3: Hang Loose in Ireland

1991 Visit to Ballinasloe, Nearby Graveyards with Unreadable Tombstones


July 30-Aug. 11, 1991


1: Flights to Shannon, Ireland

5: Great Golf at Ballybunion

2: Galway, Ferry to Aran Islands

6: Drive to Blarney, Brinney & Cork

3: Ballinasloe for Nolan Genealogy

7: Killarney Golf

4. Killarney, Cliffs of Moher

8: Waterville Golf & Ring of Kerry




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Thursday, Aug. 2, 1991 – Visit to Ancestral Town of Ballinasloe, Ireland (Lewis’ account)


My genealogical quest ran into yet another dead-end today, to my great disappointment. I had hoped to get a lead by finding the burial sites of my great-grandparents Matthew and his wife Honora (also spelled Honoria in some records) Nolan.


But I could find nary a trace of them despite tramping around several very old cemeteries in and near Ballinasloe, a location in central Ireland about midway between the tourist Mecca of Galway to the West and the Republic of Ireland capital of Dublin to the East.


Traveling with my wife, Betty, and namesake son, Casey Lewis Earle Nolan, on this trip, we happily found that while genealogy search efforts failed, there was a fair amount of compensation offered by the delight of driving through the rolling countryside and encountering the genuine warmth of the Irish people. Several individuals we struck up conversations with after identifying ourselves as Americans trying to find information about my long-gone “relations”   tried hard to be helpful. Nobody shrugged off our questions.


After this and more research that will be detailed in this and other segments of my travel account, I basically concluded that the Nolan line from which I sprung has disappeared in Ireland. There are several reasons for why this happened. It could be that all the Nolans from the 19th Century emigrated from western Ireland during the great Famine that claimed several hundred thousand lives. It could be that those close relatives who remained in Ireland died out. Or, it could be that their existence as farmers in or near Ballinasloe story was fabricated or embellished upon the arrival in American of the brothers Andrew Nolan and John Nolan. Records of the Nolan brothers are well documented by their service in the in the Union forces during the Civil War and property records from their ownership of small farms in southwest Wisconsin during the latter half of the 19th Century.


The sketchy records I found during a 10-year research project indicated that the parents of Andrew and John were the aforementioned Matthew and Honora of Ireland. The fruits as well as some of the disappointments of my research project are detailed in my 664-page book, “Nolan-Miller Family History.” Several of the leading genealogy collections in major libraries in the U.S. have copies of the book on their shelves. Information about the book’s findings and on ordering it is available on the Internet at http://home.att.net/~lewis_nolan/.


Information passed down the family tree in the United States, based on what my late father Lewis Earle Nolan, M.D., had shared with me that he had been told by his father, firmly established the identify of Andrew and John Nolan and opened the door to many findings about their families and their lives.


My first stop in this genealogical research trip that tried to further open the family curtain was at the Parish office of the Roman Catholic Church in Ballinasloe, Ireland. A woman who works in the office called a vacationing priest, Father Joe Flannigan, age approximately 55. He grew up in the town and was the son of a devout Catholic who erected an outdoor shrine at St. Michel’s Church, a gothic-style built in 1858.


Father Flannigan, who was home in Ballinasloe for a holiday from his church posting in Birmingham, England, was a friendly and kind man who arranged for the Ballinasloe Parish Sacristan (named Christy) to provide keys to the St. Michael’s vault of old church records. We walked several hundred yards from the Parrish office to the church, where the vault was opened so I could examine several, hand-written baptismal record books that date to 1821.


We went through all the Nolan names in the Index, but could not find a mention of a Matthew or an Honora from 1821 to 1842. Those years were the ones that seemed offered the most likely periods to search for a possible baptism of their children.


We did find a record mentioning a John Nolan baptized March 21, 1826. His parents were Bryan and Cathleen Nolan. Also, there were several children baptized whose parents were a James Nolan and Mary Smith Nolan who possibly could have been related to Matthew and Honora Nolan.


I had found the names of Matthew and Honora mentioned as Andrew Nolan’s parents. Andrew, older brother of my great-grandfather John Nolan, had included a copy of a marriage license of his parents in papers on file pertaining to his application for a U.S. Civil War Pension.


Father Flannigan explained to me that Parish burial records were not kept until late in the 19th Century. He suggested that Roman Catholics of the early 19th Century were buried in a cemetery located about one mile from the St. Michael’s Church. The old cemetery is near what is now a state mental hospital. Some burials of that period were also made in a very old ground called Kilcooney Cemetery, whose names originated with the early name of the church unit, the “Parish of Ballinasloe and Kilcooney.”


We followed his directions and drove several miles outside Ballinasloe, passing the modern Cross Pen factory (manufacturer of my favorite writing instruments), over a railroad bridge and up a country lane where we finally found the ancient cemetery up a hill. Some of the very old tombstones were completely covered with a moss-like vegetation. Only a few had inscriptions that were readable. I surmise that the stone used was a soft limestone because even the grave-markers from the early 1900s were badly weathered and quite hard to read.


We poked around the old stones but found no Nolan names on any of the about 200 stones we examined. Unlike with other visits to cemeteries with known Nolan graves, I didn’t experience any spooky feelings and concluded that this was not one of my ancestors’ resting places.


We also looked at the readable tombstones in the old Roman Catholic Cemetery in Ballinasloe. Sadly, the conditions were not conducive for my research since most of the graves were overgrown with vegetation and the stones unreadable. It seemed obvious that the cemeteries of Ireland in previous centuries were not like those regulated by law in the U.S., where endowment funds are established to provide funds for future maintenance. My presumption is that the churches of the day took care of their own cemeteries, but as the Irish population dwindled in the face of famine, conflicts with the then-ruling English and out-migration, the priorities of individual Irish churches shifted away from cemetery maintenance to other activities.


In the Ballinasloe Cemetery, we happened to talk with a man working on a gravesite. His name was Mr. O’Connor and he seemed to be the owner of a local monument company. He told us how common it was in previous times for people to be buried without marking tombstones, with their relatives perhaps never being able to follow through with their intentions to pay for the carving and erection of a tombstone over their loved ones.


He said he could not recall ever seeing the Nolan name on a tombstone in the cemetery, but offered that a relative of his – by the name of Nellie Nolan – had died long ago and had been buried there.


The Roman Catholic cemeteries we visited had only occasional tidy plots amid the masses of overgrown graves and weathered tombstones. We were told the ones that look as well kept as those in modern U.S. cemeteries are the result of regular care and maintenance done privately by the local families of those buried.


Americans pulled as I was by an urge to “make connection” with their Irish ancestors should be forewarned not to expect too much when they travel to Ireland to visit cemeteries where their kin may have been buried.


About the only headway I made on my genealogical quest to Ballinasloe came when Father Flannigan told me about how Roman Catholic, Irish children of the mid-19th Century were largely denied education. The Brits are achingly remembered by those passionate about their Irish heritage for the English measures to stamp out the native Irish language (a form of Celtic that survives today in the thinly populated, extreme southwest part of Ireland). Force was used against any opposition to the English rule of the time.


Father Flannigan told us that some Irish children were taught in what were called “Hedge Schools,” outdoor places of instruction out of sight of the English official eyes.


We also followed up on a lead that the early Nolans may have farmed some land near the village of Portumna, which is about 20 miles south of Ballinasloe where we could find no trace. We drove our rented Renault, which was equipped with a five-speed transmission, through an occasional rain shower only to arrive at what turned out to be another dead-end.


A 60-year-old man, proprietor of a Texaco gas station which was the cleanest I’ve ever seen in that global brand, said he had lived his entire life in Portumna but had never known a Nolan to live in the area. He referred me to Father P. K. Egan, a local Parish priest known to be the area’s leading local historian. I knocked on Egan’s door, but no one answered. I went ahead and visited the village church. There, just in case there in fact was a Nolan connection to the village I couldn’t trace, I lighted a few candles (costing 5 pence each with proceeds going to a good cause) in memory of the couple I believe to have been my great-grandparents, Matthew and Honora Nolan and their many relatives unknown to me


I also took a quick stroll through the adjacent church cemetery. But as with the cemeteries visited early, the old gravestones were so weathered as to be unreadable.


Back in the sizeable town of Galway, I wasn’t able to locate a central registry of records that might hold documents pertaining to residents of old Ballinasloe or Portumna, smaller towns in the province anchored by Galway on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.


I learned that in Ballinasloe, ancestral seat of the Nolans in the 19th Century, the town didn’t start recording burials until 1885, when it was even then largely confined to church Parish records. That date was probably well after my –great-great-grandparents Matthew and Honora Nolan died; their names are not in the records. However, there were notations made for several John Nolans, the name of my great-grandfather who emigrated to America in 1843. But the names listed were done so after 1885. One was a John Nolan who had been a patient at the local mental institution (I suppose I probably felt a sense of relief that there was no close family connection there that I could find.)


Thursday, Aug. 2, 1991 – Visit to Ancestral Town of Ballinasloe, Ireland (Betty’s  account)


After getting to Ballinasloe, we made it to the Presbytery (church administration offices) and were able to get someone to contact a priest to the town’s big Roman Catholic Church, St. Michael’s. It turned out that Father Joe Flanagan was home on holiday from his work in England and he was kind enough to the church, let us in and unlock an old safe so Buzz could inspect the old records. Not much was found.


We went to the old Kilcooney Cemetery, but most of the old stones were completely weathered and the engraving on them was indistinguishable. We could not locate any markers identifying the graves of Buzz’s great-great grandparents. We then went to the St. Michael’s Cemetery, where we had no luck. Then it was a short visit to the Ballinasloe Records Office and short drive to the nearly town of Portumna, where we could find no one at the church.


On the drive back to Galway we stopped at a restaurant-bar for dinner. Our waitress-bartender  was a nice, 15-year-old girl by the name of Sinead Hanley. She told us she has three more years of school before she takes her “Second” exams that if passed will allow her to go on to college. She is now studying English, Irish, German and French in school. Sinead came across to us as a shy but competent, young Irish girl.


It is now raining at 9 p.m. and still daylight. Tomorrow, we leave for the long drive to Killarney to the south. We plan to stop at Lisdoonvarna in the wildish, burren area of limestone field formations and also at one of the greatest scenic wonders of Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher.


Continue with Part 4, Killarney and Cliffs of Moher  /  Return to Nolan Travels Home Page