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The earliest known identification of my McDonnell family which can be established for certain is that of John M'Donnell (Johnny McDonnell) and occurred in the Griffiths Book Of Valuations Of County Mayo published in 1855. Subsequent information finally gave us the death dates of Johnny McDonnell and his wife Bridget Casey and thus, when they were born in 1788 and 1792 respectively.

Page 58 shows a John M'Donnell leasing a house and 23 acres of land for 5 pounds per annum from Sir Rd. O'Donnell Bt. in the Parish of Burrishoole, Townland of Callowbrack. Presumably, this would have been in or just before 1855.

Also mentioned in The Griffiths Book Of Valuations were other M'Donnells leasing land from other landlords but these were in other Townlands In the Parish of Burrishoole. Whilst these other M'Donnells may have had some connection to our branch of the family no relationship can yet be established. The one exception being Patrick McDonnell who had married Bridget Kilroy and lived at Lettermaghera. These were the forbears of the Kilroy clan in America

The date of The Griffiths Book of Valuations is 1855 which is only some ten years after the start of the great Irish famine as the result of the potato blight.

There is another listing of tenants covering the Burrishoole Parish and this is the 1832 Tithe Applotment Book Transcription and Index. This shows the tenants of Callowbrack in 1832 but does NOT include the McDonnell family or interestingly, the Moran family. From this it must be assumed that the McDonnell and Moran families did not move to the Callowbrack farms until sometime later after 1832 and before 1855.

My father, John McDonnell, was born at Callowbrack in 1879, 34 years after the start of the famine and his birth certificate shows that his father's name was Thomas.Following contact with Kilroy cousins in America, we have now learned a great deal more about our McDonnell family connections. We now know that Johnny McDonnell had a sister named Nellie. Also, that my grandfather, Thomas McDonnell, had at least two other sisters and two other brothers.

From the information received from the Mayo North Family History Research Centre, which stated that John McDonnell died on 26th April 1866 aged 78 years, he must have been a mature man of 67 when he held the land at the time of the Griffiths Valuation. It would have been most likely that he would have done this in private partnership with his son Thomas who would have then inherited it on the death of his father John. According to the 1901 census, his son Thomas, who married Catherine Horan, was aged 60 and therefore born in 1841. However, the 1911 census puts his age as 80 making him born in 1831. The probate documents seem to confirm the latter as the document states he was aged 80 when he died on 29 March 1912 making his birth date 1832. On the balance of probability I would believe the correct date was 1831, which would have Thomas aged either 24 years old when his father Johnny McDonnell leased the farm in 1855. Assuming Johnnies birth date of 1788 is correct, he would have been 67 years old in 1855 and 43 when his son Thomas was born in 1831. Again, it seems more likely that he would have been aged 67 in 1855 and would have given him the opportunity to gain greater financial resources to be in a position to lease the farm at Callowbrack. There is one tradition given to us by Peadar Kilroy of Newport in 1998 that my McDonnell family was tenants of some land in the area called Kiltarnett. This seems to be the Townland of Kiltarnaght. The Griffith's Valuation book does show that a Thomas McDonnell (my Grandfather) leased some land in Kiltarnaght. Kiltarnagh(t) which lies in the triangle in the junction between the main road to Mulrany and the side road to Callowbrack on the road to Lough Feeagh.

There is also some confusion about Catherine's birth date. By deduction, from the 1901 census she was born in 1849, but the 1911 census indicates 1842 and again this latter seems to be confirmed by her death certificate which shows her as aged 79 at her death date of 23rd. December 1921.

If Thomas was born about 1831/32, he would have been about 24 years old when the farm was first leased in 1855. These years seem to fit reasonably well because we know one of Thomas' daughters - Bridget, was born 24th. January 1864 and it is possible that she had a sister - Mary - who might have been before her. On this basis, Thomas and Catherine Horan were probably married in about 1861 when Thomas was 29 or 30 years old and Catherine Horan was about 19 years old.

We do have indications that Johnny McDonnell had other children. Tom Dyra (my cousin) told me that an uncle of my father's i.e. another son of Johnny McDonnell, was named Dominick who lived across the lake from the farm at Callowbrack, towards Lettermaghera. Further information indicates that he was married and had at least one daughter. We also now know that my grandfather, Thomas, in addition to a brother Dominick, also had another brother called Patrick (the Kilroy connection) and two sisters called Bridget and Mary (Mame).

Further information from Frank Dyra in 1997 concerns confirmation of the baptismal dates and sponsors of Ellen (Helen), John (my father), Anne and Michael E. Of particular interest are the names of the baptismal sponsors of Anne, namely John McDonnell and Bridget Horan. As my father, John was only 3 years old when Anne was baptized in 1882 and Anne's grandfather Johnny McDonnell had died in 1866; they would not have been sponsors. The conclusion is that it was probably Anne's uncle thus identifying another son of Johnny McDonnell and that the Bridget Horan was a sister of her mother Catherine Horan.

In 1997 the Mayo North Family History Research Centre in Ballina, advised the following details.

John McDonnell , a poor man from Colrebrack, Newport, died on the 26th. April 1866 aged 78 years. Catherine McDonnell (same address) registered the death.

Bridget McDonnell (nee Casey), widow of a landholder from Colrebrack, Newport died on the 20th. January 1877, aged 85 years. Catherine McDonnell (same Address) registered the death.

From the above details therefore, John was born in 1788 and Bridget nee Casey was born in 1792.

It becomes apparent when reading the history of County Mayo, that there was a lot of migration internally, within Ireland, during the mid to late nineteenth century due to the increasing population pressures. Many land less farm workers moved around the country looking for work from major and minor land owners and lessees as well as hoping to be able to lease their own two or three acres, which they believed would give them a better existence. In many cases, being able to lease the few acres proved to be an illusory benefit when, as was often the case, the families were displaced to make way for cows and sheep. This proved to be more profitable to the landowners than peasants growing potatoes and paying a pittance in rent. The consequences of previous rebellions also caused significant migrations, one such being the failed uprising in Ulster in 1795 prior to the French landing at Killala in Co. Mayo in 1798. Apparently many of the displaced Ulster Catholic peasants from Ulster ended up on the Mayo hills destitute and starving.

With Johnny McDonnell being born in 1788, and assuming that his family was already living in Mayo, either near Newport or possibly Claremorris, he would have been about 10 years old in 1798. This was one of the seminal years in Irish history and particularly as it affected County Mayo.

It is possibly that Johnny McDonnell and his parents and brothers and sisters would have witnessed the momentous events which engulfed Mayo in the summer of 1798. The town of Newport as well as the County Town of Castlebar were occupied the French as well as the Irish rebels.

We can only speculate on the circumstances of Johnny McDonnell and his family prior to 1855 but it seems reasonable to assume that their forbears had been in Mayo a long time and did not migrate from Ulster. In the aftermath of the great famine, we can only guess how they survived, and were able to save the money to pay the first lease payment to Sir Rd. O'Donnell, for the land at Callowbrack and for Thomas to lease some land at Kiltarnaght (Kiltarnett?) at about the same time.

Coincidentally, there were two other families named Casey in the Newport area. There was a John Casey mentioned in the Griffith's Book of Valuations for Callowbrack and shown as leasing a house but not land from Edward Lavelle at the same time as Johnny McDonnell leased the farm at Callowbrack. There was also a Patrick Casey shown as a lessee in Drumbastle East which is about 3 Kms. North west of Newport on the road to Mulrany.


The 1911 census states that Thomas and Catherine had been married for 50 years which confirms the dates outlined above and had ten children nine of whom were still alive in 1911


1. BRIDGET 4th JAN 1864

2. PATRICK 4th MAR 1866

3. MARY 21st JAN 1869

4. CATHERINE 27th MAY 1871

5. THOMAS 7th DEC 1873

6 ELLEN 12th JUL 1876

7. JOHN 5th AUG 1879

8. ANNE 5th NOV 1882

9. MICHAEL 2 nd AUG 1885


N.B. Registrations did not begin in Ireland until 1864








The place where my McDonnell family can be positively first be identified is one of the Irish Townlands called Callowbrack within the Parish of Burrishoole. The nearest town is called Newport and stands at the north - eastern corner of Clew Bay at the mouth of a small river called the ' Black Oak River'. Callowbrack itself is five kilometres due north of Newport, one and half kilometres north east of Furnace Lough with a further four kilometres north east of the Burrishoole Abbey ruins and Clew Bay.

The original thatched cottage, to the side of the modern cottage, was probably the first one on the land leased in about 1855 by John M'Donnell. It is now a total ruin with only one end wall standing, with the thatched roof and the other walls having fallen in making a large mound. It has since been almost totally cleared away by Willie before he died in 1994.

I have a small piece of stone from the end wall mounted on a plaque as a momento. When I visited the cottage with Tom Dyra in 1987 he clambered over the mouldering ruins - he was 75 then - and broke off a large piece of the stone. Unfortunately, I had to make it a bit smaller otherwise; I would have needed excess baggage on the plane home.

I believe that all of Thomas McDonnell's children including my father John McDonnell (1979-1950) and all of the Dyra children were born in this thatched cottage.

Across Furnace Lake looking towards the rising hillsides (Lettermaghera) was a house, in which, Tom said, a Dominick McDonnell used to live. This was an uncle of my father John McDonnell. This was the first time that I had heard of this great uncle of mine. It was to be another five years before I heard of any more close McDonnell family members, again, through the help of Tom Dyra, who sent me a newspaper cutting from an Irish newspaper giving details about the 100th birthday of a Nora Kilroy nee McDonnell. She turned out to be a direct first cousin of my father and therefore my first cousin. Her father was Patrick McDonnell the brother of my grandfather Thomas McDonnell.

A step-brother of my cousin of Tom Dyra - Frank Dyra - who lives in Chicago, wrote to me in 1991 and said that he spoke to an old lady aged over 80 whose name was Mrs. Barbara Moran. She told him that she knew some of the McDonnell's when they lived in Chicago a few years ago but had lost touch with them when they moved to California! This Mrs. Moran was probably an elderly relation of my father's baptismal sponsors and the Morans still living in Callowbrack. She is also a cousin of the Barbara Moran who married my Uncle Tom in Chicago.

The ruins of Burrishoole Abbey, which is where the Catholic Cemetery is located, is also some miles west of the town. It is in this cemetery that Patrick Dyra (Tom's father) is buried and his second wife Bridget (Gorman). I could not locate any of our McDonnell (of Callowbrack) family headstones in the cemetery. Prior to a more affluent age, poor Irish people could not afford headstones and we missed out. Tom Dyra did point out a grassed area at one side of the cemetery and said he believed that Thomas and Catherine were buried there. Perhaps one day the parish church records may tell us where they are buried.

My father, John McDonnell was baptised by the Rev. Patrick Kilkenny in the old St. Joseph's church on 6th. August 1879 and not the new St. Patricks built in 1918.