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Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny: Finding Your Irish Ancestors (And Their Cousins) in Pennsylvania

In the search for our sometimes elusive ancestors, we all hit the proverbial brick wall. It’s incredibly frustrating when we get stuck on a particular line and can’t seem to find any new information. Sometimes, in order to find our own ancestors, we have to expand our tree to include not just our lines, but those of the other families in the neighborhood.

This is very true in researching Irish genealogy, where many families emigrated over multiple generations. It’s not unusual to discover the same surnames popping up in a town or region in Pennsylvania, and it can be a real challenge to figure out which Thomas Ryan or Bridget McGee is the one you’re looking for.

The coal mining regions of the north central parts of Pennsylvania in particular drew many immigrants from Ireland, and names associated with County Donegal families show up quite frequently. Which is why you see the counties of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Carbon, Schuylkill, Columbia and Northumberland filled with O’Donnells, Boyles, Gallaghers, Dohertys, McGees and McGills.

It’s a daunting task to sit down and try to sort out your line, but if your ancestors came to Pennsylvania in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there are two resources in particular that can be invaluable. Both are accessible only through subscription databases, but if you’re serious about finding your roots, they’re worth at least a short time membership. It’s going to take some dedication, and I definitely recommend taking a lot of notes and doing a lot of printing. Continue Reading

Arts, History

Is the Irish Language Dying?

Alene O’Malley

“Ireland has its own language?”

This is a question I have been asked several times since moving to the United States and every time I hear it, my heart breaks a little more. Yes, Ireland does have its own language. It’s not the most well-known or the most romantic language but it has been through more trials and tribulations than many. And more impressive than that, it has survived. Our mother tongue has endured and is now rightfully enjoying a period of prosperity and popularity.

The history of the Irish language is complicated and at times bleak. During colonial rule the English saw it as a weapon and moved to ban it before it could be used against them. Sadly, the language has never truly recovered from this time and has not yet reached the heights of its pre-penal law usage and fluency.

The origins of Ancient Irish are rooted in Celtic times. Examples can be seen as inscriptions on Ogham stones around Ireland and date back to as early as the 3rd century. The Celts appear to have been a well-travelled people as in 1989 archaeologist Robert Pyle discovered a bone needle etched with Ogham writing in Wyoming County, West Virginia.

Middle Irish, which existed between 900-1200 AD, included some Scandinavian influences as Anglo-Normans began settling in Ireland. Despite this, the Irish literary traditions remained strong and several manuscripts have survived from this time. Middle Irish is the language of a large swathe of literature including the entire Ulster Cycle or the Red Branch Cycle, a collection of Irish mythology. Continue Reading

Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny: The Irish Immigrants Who Went Home

“I’ll take you home again, Kathleen, across the ocean wild and wide
To where your heart has ever been since first you were my bonny bride
The roses all have left your cheek, I’ve watched them fade away and die
Your voice is sad when e’er you speak and tears bedim your loving eyes.”

The familiar lines of “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” penned by Thomas P. Westendorf in 1875, evoke all the emotions associated with the theme of Irish immigration to the United States, particularly in the years after An Gorta Mór. They are the lyrical depiction of the sadness and longing experienced by the millions who crossed the Atlantic for a better life; the trade-off being they would never see their homes or families again.

It’s the prevailing image we all have, and for the most part it’s true. Although many Irish would be reunited with family members who had already come over, or relatives they would help to bring over at a future date, and letters were exchanged, a return journey was out of reach for the majority of those who immigrated to America.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and I’ve been intrigued by occurrences of “return migration” that I’ve come across over the years. Here are three different instances among those I’ve encountered.

The first, believe it or not, was in the 1600s. My earliest Irish ancestor to reach the shores of America was Miles Riley, born about 1614 in County Cavan. In 1634, he and his older brother Garrett arrived in the Virginia colony on the Bonaventure. Several years later, another brother, Thomas, joined them.

From what I’ve been able to glean, in the mid to late 16th century, the Clan Riley began losing a lot of their land and prestige. First to other clans, then to the English, and then through power struggles within the family. However, though their circumstances had changed, the brothers were not without means as they embarked on their new lives; they were given land grants and Miles is recorded as receiving an additional 1,100 acres in Virginia for sponsoring 20 immigrants in the 1660s.

But sometime in the early 1650s, Garrett found a way to return to Ireland as a landowner. He sold off his land grants in the colonies and bought his passage back to Ireland. He shows up on tax rolls in 1655 and 1665 as owning a six-room thatched cottage in Kells, County Meath. Exactly how and why this came about is a story still to be discovered, and hopefully there are records out there somewhere with more information. Continue Reading

Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny: The Hegarty Sisters & Their Very Different Lives as Earl Grey Orphans

Between the years of 1848 and 1850, over 4,000 young women, ages 14 to 20, left Ireland’s workhouses for the shores of Australia as part of Earl Grey’s Orphan Scheme. They had been carefully selected as part of a plan to ease the burden of poverty and starvation during An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) in Ireland, while at the same time providing Australia with the female presence lacking in that country. For the girls who made the journey, it was a way of escaping a life of predetermined hardship for the promise of the unknown, the possibility of something better.

But not all the futures were to be created equal. Some would thrive, establish families and find happiness; others would struggle to survive, and some would end up dying in destitution. Catherine and Anne Hegarty from County Roscommon were two sisters who arrived on the same ship, but whose lives turned out very differently.

Catherine Hegarty is the second great grandmother of my “Aussie cousin” Carol’s husband, Terry. Terry didn’t know anything about this branch of his family, but in 2015 he decided to take a DNA test and start digging. Over the past five years, he and Carol have made some incredible discoveries about what brought his ancestors from Ireland to Australia, and along the way uncovered a story that deserves to be told. Continue Reading

Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny: Earl Grey & the Scheme That Launched 4,000 Orphans

For Henry, the 3rd Earl Grey (son of Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey for whom the tea is named), it seemed like the perfect solution to two problems he was facing in 1848 as British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. He was hearing from Australia, where the ratio of men to women at the time was 8:1, that they needed more females to join the population. And at the same time he was being inundated with reports on the terrible overcrowding in the Irish workhouses, where conditions were deplorable even amidst a nation of starving people.

Ireland, no stranger to hard times, was facing an unprecedented period of starvation and poverty. What was once designated as “The Famine” has since been more fittingly reclassified as “An Gorta Mor,” or “The Great Hunger.” But no matter what you call it, people were looking for ways out of the unrelenting destitution and death that had become a way of life. Continue Reading

Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny: Owen Kaney, 19th Century Irish Philadelphia Ancestral Character (and an Irish Diaspora Center FB Live Video)

Genealogy, for the deeply rooted, is far more than the mere act of collecting names and dates. At its best, and in its most gratifying moments, it is about the connection to people long gone but without whom we wouldn’t be here to discover them. We don’t just find them in a census, we make their acquaintance. And when we’re especially fortunate, we reincarnate a character who has been languishing for generations in an ancestral attic.

Sometimes, of course, we do feel lucky just to find a name and a date. Elusive ancestors can be a real pain. But when the names and dates lead to photos, and newspaper articles, and old love letters, we’ve hit the jackpot. And I get as excited over other people’s ancestors as I do my own. Take, for example, the fellow in the photo at the top of this article.

His name is Owen Kaney and he was the great grandfather of my stepfather-in-law. Born in Philadelphia on April 22, 1843, to Irish immigrant parents, he is without a doubt a great ancestral character. And I don’t know nearly enough about him; for instance, I haven’t figured out yet where in Ireland his parents were from, and I don’t know much about his life before the Civil War. But I do know that before his death on February 26, 1888, he crammed a lot of living into his 44 years. Continue Reading

Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny: Old Family Notes May Be More Treasure Than Trash and An Irish Diaspora Center FB Live Video

I just want to begin by clarifying that there is a vast and vital difference between the definition of “hoarding,” and the act of saving really good old family stuff. But, on the other hand, there can definitely be a fine line between that which is considered trash and that which is celebrated as treasure to the hardcore genealogist.

Because anyone who has spent time searching for that elusive paper trail on a mystifying ancestor knows the frustration of not being able to break through the brick wall. Sometimes the records are missing or lost, or records weren’t kept at the time and in the place we’re looking. Sometimes we don’t even know where or when we should be looking. We put aside that ancestor or that line and decide to come back to it later. And then, occasionally, through the miracle of modern technology, we find our family’s answers online in a distant cousin’s tree.

This is one of the reasons I tell researchers to never give up. You never know what’s out there, what’s been hidden away in an attic or a basement that is now ready to see the light. Genealogy has entered an era when people are willing and able to share old photos, stories and even scraps of paper that have been passed down through generations. Continue Reading

Arts, History, News, People

A Night at the Museum of the American Revolution

Two Portraits of Richard St. George

During a multi-day visit to Philadelphia, where most of the focus fell on the modern era politics of Brexit and the interest of the Irish diaspora, Ambassador Daniel Mulhall’s presence at the Museum of the American Revolution’s launch of their new exhibit “Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier” was an opportunity to talk history.

Ambassador Mulhall, along with Dr. Martin Mansergh, historian and former Irish political advisor who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement, gave context and insight into the influence of the American Revolution on Ireland’s own path to independence. In addition, Dr. Mansergh is a descendant of Richard St. George Mansergh-St. George (from here on referred to as Richard St. George, as he is in the Museum’s exhibit) who is the subject of the “Cost of Revolution” exhibition, providing a personal connection to the historical narrative.

The evening’s events were planned by an Honorary Event Committee including Honorary Chair, Governor Edward G. Rendell; State Representative Mike Driscoll; Charles E. Hopkins; Marita Krivda Poxon; Kevin Kent, Esquire; Honorable James Murray Lynn; Joseph S. Martz; Edward D. McBride and Kathleen M. Sullivan. The crowd was welcomed in by bagpipers William Watson, Frank Watson, Tom Conner and Lee Nolan, and then treated to traditional Irish music throughout the evening performed by musicians including Paddy O’Neill, John McGillian and Darin Kelly. Continue Reading