Friday, October 31, 2014

Seeking a Sense of Place

While much can be gleaned, researching family records ahead of a trip overseas, paper trails of ancestors alone cannot provide a full revelation of what daily life was like for the multiple “greats” in our family tree. On our recent trip to Ireland in pursuit of my husband’s roots there, we were glad to be able to walk the paths in the rural homelands where these immigrant ancestors originated.

In the past few days, I’ve been focusing on what we found while walking the graveyard of a particular church in the Diocese of Limerick. This church was not on our original itinerary, but when we pulled into Ballyagran—the village where our Flanagan ancestors once lived—a current resident pointed us in the direction of this graveyard.

It turns out this church—now in ruins—had a long and varied history. It once was part of the Corcomohide parish—namesake of the civil parish as well—but was carved out of that jurisdiction in 1719.

Originally on land once belonging to the MacEnerys, the ruling family in the area, the place was once known as Castletown MacEnery. By 1703, the MacEnery land was obtained by Captain George Conyers. At that point, the land was referred to as Castletown Conyers.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the parish became known as Ballyagran—the place name that our Flanagan ancestors carried with them to Chicago when they emigrated from their homeland in the 1850s.

The ruins in the graveyard were apparently from the church building in use when the parish was part of Corcomohide. An original building from 1200 was destroyed during a war in 1302, and the replacement was not built until 1410. Whether those walls still standing are part of the remains from the 1410 building, I can’t tell. Unlike what I was able to find at other graveyards we visited, I couldn’t locate any markers explaining this place’s history—although after our return, I discovered that just down the road from the church was the very castle from which the graveyard took its name.

According to a wonderful heritage project undertaken by the Diocese of Limerick, the graveyard at Castletown is considered “large.” Despite priding ourselves on locating a headstone dated from the late 1700s, the earliest burial still able to be read was apparently that of a Cornelius Ryan, who died in 1737.

When we were walking the paths of the graveyard, my husband took several photographs of headstones, even though those they commemorated were not related to us. My hope is to post these photos to Find A Grave—although apparently there is no official entry for that cemetery currently, so I’ll first have to determine what the official name of the place should be.

To give you some perspective on the photographs I’ve included from the last few days, I’m including some pictures to help you gain your bearings. The cemetery itself sat back from the road—a modest two-lane country road. The side road leading up to the graveyard seemed to continue further—to the castle that “Castletown” refers to, oh duh!, as we later found out—but since it looked like a downpour was imminent, we hustled to park and see what we could find.

In the middle of the graveyard sat the church ruins, roofless and overgrown with trees. Closer to the street side of the property, there seemed to be more recent burials, but on the back half of the property, and inside the church walls as well, were the older burials.

Clearly legible headstones alternated with more faded stones. Those which I can read, I’ll transcribe and post on Find A Grave. But it was one section of low-lying, jagged rocks over which I grieve. Could our family members be buried under those silent markers? Who knows?

The church walls, themselves, were full of features to wonder at. The stone work, still standing after centuries, was now interwoven with massive roots, branches and vines. Narrow windows let in light to the darker recesses of the building—despite the fact that the building no longer boasted a roof of its own, the trees furnished an adequate canopy to block much of the daylight on this gloomy day.

It was apparent that people were buried here from all over the parish—witness the Deely memorial I posted a few days ago, mentioning the townland of Rusheen, part of this County Limerick parish which is actually located in neighboring County Cork. As for our Flanagans and Molloys, however, there was not a sign. Whether their relatives moved to other parishes, I can’t tell—though more tedium in cranking through microfilmed records for those neighboring parishes might help tell the tale.

Leaving the church ruins at Castletown was a somber yet edifying moment. While we didn’t find what we came to see—any headstones for our family’s surnames—we couldn’t escape without a sense of the simple life led by the folks who found this to be their final resting place.

All photographs from the Catholic Church ruins and graveyard at Castletown (sometimes referred to as Castletown-Conyers) in County Limerick, Ireland. Photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Coaxing and Cajoling

There are ways to convince reluctant headstones from abandoned cemeteries to yield their secrets. While we weren’t equipped to do rubbings on our foray through the old graveyards of our ancestral townlands in Ireland, apparently my husband was still inspired to do some magic, just with his camera work alone.

Remember this headstone? The one on the far right, with the ivy gracefully ascending its side?

Headstones at Catholic church ruins at Castletown in the church parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick Ireland

When I first saw that photograph, I was sure I would never be able to figure out what it was trying to tell us. What I hadn’t realized—not, at least, until we returned home and I started reviewing all the material we had accumulated on our research trip—was all that my husband had accomplished during our visits to the cemeteries.

At the Castletown graveyard, which we visited after driving through tiny Ballyagran, the Catholic parish my husband’s Flanagan ancestors once called home, we had arrived at about four o’clock in the gloom of an impending storm. While I contented myself with wandering the paths between family plots, seeking any sign of our Flanagan or Malloy surnames, my husband was busying himself with his photographic duties. Wandering into the more forbidding corners where wimps like me preferred not to tread, he ferreted out the oldest and most impossible subjects for some of his portraits.

I’m not sure how he did it—perhaps the variations in lighting from the shifting clouds overhead worked to his advantage—but he was able to coax the words out of that one recalcitrant block.

1791 memorial to Timothy Sullivan erected by his son John at the Castletown Conyers graveyard near Ballyagran in County Limerick Ireland

Here Lyeth the
Body of Thimo
Thy Sullivan
Who Departed
This Life Octo
Ber the 11th ——
Aged 55 Years
May he Rest in Peace Amen

The only challenge I had now, after the assistance from this more revealing photographic angle, was to determine the year. I could see the last two digits were ’91—but which century was it?

As if he were prescient, my husband had anticipated this difficulty and arranged to take a close up shot of that segment of the headstone. Thankfully, the contrast was enough to tell: it was a headstone from 1791. Furthermore, it provided credit for the family member who had erected the memorial.

detail from 1791 Timothy Sullivan headstone found at Castletown cemetery in County Limerick Ireland

Erectd by his Son Iohn

I’ll assume that “Iohn” really meant John. While those two details won’t necessarily help any family-history-seeking Sullivans to make precise connections, it gives us a chance to add one sliver of information to the overarching body of crowdsourced knowledge aggregated at places like Find A Grave.

Besides, for a memorial to an Irishman born about 1736, it makes this the oldest still-legible headstone we’ve found on our own, so far, in Ireland.

Catholic church ruins next to graveyard at Castletown Conyers in County Limerick Ireland

Photographs showing the placement and details for the Sullivan headstone were obtained from the graveyard at the Catholic Church ruins in Castletown (sometimes called Castletown-Conyers) in County Limerick, Ireland. Photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

No Longer Speaking

Yesterday, in her blog, Genealogy à la carte, Gail Dever shared a press release she had recently received. From, it commemorated the crowdsourced website’s milestone of having uploaded one million headstone photographs.

While one million may seem like an immense number, when you extrapolate that number over the span of the worldwide task before us, you realize this is just a small fraction of what still needs to be done. Yet it is a worthy accomplishment.

In describing their mission, noted,
[I]t is becoming harder—if not impossible—to read the inscriptions these stones originally contained. By archiving the images and transcriptions, these important records are saved.

That thought—of the disappearance of once-readable headstone inscriptions—was not lost upon me when our family walked the graveyards of our ancestral heritage in Ireland this month. We snapped what photos we could of legible monuments, but stood, wondering, in front of mute reminder of that fact. Could that blank slate have once been the headstone commemorating our ancestor? Unless someone transcribed any record of those vanished inscriptions from a prior century, we’ll have no way to know.

headstones at the Castletown Conyers cemetery in the Catholic parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick

The ravages of time are not the only challenges facing these engraved records—whether in Canada or Ireland. Add vandals to that list—yes, even in a country like Ireland which boasts a relatively low crime rate—and the deterioration is accelerated. When I queried various online forums about the Castletown graveyard in County Limerick, someone shared a link to a 2011 article in the Limerick Leader concerning the “absolutely appalling state” of the Conyers family tomb there in which the human remains contained within two coffins had been scattered about the premises. The newspaper was reporting on the complaint made to the County Council by the witness to the desecration.

Standing, this month, with my husband in that quiet Irish graveyard—so far from any noise of traffic or neighborhood—it was hard to imagine such mistreatment happening in this bucolic location. Apparently, though, vandals know no limitations of borders.

The ruins of the churchyard confessed to us the ambience of the kindler, gentler ravages of time—only Time, which inevitably would sweep over all and make even the clearest announcements eventually mumble with weathered undulations.

Headstones at the Castletown Conyers cemetery in Catholic parish Ballyagran in County Limerick

The realization only galvanizes my resolve to bolster the cause of those dedicated to preserving these messages. "Etched in stone" may sound like a permanent solution, but even something as innocuous as drips of water leave their mark. I think of books I’ve seen in collections like the Allen County Public Library, where forward-thinking researchers from seventy or a hundred years ago went out and transcribed what records could be found in local cemeteries. I’m thankful for such projects. Now, those details copied onto paper are sometimes the only records left, when the stones that bore the originals have failed us.

Leaving the Castletown graveyard and the ruins of the Catholic Church once standing in its center was, for me, a melancholy parting. I couldn’t help think of those jagged shards of rock, barely clearing the ground, but obviously announcing that someone was buried in that spot. Could that have been our ancestor? Unless someone preserved that record on paper in a yet-undiscovered book, we’ll never know.

Headstones in the cemetery at Castletown Conyers in Catholic parish Ballyagran in County Limerick

Photographs, above, piece together a panorama of the headstones found within the ruins of the Catholic church once standing at the Castletown-Conyers graveyard in County Limerick, Ireland; photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Read But Not Understood

Depending on where we traveled in Ireland, we either predominantly heard English—although the variety of accents sometimes had us wondering—or a mix of both English and another language. That language, we assumed, was Irish.

You could see Irish everywhere. Many signs were printed first in Irish, then followed by English. And that would make sense in a young country still struggling to regain its own identity.

But “young” isn’t the term I’d have in mind when thinking about a language with a history like Irish. After all, in its primitive form, it had been inscribed in sites found throughout Ireland, as well as around the west coast of Great Britain, from as early as the fourth century.

On our very first day in Ireland, after we took the bus from the airport to the Dublin train station to complete our journey to Cork, the station announcements came over the public address system first in Irish, then in English. Reading them concurrently on the LED system at the front of the train while each Irish announcement was played was an interesting experience in matching the written word with the phonetics.

When we took our travels away from the cities and into the rural areas of counties Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry—especially in County Kerry—we began to see more signs of this language considered the native tongue of Ireland. And yet, when we walked the cemeteries, it seemed a surprise to encounter a headstone engraved in Irish rather than English.

Because I know very little about the Irish language, I have no way to understand what those headstones were saying. Of course, it is easy to presume the stones were announcing the name of the departed, along with significant dates and perhaps relationships.

With one readable headstone, I tried my hand at Google Translate. Though the program includes the option of translation from Irish, what I typed into the app yielded not much more than gibberish. Either I transcribed some letters incorrectly, or the system had some glitches, I reasoned, so I tried a reverse process. Guessing the word “Feabra” might mean February, I tried entering February in the English box in Google Translate to see what the Irish result would yield. Surprise: February in Irish is spelled Feabhra, not Feabra. Perhaps we were dealing with a dyslexic engraver. Or a poor speller.

If I were able to intuit some of the other words on the headstone, I might have guessed my way through—and found some more misspellings—but I’m afraid the Irish language still has me mystified. Still, judging by the patterns of the words, the stone served as memorial for three people, who presumably died between the twelfth of February in 1950 and the tenth of March, ten years later. Whatever the details, the record is still there for the world to read at the graveyard of Castletown-Conyers in the Catholic parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick.

1950s headstone engraved in Irish language found at Castletown Catholic church ruins in southern County Limerick

 Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Some Can Be Read…

Walking the church ruins of Castletown in County Limerick during our recent trip to Ireland, my husband and I came upon just the right conditions to capture some century-old engravings. Just before arriving, when we drove through tiny Ballyagran, the townland and Catholic parish from which my husband’s second great-granduncle William Flanagan had once proudly proclaimed his heritage, we encountered a typical brief Irish drizzle. By the time we stopped to ask for directions and drive further up the lane to the cemetery, the rain had stopped, but the sky was still gloomily overcast. Perfect, it turned out, for taking photographs in a graveyard.

While neither of us is related to the subjects of these memorials, just as yesterday, I want to share what we found. Maybe some others will find themselves led here through a fortunate exchange on Google and see these photos as beneficial for their own family history research.

Erected by
John McCann of Caherhennessy
In memory of his father
Bartholomew McCann
Who died 15th of July 1901
Aged 84 years
And of his mother
Catherine McCann
Who died 2nd of December 1885
Aged 74 years
May they rest in peace
Mary Bridget Biggane
Died June 9, 1949

Some of the headstones provide guidance in piecing together two or three generations of family trees. Some entries, however, introduce their own mysteries. How, for instance, is Mary Bridget Biggane connected to the McCann family? By the different appearance of the engraving of her name in comparison to the previous entries, it seems as if this addition is an afterthought. Could it be a married daughter? Almost an entire lifetime removed from her predecessors, perhaps it is more realistic to suppose she was a grandchild.

And yet, others here in Ireland go so far beyond the kind of expectations I’ve learned to have, coming from the perspective of someone used to wandering the cemeteries of my own country. Complete with dates and place names, some stones are an abbreviated family history in engraved format, preserved in one public place for all to read and know.

Erected by
John Chawke and his children
In sad and loving memory
Of his wife and their mother
Who departed this life
At Kilmeedy
April 16th 1913
Aged 72 years
John died Oct 19 1920
James Fitzgerald died March 3 1948
Bridget Fitzgerald (nee Chawke) died Feb 17 1962
Catherine Fitzgerald died Aug 1 1972
John Fitzgerald died July 5 1995

Photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sharing Someone Else’s Story

While we weren’t able to find any headstones confirming our family’s history when we walked the graveyards alongside church ruins of their home parishes in Ireland—not, at least, among the legible ones there—we did find several old stones which clearly showed their message. Some of them, as I later found out when scrolling through microfilm records when we stopped at Dublin, featured surnames that repeatedly appeared in parish documents.

Though these do not represent any surnames from my husband’s Irish roots, the least we can do is share what we found, in case anyone else is searching for details on these lines. The following photographs are of headstones found next to the ruins of the Catholic Church in the townland of Castletown in County Limerick, near the border with County Cork.

Some of these stones revealed family tales intertwined with the engraved names—some yielding details on many generations; some, like this one below, providing at least a snapshot of the family constellation back in the early 1800s.

1836 grave marker erected by Mary and John Quilty for Michael Quilty in County Limerick Ireland

Gloria in Excelsis Deo
Erected by
Mary Quilty + son John
In memory of her Husband
Michael Quilty
Late of Castletown
Who Depd life April 7th A.D. 1836
Ag’d 63 Yrs
May his Soul rest in peace Amen

Some headstones had lettering so clear, it was hard to imagine it surviving intact in such superb condition since the early 1800s. And it likely didn’t. This headstone, for instance, appears to have had the indentations left from the original engraving re-touched in black. Once again, the record provides not only a snapshot of the one deceased member, but also a group record of the family constellation.

Memorial for Deely family members buried at Castletown in County Limerick Ireland

Erected by
Dan Deely of Rusheen
In Memory of his Father
Wllm Deely Who Depd life
June 1st 1828 Ag’d 57ys Also his Mother
Mary Deely Who Depd life May 6th
1841 Agd 53 yrs And his Brother
Willm Depd life Augst 12th 1828 Agd 27 yrs
And his Belovd Wife Ellen Deely
Depd life March 14th 1862
Agd 57 yrs
May their Souls rest in peace Amen

Some stones didn’t fare as well—or at least, didn’t have anyone to look after properly preserving them through the centuries. This stone, possibly missing some details, still included the timeless request to share in the burden of prayer for those now departed.

Please pray for deceased members of Byrnes family of Castletown Conyers in County Limerick Ireland

Please pray for deceased members of Byrnes family

The most difficult ones to encounter in this search for our family were those which were near impossible to read. Could we be walking away from a stone marking the resting place of an ancestor, and yet not know it? Some, clear enough to make out the lettering, were obviously engraved in Irish, not English. Others were worn enough that it was next to impossible to determine which language was being used. And some, sadly, had ceased telling their story at all.

old headstone from church ruins at Castletown in County Limerick Ireland

All photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Back Home—Now What?

It is certain that Time never stays put while we’re out having fun. Just looking at the pile of mail accumulated in my absence is enough to convince me of that.

While I was away—admittedly, having the time of my life touring the homeland of my husband’s ancestors in Ireland—stuff I hated to miss was still happening. Jim Baker taught his brick-wall-smashing “Seven Strategies for Finding the Hard Ones” live at our local genealogical society’s monthly meeting, which I missed—and I was the one setting this one up! Attorney Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, made a rare West Coast appearance to teach an all-day seminar near my home—unfortunately just in time for me to head to Ireland. Apparently, nobody got the memo that I would not be able to attend, for none of these events was rescheduled for my benefit.

I did get the chance to catch one event, though: an all-day, hands-on DNA workshop sponsored by a neighboring genealogical society. Barely unpacked, hardly finished with that pile of laundry from our travels—not to mention, still digging out from under that avalanche of vacation mail—I’m spending the day today, spreadsheets in hand, peppering representatives of ISOGG with questions about why my husband’s and my brother’s Y-DNA tests don’t seem to match anyone else’s results. The ever-present question, “Now what?” will once again spring from my lips.

As if my husband and I weren’t travel weary enough, we will also be planning our next research trip. My mother’s gracious cousin in Florida has revealed her Southern-hospitality self in oft-repeated invitations to come visit her in the land of my maternal grandmother’s roots. This is a line that holds some historical significance for the state of Florida, as my third great-grandfather was a signer of the original Florida constitution. I have long promised myself I would research his life story further. Come this January, it looks like I will have that opportunity.

But what about right now? After touring the ancestral homeland of my father-in-law’s eight Irish great-grandparents, I’ve accumulated tons of notes and photographs. The main task is to decipher all that penciled-in chicken scratch of my own to see if I can connect any of the dots, and hopefully draw some conclusions about what I found. Sometimes during those three weeks, I found myself scribbling madly, just trying to take down all the details I was finding. Seldom was there time for reflection—it was full speed ahead, as long as I was where the repositories were. “Read through microfilms now, reflect on them later” had been my mantra that final week in Dublin. Now begins the pay-back time, when I need to make good on my promises.

Sometimes, schedules can’t be helped. Limited time at the Dublin research centers meant maximizing all available time to use the materials and documents there before closing hours. At the risk of discovering something I might have missed—with the possibility of no recourse but to return to seek more—I had to do what could be done while doors were open.

Whether any patterns, details or clues emerge, I can’t yet tell. Hopefully, what’s in these notes will guide me to my next step in researching this Irish branch of our family tree. Whether that does or not, though, I know I have two other projects awaiting my attention: three sets of DNA tests for three family subjects—and that number is soon to rise—and some serious archive time in Florida for my McClellan line in January.

What’s next? When it comes to family history research, it seems there’s always another project clamoring for attention.

Photograph: Bridge over the south fork of the River Lee at the entrance to the beautiful University College Cork campus in Ireland, where our daughter is attending classes this semester. Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.

Friday, October 24, 2014

When Your Story Touches My Story

Sometimes I can’t get a handle on how fast time flies. Granted, I was thick in the midst of research in Dublin last week, but right in the middle of it all—microfilms, census records, and property tax binders, oh my!—a thought suddenly occurred to me: what became of Donna Grescoe?

If you have been following along here at A Family Tapestry—for quite a while, in fact—you may remember the name Donna Grescoe from my series on my father-in-law’s letters home during World War II. I first ran across her name in a letter Frank Stevens sent home to his folks in Chicago, about one year after his post-Pearl Harbor enlistment in the Navy.

Knowing the surname Grescoe didn’t figure in the Stevens family genealogy, at the time I figured it was yet another mention of a high school girlfriend kindly dropping the brave sailor an encouraging line from home. Despite Frank’s genuine surprise at having received a letter from her, I somehow missed the value of that clue. Although friends, associates and neighbors can reveal hints to the observant genealogical researcher, I set this one aside as a case of an acquaintance too tenuous to lead to any further family details.

That was in 2011, as I worked my way through the piles of letters and memorabilia that had just been passed down to me from the Stevens and Tully families in Chicago. After transcribing the entire collection of letters written home by Frank Stevens over both his Navy enlistment and his subsequent Air Force career, I moved on to sort through the other resources the family had saved.

Because Frank’s mom, Agnes Tully Stevens, had once been a touring violinist, I wasn’t surprised to see concert programs tucked away in this packet of papers she considered important. But when the name Donna Grescoe resurfaced, I had to find out why her name kept appearing in our family’s important papers.

That’s what prompted me to find out who Donna Grescoe was: a child prodigy violinist who, with wholehearted community support, had been sent on scholarship from Winnipeg to study at a conservatory in Chicago. Because she was only eleven years of age at the time of her great adventure, she needed a place to stay during her year abroad. As it turned out, her home away from home was that of the Stevens family. Our family.

Working my way through Agnes Tully Stevens’ personal papers, I transcribed the program she had saved of Donna’s farewell recital in Chicago—which included a list of local benefactors who, along with support from her own hometown, had made her studies at the conservatory possible. My final post on the Chicago chapter of the young Donna Grescoe’s life described a children’s book written about her life. And yes, the book included the detail of Donna’s stay with our family.

As a follow up to these blog posts, there is a “rest of the story” that I need to include here. First, there was the wonderful surprise of a package I received from a Family Tapestry reader, Intense Guy, who with his research prowess had managed to turn up a copy for me of that 1951 book, The Little Magic Fiddler. Inside, there was indeed mention of Agnes and her husband Will, along with all but the oldest son of the Stevens family. Oh, how we wish we could have read aloud to our Uncle Ed author Lyn Cook’s description of each child as Donna arrived in Chicago and met her host family.

Every time I work on a blog post here, I inevitably research far more than I end up publishing. It was no different in working with these posts involving Donna Grescoe. I had found several old newspaper articles announcing her concert tours, reviewing her performances, and—as I advanced to current times—describing her more recent professional ventures. I did end up contacting a musician who was working closely with Donna, and in the process of exchanging emails, learned of Donna’s recent diagnosis of cancer.

That was in July of 2012, as I was completing my series of posts spinning off Frank’s mention of Donna’s letters to him. After that point, I moved on to other topics.

Until last week. Then—don’t ask me why this happened in Ireland while I was working on a totally different project—the thought popped into my mind, “Whatever became of Donna?” I Googled her name and was saddened to learn she had passed away not long after I had made that contact with her associate.

If you recall my mentioning Donna Grescoe in my posts during 2011 and 2012, you might be interested in reading the rest of her story. A brief obituary in her hometown Winnipeg newspaper, followed by guest book entries from those whom she had taught or benefitted, provides some personal reflections on just what kind of person she was. Another article from the city of her more recent residence in British Columbia provides a chronology of her life and career. A reflective piece by her younger brother, published in the Winnipeg Free Press, reveals details of career challenges facing a talented young woman making her debut in post-war New York City.

While I stumbled upon the story of Donna Grescoe only as a tangential detail in researching the history of our own family, her story somehow grew on me. Though not family, she represented a chapter in the life of my father-in-law—an acquaintance who, sharing a home with our family for almost a year, kept surfacing in the Stevens’ conversation and correspondence for years afterward. It isn’t often that a genealogical researcher can find details on her family between the covers of a children’s book. Nor does the average family’s history include time spent with individuals whose story can readily be gleaned from multiple newspapers and public records.

More than anything, though, I think this represents a case of “Your Story Touches My Story.” And knowing her story through that lens bestows that intangible sense of connection. It’s a trace of relationship that, though not familial, still confesses that mystical interconnectivity that broadly draws humankind together as family.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stones Without Stories

While researchers grappling with the dearth of genealogical records in Ireland may be disappointed at what they can find, once having traveled the distance to get there, there is always that hope that what is etched in stone will outlive what was once recorded on paper.

Sadly, that is not always so. While the permanency of stone may be admirable—it is, after all, the medium of choice for safekeeping of our remembrances of those long gone—it is wholly dependent on which type of stone is chosen, how it is engraved, and what type of weather conditions it must endure which reveal how long a stone may recount its story.

Recent headstones in Ireland are a treasure. Unlike American headstones, which may simply reveal the dates of birth and death for one individual, Irish memorials we saw from the mid-twentieth century onward sometimes presented an entire family tree for three generations—and listed the townland from which the family originated. As our family toured church graveyards in the various counties of Ireland, we encountered some stones which provided the family story for the deceased, plus a spouse and children—in addition to a parent or in-laws. All on one memorial. The stone might also include a long list of all the remaining family members who contributed to erecting the memorial, thus providing names of still-living grandchildren.

In unfortunate contrast, those headstones we were hoping to find for relatives of my husband’s ancestors—all of whom would have been living in the 1800s—had encountered various difficulties in bringing their stories forward through time. For some, the choice of stone—coupled with the types of lichens of the area which favored the damp, cool weather—insured that any inscriptions would be obliterated by environmental factors. We saw this, again and again, as we walked the gravel groundcover of the Templekelly church ruins above the River Shannon in northern County Tipperary or the grassy Aghadoe graveyard near Killarney in County Kerry.

More heartbreaking than that was to encounter stones of a different type—some of which we found at Templekelly near Ballina, some from the Castletown church ruins near Ballyagran in County Limerick. Tall, flat, dark stones, devoid of any inscription, instead of standing upright, were face down in the dirt—yet, it didn’t appear as if they were dislodged from a previous position, but laid that way originally. I have yet to learn the significance—or fate—of such stones. But I can’t help wonder if any of them once bore the surname of any of the eight family lines we were seeking.

In contrast to those tall stones were the small, chipped flat stones, rising up from the ground in jagged configuration. They were silent reminders that someone was buried beneath them—but who? The sight conjured up vignettes in my mind of those too impoverished to sustain life through even rudimentary items like food—how, then, could their mourners provide adequate memorials for those in death, for whom they couldn’t provide sustenance in life?

While remaining church records of bygone years in Ireland may name the details we seek for baptisms or marriages, there are precious few records identifying details of the deaths of family members. Outside city life, it would be doubtful to find obituaries providing the dates and relationships of those who had passed on in such rural surroundings. Our only hope had been to find some records in the churchyards of our Irish ancestors. In walking through those very places, though, it became clear that this was not to be. The stones which we would expect to divulge their story in places closer to our homes would, in this faraway land, conspire to remain silent in the presence of these encroaching strangers.

Photograph: Headstones alongside the ruins at Templekelly church near Ballina, County Tipperary, reveal the conditions buffeting these monuments over the centuries. White marks visible on the stones are from lichens. The lower left and center of the picture show two of the large, flat stones mentioned above in the textwholly embedded in the gravel, they have no markings showing. Very few of the engravings on the upright stones were legible.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rethinking Those Unavoidable Brick Walls

“Oh, no, a brick wall,” most genealogy researchers exclaim in dismay when they encounter those invisible yet palpable blocks to progress. From that point onward, it is supposed, nothing further may be uncovered on the specific person or line being pursued.

During my three weeks in Ireland, I’ve had some time to re-examine attitudes towards those brick wall research dilemmas. First, of course, I’ve long ago realized that what might amount to a brick wall on an ancestor at one specific point may not always remain so. Stuff turns up. Busy capitalists eager to sell their genealogical research wares come up with yet more old records which handily answer questions about our family history. This is great for those of us willing to revisit sticking points and prod and poke around until we can burst through to new discoveries.

But will there always be more ways to poke around for fresh information? Will there always be more document discoveries?

Think about it. I just spent three weeks in Ireland, looking for more resources to chart eight of my husband’s family lines. I had already made it back to the early 1830s, just using resources findable in the United States. Do you think I was able to push that dateline any further back in time by making a trip to the originating location?

The irony of date discrepancies is not lost on me. In a place where people routinely drive by ruins dating back, at the very least, one thousand years, it is quite unusual to happen upon genealogical material granting entrance to times any earlier than that same 1830 decade. The politics of the era, combined with the likelihood of the culture to see record-keeping concerning the common classes as of less importance, may have contributed to the research challenges we face now. Of course, for the landed gentry of the time, the case may have been different, but that was not, apparently, the calling of the people making up my husband’s heritage in Ireland.

Lack of usable documentation is not the only contributor to my research roadblock. Even if the government overseeing rule of Ireland had seen things differently back then, there would still be a brick wall awaiting me at some point. Think about it: whether your ancestors remained in the well-documented United States earlier than my sticking-spot in 1820s Ireland, at some point, the paper trail would have run out. It might not have happened until before the first United States census—maybe not even in colonial times—but at some point, records kept about most people would have run out.

Eventually, all of us will run out of paper trails to follow. Yes, I know there are some who are fortunate enough to claim descent from some renowned king in the Middle Ages, but not everyone can say that. At least I can’t—not at this point. And there may be no finding of any “missing link” to connect me with such a claim. Ever.

As I cranked through hopelessly-dim filmed copies of two hundred year old crumbling records last week, my mind couldn’t help wandering through such thoughts. People kept saying, “Well, you know…” Records in Ireland, especially of the Catholic persuasion, weren’t really kept before that point. That never-broken chain, winding from child to parent, step by step through the generations, had stopped at that missing link.

I had to ask myself: at what point would I be satisfied with this quest? Would it make everything better if I could just find one more generation preceding that 1820s roadblock? Wouldn’t I then want to press further back in time? If we can conquer the records of one generation, why would we be satisfied to stop before the next generation?

Since my genealogical research is not done for religious purposes—I’ve been smitten by the genealogy bug solely because I have this inexplicable need to know—there is no pressing requirement to keep looking, once the door is shut. But for some reason, I keep wanting to know—to know what lies beyond, who came before, what life was like for that generation.

Likely, the story for those ancestors in 1820s Ireland was that they lived in the same townlands as their parents did. Worked the same land. Lived the same lives.

Or did they? There are, after all, stories of people groups who traveled long distances, or overcame exceptional odds, to end up in the residences where we found them “living the same lives.” Examining Irish history, I became aware of the swirl of ethnic variations present in Ireland over the centuries—not just the British, but the Normans, the Vikings, the Celts, came to this island at one point or another to settle. Even now, I’m aware of Polish and Romanian immigrants adding to the mix.

I may never know the precise details of our family’s story in Ireland. The Y-DNA test for my husband suggests some Viking activity in his case, for that “deep” history. But I will have to make my peace with the gap between 1820-something and the dates of Viking settlement along the coasts of Ireland. There may never be another document discovery to provide me an alternate way around my Irish brick walls. And I will have to accept that.

Facing that fact requires me to clarify just what it is that I’m seeking in this family history pursuit. Not only for my husband’s Irish lines. But for all our family heritage. Genealogy is not just a merry waltz back through the generations, world without end, amen. While it may be a struggle against the forces of time which age and destroy old documents, it is inevitably also a losing battle against the choices which went into deciding what—if anything at all—should be documented. For those powerful enough to claim the right to make that choice, the paper trail may still survive. For those unimportant to The Powers That Be, at some point, there will be no trail to follow.

We cannot step backwards in time indefinitely. Genealogy is not an endless loop. While on its face, that thought may bring disappointment for those of us who continually want to know, “What happened next?” the restrictions that fact places upon us will help us better hone our research expectations.

Some people bridle at the comment, “I’ve finished my family tree.” It is, of course, an impossible task. On the other hand, to come to that realization that it can’t be finished means that you are finished.

That may actually turn out to be a freeing concept. It helps us put our research in a box. It helps us delineate the task for each line. Ultimately, it helps us face up to the need to develop goals in keeping with those limitations.

When I saw that brick wall looming in front of me at the National Library of Ireland, close to the end of my week there, at first it was depressing. It made me realize, however, that while I may not be able to press backward in time any further in Ireland, there are many other lines and projects I’ve yet to conquer. Which is a good thing, for none of us have the luxury of limitless time in which to accomplish even the things which we can achieve.

Old graveyard outside church ruins at Ballina in County Tipperary in Ireland

Photograph: View from graveyard into interior of ruins of Templekelly Church near Ballina in County Tipperary. Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Slow Versus Slower

It's been a long and delightful three weeks we've spent in Ireland—my husband and I, joined later by his two sisters, as we spent time with our daughter, the college student in Cork, and then the full week of genealogical research on our eight Irish family lines—but nevertheless, it's good to be back home.

After an experience like that, I can't help but reflect on what went well about this time away from home, and what turned out to be less than exemplary progress.

In the main, I can safely say as researchers, we've been spoiled by the digitization of records. Say what you may about resources like or even the freely-accessible treasure chest of documents at, you can't beat accessing the very record you are seeking with one click of a "Search" button.

Yes, I know, even so, online research may entail the tedium of going through countless records of people with the same "John Kelly" name and date of birth. That can certainly slow down your progress. But just try your hand at slogging through the faded chicken scratch of an overworked Catholic parish priest serving in the western hinterlands of Ireland just after the rough pre-emancipation years, and you will be quickly disabused of your tendency to label online research "slow."

While some aspects of research progress can't be helped—how am I to know, for instance, whether a specific ancestor will be included in parish record microfilms at the point where I expect him to appear?—I've had some thoughts on how I might approach such a research trip on a second attempt.

First, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about what isn't there, so cut those losses and move on. It was so frustrating to finally get to the County Limerick film roll for the Catholic parish of our Flanagan and Malloy ancestors, set it up in the reader, crank forward to the label listing the entries included, and realize that not only the marriage record for Stephen Malloy and Anna Flanagan fell into the date gaps, but also the baptismal record of their only child's birth. Sometimes, there are ways to access, ahead of time, whether specific dates have been lost from records now available; sometimes not. Some records, by time of filming, were so fragile as to have been unreadable; some records were lost or misplaced. Though some are later recovered and added to collections, that will not always be the case.

I learned to substitute for the disappointment of such findings the more flexible question, "So, what's next?" At least in our case, I had seven more lines to follow up on while we were here.

Once we had bought our airline tickets, I had had a moment of regret, thinking perhaps it would have been better to do the paperwork before embarking on the fieldwork of driving to the sites of our ancestral homes. What if I discovered something which would alter the course of our tour through the countryside of Ireland?

In retrospect, though, I found the hands-on experience up front became a finding aid for me. As I progressed through microfilms of sometimes jumbled collections—jumping from dates, mentions of townlands, parishes, and sacraments of baptism alternating to marriages—I could get my bearings as I remembered the names of neighboring church parishes or townlands. Remembering the names of the areas we had driven through helped orient me to which sections of microfilms were more pertinent to our family's records. And, as it turned out, with the one exception of the Flanagans showing in a neighboring townland to the one I had originally anticipated them to live, I didn't unearth any startling discoveries that would inhibit my research progress. Neither, however, did I uncover any of the earth-shaking revelations I had hoped for.

The pace of research, in the main, was as slow as the rhythm of the passing pages as my microfilm reel cranked forward. The more faint the images—or more illegible—the slower my progress.

The others in my research group seemed to have similar experiences. I don't recall anyone sharing a "Eureka!" moment. Finding verification for already-held hunches seemed to be the best-hoped-for outcome. There is a lot of "cranking out" and not as much crashing through those brick walls. The speed of discovery can be astoundingly glacial.

Still, there is no replacing such an experience. I was glad we were able to take the extra two weeks to see the specific places where our ancestors originated. This we could not have done without the prior legwork of finding records before even stepping out our door and heading on our way to Ireland. Ironically, it seemed I found more about these Irish ancestors through the records I located in the United States, than through the records found once we arrived in Dublin.

On the other hand, if we had not made the effort to travel to Ireland, we would never have experienced the remoteness of the townlands, the quality of the land from which our ancestors attempted to extract their livelihood, or the layout of the nearby villages where they came to trade or socialize.

It was a worthwhile experience to see what Irish genealogical researchers are up against, with many of their records—documents such as the types we have come to take for granted in the United States—no longer in existence, owing to wars or other upheavals. It was informative, as well, to see the ingenuity applied to the task of research in developing ways to work around these unfortunate losses. In the process, not only did I learn new research resources and techniques, but had my eyes opened to the need for flexibility and creativity in the face of insurmountable roadblocks to research progress.

Photograph: View, looking south, from the road near the cemetery at the Cathedral ruins at Aghadoe in County Kerry. Somewhere near here was the townland where our Kelly and Falvey families originated. Photograph courtesy of Chris Stevens.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Working Around the System

I close my eyes and can still see the calligraphic lines of Father James Flanagan's hand rhythmically unfolding across the pages of the Ballyagran parish register. Those dark images of the 1830s are still imprinted on my mind. I will likely carry their memory with me on my journey back across the Atlantic—but clutch my files in safekeeping in my carry-on bags, just in case.

This research trip to Ireland, home of my Irish-American father-in-law's eight great-grandparents, has given me three weeks of material to mull over. There have been moments to ponder. Moments in which time stood still as I sensed intangible connections. And long stretches of time, seeking the unfindable.

Researching outside one's own country brings a person face-to-face with one's own assumptions. And those assumptions often crumble in the face of reality. What we take for granted through our experience, researching at home, will not always be the same system we encounter abroad. While Americans traipse merrily along the unwinding trail from the 1940 census backwards through the decades at home, their immigrant ancestors left behind governments which might not even be in existence now.

"Frame of reference" has become a buzzword for this month's research experience. In the States, we expect our government to collect certain types of information, and learn how to extract from those documents what is useful for our genealogical pursuits. We expect to cross-apply that assumption to the governments of our ancestors. This does not always hold true. Other governments—indeed, other organizations in general—collect vastly different types of information based on what suits their purposes. I spent the greater part of this last week, essentially conducting the equivalent of what, in America, might be looking at rent rolls of apartment managers—all in the interest of finding some clue as to the whereabouts of my husband's ancestors.

If documents are basically collections of what "We the People" deem important for our government to record and store, they become a window through which others may glean hints of what we count as important. As much as Americans see themselves as being from a "young" country—after all, empires like those of the British and even more so the Chinese, vastly outclass our history—as American genealogists, we blithely flip through the pages of our decennial census records in one form or another, (with only one hiccup), back through 1790. Yet from where I have traveled this month, I could photograph the ruins of an Irish monastery or castle dating from years labeled with only three digits, yet drive less than an hour to access census records that can't reach beyond 1901.

For those of Irish Catholic heritage, this could mean struggling with the researcher's brick wall as recently as the late 1820s. An Irish immigrant willing to brave the unknown to cross the sea to a New World in the 1600s would have had a better chance of being discovered by a descendant in American documents than would his siblings who remained behind in their homeland.

I learned, in this past week, to adopt a "systems" frame of reference in assessing my progress in research here in Ireland. We as researchers will only be able to access what has been left behind by a country's collective determination of what is of value to them. The systems each country has developed, over the decades—and even centuries—leave behind records which may be of value to us in tracing our roots. The key is to determine which system has collected the names, dates and identities which provide the clues we seek. While every system of collective activity will accumulate paper trails, we can never assume the systems we've come to take for granted in our own country will be the same ones valued—or even practiced—in another country.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Last Day in Dublin

Friday was our last full day of research here in Dublin. After wrapping up my project examining County Kerry tax records at the Valuation office, I met my husband for dinner—he had just spent the entire day on a trip to Newgrange—and then we retired to our hotel room. There, I took the time to gather my thoughts on the day's progress and prepare the next day's blog post. Inevitably, after answering email, following online links and organizing notes for the next morning's blitz through my last microfilm roll, the evening was spent. The time was nearing one in the morning.

Shutting everything down for the night, we unplugged the laptop and set the iPad and phone up to charge. Just as we turned out the lights, there was an unusual sound from the electronic devices, so my husband went to check everything out. Apparently, the noise was to alert us that the devices were no longer charging. As he unplugged and then re-inserted the converter into the outlet, something in the wall popped—sounded like a small explosion to me—and there was the smell of something burning.

I screamed—not a wise move for that time of night. But hey. Every research trip needs a little excitement.

On Saturday, I had just three hours to crank through an entire decade of Catholic baptism records from the 1830s. It didn't help that the day started out with glorious sunshine. It's been culture shock for this California resident to spend so many hours under cloud cover. I hadn't realized how much my subconscious registered this deprivation until I actually saw real sunlight on Saturday.

Not to worry. I powered on. Fifteen minutes before closing, I realized I had only made it to 1834 in the County Tipperary parish—I had started at 1832—and if I were going to capture a copy of our John Tully's baptismal entry, I had better fast-forward to the appropriate spot and grab my opportunity now.

I do have to say, the journey through that Ballina parish register was informative. My hope had been to connect the dots between any Flannerys and Tullys in the area and our own Margaret Flannery and Denis Tully.

If you recall my consternation over the ink blot unserendipitously deposited upon the precise spot on the page of the 1851 Canada West census which contained relatives of our Flannery line, you will be happy to note that the name was Edmund Flannery after all. I came upon his son Cornelius' baptismal entry Saturday morning.

I'd like to say I hated leaving the rest of that microfilm roll behind at the sound of the closing bell, but I really can't say that. There was, after all, sunlight awaiting my emergence from the rotunda of the National Library. I joined my husband who, along with what seemed to be the entire residency of the city of Dublin, was out enjoying this novelty called sunshine. We walked along, taking in the sights of the city in which I had spent the last week sequestered indoors.

The afternoon presented a bonus, in that our research trip was deftly designed to coincide with Dublin's Back to Our Past conference. The DNA lectures there included a keynote presentation by Spencer Wells of National Geographic's Genographic Project. Being so far from home, I found it a treat to run into the familiar face of Katherine Borges of ISOGG, and even Maurice Gleeson, whom I had met and discussed this trip with, back at the Southern California Jamboree last June.

On today's agenda is nothing but time to enjoy the sights of Dublin and relax. Then pack. Tonight—if all goes as planned—we will be joined by our daughter, who once again will take the train from Cork to spend this last evening with us. Early tomorrow morning, we'll be off to the airport and the long trip back home.


Photograph: Looking into the ruins of the Aghadoe Cathedral in County Kerry from an outside wall of the building. Photograph courtesy of Chris Stevens.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Race to Finish

Today is the last day I'll be able to do any genealogical research in Ireland. We leave here Monday morning.

When that thought sank in yesterday, I was torn between completing two tasks: finish slogging through the microfilm of Tully family possibilities in County Tipperary, or try my hand again at property records.

If you think looking at property records for genealogical research hints at the possibility of landed gentry for our family, think again. It took passage of legislation before any possible other descendants of our Irish ancestors were able to buy a chip off the old block of estate property. It is, however, one way to detour ye olde brick wall and discover possible distant cousins in the process.

The drawback to this alternate research plan entailed a long walk through the rain to the Valuation Office. Again. I had done this very process the other day—that time, seeking Flanagans in County Limerick—but I thought it might be worth my while to attempt the same technique on my Kelly and Falvey families in County Kerry.

Of all our eight lines of Irish ancestors, the County Kerry couple had been the last to leave Ireland, so I hoped there might be more recent records with additional detail to help push back another generation. The trouble was, as everyone realizes, Kelly is a common surname in Ireland, making differentiations a challenge. Plus, the few birth records I've been able to find hint at either a family that moved from place to place—or couples with the exact same names.

The marriage record I had found showed John Kelly to be from Knockauncore, a townland in the parish of Kilcummin—one of the microfilms still awaiting my return to the National Library. Checking Griffith's Valuation, I noticed there happened to be two women renting property in the 1850s who might be of interest: Anne Falvey and Mary Kelly. What would be the chances that they were related to our soon-to-be-married Johanna Falvey and John Kelly from that very same townland?

The virtue of checking the subsequent valuation records is that a researcher may then trace the changing of hands from one renter to another, pinpointed to within at least two years range. The changes are marked directly into the valuation records, color coded as to year in which the change was noted. Our research guide, Donna Moughty, explained this in her blog the other day.

In my case the other day, I (hopefully) found our family's renegade William Flanagan in the primary valuation in 1853. At the Valuation Office the other day, I had continued the chase with the book that began in 1855. The same property number—7f in the townland of Cappananty—now showed under the name Catherine Flanagan. William was gone, presumably either serving his sentence in a jail in Ireland, or on his way to Australia.

Catherine Flanagan continued as the entry at that 7f property designation for a number of years, but eventually, her name was lined out in red ink in the book dated 1866. Above her name was inserted the name James Flanagan, and in the right margin in the same corresponding red ink, the date was noted as "68."

Presumably, at that point, either Catherine died, or was no longer able to maintain her position as the responsible taxpayer for the property. Again—we can only presume here—James Flanagan could have been a relative of hers, taking over responsibility for the property of his mother or sister.

I followed the books through the years of cancellations—each volume containing multiple color-coded revisions until anywhere from two to several years later, a new volume was issued—to trace tenancy of that same "7f" property.

I witnessed the stamp in 1906 indicating that James Flanagan was finally able to purchase the land upon which he had lived all these years. And I noted the green entry dated 1939 which indicated the property was in probate—James had likely died. A final entry in red ink in 1941 noted, "in ruins," and the valuation adjusted to reflect the value of property only.

Encouraged by those findings, yesterday I had hoped to do the same for my Kelly and Falvey families in County Kerry. Genealogical lightning, however, seldom strikes twice. While Anne Falvey and Mary Kelly remained neighbors only a few doors down from each other—well, at least until Mary's name is replaced by Catherine Ryan, and then Timothy Connor in quick succession in 1863 and 1864—there was precious little about the succession of property tenants to reveal any possible relatives' names. The only change—a brief one—lined out Anne Falvey in 1899, and replaced her with the name Mary Falvey. Mary's name was removed, lined out in blue ink with a comment inserted, "1907 ruin."

Could Mary Falvey be related to Anne Falvey? Could Anne from County Kerry be part of our Falvey line? What about the property in County Limerick that passed from William to Catherine to James Flanagan?

I have so many pages of notes compiled from this week's work. When I get home, I'll need to sort through it all and see if there are any trends—or at least possibilities—hiding within these records. For now, though, I have only this morning between 9:30 and 12:45 to wrap up my work in the National Library. How quickly that time will disappear!
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