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!