Mayo, God Help Us

[New findings.] My mother and Uncle Tom Groark used to commiserate that they both had ancestors from “Mayo, God help us.” County Mayo [may-OH], isolated as it is in the rural northwest of Eire, is reputed to be the poorest area of Ireland. I’m researching the my mother’s Keville family, farmers from the townland of Moyne, in the parish of Shrule (civil district of Ballinrobe), on Mayo’s southernmost border with Galway. My great-grandmother Maggie was the fifth child of ten and the first to be sent to America, at the age of nineteen.

The realities of our ancestors’ hardships are an abstraction till we hit upon a small fact or two that gives life to the suffering.

In 1872, when Maggie was seven, her nine-year-old sister Mary died after a two-year battle with tuberculosis (“phthisis pulmonalis”).

From the civil death registrations in the archives of

TB was rampant throughout Ireland in the years after the Great Hunger and the subject of many superstitions, its origins not clear till Koch’s work in 1882. Its prevalence is a sign of overcrowding and poverty. How was it to have a “fairy stricken” child wasting away in the Kevilles’ midst, without the benefit of a sanitarium? Or did the whole family suffer from TB to one degree or another? Was Maggie sent to America first because she was the healthiest? How did it affect her to lose an older sister at that impressionable age?

I knew that in 1902, Maggie’s mother, Mary Spellman Keville, died an old woman in her home after being paralyzed for six years, which I assume was due to a stroke. Maggie’s 60-year-old father died in 1884, shortly after Maggie landed in America, but how? Last night I finally found his death registration.

Patrick Keville died after a fifteen-day bout with typhus.

From the civil death registrations in the archives of

Here is another terrible malady to investigate. It is spread by infected body lice, bloodsuckers commonplace back in the day (ew).

Dying from epidemic typhus [Rickettsia prowazekii] was not a pleasant way to go. After a brutal onset involving excruciating headache and blistering fever, a rash would arise. The face would darken and swell, and a crazed delirium could send the sufferer leaping about naked and screaming, impossible to subdue. Following this period, which sometimes seemed to subside into a false recovery, the patient would enter a stupor, which gave the disease its name: typhos in Greek means “smoky” or “hazy.” Toward the end, gangrene could set in, rotting fingers and toes and driving away caregivers with the horrific stench. Death, when it came, would be a release.

“Of Lice and Men,” By Emily Willingham on February 14, 2011, Scientific American blog

Quick research suggests that typhus epidemics killed over a million Irish in the first half of the 19th century. Apparently, there were still outbreaks when my great-great grandfather died and no one yet had a clue what caused it.

These glimpses into the farm life of the Keville family makes me unaccountably sad.

I was writing about Maggie this week and began to romanticize the Ireland she left behind. I guess she gave me a poke and set the record straight.


  1. Greetings from Mayo! What an interesting post. I imagine you know a lot more about your ancestral history than most people actually living here do. It’s funny, Mayo was certainly very isolated and poor, and there are still a lot of rural towns (farming is a big thing here, too) but being on the West Coast and on the Dublin-Mayo train line has transformed it into a popular holiday destination. I hope you get to visit some time (if you haven’t already). Your knowledge of your family history is something I admire, even if some of it is difficult to read. Very interesting post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I have visited, found the townland of Moyne and the church in Shrule. We also did some touristic driving. It is definitely beautiful.. As I said, I was beginning to apply my own lovely experience to that of the Kevilles. Finding out some new facts helped me see why so many felt forced to leave. Thanks for letting me know about the Dublin-Mayo train — hope to get back there one of these days!

      Liked by 2 people

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