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Emigration from Connemara to Minnesota 1880 – An Historiographic and Genealogical Approach – The Gallagher Family

In an article I wrote for the Irish Newspaper of the upper Mid-West of America, The Irish Gazette, I explained how I had completed a study of assisted emigration from Connemara to Big Stone County in the far west of Minnesota. Connemara is a rugged coastal region of the west of Ireland situated in the counties of Galway and Mayo and it was from here in late spring of 1880 that a Liverpool priest, Father James Nugent, with the support of a Minnesotan bishop, John Ireland, arranged to relocate 35 impoverished families. The story of the immigrants has long intrigued people and several articles in The Irish Gazette have covered the topic. The story of emigration from Connemara to Minnesota would seem to be somewhat of a mismatch as the poorest had the least opportunity to escape the hardships of Ireland and those that did generally found themselves in the slums of the cities along the east coast of America. The chance to get a farm of 160 acres along with a small dwelling and implements provided the immigrants with an opportunity that enabled some families to change the cycle of destitution they had constantly found themselves in. Not all immigrant families were successful as farmers, but those that were, left a legacy in Big Stone County in rural Minnesota and beyond. I undertook to research the Nugent families and do so very much as a historian but along the way it became clear that to understand what had become of the immigrants and of their later generations, a genealogical study alongside historical research was needed.

Census information, birth and death records along with other state records were of significant help in tracing Nugent’s immigrants. Research material from digital sources proved to be of great benefit not only by way of state records but further through the discovery of personal accounts of family history placed on-line. The availability of documentary evidence from genealogy organisations and private genealogy companies proved to be extremely helpful. Organisations such as FamilySearch, the Genealogical Society of Utah which is run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is freely available and an excellent resource particularly for nineteenth century Irish birth records. Other private genealogical companies included Ancestry, Find My Past and many other websites including those that have assembled information from graveyards/headstones and local histories.

To discover more about those who organised the emigration scheme a more traditional method of research included utilising the resources of the Minnesota Historical Society which provided several avenues for primary research purposes including newspapers, the Ignatius Donnelly Papers, Irish American Colonization Company Records, John Ireland Collection and the Sister Helen Angela Hurley Papers. Disappointedly the Archive Department of the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet in St Paul and the Archives of the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis did not hold an extensive amount of primary material and surprisingly the most valuable material on the emigration schemes was to be found at the National Archives in Dublin. The Sweetman Family papers supplied invaluable correspondence between the parties engaged in helping the poorest from the west of Ireland to leave. Further, the contemporary writings of T.A. Finlay and C.R. Browne were important as their writings along with the work of the Congested Districts Board provided the greatest insight to the lives of the immigrants. Thomas Finlay’s studies of rural Ireland, in particular Connacht, focused on rural economic development. C.R. Browne was an ethnographer who undertook studies of people of the west of Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Brown along with A.C. Haddon conducted research which included detailed measurements of the population while their writings described how people lived in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, detailed accounts of the poverty of the west of Ireland were also to be found in the writings of James Hack Tuke who kept an interest in Ireland’s poorest from the famine years of the 1840s to the establishment of the Congested Districts Board in the 1890s.

During my research I discovered many features not considered in the narrative of Irish immigration previously. Many of the immigrant families did not remain in Minnesota and over later generations they continued to travel west and availed of new opportunities in states from Washington to California. Another feature was the high number of culturally mixed marriages. It was not a case of the Irish marrying Irish, but many marriages saw the immigrants marry others from German, Norwegian and First Nations heritage. As noted earlier, as a part of my study, I examined the genealogy of the immigrants, and I discovered many generations of at least twelve families. Although many are still in my memory, the family of John Gallagher and Annie Lavelle, stand out in my mind and not simply because of their many successes but how I and one member of the family ultimately communicated with each other in 2017. It is this interaction that I would like to share with you as not only did it confirm for me the accuracy of my research, but it also highlighted the importance of a genealogical approach alongside a historical examination of people. However, before discussing the outcome of our interaction, I would like to share some of the Gallagher family genealogy as I am sure it will be of great interest to some.

The shipping list of the S.S. Austrian identified the 35 families that left Galway. John Gallagher, his wife Annie Lavelle and their children were one of the five families that remained in Graceville after 1880. The Gallaghers originated in ‘Doolough’, according to the Graceville Enterprise.[1] The nearest centre of trade for the Doolough Valley region was Louisburgh or Westport. In the study of genealogy, it is often the case that census information is not always exact particularly with information given or collected over generations. However, correlating locations with family names and dates it can still be used as a guide to find people. Census household schedules for Ireland only exist for 1901 and 1911 with limited entries for 1821. It is impossible to find the Gallagher family by cross referencing names and ages as they had left Ireland by 1880. Land and farms in post-Famine Ireland were passed from one generation to another intact and in many cases, they were no longer sub-divided. Griffith’s Valuation of land was completed by the 1860s. The survey valued individual property separately but more importantly for the purpose of finding the Gallaghers it provided the name of the individual that rented the land. Focus was given to the barony of Murrisk where the Doolough Valley is found. It should be noted that no townland called ‘Doolough’ as described in the Graceville Enterprise exists or did exist in the nineteenth century. The parishes of Murrisk are Aghagower, Kilgeever and Oughaval. For this study it was extremely fortunate that Annie Lavelle recorded her birth name on the shipping list and provided it to census takers in Minnesota in the 1880s. It is these records along with Griffith’s Valuation and the required time and patience which resulted in finding the Gallagher/Lavelle family who emigrated from Mayo in 1880.[2]

Records showed John Gallagher and Annie Lavelle were married on 9 April 1861 in the parish of Oughaval.[3] The names of their six children on the shipping list included Edward, Michael, Mary Ann, John, Anthony and Patrick.[4] The birth record of Michael with the location of birth as Lettereragh is further information which highlights where the family came from initially. Annie Lavelle met and married John Gallagher and together they remained at her family home and began their family at this location, a practice often seen in mid-nineteenth century Ireland. The Gallagher/Lavelle family lived in many locations as can be seen by their children’s recorded births. The locations included Kilgeever, Dooleague and Doon. Any number of events could have led the family to continually relocate. The pull factors may have included employment opportunities while push factors could have included social reasons such as local disagreements or lack of opportunities. The Gallagher/Lavelle family did not move great distances at any time.

In Big Stone County in Minnesota the Gallaghers successfully adapted to life on the prairie. Two decades later, in 1900, John, his wife Annie and their three youngest sons remained on the land provided for them by John Ireland in Big Stone County. Education was important to the Gallagher family; the youngest son Patrick became a doctor while his brother Anthony remained on the family farm. John Gallagher, the original settler died in 1909. His sons who remained in Minnesota clung to their Catholic Irish identity. As members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians they kept links with Bishop Ireland. First generation sons Patrick and Edward migrated to Spokane in Washington while two of the Gallagher children remained in western Minnesota. Mary Gallagher married Patrick Costello in 1897 and lived in Leonardsville in Traverse County, which was situated north of Big Stone County. Mary and Patrick had eight children and it was clear that education played a key role in the Costello family. By 1920 their eldest son, Thomas, attended school in St Paul while their daughter Anna was teaching. Another daughter Vera was also away from home attending school in Valley City in North Dakota.

In 1930 Mary and Patrick remained on the farm in Leonardsville but most of their children had left home except for the youngest child John and the eldest son Thomas. The youngest Costello son, John, worked the farm with his father and in turn inherited the farm as by 1940 he was the only sibling who remained in Big Stone. Thomas had migrated and was living in San Diego in California in the 1950s. Thomas may have moved to California because his sister Loretta Buscher had married and was living there. Of the Costello children who left western Minnesota, Mary Costello married Timothy Kelly and moved to Chicago, Vera married Leslie Graham and settled in International Falls in Minnesota and Anna married Albert Gallina and moved to Keewatin in Minnesota. Albert Gallina had immigrated to Minnesota from Italy at the age of 11 in 1906. The Gallina family spoke Italian and continued to use this language as their primary language along with English. As with most new towns set up in Minnesota, over twenty languages were spoken in Keewatin with immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Yugoslavia, Finland, Germany and Poland to name a few. Anna’s sister Vera lived in International Falls a little more than 100 miles northwest of Keewatin and Anna may have had regular contact with her sister.

As already noted, the second daughter of Mary and Patrick, Vera Costello married Leslie J. Graham who was born in Wisconsin of French-Canadian parentage and lived in International Falls in Koochiching County in Minnesota. Vera was well educated and had attended college for two years. Vera gave birth to two daughters, Patricia and Mary. Patricia married Hubert J. LaPorte and had two children, David and Ann La Porte. Hubert died in 1963 and Vera married her second husband, George Flynn in 1964 in Appleton Minnesota. Vera had two more sons with George, John and Paul Flynn. George Flynn died in 2014. Patricia Flynn died 24 February 2015; she was 79 years of age. Her sons David La Porte and John Flynn lived in Wausau, while her son Paul Flynn lived in Grand Rapids in Michigan with his wife Krista. Vera’s daughter, Ann La Porte, married Mark Lewandowski and lived in Minnesota. Ann La Porte’s children included Andrea, Alexandra, Monica and Peter Lewandowski. Ann and Mark Lewandowski’s daughter Alexandra married Hans Pflaumer in 2013. Both Alexandra and Hans were graduates of St Thomas University in St Paul. It is worth noting that the University of St Thomas was founded by Archbishop John Ireland. Alexandra is the great-great-great grandchild of John Gallagher and Mary Lavelle who married in Oughaval, Mayo in 1861.

It was in late spring of 2017 as far as I can correctly recollect that I received a Facebook notification from Alexandra Pflaumer who confirmed my accuracy in studying her family tree and told me that she was excited to tell her mother their history. Her mother, on that same day was on-board a bus travelling Ireland’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. The following day, the bus was scheduled to pass through Doolough Valley which is situated in one of Ireland’s most scenic landscapes of Connemara on the road from Leenane in County Galway to Louisburgh in County Mayo. The coincidence causes the same emotional overwhelming feeling now as it did then. I spend a decade studying this group of people and now I found myself explaining to Alexandra, that, as her mother travelled through the valley she was to look to the mountains as that was the exact location, above Doolough lake that her family, the Gallaghers, had originated from in the 1880s.

Rosary beads of Vera Costello


[1] Graceville Enterprise 26 March 1909.
[2] Griffith’s Valuation
[3] http://www.mayoancestors.com/default.aspx?SID=326170
[4] http://www.mayoancestors.com/default.aspx?SID=326181&Type=BI. Information corresponding to all the Gallagher children does not recognise Edward as a sibling. Michael Gallagher’s birth record shows he was born on the first of April 1864 in Lettereragh, Mary Anne was born on 19 August 1868 in Kilgeever, John was born on 24 March 1871 in Dooleague, Anthony was born on 3 July 1873 in Doon and Patrick was born on 29 March 1876 also in Doon, County Mayo.

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