I knew about my great-great grandmother, Ellen Prendergast Tormey, but I didn't know anything about her. Based on various records I had, including my great-grandmother's birth certificate and Ellen's death certificate from Brooklyn in 1912, I knew that she had been born in Ireland around 1861, that her parents were Edward Prendergast and Ellen, no last name, that she came over about 1885, and that she married my great great grandfather, Michael Tormey, around 1887. That's it. She was a more recent Irish immigrant ancestor of mine - not a Famine immigrant, but still too early for Ellis Island. Her Irish origins were probably the most murky of all my murky Irish ancestor origins - at least for all the others, I had a county (which is still pretty useless without a specific place within the county). For Ellen, I just had "Ireland."
I had recently found a transcription of her marriage to Michael in FindMyPast's Archdiocese of New York Catholic records, but it provided no information beyond a date and place - I've been waiting for FindMyPast to upload the actual images to the database. In the meantime, I did what I always do when I'm at a roadblock - I go to a newspaper archive, in this case FultonHistory.com, and I insert random word combinations into the search field to see what comes up. My favorite search type on that website is the boolean seach, so this might be my search history for a certain day: first name within 2 of last name, last name within 5 of street name, street name and house number, last name within 15 of mother's maiden name, last name within 15 of street name in parentheses within 20 of sister's married last name. I mean, it doesn't matter how random the combination, I will try it - it's half an act of desperation, half an act of curiosity to see what I might discover.
So the other day, I did a search for Tormey within 15 of Prendergast and got an obituary for a Michael Prendergast who had died at the home of his niece, Winnie Tormey.
This was new, but intriguing. I had never heard of a Michael Prendergast before, but Winnie Tormey, his niece, had the same name as my great-grandmother's sister, and he was the right age to have been Ellen's brother. She didn't seem to be living at the address with which I always associated the family, but a quick search of marriage license applications in the newspaper, listed with the man I knew my Winnie married, she is living at the same address as the Winnie whose uncle was Michael Prendergast. I think maybe I finally found a relative of my great-great grandmother's, and not just Michael, but three living siblings who are mentioned - Ann Rotchford, Bridget Kelly, and Thomas Prendergast! And there was one huge important clue to unlocking that potential connection further: Michael Prendergast was born in County Roscommon, Ireland. Roscommon!
Further research confirmed that Michael's father was Edward Prendergast, but his mother was a woman named Winifred Kelly. A search for Ann, Bridget and Thomas also found records for children of Edward Prendergast and Winifred Kelly. But my Ellen's mother was Ellen - could she have been a half-sibling? She was born in the middle of all these other siblings. Could I have the wrong family after all? Or could the informant on her death certificate gotten her mother's name wrong, as I've so often seen? Ellen DID have a daughter named Winifred, and many families (especially my family) have naming patterns and traditions, that Ellen could've named her daughter after her mother. A search found that Edward Prendergast and Winifred Kelly had a daughter Ellen in 1861 - the same year as my Ellen. These were not coincidences. An educated guess and my gut, which I always trust in genealogy, was telling me that Ellen's mother was not Ellen, a name that turns out to have messed up my searches for her for so many years - her parents were Edward (nicknamed Ned!) and Winifred. By doing a random newspaper search I had stumbled upon a huge breakthrough - I not only found Ellen's parents, I not only found her siblings (more than mentioned in Michael's obituary), but I found her actual date of birth and I found her birthplace and one of my Irish ancestral villages - Kiltulla, Castlerea, County Roscommon. That simple placename has broken open this family line to cousins who remained behind in Ireland, cousins who ended up in Chicago, and finding my 3x great-grandmother's name in the 1901 Irish census. My Irish family came over so long ago (even the recent ones like the Prendergasts) that I've never seen any of my ancestors listed in a 20th century Irish document. Winnie died later that same year, in 1901, but seeing her name on that piece of paper, seeing that she spoke both English and Irish, and that she was living with her son, surrounded by her grandchildren...it was an emotional moment for me. And I accidentally stumbled into all of it.
Moral of the story: Be creative and loose when doing online searches.
Moral of the story II: NEVER take as ironclad information, especially secondhand information, that has not been backed up by another source.