Research has established that by 1712 the Limerick Benns were a middleclass mercantile family living in the prosperous Limerick parish of St. John’s. It is unlikely that as Palatines, they would have been able to integrate this quickly into Irish society. This then begs the question – assuming that Mrs. Benn’s story is accurate and the family originally arrived in Ireland as religious refugees, where might they have come from?
It is possible that the first Behn may have come into Ireland as soldier in the Williamite army, which would also tie in with the Limerick connection. Historian, Michael McNally, reviewed the officers lists for two contingents for us: the Danish mercenary contingent that fought for William, and forces authorised for service in the British Isles under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch treat. Both searches proved negative, but he noted that most of the land grants that were made to serving or former officers of these two contingents led to the Huguenot “colony” at Portarlington in Co. Laois.
Huguenots were French Protestants who fled religious persecution during the seventeenth century. Generally one had to be an officer to receive a grant, but McNally points out that an officer may have served unattached to a regiment and been posted where there was a vacancy. If this was the case, then William Behn might have been granted land there.
But how would he have got to Limerick? One possibility according to McNally is that following the Act of Resumption of 1700 William Behn may have been forced to sell off his land – this influx of cash could have spurred him to head towards Limerick as many of the ports along the south and south-west coast had had good relations with French ports for years and with the right contacts he would have been able to establish himself fairly easily. From there it is no great stretch of the imagination, that he could have attained a comfortable social position by the end of the first decade of the 18th century.
McNally also notes that the Portarlington registers mention a family whose original name was Benin or Bonin, a member of which was referred to a “William Benn” in 1724. The account further goes to say that his family had been granted land by the Government but that by his time it was no longer in the family’s possession. McNally believes this may refer to the establishment of the Huguenot “colony” c.1694 when some 500 former Huguenot officers were settled around Portarlington and given grants of land by the Williamite government.
There are loose ends that still need tying up – for instance, what is the exact relationship between the Limerick, Galway and Tipperary Benns? We may never know as the further back in time we go, the less likely there is to be a paper trail, particularly for the family in Limerick because following the Sieges of Limerick private families took on some of the roles that had previously been conducted by civic government, so records were lost or are now held in private archives.
Through a painstaking and logical approach to our research we have managed to uncover more information about Obama’s Benn ancestors, however – allowing us to eliminate some hypotheses. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes said “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” So while the Benn story is not complete yet, our research has brought us closer to the true story of their origins.
What we can say is that the Benn family probably immigrated to Ireland during the seventeenth century from the Germanic lowlands. Branches of the family took root in Limerick, and in the next generation spread out to Galway and Tipperary, these different branches acting in concert with and helping one another, as reflected in the deeds. It is a story of continuity – a family that worked together across different geographical locations, a family who have consistently used the same founder names across the generations, a family that has been farming the land at Ballygurteen for 250 years.
Eneclann – Elizabeth Cuddy, John Gibney, Carmel Gilbride, Fiona Fitzsimons, Helen Moss and Rachel Murphy
University of Limerick – Dr. David Butler and Michael McNally
Thank you to:
Olive Stanley Wetzel, Rev. Michael Johnson of Shinrone, Dick & Daphne Benn and family,
Tom Donovan and his family.