Genealogical and Historical Research Service in County Louth, Ireland - Joe Biden ancestors


Dividing Line

Joe  Biden  (former USA  Vice  President)
and  his  Irish Finnegan  Ancestors

On 20 January 2009 a new President and Vice President were inaugurated in the United States of America. In the case of Vice President Joe Biden two counties in Ireland have been pinpointed as the home county of the Finnegan Family - one of his ancestral lines.
Ms Megan Smolenyak, a USA based genealogist, believed County Louth was the county of origin. However in an online article, dated 28 August 2008,
Niall O’Dowd of the Irish Voice stated that the then Senator Biden “gave his most extensive review of his roots and his Irish heritage to Irish America magazine, our sister publication, in 1985”. In an extract from that interview he stated.  “Biden hails from a Famine era family, the Finnegans, who fled Co. Mayo to avoid the Great Hunger. His great grandmother Finnegan was the only one who could read Gaelic, and she used to read letters in Gaelic for those who could not read the letters from home and she’s write back in Gaelic for them.”

So how does the County Louth connection arise?

          From the following military and US census records Vice President Biden’s ancestry back to a James Finnegan born in Ireland about 1840 is fairly certain. Actual proof would require obtaining church or vital records.

          Vice President Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of Joseph Robinette Biden  and Catherine Eugenia "Jean" Finnegan. As his mother was born about 1917 she appears both in the 1920 and 1930 US censuses. Her father was Ambrose J. Finnegan.

          According to a World War II record, dated 27 April 1942, Ambrose Joseph Finnegan was born on  11 July 1884 in Olyphant, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, USA.  At that time he listed his employer as a Mr. M. L. Goodman of the Scrantonian-Tribune. He was 5ft 11½ins in height, weighed 170 lbs, with blue eyes, blonde hair and a ruddy complexion.

          On 4 April 1930 he was living in Scranton, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Geraldine Blewitt, his children Gerald J., Blewitt E., Ambrose J., Catherine E. (i.e. mother of Vice President Biden), John A. and his sister-in-law Gertrude M. Blewitt. He was an advertising manager in a newspaper office. He stated he was born in Pennsylvania and his parents in New York. In the same building, but enumerated as a separate family, was a William O’Boyle born about 1901 in Pennsylvania but with parents born in the Irish Free State. William worked as a butcher in a meat market. Who this William was may be of significance as his parents, if from Ireland as stated, are lively to have emigrated long after the Famine years.

          On 2 January 1920 Ambrose was residing in Scranton with his wife Geraldine, his children Gerald, Edward, Ambrose J. and Eugenia, his father-in-law Edward Blewitt who was born about 1859 in Louisianna but of Irish parents, and his sister-in-law Gertrude Blewitt. This Edward Blewitt was a civil and mining engineer for a coal mining business while Ambrose was working for a newspaper business. The latter stated that he was born in Pennsylvania, his father in Ireland and his mother in New York. It is well known that in these later censuses that inaccurate places of birth of parents were given to the enumerator but in this district the enumerator is an ‘Ambrose J. Finnegan’!.

          By his World War I registration record Ambrose Joseph Finnegan, born on 11 July 1884, lived in Scranton and was employed as an advertising solicitor with the Scrantonian Publishing Co..

          In the previous census, taken 19 April 1910, Ambrose was residing in the house of his father-in-law, Edward Blewitt, a civil engineer, in Scranton and was married to Geraldine with only one child Gerald. Also in the house were Gertrude, Patrick and Arthur the children of Edward Blewitt.

          Ten years earlier, on 8 June 1900, Ambrose was working as an errand boy, was single and residing still in Scranton City, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, but with his uncle Peter Roche, a switchman. Peter was born about October 1855 in New York of Irish parents. He is married to Bridget and has children: Thomas, Mary, Annie, Peter J., Nellie and Margaret, all born in Pennsylvania.

          Unfortunately the 1890 Federal census is not available but it can be concluded from above that Ambrose Finnegan was born in Olyphant, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania on 11 July 1884 and his mother’s maiden name was ‘Roche’.

          On the 1880 census for Olyphant, Lackawanna County, was a James Finnigan, a musician, blind, born about 1842 in Ireland, with his wife Catherine, born about 1847 in Ireland, and children Eugene, Jennie, Stephen, John and Louis. The first three children were born in New York and the rest in Pennsylvania. James could not read or write but Catherine could.

          However since the oldest children of James were born in New York it was likely his marriage to Catherine took place there also. Ms Megan Smolenyak located a marriage of 1866 of a James Finnegan and a Catherine Roche, at the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Ovid, Seneca County, New York. The marriage entry gave the names of the parents of James as Owen Finnegan and Jane Boyle.
          Seneca County was situated south of Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes, and between two smaller lakes called Seneca and Cayuga.

Ovid, Seneca County, New York, 1841

Source: History of Seneca Co., New York, With iIlustrations, descriptive of its  scenery, Palatial Residences, Public Buldings, Fine Blocks and Important Manufactories, Philadelphia,  Everts, Ensign & Everts, 1876, republished by W.E. Morrison & Co., Ovid, New York, following p.100, Allen County Library Genealogy Center.


          In the 1870 census, in the village of Ovid, was an Owen Finnegan, born about 1819 in Ireland, with his wife Jane, born about 1824 in Ireland, and children: Maggie age 18 years, Thomas age 11 years and Michie age 4 years, all born in New York. He was a shoemaker and had property (real estate) valued at $1500.

            1870 US census for Owen Finnegan
                                                   Source: (subscription service).

James was not listed with this household as he was married in 1866 and living elsewhere. So far only one possible entry for James and his wife Catherine has been found in the 1870 census – a hotel keeper in Rochester which is still doubtful as James was supposedly ‘blind’. But locating births of his children will verify where he resided at that time.
          However, ten years earlier, on 1 August 1860 in the Village of Ovid, County of Seneca, New York, was above Owen, a shoemaker, his wife Jane and sons James age 19 years and so born about 1841 (stated ‘blind’) and Patrick age 12 all born in Ireland, and daughter Margaret age 8 years and sons John and Thomas born in Seneca County, New York. Also in the house was a domestic servant named Bridget McGregan age 16 years and born in Ireland.

           1860 US census for owen finnagan
                                    Source: (subscription service).

By 1860 Owen already owned property (real estate) valued at $1000 so he was not poor.


Seneca Lake, Seneca County, New York

    Source: History of Seneca Co., op. cit., after page 164.

          Since Owen’s son Patrick was stated to be born in Ireland, about 1848, and daughter Margaret was born in New York, about 1852, one can concluded that the parents had possibly emigrated between 1848 and 1852.

          This date of emigration can be shortened further. In the 1850 census, taken for Covert, Seneca County, New York, on 20 August 1850, was an Owen born about 1820, his wife Jane born about 1822, and sons James age 10 years, Stephen age 7 years and Michael age 5 years all born in Ireland.

               1850 US Census for Owen Finegan
           Source: (subscription service)

Since none of the family were listed as born in New York it would appear that this family arrived within the previous few years. Owen gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ and he did not own any property. However his neighbours were nearly all native New Yorkers with real estate valued from $1000 to $12000.
         Covert was south of Ovid and situated near Lake Cayuga.

Cayuga Bridge, Seneca County, New York

            Source: History of Seneca Co., op. cit., after page 164.

           Between above censuses of 1850 to 1870 it is noted that some of the children had left home. In 1860 Stephen possibly worked as a farm labourer in Romulus County nearby. On 12 April 1861 the Civil War had broken out and continued until 1865. It appears that by 1863 three Finnegan boys, stated to be born in Ireland on the 1850 census, are mentioned on Civil War Records for the Union Army.

- In the History of Seneca County, page 103, a Michael Finnegan from Ovid is stated to have enlisted on 24 August 1862, in Company I, New York 164th Infantry Regiment, and killed the same day at the battle of Cold Harbour. However there seems to be some mix up on the military records (i.e. Military Muster Rolls and Record of Soldiers and officers) between this Michael and another Michael Finnigan of same age from Lockport.

           US record of Michael Finnegan, soldier
                  Source: Record of Soldiers and officers, part of record for Michael Finnegan,

          It is possible that, by the outbreak of the Civil War, Michael from Ovid had moved to Lockport where other Finnigan families lived. But there still is a Michael Finnegan in the 1880 US census residing in Lockport. On the Military Muster Rolls this maybe the Michael who enlisted 23 August 1862 at Newfane, mustered 19 November 1862, into Company B, 164 Infantry and reported missing in action at Cold Harbor. On the Roll it stated he was from Ireland, age 18 years, a labourer, black eyes, black hair, and 5ft 5inches tall.

           US Military Muster Record for Michael Finnigan
Source: New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900, part of record for Michael Finnigan,

       It is noted above, in the 1870 Census for Ovid, that another child was born to Owen and Jane, about 1866, and named Michael shortened to 'Michie'. This renaming of children after a child that had died was not unusual in Irish families.

- James Finnigan of Ovid, the musician, age 21 years, appeared on the Civil War Draft Registration records, 1863-1865, on 1 July 1863.

           US Draft Registration Record - James Finnigan
            Source:  US, Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865 record for James Finnigan,

- Stephen enlisted, in Company I, New York 164th Infantry Regiment, in Ovid on 26 December 1863, was promoted to Sergeant and mustered out on 15 July 1865 at Washington, DC. It was stated, in 1863, that he was born in Ireland, age 20 years, occupation a 'shoemaker', blue eyes, brown hair and 5ft 6 inches tall.

           US Muster Roll, 1860s, Stephen Finnigan
        Source: New York, Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861 1900, part of record for Stephen Finnigan,

          To summarize, from the main US records available, the persons stated to be born in Ireland are:- Owen Finnegan about 1820, his wife Jane about 1822, children James about 1840, Stephen about 1842, Michael about 1845 and Patrick about 1848. The year of emigration was possibly between 1848 and 20 August 1850 presuming that the family residing in Covert, Seneca County, in 1850 was the same family who settled in nearby Ovid Village by 1860.

          In the case of County Mayo there were Finnegans in Pennsylvania, where Vice President Biden’s ancestors later settled, who came from that county. However on searching the index to available Roman Catholic Registers for the county there is no family of an Owen Finnegan and Jane Boyle. But only about quarter of the nineteenth century parish registers for County Mayo date pre 1840. In addition the surname ‘Finnegan’ has various spellings and ‘Boyle’ can also be ‘O’Boyle’. So such a search is inconclusive.

          On checking passenger lists the most likely entry so far located is for a Jane born about 1823 emigrating on the Marchioness of Bute, from Newry, and arriving in New York on 15 May 1850. With her were children James age 7, Stephen age 5, and Patrick an infant. On the transcribed index to the passenger lists, available online, the child Patrick was stated to be 'born at sea'. But as it is always advisable to look at the original records the correct detail should be that Patrick was 'an infant'.

           1850 Marchioness of Bute, Index of  Passengers, Finnigan
                                                         Source: (subscription service).

           1850 Marchioness of Bute, Passengers, Finnigan
                                                           Source: National LIbrary of Ireland, microfilm.

Note also Jane's occupation was given as 'spintrefs' or 'spinstress' which is a person who spins yarn.
       If this is the correct Jane then Owen emigrated in late 1848 to early 1850 to prepare the way for his family. The child Michael possibly emigrated with him or with a close neighbour or relative. This would not be unusual as there existed at the time a fear that a whole family could be lost by the outbreak of fever on board ship or of it sinking. The fact that Jane and her family emigrated from Newry would suggest she came from that region.

          In the case of the Roman Catholic Registers for County Louth there was the marriage of an Owen Finegan and Jane Boyle in Cooley Parish on 8 December 1839. (the witnesses were Michael Woods and James Donnelly) and in neighbouring Lordship Parish the baptism entries of James in 1840, Michael in 1845 and a Patrick in 1848 to the family. So far the baptism of Stephen has not been located.
           Unfortunately no exact address was given for the family on the parish registers but it would appear that they may have come from the part of north County Louth bounded by the sea and a line from Bellurgan to Carlingford.

          To go back to the Biden family folklore that Vice President Joe Biden’s great grandmother knew Gaelic. This great grandmother was the Catherine Roche who married, in New York, the James Finnegan stated to be born in Ireland about 1840. While emigrants from County Louth for the period are not known as being Gaelic speakers it is quite likely the child James and his parents Owen and Jane had some knowledge of the language as, up until more recent times, there was an Irish speaking community further north around the Omeath area. It is also likely that a priest in Cooley parish had some interest in the language as the parish register of the time period, while written in English, used the old Gaelic form of lettering.

          So the evidence, so far uncovered, is quite strong that the Finnegans were from north County Louth. But there is one noticeable similarity between the inhabitants of Ovid, where Owen Finnegan settled, and this part of the Cooley peninsula and that is in the surnames. Besides a number of Finnegan families in Ovid, by 1860, were residents, stated to be born in Ireland, with surnames White, Quinn, Hanlon, Morgan, Toner, Donnelly, McBride, Rooney, Woods, Rogan and by 1870 Census also Feehan, along with other more common surnames like Murphy, Carroll, Reilly, Malone, and Clarke etc.. So it may not be just one family that settled in that part of New York but many from north County Louth.


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© MP McConnon, MC Research, Seabank, Castlebellingham, Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland.
(Original uploaded 20 January 2009). Last update 03 January 2022.