John Dwyer and Johanna Dee in Ireland

John Dwyer was born sometime between 1800 and 1811. [1] His parents are believed to have been Edmond Dwyer and Catherine Bradshaw [2] who lived in Balloughbue, a neighborhood of small farms in the Solloghodbeg townland, a few kilometers north of Tipperary Town. In the same area, Johanna Dee was born in August 1814. [3] Maurice Dee was a neighbor of Edmond’s and may have been Johanna’s father or uncle. [4]

Irish Cottage - 1800s

Untitled photo

The land in this area was devoted mainly to dairy farming and also to tillage, especially for potatoes.[5] The farmers were typically very poor: in 1841, about 80 percent of the houses in this part of the county consisted of mud cabins of one to four rooms. [6]

The day-to-day lives of small tenant farmers were precarious, squeezed as they were by the implacable desires of landlords and the government for rent and taxes, and the capriciousness of milk prices and potato harvests. At the same time, landlords applied constant pressure to evict small tenants to consolidate small farms, and the increasing population created a relentless competition for the available land. Since the late 1700s, organized groups of tenant farmers had opposed landlords and market changes, seeking to “enforce the contract of mutual support that was Irish peasant society.” [7] There emerged a variety of secret societies of agrarian rebels, going by names such as “Whiteboys” and “Followers of Captain Rock,” who burned houses, assaulted, murdered, and threatened more of the same, to prevent the taking of land or the deterioration in agricultural prices. As a result, County Tipperary had an “extraordinary reputation for violence.” [8]

In 1821, Whiteboys burned the house of a Tipperary man named Shea, accused of being a land jobber, killing 16 family members and servants. In 1822, a band of locals threatened dairy farmers to send no milk to market “until such of the neighbors as are in necessity of buying it are supplied at a reasonable price.” Farmers were ordered to rear no more than two calves, so as to increase milk supply and reduce prices. [9] William Thackeray described the “Tipperary fashion” of holding onto farms as “simply putting a (bullet) into the body of any man who would come to take a farm over any one of them.” [10]

In 1828, John Dwyer’s father Edmond, along with Michael Dwyer, Maurice Dee, David Dee and other members of that family, as well as others from neighboring farms, were in County Limerick at a nearby market when they got into a dispute over prices of milk with a family named Kirby. A fracas ensued and at some point Michael Kirby fired a gun at David Dee, missed, and the whole assembly scattered — but the constable arrived, gathered them up and put them in jail for the night while he tried to figure out what had happened. [11]

Peasantry Seizing Potato Crop of Evicted Tenants

Untitled photo

1828 was a particularly tense year because of Catholics’ ongoing fury over the system of legally enforced “tithes” (or taxes) to support the protestant Church of Ireland. In that year, Daniel O’Connell brought the tension to a head when he ran as an openly Roman Catholic MP in the by-election in County Clare. At that time, Catholics were prohibited under British law from serving in Parliament, but the law did not prevent their running for election — so O’Connell ran and won in a landslide. His success was a key factor in passage of the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which gave Catholics the right to be represented in the British parliament. [12] This, in turn, strengthened Catholic resolve and increasing numbers refused to pay tithes. The “Tithe Wars” involved violence against collectors and persons who agreed to pay: in 1831, for example, in neighboring County Kilkenny, a crowd of 500 people followed a party of police who were protecting a process-server who was collecting overdue tithes. After a fight, 14 police were killed, as were 25-30 of the townspeople and the process-server. After this, local Church of Ireland clergymen gave up trying to recover their arrears. [13]

Although the Tithe Wars waned in response to corrective legislation, Tipperary remained unsettled and dangerous. Scarcity of basic provisions and increases in prices threatened starvation to many in the early 1840s, and riots occurred in nearby Limerick as hungry farmers grabbed their supplies where they could. [14] In 1845, a newspaper reporter commented, “The county of Tipperary has long possessed the notoriety of being a focus of outrage and disorder - of embodying in itself, in an aggravated form, all the strange anomaly of evils which mark this country generally. … You have here the richest land and the most extreme poverty … They shoot one another in the struggle to possess a patch of land, and leave neglected and waste thousands of acres which would amply repay their labour and capital.”

In this gentle rural glade, John Dwyer and Johanna Dee met and were married in February 1833. Johanna was reported to have been a beautiful woman with titian hair. [15] The wedding probably took place at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Solohead, part of the parish of Solohead and Oola, which lies on the border of Counties Tipperary and Limerick. [16] The graves of many Dwyers and Dees can be found in the churchyard.

John and Johanna rented a small farm of about 10 acres with a house at Balloughbue in the Solloghodbeg townland, a few kilometers north of Tipperary Town — probably the same plot of land that Edmond had farmed in the 1820s. The property was worth about 7 pounds 10 shillings per year by 1850. [17] The next 17 years brought them at least eight children: [18]  Catherine, born around 1834; [19] Edward, born around 1837; [20] James, 1838; [21] John, 1841; [22] Henry, 1843; [23] Bridget, 1844; [24] Michael Henry, 1846; [25] and Patrick, 1850. [26] Henry appears to have died at a young age. [27]

John may have been involved in local politics -- an 1835 newspaper lists lists a John Dwyer living at "Ballinvee" as entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. [28]

If the living conditions in County Tipperary were not difficult enough, the potato blight emerged in September 1845. Throughout Ireland, the potato crop rotted in the field. In 1846, the blight destroyed the crop almost entirely. Although the potato was a staple food, it was not the only source of available nutrition; however, British authorities exported much of these alternative foods. The “indisputable fact [is] that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.” [29] Famine began to engulf the country by late 1846.

1847 was known as “Black ’47” due to the mass deaths and evictions that occurred. Bands of hungry people began to wander the countryside and towns, begging for food. Many flocked to the workhouses. In this year, the acreage planted in potatoes was small and the crop rebounded, but the harvest was scant. In 1848, optimistic farmers once again planted a larger acreage but the the crop failed dismally.

The famine that resulted deprived more than one-third of the population of their means of subsistence and killed nearly one-eighth. [30] The country was devastated: there were mass graves, roadside deaths, the spread of dysentery and typhoid fever, hundreds of thousands of poor evicted from their homes. “Ditches, glens, coach stops, abandoned cabins, the peddlers who sold lice-infested clothing on the roads, the unburied dead: there were disease vectors everywhere ….” [31]

Irish Emigrants Leaving for America

Untitled photo

About a million people died as a result of the famine. To escape, the Irish fled in droves. Between the mid-1840s and mid-1850s, nearly two million people left the country, about one million of those went to the United States. [32]

John and Johanna Dwyer and their family had struggled since the famine began. By early 1851, they had decided to join the exodus to America.


[1]  A gravestone in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Section 9, Chateaugay, New York, says that he was born in 1800; however, the passenger list for the “Oregon,” the ship on which the family emigrated, says that he was 40 years old in 1851.

[2]  This parentage is speculative; see Edmond and Catherine Dwyer and Limerick Genealogy, The Family of John Dwyer in Solohead & Oola Parish, File Ref. 2015.131 (June 24, 2016) (“Limerick Gen.”). A birth or baptismal record for John as the son of Edmond and Catherine Bradshaw has not been found, but records do not exist prior to 1809. See also baptismal information for Henry Dwyer, Parish Register, Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, Solohead and Oola Parish, National Library of Ireland; Roots Ireland Church Baptism Records, Solohead and Oola.

[3]  1900 U.S. Census.

[4]  Tithe Applotment Book, Balloughbue, Solloghodbeg (Nov. 1, 1826).

[5]  A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837; quoted at (Sept. 3, 2017).

[6]  D.G. Marnane, Land and Violence in 19th-Century Tipperary, Tipperary Hist. J. 07 (1988), pp. 53-88 (Marnane 1988).

[7]  M. Bulik, The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America's First Labor War, Fordham University Press (2015), p. 48.

[8]  Marnane 1988.

[9]  J.S. Donnelly, Jr., Captain Rock: The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821-1824, The Collins Press (2009), pp. 72-96.

[10]  Marnane 1988.

[11]  The Limerick Evening Post and Clare Sentinel, No. 1426 (June 6, 1828), p. 1. It is speculative whether this article refers to the same Edmond Dwyer and Maurice Dee who were neighbors in Balloughbue.

[12]  D. Barron, The Clare Election of 1828, Clare County Library ( (Oct. 8, 2017).

[13]  The Tithe War; reports by Church of Ireland clergymen to Dublin Castle. History Ireland, Features, Issue 4, Vol. 13 (Jul/Aug 2005), at (Sept. 3, 2017).

[14]  The Examiner, No. 1793 (June 11, 1842), p. 377.

[15]  Parish Register, Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, Solohead and Oola Parish, National Library of Ireland; Roots Ireland Church Marriage Records, Solohead and Oola. The Roots Ireland database says February 1st. The date on the original record has been lost but the next marriage record is for February 11th, so the marriage probably took place near that date. Witnesses to the marriage were James Dee and John Reardon.

[16]  The current church was built between 1872 and 1887.

[17]  The land was ten acres and seven perches according to the Primary Valuation of Ireland (“Griffith’s Valuation”) (1847-1864). See Limerick Gen.

[18]  The 1900 U.S. Census says that Johanna had 10 children of whom 8 were still living. Henry may have died, see note 26, and perhaps another child died in Ireland as well.

[19]  Catherine, age 36, was living with Johanna as of July 16, 1870, according to the 1870 U.S. Census. She was listed as age 16 on the “Oregon” passenger list, May 27, 1851.

[20]  Edward was listed as 13 on the “Oregon” passenger list but he was probably not born the same year as James.

[21]  Parish Register, Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, Solohead and Oola Parish, National Library of Ireland; Roots Ireland Church Baptism Records, Solohead and Oola. Baptized May 21, 1838; his godparents were William Ryan and Mary Ryan.

[22]  Id. Baptized February 17, 1841; his godparent was Margaret Cummins.

[23]  Id. Baptized May 16, 1843; his godparent was Honora Dee.

[24]  Id.; death certificate, April 19, 1924, Benson, Vermont. Born June 6, 1844, and baptized on June 11; her godparents were McE. Dee and Johanna English.

[25]  Michael’s death certificate and naturalization application say he was born on September 20, 1847; however, 1846 appears on the Parish Register, Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, Solohead and Oola Parish, National Library of Ireland; and Roots Ireland Church Baptism Record, Solohead and Oola. Church records say he was baptized September 20, 1846; his godparents were John Dwyer and Margaret Lahy.

[26]  Parish Register, Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, Solohead and Oola Parish, National Library of Ireland; Roots Ireland Church Baptism Records, Solohead and Oola. Baptized February 10, 1850; his godparents were Tom Dee and Mary Dee.

[27]  Henry was not listed on the “Oregon” manifest in 1851 so he likely died before then — and Michael Henry may have been named for him in 1846.

[28]  Tipperary Free Press, Dec. 30, 1835. It is unknown whether this article referred to John Dwyer of Balloughbue.

[29]  Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849; quoted in New World Encyclopedia ( (Sept. 4, 2017).

[30]  J. Donnelly, The Irish Famine, on BBC History, (Feb. 17, 2011).

[31]  J. Kelly, The Graves are Walking, Henry Holt and Co. (2012).

[32]  C. O’Grada, Ireland’s Great Famine, Refresh 15 (Univ. of York, Autumn 1992).

Images on this page are public domain from the Library of Congress.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In