Need the Luck of the Irish in Your Research?

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Monday, March 17th, is the day when everyone claims to be Irish. For many of you, however, your research has already documented a bit – or a lot – of green in your family tree. You may have known all along, judging by family surnames such as O’Meara, Hennessey and others. For some of us, the discovery may have been more of a surprise.

Some years ago, tired of the brick walls in my own research lines, I turned to my son’s paternal ancestral lines for a fresh start. I knew that his great-grandmother’s maiden name was Susan Holdcraft and that she lived in Frederick County, Maryland – but not much more. Having looked at the name from time-to-time, I had assumed (never a good thing to do) that the surname was German. Knowing absolutely nothing about German genealogical research, I ran in the other direction! The time, however, had come to do some research, German content or not.

An IGI search indicated that Susan was born 12 February 1870 at Brook Hill in Frederick County, Maryland, the daughter of James Patrick [alternately given in other resources as Patrick James] Holdcraft and Catherine Ann Sophia Dutrow. No sources were provided. The Dutrow line clearly would lead to German research as it included surnames such as Ramsburg and Devilbiss. A further IGI search – again no sources – indicated that James Patrick Holdcraft was born in September 1836 at Keagh’s Cross, co. Louth, Ireland, the son of James Holdcraft and Rose McCabe. A James Patrick Holdcraft was in the United States at the time of the Civil War, enlisting in June 1861 in Co. K of the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Foot Volunteers, later Co. K of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry. “Left behind� by his unit in Maryland in 1862, he stayed in Maryland so long that he feared arrest on charges of desertion. He enlisted in Co. D of the 1st Regiment Potomac Home Brigade, Maryland Cavalry on 29 July 1863, but did so under the name of James E. McCabe. Further reading of all of his service records, an enormous (three folders) widow’s pension file and research in Frederick County records, documented that the James Patrick Holdcraft born in co. Louth (and the James E. McCabe who served in the Maryland Cavalry) is the same James Patrick Holdcraft who married Catherine Ann Sophia Dutrow. I now have Irish research to pursue (while letting the German lines languish until a later date).

Any time you begin research in a new geographical area, whether in the U. S. or elsewhere, the best way to begin is with a good overall research guide. For Ireland, one of the best is John Grenham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, now in its third edition (2006). Grenham discusses the major sources (civil records, census records, church records, and land records) as well as wills, emigration, deeds, newspapers, directories, and Genealogical Office records. Ireland has records unlike other countries, and it is important to understand such resources as Griffith’s Valuation, Tithe Applotment Books, Flax Tax records, and more. In addition, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors includes county source lists. To assist me in my Holdcraft research, Grenham provides me with find a list of co. Louth census returns and substitutes beginning in 1600 and ending in 1911. The census substitutes include such things as voter lists, a 1796 Spinning-Wheel Premium List, Brewers Lists, and more. In addition, there is a list of local histories, local journals, directories and county guides, publishing gravestone inscriptions, and estate record lists. A section on Roman Catholic Registers includes a map of co. Louth with twenty-three churches in three dioceses and lists which baptismal, marriage and burial registers are available for these churches, as well as the location of the registers. I now know what records are available, often where they are located, and can read about the purpose, contents, and use of each.

An additional great strategy for learning about new areas and resources is to attend national conferences and attend lectures by experts in the field. David Rencher, Elizabeth Kelly Kerstens, and Paul Milner are several to look for on conference programs.

Genealogical Publishing Company titles that will assist you in your research include:

Selected other resources include:

Duffy, Sean, ed. The Macmillan Atlas of Irish History (Macmillan, 1997)
Grenham, John. Grenham’s Irish Surnames. CD, Eneclann Ltd.
Index of Irish Wills, 1484-1858, CD, Eneclann Ltd.
MacLysaght, Edward. The Surnames of Ireland, 6th ed. (Irish Academic Press, 1991)
Ryan, James G. Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History (Ancestry, 1988)

4 Comments


  1. My grandmother was Margaret Holdcraft. I am from County Louth in Ireland. I found an old photo that was sent to her from Baltimore, Maryland. It is a photo of a young man named J. Mehrling Holdcraft. It was taken in Germany after WW1 and it clearly shows him wearing an american army uniform. She said that he was related to her. Perhaps there is a connection!

    Quote | Posted March 26, 2008, 6:07 am

  2. Very interesting point I had not considered before this…

    Quote | Posted April 2, 2008, 8:51 pm

  3. Thanks for your reply. J. Mehrling Holdcraft has written some of the more well-known books about Frederick Co., Maryland (Names in Stone: 75,000 Cemetery Inscriptions from Frederick Co., Maryland). At this point, I don’t know what the connection to the individual listed in the article may be, but I hope to do more research in the future. I will keep your email on hand in the file in case I uncover anything specific. If you should find any link to
    the Holdcrafts identified in the blog posting, please feel free to contact me.

    Quote | Posted April 2, 2008, 9:43 pm

  4. My Mother Patricia Holdcraft (Palmer) Abrecht passed two years ago, her Uncle Merhl is the man the gentleman from Ireland is referring to. I am 41 and my uncle Richard Holdcraft lives in Frederick. My mother, her brother and sister had another brother named after James Patrick Holdcraft – he died as a child. Their parents were Joseph Henry Holdcraft and Mary Isabel (Six) Uncle Merhl wrote a terrific book called Stems and Twigs of the Holdcraft Family – I am sure I have it somewhere and it is out of date. His son John Holdcraft (lives in Catonsville Maryland which is in Baltimore county) is continuing Uncle Merhl’s work. I grew up in Frederick County and now live in Cecil County, Maryland with my husband Mike and two boys, JP (yes, James Patrick) and Jack. I have a picture of JPH in his uniform and am willing to share.

    Quote | Posted July 8, 2008, 9:33 pm

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