James Reed and Eliza Gibbons
  Ardogommon townland, County Mayo, Ireland

Lost in the sheep pastures of County Mayo in western Ireland, a few miles from Westport near the road to Ballinrobe, is a crumbling old church. Whatever roads once led to it have long yielded to grazing animals and the large grounds and modern homes of two or three affluent families. The roof of the old church has gone. What were once nave and chancel have been invaded by a dense thicket of trees, shrubs and vines. Not even a sign or name for the old building remains. Across the other side of the country in Dublin, the Church of Ireland archivists are indifferent. It’s just another abandoned old church, after all.

For details of the family tree of James Reed and Eliza Gibbons, click on the WorldConnect icon below. This will open a window for these individuals in the Otterson-Berry family tree at RootsWeb.com, a free site.

It is probable that this was the church where at least some of the family of James Reed attended, and where some of his children were baptized in the years before the Great Famine devastated Ireland and scattered so many of its people to foreign shores.

James Reed was a weaver, and lived on the small “townland” known as Ardogommon (sometimes spelled and pronounced Ardygommon). The townland was a 233-acre plot just over two miles from the church, in the direction of Westport on the coast. In Ireland, a townland is essentially the rural equivalent of a street - a parcel of land occupied by perhaps a dozen families, sometimes more, each of which farmed its own plot but often cooperated. Families of that time might have had a specific profession - weaver, blacksmith, cobbler - but all relied for their existence on what they could grow or extract from their own land. Families planted their staple crop, potatoes. They may have had a few sheep, perhaps a goat and a pig. Some dug limestone from the rocky ground to make lime in their own kiln, and cut turf from the bogs to dry and burn in winter. Their fortunes depended on what their land could yield and the unpredictability of the weather.

Contemporary parish records show that families by the name of Reed and Gibbons lived in Ardogommon as neighbors in the 1820s.  Since people in those days rarely moved far from their rural homes, it’s not surprising that James Reed and Eliza Gibbons married. Records show that the fathers in Reed and Gibbons families living in the same area were weavers - neighbors and probably friends - and it’s possible that a marriage of son and daughter was arranged between them, a common practice of the time.

James and Eliza were married on the first day of January, 1827. The marriage record is found in the register for Oughaval (also spelled Aughavale) parish of the Church of Ireland, the established Protestant church.  James was evidently Protestant, but it is likely that his bride was Catholic. Gibbons is a common Catholic name in County Mayo.

Ardogommon lay close to the boundary of Oughaval and Aghagower parishes, possibly along the boundary itself.  A contemporary map of the townland, obtainable in ireland, will resolve that question. The townland itself is only a short distance from Aghagower, a place of great antiquity and historic significance that was the closest village to where the Reeds lived. The village is built around an old ruined abbey that dates to the seventh century AD, with a tall, round tower that now seems significantly off its axis - a kind of rustic equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The village breathes antiquity. There is even a large, rough basin-shaped indentation known as St. Patrick’s Vat or Tub, where St. Patrick is said to have baptized Aghagower’s first Christians. The dominant feature of the landscape is the pyramidal mountain known as Croagh Patrick, where St. Patrick is said to have climbed to the summit in the fifth century before a lengthy fast, culminating in his banning all snakes and demons from Ireland.

This was the area in which the Reeds raised their large family. Daughter Matilda was born in the spring of 1828, followed by seven more children over the next 20 years. Records show that four of their flock of eight children were baptized in the Church of Ireland’s Oughaval parish. Given their proximity to Aghagower, this again could indicate that the Ardogommon townland straddled the boundary between the two parishes of Oughaval and Aghagower. For the baptism of daughter Sidney in September, 1839, there is a margin note in the register saying “baptized at Ardygommon,” which suggests the church minister traveled to the home for the service. No record has yet been found for the baptism of four of the children.

Nothing is known of the life of the Reed family during this period, except for the inferences that can be made for most such rural families of that time. Then, in the mid-1840s, came the great scourge which redefined Irish history, accelerated the Irish diaspora throughout the world, and spawned political consequences still felt today. The potato blight that destroyed the staple crop was particularly devastating because the agrarian nature of Irish life offered for much of the population few alternatives for survival. For families living off the land and dependent on what they could grow, there was little or no industry to fall back on. Much of the population had come to rely entirely on the potato. The Great Famine reduced the population of Ireland by between one fifth and one quarter: a million people died, and another million emigrated.

The Reeds abandoned their own plot of land in Ardogommon sometime between the winter of 1848 and the spring of 1851. From Ardogommon the most likely route for the large family would have been by boat from the quay at nearby Westport to Liverpool, the point of departure for thousands of refugees. Or, less likely, they might have gone by rail to Dublin, and then sailed for England from there.

Today, memorials to the Great Famine of 1845-1852 stand both at Westport and at Dublin, like bookends on both sides of the country. At Westport, John Behan’s sculpture “Coffin Ship” overlooks the Mayo coastline (see below).  Skeletal, ghostlike figures flutter over the deck like tattered rigging. In Dublin, an emaciated group of figures stand wretched and downcast. The father is the only one whose eyes are raised, his face a mixture of despair and hope.

That must have been how the Reeds felt when they abandoned their traditional homeland for the uncertain shores of England.

Continued:  The Reeds in Liverpool


The old ruined church that the Reeds probably once attended. The view through the arch into dense foliage is looking into the church, not out.


Oughaval parish register showing marriage of James Reed and Eliza Gibbons, “by publication of banns,” 1 January 1827. Both made their mark with an “x.”

Top right:

County Mayo parish boundaries. The red dot is Oughaval parish, which extends through to the coast below Westport. Aghagower parish (blue dot) is one of the largest in County Mayo and included the townland of Ardogommon.


This brook may have marked the boundary for Ardogommon. Ardogommon Woods lies beyond. The old stone building still stands on land recently owned by a Gibbons family. The white house on the same plot was occupied by James “Sonny” Gibbons until he died a few years ago. The exact relationship between him and the Gibbons of the 1800s is yet to be established.

Below left:

Today’s village of Aghagower, with its ancient ruined abbey and view of Croagh Patrick. There are several cemeteries in the village: it’s a place where people seemingly like to be buried.