County Wexford and the Vikings

Second in a series on the Dempsey Cousins Family Research Team.

Not long after Dempsey descendants Barb, John and I agreed to form a cousins team — to research our mutual gggrandparents William Patrick and Katherine (Gormley) Dempsey — John generously shared a document that was totally new to me.

By: Skellig2008
County Wexford, Ireland. News that my gggrandfather William Patrick Dempsey hailed from County Wexford — from an obituary shared by a Dempsey cousin — raises the possibility of Viking heritage. Photo by: Skellig2008

From the 3 May 1900 issue of the Baltimore Sun, it was a small, one-column obituary of our great, great grandfather William Dempsey.

Just eighteen brief newspaper lines (transcribed below) summed up our ancestor’s life — but what a masterpiece it was and what a lasting gift to his descendants.

WILLIAM DEMPSEY

Mr. William Dempsey, a well-known blacksmith died yesterday at his home, 1602 East Chase street, of paralysis. He was born in County Wexford, Ireland, 62 years ago and came to this country when about 12 years of age. For several years he resided in Troy, N.Y., and then moved to Harford county, Maryland and afterward to Cecil county. For many years he had resided in this city [Baltimore, Md.]. He is survived by 10 children — Mrs. Thomas Byrnes, Mrs. Charles Conway, Mrs. Clinton Webb, Mrs. Ernest Kratz, Mrs. Frank Owens [sic.] and John, James, William, Peter and Lieut. Thomas F. Dempsey, of the Northern police district; 32 grandchilden and 5 great-grandchildren. He was a member of St. Paul’s Catholic Church.

The anonymous writer (who seems to have interviewed a detail-oriented informant) names William’s surviving children, totals up his grand and great-grand children, and lists several places where our ancestor once lived — laying out a virtual road map for us Dempsey cousins to follow as we reconstruct William’s travels from his arrival in North America to his final home in Baltimore City.

But what really jumped out at me was the news that William Dempsey was “born in County Wexford, Ireland” — for this was the first time I learned my great, great grandfather’s county of origin. A breakthrough indeed! And all thanks to our Dempsey cousins collaboration.

Vikings in the vicinity

Looking up County Wexford to get some background information led me to the next revelation — we Dempsey descendants might have Viking heritage!

The Irish Times Irish Ancestors web page for County Wexford — listing Dempsey among the county’s common surnames — contains this brief history, which echoes similar versions I have found elsewhere:

The county takes its name from the principal town, which was founded by the Norsemen in the tenth century as “Waesfjord”.  A similar reference to Wexford Harbour, the large sheltered lagoon which is the reason for the town’s existence, is found in the Irish name. [Waesfjord translates as “inlet of the mud flats.”]

The Vikings made incursions into the Wexford area in the eighth and ninth centuries, but by the tenth century had abandoned their usual return trip to Scandinavia. Instead, they settled down in coastal Ireland and over the centuries mixed in with the general population.

So, possible Viking heritage! And all thanks to a clue in our great, great grandfather William Dempsey’s obituary.

Certifiably Viking

I found this prospect very exciting and perhaps went a bit overboard as I shared the news with family, friends and co-workers — and rushed out to buy a faux fur throw for my couch.

“Well, that would certainly explain your personality!” one of my friends quipped dryly.

But then I went to an Irish heritage workshop at a genealogy conference and discovered that the prospect of Viking heritage — though new to me — is old hat to long-time Irish family history researchers.

In fact, at the DNA table, one guy even boasted that so many people with his surname had tested positive for Viking DNA that, “My surname is certified Viking.”

Whereas I was merely behaving like a certifiable Viking — with no real proof. At least not yet.

So — after dressing as a Viking for Halloween and throwing a Viking-themed trim-a-tree party for the holidays — I finally calmed down, curled up under my new throw, and resumed research on the broad sweep of more recent history in County Wexford.

And that’s when I learned about the blacksmiths and the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

To be continued.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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