Derrygonnelly: Finding My Hometown In County Fermanagh

By Janet Cassidy-Stroh

In the far west of Ulster, among the hills and lakes of County Fermanagh, is the little village of Derrygonnelly.  I’ve come to think of as my “hometown,” although my great-great-grandfather, Patrick Cassidy, left it more than a hundred sixty years ago.

Today I was returning for another visit with Ada and Katherine, the Cassidy cousins I’d met twenty years ago through my family history research.  I had just driven down this morning from Belfast, where three days at PRONI and the GRO had turned up new clues in my family research. 

Knockmore Cliff in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. A water color painting by Janet Cassidy-Stroh.
Knockmore Cliff in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. A water color painting by Janet Cassidy-Stroh.

As I neared the village I could see the prominent limestone cliff of Knockmore which rose up from the Sillies River valley.  I knew that Knockmore, as well as the neighboring mountains of Boho, contained caves and sinkholes which had played a part in local history.

This cliff had a special importance to my own family’s history, and, it had provided the clue I had needed to find my ancestor’s home area.  When I first began the search for our family’s roots twenty-five years ago, I had some bits of information passed down in the family.  My great-grandfather, Patrick Francis Cassidy, was the last of his siblings born in Ireland.

According to oral tradition, the family had emigrated when Patrick Francis was a year old, about 1842.  We knew his parents, Patrick and Mary Cassidy, had settled in Washington, DC.  We also knew that they were from County Fermanagh, and though I had never seen any of it, family story said that Patrick wrote poetry.  “Gentleman farmer and poet” is how he described himself.         

Eagerly I began the search.  I talked to the older generation.   My grandparents were no longer alive, and my father did not know much of the history, but I talked to his cousins.  I gathered birth, marriage, and death records.   I tracked the family through the censuses, discovering that Patrick Francis had three older siblings, (Mary, Peter, and Charles) all, like him, born in Ireland.

There were also five more children born in Washington, DC. Sadly, I learned that two daughters had died in infancy.   I discovered that the family lived in Georgetown and that Patrick was the sexton of Holy Trinity Church. 

From the family grave in Holyrood Cemetery I located living cousins, Doe Schram and her brother Tom, descendants of Patrick’s oldest daughter, Mary Cassidy Ashe.  And wonder of wonders!  Doe had a charcoal portrait of Patrick and Mary Cassidy!

Doe and Tom had more stories to add to the family lore.  It seems the pastor of Holy Trinity in Georgetown, Rev. Peter B. O’Flanagan, S.J., was a cousin of Mary McCaffrey Cassidy.  When the foundation for the new church was dug in 1850, Mary turned the first shovelful of dirt.  I checked out the family stories about the Civil War, and found a service record for Patrick Francis’s older brother Charles, who fought for the Union.

Later, my cousin Bernadette Zappala would discover Patrick Francis’s record.  The boys had run off to Baltimore to enlist together.  But Mary Cassidy didn’t want her sons to be soldiers.  She swore an oath that Patrick Francis was under age (he wasn’t) and after serving six months he was sent home.   Later this would come back to haunt him, when he was turned down for a pension based on his service.

But the question was, where in County Fermanagh had the family come from?   No one seemed to know.  Back I went to my father’s cousins and asked more questions.  More stories were revealed.  Supposedly Patrick had come to the States twice.  The first time he came by himself, probably before he married, then returned to Ireland.  Later he emigrated with his wife and children.

 Other stories were even more intriguing — Patrick had been involved in secret meetings in caves in the hills.   And another clue: Patrick used a pen name for his poetry — Knockmore, which meant   “big hill.”  When the breakthrough came it was pure serendipity. One day while browsing in the New York Public Library in a section of collective biographies, I spotted a slim volume entitled The Poets of Ireland by D. J. O’Donoghue, published in Dublin in 1912.

The entries were listed alphabetically, so I did what I always do with a book about Ireland — I looked for Cassidy.  I didn’t really expect to find anything.  But to my surprise, there was an entry for “Patrick Cassidy.”   Curious but doubtful, I read:  “Irish-American poet born about 1790 in County Fermanagh, and resident for many years in Georgetown (D.C.) USA.  He wrote verse frequently for the Boston Pilot and other Irish-American organs.  The poems of Peter Magennis (q.v) are dedicated to him.”

I almost did a dance there in the library!  This was MY Patrick! They had his birthdate wrong, but without a doubt, this was my gg-grandfather.  I read the entry again.  Unfortunately there was no birthplace listed.  But wait.  Who was this Peter Magennis?  I turned to the entry for Magennis and learned he was a National schoolteacher and writer, born near the village of Derrygonnelly in County Fermanagh.

As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to the National Library in Dublin.   Did they have anything written by Peter Magennis that mentioned a Patrick Cassidy?   While I waited for an answer, I went to my own library and looked at the most detailed atlas I could find. I found the village of Derrygonnelly just west of Enniskillen, and not far from the shore of Lower Lough Erne.  And there, just outside of Derrygonnelly, was a hill marked Knockmore Cliff!        

A few weeks later, I received a package from the National Library of Ireland.  In it was a copy of a long poem by Peter Magennis, entitled, “To Patrick Cassidy, Esquire, Georgetown College, Washington, America.”  It began, ” Dear friend, who pin’st on foreign strand.”  It went on to recall the days they had spent fishing in the Screenagh and the Sillies (two rivers near Derrygonnelly) and the men they had known in years past.  There was no doubt about it — Patrick had come from near Derrygonnelly.  But where exactly?

In 1976, I visited Ireland with my sister Joan and my niece Joanne.   We went to Derrygonnelly and went into a store on its one main street.   “Are there any Cassidys living around here?” we asked. “Aye, there’s plenty of them,” we were told.  In fact, just down the street was a grocery store, The Casson, owned by Cassidys.  So off down the street we went.  There we met Ada Cassidy, who ran the store with her husband Jack.  We told her about our ancestor and she took us down the street to the garage to meet Jack.

We repeated the story of Patrick Cassidy and Mary McCaffrey. We told how Patrick had supposedly gone to America twice, and we mentioned the poem by Magennis.  Everyone in Derrygonnelly knew of Magennis; he was a sort of local hero.  “We should ask my cousin Packie Flanagan,” said Jack.  “He’s a bit older than me and knows more about the family.”

Ada promised to ring up Packie who lived on a farm right next to Knockmore Cliff and to call us at our B&B to let us know.  That evening we got a phone call from Ada.  “Packie thinks it is one family,” said Ada.  If we would come out the next day, she’d take us out to Packie’s farm at Knockmore to meet him and his wife, Bridie. When we met Packie, whose mother was Mary Jane Cassidy, we did a double-take!

Packie bore a remarkable resemblance to my grandfather. While we enjoyed tea and Bridie’s fresh-baked bread and homemade rhubarb jam, Packie remembered something his grandfather had told him.   “My grandfather had an uncle who went out to America and then came home and lived with them for a while.   But then he went out a second time and stayed.” What was more, Packie had a copy of the same poem by Magennis, and he remarked, “I never knew who that Patrick Cassidy was for sure, “but I knew he had to be my mother’s relative.”

 Packie’s mother, Mary Jane Cassidy, and Jack’s father , also Patrick Cassidy were born in the townland of Drumgormly on the ridge directly above Packie’s present-day farm.  Drumgormly (the name means “blue ridge” ) looks right across at Knockmore Cliff. The Screenagh River mentioned in Magennis’s poem runs through it.  Their father was Francis Cassidy who was 45 when he married his cousin, Sarah Ann Love, in 1880.  His father was also Francis Cassidy, and was probably the Francis Cassidy Sr. listed in Griffith’s Valuation in 1862.

My own Patrick, besides naming a son Patrick Francis, named another son Edward Francis.  So Francis was obviously a name that was important to the family — more evidence that I had found the right Cassidys.  I’ve been back to Derrygonnelly several times to stay with Ada and Katherine (Jack passed away in 1982).  Each time they greet me with “Welcome home.”  I have made other friends in the area, too.   And each year I come, I find another piece of the puzzle.

Just this year I wrote to the Maryland Province of the Jesuits, for information on Mary McCaffrey Cassidy’s cousin, Rev. Peter B. O’Flanagan, S.J.  They sent me his records, which showed that Peter was born in the townland of Aghakeeran, right behind Packie and Bridie’s farm.  It is a short distance from Knockmore Cliff.  There are caves in Aghakeeran, too.  The Jesuit information listed Peter’s father as Andrew Flanagan. 

And just the day before at PRONI, I had found some intriguing information: A field book kept by the landlord’s agent listed Andrew Flanagan among the tenants.  And a note in the book linked him (at least in the agent’s mind) to a notorious local murder.  In 1826, a colorful character named Dominick Noon came to Derrygonnelly from County Roscommon.  He became a member of the Ribbonmen, a secret society which defended Catholic farmers from Orangemen.  Soon he turned informer and gave evidence against several men from Derrygonnelly.

At least one man, John Maguire, was convicted and sentenced to transportation.  Shortly after the trial, Noon disappeared, and a few weeks later his body was discovered in a cave in Aghakeeran townland, known to this day as Noon’s Hole.   No one was ever convicted of the murder.  But was it a coincidence that my ancestor emigrated to the U.S. for the first time around the time of that murder?  Could the “secret meetings” in the caves of Knockmore have been Ribbonmen’s meetings?

My search continues.  This last trip I spent hours in the Enniskillen Library, reading newspaper reports of trials in the 1820s and 30s. I have found a Michael Cassidy of Drumgormly who was accused (but acquitted) of being a Ribbonman.  Maybe someday I’ll find the proof to link my Patrick Cassidy to Drumgormly.  Or maybe not.  But in my heart I know I have found my “hometown”
in County Fermanagh.