It’s alive!

Forty years ago, when I asked my mother about her grandparents, her response summed up the Irish outlook of those days:

“What do you want to know about them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?”

This is not to say that family was unimportant. Far from it. My mother and her sisters could spend hours knitting together second and third cousins and neighbours and the in-laws of in-laws. In a tribal society nothing is more important than who your relatives are. Obviously, common ancestry determines the relationship, but that’s its only importance.

This makes for a peculiar relationship with the past. On the one hand, we’re drenched in it. Every rock in every field has its own name, history and controversy, and the issues that fueled politics and rebellion two centuries ago still underlie Irish politics today. For better or worse, history is no bewigged pageant here.  It’s alive.

An Englishman encounters Irish history.

On the other hand, we have very little sentiment about what we inherit. In the space of little more than a century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, two national currencies, as well as membership of a kingdom, an Empire and a Commonwealth. In the last decade alone we’ve re-invented ourselves as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, abortion-friendly LGBT celebs … Who knows what’s next?

With change at this pace, eventually even the strongest roots begin to shrivel, and the past acquires the rosy glow of distance. For most Irish today, the tribe is not as straightforward as it used to be, and one way the difference is showing is how Irish genealogy is seen in Ireland. It’s no longer the preserve of the blue-rinsed or the tartan-trousered.

So fear no more. When you tell someone Irish you’re researching your ancestors, they’re no longer likely to question your sanity.

20 thoughts on “It’s alive!”

  1. I found the people in Knocktopher and Newmarket, County Kilkenny, friendly. They’d all say hello and wave knowing perfectly well I was a stranger, (driving in a Dublin hire car). I had a number of long conversations about my lineage and found some people who even knew of the family (now all emigrated or deceased). Yes, some of us are still alive! However, I encountered a nervous curiousity in my possible intentions to relocate there. I found that a bit sad. Us English may still be tarred with the same old brush. If only I were rich enough to afford that move as I fell in love with the place.

  2. Heh heh, When I ask my 95 year old aunt Esther… Why did her grandmother’s death certificate have a different surname to the one she lived with, or on her marriage etc. or why did every Sullivan pick a different date of arrival in the US on every census? Why did they all come over after the Famine? Her response. “Oh we didn’t pay much attention to that stuff, we were just trying to survive.”

    That said she has some very vivid and colorful stories , such as one of uncle Tim hiding wads of cash in the old stone wall during prohibition. Now what do we think that was about 😉

  3. Well Said, John.
    In 1982, I took my American-born parents on their first trip to Ireland. I fortified myself with a tape recorder as well as movie and still cameras. After touring for a week — we landed in Spiddal, County Galway where my grandmother was born and came upon my father’s 1st cousin who had moved back to Ireland to retire after 40 years in Boston. I was delighted to be able to start asking real people my questions about the family. I was given the exact same response each time I asked a question: “Now, what do you want to be knowing that for?” with a suspicious look that always accompanied the phrase. Genealogy-wise — Ireland has come a long way!

    Thanks, for your columns == I love reading them —

    Pat Flaherty
    Boston, MA

  4. John;
    I have one of several regrets about being born late into my family. Most all of my aunts and uncles were passed on to their rewards. My mother, God rest her soul, gave me some information regarding my ancestry on both her side, KEEFE and COLLINS, and on my Dad’s side , God rest his soul as well, McGOE and GRACE families. Dad died in 1954 at age 64 and Mom died 1983 at age 86. I was 13 when Dad died and was lucky enough to have my dear mother to guide me through those really rough teen years. In my recent 3 trips to the “OLD SOD” I was fortunate to find some kindly people who helped fill in some gaps in my family history for me. I wish I had more time with my Maternal Grandmother Kate Collins Keefe. She passed away in October of 1947 at age 79 when I was only 7 and not smart enough to write down all that she told me. Oh well I ramble on and on.
    Thank you for your wonderful insight to IRELAND and the IRISH.
    Ed McGoe
    ps. I had a hard time finding the McGoe ancestors but did finally find them in MULLINGAR, Westmeath.

  5. WOW!
    The more I read about my Irish half+ I begin to understand a bit more. Back in the day it was all about survival. Life sure wasn’t easy. I think about my Grandparents and Great Grandparents that immigrated to America. They make this huge journey and they were just kids of 15-20 give or take. My maternal Great Grandmother Norah was born 1860 in Ireland, from what I have found in New York, she made herself 5-7 years older. Anytime I would ask my Mother about her Irish family all I got was vague answers. One shock I discovered a year ago was there are no headstones for 90%+ on their graves. They were just surviving, paving the way to a better future.

  6. From my mothers side we have Irish ancestors. As far as I know my great Grand Father came to South Africa. I believe my Grand Father was born in S A as Thomas John Mc Sherry. I have no idea where they originate from in Ireland. Sure there’s some people still in Ireland with the surname. I am trying to locate somebody to assist, or at least be able to connect to people with the surname. Thomas J Krüger.

  7. Boy does this one resound with me. I grew up with the notion that what happens in the family stays in the family. Any questions asked were treated as if I was digging for the worst possible family scandal so I could publish it on the front of the local paper! The hilarious part is that every family has skeletons in the closet. I find they make my ancestors more interesting, not information to be buried so deep no one can find out. Unfortunately for my family I didn’t get the memo and live my life openly, you don’t forget who you told what too that way! A quote I love for my genealogy research is “There are no secrets that time does not reveal” by Jean Racine. In light of my closed lipped Irish family it has resounded with me many a time and puts a smile on my face overtime something pops up.

    Thanks for you blog, keeps me going when the brick walls are leaving dents!

  8. For all the resistance I’ve gotten from certain Irish cousins to my questions, it doesn’t take rocket science to know that they are secretly fascinated – and embarrassed about what they’ve forgotten.

  9. My grandparents, who emigrated, are long gone, but I know my grandmother would question my sanity. My mother is! But I am leaving Belfast tomorrow after 11 days – with a little more family knowledge than I came with – and a much, much higher opinion of the area and it’s people. It was worth the long trip just for that.

  10. I would LOVE to meet a Quinn relative in Ireland (no success after 4 separate Ireland visits). I know that our Quinn’s came from King and Queen’s County (now Laois and Offaly) and arrived in Philadelphia in 1847. But no luck as of yet. I believe that they may have moved west from near Tullamore toward Athlone area but I’m not certain. Any help would be GREATLY APPRECIATED!

  11. On one of our many trips back to Connemara, our Irish cousins wondered why we were interested in the genealogy – we tried to explain, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “well, we know where the family is from. Just down the road………” And that was that.

    Now they’ve done their DNA and are fascinated by all the connections, not just locally but worldwide. We’ve come a long way indeed!

  12. That sounds so like my family, not just the Irish, but also the Greek…paternal. Dad would tell me to let sleeping dogs lie, whenever I asked questions… my answer was the same each time… the dogs are safe, it’s the people I’m interested in.. same response, shut down. Till he got Alzheimer’s, then at last I got a few answers … it was as if he wanted to empty his memories. Still, there so many more questions that remain unanswered …
    They say that with each passing of the older generation, a library is gone… sadly, there are only a couple of libraries left now, which makes it even more important to write down and share what we know.

  13. Well, it may depend on how you tell the Irish folks that you are researching family history. I dropped into a pub in Tuam after searching through a cemetery. The nice bartender noticed my American accent and asked if I was there on vacation – he knew the American term. I paused. Said I was looking for dead Cranes. He did a double take, or two, when I then said I meant deceased Cranes/Creanes in cemeteries….

  14. Well, it may depend on how you tell the Irish folks that you are researching family history. I dropped into a pub in Tuam after searching through a cemetery. The nice bartender noticed my American accent and asked if I was there on vacation – he knew the American term. I paused. Said I was looking for dead Cranes. He did a double take, or two, when I then said I meant deceased Cranes/Creanes in cemeteries….

    And, then of course, like most friendly Irish, he started trying to recall any Cranes/Creans in the area.

  15. I have been researching my mother’s family for more than 30 years. I began with microfiche and found Christopher Tuite on the Canadian census, born in Ireland c1820. Believe it or not, my mother had never heard of him — her own great-grandfather. Since that time, Mom became interested in her genealogy and had a DNA test but up until her death in January of this year, we haven’t found any more info with the exception of a letter from Mom’s aunt. This letter sheds some light (although dimly) on Christopher’s family who lived in France and in the 1790’s managed to “get a ship” and left France and ended up in Ireland where there are lots of Tuites and I assume extended family. I hate to think that this dead end is really dead.

    I love reading your blog and the replies.

  16. Love these blogs… thanks John
    How are we going to stop Americans attaching anything on ancestry that looks remotely like the surname they think they’re looking for. Unfortunately I left some Keeffe trees public and imagine my amusement last night when I I got my own hints back……. I’ve emailed the guilty parties and no doubt won’t hear back. They have attached families from all parts of Munster together years apart in age!!!! I know it’s possible to father more than one child in different locations in the one year but in pre famine times irish farmers did not stray too far from the oul homestead.

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