An Irishman's Diary

AS the son of a probate officer and an assistant probate officer, I am possibly uniquely disposed to be fascinated by wills

AS the son of a probate officer and an assistant probate officer, I am possibly uniquely disposed to be fascinated by wills. The anti-proverb “where there’s a will, there’s a relative” neatly sums up the value of a good will to the genealogist or family historian.

One shouldn’t forget that where there’s no will the resulting intestacy case can prove an even more valuable genealogical goldmine. I speak from experience, having been blessed with not one but two greatgrandparents who were heirs to first cousins who died intestate, generating voluminous legal files in each case, including pedigree affidavits.

Another anti-proverb, “where there’s a will, there’s a row”, has two possible interpretations. Many wills cause rows; others appear to result from rows. In the latter type of will, the family historian can be left to read the details between the lines. For example, I recently received a copy of the 1950 will of Michael Kennedy (1879-1953) of Shanaboola, North Liberties, Limerick, a bachelor. His first bequest effectively disinherited his sister: “£500 to my sister Ellen or Ellie Kennedy Spinster residing at Shanaboola, North Liberties, Limerick aforesaid on condition that she will first yield give up and release all her right of residence and maintenance in Shanaboola under the will of my mother Mrs Mary Mulcahy.” (Mary married secondly her first cousin William Mulcahy; her first husband, Richard Kennedy, died of tetanus in 1882, two days after the amputation of his hand.)

Mick Kennedy’s will went on to list his relationship to numerous beneficiaries, including “Denis Kennedy of Ross Golden County Tipperary my first and second cousin”, “Charles Kennedy of Dublin my first and second cousin originally of Ross”, “Tessie Donworth of Luddenmore, Grange, County Limerick my first and second cousin”, “John Kennedy of Botanic Avenue, Glasnevin Dublin, Cattle Salesman my first and second cousin”, “Miss Mary Piggott Spinster of Dublin daughter of the late Edward Piggott buyer for Messrs McBirney Limerick, my first and second cousin”, “Ena Rice daughter of the late PK Walsh of Bilboa Cappamore my first and second cousin”, “Joseph Walsh son of Michael Walsh of Ballyheary House Swords County Dublin my first and second cousin” and “Rose Mulvaney of Hollypark Kilcornan my first and second cousin”. The will was drawn up and witnessed by Henry M Sheehy, solicitor, the


testator’s first cousin twice removed.

I never before saw the term “first and second cousin” in a legal document, although I often heard it used in conversation, particularly in my father’s part of the country, west Clare. It is not in common usage amongst genealogists, nor in other parts of the country, but is just another expression for “first cousin once removed”.

In everyday language, once we go beyond immediate family, we seem to deal in what mathematicians call symmetric relationships. While we distinguish between two types of siblings (brother and sister), we tend not to distinguish between two types of brothers-in-law (sisters’ husbands and wives’ brothers) or two types of first cousins once removed (first cousins’ children and second cousins’ parents).

The fact that A is a brother of B does not imply that B is a brother of A (she could be his sister); but if C is a first cousin once removed of D, then D is always a first cousin once removed of C.

There may be languages other than ours that have different terms for these various relationship sub-types, but here in Ireland we appear to have not just two, but at least three different expressions which all cover both types of first cousin once removed.

The Kennedy will reminded me of how the same relationship is described in my mother’s part of the country, Co Mayo. I clearly remember a 1970s conversation between my mother, Noreen Waldron née Durkan (1921-1978), and her first cousin, Beatrice McAndrews née Durkan (1898-1987), a “returned Yank”, as we then called members of the Diaspora. Although both were born Durkans, the relationship was on the maternal side – and their mothers, who were sisters, were also born Durkans, and each married a Thomas Durkan. As there were 42 Durkans (including variant spellings) in 11 households in their townland (Cuilmore) in 1911, this was hardly surprising. Before leaving for the Bronx, Beatrice had been known as Bridge Tom Mháirtín, the patronymic being necessary in a townland where so many residents shared the same surname.

My mother said to Beatrice “Your parents were five-a-kin, weren’t they?” to which Beatrice replied “I think that was your parents.” Before getting down to the facts of the argument, I required an explanation of the term “five-a-kin”. It is no more than a direct translation from Irish. We all learned in school Irish that a first cousin is

col ceathrar, a relationship involving four people. This itself is slightly strange, as it appears to count the two cousins and one parent of each (who are siblings), but not the common grandparents.

Similarly, a second cousin is col seisear, a relationship involving six people, and, by similar logic, a first cousin once removed is col cúigear, which translates literally to five-a-kin.

I am not sufficiently well-versed in palaeography, the Latin language or Canon Law to parse the various statements about dispensations and degrees of consanguinity which appear frequently alongside entries for cousin marriages in 19th-century Irish Catholic marriage registers, but an etymologist interested in the origins of the alternative descriptions of cousins once removed would be well advised to look in that direction.

Over the years, I have noticed that the eyes of all bar the most experienced genealogists glaze over when the conversation turns to cousins once removed. Now I wonder if this is merely because I should first ascertain what alternative local, legal or religious terminology they are likely to be more familiar with?