‘Undoubtedly the same family’

My great-uncles with my great-grandfather. Left to right: John F. Forry Jr., Joseph Forry, John F. Forry Sr., and Edward Forry, ca. 1972.

A common rule for genealogists is that spelling does not count: usually, entering an alternate spelling of a surname into a search engine will point you to records for the ancestor you seek, as long as you know his or her parent(s), an approximate birth year, and a birthplace. However, while doing my own research, I have been hindered by the issue of variant spellings.

My grandmother Eleanor (Forry) McManus was a granddaughter of Patrick J. Forry and Hannah M. Crotty, both of whom emigrated to Boston in the 1880s from Ireland, from County Sligo and County Waterford respectively. The Crotty branch has not been hard to fill in, as I contacted an Englishman who is married to a granddaughter of Hannah’s niece. He has already made a family tree, from which I obtained information. The Forry branch, though, has been a different story, since the surname can be spelled so many ways when recorded phonetically.

[They] traveled down to their mother’s home village of Ballymacarbry in Waterford, where they enjoyed meeting their cousins and exploring the farm.

I knew some details of my Forry line, since my great-grandfather John F. Forry Sr. wrote a journal of a trip he took to Ireland in 1961 with his sister Kate. The journal was later typed by my grandmother, and a few weeks ago, my great-uncle Ed sent me a PDF of the typed version – all 26 pages. Eagerly, I read through it that night, looking for exactly where the Forry siblings went and which relatives they met. After a couple of days in Dublin, they traveled down to their mother’s home village of Ballymacarbry in Waterford, where they enjoyed meeting their cousins and exploring the farm.

Later, John and Kate made their way to County Sligo. First they spent part of a day in Sligo town, enjoying nearby tourist attractions like Mt. Ben Bulben and the burial ground of Irish poet William Butler Yeats. On the way to their next destination, they passed through the town of Ballymote, near their father’s birthplace. John knew that there were families with the surname Farry in Ballymote, and even noticed the name Farry on a couple of shop windows, but nobody was available to chat because the shops were closed. “Undoubtedly the same family as ours although we always spelled our name with an ‘o’ Forry,” he wrote.

Unfortunately for myself and other researchers interested in Ireland, Irish records are scant from before the Irish Civil War (1922–23). In 1922, the Irish Free State Army’s attack on the rebel-occupied Four Courts building in Dublin (home to the Irish Public Records Office) led to an explosion that destroyed nearly a thousand years of records and archives.

I have worked around this by searching for the names of my ancestors on the select list of Irish births and baptisms and the Catholic parish register entries on Ancestry. For researchers with Catholic ancestors, it is good to start by finding out which of the Irish counties the ancestors came from (and also the city, town, or village, if possible) and then search for their names in the parish records within the county.

Farry and Forry sound very similar when pronounced with an Irish accent and there is always the possibility of illiteracy in the family; the distinction has kept me from discovering much about Patrick’s family. (He was generally known as PJ Forry.) I believe, based on messages with an Ancestry member who lives in Sligo, that PJ had a brother named Thomas. The 1911 Ireland census lists Thomas as Thomas Farry, and according to the member’s tree, Thomas’s son Mark emigrated to America. An index to the Boston Passenger Lists says he arrived in 1927 under the name Mark Farry, but I know he later went by Mark Forry.

Farry and Forry sound very similar when pronounced with an Irish accent…

Meanwhile, PJ is listed in United States records as Patrick J. Forry, and he signed his naturalization record as such. At this point, I am not sure whether PJ’s parents (John and Margaret, according to PJ’s marriage record) went by Forry or Farry in Ireland. In my Forry family tree, I list PJ’s father as John Farry/Forry in an attempt to get relevant results. However, they are hard to find, because the surname Farry is common in County Sligo and surrounding areas, and I do not know Margaret’s maiden name or either of their birth dates.

It is hard to know whether an ancestor chose to change their name or whether the name was misspelled at any point upon entry for public records. But despite the frustration, genealogists need to think outside the box and keep trying to find out as much about the ancestor’s family members as possible. The only way to break through a brick wall is to find information, bit by bit.

Tyler McManus

About Tyler McManus

Tyler McManus is a student at Suffolk University seeking a bachelor's degree in history, with a minor in journalism. After contributing as a freelance writer for the Boston Neighborhood News community newspapers, Tyler joined NEHGS in January 2018 as an intern with Research Services. In his free time, he enjoys watching Boston sports and working on his personal family trees. His areas of interest include Ireland, New England, Portugal, and Ukraine.

17 thoughts on “‘Undoubtedly the same family’

  1. Oh, boy…spelling. My husband’s great grandmother was Catherine/Katherine Welsh/Walsh/Welch/Walch. Born in Canada to Irish parents, The whole family came to work in the mills west of Boston. She was called “Kitty,” and she herself spelled her first name in various ways on legal documents. Census records show the last name spelled a variety of ways. Luckily Ancestry.com has a good search engine.

    By the way, the Rochester, Massachusetts town clerk in the mid-1700s spelled my 5G grandmother’s name as Persillar. If you say it out loud you can figure out her name if you allow for the local accent. Got it? It was Priscilla.

  2. Oh, yes! And if you try to search some on-line texts (newspapers, books, etc.) for certain surnames you will soon be greatly frustrated. “Work” is a surname in my husband’s family, also “Butts.” I have “West.” And if you hope for a trace of the scoundrel named James Monroe who murdered my 3-great grandmother, alas. Lots of hits, none helpful.

    And, yes, Helen, the census takers had quite a job — Ascenath (an odd name, I admit) became Zenith one year. Gerard? found him as Hariad.

    1. I can sympathize….My 3rd great grandfather is William Doe. First time I tried a search like you are talking about I got a huge number of Doe hits and I was momentarily excited until I realized all the “John DOE” or just plain “DOE” included in list. Does anyone know where/when the practice started to use the surname Doe to designate an unknown person?

  3. I can sympathize. My husband’s grandfather is Thomas O’Malley. However the family is listed in the Irish Census as Maley ( the present day members of the family in Ireland go by the name O’Malley). I have not yet figured out the reason the O was not used in the 1901 and 1911 Census. To make matters worse was trying to find Thomas’s birth. Luckily they listed his mother’s maiden name on the birth certificate and I was able to trace him through her name. The name on his the birth certificate was Thomas Mealy.

  4. I found a great-great-great uncle, Francisco Elizalde (which can itself be spelled half a dozen ways), enumerated with his mother and stepfather, and using the stepfather’s name. That was tricky enough, but the English-speaking census taker had spelled Juarez as “Wharis”!!!

  5. I can relate to this. The name Ferguson in my line seems like it would not be hard to spell, but so far in my research I have found 28 different spellings, including Furgeson, Fergisson, Farquarson, Fergurson, Fargesson, etc.

  6. Keep at it! Going with different spellings of the same sounds can help. Could there be Phories, Fahries, Foories, Pharrys, Vories etc? I’m up to 56 variations on Kivlehan, a Sligo name, the extreme examples being Curlihan, Kivlilaghan, Siverly and Terhelin. Some were only found by knowing when and where a person should have been recorded which doesn’t help you now but may in the future. I hope you find a will that names everyone in the family.

  7. Tyler, I think it is worst for protestant Irish than Catholic Irish when it comes to the 4 quarts fire in 1922. Because many Catholic priest refused to send the registers of their parish to Dublin. I heard also that were destroyed from the Catholic records were mainly copies and not the actual registers themselves. I haven’t even tougher issue because my Irish came quite early to Canada, around 1822, well before majority of Catholic parish registers start, but I know where they are probably from.

  8. My German ancestor, Johan Maximillian Vitt, was listed on the 1860 Minnesota census as Max Feet. I can just hear that German accent…..Actually this turned out to be very helpful to me as older family members did not know if his surname was Vitt or Witt and it was written both ways on various documents. They are two different German surnames. He was only on one census as he immigrated in 1857 and died in 1862. He had one daughter, my great grandmother. Knowing that the census taker HEARD Feet and Germans pronounce a V like we pronounce an F and Germans pronounce a W like we pronounce a V, I now knew that his name was Vitt!!

  9. Tyler Are you related to the very large McManus family of the Lynn Massachusetts area? I have a lot of information on them.

    1. Mike,
      Yes, I believe so. I think they’re descended from my great-great-grandfather Thomas’ brother, Philip. He married a Ellen Hines/Haynes and settled in Lynn.

  10. Back when I was tracing my Cupp ancestor, who it was believed was of German or Austrian ancestry, I found mentally pronouncing the possible spellings found in immigration indexes, etc, with a German accent helped locate the information I needed.

    My dad’s CONN gm’s first name, however, stumped me for 20+ years! My dad heard it as “Orilla”, so that’s the spelling he gave in various records, and I wasted many years following *two* verifiable “Orilla” Conns, neither of whom were mine. It wasn’t until I located my gr-grparents’ marriage record in a remote county in western Kansas that I learned the correct spelling was *Zerilda*! By searching backwards through 50 years of fed and state censuses, I found her first name had only been spelled correctly *one* time! Every other spelling was entered more or less phonetically by a census taker whose first language wasn’t English, or who was barely literate, or even slightly deaf (hearing “Z” as “S” or “C”). Some spellings were so “creative” that I could only verify it was her by the names of the children listed, who were definitely my gf and his brothers!

  11. Inconsistent spelling is indeed a source of consternation! I’m currently researching an ancestor named Elizabeth or Betsey Marion/Merion/Meriam/Merriam/Mirriam or something like that! But I love a challenge.

  12. Try finding Eliza Dougherty, her name on a 1856 marriage record from Ontario, Canada. Her death certificate lists her parents as James Dougherty and Jane McCannon. After years of research I have found her brother Daniel Doherty who lists James Doherty and Jane McCannon as his parents. The McCannon name proved to be the lead to 1797 records. Daniel was born in Ireland. Evidently the family moved to Canada where Eiza was born six years later. Eliza must have been a “social climber”. In every census record she lists her ethnicity differently. In her opinion, being Irish in that time period must not have been acceptable.

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