ‘Mrs. Julia Helms’ was born 1 August 1840 in Mocollop, Co. Waterford, Ireland and that she died 2 September 1909 – if only all emigrants’ gravestones were as informative! Julia had married John Henry Helms, a farmer. The tiny rural settlement of Helmville where they lived (current population 38) in Powell, Montana was named after John as he was the one who had applied to the US Postal Service for a local post office for their new community.

Julia’s Montana State death record of 1909 very helpfully gives her parents’ names as Patrick Geary and Alice Cleary.

Using the information on both the gravestone and the death record a search in Co. Waterford parish registers was undertaken for the baptism of Julia Geary c.1840, daughter of Patrick Geary & Alice Cleary. Mocollop is in the catholic parish of Lismore in the far west of Co. Waterford. No such record was found. The closest match was that of a Cecelia Guiry bap. 18 July 1838 in Lismore RC parish, parents Patrick Guiry and Alice Cleary, which I found in transcription on Unfortunately the original parish register was not available online for inspection.

I turned to Edward MacLysaght for a little help. Happily he confirmed in his book The Surnames of Ireland (1957) that Geary and Guiry are synonymous, both anglicized forms of the Gaelic Irish Ó Gadhra. Further research revealed that Guiry and Geary have been commonly used interchangeably in west Co. Waterford, even within the one family.

Giving a little thought to the first name Cecilia as found on I realised that the original record in the baptismal register (unfortunately unseen by me) was most likely written in Latin ie. Caecilia. Understandably enough the good people at Rootireland transcribed / translated this as Cecilia. However, with the help of another old scholar, this time Rev. Patrick Woulfe and his book Irish Names and Surnames (1923) I discovered that the names Julia, Judith, Síle and others are commonly latinized (yes, that is a word) to Caecilia.

I wasn’t too bothered with the discrepancy between the 1 Aug. 1840 supposed date of birth on Julia’s gravestone and the 18 July 1838 date of her baptism. Experience has taught me that supposed dates of birth found on death certs, gravestones etc. are rarely accurate. So I could now state with much confidence that Cecelia Guiry and Julia Geary were one and the same person.

I discovered that Julia’s father Patt Geary farmed 24 acres of land in the townland of Paddocks, Mocollop, situated in the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains. The Griffith’s Valuation map of 1851 shows his holding as one large field with a cottage sitting in the middle of it. When I overlaid the current satellite image on the earlier map it revealed that the house was no longer in existence but in its place, sitting in the middle of the same 20 acre field, was a very large, mature tree. I suspect it was planted a long time ago by the Geary family in what must have been a little garden attached to the cottage.

Three weeks ago, some 170 years after her ancestor had emigrated to the New World, Julia’s greatgranddaughter Margaret came to visit her ancestral homeplace in Mocollop. Just as Julia’s gravestone had acted as a signpost pointing the way home so too a large tree standing alone in a big field silently spoke the words ‘Julia Geary lived here’.

Julia Geary lived here