Wednesday, January 8, 2020

52 Ancestors - FAVORITE PHOTO: Helen and the Byrnes Cousins

Asking me to choose a favorite photo is like asking me to pick a favorite child. I will show you one today, but tomorrow that may change. Right now my favorite photo is this one of my grandaunt Helen Killeen Parker.
Helen Killeen Parker
Aunt Helen
she captioned this "The Vamp"
I knew her only in her older years, so this photo of her in a 1920s swim dress with a hand-crank gramophone in the great outdoors has made me see her in a different light. But the real reason I love the photo is that I love HER and the legacy she left behind in the form of scrapbooks and loose photos. They make me want to know more about my dad’s side of the family, but Helen did not make it easy. Very few of Helen’s photos are labeled, so it has been a slow process eking out the small details to help me formulate a story of the Sheehan sisters who emigrated from Ireland to New York in the 1880s. For the most part, the family is still a mystery.

Last year at this time when the 52 Ancestors theme was “Challenge,” I wrote about the challenge of finding 2 unnamed nephews mentioned in the obituary of Sr Vincent Carmel, aka Sadie Byrnes, Helen’s cousin and daughter of Elizabeth Sheehan Byrnes, my great-grandmother’s sister. Here I am a year later, writing about the same thing, but this year the story has a different ending.

All I knew last year was this:  when Sadie died in 1973, she was survived by 2 nieces and 2 nephews. I knew the girls were Madeline and Patricia, daughters of Sadie’s brother John. John died young in 1925, and his widow remarried. I wondered if she had children with her new husband Joseph P. Maloney or if one of Sadie’s other brothers had children.

A short couple of weeks ago, a man (I’ll call him “K”) whose DNA matched with my dad’s contacted me to figure out how we are related. The surnames in “K’s” database did not resemble mine at all. However, we both had Irish immigrant ancestors in New York, so I suspected there was a good chance that we might find a connection collaterally further up the chain. I gave him names:
  • Johanna Sheehan and Patrick Hederman
  • Margaret Sheehan and John Nagle
  • Elizabeth Sheehan and Patrick Byrnes  (parents of John, Sadie, Robert, and others)
  • Delia Sheehan and William Christian 

Mine was not “K’s” only match nor only contact. He found John Byrnes’ granddaughter (I’ll call her “M”) and pointed her to my blog. She wrote to thank me for sharing this photo of her grandfather.
John Byrnes
Labeled "Jack" - a nickname for John
John Byrnes 1919
“M” also helped solve the mystery of the unnamed nephews. Well, part of it anyway. John Byrnes’ widow Madeline and her second husband Joseph P. Maloney had two sons: Joseph Jr and Robert. While that seemed to fit the facts of Sadie Byrnes’ obituary, Robert had been killed during the Korean War so would not have been one of the surviving nephews. Joseph Jr is still living, making him one of the two. But who was the other one? “M” had no suggestions because her family did not keep up with the other Byrnes brothers.

Robert Byrnes 1919
labeled "Cousin Bob"
Robert Byrnes 1919
“K” was searching for the REAL father of a man with whom he matched DNA. In so doing, he found brother Robert Byrnes whose common name and lack of other details had caused confusion in my tree for a while. It turns out that Robert had a wife, Mary Dempsey, and a son and daughter. Of course, that just threw off Sadie’s survivor count which had said 2 nieces and 2 nephews. Unless Robert’s daughter died before 1973, there were 3 nieces and 2 nephews.

But not so fast! “K” found more. It seems ol’ Robert was a bit of a rascal. He fathered a child with wife Mary’s sister Helen who was also married at the time. And there it is – the point where Sheehan-Byrnes-Dempsey DNA reared its Irish head. “K” found the answer to his question.

Robert was not finished though. He fathered children with another woman whom he finally married in 1963 just one month before his own death.

How did the obituary get it so wrong? Sadie’s close family were the children and grandchildren of her brother John. They were not close with the other Byrnes brothers and therefore likely had no knowledge of Robert’s life.

While my favorite photo has nothing to do with this story, Helen is the one who made these discoveries possible.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” 
© 2020, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. What a fascinating story! Good detective work!

  2. Do you have spread sheets with all family info? It must be a nightmare to keep it all straight. I think I followed this but I think I got lost a bit. It is fascinating though with the DNA and how "K" came in contact with you.


  3. Happy New Year Wendy, you are making great progress with this line. Best of Luck in 2020.

  4. Oh, me. I'm worried that I might have some issues like this lurking on my tree. So far everyone seems pretty up-front, but I need to not dismiss clues that don't fit my preconceived narrative.