The Dolan Girvin Heritage

I hope I do this story some justice, especially as it ends with a kind and decent man in New York, who is very proud of his Blantyre heritage and especially as I’m now in regular contact with him. I’ve managed to find out some more details whilst researching this story, which I hope are new for the family. Mike McGovern, this is for you and yours.

Thomas Dolan was born on 2nd December 1885, on a farm in the Irish County Cavan in the village of Dowra. His parents Charles Dolan and Catherine McLoughlin had another five children. Like so many friends and relatives before him, he emigrated in the search of work, and found himself in Glasgow about 1906.

1903 McAlpine's Buildings on left. Dolans lived above the shops.

1903 McAlpine’s Buildings on left. Dolans lived above the shops.

It was there he fell in love and courted local Blantyre girl Helen Girvin (sometimes known as Ellen) who was born on 6th July 1887 at 12 McAlpines Buildings, in Glasgow Road. Daughter of James Girvin (a coalminer) and Helen Cairns, Helen Girvin lived at the Glasgow Road address until she was 23 years old. Interestingly, on the 1891 census, its recorded on that day Helen Girvin, just three years old at the time was actually in the property next door at 14 McAlpines Building. The census doesn’t explain that anomaly, which perhaps was a recording error, or maybe some of the Girvin family were on the day the census was recorded, visiting or resident for whatever reason next door. The Girvin family was large, Helen being one 7 children at the time and the new McAlpine buildings were crammed with families.

On 14th July 1911, Helen married Thomas Dolan in St Joseph’s RC Church,

1905 Inside St Joseph's Chapel

1905 Inside St Joseph’s Chapel

nearby to her old family home on the Glasgow Road.

Whilst living in Blantyre, they had 5 children: Charles (born 23rd May 1912) Helen (born 8th November 1914 – Mike’s mother) Thomas (born 14th August 1916) Catherine (born 3rd June 1921) and Margaret (born 21st January 1923). They lived at 2 Waterloo Row, Blantyre Works Village just yards from the birthplace of the famous Explorer David Livingstone. The row of homes were

c1920 Waterloo Row. The Dolan's lived in the end house gable facing.

c1920 Waterloo Row. The Dolan’s lived in the end house gable facing in middle. Path led down to the bridge.

terraced, but number 2 Waterloo Row was an end house, meaning neighbours on only one side. Thomas worked as a colliery Oncostman. It appears Tom’s occupation was Collery “Oncostman”. Such a job title describes “a time worker” i.e somebody paid hour by hour or day by day, rather than paid directly relating to the amount of coal brought up. (which was common to try to get workers to work faster!). Oncostmen would get supplies of timber props to the coal face, often maintaining rail tracks and other tasks to ensure there was no obstruction or interruption in coal production. Sadly, this put him in the same danger as the workers themselves and would have been a demanding job.  There is evidence that the job role would have required people with ability to plan, perhaps a little more intelligence than the common miner. They would have to be able to think ahead, prepare, plan and organise, perhaps like a foreman would today. With such problem solving being required, the oncostman was often in the actual dangerous area he was trying to fix or provide a solution for. The term can still be found in the UK construction industry today.

Suspension Bridge & Convent School on the hill

Suspension Bridge & Convent School on the hill

Whilst the Works Village offered schooling for children, it’s likely a family of Irish origin would be schooled at the St Joseph’s Chapel School, nearby on Glasgow Road. Although, it is recorded that Helen attended a Convent School “over a rickkerty old bridge”, the Pey Brig leading over to Bothwell. The bridge was just 1 minutes walk from Waterloo Row. Nearby, Elmwood Convent School in Bothwell was active at the time and the suggested source of Helen’s education.

The Dolans were rightly proud of their heritage. Thomas Snr was the President of the local Ancient Order of Hibernians division and rode a white horse in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and all the children were baptized in St. Joseph’s Chapel.

The fields at the bottom of Station Road, near Waterloo Row, offered some space for agricultural activities. The family had some “farm” property behind their house where Thomas Sr. rented out space to others and raised chickens and grew vegetables for their own use. Sadly though, fate had other plans and their time at Waterloo was to come to an end.

Their Waterloo house burned down on Burns Night on 25th January 1928 when one and indeed all the 19 houses in that row burned down. It was a tragic day for Blantyre people. In all 108 people were made homeless, many of them children and almost everybody uninsured. The plight of the homeless occupants of the row was pitiful. Women, men and children were huddled by the roadside in countless families watching the complete and utter destruction of their homes and in many cases unable to save anything. Many people were in tears.

During the next few days, efforts were made all through the town to find temporary accommodation for the homeless, but in this area in particular, houses were extremely scarce and in very poor condition. Many other miners however arranged to take in families until they could make alternative arrangements. Some families however found this greatly difficult and 1928 was the year lots of them left the town for good. It is recorded that some of the homeless families who took up temporary residence with other miners included – Thomas Dolan, John Liddle, David McAdam, Peter Nelson, James McCue, John Campbell, Michael Cassidy, James Mohan, Robert Fisher, Edward Boyd, Peter Daws, Michael Higgins, John Gormley, William McIntyre, Alfred Wilson, Alexander McKenzie and John Cassidy.

1932 Tom Dolan's Citizenship papers

1932 Tom Dolan’s Citizenship papers

The Dolans then lived with their miner friends and neighbours for nine months, but when some people had resettled permanently with relatives, the Dolan family made a bold decision, and perhaps fuelled by the various miners strikes of the 1920’s and declining opportunity in the coal mines, decided to move away from Scotland altogether.

The plan was for Thomas and his eldest son Charles to go the United States to seek employment, get themselves settled then call upon the rest of the family. This must have been an incredible undertaking for them both, despite the heartache of being away from family, and more so exciting for young Charles who was just 16 years old and not old enough to have an adult passport. They left Glasgow on board the “California”, a pedestrian liner intended for New York, arriving there on 24th September 1928.

Thomas soon found work as an Elevator operator and found accommodation at a rented apartment at 1412 Maddison Avenue, New York. A difficult 2 years followed, with Thomas working to save enough for the passage fares for his family. Indeed, Helen

1914 Young Helen Dolan's Birth Certificate

1914 Young Helen Dolan’s Birth Certificate

and their other children did not arrive in New York until 1st June 1930. All the children were on Helen’s passport as they were still all under age. A copy of their child young Helen’s birth certificate was obtained in 1930 in order to get the family passport. Still, by Summer 1930, the entire family were reunited and living all together under the one roof. Thomas became an official American Citizen on 19th September 1932.

Young Helen is the mother of Mike McGovern.

1950 Tom Dolan & his three daughters

1950 Tom Dolan & his three daughters

Pictured is Tom Dolan and his three daughters. From left to right is Margaret, Helen (Mike’s mother) and Catherine.  This photo was taken about 1950 at Mike’s house in the Elmhurst neighborhood of the Borough of Queens in New York City.  The little girl is Mike’s sister Helen (the third).

1929 Tom Dolan passport. 1930 Helen Girvin & Children passport

1929 Tom Dolan passport. 1930 Helen Girvin & Children passport

Helen/Ellen, Mike’s grandmother died in 1946 of kidney failure (PolyCystic Kidney Disease) when Mike was two and a half. Thomas Sr. died in 1954. All 5 of their children remained mostly in the New York area until their own deaths. Unfortunately, Helen/Ellen Dolan is likely to have passed the genetic condition of PKD to some of her children, who in turn passed it to some of theirs, nine people in all. Some of the family members died from the condition, others had to get kidney transplants. Luckily Mike’s mother (young Helen) didn’t inherit it, nor did any of Mike’s siblings, although two of his cousins are currently living with transplants,

It is rare to have such a detailed and interesting family story and one which was thoroughly a pleasure to look at.

Passenger record:



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  1. Linda Mackie-Marieskind

    I wonder if you can help? On reading this post I see that the Dolans lived at number 2 Waterloo Road Blantyre. My grandfather and grandmother, Richard and Isa Mackie, gave their address as the same when they had their daughter, Isabella.

    Can you tell me if the Dolans had taken them on as boarders? Or did my grand parents lie? I never knew them as they left my Dad when he was just months old and went to Canada.
    Kind regards
    Linda Mackie Marieskind

    1. Hi Linda – I can look at this for you, but you would need to add the request here. i get many requests for help and usually look at things in turn. Thanks. Paul

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