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A Syracuse tale

October 30, 2019

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Robert De Niro, star of “The Irishman,” has family roots in a Syracuse neighborhood named for an Irish county and also, it turns out, in the county itself.  PHOTO BY BRIGITTE LACOMBE

 

By Peter McDermott

Little Vito Andolini is sent to the safety of New York City in “Godfather, Part II.” At Ellis Island, the fictional character is given a new last name, that of the real-life Sicilian town he comes from.

Now Robert De Niro, who got his first Oscar playing the wily and ambitious young mobster Vito Corleone, has a new place on the map to point to in his own origin story – Dundrum, which is in County Tipperary.

Boston-based genealogist Jim McNiff has traced the baptismal certificate for the superstar’s great-great-grandmother to that hamlet, which had 191 residents in the 2006 Census and is just few miles northwest of the Rock of Cashel.

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She was Ellen Hall, a new name in the De Niro story, for up to this point his great-grandfather Dennis O’Reilly was said to be the son of an American-born woman called Margaret.

But Margaret was Edward O’Reilly’s second wife, whereas Dennis was born to Edward’s first wife Ellen, the immigrant from Dundrum, who was baptized in the Catholic parish of Knockavilla.

“Robert De Niro once said in an interview that he didn’t know where in Ireland his family came from,” relayed McNiff, who has had considerable success tracing the family roots of celebrities. All along, however, there was a big clue in the family’s Syracuse story. The abstract expressionist painter Robert De Niro Sr. was from the city and his mother, the actor’s grandmother – born Helen O’Reilly in 1899 – grew up in Tipperary Hill in the Far Westside.

It’s easiest to understand the family story through Helen, both in the past and into the future. Although her mother, the former Mary Burns, was born in Vermont, the Burns grandparents were back living in Tipperary Hill when Helen was a baby. Helen’s father was the aforementioned Dennis, Ellen’s son. And Ellen was brought to America by her parents Thomas Hall, a shoemaker, and his wife Bridget (nee Ryan), both of Dundrum. McNiff speculated that this could have been part of a general migration from County Tipperary, Ireland, to Tipperary Hill, Syracuse, N.Y. Ellen died about 1874 or 1875, leaving behind husband Edward (1840-1894) and son Dennis, who would live until 1952, the year his future film star great-grandson turned 9.

Into the 20th century (which was Helen’s literally; she lived until 1999), the O’Reilly story became a more recognizably American one in some ways. The family was living in 1900 at 311 Tomkins St., in Tipperary Hill; there was a son, John, 4, and another child had died. By the 1910 Census, they had moved to 207 Bryant Ave. in the same neighborhood and Mary’s sister, Ella Burns, resided with them. They were still in that house in 1920.

Dennis’s occupation in 1900 was a bookkeeper for what McNiff guessed was the Syracuse Chilled Plow Company, while in 1910 he had the same position with a lighting company, and in 1920, he was a manager at a grocery store, where his daughter Helen was the “sales lady.”

There were big changes by 1930, though the family remained at 207 Bryant Ave. in what the locals called Tipp Hill: Helen had married Italian-born Henry De Niro, and they had four children, including Robert Sr., their first-born. Her mom Mary had died in 1924 and her dad Dennis was living with them. Henry listed his occupation as “proprietor of a grocery store” and Helen was a “traveling salesman.”

By 1940, Helen and Henry, who was now a salesman for wholesale groceries, were living at 326 Durston Ave., in the Northside section otherwise known as Little Italy. McNiff said he couldn’t find Dennis, but likely he was still in Tipp Hill, where Helen’s brother, who married into another Irish family from the neighborhood, brought up a new generation there.

Bronx native McNiff, himself raised by a mom from Galway and a dad from Leitrim, is usually described as an “amateur genealogist” in papers like the Boston Globe, perhaps because he hasn’t put up a shingle outside the door. He has, though, self-published six books of family research on Amazon, which is how people contact him.

The former long-time employee of Monte Fiore Medical Center and teacher of finance at Mercy College has drawn quite a few headlines. There was, for instance, his work on Tom Brady’s family roots and he recently established the real possibility that the Duchess of Sussex, AKA Meghan Markle, is a cousin to Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts. The baseball star seems intrigued by the idea that he might be linked to royalty by marriage. Cardinal Dolan of New York, meantime, has sent McNiff a note of appreciation for the work he did on his family background, but the Patriots’ Brady has yet to thank him.

 

Jim McNiff, center, did family research for Margery Eagan and Jim Braude of WGBH.

 

“I feel like a time traveler who is in the shadow of a story that is evolving into a person today,” McNiff said. “This person may have an inkling about their roots, but do they know the story?

“The result for me is a sense of adventure and accomplishment but at the same time I have produced a story that will be told in a family for years, which makes me feel warm inside.

“On my most recent search, the person sent me an email that they couldn’t wait to share this with extended family on Thanksgiving,” said the genealogist who relocated to Boston with his wife, a fellow Bronx native, so they could live close to their grandchildren.

“It sure beats doing crossword puzzles in retirement,” McNiff said. “First, I am terrible at solving them and, second, they have no lasting value.”

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