How Name Changing Hid a Heritage
Barry Manilow. Yes, I know, most think of him as a Jewish fellow from Brooklyn – and he is. But he’s also a quarter Irish, and due to certain circumstances in his family, that Irish share has had a disproportionate influence on his family tree.
Though he wouldn’t have known it, when Barry changed surnames, he was the third generation of Pincus men to do so. Born Barry Pincus, he decided to change his name around the time of his bar mitzvah. By then, his father was long out of the picture and his mother had reverted to her maiden name. That, coupled with the fact that he was fond of his Manilow grandfather whose name would have otherwise died out, is what led him to become Barry Manilow.
I dare say that immigrant Joe Manilow, who can be heard encouraging his reluctant grandson to sing on one of Barry’s early albums, appreciated this gesture. It’s possible that there might have been more stateside Manilows if Joe’s father hadn’t been deported when he arrived at Ellis Island, but at least that didn’t discourage Joe from trying his own luck the following year.
Barry’s mother eventually remarried to a man named Murphy, the most common of Irish names. Manilow never adopted his stepfather’s name, but it was a comfortable relationship and he sometimes credits him for sparking his interest in music.
Barry’s father’s situation was a little more complicated. Like Manilow, he was born a Pincus, but his own father also left the family. When he was ten, his mother remarried to a Keliher, the New York-born son of Irish immigrants, and he subsequently ping-ponged between the two surnames.
So Manilow was a Pincus who became a Manilow and his father was a Pincus who became a Keliher. His Pincus-born grandfather also changed his name, but that’s a story for another time. If you guessed that this complicated my research, you’d be correct.
Irish in More than Name
Assuming you managed to follow all this, you might be thinking, “but the Irish were stepfathers who married into the family so where’s his Irish heritage?” That’s true – except for the fact that his paternal grandmother, Anna “Annie” Sheehan, was born in New York to Irish immigrants, and her quarter of Manilow’s family tree is adorned with names like Sheehan, O’Donnell and Shields. But where exactly in Ireland does Manilow’s family hail from?
I tried to gain traction a number of times over the years, but if the Pincus line’s name-swapping habit proved a hindrance, the challenge with his Sheehan grandmother was a triple play: common name, fragmented family, and a fibbing father. One of the most useful tactics for tackling common names in genealogical research is finding your target with their relatives so you can be sure you’ve got the right person (sure, her name is Annie Sheehan, but how many of this name also have parents named X & Y and siblings named A, B, C and D of particular ages?). But if their family has scattered – as Annie’s had – it takes a jigsaw approach to reassemble them, and that’s what happened. Annie’s father claiming to have been naturalized decades before he was injected another impediment, but once removed, worked to my benefit.
One of the reasons it was difficult to patch Annie into her family of origin is that she flew the nest young by marrying at the ripe old age of 16. This union produced the son who would eventually go on to become Barry Manilow’s biological father, but it wasn’t the happiest of marriages. She had chosen a husband who was, to put it mildly, a character. This is believed to be a photo of them.
After Annie and her husband “uncoupled,” she remarried into the Keliher name her son would sometimes use. Following the paper trail of her weddings provided her parents’ names – John and Mary – so common that there were still multiple candidates for Annie, but enough to be able to narrow the field to the right family.
Once I identified her family, I could better understand why she had left so young as the tale that emerged was a sad and familiar one shared by many immigrants. Annie’s parents, John and Mary Sheehan, married and had their first child in Ireland. As was so common, John came to America first, with Mary and their daughter following later. They went initially to Connecticut, but soon moved slightly south to New York.
The family settled in Brooklyn where John worked a variety of arduous jobs – coal passer, truck driver, longshoreman, and laborer (in both a galvanizing works and junk shop). Following the child-every-other-year pattern found in so many families of the era, John and Mary had 11 children over two decades. Three of them went to early graves – stunning to us today a mere century later, but not out of the ordinary at the time.
John and Mary, along with eight of their children (including Anna and their youngest, noted as being 241 days old), appear in the 1915 census. But just five years later by the time of the January 1920 census, things had gone off-track. Only two of their children were still with them, and five months later, Mary died. Though her obituary says she suffered a brief illness, I suspect her health had been failing for a while as some of the younger children had already been parceled out to orphanages before she passed.
Tracing Annie’s Father
Annie’s father, John Sheehan, was left more or less on his own in 1920 once his wife died, and with such a common name, became close to invisible. It’s not possible, for instance, to pluck him out with any certainty in the 1925, 1930 and 1940 census records.
But he did leave one critical, albeit perplexing, record: his naturalization. Finding it was unexpected as he had steadily claimed to have been naturalized since 1900, but the actual record was decades later. He didn’t go through the process until the 1930s, a tremendous stroke of luck since the documentation created in this era was far more detailed than it would have been if he really had been naturalized in the 1890s.
I found his petition when I took off the blinders created by trusting his earlier claims. And even then, I still had doubts when I came to the correct one (so many John Sheehans) because this man had a middle name, while Annie’s father had never used one. But then I glanced at the witness affidavits. Anna (Sheehan) Keliher had been a witness for her father’s naturalization, so this was definitely the right John Sheehan.
Back to Ireland
The naturalization record revealed what I had been seeking, the family’s place of origin in Ireland: Limerick. Another bonus stemming from his sluggishness was the image at the top of this article, as more recent records include photos. For many families, this is the only one they’ll ever have of an immigrant ancestor, so it’s fortunate for his descendants that he took his sweet time becoming an American citizen.
John’s naturalization also furnished a treasure trove of specifics such as dates of his birth and marriage. It wasn’t long ago that pushing back into Limerick records would have taken a fair bit of effort, but availability of both free and fee-based Irish records has expanded greatly in recent years. Making use of sites such as IrishGenealogy.ie, RootsIreland.ie, and the National Archives of Ireland, I quickly rounded up the marriage of John and Mary (O’Donnell) Sheehan, as well as a number of other documents pertaining to their respective parents and siblings.
Before long, I learned that John had lost his mother when he was only five years old. Still in her early 30s, she had given birth to at least nine children, the youngest of whom was born and died that same year. Similarly, Mary had been one of ten children and was given a recycled name after an older sister named Mary died as an infant. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as dramatic, but one could sense echoes of Angela’s Ashes in their experiences, and it was clear why some might want to try their luck in America.
So congratulations, Limerick! The fellow who makes the whole world sing has Limerick roots. Should Barry Manilow ever wish to walk in his ancestors’ Limerick footsteps, he’ll want to meander Mungret Street for the O’Donnells and stroll nearby to the Johnsgate vicinity where Cassidy’s Lane once was for the Sheehans. Perhaps he has some local cousins who can show him the way.
Megan Smolenyak is a genealogist and the author of six books, including Trace Your Roots with DNA and Who Do You Think You Are?, a companion to the TV series. She prefers to call herself an incurable genealogist and sometimes author. Her articles for Irish America, include a piece that she wrote about her decade-long search that finally turned up the Irish cousins of Annie Moore of Ellis Island fame. She also brought to light the Irish heritage of President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama, and such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert. Her most recent genealogical detective work has rooted out the Irish ancestors of Barry Manilow. Her articles for the magazine also include such hidden discoveries as, “The Spy in the Castle,” which concerned the Dublin Metropolitan Police officer and Michael Collins spy David Neligan. Follow Megan on Twitter @megansmolenyak or visit her website megansmolenyak.com to learn more.