The McGanns of Dundee

Family history is something of a popular interest nowadays with TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are and an entire industry of research tools and resources online devoted to it. Genealogy’s come a long way since the days of nosing through encyclopedia of common surnames.

I spent most of last Sunday emptying my bank account into several online family history resources in what became an increasingly addictive quest to trace my ancestors along my maternal grandfather’s line, the McGann family. My grandparents grew up in Dundee, Scotland and moved to England in the 60s. Their families – the McGanns and Mulreanys – were from the Irish community in Dundee, formed in the nineteenth century when entire villages emigrated from Ireland to work in the mills and jute factories, and to lay the now-famous Dundee tramways.

After hours of research, after downloading countless birth, death and marriage certificates, and census records, I managed to piece together a picture of the McGanns of Dundee. I’ve traced six generations directly back, and also discovered a parallel family – distant cousins descended from my great-great-great grandfather’s brother. I’ve got as far back as one Luke McGann, who was married to Mary Hart, and whose son was Thomas McGann, born 1823. From the records I’ve got, I have deduced that the family had migrated from Ireland by 1861 at the latest. Before that, the trail runs dead.

Thomas, Luke and James are the most common male names in the family (I was named after my grandfather, so it’s nice to know it’s a well-established custom!). About two-thirds of the female names in the family are Mary (also the middle name of my mother and grandmother) – good Catholics then! Every member of the family worked as a labourer or factory worker of some kind – some in the docks, some in the jute mills and some, the least privileged I expect, as “general labourers”. The earliest two generations, whom I suspect were all Irish-born, are listed as farmers. In the ‘parallel’ family, two brothers, Luke and Patrick McGann, were killed in the First World War, Luke in the opening month of the war.

The research made me realise how tough life must have been for this immigrant community in Dundee, and also what a huge break my grandfather had made, by joining the then-brand new BBC as a trainee engineer after leaving school at 14 – the first non-labourer for many generations. His father had died early at 35 years old, when TJ (Thomas Joseph) was only 10. He was a quite unique man – kind, smart, generous, tolerant and a proper old-fashioned head-of-the-family. I miss him a lot.

My family are still proud of being Irish-Scots – fierce supporters of Celtic and faithful(ish!) Catholics. I’m really keen to trace the line back further. When she was alive, my mother – apparently – had traced the family back to a small village outside Tullamore, Kildare, but it’s so hard to get definitive evidence. In the meantime, I’ve got the other line – the Mulreanys – to do. I suspect that’ll be easier as there are a lot of them still around, in Dundee (my grandmother had several brothers; my grandfather was an only child). I’ve already done a lot of research into my father’s side – the Chivers – but that’s for another day!