In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m sharing a summary of a decades-long journey in search of our family’s Irish ancestry. Tracing the family tree combines my interests and love of history and genealogy. The fruits of this research and effort were recently rewarded during an Ireland Vacation: 12 Day Itinerary.
Today, I’m taking you back to the Emerald Isle, where we visited this past August. First, were ten days traveling throughout Ireland, learning and experiencing it’s history, geography, and culture. It was a dream, pandemic-delayed trip that took us to the Irish emigration port of Cobh, Blarney Castle & Dingle Peninsula, and continued on to the stunning Cliffs of Moher & Arian Islands.
We finished our trip in Dublin, where I had the opportunity to do first-person research at the Irish Emigration Museum (EPIC). At it’s Irish Family History Centre, Mr. Buzz and I had a personalized 90-minute consultation with a professional genealogist.
Utilizing my past research and DNA analysis, she opened new pathways and online resources to our family’s Irish ancestry. Most exciting was breaking through brick walls in my search, and making thrilling new discoveries! I hope my experience will inspire others to trace their Irish ancestry, and see how technological developments are opening new windows into the past.
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Three Times a Charm
This year’s seasonal post is part of the Lucky Charms Blog Hop. It’s the third time I’ve hosted the annual St. Patrick’s Day theme event. I’m fortunate to have 12 talented bloggers join the fun, presenting tablescapes, vignettes, decor and crafts. Links to all lucky 13 are provided near the end of the
If you’re hopping over from Home is Where the Boat Is and Mary’s festive St. Patrick’s Day table, welcome lads and lassies!
Building a Family Tree & Tracing It’s Many Branches
What this post isn’t is a tutorial on how to research family roots. That would take volumes! I have, however, provided links at the end to some excellent books and maps on the subject to get you started.
Harbor and beach of Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands.
To help illustrate this post, are pictures or “postcards” from our August 2022 vacation to Ireland — ones not included in the previous travel posts. I took so many!
Getting Started: Who Came From Where, When?
What initially sparked my interest in genealogy was filling out the family tree section of oldest son’s baby book. That prompted me to begin asking lots of questions of family members and writing everything down. Growing up, I never had any sense of a specific ethnicity, although my last name was German. Except for my mother’s grandparents who immigrated from France around 1900, my other six great-grandparents were all born in the States.
Hubby’s surname and his father’s side identified as Irish, while his mother had a German surname but two Irish-born grandparents. Later —to his parents’ surprise and delight — I discovered that many of their direct ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania and Maryland during Colonial times. You can read about some of them in, Celebrating Patriots on Independence Day.
During our Ireland Trip, we visited the seaport Cobh, Ireland’s most important port of emigration. It was moving to stand where Irish ancestors were last on their homeland’s soil. We also toured the Dunbrody famine ship, an authentic reproduction of an 1840’s vessel. It took up to three months to reach New York on cramped ships. Because of the high mortality rate, they are often referred to as “coffin ships.”
Neither of us had a direct ancestor arrive as late as the Ellis Island period. In fact, all but one Irish ancestor emigrated to the States by the early to mid 1800’s; before the Great Potato Famine. Hubby’s Irish surname great-grandfather wasn’t born until years later, coming in 1887, at the age of 16.
I suspect every ancestor emigrated due to economic hardship and looking for opportunity. And since all but one were Catholic, religious and political persecution in Ireland would have left few viable options to thrive and prosper at home.
Have you, or a relative, ever traced your family or Irish ancestry?
In Search of Ancestors & Where They Came From
From the start, the goal of my genealogical research was to find not only who our ancestors were, but from where each of the family branches emigrated from. Not just the country, but the city, town or small village. I want to trace their footsteps, so to speak. To get a sense of the place and time they lived in.
After crossing this stone bridge, we enjoyed a stop in a quaint little Irish village along the picturesque river.
Because our Irish ancestors came so long ago, that made it more challenging to trace where they came from. There is no oral family history passed down of the “old country.” And source records of paper documents, like ship manifests, have often proven challenging to locate.
Before Records Were Digitized
Back in the 1980’s when I started in genealogy, records were not digitized or available online. U.S. census records were on rolls of microfiche. I’d spend hours pouring through indexes and often hard to read film at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. And, even if the records included the year of immigration (which isn’t always accurate), birthplace would only indicate the country of origin.
Finding photographs of family ancestors is my Holy Grail! Here is a 1905 wedding portrait of my great-grandparents. I adore the hat! What I wouldn’t give to have it and the dress! When I showed this photo to my future daughter-in-law and niece at their Love Boat Theme Engagement Party, they couldn’t get over how much wedding dress styles have changed through the generations.
In fact, all other types of records (government, church, newspaper, photographs, etc.) were only available in paper form — mostly in boxes or file cabinets. Some were lost by the ravages of time, carelessness, water, or fire.
You had to visit their specific place of origin to view them. Some government records could be requested for a fee, but took weeks if not months to retrieve — if they could even be located. Worse still, most records weren’t accessible because they had never been indexed or organized (chronologically, alphabetically, etc.).
Kilkenny Castle was erected in 1195 to control the waterways of the River Nore. Today, visitors can picnic in the gardens, tour the interior, and admire the art collection on display in the castle’s gallery.
Fortunately, several of hubby’s more prosperous Irish ancestors had detailed obituaries identifying the Irish county or town where they were born. That was a huge help in narrowing my search, and evidentially led to Irish records for birth, baptism, marriage, land and/or death.
Once making that leap, I often was able to identify their parents and go back another one or more generations in Ireland.
Hubby’s Irish-born great-grandmother with her six sisters. Three sisters married brothers here in Pittsburgh. They, their parents, and two brothers all originally emigrated from Stokestown, Ireland to Chicago. This is one of my favorite photo discoveries. It’s like having my mother-in-law and husband’s eyes starring back from the past!
I had my own filing cabinet of records at home (still do!). Eventually, I input much of it into the Family Tree Maker software program, which has tree, report and book-generating capabilities. With the software, I am able to manage and share multiple trees, including those of my brother and sister-in-laws.
World of Information at Fingertips
Today, with digitization and the Internet, records are available on your computer with a few keystrokes. As more information became available online, I also subscribed to Ancestry.com. That has provided access to many more records from across the U.S. and around the world (language can still be a challenge). Now, it’s also much easier to share information and photographs with far-flung, distant cousins.
Another of hubby’s Irish-born great-grandfathers. He emigrated with his parents and many siblings at the age of six from Cobh (then called Queenstown). Later, as a young man in 1888, he joined the U.S. Army. Deeply religious, he headed the Knights of Columbus reconstruction efforts in Europe post WWI. After he died, his Pittsburgh home and property were left to the Holy Family Institute as a group home for orphans. Getting to “know” these ancestors, provides me a greater connection and appreciation of the past.
Everyday, more records (some hundreds of years old) are being saved, scanned, digitized, and indexed — continually opening new windows into the past.
Forward Progress Into the Past
As a result, I’ve made many more inroads tracing our Irish ancestry in just the past five years! If you are just starting out, it’s so much easier to trace the family tree. In fact, it’s a great family project for parents to do with kids or grandkids.
Cahir Castle, one of Ireland’s largest and best preserved castles, has appeared in many movies.
Much to my surprise, several of my great-great grandparents of Irish descent were born here in the U.S! Others were born in Ireland, but emigrated as children with their parents to England or Wales. Before coming to the States, they grew up and married in a Catholic enclave in Liverpool. Unfortunately, all the British and American records simply state their birthplace as “Ireland.”
I thought I’d never be able to discover exactly where in Ireland my relatives came from. Instead, I concentrated on digging deeper into hubby’s Irish ancestry; where I was having much better success. What I didn’t realize until our recent trip to Ireland, was that the key to their birthplaces was within my own DNA!
About five years ago, I decided to take an AncestryDNA® test to see if it could lead to new genealogy discoveries. I also linked my DNA results to the family tree in Ancestry.com.
Note: Without getting into a lot of detail, yes, I have taken precautions and set limits to protect personal information. Just as I don’t identify family members or friends by name here in Debbees Buzz, I keep information private for all living individuals in my public-facing trees.
Initially, that quickly led to a DNA match with a man in Ireland with the same surname as one of my Irish-born ancestors. He said that the family always talked about a “lost” relative who immigrated to the States; never to be heard of again. He emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1861, during the U.S. Civil War.
Additionally, my newly found distant cousin explained that people with that surname lived in a concentrated area around Dublin. Sure enough, that information led to my ancestor’s 1835 birth record and parents’ names.
Painters Mill, a Carnegie Steel plant on the Monongalia River, where two generations of my Irish ancestors labored. It’s humbling to think of the hard lives they lived in both Ireland and here in Pittsburgh. It’s important for me to document their lives, so that they are remembered and appreciated by future generations.
Continual Refinements Narrow Geographies
Over the years, as more and more people submit their DNA, Ancestry has continued to refine their findings in updates. Regions of common characteristic DNA have become smaller. For instance, now Ireland is a region separate from Scotland. Most relevant to my Irish ancestry, is that the results within Ireland are narrowed down to even smaller regions or specific counties. Just last week, I received another update of my Irish ethnicity. More on that in a minute.
Since this past summer, the results indicate which part of one’s ethnicity profile (and DNA matches) are from the maternal or paternal side — even if neither parent took the DNA test themselves.
Previously, I took these results with a healthy does of skepticism. For one thing, although the DNA results show that I’m about 20% Irish, it now indicates I am also 28% Scottish — even more than Germanic. Huh?!
DNA Test & Consultant Worth Weight in Irish Gold
We extended our visit in Dublin to allow for a full day to meet with a genealogist, and access EPIC’s various Irish genealogy databases.
EPIC is located in Dublin’s Docklands along the River Liffey in a former warehouse, near the Customs House, Jeanie Johnson famine ship, and famine statues. Unlike most museums, EPIC is a dynamic, fully interactive experience. I highly recommend it, regardless of whether you have Irish ancestry or not.
Prepping & Prioritizing
Before we left the states, I put together printouts of the name, key dates, and known places for each Irish-born ancestor. They were split into two groups — my or hubby’s side of the family tree. Next, I organized them in groups by surname and family branch (i.e. married couples).
Because I had over 32 Irish surnames and nearly 150 individuals, I knew I’d have to prioritize our consultation and research time while at EPIC. So, I highlighted the relatives and facts of most interest (i.e. our family surname) or where I was stuck. That exercise also helped to refresh my memory of who was who, and where I faced roadblocks. After all, I have nearly 9,000 individuals in our combined family trees!
In addition, I took a detailed map of Ireland, highlighting areas where I already knew ancestors were born. Finally, I made sure to take the links, user names and passwords for my online tree and DNA results.
Finding End of Irish Ancestry Rainbow
As the date grew nearer, I feared meeting with the consultant would be a waste of time and money. That she’d only be able to assist with very basic, Irish ancestry queries. We were the first appointment of the day, making a point to arrive early to maximize the 90-minute appointment.
First, I outlined our goals, showed the prep materials, and let her access my online tree — she seemed thrilled! Hubby’s impression was that most people show up with the Irish surname of a great grandmother and no genealogy experience. She and I really clicked. We were on a roll; working efficiently through my list, making one inroad or discovery after another! In the end, the roughly $165 fee was worth a pot of leprechaun gold!
I came back home newly inspired, armed with a better understanding of the information and leads I already had, and with new resources and tools to utilize in tracing our Irish ancestry.
DNA Doesn’t Lie
Shortly after we got started, the consultant asked if either of us had our DNA tested. I said, yes, but was skeptical that my ethnicity results and matches would be that useful. That’s when she become really animated! She said DNA results have proven to be highly accurate. Coupled with my extensive genealogical research and other sources, she showed how to use the DNA location results to find the birthplaces of my Irish ancestors.
This is the church in County Cavan where at least one generation of hubby’s direct surname ancestors are buried. Although burial records may no longer exist, our hope is some of the tombstones may provide more clues. Likely generations of his family worshipped and are buried there. I can’t wait to visit here on our next trip to Ireland!
My Irish ancestry DNA is especially useful, because it is concentrated in the Ulster region (what today is mostly Northern Ireland and the area North of Dublin). Not only that, my DNA results are very specific to two small Irish counties! What that does is significantly reduce the search area for birthplace, even for common Irish names.
For instance, say I have a Patrick Sullivan born around a certain date. Five possibilities turn up, but only one baptism record is in one of those two counties — that’s likely my guy! I can then further validate him by cross-referencing with other Irish source records.
She also showed me how to pull up my DNA matches for individuals with common ancestors for a particular surname. Looking at their family trees, if those individuals have similar pertinent dates in the same Irish county, provides additional proof I have the right relative.
Photo of Irish tombstone found online of hubby’s ggg grandfather who carries his surname. And thanks to all the information engraved on the stone, I was able to trace the maiden name of his ggg grandmother through a marriage record —adding to our list of Irish family surnames!
By the time we left, I had pretty much verified the towns where four of my Irish lines came from! Not only that, but I was able to trace back several more generations (and add more Irish surnames). Once I learned how to refine the search, or use a new resource, we moved to the next question — as I could carry on the research from home.
What about that Scottish DNA (which hubby has a significant amount of too)? Well, that’s because many of our Ulster area Irish ancestors likely descended from one of more immigrants from not-so-far-off Scotland!
Catholics were forever fleeing British persecution after the fall of Mary Queen of Scotts. And Britain was trying to seed Ireland with more Protestants; offering free land to move there. It also explains why there are several rather Scottish names or spellings in Mr. Buzz’s Irish ancestry.
After seeing how hugely helpful DNA results were in tracing my Irish ancestry, hubby agreed to take a test when we got back home. Although his DNA covers a much broader range of Irish regions and counties, DNA matches with common ancestors have already helped me make several major breakthroughs.
Ancient church ruin at Clonmacnoise Monastery, sitting on the River Shannon. We visited the serene setting after Irish Vacation: Cliffs of Moher & Arian Islands.
DNA matches linked to Ancestry.com family trees show common ancestors between individuals, through something called, TrueLines. This has been especially helpful to validate or identify branches in my husband’s Colonial America relatives. Just recently, I’ve verified Smith and Miller (hard surnames to narrow down due to their commonality) to early Pennsylvania Germanic settlers; originally Schmidt and Mueller.
Tips & Pointers
As we worked through my questions, the genealogist continually provided valuable insights and links to other online resources.
For instance, I balked when a record birth year was off by several years for say, Molly Murphy. She explained that most Irish immigrants in the 1700 and 1800’s couldn’t read or write. And, people didn’t celebrate birthdays and anniversaries as we do. So If they told immigration officials or census takers how old they were, or the year they were married, they were likely estimating. I’d been taking those dates too literally!
Overlaying Old Maps With New Technology
Our next trip to Ireland will be to visit as many towns, farms, buildings, churches and cemeteries of our Irish ancestors as possible. But for those specific locations and places, I will need to drill further down into the records. The good news is now I know how to do it!
Originally Catholic, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is a Protestant Church.
Understanding the difference between government and Catholic parishes —and how they changed over time — is a science until itself lol! I’ve work to do there, because now that I know where relatives lived, I need to identify the churches where they were baptized and married, as well as where they are likely buried. For one thing, Oliver Cromwell’s troops destroyed Catholic churches and their records. Many Protestant cathedrals and churches across Ireland were originally Catholic.
Between that and a major fire in a Dublin government records repository, it can be hard to trace Catholic Church records much before 1830 or 1800. Protestant relatives tend to be easier to find. Because they were allowed to own propriety, there can be land records going further back in time. However, since Catholics paid rent or leases to those landowners, valuable genealogy information can also be found there.
Griffith’s & Google: Picture to the Past
Particularly enlightening are the Irish Griffith Valuation records and maps of 1841 and 1851, which are available online. In fact, I’d previously used them to find and verify family relatives.
But, I didn’t know how to use the records and maps to determine where the residences or farms would be located today. I thought that the numbering of individuals was just an ordered list. However, each number directly corresponds to areas on the accompanying maps! Finding a source record is one thing, understanding what they show and how to use them is another challenge in genealogy.
This is part of a Griffith Valuation map, showing where my husband’s surname family farm was located in 1841. It still is a very rural area. Buildings, their type and location on the property are also indicated. Clues to other potential relatives living adjacent or in the vicinity can be found in the land records too.
Then, the consultant did the most amazing thing! First, she showed us how to locate geographical features on the Griffith’s map. Next, she brought up a modern day Google Earth map and overlaid the two — in this instance using a small lake for reference. We watched closely as she placed a “pin” in the approximate location of the family farm to generate GPS coordinates. What happened next was especially thrilling.
She pulled up Google Street View, and input the GPS coordinates. Finally, we “traveled” visually down various roads and country lanes until there it was — the family homestead! Today a large house also stands on the property. We’ve since found out that the picture of hubby’s gg grandmother still hangs inside! The property is a working dairy farm. The Google imagery dates to 2019, and even showed a farmer feeding cows outside a barn — Mr. Buzz’s distant cousin?
Most amazing is that it appears all the structures shown on the 1841 map still exist in some form on the property today. The original cottage, then with a thatched roof, now has a tin roof. It’s likely where generations of hubby and our sons’ ancestors were born! We both got pretty emotional. It was like traveling in a time machine!
This is what appears to remain of the childhood farm of the ancestress shown in the picture above. Applying what I learned at EPIC, I was able to “visit” the property after returning home from Ireland. I’m anxious to repeat the procedure for all our Irish ancestors located in Griffith’s Valuation.
Return Visit to Ireland
Now, I am helping Mr. Buzz’s cousin S find the current owners’ names and contact information. She is traveling to Ireland over the Easter holiday and plans to visit the farms, churches and cemeteries we’ve been able to pinpoint so far. Through her professional life, she is very familiar with Ireland and has been there many times. But this is the first time S has tried to follow our Irish ancestry footsteps. She and I have quickly bonded over our shared passion, referring to each other as, “cousins by another mother” lol!
Meanwhile, hubby and I will be in the Netherlands, vacationing and visiting the medieval town where their shared Dutch ancestors lived. I can’t wait to debrief with S, and share pictures, discoveries and experiences!
Have you been to Ireland?
Related Post Picks
Lucky 13 Creative Stylists Share Talents
Next up is Debra from Common Ground and her seasonal vignette. But I hope you’ll make like a leprechaun and hop to all 13 St. Patrick’s Day theme posts. Thanks to all the talented ladies for sharing their creativity and for the time and effort that goes into publishing a post.
How to Make a Beautiful St. Patrick’s Tablescape 🍀 Peacock Ridge Farm
Irish Town and Country Tablescape 🍀 Panoply
Erin Go Bragh 🍀 Home is Where the Boat Is
Irish Ancestry: Genealogy, DNA & Visiting Ireland 🍀 Debbees Buzz
St. Patrick’s Day Seed Box Vignette 🍀 Common Ground
Tuath Dé Danann on a St. Patrick’s Day Table 🍀 The Cat’s Whiskerz
Lucky & Blessed St. Patrick’s Day Tiered Tray 🍀 The Painted Apron
13th Edition of the Keeper of the Shamrock Cloth 🍀 Corner of Plaid and Paisley
Pot of Gold & Rainbow Tablescape 🍀 Mantel and Table
Decorating for St. Patrick’s Day 🍀 Vintage Style Gal
Dollar Tree Monogram Shamrock Pillow 🍀 Life as a Leo Wife
Casual, Rustic St. Patrick’s Day Table 🍀 Me and My Captain
Shamrocks and Gold 🍀 Life and Linda
Even More St. Patrick’s Day Fun
You’ll find even more holiday ideas and inspiration from the first two St. Patrick’s Day blog hops. Start with 14 Stylists Share St. Patrick’s Day Table Setting Ideas and learn how to make a Lucky 3 Leaf Clover Napkin Fold.
Then, continue on to last year’s Irish Eyes are Smiling blog hop. It was expanded to include holiday crafts, foods and beverages, like my Easy, Hearty Irish Stew for St. Patrick’s Day.
How do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
Soon, I’ll be sharing our exploration of Dublin in the last of my four-part travel log to Ireland last August. I hope you’ll tag along!
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