And so the story goes…
On my dad’s Irish birth certificate it lists his name as Patrick Joseph O’Flynn, born 8 September 1921 in the servant’s quarters at Kilshannig House, in Rathcormac, County Cork, Ireland. He spent the first four years of his life living on Canon Street in Rathcormac and attending the school that his father and grandfather attended in that village. His father, John Joseph O’Flynn was born in Cork City in 1895 to Bridget O’Leary and Denis O’Flynn. His mother, Mary Cahill (known to all as Molly) was born on the family farm at Ballybrowney in 1898 to Patrick Cahill and Hannah Egan.
So for all intent and purposes, my siblings and my cousins are “O’Flynns” — after all it’s right there on my grandparent’s marriage certificate and on my dad’s birth certificate. And yet since the time they arrived in Canada at the Port of Quebec on 5 October 1925, my dad has always been known as Joe Flynn — the same, new last name that his father, mother and younger brother Denis had apparently adopted. In fact it’s listed on Sheet No. 30, of the Canadian Government Return of the Canadian Immigration Service, from the Third Class passengers on rows 5-8: John, Mary, Joseph and Denis Flynn (see a screen shot of that register below). And while it is plausible that the immigration officer anglicized the name upon entry, it seems improbable as on line 17 of that same register it lists a Jeremiah O’Mahoney from Cork City who also became a landed immigrant on that same day.
So where did the “O” go?
When we were growing up, my dad said that during their passage across the Atlantic Ocean on the Canadian Pacific Ship “Melita”, his father threw the “O” into the ocean because being seen to be an Irish Catholic in waspish Toronto at the turn of the 20th century wasn’t a good thing — economically. The same story would recount the notion that there were signs posted in Toronto in 1925 that stated “No Irish Need Apply” for work at certain businesses. So dropping the “O” seems to make sense. ‘Don’t let the elites of Toronto know you are Catholic and all will be well. You’ll get a good job and life in this new country will be much better than at anytime under the 700-years of English rule in Ireland’.
I could buy into that story — it made sense that to ensure that my grandfather was employable after arriving in Toronto that he would use an anglicized version of our name. All my Flynn cousins can repeat the same story about the disappearance of the infamous “O” and the need to be seen to be less Irish and more Canadian after coming to Canada. It’s not a new story, many new Canadians had their names changed or spelling alternated thanks to the civil servants working for the customs and immigration department. Even my dad’s younger brother, Denis Christopher Flynn (born 17 December 1923), changed his name to C. Dennis Flynn to apparently fit with the overwhelmingly protestant Toronto.
But why didn’t Mr. O’Mahoney also feel that way? Why did he keep his “O”? The records suggest that Mr. O’Mahoney was a farmer and was heading to Western Canada as he was reporting to the Department of Colonization, c/o C.P.R. Montreal. So maybe in Western Canada, as a landowner and farmer, he didn’t have to worry about being seen to be Catholic.
But wait one second…on that same Canadian Immigration Service record, it lists two other Flynns — the firsst was Daniel who lived at 81 Browning Avenue in Toronto, who was my grandfather’s uncle and the relative to which he and his family were destined. From archival record searches, Daniel Flynn immigrated from Rathcormac in 1887 to Canada, and never had an “O” in his name when he arrived. The same is true on his marriage certificate which he listed his father’s name as “John Flynn” on 30 April 1891 (Daniel married Mary Crosson in Toronto). That same John Flynn was my grandfather’s grandfather, and Daniel Flynn was the brother of Denis, who was also John’s son, and the father of my grandfather, also named John — confusing I know.
The second name listed on my grandfather’s immigration record was “D. Flynn” his father whom he stated was living in Rathcormac, Fermoy, Cork, Ireland in 1925. The same Denis O’Flynn that is listed on his marriage certificate five years earlier. Did he list it as “Flynn” so that he wouldn’t get further questioning by the immigration officers — ‘so your name is Flynn and your uncle’s name is Flynn but your father’s name is O’Flynn?’ — explain that one to me young man? So it seems possible that just for the sake and ease of settling in to this new country, John Joseph O’Flynn and his wife and kids, simply became Flynns on that ocean trip in 1925 — and maybe just maybe the “O” was tossed overboard in the middle of the Atlantic to help with the transition to their new lives as Canadians.
And quite frankly, even though the “O” would have given us a decidedly Irish surname, I liked growing up with my name starting with an F — this was especially important in high school where our homerooms were organized alphabetically. I got to meet and become good friends with the Fayts, Fedys, Flanigans because there was no “O” in my name.
But still, I have always been curious to know where the “O” really went and what lead to the decision to become just Flynn. Did it really get tossed overboard in 1925 or is there some alternative explanation to the dropping of the “O”.
Join me on this journey in search of the “O” – it should prove enlightening to my family and even mildly entertaining to our friends.
2 thoughts on “It all started with an “O” (or did it?)”
Really interesting write up and matches the general theory of why the ‘O’ was dropped by Irish people who emigrated ‘West’ from Ireland during those times. What I am very curious about is a small detail on the register that you have attached. I noticed that the column ‘Nationality – Country of which a citizen or subject’ has three different listings; that being ‘Irish’, ‘Ireland’ and ‘I.F.S’, which I am assuming was for ‘Irish Free State’, which was the official name for Ireland from the years 1922 – 1937 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Free_State.
The first entry on the list in the screenshot has ‘Irish’ and is for a man from Cork, and then the next three listings appear to be members of the same family from a small town in Co. Tyrone in the north (Cullentra), which as you know is on the island of Ireland, but is part of the United Kingdom. Then, your Grandfather and family use the ‘I.F.S’. I have to admit, this made me smile as one would deduce that they had strong feelings about the new political status of the country at the time. This of course is rightly attributing the entry to John Flynn himself. The fact that a man from Cork simply mentions ‘Irish’ leads me to think this. Would you agree with this thinking from what you know of your Grandfather?
I am also curious as to how this whole register process was conducted. Given that the ship sailed from Ireland, it would have been logical to say most if not all of the passengers were new Irish migrants hoping to start a new life in Canada, unless of course the ship originally started its journey somewhere in England, which was sometimes the case at the time. Were final identification papers for Canada issued based on this register entry when people first landed in Canada?
Conor great questions. I do believe that the ship (C.P. Melita) may have originated in Liverpool. I’ll go back and confirm. My grandfather was a strong supporter of Michael Collins, so I would assume that he would proudly state I.F.S. Are you still in the UAE? Maybe I can encourage you to be my associate on pulling together more information from your side of the O’Flynn family through your grandfather Terry — I’m missing some names and dates to fill in the blanks.