From Irish Roots, No. 28 Published four times yearly.

Problem Page

By Tim Cadogan

Readers are invited to submit their research problems - particularly those generally encountered - for publication and advice on this page.

Queries that are not published will not be dealt with by letter. Professional advice is always available from members of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI), c/o Genealogical Office, 2 Kildare Street, Dublin 2; and the Association of Ulster Genealogists and Record Agents (AUGRA), c/o Glen Cottage, Glenmachan Road, Belfast BT4 2NP, Northern Ireland.

John L. Sullivan Connection?

My grandmother Elizabeth Hodnett (nee Beirne) was born in County Leitrim, 1876. A very well educated lady who told her children on numerous occasions that her mother Elizabeth (nee Devlin, born in Derrymore, County Longford, 1848) was a cousin of the American prize fighter John L. Sullivan, born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1859. Bearing this in mind whilst I was struggling to trace my ancestors in Ireland, I decided to look into the story with the hope that if it was true I would find out more about my ancestors through the back door, so to speak! The excellent assistance of the Boston Catholic Cemetery Association, Mount Calvary Cemetery Boston, and Boston State Archives enabled me to obtain the birth certificate of John L, death certificates of John L, his father Michael, mother Catherine (nee Kell(e)y, brother Michael F. and Ann Lennon (nee Kell(e)y) his aunt.

An abundance of information is given on these documents but, alas, one vital piece was missing - the county in Ireland where Michael and Catherine Sullivan (nee Kell(e)y were born/married or lived prior to their departure to the USA. Counties Longford and Leitrim were my first lines of enquiry but to no avail.

I should be most grateful if anyone with any information, no matter how small, on this family could get in touch with me or indeed, if anyone else is carrying out research along the same lines I would be happy to pass on all information I have gathered so far - the suspense is driving me mad. Mary B. Wall, 64 Saracen Street, Tower Hamlets, London E14 6HW England; phone: (0171) 538 1283.


Mary Wall's query provides an interesting illustration of a type of genealogical query that recurs with some regularity, wherein a family lore or tradition posits a blood relationship to a person of distinction. A determined pursuit of genealogical clues of this sort is fraught with difficulties.

A significant proportion of such traditions will prove to have no stronger foundation than a common surname and probably originated in the pride of an emigrant in the achievements of a namesake, which was embellished into a blood relationship by subsequent generations, not infrequently for want of or in absence of more accurate family history. Personal experience has led me to dub this query stereotype 'the Daniel O'Connell connection', as O'Connell, the most famous Irishman of the nineteenth century, was cited as the principal clue in several, otherwise vague, Connell/O'Connell queries that I have seen over a few years, none of which has proved to be of substance.

Of course, the O'Connells of Derrynane are so well documented genealogically that a study of the pedigrees that are available will usually identify or eliminate a close relationship quickly. That is the exception, however, as the genealogical background of relatively few prominent Irish figures of the nineteenth century is readily accessible. Coincidentally Mary Hall's query is the second that I have seen this year where a relationship to John L. Sullivani s mooted.

However, two aspects of this query that are at odds with the stereotype are that there is no obvious surname link and that this appears to be an instance where an Irish resident claimed relationship to an emigrant descendant rather than vice-versa.

John L. Sullivan, popularly known as the 'Boston Strong Boy', was the first undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a title he held from 1882 to 1892.

Incidentally he claimed the title after defeating Paddy Ryan, a native of Thurles, County Tipperary and lost it to James J.Corbett, born in San Francisco, of parents from Shrule, near Tuam, County Galway. John Lawrence Sullivan was born in the Roxbury area of Boston on October 15, 1858, according to two of the sources that I consulted, both of which also indicate that his father Michael was a native of Tralee, County Kerry. Michael was a man of small statue, only 5' 3" tall and John L. is said to have inherited his impressive physique from his mother Catherine who dwarfed her husband in size.

A County Kerry origin does nothing to support Mary Wall's family tradition, but according to Patrick Myler's excellent book The Fighting Irish: Ireland's role in world boxing history (Dingle,County Kerry: Brandon Books, 1987), Catherine was born in Athlone, County Westmeath, in the same general area as Elizabeth Devlin and her daughter.

This obviously suggests that Elizabeth Devlin Beirne's relationship to John L. Sullivan was through his mother. Given that John L's parents Michael and Catherine were born in or adjacent to Tralee and Athlone respectively, which are over 130 miles apart, it is improbable that they married in Ireland.

Obviously, a search for Catherine's baptismal record in the Athlone area is one avenue of research(Dun na Sí Cultural & Heritage Centre, Moate, County Westmeath is the relevant IGP centre), although Catherine Kelly, date of birth unknown(?)seems to me to be a hazardous search.

I am presuming that Mary Wall has not to date identified any Kelly connection in her great-grandmother's family. There are two possible alternative approaches that are worth pursuing.

In 1892, an autobiography entitled Life and reminiscences of a 19th Century Gladiator was published under John L. Sullivan's name.

Probably ghost-written, it nonetheless merits investigation as it may include some family background. At the height of his fame, John L. Sullivan toured Britain and Ireland in or around October 1887.

He had a much publicised meeting with the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and he was given a tumultuous reception in Dublin.

It would seem worthwhile to search contemporary local newspapers in the Midland counties for reference to his Athlone connections or indeed in the hope that he paid a visit to his relatives in the area. (The National Library of Ireland and the British Newspaper Library both hold relevant newspaper files).

The newspaper search would, in my opinion, merit primary investigation. I think that this is a genuine 'famous connection' tradition; hopefully the blood relationship will prove close enough to enable Mary Wall to make the leap from family lore to documented fact.