Dennis Mahoney and Mary O'Connell From Ireland to America

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Dennis Mahoney (1832-1921) and Mary O’Connor (1836-1897)

Born in Ireland: County Cork

Dennis Mahoney was born in the province of Munster, the county of Cork, Ireland, in about 1832. Unfortunately, no records have yet been found to support this information, but he stated in every census that that was the year he was born and that he was born in Ireland.

Dennis's wife, Mary O'Connell, was born in 1836, also in the province of Munster, the county of Cork, in southern Ireland. 2

Cork is Ireland's biggest county, and is located at Ireland’s southern tip (the lighter green on the map at the right).

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 but most likely that it translates from Corcaigh which means "marsh."

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 a lack of industries. 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.

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.

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. Mary and Dennis and their families provide a silent testament to their own personal physical strength that they survived their childhood.

The Great Famine Between 1845 and 1855

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. Between 1840 and 1844, the potato crops partly failed three times. Many felt that "God had abandoned them."

In 1845 — when Dennis was 13 and Mary was 9 — a blight rapidly destroyed up to 40 percent of the potato crop, causing a sickly decaying odour for all to endure. In desperation, 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 until 1855. The countryside "from sea to sea [was] one mass of unvaried rottenness and decay." Even more startling are the deaths for County Cork between 1846 and 1851: 78,000.

In the ten-year period between 1845 and 1855, almost 1.5 million people left their homeland of Ireland for the United States. The trip from Ireland to America was arduous. 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.

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 suffered large death rates, while east Cork and north Londonderry lost many through emigration. 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.

It was a struggle and a battle to cope. Here are some of the statistics:

"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. 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."

"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."

Dennis and Mary's Life in America

In A History of Fremont County, it states that Dennis came to the United States in 1851 at the age of nineteen and settled in Portland, Connecticut. He came to America with his mother, father, and two brothers; however, his mother died on the ship on their way to America.

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.) As he had been sponsored by his brother, it is assumed that they were married in St. John's Catholic Church, Middletown, Connecticut.

Based on Census information, here is where Dennis and Mary lived:

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

A Legacy for their Children and Grandchildren

Mary died first, at the age of 62 years, on September 4, 1897. 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, but other records indicate that it was 1921. 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 May 27, 2019.]

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

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

  2. Mary's name has been found as O'Connell, O'Donnell, O'Conner, and Conner. But O'Connell seems to occur the most often in documents. 

  3. Map courtesy of Wikipedia

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