(former USA Vice President)
his Irish Finnegan Ancestors.
On 20 January 2009 a new President and Vice
President were inaugurated in the United States of
America. In the case of Vice President Joe Biden two
counties in Ireland have been pinpointed as the home
county of the Finnegan Family - one of his ancestral
Smolenyak, a USA based genealogist, believed County
Louth was the county of origin. However in an online
article, dated 28 August 2008,
Niall O’Dowd of
stated that the then Senator Biden
“gave his most extensive
review of his roots and his Irish heritage to Irish
America magazine, our sister publication, in 1985”.
In an extract from that interview he stated.
“Biden hails from a Famine era family, the Finnegans,
who fled Co. Mayo to avoid the Great Hunger. His
great grandmother Finnegan was the only one who
could read Gaelic, and she used to read letters in
Gaelic for those who could not read the letters from
home and she’s write back in Gaelic for them.”
So how does the County Louth connection arise?
From the following military and US census records
Vice President Biden’s ancestry back to a James
Finnegan born in Ireland about 1840 is fairly
certain. Actual proof would require obtaining church
or vital records.
Vice President Biden was born in Scranton,
Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Robinette Biden
and Catherine Eugenia "Jean" Finnegan. As his mother
was born about 1917 she appears both in the 1920 and
1930 US censuses. Her father was Ambrose J.
According to a World War II record, dated 27 April
1942, Ambrose Joseph Finnegan was born on 11
July 1884 in Olyphant, Lackawanna County,
Pennsylvania, USA. At that time he listed his
employer as a Mr. M. L. Goodman of the
Scrantonian-Tribune. He was 5ft 11½ins in height,
weighed 170 lbs, with blue eyes, blonde hair and a
On 4 April 1930 he was living in Scranton,
Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, with his wife
Geraldine Blewitt, his children Gerald J., Blewitt
E., Ambrose J., Catherine E. (i.e. mother of Vice
President Biden), John A. and his sister-in-law
Gertrude M. Blewitt. He was an advertising manager
in a newspaper office. He stated he was born in
Pennsylvania and his parents in New York. In the
same building, but enumerated as a separate family,
was a William O’Boyle born about 1901 in
Pennsylvania but with parents born in the Irish Free
State. William worked as a butcher in a meat market.
Who this William was may be of significance as his
parents, if from Ireland as stated, are lively to
have emigrated long after the Famine years.
On 2 January 1920 Ambrose was residing in Scranton
with his wife Geraldine, his children Gerald,
Edward, Ambrose J. and Eugenia, his father-in-law
Edward Blewitt who was born about 1859 in Louisianna
but of Irish parents, and his sister-in-law Gertrude
Blewitt. This Edward Blewitt was a civil and mining
engineer for a coal mining business while Ambrose
was working for a newspaper business. The latter
stated that he was born in Pennsylvania, his father
in Ireland and his mother in New York. It is well
known that in these later censuses that inaccurate
places of birth of parents were given to the
enumerator but in this district the enumerator is an
‘Ambrose J. Finnegan’!.
By his World War I registration record Ambrose
Joseph Finnegan, born on 11 July 1884, lived in
Scranton and was employed as an advertising
solicitor with the Scrantonian Publishing Co..
In the previous census, taken 19 April 1910, Ambrose
was residing in the house of his father-in-law,
Edward Blewitt, a civil engineer, in Scranton and
was married to Geraldine with only one child Gerald.
Also in the house were Gertrude, Patrick and Arthur
the children of Edward Blewitt.
Ten years earlier, on 8 June 1900, Ambrose was
working as an errand boy, was single and residing
still in Scranton City, Lackawanna County,
Pennsylvania, but with his uncle Peter Roche, a
switchman. Peter was born about October 1855 in New
York of Irish parents. He is married to Bridget and
has children: Thomas, Mary, Annie, Peter J., Nellie
and Margaret, all born in Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately the 1890 Federal census is not
available but it can be concluded from above that
Ambrose Finnegan was born in Olyphant, Lackawanna
County, Pennsylvania on 11 July 1884 and his
mother’s maiden name was ‘Roche’.
On the 1880 census for Olyphant, Lackawanna County,
was a James Finnigan, a musician, blind, born about
1842 in Ireland, with his wife Catherine, born about
1847 in Ireland, and children Eugene, Jennie,
Stephen, John and Louis. The first three children
were born in New York and the rest in Pennsylvania.
James could not read or write but Catherine could.
However since the oldest children of James were born
in New York it was likely his marriage to Catherine
took place there also. Ms Megan Smolenyak located a
marriage of 1866 of a James Finnegan and a Catherine
Roche, at the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in
Ovid, Seneca County, New York. The marriage entry
gave the names of the parents of James as Owen
Finnegan and Jane Boyle.
County was situated south of Lake Ontario, one of
the Great Lakes, and between two smaller lakes
called Seneca and Cayuga.
Source: History of Seneca Co., New York, With
iIlustrations, descriptive of its scenery,
Palatial Residences, Public Buldings, Fine Blocks
and Important Manufactories, Philadelphia,
Everts, Ensign & Everts, 1876, republished by W.E.
Morrison & Co., Ovid, New York, following p.100,
Allen County Library Genealogy Center.
In the 1870 census,
in the village of Ovid, was an Owen Finnegan, born
about 1819 in Ireland, with his wife Jane, born
about 1824 in Ireland, and children: Maggie age 18
years, Thomas age 11 years and Michie age 4 years,
all born in New York. He was a shoemaker and had
property (real estate) valued at $1500.
Source: http://www.ancestry.com (subscription
James was not
listed with this household as he was married in 1866
and living elsewhere. So far only one possible entry
for James and his wife Catherine has been found in
the 1870 census – a hotel keeper in Rochester which
is still doubtful as James was supposedly ‘blind’.
But locating births of his children will verify
where he resided at that time.
However, ten years
earlier, on 1 August 1860 in the Village of Ovid,
County of Seneca, New York, was above Owen, a
shoemaker, his wife Jane and sons James age 19 years
and so born about 1841 (stated ‘blind’) and Patrick
age 12 all born in Ireland, and daughter Margaret
age 8 years and sons John and Thomas born in Seneca
County, New York. Also in the house was a domestic
servant named Bridget McGregan age 16 years and born
Source: http://www.ancestry.com (subscription
By 1860 Owen
already owned property (real estate) valued at $1000
so he was not poor.
Source: History of Seneca Co., op. cit., after
Since Owen’s son
Patrick was stated to be born in Ireland, about
1848, and daughter Margaret was born in New York,
about 1852, one can concluded that the parents had
possibly emigrated between 1848 and 1852.
This date of
emigration can be shortened further. In the 1850
census, taken for Covert, Seneca County, New York,
on 20 August 1850, was an Owen born about 1820, his
wife Jane born about 1822, and sons James age 10
years, Stephen age 7 years and Michael age 5 years
all born in Ireland.
Source: http://www.ancestry.com (subscription
Since none of the family were listed as born in New
York it would appear that this family arrived within
the previous few years. Owen gave his occupation as
‘labourer’ and he did not own any property. However
his neighbours were nearly all native New Yorkers
with real estate valued from $1000 to $12000.
Covert was south of Ovid and situated near Lake
Source: History of Seneca Co., op. cit., after page
Between above censuses of 1850 to 1870 it is noted
that some of the children had left home. In 1860
Stephen possibly worked as a farm labourer in
Romulus County nearby. On 12 April 1861 the Civil
War had broken out and continued until 1865. It
appears that by 1863 three Finnegan boys, stated to
be born in Ireland on the 1850 census, are mentioned
on Civil War Records for the Union Army.
- In the
History of Seneca County, page 103, a Michael
Finnegan from Ovid is stated to have enlisted on 24
August 1862, in Company I, New York 164th Infantry
Regiment, and killed the same day at the battle of
Cold Harbour. However there seems to be some mix up
on the military records (i.e. Military Muster Rolls
and Record of Soldiers and officers) between this
Michael and another Michael Finnigan of same age
Source: Record of Soldiers and officers, part of
record for Michael Finnegan,
It is possible that, by the outbreak of the Civil
War, Michael from Ovid had moved to Lockport where
other Finnigan families lived. But there still is a
Michael Finnegan in the 1880 US census residing in
Lockport. On the Military Muster Rolls this maybe
the Michael who enlisted 23 August 1862 at Newfane,
mustered 19 November 1862, into Company B, 164
Infantry and reported missing in action at Cold
Harbor. On the Roll it stated he was from Ireland,
age 18 years, a labourer, black eyes, black hair,
and 5ft 5inches tall.
New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts,
1861-1900, part of record for Michael Finnigan,
It is noted above, in the 1870 Census for Ovid, that
another child was born to Owen and Jane, about 1866,
and named Michael shortened to 'Michie'. This
renaming of children after a child that had died was
not unusual in Irish families.
- James Finnigan of Ovid, the musician, age 21
years, appeared on the Civil War Draft Registration
records, 1863-1865, on 1 July 1863.
Source: US, Civil War Draft Registrations
Records, 1863-1865 record for James Finnigan,
- Stephen enlisted, in Company I, New York 164th
Infantry Regiment, in Ovid on 26 December 1863, was
promoted to Sergeant and mustered out on 15 July
1865 at Washington, DC. It was stated, in 1863, that
he was born in Ireland, age 20 years, occupation a
'shoemaker', blue eyes, brown hair and 5ft 6 inches
Source: New York, Civil War Muster Roll
Abstracts, 1861 1900, part of record for Stephen
To summarize, from the main US records available,
the persons stated to be born in Ireland are:- Owen
Finnegan about 1820, his wife Jane about 1822,
children James about 1840, Stephen about 1842,
Michael about 1845 and Patrick about 1848. The year
of emigration was possibly between 1848 and 20
August 1850 presuming that the family residing in
Covert, Seneca County, in 1850 was the same family
who settled in nearby Ovid Village by 1860.
In the case of County Mayo there were Finnegans in
Pennsylvania, where Vice President Biden’s ancestors
later settled, who came from that county. However on
searching the index to available Roman Catholic
Registers for the county there is no family of an
Owen Finnegan and Jane Boyle. But only about quarter
of the nineteenth century parish registers for
County Mayo date pre 1840. In addition the surname
‘Finnegan’ has various spellings and ‘Boyle’ can
also be ‘O’Boyle’. So such a search is inconclusive.
On checking passenger lists the most likely entry so
far located is for a Jane born about 1823 emigrating
on the Marchioness of Bute, from Newry, and arriving
in New York on 15 May 1850. With her were children
James age 7, Stephen age 5, and Patrick an infant.
On the transcribed index to the passenger lists,
available online, the child Patrick was stated to be
'born at sea'. But as it is always advisable to look
at the original records the correct detail should be
that Patrick was 'an infant'.
Source: http://www.ancestry.com (subscription
Source: National LIbrary of Ireland, microfilm.
Note also Jane's occupation was given as 'spintrefs'
or 'spinstress' which is a person who spins yarn.
If this is the correct Jane then Owen
emigrated in late 1848 to early 1850 to prepare the
way for his family. The child Michael possibly
emigrated with him or with a close neighbour or
relative. This would not be unusual as there existed
at the time a fear that a whole family could be lost
by the outbreak of fever on board ship or of it
sinking. The fact that Jane and her family emigrated
from Newry would suggest she came from that region.
In the case of the Roman Catholic Registers for
County Louth there was the marriage of an Owen
Finegan and Jane Boyle in Cooley Parish on 8
December 1839. (the witnesses were Michael Woods and
James Donnelly) and in neighbouring Lordship Parish
the baptism entries of James in 1840, Michael in
1845 and a Patrick in 1848 to the family. So far the
baptism of Stephen has not been located.
Unfortunately no exact address was given for the
family on the parish registers but it would appear
that they may have come from the part of north
County Louth bounded by the sea and a line from
Bellurgan to Carlingford.
To go back to the Biden family folklore that Vice
President Joe Biden’s great grandmother knew Gaelic.
This great grandmother was the Catherine Roche who
married, in New York, the James Finnegan stated to
be born in Ireland about 1840. While emigrants from
County Louth for the period are not known as being
Gaelic speakers it is quite likely the child James
and his parents Owen and Jane had some knowledge of
the language as, up until more recent times, there
was an Irish speaking community further north around
the Omeath area. It is also likely that a priest in
Cooley parish had some interest in the language as
the parish register of the time period, while
written in English, used the old Gaelic form of
So the evidence, so far uncovered, is quite strong
that the Finnegans were from north County Louth. But
there is one noticeable similarity between the
inhabitants of Ovid, where Owen Finnegan settled,
and this part of the Cooley peninsula and that is in
the surnames. Besides a number of Finnegan families
in Ovid, by 1860, were residents, stated to be born
in Ireland, with surnames White, Quinn, Hanlon,
Morgan, Toner, Donnelly, McBride, Rooney, Woods,
Rogan and by 1870 Census also Feehan, along with
other more common surnames like Murphy, Carroll,
Reilly, Malone, and Clarke etc.. So it may not be
just one family that settled in that part of New
York but many from north County Louth.
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