We don’t know much about my great grandfather James O Dwyer until he arrived in San Francisco in 1867. But we have uncovered a few hints about his pre-San Francisco life. According to his marriage certificate he was born in Tipperary, Ireland (I take that to mean the county, not the town) and his father’s name also was James O Dwyer and his mother’s name was Catherine Ryan. According to the family bible maintained by his wife Margaret he was born in November 1844.

Every other bit of information we have on James comes from either the mouth or the pen of my Dad’s Aunt Alice who apparently listened earnestly to the stories James passed on to his wife and she relayed to their children. Alice was 14 years old when her father died in 1896 but her mother lived on for 31 more years, enough time to repeat these stories over and over. Alice herself outlived all her siblings and finally died on October 4, 1974 at the age of 92. One day when she was in her late 80s her oldest son Dick asked her to write down what she remembered about her father’s origins.

Now Alice was known to have embellished her stories somewhat and we were told to be cautious in accepting the facts of her narratives. I have even been able to disprove one of her stories — why her father dropped the “O'” in his name — but I have to admit that her story is by far more interesting than mine! According to Alice, her father’s name was O’Dwyer but he dropped the “O'” on his way to America because he had a price on his head for preaching treason to his students in Dublin and the British authorities may miss him if his name was listed in the “Ds” instead of the “Os.” Well, that’s a nice story but I have uncovered many documents including his marriage certificate and several city directories that show that he used the O Dwyer name for several years after his arrival in California and didn’t drop the “O” until the mid 1870s! There may be some truth to this story, though. The Fenian movement was popular in both England and Ireland during the 1860s and James may have been caught up with this movement. It is also a possibility that James may have been living in Dublin prior to leaving for the US and that his preaching treason may either refer to his fellow college students or to a role as teacher to younger students.

Another of Alice’s stories is that her father was “born within the shadow of the Rock of Cashel.” Okay, that probably means the town of Cashel which spreads out from the foot of the Rock. But why didn’t she just say Cashel then? The Rock protrudes from an otherwise level plain known as the Golden Vale and can be seen from as far as 20 miles away. The town of Golden is not too far from the Rock and the town of Tipperary is further along the same road. Dundrum is only about eight miles from Cashel and there are other villages even closer.

Alice also tells the story of her grandfather perishing during the Famine and the rest of the family then migrating to Leeds in Yorkshire, England where her father grew up. The Famine began in Ireland in the mid-1840s and continued into the 1850s. James would have been six years old in 1850. Unfortunately, I can’t find any record of the family residing in Leeds and they don’t appear in either the 1851 or 1861 U.K. census.

Did James have any siblings? Alice mentions that he had an older sister named Alice who died of tuberculosis when she was a teenager. There was also supposed to be an older brother who practiced medicine for a time in London. The only Alice I have found who died of tuberculosis was one who was born in 1861 and died in 1878, which seems to be too late to be a member of our James O Dwyer family.

I have not been able to find an Alice in Margaret’s family at all but there are many Alice Dwyers in Tipperary around this time and so it is very probable that Aunt Alice was named after either an Alice Dwyer or an Alice Ryan.

We don’t know if James was alone when he came to San Francisco but there is a widow named Kate Dwyer listed in the city directories in the 1870s and for a couple of years she is living with a nephew named Joseph Dwyer who is described as a physician one year and as an apothecary another year. Also, in a private 1876 directory a Joseph O’Dwyer is listed as a relative of James and living at the same address as James and Margaret.

All these hints! I have been researching my great grandfather for twenty years and still haven’t found his birthplace. We spent five weeks in Ireland including six days in Tipperary in 2002 looking for the birthplaces of my ancestors. We found my mother’s Muckle relatives in County Down and her Gallaghers in County Roscommon but we struck out with my father’s side. We spent three days in Dundrum scouring the Annacarty hills, the Kilpatrick cemetery and the Cappawhite bars and we talked to scores of interesting people many of whom were named O’Dwyer but no luck. We then spent three additional days in Cashel where we visited the Rock of Cashel, the Brian Boru Heritage Centre and the Cashel Folk Village and met several more O’Dwyers but ended our week with the same result. One day we visited the county library in Thurles and a very nice librarian named Mary Darmody helped me identify the 59 James Dwyers /O’Dwyers who appear on the Griffiths Evaluation reports that were put together between 1847 and 1852. We then found six or seven James Dwyers on marriage and baptism registers whose wives were named Catherine Ryan. One of them has to be mine!

Coming soon: More on James

We will take a look at the life of James O Dwyer from his arrival in San Francisco in 1867 until his death on August 18, 1896.

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