Jane Feeney and DNA

Double stranded DNA fragment

Double stranded DNA fragment with coloured bases under Creative Commons CCO license. Author is Vcpmartin.


How AncestryDNA tests reunited Irish ‘orphan’ Jane Feeney with her family by Martyn Killion and Christine Woodlands.

This is the ninth in Tinteán‘s Famine Orphan Girls Series by their descendants.  

Jane Feeney, our great-great-grandmother, was one of 234 ‘Earl Grey’ orphan immigrant girls who arrived in Sydney on the Digby in April 1849.  Over many years of traditional genealogical research we learned about Jane’s life but until DNA testing, struggled to unearth any details of her parentage or siblings.

We knew the following about ‘our Jane’:

  • Aged 15, Jane was admitted to the South Dublin workhouse twice in 1848 from Chambers Street, South Dublin.  Her religion was recorded as Protestant and occupation as ‘plain worker’ and dressmaker.  Jane left the workhouse in November 1848 bound for her new life in New South Wales. 
  • The Digby’s passenger list shows that Jane was a children’s maid, aged 16, Church of England and the daughter of William and Jane Feeney, ‘both deceased’, and her native place is Ratheiham (?) County Wicklow. 
  • Jane spent five weeks at the Female Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney before travelling 380 kilometres north to Port Macquarie NSW where she was indentured for employment. 
  • In September 1851, Jane married John Killion, an Irish convict 25 years her senior.  They had five children prior to his death in 1864 and lived at North Shore, Port Macquarie NSW.
  • Seven months later, Jane married Thomas Seward, an English convict 19 years her senior. They had five children but the two youngest, twins, died as infants. 
  • In the late 1870s, Jane and her eight children moved a further 60 kilometres north to Kempsey NSW. 
  • In 1880/81, Thomas Seward served time in Darlinghurst Goal for vagrancy prior to his return to Port Macquarie in August 1881.  It is not known when Thomas died.  However, Jane is recorded as a ‘widow’ when she sold John Killion’s land at  North Shore, Port Macquarie in 1885. 
  • In 1887, Jane married for a third time. Her third husband was Charles Moran, an Irishman only 10 years her senior, who had been in the British Navy. 
  • Jane died on 11 August 1907, in her mid 70s.  She was survived by Charles and over 35 descendants. Jane is buried at West Kempsey Cemetery.

Over the years, there has been a niggling question about Jane’s ‘orphan’ status at the time of her arrival in Sydney. A Register of Letters Received by the Immigration Department contains an entry from June 1850 for Jane Feeney of Sydney.  The Register states that the correspondence received by the Department from Jane was ‘respecting her daughter, Jane Feeney, an Immigrant per Digby’.  The letter has not survived. So, it seemed that Jane may not have been a female orphan in the sense of both parents being deceased but, rather, one of around a quarter of all the Sydney orphans who had one parent alive.


We did all the usual searches to identify ‘Jane Feeney of Sydney’.  After eliminating many, we found newspaper reports of a Jane Feeney dying in July 1852 at the Sydney Infirmary after being accidentally burned at her home in Kent Street, Sydney but no further evidence to connect ‘our Jane’ with this particular ‘Jane’.

There were few leads to trace ‘our Jane’s’ birth family.  We knew she was born about 1833 and presumably lived in South Dublin in 1848.  In official records, her birth location is recorded as County Wicklow and County Wexford.  Her father’s name is recorded as William, John and James.  Her religion is recorded as Protestant and Church of England.  Her occupation is recorded as plain worker, dressmaker and children’s maid.  We could not find any likely immigration details of ‘mother Jane’ or further details of her life in Sydney.

Jane’s story had to wait until DNA testing became available.

DNA Testing

Genetic genealogy proved an invaluable tool to reunite Jane with her family.

We took the three types of DNA tests available and tested at the four main testing companies. You can read more about Y-chromosome DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA tests at https://genie1.com.au/what-types-of-dna-tests-are-available/

The autosomal DNA (atDNA) test at AncestryDNA provided the evidence to connect ‘our Jane’ and ‘mother Jane’.  Often called a ‘cousinship’ test, an atDNA test allows the tester to find matches on all ancestral lines rather than the direct paternal line (Y-DNA test for males) or maternal line (mtDNA test for males and females). See https://genie1.com.au/what-is-an-ancestrydna-test/

Gathering biological evidence to ‘prove your pedigree’ and breaking down ‘brick walls’ are the primary objectives for family historians taking DNA tests.  The more atDNA testers share, the closer the relationship.  The size of DNA shared between two testers is estimated in centimorgans (cM), a unit of measurement.  The testing companies also report on the ‘shared matches’ between two testers.  Many of these matches are ‘known cousins’.  The ‘unknown cousins’ provide the clues for breakthroughs.

When our AncestryDNA results came back, they supported our relationship to each other as 3rd cousins with ‘our Jane’ and her husband John Killion being our ‘most recent common ancestors’. We share 32cM across 3 segments.  At that time all our shared matches were ‘known cousins’. 

As more descendants of ‘our Jane’ from her marriages to John Killion and Thomas Seward took tests at AncestryDNA, we saw shared matches that were ‘unknown cousins’.  First was Elizabeth who shared 24cM of atDNA with Christine, 22cM with Jan ( a great-granddaughter of Jane and Thomas Seward) and none with Martyn.  The atDNA is passed down randomly from generation to generation.  Testers with a relationship of 2nd cousin or closer will always report shared atDNA at AncestryDNA.  The more distant the relationship, the less likely the probability of testers sharing atDNA. 

So what was the connection between Elizabeth, Christine and Jan?  There was only one common family name in Elizabeth’s small tree – Arthur Feeney, her great grandfather.  He was born in 1905 and died in 1984 in Sydney.  For the ‘matching tree method’ see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmOZXCxsqNU

Within hours we’d found five further ‘unknown’ Feeney cousins and built a tree in all directions from Arthur Feeney connecting Elizabeth with the other five. Arthur’s great-grandmother was the very same Jane Feeney who’d written to the Immigration Department in 1850, and died in the Sydney Infirmary in 1852. All were descendants of ‘mother Jane’s’ two sons, Edward and Thomas who came from County Longford and County Dublin respectively. Their parents were Edward Feeney ( a weaver) shown as deceased in all Australian records, and Jane Feeney (nee Baker or Bourke).

The naming of ‘our Jane’s’ first two sons as Edward and Thomas suddenly took on a new meaning.  Next, we found that Edward Feeney had married Margaret McCabe in 1853 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.  Margaret was another of the ‘orphans’ on the Digby with ‘our Jane’.  John and Jane Killion’s youngest child was also named Margaret.

 A search of newspapers for Edward Feeney also revealed a further connection.  While we know that Jane successfully sold the Killion land at North Shore, Port Macquarie in 1885, there was at least one earlier attempt to do so.  The Sydney Morning Herald of 9 June 1871 carries an advertisement for the sale of a ‘beautiful farm’ near Port Macquarie consisting of 53 acres.  And who was the contact for any enquiries?   None other than Edward Feeney of 104 William Street, Sydney. 

Working with descendants of ‘our Jane’ and Edward and Thomas Feeney, we were able to undertake more advanced genetic genealogy research. That research shows that descendants of each share common segments of DNA which establishes their relationship as 4th cousins with Edward Feeney and Jane Baker or Bourke (our Jane’s parents), their common ancestors. 

We then started analysing and reassessing previous traditional research, and in particular, many other Feeney tidbits of information that we had dismissed on the assumption that ‘our Jane’ was an orphan, alone in the colony of NSW.

We have now established that ‘mother Jane Feeney’ arrived as an assisted immigrant on the Columbine in 1841 with two daughters Eliza and Ann.  Her two sons, Edward and Thomas, arrived in 1843.  It was another 6 years before the family was briefly reunited in Sydney.  It is unlikely that ‘our orphan Jane’ ever saw her mother or sisters after she left for Port Macquarie. But communication was clearly maintained.  Ann died at her mother’s home just weeks after her mother’s letter to the Immigration Department in 1850.  Two years later, their mother died.  Eliza died in childbirth on the Victorian goldfields in 1854, and her only child died a few days later.  By 1855, only Jane’s brothers and their families remained in Sydney. 

Over the last two years, genetic genealogy and traditional research have reunited ‘our Jane’ with her family.  We’ve answered the niggling question about the 1850 letter written by Jane Feeney of Sydney.  Over 20 descendants of ‘our Jane’ and her brothers, Edward and Thomas, have now tested at AncestryDNA.  Each adds more and more genetic evidence establishing the connection between the three. 

We are always interested in hearing from Feeney and Killion descendants at killioncousins@gmail.com

Children of Jane Feeney

L-R Edward John Killion, Annie Quinn née Seward and Margaret Gersbach née Killion

Martyn Killion is the great-grandson of Jane’s son, Thomas Killion. Christine Woodlands is the great-granddaughter of Jane’s daughter, Margaret Killion who married Francis Gersbach.

For more on  Jane Feeney, see http://killionquinnhand.blogspot.com/


9 thoughts on “Jane Feeney and DNA

  1. Goodmorning, Today I recieved the Titean, with the Ninth Story of the Orphine Famine Girls being Jane Feeney, is it possible for you to let me know the names of the other 8 Girls’ Stories previously published in the Titean, mine GGGreat Grandmother was Elizabeth Carbery, so looking for information on her.


    Jan Boschetto

  2. This is a great story! It’s wonderful that after all your hard work and research, the mystery of Jane Feeney’s mother was solved. DNA is opening up many possibilities for family history. Congratulations.

  3. DNA research provides a wonderful new way to trace our ancestors and you’ve done an amazing job with this. Well done!

  4. Well done, Christine and Martyn! I’m so pleased to read of your success using DNA to find Jane Feeney’s family, and I look forward to reading more. Congratulations!

  5. Thank you everyone for reading our article and your kind words. One reason for writing this article was to demonstrate the power of genetic genealogy for the family historians. It’s a relatively new but incredibly powerful tool that’s proving very useful for Australian/Irish researchers.

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