Dennis Mahoney and Mary O'Connor From Ireland to America

Editor's Note: When you see these three dots surrounded by a gray rectangle — 1 — you can click on it to get further information about the topic. Click a second time, and the message goes away.

Dennis Mahoney (1832-192?) and Mary O’Connor (1836-1898)

Born in Ireland: County Cork

Dennis Mahoney was born in the province of Munster, the county of Cork, Ireland, in about 1832.

Records have been found for a Denis Mahoney, baptized in 1832 in Bannishal, the Diocesan area of Cork and Ross, the paraochial area of Caharagh, near the town of Skibbereen, County Cork. He and his parents are listed as Roman Catholic, his father named as Denis Mahoney and his mother as Cathe Harrington. It has not yet been confirmed if this is the correct Dennis Mahoney but it seems quite possible.

Dennis's wife, Mary O'Connor, was born in 1836, also in the province of Munster, the county of Cork, in southern Ireland.

Cork is Ireland's biggest county, and is located at Ireland’s southern tip (the lighter green on the map at the right). The Golden Vale in the north contains rich soil; the east is flat, and the mountains rise in the west. To the south, of course, is the sea. 2 Based on the more than 2000 prehistoric sites in the county, it was an important early settlement. There are more stone circles per acre in County Cork than anywhere else in Ireland.

The River Lee flows through the county’s capital city, also named Cork. The streets, right on the river, have high hills on the opposite side. The name seems to have two sources: 1) it translates from Corcaigh, meaning marsh; and 2) during the 1920 War of Independence the British burned the city and then went west with burned corks in their hats.

East County Cork is mostly known for the city of Ballcotton, a small fishing port, where there is an estuary for wintering birds. Grasslands, cheese and butter are the primary resources of this area north of the River Blackwater.

West Cork is hilly where lichen-covered rocks turn the hills green. During the war for Irish independence, Michael Collins, who signed the 1921 Treaty with Britain, was born here, and was later shot there by his fellow Irishmen.

North Cork is so distinct from the other areas that it, too, is given its own name.

Many wealthy people seem to find their way to the coastline of County Cork where they build mansions.

Troubles Begin

Ireland's difficulties, and particularly those of Cork County, began long before Mary and Dennis were born. After the Napoleonic wars in 1814, the country collapsed due to rising prices, high unemployment and lack of industries.

The bad times, including two natural catastrophes, lasted almost two decades. Between 1816 and 1818, bad weather destroyed grain and potato crops, and small pox and typhus killed over 50,000 people.

The potato crops failed again in 1821, 1825, and 1830. Famine was only averted by importing large amounts of Indian meal from America.

A difficult childhood

In 1832, the year of Dennis's birth, "stark famine" struck Munster and south Leinster. Cholera seemed everywhere throughout the 1830s, and the potato crop failed in eight out of the next ten years. Mary was born toward the end of this terrible time: 1836. They survived, despite both famine and cholera.

It is not known for certain from which area Dennis and Mary lived, but it is likely they came from the same area, perhaps the same neighbourhood.

A brutal winter in 1838 (Dennis would have been 6; Mary would have been 2), and "the night of the big wind", buried the cottages in snow and froze cattle to death. It must have been very difficult for Mary and Dennis and their families, and perhaps it provides a silent testament to their own personal physical strength that they survived their childhood.

The Great Famine Between 1845 and 1855

Things did not get better in the 1840‘s. Between 1840 and 1844, the potato crops partly failed three more times. Many felt that "God had abandoned them." The potato had been common in Ireland since the seventeenth century, but it had been supplemented with milk, eggs, and fish. As the population grew, the potato became more important; an acre of potatoes could feed a family of six. It became the staple for the very poorest of families. Ironically, they peeled and then boiled the potato, reducing its nutritional value.

In 1845 — when Dennis was 13 and Mary was 9 — a blight rapidly destroyed 30 to 40 percent of the potato crop, causing a sickly decaying odour to permeate the air. Despite this, no one starved at first, as people found other ways to cope. They ate food that was normally sold to pay rent, they pawned clothes, and they depended on public relief. Everyone knew that these could only be temporary measures. Everyone hoped next year’s crop would survive.

It did not. In the late summer of 1846, the blight returned and continued to ravage the country, year in and year out, from 1847 until 1855. The countryside "from sea to sea [was] one mass of unvaried rottenness and decay." Even more startling are the death rates for County Cork between 1846 and 1851: 78,000.

1.5 Million People Leave

In the ten-year period between 1845 and 1855, almost 1.5 million people left their homeland of Ireland for the United States. Mary and Dennis might have married in 1855, at the end of the famine, when Mary was 19 and Dennis was 23. It is possible that they left Ireland immediately after their marriage and before any of their children had been born. Considering the many others who were leaving, it would not be surprising if they were among those who did so. They would have seen no future for themselves or their children in Ireland. Indeed, they must surely have feared for their lives.

What is known for certain about Dennis and Mary’s immigration is that they were in the United States when their son, Michael, was born in 1868, at which time Dennis would have been 36 years old and Mary would have been 32 years old. Thus, it is more than likely that they joined the huge migrations of the 1850s but leaving for North America probably no later than 1865.

The trip from Ireland to America was arduous in the extreme. An idea of the conditions endured by the people on board ships can be gleaned from the story of just one, the Elizabeth and Sarah, which left Killala in May 1847 (Dennis would have been 15; Mary would have been 11. These are stories they would have undoubtedly heard.) The vessel was 83 years old and, on this particular trip, carried 276 passengers when it only should have carried 155. There were only 36 berths. Passengers had to rely on whatever food they had managed to bring on board, as there was no food on the voyage. Each person was given two pints of water per day. Eighteen people died on the 41-day journey, and the remaining passengers were starving as the ship docked. In some respects, those who survived on the Elizabeth and Sarah were lucky, as death rates on many “coffin ships” (as they were called) was sometimes 30% or higher. Besides the actual journey across the sea, there were other dangers: unscrupulous ships’ owners, thieves, and con men. With few options, however, hundreds of thousands faced and overcame these obstacles, including Dennis and Mary Mahoney.

The Irish in America in the 1800’s

Those districts of Ireland which were utterly destitute contributed the greatest numbers to the migrations. Areas like west Cork and south Londonderry, which were densely populated, suffered large death rates, while east Cork and north Londonderry, which were slightly more prosperous, lost many through emigration. (Dennis and Mary were both born in County Cork, but it is not known whether they were from the east or the west. Since they appear to have done better than many of their countrymen upon arrival in America, it could be they were from the east and perhaps held some wealth.)

The Irish Catholics longed for America where they would be free from English rule. They made up the majority of the emigrants during the 1800’s, unlike the 1700‘s when many were Scots Presbyterians.

Between 1825 and 1870, nearly 900,000 Irish arrived. Only 60 percent were considered “labourers” in 1836, but that had risen to 90% by 1855. Many of these people needed financial assistance — and usually got it from relatives who helped pay for their crossing. Families would combine their money to bring one son or cousin over, that son or cousin would find a job, save his money, and bring another relative over. Little by little, entire families came.

Dennis immigrated to the United states in about 1847. He came with his mother and two of his brothers, Patrick and Michael. Their mother died on the ship on the crossing. It is not known when Mary came to the United States.

By the late 1840's despair and desperation were the driving forces for survival. "The vast majority of Irish immigrants settled in large cities: Boston and New York in particular. But life was still difficult. In 1847, New York was swamped with the arrival of 37,000 Irish Catholics. People found housing wherever they could: a single family house could be divided up and suit perhaps up to a hundred people; others settled into gardens, back yards, and alleys; some built wooden shacks or lived in musty cellars; old warehouses were converted into rooming houses."

“These unsanitary conditions were breeding grounds for disease, particularly cholera. Sixty percent of the Irish children born in Boston during this period didn't live to see their sixth birthday. Adult Irish lived on average just six years after stepping off the boat onto American soil. The daily pressures of living in these conditions also brought out their desperation. Back home, the Irish were known for their honesty and law-abiding manners, but in America, old social norms disintegrated and many behaved wildly. Prostitution flourished and drunkenness occurred even among children. Wherever they settled, the Irish kept to themselves. Americans were thus slow to accept the Irish as equals, preferring instead to judge them by the cartoon stereotypes published in newspapers of the day. Irish immigrants were also derided in the press as 'aliens' who were mindlessly loyal to their Catholic leaders in place of any allegiance to America.”

It is believed that Dennis initially lived in Portland, Connecticut. He and his brothers perhaps worked in the quarries there which mined brownstone for the buildings of New York City.

Dennis married Mary O'Connor (O'Connell) on November 2, 1858 in St. John's Church in Middletown, Connecticut. (Middletown is just across the river from Portland, CT.)

For whatever reason, Dennis and Mary did not remain in Boston or New York, and that’s without doubt a good thing. It is believed they lived in several places: Portland, CT; to Alexis, Illinois (and possibly Chicago, Illinois, for a short time); Imogene, Sidney, and Prairie, Iowa; Palmyra, Nebraska; and finally Heartwell, Nebraska. Their son, Michael, was born in Sidney, Iowa, and in 1880, with five boys to raise, they were living in Prairie, Fremont, Iowa.

We know that Dennis and Mary had seven children, and we know that Michael was born in Iowa.

In 1889, they moved to Heartwell, Nebraska, with their son, Michael. They remained there until their deaths and are buried there.

The 1880 census indicates Dennis is in “agriculture.” Most likely, he was a farmer and worked on another person’s farm or managed to earn enough money to buy his own land. He may have been able to take advantage of the Homestead Act. This Act, which became law on 1 Jan 1863, allowed anyone to file for a quarter-section of free land (160 acres). The land was yours at the end of five years if you had built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed) 10 acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there.

A Legacy for their Children and Grandchildren

Mary died first, at the age of 62 years, in 1898. She lived to see her son, Michael, marry Josephine Amanda Porter. She saw her granddaughter, Estella Mary Mahoney and a grandson, James Harold Mahoney, born before she died. She is buried in Heartwell, Nebraska.

Dennis died at least 22 years later, at the age of at least 88; the date on his headstone is obscured and only 192? is visible. Dennis lived on to see the beginning and end of World War I, and the birth of one of his first great-grandchildren, Josephine Marie Hansen, who was born in 1917. He is buried beside his wife in Heartwell, Nebraska. Below is the monument for both of their graves.


Thank you to the following texts for much of the information about Ireland:

[This page researched and written by Susan Overturf Ingraham, a descendant of Dennis and Mary. Last updated on January 16, 2017.]

Return to Table of Contents for Exploring Ancestral Roots: Overturfs, Hansens, McDonalds and Mahoneys

★ ★ ★

  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

  3. For more about Michael's life, click on his name.