This is a summary of a trip that my wife Cynthia and I made (May 2008) to visit Cooley related sites in Ireland and England. I also met with researchers at Trinity College Dublin who have been active in surname-DNA studies, and with the cofounder of EthnoAncestry, a genetics lab based in Dublin and Edinburgh which does DNA testing for genealogical purposes. I have prepared this report for my new found cousins in the Cooley Family Association of America (CFAA).
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Ireland was to explore the Cooley Peninsula, which is about 50 miles north of Dublin, in County Louth. I thought that would be a good place to find possible relatives. I also wanted to find Cooley Point, which is the eastern tip of the Cooley Peninsula. We have a summer place in New Hampshire which is on a point of land on a salt water bay in Durham, NH, which we named Cooley Point, without knowing that one existed in Ireland.
My main discovery of this trip is that all of the Cooley references in and around County Louth, where the Cooley peninsula is located, have nothing to do with the Cooley surname, but are based upon the place name Cuailnge, which is Irish for Cooley. This location is very famous because it is where the “Cattle Raid of Cooley” (the best known Irish epic in the Ulster Cycle) took place. So there is the Cooley Distillery, the Cooley Lodge, the Cooley Tractor Festival, the Cooley Mountains, and of course Cooley Point, all derived from that famous epic myth, with no relationship to any Cooley family name whatsoever.
One of my meetings in Dublin was with Dr. Katherine Simms of Trinity College. She is a co-author of several papers on the DNA-surname relationship that have come out of the Smurfit Institute at Trinity. She is a medieval historian who has specialized in the study of Irish surnames. She pointed out to me that the Cooley Peninsula was a dead end as far as locating Cooley families, and my visits there confirmed that. For example, we visited the Cooley Distillery, tasted some great Irish whiskey, and learned that the founder and owner was a Harvard grad who named his firm after the Cooley Peninsula, a place name, not a family name. We found no Cooley families in County Louth.
Dr. Simms suggested that County Galway and County Clare would be good places to find Cooley families, and that they would be derived from the Irish clan MacKilcooley. A property survey of Ireland (1848-64) confirms that. There were more Cooley households in those two counties than in all of the rest of Ireland. But she doubted that this Irish clan was the source of our Cooley family founder Benjamin Cooley, since Benjamin is more likely an English first name, and the Irish Cooley clan is Catholic, and Benjamin was a protestant.
My other meeting in Dublin was with Dr. Gianpiero Cavalleri, who with Dr. James Wilson, founded EthnoAncestry. They are leading population geneticists, who “bring the cutting edge of genetic research to [their] customers through development of new markers, identification of new genetic signatures and by providing authoritative interpretation of deep ancestry.” He was fascinated with the summary of Cooley DNA results which Greg Parker has established for the CFAA, and the stability of the DNA profile for the descendents of Benjamin Cooley, regardless of which of the four sons of Benjamin we each represented, eleven or more generations later.
He encouraged me to use existing databases (such a y-base) which are growing every day, and look for matches with our Cooley model haplotype. I have begun to do that and so far our Cooley y-DNA profile is a better match to samples from central England than it is to, say, the Irish Modal Haplotype, which is well established in the literature.
One of our site-seeing stops in Dublin was their City Hall, a beautiful neo-classical building designed by Thomas Cooley (1740-1784). Checking his biography I discovered that he was a London architect who won the competition for a new building for the Royal Exchange, which eventually became the City Hall. He moved then to Dublin and in 1775 he was appointed Chief Architect to the Board of Works in Dublin. Checking the vast National Library in Dublin for his origins I learned the he was born in England of unknown parents.
After a wonderful week in Dublin, we boarded the Jonathan Swift Ferry to Holyhead, Wales. In Holyhead we got on a train direct to London. While in London, the main Cooley-related experience was a short train ride north to Tring, the probable birthplace of Benjamin Cooley in 1615. Through the CFAA I had previously made contact with David Cooley who had visited Tring in January of 2007, and he was very helpful in planning our visit. Tring has many charming English Tudor style buildings. For example, across the street from the Tring Parish Church is the Rose and Crown Hotel, which has existed on the present site since the 16th Century. We enjoyed a nice lunch there before we began our explorations of Tring. The town is full of history, with names like Rothschild and Washington (George’s great-grandfather), having once lived there. It should be noted that the Tring Parish Church (also known as the Tring Church of St. Peter and St. Paul) is in the Diocese of St. Albans, which explains the references to St. Albans in the Cooley family history.
It was a real thrill to walk around the ancient grounds of the Tring Parish Church, which is over 700 years old, with its knapped flint stone work exterior. The grounds are filled with tombstones, but none with legible dates earlier than 1800. Their parish records go back to 1566, and the CFAA has studied those records quite extensively (e.g. Debrett, 1987). They indicate that Benjamin Cooley was baptized there in February 25, 1615/16, son of William Cooley and Joan Arnott, who had been married in the parish in February 1608/9. [By the way, I puzzled over why recorded dates sometimes had double years. What I did not realize was that prior to 1752 the New Year began on March 25, so dates earlier in the year than March 25 were ambiguous, depending how one counted. All dates in the church records later than March 25 had only the single year.] No other records for Benjamin were found (e.g. marriage, burial, wills) so it seems safe to assume that Benjamin migrated to Massachusetts circa 1640 in his early twenties.
William Cooley had at least two other sons besides Benjamin: Jonathan and Joseph. Since there are Tring Parish records regarding the subsequent activities of those brothers, it is very possible that some of their descendents remained in the Hertfordshire area. When David Cooley visited Tring in 2007, he had found phone numbers for a number of Cooleys in that area, but was not successful in establishing their connection with our family. Prior to his visit, the CFAA had posted a plea in a UK genealogy site, asking for possible descendents of William Cooley to identify themselves and agree to DNA testing which the CFAA would pay for. There were no replies.
In my Trinity College interviews and in reading their surname-DNA studies, I learned that when they recruited individuals with a particular surname, the Trinity researchers would simply mail out DNA collection kits (simple cheek swabs) with an explanation about the purpose of the study and a promise to provide them with their own DNA results and keep their individual results confidential. I was amazed to learn that they had a thirty percent response rate. Apparently an interest in their family surname and getting a free DNA test were sufficient incentives for that high rate of response.
When I got back to Pittsburgh I re-read the first 158 pages of The Cooley Genealogy by Mortimer Cooley. What a remarkable and informative work that was. After my trip and my review of our genealogy and subsequent DNA studies, I have concluded that our best bet in finding Cooley relatives is not in Ireland, but in the area around Tring. I also believe that DNA profiles are a good bet in narrowing down where Benjamin Cooley emigrated from.