Before the internet and the digitization of some Irish records, one needed patience, persistence, and problem-solving skills to connect the lives of Irish immigrants here in America to the world they left behind. Guessing someone’s true age and their birth order within their parents’ household amounted to a shot in the dark.
In January 1941, the death certificate of my great-grandmother, Catherine (Dwyer) Dwyer, recorded her age as 76 years and ten months. She had lived in Newport, Rhode Island, for sixty years, and in that time knowledge of her specific birthplace had vanished from her children’s memory. One of her sons, who acted as informant, also misremembered his mother’s maiden name! Catherine’s obituary mentioned no siblings.
Today marks the one-thousandth Vita Brevis post since the blog launched in January 2014. The blog’s pages have been accessed more than one-and-a-half million times, and by my (not very scientific) count the following eighteen posts have led the field, read by more than one hundred thousand readers.
By far and away the most-read post at Vita Brevis is Chris Child’s August 2014 account of Robin Williams’s maternal ancestry. The circumstances of Williams’s death, and the affection he had inspired in millions of Americans, made the post a place to stop and reflect about what he had meant to members of the genealogical community. Continue reading The thousandth post→
Recently I was researching my Holland surname line and ran into an interesting problem. I found two men named William Holland, each of whom married a woman named Ellen Fleming, in the same parish around the same time. Which was the right William Holland and Ellen Fleming for my family? Were the couples related? How was I going to tell their children apart?
These two Irish couples were from Barryroe parish in County Cork. One couple married in 1820 and the other in 1839. I found baptismal records for children with these parents born between 1820 and 1845. Luckily, the Holland child I was tracing was born in 1828, so I knew he belonged to the older couple who married in 1820. Continue reading Double trouble→
Inspired by the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, Horace Walpole gave us the word serendipity. The following three tales shine among my past treasures as extraordinary encounters that would have been lost to history had I not been in the right place at the right time.
In the fall of 1983, I drove to West Wareham, Massachusetts on a mission to find my great-grandfather’s grave. As I searched in vain for the stone, an elderly man who lived across the road from the cemetery spied my Vermont license plate and asked for whom I was searching. “Millard Morse, father of Emory,” I said. He retorted, “Who ARE you?” Continue reading Serendipity→
[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 27 November 2015.]
For the last several months, I have been trying to determine the origins of each of my mother’s Irish ancestors. In a previous post, I mentioned my success in locating the origins of my Kenefick ancestors; however, I have been having trouble with some ancestors with much more common surnames.
[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 29 June 2015.]
Over the years I have had the chance to discuss the subject of ethnicity (and identity) with avid genealogists and those who are not all that interested in the field of genealogy. Many people will quickly share with you what their ethnicity is, with answers varying from “American” to a varied mix of ethnic origins. This answer, as you can imagine, can vary greatly with the knowledge each person has as to what was passed down to them by their parents about their own heritage. What I have noticed in these discussions is the depth in which these generational levels of ethnic origin will differ. Continue reading ICYMI: A question of identity→
At Easter 2016, Ireland commemorated a seminal event in its struggle for independence, the Easter Rising of April 24–30, 1916. Led by men and women from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, about 1,200 rebels seized several key buildings in Dublin. With artillery and 16,000 troops, the British quickly overwhelmed the Irish insurrection, and the leaders captured and executed.
One leader, Thomas Kent of Castlelyons, County Cork, and his brothers had organized a branch of the Irish Volunteers in Castleyons in 1914. Thomas Kent was not in Dublin during the rebellion, but stayed away from home hoping to mobilize the Volunteers. When he returned home, the Royal Irish Constabulary (police) surrounded his house on May 2, 1916. Continue reading The Centennial of the Easter Rising→
Many Americans are familiar with the popular and scenic Ring of Kerry in Ireland. They might be less familiar with a peninsula just to the south, in County Cork, called Beara. Those who are attempting to trace their roots to the Beara Peninsula are among the most fortunate genealogical researchers in the world, thanks to the monumental work carried out by a teacher (and genealogist, historian, footballer, and champion accordion player) named Riobard O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer, who was born in the U.S. to Beara parents but grew up in Beara, took it upon himself to study the families of the peninsula as comprehensively as possible. He spent the better part of his life visiting the localities of Beara, gaining access to and transcribing its (sometimes nearly illegible) church records, interviewing its residents, and examining the headstones of its cemeteries. Continue reading A new Irish records database→
In my previous blog post, I wrote about my Irish great-grandparents raising their children in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Yet as I began sorting through my genealogical research in preparation for NEHGS’ upcoming Irish Family History Day on March 6, I began to think more about their decision to leave Ireland in the first place.
My Nana’s parents, Julia and Edward Deane, left their home in the village of Geesala in County Mayo for America in 1909, when they were 28 and 31 years old. Julia would often recall her difficult journey across the Atlantic, plagued by terrible sea-sickness, travelling on the Titanic as she used to say. “Mama, it was the Teutonic! The Titanic sank!” my Nana used to correct her. Continue reading Family traditions→
When I first began working on my genealogy, I quickly had aunts and uncles setting me to work on brick walls that had stumped them for decades. Overwhelmed by distant dates and unfamiliar names, I instead began with what seemed to me the simplest place to start: my maternal grandparents, Mary Deane and Walter Griffin.
I lived just a short bike-ride away from my Nana and Papa’s house, so I spent many afternoons seated at their kitchen table with a bowl of Jell-O as they sipped coffee and told me about their childhoods. I was fascinated by their stories of being raised by Irish immigrants in the tenements of Holyoke, Massachusetts, in the 1910s and ‘20s. Continue reading The name’s the same→