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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Cuba Rock

Con Hollahan's mark
-- Researched and Written by Walt Chiquoine

This research began with some questions that Scott tossed out concerning Ramsey Ridge.  What did we know about Con Hollahan, Mount Cuba, and a reference to an “Irish Wall”?  Is Mount Cuba synonymous with Cuba Rock, the name Con gave to his land?  Where did the name Cuba come from?  And could an “Irish Wall” be a part of his original homestead?  We found sufficient evidence to re-tell the story of Con Hollahan and Cuba Rock in a new light.    

Con Hollahan is well-known in the historical writings of the Diocese of Wilmington, since he is credited with hosting the first Roman Catholic services in northern Delaware.  Con was described in a history of the local Catholic Church, written in 1884-86, by his descendant  Charles Esling.  From Esling’s history [which can be found here, beginning on page 117], we are told that Con Hollahan arrived from Ireland before 1747 and settled on a tract he called Cuba Rock.

Catholic Jesuit missionaries traveled between the Bohemia River in Maryland and the Philadelphia region, at times stopping at Con’s home.  For some unknown reason, the location was noted by the Jesuits as White Clay Creek, and is first referenced (in their own records) by that name in 1753.  The Hollahan farm served as a rest stop and place of worship for another 20 years until the Jesuits bought a nearby property and established a church.
The Property of Cuba Rock
Esling’s story of Con Hollahan goes on for many pages, well-documented with primary sources and family recollections.  Despite the quality of his sources, Esling never actually defined Con’s property.  He further speculated that Con donated the land for St. Mary’s Church at Coffee Run, but we know this is not true.
Exactly 100 years after Esling’s history, the land around Ramsey Ridge attracted the attention of Mary Gowan.  Mary, a local historian who lived in Ireland for a few years, was familiar with old stone remains in the area.  She wrote an extensive report that speculated this was an Irish Colony from the 1680’s, part of “New Ireland” that Lord Baltimore was trying to build through his cousin and agent, Col. George Talbot.  (Lord Baltimore and William Penn argued over their boundary for many years.)  Part of her 1986 report was about a visit to the site that year, before the land was bulldozed for the coming development.

In the end, there was little evidence to support Gowan’s theory, although her recognition of the old Irish architecture was meaningful.  She acknowledged a location that she believed was Con Hollahan’s homestead in Ramsey Ridge, and I think she had that right too.  And it was Gowan’s search in 1986 that gave meaning to a “Historic Irish Wall” that still exists today.
Donn Devine, archivist for the Diocese of Wilmington, first sketched out Con’s property called Cuba Rock in 2000.  He based it on a deed from 1793, for the sale from Con’s estate to Evan Phillips.  Devine included property later purchased by John Hollahan, Con’s son, and the property at Coffee Run (Priest’s Farm) purchased by Rev. John Lewis.  It is the house of John Hollahan, built in the 1780’s, that still sits in the middle of Ramsey Ridge today.

To get a better idea of the Cuba Rock tract, I lay it out here on a 2007 image from Google Earth – it is the strange hourglass shape.  You should be able to see the Mount Cuba Center at the north of the tract.  This hill, one of the highest (and steepest) points in Delaware, must have been the Cuba Rock of Con’s estate – and the Mount Cuba from which the area took its name.  I can further substantiate his property using deeds of the neighbors surrounding him at the time:  Bishop, McKnight, Nivin, Crossan, Mercer, Jordan, Nichols, and Tate.

I believe that Con acquired his property in two tracts – northern and southern, split at the waist if you can imagine.  The southern property was probably vacant land, and could have been the first property he purchased.  (The deeds are lost.)  The northern property was originally owned by Daniel Barker, son of Samuel of Barker’s Bridge, and it was part of a larger tract that straddled Red Clay Creek.  Barker acquired the land in a warrant from 1734, and his survey was recorded the following year.  Daniel died before 1752 and his property east of RCC was sold; did Con buy the western tract from Barker’s estate, or did he buy it earlier?  We don’t know.  But once again, we can bracket Con’s arrival between 1735 and 1750.
Con’s Homestead
The circumstantial evidence suggests that Con settled at the southwest corner of his tract, as circled on the 1937 aerial photo above.  (The bounds of his property are still evident.)  It is the nearest access to Wilmington Road and Coffee Run, while Mount Cuba remained remote.  According to Gowan, there was evidence of a graded drive, a bank barn, and a stone home.  Were they from the 18th century?  Today, it is the location of a very old wall, whether as fence or foundation we don’t know.  Looking at a detail of the circled area shows a portion of the rectangular wall.  It is evident on recent satellite images as well, but in someone’s backyard.
So we can clearly show the bounds of Con’s property to include today’s Mount Cuba.  We can logically presume that Con lived on the eastern portion of Ramsey Ridge, close to Wilmington Road, as Mary Gowan did.  And while the “Historic Irish Wall” may not stem from an Irish colony in the 1680’s, it appears to originate 50 years later with Con Hollahan, the pious Irishman who harbored the local Catholic Church for over 25 years.
Con and the Name Cuba Rock
Charles Esling concluded that Con Hollahan was an affluent and upper-class Irishman, but that too doesn’t seem to hold up.  Con bought poor land that was unwanted; he signed his mark and was therefore illiterate; he died with a large mortgage on his property.  I think Con came to America with very limited means, yet he lived a long and generous life.     
Esling speculates that Con Hollahan was from Charleville in County Kerry, from the line Wallachain of Munster.  He admits finding no direct family connections.  But contemporary genealogists believe there was a larger line of O’Hollohans (it was a name with many spellings) that emerged in County Offaly and slowly migrated south.  Later data from the mid-19th century seems to support this conclusion, showing the majority of Hollahans in Kildare, Laois, Kilkenny, and Offaly Counties.  These counties are south-central on the map below.

Scott uncovered information that may suggest an origin for Con and the name Cuba.  Outside the town of Banagher, County Offaly, there was a large and stately home believed to be built in the 1730’s by George Frazer.  It became known as Cuba House or Cuba Court.  Frazer was supposedly the former Governor of Cuba (as told by the Brontë sisters), but Cuba was a Spanish colony that never had an English Governor.  While the story is suspect, the name Cuba remains there today.  Did Con come from County Offaly, near Cuba House?  We don’t know.
Cuba House in County Offaly, Ireland

Since we can’t prove Con’s origin, we have to consider an early Gaelic origin for the name Cuba.  It doesn’t seem to be in current use, but it can be found in an 1885 dictionary with the meaning “bed”.  I was able to tie that to the Latin cubitum, the word cubo meaning to lie down or recline.  And thanks to the Romans, there were plenty of Latin words in the early Gaelic language.  Imagine a very humble man naming his property as “the rock where I sleep.” 

Cuba Rock.  Could it be that simple?


  1. In this post, I neglected to mention my thanks to the State Archaeologist's office for very generously assisting this research. This office and the folks at the State Archives are available, helpful, and savvy. I hope our local historians appreciate these resources.

  2. My bad, not Scott's, the Esling URL leads to the work of Dann Devine. The Esling story can be found at


    It starts on page pg. 117.

    1. The link has been corrected. I get the two of the confused, so I didn't even realize the error.

      Also as a teaser, Walt and I hope to have a sort of follow-up to this post sometime in the next few weeks. Stay tuned....

      And great work, Walt!

  3. Walt, thanks for the great in-depth research regarding your post on Cuba Rock. I was also interested in the origin of the name and your explanation seems completely logical to me.

  4. Looking forward to your follow up on the Ramsey Ridge historical site.

    1. The follow-up post will be up very soon. Walt has done a great job with it again.

  5. I have an update on the earliest years of Con's property, not major but worth getting on the record. The property we identify as Con's was actually sold, in its entirety, from the estate of Daniel Barker to Solomon Dixson in 1752. That means that Con likely acquired the property (from Solomon?) no earlier than 1753, which agrees with the date from the Jesuit records.

    We know that Con took ownership of the tract, since it was sold off as part of his estate. But it is certainly possible that he was on the tract before 1753, either as a tenant farmer or even a squatter. We'll probably never know.

    1. Thanks for the update, Walt!

  6. I live on a property in Mt. Cuba along the Red Clay Creek. There are remnants of an old rock quarry on the property along the creek. Before it was quarried there must have been a large rock formation alongside the creek. I think this may have been the original "Cuba Rock".

    1. Could be. There are definitely some interesting rock outcroppings in the area.