Monday, March 24, 2014

Slow down, you're moving too fast!

The County Clare Library has an outstanding website and accompanying forum for all topics genealogy related.  Until very recently, there have been few resources available online to research our Clare ancestors, but the library has really done a great job at making records accessible and filling that hole.  You can visit the website here:  In addition to the wealth of resources available on the site (and those awesome maps!!), the genealogy forum is a great way to connect with fellow genealogists who have made it their passion to study their Clare ancestors.  Their expertise is something we expats can certainly benefit from, especially when it comes to planning a trip to Ireland where we hope to have the experience of connecting with our past.
An excellent post written by Paddy Casey and posted to the “Clare Past” Forum puts in plain language just what we can do to make our visit to Clare more productive and rewarding.  You can read his post, entitled “Check-list and Tips for Family Historians Intending to Visit Clare” here:
Mr. Casey gives a very useful overview of what resources are available for research, what to pack for the trip, what to wear, where to find wifi connections, how to hire a car, etc, but I think the most important part of his guide is the section on “bungee” family historians.  His point about the genealogist who is accustomed to instant gratification is well taken.  Living in the age of the internet, we are very used to getting the “answers” to our family questions by plugging information into a blank form and then hitting the “search” button.  Many of today’s family historians started doing their research only after the debut of, and so are not prone to the patience genealogists of old were known to possess.  Anyone who remembers combing through un-indexed family history tomes, cranking endless rolls of microfilm on manual machines, risking severe eyestrain while perusing the New York State census records for any urban area, or waiting by their mailbox for that vital record to arrive from a distant clerk’s office is still impressed with the “ease” we have today when it comes to researching our family. 
Sometimes, however, there is the most to gain by slowing down and “smelling the roses”.  The point is to really settle into the slower pace of life in rural Clare, indeed anywhere in Ireland.  Remember, this is the place your ancestors came from, so it’s worth it to take a little time and let the experience sink into you.  Allow yourself the luxury of a cup of tea (or a pint!) and a chat with the oldest person in the village- the Irish have a strong oral tradition and are known for their story-telling abilities.  Often the family history is not written down or entered anywhere, but is stored on the hard-drive of someone’s brain who knew the people and lived through the events.  Knowledge like that is disappearing quickly.  How many times have we wondered how differently our research would be going if we had only asked the questions while people were still around to answer them?  Now is your chance to do just that. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Facts can only tell part of the story

As I have researched my Irish ancestors over the years, I have been grateful for the amount of information I have been able to uncover about them, but there has always been something missing.  Having the ability to get inside their heads and understand what made them come to the United States to start a new life would be the exclamation point to their life stories.  We can always speculate what made our ancestors leave their homeland by looking at what was historically happening at that particular place and time, but we can never truly know what made that decision for them personally.
My great great grandfather James Walsh came from Aghaboe, Laois (then Queen’s County) and had settled in Troy, New York by 1865.  It is not known when he came here, nor if he married his wife, fellow Queen’s County native Anne Mortimer, here in the US or in Ireland.  It seems probable that the two knew each other in Ireland.  By the late 1860’s James Walsh owned a home at 587 4th Street in Troy’s South End. He likely made a modest salary as a contractor, and most immigrants rented their homes during this time.  Where did James get the money to purchase a home?
Another great great grandfather, Patrick Penders, likely arrived from County Clare, Ireland, in 1864 to the port of New York with his brother James and mother Margaret.  Patrick already had 4 brothers living in the Rutland area of Vermont.  According to a family story, Patrick made a stopover in Rutland on his way to promised employment at the Witherbee-Sherman Mines in Essex County, New York, and it was there he met Margaret Hehir, born in Vermont to County Clare natives Michael Hehir and Anne McNamara.  What happened to Patrick’s father? 
My husband’s great great grandfather Denis Mahon migrated from County Wicklow across the Irish Sea to Lancashire in England.  There he married Mary McManus and had several children while employed in textile mills of Manchester. In the early 1860’s he made his way to Lawrence, Massachusetts where his first wife died and he married a young mill worker, Bridget Melia.  What made Denis pick up his young family and leave England for the United States?
Andrew Doherty was a young teenager when he accompanied his older brother Michael to Providence, Rhode Island from County Galway in the late 1850’s.  Andrew’s mother Ann (Myles) Doherty and at least one other brother, Martin, also emigrated and settled in Providence.  Andrew joined the First Rhode Island Cavalry and fought in the civil war, making good friends with a fellow soldier, James Maguire.  Andrew eventually married James’ sister Anne and raised his family in Providence.  The Dohertys lived in a small cottage in a village called Aughrim in Galway.  Was there any specific event that caused the family to leave Ireland, and why did they move to Rhode Island?
Many questions are unanswered when it comes to just what our ancestors were thinking when they made the decisions they made.  I can understand why many family historians are compelled to write their ancestors’ stories, fictionalizing those parts that they have no way of confirming.  Part of the fun of genealogy is playing the detective, and teasing out those little tidbits that make the story more complete.  A crystal ball would be nice, too!   

Monday, March 10, 2014

What to Know Before You Go

I think many people are under the impression that when they go to Ireland (or any other country their ancestors came from), someone is going to meet them when they get off the plane with a fully filled out pedigree chart for their family.  Well, maybe I exaggerate a little, but people often go off to Ireland expecting to do the bulk of their research there.  They feel that the reason they aren’t finding any information about their ancestors in the USA is because everything they need is in Ireland.  This is definitely not the best approach when it comes to researching Irish ancestors.  I often tell the people who attend my workshops that if you don’t have a clear picture of your ancestor’s existence before you set off, you are not likely to gain one while in Ireland.
There are several reasons why laying the groundwork is an important goal to achieve before you go.  Probably the most significant reason is because without a foundation, you likely won’t find any further information about your ancestor that is specific to him in Ireland.  Secondly, it is far easier to get lost in a maze of records and repositories that is unfamiliar than it is to use resources closer to home.  In Ireland, you typically have a limited amount of time and no one dedicated to specifically guide you in your research.  In the United States (or wherever it is your ancestor emigrated to), you are usually more familiar with the information available there, and if you live near that place, have much more time to devote to it.  Of course there are exceptions to these circumstances, but my point is that the more facts that you find out about your ancestor before you go, the more targeted your overseas research.
The absolute minimum information you need to have about your ancestor is a county of origin.  It remains possible today to visit the relevant county heritage center and commission a county-wide search for records pertaining to your ancestor.  The heritage centers do not allow you to do your own research at their facilities.  From the 1980’s through the early 2000’s, such a search could only be carried out by heritage centers.  Now this search of their holdings can mostly be done online at  It is possible to search for records for your ancestor if you have only a county of origin.  The search becomes more effective if you add additional information to it such as parents’ names (including mother’s maiden name), or search for siblings.  This search can easily be conducted before you leave home.
If you have a place name of origin for your ancestor that is more specific than a county, your next task will be to determine exactly what that name represents in Ireland- is it a townland?  A parish?  Consulting online maps and gazetteers will aid you in this pursuit.  The Irish Times website has an excellent genealogy section, which includes a database of place names, as well a maps of each county which show civil and church parish boundaries.  Knowing the names of these all-important bureaucratic land divisions will allow you to examine the correct records at the National Library or Archives, or to visit the correct parish church or cemetery.  Detailed maps of all areas of Ireland can be found at the Ordnance Survey Ireland website:
So pack your ipad or other device with as much information about your ancestor as possible before you go.  Include a county of origin, other more specific place information if you have it, names of family and/or friends associated with your ancestor, his occupation, and any other information that may be helpful.  All of this will help you stay focused as you do your Irish research, and ensure you are obtaining information about your ancestor specifically.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Itinerary Insights

Returning to Ireland after such a long absence is certainly a wonderful thing, but it’s not without its difficulties.  Deciding what to do when life has changed so fundamentally over that time period is no easy task.  After 4 previous trips, a few favorite spots have emerged that I would like to visit again, but I would also like to visit some new places as well.
My first step in deciding where to go and what to do was to drag down all the photo albums from trips in the 90’s to figure out exactly where we had been and how many times we had been to some of these places.  The fashions and hair were enough to make me cringe, but the scenery was inspiring!  I made a list of all the places we had visited and found that the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare was probably our most-visited attraction;  we saw that on 3 of the 4 trips we took.  Some places like the Ring of Kerry and Glendalough in County Wicklow had only been visited once.  Still others we have never been to- Belfast, Waterford, the Hill of Tara, and we’ll likely not get to them this time either.   Taking into consideration the limited amount of time we have on the trip (6 days) and the fact that we have a 13 year old in tow, we have to balance the fun with the down time with the genealogy time.  (although honestly Sam might be just as happy sitting with me in the National Library using their wifi connection, he is going to get a lesson in Irish history whether he wants it or not!)
Deciding where to stay was one of our easier tasks.  We have stayed at the same B&B for a few days on 3 of our 4 trips, and we will return to it for 3 nights on this trip.  On the first trip we made to Ireland where we drove ourselves (1997), we found Castletown House in close proximity to where my WALSH and MORTIMER relatives lived in County Laois.  Over the years the Phalens (who are likely relatives, as my GGG grandmother was Catherine Phalen, married to Michael Mortimer) have been most helpful in tracking down genealogy leads locally for me.  We have kept in touch with them since 1997, sending yearly Christmas cards with updates on what’s going on.  I did not want to be packing my suitcase and moving every night, so we decide to find a second place to spend our final 3 nights.  We were flying out of Shannon airport in County Clare, so I decided to find a place in West Clare nearby where my PENDERS great great grandfather lived before immigrating to Vermont.  In all the times we had been to Ireland, we had been to County Clare on all 4 trips (those Cliffs of Moher, see above), but never to this area along the Shannon River Estuary in West Clare.  I found a lovely little cottage for us to rent in the village of Cranny, a place mentioned in baptism records of Patrick Penders siblings.  Having it be walking distance to the local pub, Tir Na Nog (Land of Youth) certainly made it all that more appealing.
So the itinerary is still a work in progress, but some places we will not miss are the city of Kilkenny, Blarney Castle (as if Sam needs any encouragement in the “gift of gab” department!), Bunratty Folk Park, and the Burren.  We are going to plan for a fair amount of just driving around- we’ve made some of our most interesting discoveries that way.