Family History from Letters
For a brief history of the Coogan immigration from County Carlow, follow the links in the summary below. For a more complete history, read all the letters in sequence.
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Most of these letters were written by the children of Mathew Coogan (1795-1860) and Catharine Nolan Coogan (1798-1883) of Ballyloughan, County Carlow, Ireland. Two were written by Mathew himself. A few were written by family friends sending news from home and asking for news of their relatives in America.
Catharine (Kitty) Nolan Coogan and Mathew Coogan, Parents of the Immigrants:
Catharine's family had lived for generations in Bagenalstown when Mathew's family arrived, probably from County Cork, during the 18th Century. Mathew's primary trade was carpentry, and he taught all his sons carpentry and shoemaking. Catharine and Mathew had 14 children, of whom 12 survived infancy. All but one of their children emigrated to the U.S. between 1850 and 1870. In 1854, Mathew wrote to his immigrant son Patrick in Harlem, New York City, that the family was living in poverty in Ireland and that even though emigration plans were proceeding slowly, Mathew still had hopes of all his clan reuniting in New York City. His letters show that the "Great Hunger" following the failure of the potato crop and the indifference of the colonial government wrought devastation into the 1850's in County Carlow as elsewhere on the island. Householders like Mathew struggled to support their families while their immigrant children sought a foothold of opportunity abroad. As we learn from a letter penned by the teenaged Michael Coogan, six years after Mathew wrote to Patrick in New York, Mathew died in Ballyloughan after a long illness. He was interred beside his mother, Bridget Byrne Coogan (1763-1830), in Ballinkillen Cemetery, County Carlow. Although he did not see his immigrant children again, his widow and, with one exception, his children at home eventually joined their sisters and brothers in America.
Michael Coogan, Brother Declan, the Son Who Stayed in Ireland:
Three years after Mathew's death, his son Michael, at age 21, entered the Cistercian Monastery at Mount Melleray, Cappoquin, County Waterford. To his community, he was known as Brother Declan. The family's departure from Ireland had begun when Michael was just nine years old, and it continued until all his brothers and sisters and his widowed mother had left Ballyloughan for America. Michael worked as a shoemaker and wrote letters to raise funds for the building of his community's churches. His letters to family tell of the dedications of the churches, and they include some anecdotes about his early days at Mount Melleray Abbey and the founding of Mount Saint Joseph Monastery. Dom Camillus Claffey's Profiles in Sanctity tells of the "savage austerity" practiced by the Irish Cistercians of the Strict Observance in the 19th Century, and Brother Declan's letters bear testimony to a highly disciplined life: he mentions the strictness of the diet, the calls to prayer at several hours of the day and night, winters with no peat to burn for fuel, and prohibition on the reading of newspapers. Yet he wrote also of the great joy in his life of prayer, work, and sacrifice and of the tranquillity and beauty of the monasteries and the nearby mountains. The Profiles recounts that Brother Declan "seemed to be well read and had good ability. Our ancients often recalled his memory by telling edifying stories of his child-like faith and devotion." Faith and devotion figure prominantly in the letters he sent to his immigrant brothers, sisters, and mother. He kept up a correspondence with relatives in County Carlow as well, and in many letters to America, he sent words of faith, encouragement, and admonition, along with news of friends at home. Michael "underwent much suffering" subsequent to diabetes in the years before his death at the Cistercian Monastery of Mount Saint Joseph in Roscrea, County Tipperary, in 1904, after 42 years as a lay brother in the Community.
The Immigrant Sons and Daughters, 1851-1869
Mary and Patrick:
According to oral history, the elder sisters of the family immigrated first, coming through Canada. Soon after, their brothers and one husband joined them in New York City. The earliest of the immigrants was Mary Coogan (1825-1866), who left Ireland in either 1849 or 1850. When Mary's eldest brother, Patrick (1823-1891), arrived in New York soon after, he found work in the Ward's Island Hospital, where he met Cornelius Sexton of Cloghnakilty, County Cork, and James T. Sheehan of Limerick. Cornelius was then Captain of the Ward's Island Boat House and later had a liquor store in Manhattan. By 1854, Mary Coogan had married Cornelius Sexton, and Patrick had married Frances Quinn, another Irish immigrant whose origins are still unknown to us. In October 1853, Patrick purchased property at 125 East 109th Street for $335 at a New York City auction, property which he hoped would be the home of family immigrants to follow. In 1863, his brother Mathew purchased a nearby site and built a three-family house at 186 East 109th St., and he set up a workshop for his brothers' carpentry business. The family acquired other properties in this area, both for residence and for their work, and they leased apartments in some of their buildings to other immigrants. This area of Harlem would be their home until the 20th century. During the time of the Draft Riots, when the Union Government aggressively drafted Irish immigrants in New York City to serve in the Civil War, Patrick was a New York City Police officer.
Perhaps it was Mary Coogan Sexton's death in 1866 that made up her mother's mind to join her children in New York City; also, Patrick might have asked for her help when his wife Frances became seriously ill with Hepatitis. After the family lost Mary, Cornelius Sexton and his children continued to live near Mary's brothers and sisters in Harlem and continued to visit with his late wife's family. By the time of the 1880 U.S. Census, Mary and Cornelius' children included sons in college and in law school. Two years after Mary's death, Frances Quinn Coogan died of Hepatitis, some months after Patrick's brother, Hugh, immigrated with their mother, Catharine Nolan Coogan. By 1870, Patrick had married James T. Sheehan's daughter, Mary Ann. Patrick and Frances' daughter Lizzie lived with Patrick's second family until her marriage about 1879 to Joseph Harris, a painter; the Harris family lived at 214 E. 109th St. through at least 1889. Patrick and Mary Ann had nine children, the youngest just eight years old when both parents died in the fall of 1891, soon after the marriage of their eldest daughter, Katie, in St. Cecilia's Church in Harlem.
Patrick's brother James (1830-1918) left Ireland soon after his elder brother's departure, and he stayed with Patrick for a while in New York. By 1854, however, James left New York for work with the railroad in its westward expansion. He settled in Lincoln, Illinois, where in 1857 he married a young widow, Jane McMahon Townsend, whose first husband, Thomas Townsend, had been James' friend. James and Jane raised a large family which included Tom Townsend, a young child at the time of his father's death. The house on Logan Street in Lincoln, built as a hunting lodge by Thomas Townsend, was home to generations of James and Jane's descendants. Legend tells that Abraham Lincoln and his family, when they went walking through the then-rural area, would step onto the porch for a cool drink and conversation with the family. Most likely, their conversation focused on the progress of the cross-country railroad route since Lincoln, the "rail splitter," had also worked on the route. Although family members in New York City and Ireland feared for James' religious faithfulness because he wrote infrequent letters and because he had married a Protestant, when his Lincoln parish priest visited Brother Declan in Ireland, such worries faded at last. Many of James and Jane's descendants today reside in the Midwest, where they gather at a Coogan Reunion each year.
Bridget Coogan Meany:
By 1853, Lawrence Meany had joined his wife, Bridget, in Harlem, New York City, with all but one of their Irish-born children. Other children were born to the couple in New York. In 1864, the youngest of the Meany children, Michael, was christened within days of Bridget's brother Michael's taking his first vows as a Cistercian lay brother (April 16, 1864). A plumber by trade and, like other family members, an active trade unionist, Michael Meany was the father of George Meany, the 20th century American Labor Movement leader. During the 1850's, Michael Meany's older sister Mary remained in Ireland with Bridget's parents because the child had symptoms of the "fever" that still devastated the countryside in the wake of the Famine years. Then, at the urging of Michael, Brother Declan, Mary Meany stayed in Ballyloughan to help her widowed grandmother as the rest of the family continued to leave Ireland in small groups during and after the American Civil War. The letters of Brother Declan, who had been a diabetic from birth, bear testimony to his enduring love for his niece Mary Meany, who had helped Catharine care for him at home and who had shared his deep religious devotion.
Mathew and His Sister Catherine, Honor (Owny), Brothers Denis and Hugh, Their Mother, Catharine Nolan Coogan, and Her Grand-Daughter Mary Meany:
In 1863 Mathew (1839-1918), the fifth son of Mathew and Catharine Nolan Coogan, arrived in New York with his sister Catherine (1834-1863), who had decided to help in setting up a carpentry workshop and finding housing for her sister and brothers and mother. The pair arrived at the height of the Civil War Draft Riots in July, when their brother Patt was serving on the police force that strrugled to quello the riots. Within eight days of their arrival in New York harbor, at the Immigrant Hospital on Ward's Island, Catherine died of Typhus fever, which had afflicted every member of the family in the years after the Great Famine and which she contracted again aboard the ship. During the remaining years of the American Civil War, Mathew learned the construction trade and set up a carpentry and building business and began building, mortgaging, and renting houses in Harlem and elsewhere in Manhattan. In an 1864 letter to his brother James, Mathew alludes to the 1863 Draft Riots and describes the excitement of life in New York City at that time. In 1874 he married Teresa McDonald, an immigrant from the Province of Ulster, whose brother Thomas traveled in Ireland during the 1870's and 80's and visited Mathew's brother Michael in the monastery. Mathew and Teresa struggled to develop their properties while raising a family and losing several children to Asthma and other childhood illnesses. One of their sons, Rev. John J., followed family traditions of civil service and religion when he became Chaplain to the New York City Police Department, a career cut short by his early death in 1924.
After the Civil War tumult ended, Denis (1837-1913) followed the earlier immigrants. Trained by his father in carpentry, Denis joined Mathew in the Harlem carpentry business that was known as M & D Builders, specializing at one time in Victorian house trim. In 1867, their widowed mother, Catharine Nolan Coogan, immigrated with her son Hugh (1835-1888), then a well-known shoemaker in rural County Carlow, and with Mary Meany, daughter of Lawrence and Bridget Coogan Meany. It appears that Honor Coogan (1832-?)had married a member of the Joyce family in County Carlow and also immigrated with her own family on the same ship as her mother and her brother Hugh and niece Mary, though we do not yet have full records for Honor's life. In New York, Hugh experienced more employment difficulties than his brothers; he worked at first in a shoe factory and then for a while in the Harlem carpentry shop. At the time that he married, he had a liquor store, and his brother Michael sent him a brief sermon on temperance. Hugh died in 1888, five years after his mother, in Harlem.
Mathew and Catharine's youngest son, William (1844-1927), an infant during the early years of Ireland's Gorta Mbr, or Great Hunger, entered an Irish religious order as his brother Michael had done. Perhaps in the hope of receiving a third-level education, William served his order in Dublin and in County Galway. He left the order when he decided to emigrate, but he did not then leave the religious life. In 1869, with the support of his family, William crossed the ocean and, after two weeks with his New York family, journeyed by rail to Lincoln to visit his brother James, who had not written to his brothers or sisters or mother in several years. William kept up a life-long correspondence with James' children and eventually prevailed on James to visit in New York. William journeyed on to Dubuque, Iowa, to help build the New Melleray Monastery as a Cistercian lay brother. When this work threatened his health in the early 1870's, he left the Trappists and purchased a share of the home built by Mathew on 109th St. and the carpentry shop still operated by his brother Denis in Harlem.
In 1886, William traveled to Ireland to visit with friends in County Carlow and to see his brother Michael. Then, after marrying immigrant Catherine Dixon, whose sisters and parents still lived in County Carlow, William moved to Brooklyn and set up his own carpentry business to support his wife and two sons, Mathew and William. Catherine Dixon (Kate) Coogan's family and friends visited from Ireland, and William's letters maintained ties with friends and relatives at home in County Carlow, as well as in Illinois.
Margaret Coogan Doyle:
Months after William left Ireland for America, his sister Margaret (1827-?), who was then 20 years married to County Carlow blacksmith James Doyle, immigrated with her husband and seven surviving children to Harlem. Their son William F. was born in Carrigbeg, County Carlow, the night that Margaret's brother William left Ireland; their youngest child, Mathew P., was born a year after the Doyle family arrived in New York City. Margaret's immigration ended long years of separation from her sisters and brothers, and her letters to her mother and brother William bear eloquent testimony to her yearning to see them all again.
From 1870 to the Early Twentieth Century
After Margaret, Brother Declan's last close relative, left Ireland, Declan's letters began to express his sense of loneliness and letters from America took on great importance to him. As long as he could, he exchanged letters also with old neighbors in County Carlow so that he could send the immigrants news of their friends and relatives at home. By 1870, with the arrival in Harlem of James and Margaret Coogan Doyle and their children, the emigration of the family of Mathew and Catharine Nolan Coogan was complete. Margaret and James Doyle set up a "horseshoe" shop in the building that Patrick Coogan had purchased at a city auction in 1853, when the young immigrants still expected the arrival of their father with the others. In 1880, Mary Meany was living on the same block with her husband, Paul Byrne, and their son, as was Patrick's daughter Lizzie and her family. After the death of James Doyle in late 1879, Margaret, with her sons as apprentices, carried on the family's horse shoeing business. Patt Nolan, a cousin from County Carlow, also worked in the Doyle blacksmith shop. By the 1890's the immigrants who were still alive were sending few letters to Ireland, and the letters of Michael Coogan, Brother Declan, from this period show the anguish he experienced over this separation from and lack of information about his family.
While his mother was living, James Coogan made a trip to New York City to meet his stepson, Tom Townsend, on Tom's return in 1878 from a visit to family in Ireland. James renewed his correspondence with his brother Mat, and James' 1878 letter to his New York City brothers and sisters tells of a joyous, memorable family reunion in Harlem. While in Ireland, Tom Townsend also visited with his stepfather's brother Michael at Mount Saint Joseph Abbey.
As the Harlem immigrants' children were growing up, some of the children traveled from New York City to Illinois to visit with their cousins, the children of James and Jane McMahon Townsend Coogan. In the 1890's, when one of James Coogan's daughters, Mary (Moll), visited her Harlem aunts and uncles, Margaret Doyle and her brother Mathew, with his wife, Teresa, showed Moll the sights of Manhattan Island and introduced her to her future husband, William Edwards. Moll Coogan Edwards and William lived on Manhattan's West Side and later in a home in the Bronx. In 1946, Moll returned as a widow to the family home on Logan Street in Lincoln.
For 17 years in America, the mother of these immigrants lived with her sons and their families on East 109th Street in New York City. Brother Declan wrote regularly to them, sent news from Ireland, and asked the family for letters, prayers, and contributions to the building of the Cistercian church. In the fall of 1883, Catharine Nolan Coogan died in Harlem, far from her Bagenalstown birthplace. Her descendants still visit her Old Calvary gravesite, and one and one-half centuries after Mary, Bridget, Patrick, and James Coogan arrived in New York, Coogan descendants arranged a restoration of the Ballinkillen monument to Mathew Coogan, the carpenter of Ballyloughan. Once again, Mathew's "headstone stands straight and firm," as it did in 1880, when Bridget Joyce wrote from Bagenalstown to her cousin William Coogan in Harlem.
Five years after his mother's death, Hugh Coogan died at his Harlem home. In 1891, Influenza took Mary Ann Sheehan Coogan, Patrick's second wife, and three months later, Patrick also succumbed, leaving six children in the guardianship of his brother Mathew. Brother Declan, whose letters so often expressed his wish for reunion with his family in heaven, succumbed to Diabetes in 1904, Denis passed away in the Bronx in 1913, and within the one year 1918, both Mathew and James were gone. Among the immigrants, only William, the youngest, lived long enough to see his native land begin to emerge from the colonial oppression complained of in Mathew Coogan's 1854 letter to Patrick and in later letters of his son Michael, Brother Declan.
The Heritage of Four Decades of Immigrant-Generation Letters and Photographs:
From 1851 through the mid-1890's, the children and grandchildren of Mathew and Catharine Nolan Coogan wrote letters, exchanged photographs, and visited with each other to keep family ties strong across the distances that separated them from Ireland and from each other. The descendants of James Coogan of Lincoln and the descendants of William Coogan of Brooklyn have preserved dozens of letters and photographs from this era. These documents tell how the immigrants dealt with separation and loss, disappointment, opportunity and prosperity. And they reveal much of the Irish spirit--the faith, values, and traditions--which sustained them through the suffering of the Famine years and the struggle to establish themselves in a new country, the same spirit that they bequeathed to their children. During the early decades of the twentieth century, the children of the New York City Coogan immigrants began moving their families north to the Bronx and Westchester, along with some of their County Carlow cousins. Over the years following, descendants lost track of each other.
We are still trying to make contact with the descendants of
Mary Coogan Sexton
Bridget Coogan Meany
Margaret Coogan Doyle
Honor (Owny) Coogan
Lizzie Coogan Harris
Katie Coogan Lynch
Patrick Robert Coogan
James J. Coogan
We would also like to have more information about other County Carlow immigrants who were friends and relatives, the individuals whose names are mentioned so frequently in these family letters. Our research is ongoing. Please contact us if you have information about these branches of the family tree or if you would like more information about the immigrations outlined above.