It can begin as a casual look through the Ellis Island ship records, a phone call to an elderly family member, or combing through family albums/bibles/old letters for names and dates. If this all pans out and you feel you’ve gathered enough information on ancestors’ surnames, Irish counties, townlands, Catholic parishes, etc., you’re ready to book your flight to Ireland.
The passion to find my Irish grew when I found myself wondering about my four Irish-born grandparents. I’d never met my father’s parents, nor did he ever speak of family. The only way I knew they were from Cahersiveen, and Valentia Island County Kerry was from information imprinted on their gravestones in Omaha, Nebraska. And as luck would have it, their birthdates were included. So, I went to work gathering documents here in Chicago, beginning with ship records, city directories, parishes where they had married and raised their children – anything that hinted at the schools, occupations, neighborhoods. Took a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah for information contained in their vast genealogy library. And wasn’t I surprised to discover a first cousin living in Spokane, Washington. It was from her that I learned one of my father’s best kept secrets. I never knew he had nine siblings. Eager to help with my search, she gave me an old letter written by our second cousin Hannah Keating from CoarhaBeg, Valentia Island, County Kerry, Ireland dated September 13, 1949. This letter provided the important link that led me to our grandmother’s family on Valentia Island.
My husband and I will never forget the first trip to Ireland in 2003 and our arrival into Cahersiveen. Charmed by the raw beauty of majestic coastlines; the rugged, lush green fields splashed with spring daffodils; a lively old-style town teeming with shoppers and the grand Gothic Revival-style Daniel O’Connell Church located in the middle of it all. I remember the feeling of pride that washed over me, for I knew it wouldn’t be long before I could claim this part of Kerry as mine.
Wasting no time, we got down to the business at hand. Our first encounter included Tim Casey, who was found working at the Church, tending to office duties. He kindly offered to show us the 1850 book that included birth, marriage, and baptism records. Unfortunately, nothing could be found on my grandfather’s Shea family. We extended to Tim and his wife an invitation to dinner, but he said he’d preferred his potato at home. Taking leave of this lovely man, we scurried across the street to the town’s library. Libarian Noreen O’Sullivan helped us considerably and even suggested we speak with a Patrick O’Leary from the Glen. Patrick is a retired school teacher with a vast knowledge of the area and the residents both past and present. Directions in hand, we jumped into our car and began the treacherous journey to St. Finan’s Bay in search of Patrick’s cottage. We drove through a fog-induced, blustery rainfall. Difficult as it was to maneuver the extremely narrow mountain roads, we spied Patrick’s yellow cottage in the distance and were happy to see smoke billowing from the chimney.
Patrick and his wife couldn’t have been nicer. They ushered us into the parlor where the crackling fire warmed our spirits. We told him of our search and he explained the area and the families from generations past. He took time to drive us to the old Church and graveyard overlooking Ballinskelligs Bay. Patrick shared important facts and information pertinent to our search. Back into town from our trip to Ballinskelligs, we ate a delicious dinner at O’Driscolls Pub and made our plans for tomorrow’s visit to Valentia Island.
Morning could not have come quickly enough, for we were anxious to begin our search. Driving into Valentia Island, we quickly found the ancient Kylemore Graveyard and pulled in to park. Seeking information, I approached a lovely woman who introduced herself as Kathleen Corless and her companion, Eileen Murphy. I showed them the letter dated 1949 and they recognized Hannah and told lovely stories. They put us in touch with Kitty and John Murphy who lived across the channel in Portmagee. Seems John is my second cousin and his nickname is “Cap” Murphy. Seems the nicknames are better known than the Christian names. The letter from my cousin in Washington cinched the relationships. Kathleen turned out be a second cousin and she sent me to John “Cap” Murphy and they sent me to Brendie “Clerk” Murphy.
Driving the short distance to Portmagee, we parked in front of John “Caps” house. Kitty welcomed us into her home and hurried to set a lovely table with assorted plates filled with home-made cookies, cakes, and breads, along with a steaming pot of delicious Barry’s tea. We sat by the turf fire and listened to their stories. We were charmed by this lovely couple, my family, who have nine children all grown now with families of their own.
With more family names and directions to their cottages, we bid farewell to Kitty and John, and promised to visit again before we left Ireland. We drove back to Valentia Island to visit another second cousin, Brendie Murphy of the “Clerk” Murphy’s. Brendie welcomed us into his lovely cottage while his wife prepared tea and delicious sandwiches that were so tasty we still talk of them to this day. Brendie showed us old photos and gave me an armload to take home for my family album. And the cottage of my grandmother – where she was born in 1865 – was right out back. They had recently torn it down but the imprint was still there. The experience of walking the land, the same dirt path that my grandmother Bridget, at fifteen years old, took when she left her family for America was something I never experienced before. The excitement, the satisfaction, the culmination of so much research.
We then visited John William O’Sullivan, proprietor, of the Ring Lyne Pub, down the road from the Murphy cottage. He introduced us to Mary O’Neil who has lived on Valentia for all of her ninety plus years. So many folks opened their hearts and their cottages to us.
You might hit a proverbial brick wall at some point in your search. I’d recommend you look into the DNA tests. The information you’ll receive from that test will set you straight and will even identify the county your ancestors were from. And remember, every family story must be backed up with proof. If someone tells you they’ve located their family on Ancestry.com, question it, for unless there is definite proof, you might be buddying up to a family that is not yours.
If you have or had one grandparent who was born in Ireland, you will be able to claim your Irish passport. Check out one of my blogs to find out what documents you’ll need to prove your lineage. Detailed information is included in my book, Finding My Irish, as well as in the Finding Your Chicago Irish book. And the CD listed on the buy page will provide a step-by-step guide to help you in your search.