On the one hand, the Great Hunger in Ireland and the Dust Bowl in the United States would seem to have little in common. On the other hand, well … you’d be wrong.
True, The Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mór, in the 1840s—commonly known as the potato famine, but it was more complicated than that—resulted in the death by starvation of a million Irish people, and the emigration of a million more. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, while incredibly tragic, resulted in the deaths of comparatively few—roughly 7,000—but also resulted in new migration patterns amounting in the tens of thousands of Americans, many of them to California, and unparalleled poverty.
But it’s not as simple as that, says Bill McCray, volunteer with a background in training and development and facilitator of a new two-week virtual Irish Diaspora Center study group called “The History of An Gorta Mór and the Dust Bowl.”
The group meets by Zoom Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, August 4, at 8:30 p.m.
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.
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.
With the notable exception of those heroic souls who are working through the coronavirus pandemic—from health care professionals to cops and medics to grocery store clerks—all the rest of us are, or should be, keeping a safe distance from each other.
As a consequence of the need for physical distancing, millions have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs. Some people were hanging on by their fingernails as it was, before the outbreak. Now, those same people are—and there simply is no better word for it—desperate.
“We know that people normally have enough to get them through a couple of weeks, a month at most, says Emily Norton Ashinhurst, executive director of the Delaware County-based Irish Diaspora Center. “If you look at studies across America, the vast majority of people living in the United States don’t have enough to pay a $400 emergency expense. So that says, we’re living from paycheck to paycheck, and we recognize that losing that paycheck is going to be tough.”
In the case of the Philadelphia-area Irish community, many of those people aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance, government food assistance or other benefits because of the types of visas they hold—or simply because they are undocumented. They’ve slipped through the cracks.
A trip to Ireland is always a thrill, but here’s one for teens—rising high school sophomore, junior and senior, to be specific—that will leave lasting memories, not just of places, but of the peers they’re going to meet along away.
It’s the Summer Immersion Program, sponsored by Philly’s Irish Diaspora Center, and it takes place from June 21 to July 3.
This is the second such trip sponsored by the center, and organizers hope it will be even bigger and better than last year.
Some of the kids who went to Ireland for the trip last summer had been to Ireland before; some hadn’t. But it’s a cinch that even if they’d gone before, they had never seen Ireland in quite the same way.
“We’re trying to show them a different experience from what they might have seen previously in Ireland,” says Center Executive Director Emily Norton Ashinhurst. “I think the beauty of this program is that the students who are participating get a feel for Ireland that you don’t get when you’re on even the best bus tour.
“Our young people last year were able to meet up with young people in Ireland, and form networks and connections that they continue to maintain today. They’re still talking to friends they made over there. That’s really the point of the trip—to give them connections back to Ireland and build those connections for the long term.”
What’s in a name?
In the case of the newly rechristened Irish Diaspora Center, quite a lot.
Formerly the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia, the Diaspora Center has been broadening its mission for quite some time. The new name is just a recognition of all the ways in which the mission has evolved over that time.
“In doing our strategic planning with our board and setting the course for the next three years of the organization, we recognized that we serve a much broader base than just Irish immigrants,” says center Executive Director Emily Norton Ashinhurst. “So we wanted the name to represent the broader base of who we serve.”
The longtime Upper Darby-based organization originally began as the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Center and then switched over to the Immigration Center, but for quite a while center activities have expanded. For example, the senior luncheon has served Irish immigrants for years, as has the free legal immigration clinic, but in the meantime the mission has expanded to include, for example, a youth program known as Foróige and a genealogy program which serves the broader community.
“None of the services that we provide are changing,” says Ashinhurst. “This really was to more adequately reflect our mission and the work that we do.”