Hugh McKenna (1812-1880)

Hugh and Mary McKenna lived in County Tyrone, Ireland in the early 1800s. The most common McKenna forenames in the area are Hugh, John, James and Patrick.

Born around 1812, Hugh McKenna married Mary around 1832 and they had at least five children: Ellen (b. 1838), Sarah (b. 1839), John (b.1840), Thomas (b. 1844) and James (b. 1851). Like most families in rural Ireland, Hugh and Mary lived on a small farm and paid rent to a Protestant gentry - in their case Francis J. Gervais. By law, any improvements they made, such as building a stone house, became the property of the landlord. Thus there was never any incentive to upgrade their living conditions. Their farm was so small the only way they could live was to grow potatoes, oats and perhaps some flax for spinning.

The Potato Famine

The potato famine hit in 1845, the year after their son Thomas was born. What had been a meager existence turned to dire circumstances. They suffered with stark starvation and debilitating diseases that decimated their family. More than 1 million people died as a result of the Potato Famine and more that 1.5 million left Ireland to seek refuge in other countries (See more details at Historical Events (1810-1900)).

Hugh and Mary lived through the potato famine and, though many of their relatives immigrated to the United States, they chose to stay in Ireland. We have many questions about their lives that may likely never be answered. For example:

  • Did some of their children die in the famine?

  • Did Hugh and Mary lose their spouses in the famine and then marry each other?

  • Were they forced off of their farm by the landlord, as were many farmers?

  • Did extended family members also move to Belfast which would have allowed further socialization?

  • What family members did they leave behind in Clogher?

This much we know - near the end of the potato famine, they moved from County Tyrone to Belfast seeking work and a better life.

Connection to County Tyrone

We know that Hugh and Mary lived in Belfast, but where did they live before that?

  • The Christ Church Census, taken in February 1852, shows Hugh and Mary and their 6 children living at 6 Albert Street Place. The children's names are Ellen, Sarah, John, Thomas, James and Mary A. Mary A. is listed as "A Foundling: adopted by H. McK." The significance of this document is that it establishes the names and ages of the children and that they are worshiping at the Church of Ireland. Most McKenna's in Counties Tyrone and Monaghan are Catholic.

  • Both James and John report that they were born in County Tyrone in the 1901 Census. John repeats his birth in County Tyrone in the 1911 Census.

  • The Griffiths Valuation was conducted in Ireland from 1847 to 1864. There is some indication that the Valuation in County Tyrone was conducted in 1851, the year James was born in county Tyrone. In the Griffith's Valuation for County Tyrone, there were 17 Hugh McKenna's listed as tenants (See map).

  • Hugh's brother Samuel and most of his children immigrated to Wisconsin in the late 1850 and early 1860's. Two of his children, Jane and Mary were married in County Tyrone before they left Ireland. Both of them were married in the Brantry Presbyterian Church and the marriage records show that they were living in Aghaloo Parish in the townland of Mullintor at the time of their marriages.


We conclude that Hugh and Mary McKenna lived in County Tyrone prior to moving to Belfast in 1851.

Life in Belfast

By February 1852, Hugh and Mary were living in Belfast with their six children. The Christ Church Census and a Belfast Street Directory showed them living at 6 Albert Street Place. Hugh was working as a millworker, as was his oldest daughter Ellen.

The Linen Industry in Belfast was emerging as a major player the Irish linen industry. Belfast produced about one half of all the linen produced in Ireland. In 1852, there were 28 linen mills in Belfast, with eight located on the Falls Road, very close to where Hugh and Mary lived. Between 1850 and 1861, the number of spindles would double and the number of power looms would rise from 100 to almost 5,000. The typical millworker worked a 12-hour shift. The mills used a “wet spinning” technique that kept the factories hot and humid. Workers often went barefoot to avoid slipping. Wages were low and injuries and illness were common among factory workers.

"Improving on the Old Stock" - While Hugh was an unskilled labourer, he wanted his children to have a better life. Their son Thomas became a carpenter and John became a "master painter". Thomas built housing units in Belfast and was later a carpenter for the Union Pacific Railroad in the United States. John stayed in Belfast and one of his last jobs was to paint the gold gilding in the staterooms of the Titanic. James was an exception to this improved way of life as he worked as a labourer and several of his children were born in the Belfast Union Workhouse.

Population of Belfast

Population growth - Belfast grew from about 100,000 in 1852 to over 200,000 by the time Hugh died in 1880. By the time Mary would die in 1898, Belfast would swell to over 300,000 people.

Housing and Sanitation - The living and working condition in Belfast were far from ideal. The streets were dirty and houses were overcrowded. The River Lagan was used as a sewer. The rapid population growth forced development of housing units that were small and poorly constructed.

"Cholera outbreaks in 1831 and 1849 prompted serious concern about sanitation, culminating in an address by Dr A.G. Malcolm to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1852 on the sanitary condition of the town. Among the many deficiencies identified by Malcolm were poorly drained houses with limited external ventilation; over 1,800 houses in courts and entries were accessible only through a covered archway. The poorest class of house, comprising four rooms, usually contained at least two families, and Malcolm described how he frequently found 'as many as eighteen or even twenty persons sleeping within such limited apartments." The provision of working-and lower-middle-class housing in late nineteenth-century urban Ireland

Religious Conflict in Belfast -

Catholics from rural Ulster flocked to Belfast in search of work and set up their own neighbourhoods, predominantly in the west of the city. In response, working class Protestants were attracted to militantly loyalist groupings. The segregation was both a result of and a source of increasing religious tension. The Pound Area (just south of Divis Street) was a center for Catholic gatherings and Sandy Row was the center for Protestant gatherings. The two areas are connected by Durham Street, with Christ Church being the dividing line between the two areas. Durham Street was regularly the site of religious riots and bloody battles between sectarian rivals. Serious disturbances occurred in 1857, 1864 and 1872. Galway Street, where Hugh and Mary McKenna family lived, was just off Durham Street. They certainly would have witnessed the conflicts and their safety would have been impacted (See more details at Historical Events (1810-1900)).

Religious Revival of 1859-

In 1859, a significant religious revival descended on Ulster and caused a renewed religious zeal in Belfast. Hugh Hanna, minister of the Berry Street Presbyterian Church, was one of the influential leaders of the revival. Hugh and Mary McKenna's family may have been caugth up in the religious fervor of the revival. For example, their son Thomas McKenna, who was only 14 years old at the time of the revival, went to Hugh Hanna to be married to Sarah Singleton in May 1864 (See more details at Historical Events (1810-1900)).

Medical Care for the Poor -

Lying-in Hospital - Birth records show that Thomas and Sarah Singleton McKenna's twins were born in Belfast's Lying-in Hospital near Carlisle Circus. While most babies at the time were delivered at home, Sarah must have had complications with the birth of the twins. According to the 1831 Belfast Street Directory, the Lying-in Hospital was available "to aid labouring ‘indigent females’ by providing accommodation, food and medical supervision during childbirth." The twins, Thomas Jr. and Sarah, were born 26 February 1866. Thomas Jr. would die 10 days later, on 7 March 1866 and was not yet baptized at the time of his passing.

Belfast Union Workhouse - Birth records show that several of James and Catherine Doyle McKenna's children were born in the Belfast Union Workhouse. The workhouse, on Lisburn Road, was unfortunately the place of last resort for the poor and destitute (See more details at Historical Events (1810-1900)).

Belfast Union Workhouse

51 Lisburn Road

6 Albert Street Place - When the family moved to Belfast, they first lived at 6 Albert Street Place. The Christ Church Census, conducted by the Church of Ireland, covered about 3,700 members of the congregation. The only other McKennas in the Christ Church census were George and Mary A. McKenna living at 1 Killen Street. George was 36 years old and Mary A. was 25. George was a carpenter. George is of interest because he may been related to Hugh.

  • Hugh is 40 years old compared to George who is 36 years old

  • Both Hugh and George belong to the Church of Ireland which is unusual for McKennas, who are traditionally Catholic

  • George lives at 1 Killen Street which is right next to Galway Street where Hugh would move before 1860.

9/11 Galway Street - Galway Street is off Durham Street and is only .4 miles from Albert Street Place. Hugh lived here in the 1860 Griffith's Valuation, and in the 1868 Street Directory and also when his adopted daughter Mary A. McKenna died in 1865. Thomas likely lived here when he married Sarah in 1865.

16 Boyne Court - This is where Hugh McKenna lived in the 1870 street directory. Sarah McKena lived at 40 Boyne Square when she died in May 1888.

112/116 Malvern Street - This is where Hugh and Mary are living when Hugh died in 1880 (see death certificate and burial record). They are also living here in the 1880 Street Directory. Their son James was living close by, at 20 Fleming Court, at this time.

Hugh's Professions -

We know very little about Hugh McKenna, but from street directories and vital records, we know a little about the type of work he did.

1868 Street Directory

1868 Street Directory

Belfast and Ulster Brewing Company

It is likely that Hugh’s job in 1868-70 was at the Belfast and Ulster Brewing Company that was founded in 1868 by Mr. Bernard Hughes. The brewery was located on the West side of Sandy Row, between Rowland Street and Boyne Square. This location is less than one half mile south of Galway Street and would explain why Hugh moved from Galway Street to Boyne Square.

The brewery was build on a site that was “formerly the premises of Edward Tucker`s Glue and Starch Works, the location contained ten wells sunk by Tucker, and appeared ideal for its new purpose.” The buildings were designed by Alexander McAlister, of Chichester Street in Belfast and built using many local suppliers and contractors. The brewery had a short life, closing down after about ten years, around 1878. Hugh died in 1880. The Brewery building still stands in Belfast.

Abandoned Brewery (2013)

Gravesite of Hugh and Mary McKenna

Belfast City Cemetery - S121

Hugh and Mary's Deaths

Hugh died 22 April 1880 and is buried in the Belfast City Cemetery. Mary died 25 December 1898 and is buried in the same cemetery plot with Hugh. Also buried in this plot are their daughter Sarah and two grandchildren. None of their graves are marked.

Descendants of Hugh and Mary McKenna. (Click on the chart to go to

If you are related to any of these descendants, we invite you to join our coordinated efforts.

Aerial View of Our Homeland

This beautiful aerial view of County Tyrone is taken about 1 mile from Tullanafoile, Tamlaght and Kilnaherry, where we believe Hugh McKenna lived in 1851, prior to moving to Belfast.

The opening segment is facing East from Eskra toward the hills where the McKenna's lived. The area of their farm is visible on the distant hillside as the camera starts to pan to the left about 20 seconds into the video.

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