My great grandfather John O’Rourke — Irish immigrant

I did not know my great grandparents’ names until I was in my late 40’s. My father was killed in an automobile accident when I was five years old and I became – through no choice of my own – estranged from the O’Rourke family. It wasn’t until I reconnected with my uncle, Dennis O’Rourke and his family in 2006, did I finally learn their names and that they were from a place in Ireland called Rostrevor in the Mourne Mountains in what is now Northern Ireland. Since then I’ve been doing extensive work on my genealogy and intend to write stories about my ancestors on both sides of my family. The following is the story of my great grandfather.

This photo was given to me by Kieran Waters, my third cousin who lives in Northern Ireland. He thinks the man in the middle might be my great grandfather, John. But I think John O’Rourke is the man on the right.

John was born in County Down in the second half the 19th century and came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. He also happens to be my great-grandfather.

John was born “John Rourke” February 2, 1861 to James Rourke and Mary (Hughes) Rourke in the townland of Ballintur, near Killowen, in what is now Northern Ireland. (Source: Kilbroney Parish registers). He was baptized on Feb. 6 and his name was entered into the register as “John Roark” because there were no spelling standards at that time. His obituary states that he was born in 1862 and his death certificate lists his year as 1863, but both are incorrect.

The very next year in early December, John’s brother Francis was born. (Source: Kilbroney Parish registers.) Unfortunately, in February 1864, John’s young family would be struck by tragedy when Francis became ill with cholera. After a week-long battle Francis, barely 18 months old, died. Later that same year, in November 1864, another brother – James – was born. A third brother, Thomas Rourke was born in June 1866 and two years later in 1868, John’s youngest brother, Francis (named after the deceased brother) was born.

John’s childhood in County Down

Not much is known about John’s childhood days in County Down. The family lived in a rural area on the edge of Carlingford Lough within a stone’s throw of the Mourne Mountains and next to a small mountain (or hill) known as Cnocshee. John’s grandfather, John Rourke Jr., was listed in the Griffiths Revaluation as the primary tenant of the land in John’s early years. It was described as 8 acres, 1 rood, 5 perches and worth just more than six British pounds. When John Rourke Jr. passed away in 1869, my great grandfather John’s father, James, became the primary tenant.

My great grandfather was born 15 years after the Irish famine, so that would not have affected him and his younger brothers. What is known is that John’s father, James, and probably his grandfather as well, were sheep farmers. They also probably grew plots of potatoes and other root vegetables, and they were very poor. They did not own their land because it was against the law for Catholics to own land in 19th century Ireland, part of the Irish Penal Laws imposed by England. In addition, the Penal Laws prohibited Irish Catholics from raising their children as Catholic or practicing their religion.

Instead, they were tenant farmers and paid their “rent” to an absentee landlord. The “O’Rourke” land, as well as land for miles around on the south side of the Mourne Mountains, was owned by the second earl of Kilmorey, Jack Francis Needham, and was known as the Kilmorey Estate. Since Needham did not live on the land, the “rent” was paid to the “Trustees of the Kilmorey Estate.”

John emigrates to England

Eventually, John immigrated to Liverpool, England. It is not known exactly when or why he did, but it was probably around 1890 and the reason was probably to look for work as farming was not very lucrative and only one of the four brothers stood to inherit the primary tenancy of the family land. He next shows up in public records on the 1891 England census living in Birkenhead near Liverpool as a boarder. The exact location was 116 Crofton Road, Tranmere, Merseyside. His occupation is listed as “labourer.” He is listed as living with a John Sloan and his family. John Sloan was also born in County Down, so it’s a good guess they knew each other growing up. There was a Sloan family living in Ballintur and there were other Sloan families who lived nearby in the latter half of the 19th century.

Later in 1891, John married Mary Rogers, who was  also living in Tranmere and also from County Down. It is not known if they knew each other growing up. Mary lived about 10 miles from John in County Down, which is like 100 miles today.

In the last decade of the 19th century, John and Mary had four children: James Francis in 1892, John Aloysius in 1894, Wilfred Hugh (my grandfather) in 1897 and Mary in 1899. John and his family show up on the 1901 England census living on 219 Market Street in Birkenhead. His occupation is listed as coal heaver, an undesirable occupation involving either carrying coal on the docks or shoveling coal into ship’s boilers. He most likely worked on docks in Liverpool and coal heaver was an occupation available to the Irish at that time. In 1904 his youngest child, Eileen, was born.

The family emigrates to Washington state

In 1907, John and his entire family immigrated to the United States. In addition, Mary (Rogers) O’Rourke’s widowed sister Rose and her daughter Mary accompanied them. Their destination was Puyallup, Washington. They traveled aboard a ship named the Teutonic and left from Liverpool on April 17 and arrived in New York ten days later (April 27) and were processed through Ellis Island.

My great grandfather eventually settled in Bellingham, Wash. and sometime between his arrival and the 1910 census he added back the “O” to his surname and became John O’Rourke. This was probably because of the Gaelic revival in Ireland when there was a surge of interest in the Irish language and culture during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

In the 1910 US Census John and his entire family are listed as living at 2738 Humboldt Street in Bellingham Ward 2. His occupation as listed as laborer doing “street work.” In the 1920 census, he and his entire family are listed as living at 2925 Nevada Street in Bellingham and John is now listed as working as a laborer in a saw mill. In the 1930 census John, my great grandmother Mary, and their daughter Eileen are still living on Nevada Street in Bellingham. He is listed as working as a watchman at a box factory.

Sometime between 1920 and 1930 my great grandfather became a naturalized citizen. I can only find the index so I am not sure of the year. Eventually, John and his wife moved to the Seattle area, Lake Burien. John passed away in 1935 two days after his 75th birthday. His obituary does not list his cause of death — only that he died after a six-week illness.

The obituary said he was a devout Catholic, making recitation of the rosary and reading scriptures part of his daily life. His survivors are listed as his wife Mary, his five children, and nine grandchildren. One of those grandchildren was my father, Bernard O’Rourke. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Seattle.

Again, no one knows why John and his family came to the US. But when I asked my Uncle Dennis in 2006  why they immigrated, he only answered, “Because America was the land of opportunity.” Why does anybody immigrate to the US? John was probably in search of a better life for him and his family. I believe my great grandfather was very hardworking and very faithful.

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8 thoughts on “My great grandfather John O’Rourke — Irish immigrant

  1. LOVE it, dear Lois!!!

    Looks like we’ll be heading north next Monday. We’re first going to stop in San Rafael for a brief visit my Uncle Cic…My mom’s two brothers are really having a hard time in dealing with her death. Then, continue to Ukiah, if you’re available…Let me know if Monday late afternoon or evening works with your schedule.

    Take very good care,


    PS: Did Kieran share a guess as to the identity of the other chaps in the photo?

    From which O’Rourke does Kieran descend? And, how on earth did you find him?!?

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Erin, I will send you a private message about the visit, but it sounds good. Kieran did not identify the others in the photo, but perhaps one of the men is John Sloan. When I showed the photo to Mark Brennan (an expert in the history of Killowen who lives off of Kilfeaghan Road, just yards away from where our great grandfather was born) he told me it was unusual for Irish men to wear bowler hats. You will notice that two of the men are wearing bowler hats. The third man in the middle is wearing a hat typical of an Irishman of the day, according to Mark. So I’m thinking the photo might have been taken in Liverpool, though I have no way of knowing. Or perhaps it was on a visit back to Killowen. As for how did I find Kieran? That is a good question. I corresponded with a man named Ed Hamilton who is a descendant of another O’Rourke family that lived in Ballintur. He gave me Kieran’s name as someone who might be possibly related to me. How he got it, I’m not sure, but perhaps from another one of our third cousins, Lisa Cutshaw who now lives in Monterey, CA. I searched on the Internet and found and email address for Kieran and contacted him. He wrote back a month later and the rest is history. I met him in 2015 and we’ve been in contact ever since then. Kieran happens to be the great grandson of Francis O’Rourke, John’s youngest brother. Lisa is also Francis’s descendant and she and Kieran are first cousins.

  2. I was told by our father’s cousins that the O’Rourke passage-I believe first or second class, rather than steerage-was paid for by the Cunningham family. Seemingly, as I recall, the Cunninghams were related to the Rogers.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Uncertain, Lois, if I’ve earlier shared with you that my mom commented our grandfather recollected with intense fondness the Mourne Mountains…Possibly, there were childhood summers shared with grandparents there…Beautiful mountains, fond memories.

    Did you have opportunity to visit Kilkeel-the apparent home of the Rogers-while you were in County Down…BIG difference in 2007 when we visited-Rostrevor, Republic of Ireland flags prominently displayed, and, in Kilkeel the Union Jack!?!

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. I was in Kilkeel on my first visit to Ireland. It seems that the town is primarily loyalist, but there are plenty of Irish republicans there. I did not visit the home of the Rogers because in 2013 and 2015 I did not know where exactly they were from. Only recently have I come up with a theory of where Mary Rogers was born. Stay tuned for my blog post on Mary (Rogers) O’Rourke.

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