“It’s those Bennetts, again…still,” I said. There may have been a swear word in there as well. Chris had asked how I could spend so much time on my iPad, with the occasional swipe at the screen and tap tap at the keyboard, or ponder over papers, spread out across the table. Those Bennetts have been the main focus of my family history research over the past 3 months, spurred on by a windfall in records that are now available.
Francis Bennett, my great, great grandfather, has led me on a merry chase over the years and there is still much I want to find out about him. Did he swim to Australia, jump ship? I can’t find him on any shipping lists. But this post is about searching backwards, before he arrived in his new country, in an attempt to find his roots.
When he married in Victoria in 1868, Francis claimed he was born in Liverpool, England. At least the marriage certificate had his parent’s names almost right – Denis Bennett and Hannah Henley (actually Hanlon). These names helped me find the family in Liverpool in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. So, he did come from Liverpool, but according to the census records, his parents, some brothers and Francis himself were born in Ireland.
That presented a dilemma. I was so excited and wanted to find out more, but I’d read that Irish records were scant. Apparently it was impossible to discover your Irish roots. In 1922 during the Irish Civil War, rebel forces occupied the Four Courts building and it was the scene of a fierce battle between the rebels and the National Army. After two days of bombardment, the building exploded and caught fire. The Public Records Office was housed in the west wing of that building and sustained considerable damage.
However, while it is true that the fire destroyed census, will, and some Church of Ireland documents, there are many other records that were held elsewhere or were unaffected by the fire. These were available to local researchers. But here was another problem – I wasn’t local. And anyway, I had no idea which county in Ireland I should be looking at, let alone which parish. So, the research into my biggest brick wall stagnated.
Genealogy happy dance
I revisited the search every now and again over the years, and at one of these times a generous person on a genealogy chat site unearthed some transcriptions of baptisms for other children of Denis and Hannah in Ireland. It was my big Eureka moment, and I did the genealogy happy dance. Now I can finally confine my Bennetts to a particular area in County Armagh – Lower Killeavy. This catholic parish joins Upper Killeavy to make up the civil parish of Killeavy (usually spelled without the ‘a’). Killevy covers about 30 square miles and lies a few miles to the west and mainly south of Newry in Northern Ireland. Towns and settlements in Denis and Hannah’s time included Ballard, Camlough, Bessbrook, Meigh, Belleeks and Lislea. Farming was, and still is, the main occupation.
The next biggest advance in my Irish investigation has come in recent times with the release of records online for researchers worldwide and is part of the motivation for my recent activity. Last year, the National Library of Ireland made available scanned images of catholic baptisms, marriages and burials for over 1000 parishes across Ireland. This boon for genealogists was then simplified this year by the transcription and indexing of the records by two of the world’s largest genealogy companies, circumventing the laborious process of perusing the images one by one. My Bennetts were Catholics – bonus.
So now I have seen images of what caused the happy dance. These are records for the baptisms of three of Denis and Hannah’s children. Twins, Anthony and John Bennett, were baptised in 1837. Sadly, it seems that these boys died as there is no Anthony recorded with the family in Liverpool census records. And then another child of Denis and Hannah, John, was baptised in 1838 – it was common for a baby to be named after a deceased sibling. I’ve found nothing for my mystery man, Francis; the records for Lower Killeavy start in 1835, and he was born before this.
Lower Killeavy baptism for Anthony and John Bennett 28 April 1837 
An interesting aside – twins and predominantly male children seem to be the norm for many of the Bennetts of Lower Killeavy. Denis and Hannah had 9 boys and 1 girl.
Civil registration in Ireland began in 1864 (1845 for non-Catholic marriages), and these records were released to the public in September this year, many complete with images of the records themselves. As well as marriage witnesses, the records may reveal a relative who reports a birth or death. For the Bennetts that I am interested in, I found that a Patrick Bennett registered the birth of his grandson, and I was able to confirm him as the father of Peter Bennett. And when this Peter died, I was able to verify it was the right person because his daughter-in-law Sarah reported the death. For those marriages with accompanying images, the names of the fathers of the bride and groom are disclosed. I am eagerly waiting to access the images for marriages before 1880 in Killevy, which are not yet available online.
For the Bennett and Hanlon families, I am documenting the early Catholic baptisms and marriages of Lower Killeavy (burial records are scarce) and combining them with later civil records. I hope to unravel these families and determine which ones may be mine. I am investigating all of them to find out what their everyday lives may have been like. The Irish land records will help with this.
The only Bennetts of Lower Killeavy in the available Irish land records are a “band of brothers,” as I like to call them because I have a sneaky suspicion they may all be related. Of course, I realise that there is a large gap between a “sneaky suspicion” and a genealogical proof argument, but for now the brothers are my adopted ancestors.
In 1827 and 1828 John Whaley, who owned land in Armagh, rented the 1000 acre townland of Bellard or Bellyard (Ballard) to tenant farmers in some 90 different leases, with a number of Bennetts and Hanlons named. The leases were for 21 years or “the life of Princess Alexandrina Victoria,” whichever was longer. These “life” leases, which were common in Ireland, were for the life of a particular person (quite often 3 people were named) or so many years. The ‘band of brothers’ were Arthur, Patrick, Bryan, John, Henry, Peter, Terence and Anthony. No Denis among these. I have found another Denis in a separate parish, but for now I’m concentrating on Ballard, Lower Killeavy. This is where my Denis and Hannah baptised their children 10 years later.
In Gaelic, Ballard (An Baile Ard) means the high settlement, and it lies on the northern slopes of Slieve Gullion. At 573 metres, Slieve (Gaelic for mountain) Gullion is the highest point in Armagh.
© Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
See the original photo here – http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4327758
The Bennetts’ leaseholdings were to the right of this road and also up on to the slopes of Slieve Gullion in the background.
Not all the Bennetts and Hanlons stayed in the area where they were born. The Irish have experienced many troubled times, such as the Great Famine in the late 1840s, land unrest, and the Civil War. The Irish diaspora – the emigration of the population during and after the great famine – meant that by 1890, 40% of those born in Ireland were living elsewhere.  I have traced many of the families to Scotland, England and America. So far, I know only of Francis who came from that area to Australia.
1. Shelleyf (2012) http://www.rootschat.com/links/01ivm/ [back]
2. National Library of Ireland, “Catholic Parish Registers at the NLI”, digital images [back]
3. Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Freeholders’ Records (2016) [back]
4. Wikipeia (2016) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_diaspora [back]
“Geograph Britain and Ireland – Photograph Every Grid Square!”. 2016. Geograph.Org.Uk. http://www.geograph.org.uk/.
Langan, Sheila. 2016. “These online parish records will forever change how we find our Irish ancestors.” Irish Central. http://www.irishcentral.com/roots/genealogy/these-online-parish-records-will-forever-change-how-we-find-our-irish-ancestors.
National Library of Ireland. 2016 “Catholic Parish Registers at the NLI” http://registers.nli.ie/
Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. 2016. “Arthur Bennett in D/1928/F/44.” Image. http://apps.proni.gov.uk/freeholders/DetailedSearchResultsImage.aspx?VolumeNo=42&PageNo=122&LineNum=7.
Santry, Claire. 2016. “Irish Genealogy Toolkit – Free Irish Genealogy Advice, Tools and Resources.” Irish-Genealogy-Toolkit.Com. http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/.
Shelleyf. 2012. “Denis BENNETT and Hannah HANLON (Armagh) Page 1 Rootschat.Com”. RootsChat.com, Lancashire, UK. http://www.rootschat.com/links/01ivm/.
“The Largest Collection Of Irish Records Available Online.” 2016. Findmypast. http://www.findmypast.com/irish-parish-records.