Jim's Irish Genealogy Pages:

The Murthas

The Murthas of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, like the Kearneys of the same town, can be traced back to the parish of Shercock in Co. Cavan, Ireland. In fact, the Kearneys and Murthas lived on adjoining farms in Shercock--which probably contributed to the fact that the families kept in touch in the New World.

Murtha is an anglicized version of the name MacMuircheartach, which means "son of the sea director," or navigator. None of our ancestors was necessarily a navigator, however; Muircheartach was a not-uncommon personal name in medieval Ireland, with at least three high kings of Ireland bearing it. (Muircheartach O Loughlin, the king that Blosdaigh O’Cahan killed, was one of these.) It's possible that the name was popularized by the 6th Century's St. Brendan the Navigator, who, in addition to making a legendary voyage across the Atlantic, made several real journeys by ship to spread Christianity around the British Isles.

Muircheartach is pronounced Mir-art-ach, with the "ch" pronounced as in "Bach" or "loch." There are many variant forms of MacMuircheartach, including Moriarty, McMurtry and Murdoch, but these appear to be different families than the MacMuricheartachs that anglicized their name as "Murtha" or "Murtagh." The latter is the common spelling in Ireland today, --Adeline Murtha Kearney recalled meeting relatives who spelled it "M U R T Ah G Haitch." The family seat of the Murtaghs was not far from Shercock, in Co. Meath near Kells, known for the beautifully illuminated Book of Kells.

There is a gravestone just outside of Shercock, across the Monaghan county line towards Carrickmacross, that latterday Murtaghs pointed to as marking the the burial spot of the ancestors of the Shercock Murthas. The inscription refers to one Bernard Murtha--probably an anglicization of Brian--who lived from about 1716 to 1787, and to his sons Philip and Michael (the latter dying on October 17, 1811). There are also references to a Mary Murtha and Catherine Murtha, who seem to have been Bernard’s wife and sister, respectively, though the stone is somewhat ambiguous.

A Philip Murtha is also found living in the townland of Derry, a small section of Shercock near the Monaghan line, in the 1825 Tithe Applotment books. Other heads of Murtha households listed as living in Derry include Peter, Patrick and Thomas, as well as a Widow Murtha. In Griffith's Valuation, almost 30 years later, Philip is the only one of these that remains, but he is joined by James Murtagh, the earliest ancestor of my branch of the Murthas remembered by family tradition.

Philip was recorded as James' father's name on James' marriage record. It's not possible to say definitively that James' father was the Philip who is the son of Bernard listed on the tombstone, but that may be the best guess possible.

James Murtagh was born about 1811, and farmed and raised cattle in Shercock’s Derry townland. He lived on 10 acres of land, which had a rather low valuation of 7 pounds. (This appears to be the price the land could be rented for.) While the neighboring Kearneys’ house was valued at 2 pounds, 5 shillings a year, the Murthas’ was only valued at 15 shillings--a third as much. The Murtagh house in Shercock.

This house (now much improved) was until recently still inhabited by the widow of his grandson Owen, Nancy Murtagh. She hosted many a Murtha relative who came to visit: “Nancy meets with more Americans than Mrs. Robinson,” a neighbor remarked, referring to the Irish president. Other descendants of James Murtagh are still living in the area, but the last male heir to the Murtagh name, Peter John Murtagh, died around 1970 in a tractor accident.

The Thomas Murtha that appears in the Tithe Applotment books may have been James’ brother; he remained in Shercock, married Catherine Mooney and had three children. James also had three sisters, according to family tradition: One married an O’Conner and lived in Connelsville, Pennsylvania; one married a Boyle and lived in Leisenring, Pennsylvania; one married a Daley and lived in Chicago. The two sisters who moved to Western Pennsylvania may have been influential in persuading other relatives to follow a generation later.

James stayed in Shercock and married Rose Duffy, who was born about 1821. Duffy is an Anglicization of the Gaelic name “O Dubhthaigh,” meaning “Black” or “Dark,” and it was a quite common family name in Cavan (and in Shercock). There was an Owen Duffy living in Derry, found both in the Tithe Applotment Books and in Griffith’s Valuation; it’s possible that this was Rose’s father.

The only story that seems to have survived about Rose Duffy comes from a remark that her son John made to his daughter Adeline: “You’re just like your grandmother--you can smell a drink a mile away!”

Rose and James had eight children--Peter, Rose, John, Alice, Mary, Patrick, James and Owen--almost all of whom left Ireland. Peter, the eldest, went to England, but returned to run the home place in Shercock after his brother John came to America.

Two daughters, Rose and Alice, ended up married to police officers in Chicago. Rose’s husband, John Kearney, is supposed to be a distant cousin of Christopher James Kearney--perhaps the son of Patrick Kearney of Lecks. John seems to have been born in 1858, and Rose in 1859; Rose emigrated in 1876. They had six children: Patrick, Rose, Mary, John, Peter and Philip. John Kearney Sr. died July 3, 1909, after falling off a newspaper wagon that he was guarding during a labor dispute. His only grandchild seems to be Peter James Kearney Jr., who was an obstetrician at Lake Forest Hospital and has ten children.

Alice married Patrick O’Hagan, who later retired from the police force and became a security guard.

Both Mary and Patrick settled in Pennsylvania. Mary lived around Uniontown and married Jack Rocks, who was said to have gotten rich in the coal business. Adeline Kearney recalled that she died “mysteriously.” Patrick married Lizzy McIntyre and lived in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania.

Next: John and Mary Ann Murtha.

  • My cousin Jim Toth's Family Cards contain some more specific information about our Murtha/Murtagh ancestors.
  • A family tree of the descendants of James Murtagh can be found at my Genealogy Page at FamilyTreeMaker.com.
  • This page features descendants of John Henry Murtagh, born 1807 in Co. Sligo and emigrated to Australia.
  • Murtagh Family Genealogy traces the descendants of Philip John Murtagh, born 1837.
  • This page has links to some beautiful Book of Kells images.

This page was created by James Kearney Naureckas. Please email him with any corrections, suggestions or questions.