Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Key to Ireland: Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture, 11th Edition - IRWIN and MOFFAT, County Cavan

Just a couple of years before I began researching our family tree, my mum and I travelled to Great Britain together on a sight-seeing trip. She knew our Irish immigrant ancestors’ names – Mary Jane MOFFAT and James IRWIN – but believed they had come from County Armagh, so while in Ireland, we gave the obligatory wave to the family roots, but no more than that (as we did in York, England – at least we were closer to the truth there).

Very soon, perhaps even because of our trip, I decided to start researching. My original goal was to identify each of my North American immigrant ancestors, their places of birth and when they came to Canada.

I did start with myself, or at least, my mum and dad, and worked backwards in the approved manner, but in fits and starts, as I was working and had teenage children. I searched Ontario and Manitoba census records on microfilm and combed through Ontario microfilmed indexes of births, marriages and deaths. I made copies or sent for copies through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and collected quite a bit of information.

We did have IRWIN relatives besides our branch who had come to British Columbia though. The earliest one I knew of was James IRWIN (b. 1860, Victoria County, Ontario, Canada) who had settled in Sardis, BC. He was a brother to my mum’s grandfather, William IRWIN; both were sons of James IRWIN and Mary Jane MOFFAT. Our families had been in touch for years so I already had his date and place of death. In BC, registration forms for earlier deaths (currently up to 1988) are indexed and available on microfilm, so his was one of the first family death registrations that I looked at. His daughter had been the informant. She gave both his parents’ names, and in both cases, she had said their place of birth was County Cavan, Ireland. She could have been wrong, of course, but with this in mind, I went looking to see who else was researching IRWINs. Since I knew the family had lived in Ontario, I checked the Ontario Genealogical Society’s members' surname interests and queries and soon I did find two other relatives researching the same IRWIN names and places; one had done years of research already. We were soon in touch and the County Cavan, Ireland origin was confirmed. I was then able to get a copy of James and Mary Janes’s marriage – at the Coroneary Meeting House in the Townland of Coroneary, Knockbride Parish, District of Cootehill, 18 August, 1846. This led me to much more information. There's a tip - always look at collateral relatives, especially brothers and sisters of your direct ancestors.

I knew where they had died – Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. At the turn of the century, after their children had gone west from Ontario to Manitoba in the 1880s and 1890s, Mary Jane and James had migrated to Manitoba too, settling in Neepawa. The Riverside Cemetery in Neepawa offered lookups and sent me a transcription and the location of the grave, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I was able to visit.

Riverside Cemetery in Neepawa is an often visited cemetery with several ‘important’ graves and a beautiful location. I did have one genealogical tip brought home to me there – don’t assume. By 2003, I had visited a lot of cemeteries. My family are mostly ‘ordinary’ people; few even have gravestones. I had checked with the Riverside office so I knew there was an IRWIN stone, but somehow I couldn’t find it. Finally a cemetery worker volunteered to re-check the location and lead me to the spot. Heavens! James and Mary Jane had a tall standing monument. I must never have even looked at it – I had been right by there already. Even though a bit hot and bothered by that time, I did appreciate the joke on me – I must have only been looking for something small and low.

JULY 13, 1910
Asleep in Jesus blessed sleep
From which none ever wake to

APR 22 1909

Mary Jane died first. Did she have her own stone after her burial or was this one erected then and James’ details filled in later or was it only erected after James’ death? This monument seems really James’ – Mary Jane is identified as “His Beloved Wife” but her own surname is given. The cemetery’s burial index identifies her as ‘Mary Jane IRWIN (Mrs. James)’, burial date: 24 April, 1909. James was buried the 16th of July, 1910. The grave’s location is: Lot: 212, Block: D, Row 19.

Here’s something else to be careful of too. The cemetery’s burial information omits Mary Jane’s surname, but as well, the inscription transcription I received originally said “Asleep in Jesus blessed sleep From which none ever wake to sleep.” The monument though says “to weep”. Always check the original. Now that digital photographs are so easy to take and to share, it’s perhaps less of a problem to double check cemetery inscriptions.

Both the ‘Asleep in Jesus’ inscriptions seem to be common and are from the hymn by the same name written by Margaret Mackay, published in 1832, and inspired, she said by a cemetery inscription seen at the Pennycross Chapel in Derbyshire, England. (Words to the poem were published in the Baptist Reporter and Missionary Intelligencer, New Series Volume X, edited by Joseph Foulkes Winks (London, England: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1853. See below.)

And just to show that I am not too, too serious about all this, here is one of the Riverside Cemetery postcards I send home to my children from Neepawa – Gilles is one of the cats. (We have no family rabbits.)


Riverside Cemetery, Neepawa, Manitoba, Canada. On-line burial index, history:

IRWIN and MOFFAT, County Cavan, Ireland - 8th Carnival of Irish Heritage and Culture. A previous post with a photograph of Mary Jane Moffat and James Irwin:

‘Asleep in Jesus’ historical notes and music:

‘Asleep in Jesus’, mentioned in English Hymns: Their Authors and History by Samuel Willoughby (New York, USA: Duffield Funk & Wagnalls, 1886) p. 46. Google Book Search:

‘Asleep in Jesus’ text (printed without attribution), Baptist Reporter and Missionary Intelligencer, New Series Volume X, edited by Joseph Foulkes Winks (London, England: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1853), p. 8. Google Book Search:,M1

No comments: