Roscommon Runaways – Some Mysteries Solved

Barnhill House, Home to Gerry & Sandra Kelly, and home of Frank Stroker & his daughter, Kate.
The Kellys still farm the same acreage that Frank farmed one hundred and fifty years ago.

The Famine Irish experience was not all of one cloth. Just like the one million who died and two million who fled, the five million remaining had experiences across a wide range.

Such was the case with the Gilroe/Stroker family. Yet, unraveling that story has been no less challenging than uncovering the stories of the poor folk dispersed by the Great Hunger.
Until last year, I did not even know about Frank Stroker. But I had heard the following story.
From the time I was a young boy, my great aunt, Theresa Carson Ostermann (1896-1987), as well as my aunt, Muriel Smalley Lenihan (1918-1992), told me the story of a young woman, born into a wealthy family, who fell in love with a laborer on the family farm and, as a result, was disowned.
Ellen Gilroe (left), Grandma Marcella (standing, center), Aunt Teresa (right) at the family summer camp, circa 1920.
The disapproving father banished his daughter. And thus, the two young lovers, Patrick Kilroe and Kate Stroker, left Ireland, first for Manchester, England, then back to Athleague in Roscommon, and then to America, where they settled among a Roscommon and Sligo community in Harrisville, Rhode Island.
With so little to go on, it seemed that I would never uncover the mystery of these two young lovers. The Gilroe name is very unusual. And Theresa, their granddaughter, didn’t even know Kate’s maiden name.
For years, I continued to pursue the few slim leads that I could find.
Finally, on the eve of last year’s trip to Ireland with Dad and son Dan, I found Kate’s death certificate. On it was listed her father’s name, Frank Stoker (sp), and her birthplace, Roscommon, Ireland.
That led me to Frank Stroker and to Kilbride Parish in County Roscommon, and thus, to their story.
In 1857, Frank Stroker held a lease on 161 acres in the townland of Barnhill, just north of Roscommon town, and just south of Kilbride Parish. His landlord was a very wealthy and prominent citizen, Henry Pakenham, dean of St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Dublin.
Sheep farming in Barnhill.
In a society where holdings of thirty acres were significant, Frank’s acreage made him a very wealthy man. The fact that he leased the land rather than owning it mattered for little in a country where the natives had lost their land to absentee landlords. The produce from such a property assured the Stroker family’s well being.

Thus, young Kate was born, about 1837, into a life of privilege. And, while the Great Hunger surely had a devastating impact on the Stokers, there was still food on their table, including rarities such as beef, pork and lamb. But here the story becomes unclear. Fank was married twice, first to Ann Murry in 1839 and then to Margaret Murphy in 1847. It is entirely likely that Ann Murry died in childbirth and that Frank sent his children off to live with relatives. I suspect that because in the 1851 census Frank and Margaret are listed with their children, but with the children that Frank had with Ann Murry. Yet, it seems that Kate still had contact with her father in the years after that.

A nineteenth century photograph of William Stroker’s home in nearby Kilteevan. There were only a few Stroker families in County Roscommon, most likely all related. Each of the Stoker men leased significant land.

Sometime in her teenage years, Kate met Patrick Gilroe, and the two fell in love. Patrick was of a family that had barely survived the Great Hunger. Illiterate and poor, yet strong enough for farm work, he had little to call his own.

A humble nineteenth farmhouse near Barnhill.

In fact, all he had was the employment that Frank Stroker offered him. He must have been quite the charming and handsome young man, because Kate gave up a great deal for him.

A memorial in Kilbride Parish. The parish lost 45% of its people during the great hunger.
The shock to the family was palpable. Their hopes that their young daughter would marry a well-to-do farmer were shattered.
Rejected by her family, she and Patrick left Barnhill in about 1856 or 1857, for the industrial city of Manchester, England. At this point, she was 19 or 20, and Patrick 17.
It was in Manchester that their first child was born. Forever after, Ellen, my great grandmother, would refer to herself as a native of Manchester, England. And, in fact, she was. But I also think that her identifying with being English was a reaction to the shame that she felt of being Irish in and unfriendly country and because of her being disowned by her family. After a few years in Manchester, her parents took her back to Roscommon, where she spent several years of her childhood and where at least two of her siblings were born.
Kate Gilroe, born in 1862.
Ellen Gilroe, born in 1857.

When they returned to County Roscommon, they lived in Athleague, a little over seven miles from Kate’s childhood home in Barnhill. Perhaps Patrick had family in Athleague. It was there that daughter Bridget was christened on December 18, 1865.

Three years after the birth of Bridget, Kate did the unthinkable. She applied with her four children to the Athleague workhouse for relief. In appealing for help, she said that her husband had gone off to America and that she expected that “his efforts in the new world would soon relieve his wife and family from an Irish workhouse. They were admitted.” (The Roscommon Messenger, March 16, 1868, p.5).

Learning about Kate, who was born about 1837, was the easy part. Patrick Gilroe is still quite the invisible man. With such an unusual name, Patrick was impossible to trace. Today, there are almost none in Ireland, Britain or the United States. The original name is, in fact, Kilroe.
That was made clear when I visited with Father Ray Brown at the parish offices for Kilbride Parish, County Roscommon.
Ray Sr. & Dan McKenna, with Father Ray Brown, in Father Brown’s office, Kilbride Parish, March 2011.
Looking through the records with Father Brown, I found a Gilroe listed, Mary, born on February 6, 1838. On a hunch, I looked for the name Kilroe and found the person who is most likely our Patrick. His parents, Thomas and Ann Mannion Kilroe, had several children. One was listed as Gilroe, but most were listed as Kilroe. Kilroe and Gilroe are the same name. To the ear, the two names sound similar.
Baptismal Record of Patrick Gilroe.

By the summer of 1872, the family was on the move again. In late May or early June, Kate put her four children on a ship in Liverpool. Traveling without parents, and in steerage, they arrived in Boston some weeks later. It must have been a harrowing trip in which thirteen-year-old Ellen looked out for eleven-year-old Michael, seven-year-old Kate, and five-year-old Bridget.

The manifest from the ship, Samaria, which arrived in Boston on July 16, 1872. Note the name, “Kilroe.”
Reunited with their mother, they eventually they settled in the village of Harrisville, Rhode Island, where a community of Roscommon and Sligo folks had gone to work in the woolen mills. Among the Roscommon families there were Carsons (family), O’Reillys, Lanihens, O’Connors, Featherstones, Hanleys, Fallons, Trimbles, Campbells and Reillys. Some folk, like the Quinns (relatives) and Reillys, were from Kilbride Parish. There were also Quinns from nearby Kilteevan, the village of William Stroker.
Martin & Mary Quinn, born in Kilbride Parish, buried in Harrisville, R.I.
From Sligo, there were Gradys, Doughertys, McDermotts, Kieltys (Keelty, Kelty) and Islands.
In Harrisville, daughter Ellen met and married Frank Carson, whose father, Patrick, had come from Roscommon in 1846.
Frank Carson & Ellen Gilroe, with their children, circa 1888.

And, thus the mystery of the Gilroe family was solved. Or was it? What happened to Patrick Gilroe? After 1865, he is nowhere to be found. Did he come to America? Did he stay in Ireland? Did he go back to England? That handsome young man, who stirred the pot and changed the futures of all around him, remains an enigma.

 

Kilbride Parish students in 2011. This could have been the author, had the family stayed.

 

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