From Irish Brickwall to Irish Passport
Updated: 5 days ago
I live in Scotland and have always held a UK passport. However, towards the end of last year, I also became an Irish passport holder. Its arrival marked the end of a research journey that’s spanned more than a decade. But, in many ways, this story has been much longer in the making than the time it took to uncover the details of my grandfather’s early life in Ireland and for an Irish passport to drop through my letterbox. In all, it’s 130 years in the making, thanks to my great grandfather, Thomas Wells, who used a different surname when he married in 1892.
From Irish Brickwall to Irish Passport is two stories; the search for my grandfather’s Irish birth record and, then, proving he was the same man born in Ireland, in a different year, with a different surname, to the man who died in Scotland.
Irish Ancestors and Family Stories
Although I was born in Scotland, I have many more Irish ancestors than Scottish. The Lawries and the Crossans arrived in the early 19th century, before the famine in the late 1840s, with many more arriving during and after those famine years. Rourkes, McLaughlins, Scotts, Neesons, Dalys and Spences came from all corners of the north of Ireland; Donegal, Down, Tyrone, Derry, Armagh and Antrim. But my most recent Irish immigrant to Scotland was, according to the family story, my maternal grandfather. William Wells was said to have been born in Portadown in Ireland and had come to live with cousins in Scotland after his mother’s death. My grandfather died when my mother was still a child so, other than the details on his Scottish marriage and death records, all that was known about him were the few snippets passed on in family stories. And, as family historians know, while many family stories have elements of fact at their heart, not all are accurate.
Confirmation of my grandfather’s Irish origins evaded me long after I’d identified the Irish origins of many of my other ancestors who had arrived in Scotland much earlier than him. When the Irish 1901 census was released online over a decade ago, I was delighted to find a family living in Montague Street in Portadown that must surely be my great grandparents, along with their seven children; father Thomas, mother Mary A, and a son named William, just a couple of years older than my grandfather.
A year or so later, the Scottish 1911 census was released and delivered a wealth of information on my Wells family as well as a rather unexpected clue. My grandfather was living in Scotland in 1911, in the household of the Bunting family, his mother’s cousins, echoing the family story of him coming to Scotland after his mother’s death. Also in the household were his father Thomas, a widower, and a younger brother, aged 8 years, also called Thomas. What was unexpected was young Thomas’s birthplace. Unlike his father and his brother, young Thomas hadn’t been born in Ireland. Young Thomas had been born in Scotland.
A Birth and a Death that led to a Marriage - and 7 Births
Thomas Wells, my grandfather’s brother, was born in Scotland in 1902. Thomas’s birth record said his father Thomas Wells had married his mother, Mary Ann Bunting, in July 1892 in County Armagh, Ireland. Sadly, it also confirmed Mary Ann was deceased. Mary Ann’s death record confirmed she had died in Scotland, aged just 31 years, on the same day young Thomas was born, her eighth child.
When the Irish civil records became available online at irishgenealogy.ie a number of years later, I searched in vain for the record of my grandfather’s birth. It was the same fruitless search for the other Wells children, listed on the 1901 census at Montague Street, and his parents’ marriage record.
I went back again to the Scottish birth record of my grandfather’s brother, Thomas. It had said their parents were married in July 1892 in Armagh. Searching for marriage records for Thomas Wells in the 1890s at irishgenealogy.ie found nothing. However, a search using Thomas’s wife’s name, Mary Ann Bunting, produced an interesting result. A marriage record for a Mary Anne Bunting who married in St Mark’s Church, in Portadown on 12 July 1892. But the groom’s name wasn’t Thomas Wells. It was Thomas Wiley. Was this my great grandparents and there had been a mistake with his surname?
This Thomas and Mary Ann both used ‘x marks’ in place of signatures. If this was my grandfather’s parents, it was possible the registrar had recorded the wrong surname for Thomas, and, as the bride and groom may not have been able to read or write, they might not have known of the mistake. But it gave me an idea.
Seven Wells children yet not a single birth record could be found for any of them. I searched again, this time with the surname Wiley. And there they were. Seven children of Thomas Wiley and Mary Ann Bunting, all born in Montague Street, and identical in age to the seven Wells children. With such a distinctive family structure, names, ages, including a set of boy and girl twins, it was extremely unlikely to be a coincidence.
Since tracking down the Wiley records for my Wells family, other records and DNA matching have confirmed the family surname was Wells before Thomas and Mary Ann married. Records, such as the valuation revision books, available online at PRONI, also document the family using the surname Wiley in the 1890s. So it appears the Wiley surname was used in all aspects of their lives, not just official records, during that period. Unfortunately, the answer to the question ‘why?’, like many family stories, is likely to be lost in time unanswered.
On the Passport Trail
With so many Irish ancestors, and especially including my grandfather, I felt a strong urge to recognise my Irishness by applying for citizenship. In the process to obtain Irish citizenship, official documents are needed to prove a clear link from the person applying, through their parent, to the birth of the Irish grandparent. In my case, the evidence chain was broken between my grandfather’s death in Scotland and his birth in Ireland as there was no official documentation on his change of surname. However, in genealogy we often need to build cases to prove our assumptions and explain discrepancies in the records. It was a challenge, but I succeeded in proving conclusively to the Irish authorities that the man who died in Scotland as William Wells was the same man born in Ireland as William Wiley. My citizenship of Ireland was granted in 2020.
The Evidence Presented
In my quest to prove William Wiley, born in Portadown in 1894, was William Wells, who was born about 1897 and died in Scotland in 1948, I focused on two areas:
The Irish 1901 census of the Wells family and the birth records of the Wiley children
My grandfather’s WW1 Military Service Record
By presenting the names and ages of the children registered at birth as Wiley, against the Wells children living at 27 Montague Street on the 1901 census, from the identical family structure, ages and names, it could be concluded they were the same family.
In addition to the original documents needed for the individual applying, their parent and grandparent, I also supplied extracts from the civil births register for all the Wiley children. Each of the seven birth records document Montague Street as their birthplace, with the additional evidence of the youngest son, Robert John, being born at number 27 Montague Street, the address of the Wells family on the 1901 census just 3 months later. These extracts also showed that the parents of all the Wiley children were Thomas Wiley and Mary Ann Bunting, the same parents’ first names and mother’s maiden surname given on William Wells’ marriage and death records.
Information in my grandfather’s military service record allowed a further link to be made between my grandfather in Scotland and his birth in Ireland. In February 1916, William Wells enlisted in the army in Scotland. Details within his army record connected him to both his birth in Ireland as well as the man documented on his Wells death record.
While the worldwide pandemic held up the processing of applications, fortunately the lack of official documentation for my grandfather’s name change didn’t.
The Hidden Stories
There was more truth to my grandfather’s story of his arrival in Scotland than the records alone suggested. In 2019 I had a DNA match to a second cousin, whose grandfather was the brother of my grandfather and the only one of his siblings to remain in Ireland beyond childhood. As another keen family historian, my cousin could share much information on my grandfather’s family, including records of my grandfather at school in Ireland after his mother died in Scotland. After Mary Ann’s death, the family had returned to Ireland to live and, so, my grandfather’s story of coming to live in Scotland after his mother’s death was more accurate than I'd previously thought.
In all that I uncovered about my grandfather, the later discrepancy in his age particularly struck me. In the past, discrepancies in age weren’t unusual. However, when my grandfather enlisted in the army, he gave his age accurately, down to the correct number of months. In this search it soon became clear where those 2 years were lost from his age. When my grandfather married my grandmother in April 1918, he gave his age as 21, the same age he had when he signed up to the army in 1916, two years earlier.
My grandfather first arrived in France in December 1916, a gunner on the Western Front until the end of 1917. His battalion were involved in many battles whose names are now familiar, including the Battles of Messines and Ypres. The trauma of war may have played its part in a memory lapse over his correct age when he married my grandmother in 1918. But, knowing what we know now of the full horror of the war on the Western Front, he could easily be forgiven for wishing to forget the previous two years of his life had ever happened, and to be the man he had been when he signed up. My grandfather’s military record paints him as a bit of a character and a bit of a romantic, so I can imagine this was the case for him.
Irish civil records at irishgenealogy.ie
Irish census records at The National Archives of Ireland
Property valuation revision books at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
Scottish civil records at ScotlandsPeople
British Army World War I Service Records at Ancestry.co.uk