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History, News

Remembering the Hunger Strikers

Members of AOH Div. 39 carry photos of the Hunger Strikers into the church.

Members of AOH Div. 39 carry photos of the Hunger Strikers into the church.

The Patrick Coughlin Honor Guard of AOH Div. 39 marched into St. Anne’s Church in Philadelphia on Sunday, each carrying a large black and white photo of faces that, for many Irish, have become so familiar they didn’t need to be identified. They were the 1981 hunger strikers, 10 men held in HM Prison Maze who were demanding they be treated as political prisoners of the British government: Bobby Sands, Micky Devine, Francis Hughes, Raymong McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee. See more photos by Christopher Conley Sr. here.

Father Ed Brady, pastor of St. Anne’s who serves as chaplain to many Irish organizations in the region, celebrated a Mass in commemoration of their sacrifice. One of the speakers at the Mass was Christopher Conley, Jr., who explained the historical significance of the hunger strike, from its ancient roots in Brehon law (it’s known as the “trocad”), and its link to the protests that came before, from the Mayo land wars to the great Dublin lockout of 1913. Conley shared his speech with us:

The poem “The King’s Threshold” by William Butler Yeats, which describes an ancient bard engaging on a hunger strike against a tyrannical, miserly king who refuses him hospitality, is often used as an introduction to discussion and reflection on hunger striking in Irish Republicanism. It is a fitting place to start, for its feudal setting illustrates how deep-seated the ancient act of hunger striking is in Irish culture.

Dating back to pre-Christian times, by the Middle Ages the hunger strike was enshrined in the Brehon Law codes. Known as the “toscad” the hunger strike was a last ditch method of grievance whereby a person wishing to compel a wrongdoer to justice, oftentimes over an unreasonable debt, would literally starve himself on the wrongdoer’s doorstep. If the wrongdoer allowed the hunger striker to die, it was written in the code that ” He who disregards the faster shall not be dealt with by God nor man … he forfeits his legal rights to anything according to the decision of the Brehon.”

Looking at this historical tradition of the hunger strike that legally enshrined morality over economic greed, we can see how the hunger strike came to be such a compelling and powerful tool in Irish Republicanism. A depraved level of economic oppression meant to exploit and subjugate the native Irish has long been a favorite weapon in the imperial arsenal of the British occupiers. During the genocide falsely called a famine a perverse sense of superiority and entitlement was used to justify the engineered starvation and forced emigration of millions in the name of free trade.

The next generation of Irish people responded to the legacy of genocide through resistance in the form of the land wars in County Mayo, by no coincidence the county most hardest hit by the genocide. This agrarian rent struggle against the gombeen men of British imperial landlords gave birth to a word that has taken on a wider meaning in labor disputes, the “boycott.” But it is important for us here to recognize that in its origin the boycott was a weapon used by the proud people of Ireland to subvert British rule and demonstrate to their occupiers that there was nothing in their whole Imperial economic arsenal that can break the spirit of the Irish people who do not wish to be broken.

With these precedents in mind, when we then look at the events of the great Dublin lockout of 1913 and the forgotten hunger striker James Byrne we can correctly place them in their Irish Republican context. The great Dublin lockout is not just a labor struggle which happened to have some Republicans on the picket line. Rather, the lockout was an anti-imperial Republican action to organize the Irish people through industrial unionism in order to sever the colonial chains of Britain by asserting that the Irish people had ownership of their land and therefore the right to the fruits of all labor produced there.

This was the inspirational message of James Larkin and James Connolly that inspired another James, James Byrne to join the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. A 38-year-old married father of six, James Byrne was the secretary of the Bray and Kingstown trades council and an Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union branch secretary. On October 20, 1913, he was falsely accused of intimidation of a strikebreaking tram driver and imprisoned by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. He was thrown into Mountjoy Prison, in a cold, damp cell. When he was refused bail, he embarked on a hunger and thirst strike. Although the British government gave in to the protest after several days and granted him bail, the weakened physical state brought about by the strike combined in a tragic way with the deplorable environment of his jail cell. James Byrne caught pneumonia and died in a hospital just two weeks after his arrest.

His funeral was held on Nov 3, 1913, before a throng of 3000 people. James Connolly delivered an oration from atop a cab due to the size of the crowd. In his speech Connolly underscores the Republican importance of James Byrne’s sacrifice. He is quoted as telling the mourners that “Their comrade had been murdered as surely as any of the martyrs in the long line list of those who had suffered for the sacred cause of liberty. … [and] If their murdered comrade could send them a message it would be to go on with the fight for the sacred cause of liberty, even if it brought them hunger, misery, eviction and even death itself, as it had done Byrne.”

Although we have focused on James Byrnes’ hunger strike in this 100th year Anniversary of the Dublin lockout, its important to note that highlighting him does not neglect our brave men of ’81. As a matter of fact, through studying James Byrne’s sacrifice, we are actually emphasizing the context of and adding to significance of the sacrifice of the ten brave men.

Just as James Byrnes and James Connolly were radicalized by overbearing poverty in the Dublin area, it should come as no surprise that 46 years after the great Dublin lockout the spirit of Irish Republicanism rose like a phoenix from the working-class nationalist neighborhoods of Derry and Belfast. Once again, Britain was using economics as a means of subjugation and oppression by first imposing an artificial border that created two economically unviable states, and then as a further act of conceit and contempt, in the statelet under their rule, they intentionally marginalized the Irish Nationalist community from prosperity.
Furthermore, it should come as no surprise to us that much like James Byrne, our ten brave men found themselves in cold, damp cells, denied due process of the law or any objective form of justice. We should also take moment to pause and reflect that much like James Byrne most of these ten men were husbands and fathers. And yet these men bravely and selflessly gave their lives, deliberately starving in order to compel Britain to justice, and so became martyrs in the long line list of those who suffered for the sacred cause of Irish liberty. And like the people who crowded the cemetery to hear James Connolly speak, we are all here to acknowledge their sacrifice as heroes in the liberation struggle for Ireland.

In conclusion, I would like to say that when I was first asked to give the reading today, I was nervous. After all, I would be speaking to many people who were alive when history was made, so to speak. However, I think that by asking me to give a reading emphasizes the very reason we gather to honor these brave men, because it was the devotion to the Irish cause from my teachers of the generations before me who inspired me to become involved and to begin teaching my son as well.

The current Haass talks drive home how important it is for Irish America to stay vigilant in regards to the cause of Irish freedom. But more importantly, a piece of history was made in between this Mass and our last memorial. A particularly odious antagonist in the summer of ‘81, Margaret Thatcher, has passed away. Although Margaret Thatcher received a whitewash treatment in a Hollywood movie that completely omitted the hunger strikes, nevertheless even in death she could not escape the shame that the hunger strikers had brought to her doorstep; as a matter of fact, almost every obituary mentioned it.

And there lies the poetic justice. Just like the King in W.B. Yeats poem, Thatcher scoffed at the toscad as an “old and foolish custom,” and yet through a law more ancient than the Brehon our bold men have managed to leave the onus of shame on the doorstep of Thatcher’s grave. I do say that this is poetic justice served at this point; the legacy of Irish freedom remains still an “unfinished song.” But through our continual vigilance and advocacy, we can hope to finally see a rising of the moon that lets us tell our brave men that our day has come.

History, People

How the Irish Saved Gettysburg

Kenneth Gavin, Bethanne Killian and Peter Ryan. Photo Credit: Christopher Conley

Kenneth Gavin, Bethanne Killian and Peter Ryan Photo Credit: Christopher Conley

Bethanne Killian, Chair of Irish Network Philadelphia (better known as IN-Philly), knew she wanted to create an event for the organization that would commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the key role that the Irish played in it. She found the perfect speaker in Kenneth Gavin and the ideal location at the Union League in Center City.

The Union League itself was formed in 1862, in order to preserve the Union as well as to help squash the rebellion of the Confederacy. As Gavin said in the opening of his talk, “You can’t get a better venue in Philadelphia than the Union League to talk about these things.”

Kenneth Gavin, a self-proclaimed mongrel with his share of Irish ancestry, has himself participated in Civil War reanactments as part of the recreated Company C, 28th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry; he is now the company’s 1st sergeant. His day job since February of this year has been as Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but his love for, and research in, the field of history continues.

In an engaging and energetic talk that lasted over an hour, but wasn’t nearly long enough, Gavin spoke not only about Gettysburg, but also about the factors that led up to the Civil War, and how the Irish came to play such a major part in the action.

His explanation of how over 150,00 native born Irish men ended up serving in the Federal ranks (Gavin estimates that when it comes to the number of first generation Irish Americans who served, the number is high in the hundreds of thousands) gave some serious insight into the social and political background of the post-famine Irish living in the U.S.

“It’s a huge, huge contribution. What motivated those men to serve? To put life and limb on the line for an adopted country, an adopted country that at best had been indifferent to them, and at worst, hostile. These are young men—17, 18, 19, 20 years old—who have no concept of war. They’re searching for acceptance socially, and they’re searching for upward mobility. Think about the conditions of the jobs they’ve been doing in factories, and in building the infrastructure of America—the poverty level living, the social atmosphere, the oppression, the discrimination that comes along with those things.

“And what the military is going to promise these guys—well, you get $13 a month, which was a pretty decent wage at that point in time. That’s what well paid factory workers were usually making. That’s enough to support a family, roughly. You’re getting a promise of a good suit of clothes, and whenever they wear out, the military’s going to give you a new one. You’re going to eat three fine meals a day. And you’re going to have adventure, you’re going to see the country. And the girls are going to love you for serving.

“These are the promises the recruiting officers have made since the inception of the United States of America. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get all that, but at the time, those are the promises that are out there. So, you can see where everything starts to add up that this is going to be a good idea.”

As special guest Peter Ryan, the Deputy Consul General of Ireland who traveled down from New York for the event, stated, “It’s really extraordinary, this history of the Irish people in the American Civil War; there were so many who served in the U.S. forces, in many cases before they had a chance to become U.S. citizens. And they still came and showed their devotion to their new country—while at the same time a little bit of their heart remained in Ireland.”

Here’s where you can find more information about IN-Philly, including upcoming events, and how to join.


Irish Kensington Erupts: The Philadelphia Nativist Riots of 1844

Kenneth W. Milano, and his new book, "The Philadelphia Nativist Riots"

Kenneth W. Milano, and his new book, “The Philadelphia Nativist Riots”

It’s no secret that the 18th and 19th century Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States weren’t welcomed with open arms, but the specifics of just how badly they were treated in the City of Brotherly Love may surprise you.

In Kenneth Milano’s new book, “The Philadelphia Nativist Riots,”  he documents one of the darker, and lesser-known, periods in Philadelphia history. At his book launch at St. Michael’s Church on North Second Street Thursday evening, Milano gave a two-hour talk to a rapt crowd of over 100 people. His chronicle reveals the events of May 6th through May 8, 1844, when the neighborhood of Kensington was at the epicenter of violent unrest between the recently formed Nativist Party and the increasing number of Irish Catholic immigrants in the area.

As Milano tells it, Kensington was ripe for just such an explosion.

“With all the Catholic communities forming here, the opposite side of the coin, the Protestants, were also organizing. They saw the immigration of the Irish Catholics as detrimental…this was before the potato famine.

“In 1837 the Native American Association was founded in Germantown [this was the first inception of what would become the Nativist Party and was also known as the American Republicans and eventually the Know-Nothings]…also in 1837 you had a very severe downturn in the economy—and like anytime you have a downturn in the economy, you want to point fingers at people and blame them for your troubles…This anger played out into the 1840’s.

“The American Republican Party was founded in 1843, and some of the points they argued were that the Irish Catholics were but country people…they were not educated, they didn’t understand democracy or what being a Republic meant.”

With the 1838 change to Pennsylvania law that allowed all white men 21 years of age and over to vote, and the ability to become a U.S. citizen after living in America for 5 years, the power to create change in government was shifting. Kensington was an “old district,” settled in the 1730’s and boasting a large number of families claiming relatives who had fought in the American Revolution. They didn’t want to see their power diminished by the voting choices of these new, non-native born Americans.

“So, you had the economic problems upsetting folks, you had the suffrage problem…and then the big issue was the King James Bible. In the 1830’s, Harrisburg passed a law that said the King James Bible was a required textbook to read in the public schools. And Catholics in Philadelphia were not so happy about reading a Protestant bible. This created a controversy, and the dissent stirred up the feelings among the Nativists.”

It was a meeting of the Nativists on Monday, May 3, 1844 that set the stage for the riots that followed. Milano writes a well-researched, carefully detailed account of the days of chaos and violence that week. He compares “the violence against the Irish Catholics perpetrated during the Kensington Riots of 1844” to “those actions taken by Ireland’s County Armagh’s ‘Peep of Day Boys’ in 1795 at the Battle of the Diamond…[where] the Peep of Day Boys attacked Irish Catholic homes at the ‘peep of day,’ broke open the doors of their homes, smashed anything and everything of value, tossed it out into the street and, in many cases, burnt the houses.”

He notes that the names of the Nativists who were killed or injured were easy to come by, but after all his research, he was unable to locate anything near a complete list of the Irish Catholics who were victims of the violence. Historical records indicate that there were 23 or 24 people total killed, but “the casualties are low estimates, particularly for the Irish wounded, as Philadelphia officials and newspapers at that time were not keeping track of Irish Catholics wounded, nor were the Irish reporting them…Days after the riots ended, authorities were still pulling bodies from burned Irish Catholic homes. Many of the wounded Irish did not seek help from the authorities or local hospitals.”

It’s a fascinating and disturbing account of one of our nation’s early struggles with immigration, the notion of religious freedom, and the idea that all people are created equal.

Kenneth W. Milano has written several other books on the history of local Philadelphia, including “The Hidden History of Kensington and Fishtown.” For more information, or to order “The Philadelphia Nativist Riots,” visit Kenneth’s website.  The setting of the book launch, at St. Michael’s Church, was particularly fitting as St. Michael’s was one of the Catholic Churches completely destroyed during the riots. It was rebuilt in 1847, and stands today as a proud landmark in its Philly neighborhood. For more information, go to St. Michael’s website.


History, News

Remembering Commodore Barry

Joe Tobin of the Emerald Society Pipe Band.

Joe Tobin of the Emerald Society Pipe Band.

With an honor guard of University of Pennsylvania Navy ROTC cadets, an Irish piper, and dozens of churchgoers and representatives from local Irish organizations, the life and accomplishments of Commodore John Barry, revolutionary war hero and father of the US Navy, were remembered again, as they always are on Memorial Day, on Sunday at Old St. Mary’s Church in Philadelphia.

Barry, who was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1745, came to the colonies as a young man with a long history at sea to offer his service to the new American Congress. The government bought his ship, the Black Prince, and renamed it Alfred. Lt. John Paul Jones hoisted the first American flag in its rigging.

Barry took over the Lexington, a ship with 14 guns, which sailed out in March 1776 and barely a week later, engaged in battle with the British man-of-war Liverpool, which he captured and brought into Philadelphia. Over the course of the next few years– the Revolutionary War years–Barry served valiantly in several campaigns, including on land in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. In 1780. Barry and his men captured three enemy vessels and he was later wounded in battle.

After the war, Barry was appointed number one on the list of Captains in the US Navy, his commission signed by General George Washington.

He died at 58, and was buried in the graveyard of his parish church, St. Mary’s, the second Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. Built in 1763 as an adjunct to the city’s oldest Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s is celebrating its 250th birthday this year. Archbishop Charles Chaput, head of the Philadelphia archdiocese, co-celebrated Sunday’s Mass with Pastor, Msgr. Paul A. DiGirolamo.

View our photos of the day. 


Old St. Mary’s Church Celebrates 250 Years

Old St. Mary's

Old St. Mary’s

For a pastor, every church has its challenges, and its unique rewards. The Rev. Msgr. Paul A. DiGirolamo has been a pastor before, at St. Joan of Arc parish in Kensington, but for the past five years he has overseen the day-to-day running of one of the most treasured churches in Philadelphia, if not the nation. Its cemetery is a who’s who of historical figures, not the least of which is Commodore John Barry—who was born in Ireland’s County Wexford, emigrated to America, and would become known throughout American history as the father of the U.S. Navy.

Old St. Mary’s is marking its 250th anniversary on Sunday, and hosting a Memorial Day weekend observance to celebrate the life of the illustrious Commodore Barry.

Msgr. DiGirolamo is a South Philly native with a master’s degree in history from Villanova. He is also the judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which oversees matrimonial cases. Like any priest, Msgr. DiGirolamo has pastoral responsibilities—masses, baptisms, funerals—but he is keenly aware that the church is also a landmark.

“I might not be dealing with 3,000 families in a large suburban parish,” he says, “but I’m running a smaller operation, and I’m doing it myself. We’re open most of the time—we’re part of the tour.” Administrative skills are required, but, he adds, “the master’s in history helps, too.”

From the outside, Msgr. DiGirolamo observes, Old St. Mary’s can seem unassuming. An entry on describes it best: “The facade of the building is flat and made of brick.” But the listing goes on to say: “The church’s interior, and especially the balcony, is captivating and worth a visit. A revealing slice of religion in early America awaits.”

That’s precisely how Msgr. DiGirolamo believes visitors respond to the worship space of Old St. Mary’s. “First, they are struck by the beauty of the church,” he says. “Given the fact that it reflects different renovations, it is quite beautiful, and no one expects that. On the outside, most people don’t know it is a church. There’s just an added dimension here that a lot of parishes don’t have.”

Sunday offers a unique opportunity to visit Old St. Mary’s. The 250th anniversary observance begins with a commemorative Mass, starting at 11 a.m., and celebrated by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Msgr. DiGirolamo. After Mass, a procession led by members of the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band and the University of Pennsylvania ROTC Honor Guard will make a stop outside the church for a reading at the Commodore Barry Plaque, and will continue on to the commodore’s gravesite, where a wreath laying ceremony will take place.

Several prominent organizations will take part, including Irish societies from the Philadelphia irish Center/Commodore Barry Club, the Commodore Barry Club of Brooklyn, the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and the American Catholic Historical Society.

History, News

Prayers for the Hunger Strikers

hungerstrikergloucester20130510In the summer of 1981, 10 Irish republican prisoners held by the British in Long Kesh Prison made their mark on the long history of “the Troubles” through the simple, yet tragic, act of starving themselves to death in protest against the government’s refusal to accord them political prisoner status and respect their basic human rights.

Northern Ireland has come a long way in the years since, notably with the culmination of the peace process in 2007. Still, more than 30 years later, the sacrifice of hunger strike leader Bobby Sands and comrades is still remembered around the world—and in our own back yard.

Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians John Barry Division in National Park, Gloucester County, took to the streets on Sunday for a short march from their club on Columbia Boulevard to St. Matthew’s Church just a few blocks away. Escorted by pipers and drummers, the marchers held simple, whitewashed wooden Celtic crosses inscribed with the names of the dead, the length of their hunger strike, and the dates of their death. They processed into the church, and celebrated a short, simple Mass, in memory of those who gave their last full measure.

The march was once sponsored by the local division of Irish Northern Aid, of which Joe Bilbow was a member. When the county INA chapter ceased to exist, Bilbow resurrected the observance in 1990, when he became the charter president of the Barry AOH division.

“I made a promise that we would never forget our Irish history,” says Bilbow, now the division’s Freedom for All Ireland chairman. “Ten men gave their lives for Irish freedom. We remember that.”

The peace process has gone a long way toward healing old wounds, Bilbow acknowledges, “but it wasn’t easy to get where we are today.” The sacrifice of those 10 men, he says, played a important role in the evolution of Northern Ireland. As an organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians remains committed to a non-violent political solution. But at the same time, Bilbow says, the Gloucester Hibernians believe it’s important to commemorate this critical chapter in the region’s long, bloody history. “We don’t make it political,” Bilbow says, simply. “We just do it to remember our honored dead.”

We have photos from the afternoon. Check them out, above.

History, News

Easter Rising Commemorated

The 69th Irish Brigade fires a salute at Joseph McGarrity's grave.

The 69th Irish Brigade fires a salute at Joseph McGarrity’s grave.


To the sounds of bagpipes, several dozen people, many members of the AOH, Clan na Gael and Irish Northern Aid, marched through Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon on Sunday afternoon to remember a fight that, to them at least, has never ended.

Every year, the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, which marked the stop-and-start beginning of the Irish Republic, comes alive again, and mingles with the memories of the 10 young hunger strikers in Maze Prison (Long Kesh) who died in 1981 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, ironically, died just this week, refused their demand that they be accorded special status as paramilitary prisoners.

At the grave of Philadelphia-based Irish republican financier Joseph McGarrity, Sean Conlon, a Sinn Fein councillor from County Monaghan who lived for 14 years in Delaware County, read from the Proclamation of Independence. The document, calling for the British to return Ireland to the Irish, was originally read outside Dublin’s General Post Office by Irish leader Padraig Pearse. Earlier, at the gravesite of “Dynamite” Luke Dillon, an Irish immigrant from Philadelphia who waged a literally explosive campaign in London in an effort to bring the war for independence to British doorsteps, Conlon referred to “the unfinished business of 1916,” a reference to the divided Ireland that continues nearly 100 years later.

Though the violence is largely gone and Ireland “some would say has been normalized,” said Conlon, the struggle won’t be over until “we end the partition and achieve a united Ireland, a new Republic based on the principles of the proclamation read in 1916.”

See our photo essay of the event.

Genealogy, History

Who’s Your Granny?

My great-great grandmother, Susan Virginia Thursday Victoria Ridgeway Riley, and her daughter Pearl Estella Angeline Hazel Riley Parker

My great-great grandmother, Susan Virginia Thursday Victoria Ridgeway Riley, and her daughter Pearl Estella Angeline Hazel Riley Parker

For over two years, I’ve been contemplating this genealogy column. Contemplating it, mind you, not actually writing it. Denise and Jeff have been encouraging it, giving me carte blanche to write about whatever genealogical topic pops into my head—but never pressuring. Dublin and Philadelphia’s own fiddler, Paraic Keane, even unknowingly came up with the title, “Who’s Your Granny?” in a completely unrelated conversation with the Philadelphia Ceili Group’s Anne McNiff; as soon as I heard it, I claimed it in the name of Irish Philadelphia.

And, now, with the most Irish of all days just a little over a week away, it is finally time. Welcome to the first official genealogy column of Irish Philly.

Last week I made my first trip to the Philadelphia Archives, down on Chestnut Street between 9th and 10th. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to venture into for a very long time, but it was a talk by my friend and genealogist Deborah Large Fox that finally got me in the building. The topic was “Grandma Was a What?” and focused on collecting and preserving family stories. Although the lecture was for a general audience, the subject could have been created for Irish family research. Who is better at telling stories and passing them down than the Irish? It was the stories I heard as a child about my Riley ancestors that first got me hooked on genealogy—great-great grandfather Samuel Riley fought for both sides in the Civil War, starting out for the South, getting captured by the North, escaping and returning to the South…and then after it was all over, receiving two pensions, one from the Union and one from the Confederacy.

And, as Deb Fox pointed out, “Every family story has a nugget of truth.” My great-great grandfather did indeed file for pensions from both the North and the South, but the truth was a little more complicated, and less glorified, than the story. I found Samuel’s Virginia pension file online at the Library of Virginia’s Civil War Guide.  And then, a few years later, while searching, I found that a Samuel Riley, living in Virginia, had filed for a Union pension and cited a Pennsylvania unit. Using the information from that source, I went to the National Archives Military Records, and sent away for those records. Included in the file was a letter written by his daughter Eugenia stating that “he was with Co. B. 4th Pa Cavalry But a short time before he was wounded he is not able to get about now with 9 nine children all too small to help them self & a sick wife I would be so glad if you would use your influence in the pension office he deserted the Rebel Army & joind the U.S. Army & the people here won’t have a thing to do with him.”

Apparently, Samuel went off to join the 4th Pa Cavalry of his own volition, and was branded a deserter when he returned to Virginia after the war. Many times, the story is a prettier version of the truth, which is the tricky part about genealogy. Every family has skeletons, and when you start digging around in the family bones, you never know what’s going to fall out. When preserving the family record, both the stories and the records have a place.

“Documentation is the cure for a lot of genealogical ills…attribute the story. At least you have the source listed,” Deb explained. “Are records more reliable than stories? Records can create the same whisper down the lane effect. It’s keeping your sources, noting them down, being a skeptic—but you can be a skeptic and still enjoy the stories.”

And when you record the family stories, decide what your purpose is and who your audience will be. Is it for yourself, or for your descendants? Members of the public or living family members? This can make a difference even in the format you choose to use to preserve the history. There are many options out there now beyond just the published narrative. Many researchers set up websites, and encourage input from other branches of the family. Others make DVDs or photo books.

It’s still a complicated business when it comes to revealing an ugly family secret. I have found more than a few in my research—all a matter of public record—and while I strongly believe that the truth should be told, that there is healing in getting it out there all these generations later, I do think it’s important to be sensitive to anyone still living who may be personally affected by having a not-so-long-hidden secret unveiled.

Deb’s talk at the Archives was part of their Friday Genealogy Open House series, and this is a great way to meet up with other researchers. Visitors are encouraged to bring a lunch, and several people I talked to had taken the train in to Philly, which eliminated the cost and problem of finding parking. For more information, check out their website: Philadelphia Archives: Friday Genealogy Open Houses. And now that I’ve finally made it inside, I’m planning many more return visits to finally get to the bottom of my own Philadelphia ancestors’ mysteries.

For more great information, check out Deborah Large Fox’s genealogy blogs: Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors! and her newest, Spilling the Family Beans.