Story My Father Told on St. Patrick’s Day

Introduction: In this article – in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day this Sunday – Katie Rebecca Garner tells a story about her great-great-grandpa, Joseph McElhinney, an Irish immigrant. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

So many people emigrated from Ireland in the 1700s &1800s that there are now more people outside of Ireland with Irish heritage than there are people in Ireland. The potato famine in the mid-1800s was an especially huge push factor for emigration. As Irish people left Ireland, they took their traditions of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with them. Now, St. Patrick’s Day is a day when many celebrate our Irish heritage.

Illustration: Happy St. Patrick's Day. Illustration credit:

Illustration credit:

St. Patrick’s Day Story

Growing up, my father would tell us about our most recent Irish immigrant ancestor every year on St. Patrick’s Day. This ancestor was my great-great-grandpa, Joseph McElhinney.

Joseph had been a wagon driver in Ireland, and his family was Protestant. One day, as he was driving his wagon, some Catholics decided they needed a wagon. Their preferred means of obtaining one was robbery. They weren’t going to rob their fellow Catholics, so they targeted a Protestant. The robbers beat Joseph, left him for dead, and made off with his wagon.

Joseph survived the attack and went home to his family. The robbers heard of his survival and didn’t want word of it getting out, so they gave him a one-way ticket to America with a threat toward his family.

That is the version of the story I grew up hearing. I recently contacted a cousin through FamilySearch messaging who is another descendant of Joseph McElhinney. This descendant had visited third cousins in Ireland and had heard a slightly different version of the story.

According to the cousins in Ireland, Joseph received his ticket from his church. The church had given him a ticket to America as a means of escaping the men who continued to harass him. When I told my father of this variation, we agreed that this version of the story made more sense.

I have not looked for records in Ireland to confirm either version of the story. In either case, Joseph had to leave his family behind and start a new life in America. I hope the second version is more accurate because he would have had more say in his emigration that way.

Immigration Records

Joseph McElhiney’s passenger list was found on FamilySearch.* He sailed on the SS Caledonia from Londonderry to New York City, arriving on 29 March 1909. Most everyone on that ship was Irish. Joseph’s last permanent residence was Donegal, Ireland. His nearest relative listed was his father, R. McElhiney, of Cully, Donegal. Joseph’s final destination was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Joseph’s occupation on the passenger list was farming, which doesn’t seem to line up with the family lore of him being a wagon driver. It’s possible that he drove his wagon for the family farm.


No news articles about Joseph McElhinney were found on GenealogyBank, but that doesn’t mean nothing can be learned from searching the newspapers. Joseph arrived in New York and still needed to get to Philadelphia. According to Google Maps, this would be a two-hour trip on modern transit. It is safe to assume that trains in 1909 were slower than those in the 21st century.

It is unknown if Joseph boarded a train as soon as he got off the boat or if he found lodgings and continued his journey the next morning. He arrived on Monday, 29 March 1909. GenealogyBank has numerous New York newspapers published on that day, proving that he would have been able to see plenty of hotel and transportation ads.

Do you have Irish ancestors? Learn about them during your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations this year!

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Note on the header image: shamrocks and stars. Illustration credit:

* “New York Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island), 1892-1924,” FamilySearch ( : Fri Feb 09 06:47:40 UTC 2024), Entry for Joseph Mcelheney and R. Mcelheney, 29 Mar 1909.

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