The O’Connors: Their Native Tongue

Having been sidetracked for a few months (three countries, five apartments, and a global pandemic will do that!), I finally got back into researching the O’Connors. For this phase of the research, I’ve had my 3rd great-grandfather, Thomas O’Connor, as the central figure.

Part of this early research consists of compiling all of the known documentation that myself, my grandma, and my great-aunt have collected over the years, starting from the basics with census records. While I’ve referenced these records for years, in my meticulous re-examination I’m poring over every column and each pencil mark in an attempt to catch as much valuable information as possible.

And in doing so, I am reminded that this is So! Important! Because….

When I got to the 1910 US Census, I noticed that for some individuals whose parents are listed as having been born abroad, more information seems to have been squeezed into the columns. In fact, it seemed to me that not only were foreign birthplaces recorded, but so were what appeared to be native languages.

To be sure, I referenced the 1910 Census Instructions to Enumerators (an invaluable resource for deciphering each census, as the instructions given to enumerators changed with every edition). Sure enough, I found that enumerators were instructed to record not just the birth country, but the “mother tongue” as well- in the same given space for each column! This is due to the question having been added after the schedules were printed, and is represented in the enumerator instructions.

Information like this is essential to understanding the context in which specific censuses were compiled!

At this point, I started to get very, very excited, as what I saw when looking at Thomas’ entry was that, as expected, both of his parents had “Ire” as their place of birth, but there was more. What was written for each parent was “Ire Irish.”

1910 US Census

They were native Irish speakers.

And that’s not all– if you take a look at what information is given for Thomas in his children Henrietta and William T’s lines, we see that his birthplace is listed as Ohio, but his native language given is Irish!

So far, this is the only reference I’ve come across that suggests Thomas grew up as a first-generation American speaking Irish, but it has been enough to floor me. I’ve yet to write about my own experience learning and studying the Irish language, but this revelation that my family spoke Irish at the time of their emigration serves as my direct link to a patrimony that I have long extolled.

More evidence that Thomas’ parents, Patrick and Catherine, spoke Irish is given again 10 years later in the 1920 census. This iteration had the separate columns that the 1910 census lacked, but it seems that the native language of Thomas wasn’t inquired about this time, presumably due to his birth in Ohio.

1920 US Census

This new information isn’t just personally meaningful to myself as a linguist of Irish descent, but it will also help us as we continue searching for where the O’Connors came from. At the time of the Famine, the Irish language was in decline and used mainly by populations of speakers among Ireland’s west coast.

The day I came across this information was exactly 110 years since the day that that 1910 census sheet was enumerated. 110 years later, Thomas’ 3rd great-grandson now lives in the country that his family was forced to leave, learning the tongue that they brought to foreign shores, attempting to preserve the precious heritage they left behind.

Slán go fóill,