Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Shirt-tail Relatives

It was probably about 1959 and I was ten years old when I first heard the term “shirt-tail relative”.  I was trying to figure out why Jo O’Meara and her daughter, Ginny, were invited to almost all of our family holiday celebrations.  I asked my grandmother exactly who the O’Meara family was.  At first she told me that they were old family friends, but as I questioned her, she said that they were “shirt-tail relatives" to my grandfather, and that the relationship went way back to Ireland and no one really knew what the relationship was.  That was interesting, but that was the extent of the conversation.   

Flash forward to about 1994 when I began to get interested in genealogy.  Sadly, all of my older relatives on my maternal side had already passed away.  Such a hard lesson to learn…find out all you can from your family while they are still here!

Anyway, I could not find a connection to the O’Meara family.  I knew that Jo O’Meara had been my great-grandmother’s best-friend.  And Ginny O’Meara had been close friends with my grandfather, his sister, and his first cousin.  I had pictures of all of them together throughout the years.  My great-grandfather’s parents had died when he was a young child and he was raised by his older sister.  It was her daughter who was so close to Ginny O’Meara.  So it seemed that the connection was somehow through my Murphy family (my great-grandfather was Edward R. Murphy).

Researching my Murphy family, I learned that my great-great-great grandmother was Alice Reed Murphy.  As I continued to research the family, I kept coming across the name “Peter Reed” associated with my Murphy relatives. I also was finding connections with both my Murphy families and the Peter Reed family with the Nicholas Reed Heneberry family in Peoria.  And I learned that Nicholas Reed Heneberry’s mother was a Reed.

 I did fairly extensive research on the Peter Reed family, but did not find a proven connection to my Murphy family, other than Peter Reed being godfather to different Murphy members, etc.  And Peter Reed was from County Kilkenny, which is where my Murphy family originated. As was the Nicholas Heneberry family.

I had found census readings on Peter Reed and learned that he had ten children.  (One of them had married my great-great grandmother’s brother.)  Peter Reed’s oldest child, Margaret “Maggie” Reed married David Charles Ryan in 1878.  They had ten children.

It wasn’t until I returned to my interest in learning who Jo O’Meara was that I thought to send for her death certificate.  Oh, my.  Her parents were David C. and Margaret Reed Ryan.  Peter Reed was Jo O’Meara’s grandfather.

Have I made absolute proof of the relationship between my Murphy family and the Peter Reed family?  Nope.  But the connections seem too close to be just coincidence.  My best speculation at this point based on dates of birth is that Alice Reed’s father was brother to Nicholas Heneberry’s mother.  (Alice born  about 1801, Nicholas born 1807).  Peter Reed was born in 1832.  My best guess there is that his father was Alice Reed’s brother.

So, if you are still with me here…that would mean that Johanna Ryan O’Meara was my great-grandfather’s second cousin once removed.

Wow!  Talk about strong, long-lasting connections through time and space.  The families came to Peoria, Illinois from Ireland around 1850, and up until Ginny O’Meara’s death in 1978, the families remained close.  That gives me a rather nice warm feeling!  It also makes me wonder if Ginny O'Meara had married and had children, would the close connection have continued?  I like to think that it would have. 

Below are a couple of definitions that I found for “Shirt-tail relatives”:

very distant relative by marriage or a family friend that one claims with honorary status the same as a close, well liked relative

A shirttail relative is someone who is either a relative by marriage, distantly related (say, a third cousin), or a family friend who is an honourary “relative”.

Well, by the time I got interested in finding out about these families, I guess they fit the definition of shirt-tail relatives.  But they sure didn’t back in the 1800’s!!!


  1. Shirt tail relative was a common phrase back in the 1950's now we have our genealogy charts and ancestry helps tell us who this person is. I just put together a picture with my family tree and met a 1st cousin 3 x removed. That is sort of shirt tail I guess

  2. I would suppose that tracing a late cousins husband's 2nd wife back 7 generations to a maternal ancestor of Black Jack Pershing would make him a shirt tailed cousin. ;)

  3. Why shirt tail ? What is the relevance how did this originate