In June of 2009 a tall, thin man with closely cropped gray hair checked into a hotel in in the town of Sligo on Ireland’s northwest coast. He wore dark clothes and spoke with a pronounced German accent. On the hotel’s registration form, he gave his name as Peter Bergmann and an address in Vienna, Austria.
Over the next few days he kept contacts with his fellow humans sparse and to the point. On his fourth day in Sligo, he checked out of the hotel and took a bus to a quiet, pretty beach a ten-minute drive out of town. The next morning, a father and son heading out for a stroll and a swim saw something on the beach that looked like “a mannequin.” When they realized what they were seeing, they said a prayer and called the police.
A short documentary film, “The Last Days of Peter Bergmann,” hauntingly recreates the final hours of a man who, seemingly, just wanted to vanish.
In Sligo, “Peter Bergmann” went to methodical lengths to erase his identity. The address in Vienna was a vacant lot. He had cut every label out of every stitch of the clothing he wore. His movements at the hotel and around town can be retraced to a limited extent using closed-circuit camera footage. But large swaths of the time he spent in Sligo remained beyond the reach of security cameras. Investigators think Bergmann took great pains to ensure this. Who he really was, why he came to Sligo to die, are still unanswered questions.
His story is a compelling reminder that even in our highly trackable, highly visible modern society, a person can be as hard to trace as any 17th-century yeoman – if they want that badly enough.
“I have to be satisfied with our investigations at this time that Peter Bergmann does not exist,” said Detective Superintendent John Reilly, who headed up the case. “It’s highly likely that he never did.”
… Scientists have apparently isolated the exact identity of the strain of pathogen that caused the devastating potato crop failures that triggered Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1848-1852.
The story makes interesting reading, make no mistake about it. But honestly? As one of the millions who can trace ancestry to famine-era emigrants, I find it somewhat sad and unsettling, as well. After so much time, to know so specifically the tiny biological entity that caused so much misery … I don’t know why, but it’s almost like stumbling over a grave one didn’t know was there.
But it’s good to have the mystery cleared up, even if it does send a shiver down the spine. And it’s also good to know that scientists think this discovery will help them to better understand the growth and development of new, emerging pathogens.
I was telling a friend the other day about my dad, who was a wonderful singer, a real Irish tenor, and who was also kind of terrifying when it came to Irish music. And Irish accents. And Irish everything.
It was all about the authenticity. I wouldn’t say my dad was a stickler for Aran-Islands style authenticity in these matters. But I suspect he knew what he knew — the accents of his Irish-born maternal grandparents, and the kind of Irish immigrant culture you used to find all over Red Hook once upon a time. And he was a merciless critic about Irish music that was not being done right.
Whatever that meant. I mean, we were all Americans, what did we know, really?
I was about to go away to college when I screwed up the courage to ask him for his version of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” He considered for a bit and said he’d see. I expected him to sing it for me, if he were to agree. But at the end of the working day he presented me with a typewritten version of the verses, which is the version I use to this day. (For more thoughts on the “Wild Colonial Boy,” see link below).
Every so often, through the magic of YouTube, I encounter some Irish music I believe even my dad would have loved. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day offering is a crystalline version of a song called “Love is Teasing,” sung in 1967 by a radiant Dolly McMahon.
Past posts on St. Patrick’s Day matters:
Tom Kemp at the GenealogyBank blog notes that the New York City-based newspaper The Irish American published regular reports of marriages and deaths in Ireland between 1849 to 1914. This does not sound like a definitive listing, but apparently the listings occur often enough, and in enough quantity, to be notable. Civil registration in Ireland did not begin until 1864.
The newspaper is searchable through GenealogyBank, which is a subscription service, but is also often accessible through public libraries.
Last Saturday here in the Northeast was cold, rainy and windy; not charming. Fortunately I was warm, dry and inside, listening to a day of lectures on Irish family history at Emigrants and Exiles: An Irish Family History Symposium at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Among them was Professor Christine Kinealy’s talk on why Irish people left Ireland and why, as she said, “the Famine is only part of the story.”
Co-sponsored by Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, this conference contained an ideal mix of individual case histories and broader historical perspectives. And the talk by Kinealy, who teaches at Drew, was a great example in the second category.
Kinealy is actually an expert on the Great Hunger of 1845-52, so the title of her talk was intriguing. A key point was that the Great Hunger, while certainly the biggest, was just one of many disasters to hit Ireland over the years. In the 18th century alone, for instance:
1725-29: Generalized economic downturn; “poverty, wretchedness, misery and want” force a wave of Scots-Irish emigration from Ulster.
1740-41: Famine (concurrent with a “Little Ice Age”).
1754: Another drought.
1771-75: More poverty and evictions, resulting in between 25,000-30,000 emigrations, mostly Presbyterians.
These dates are particularly important for descendants of Irish families (like my husband’s) who emigrated prior to the 19th century. As a couple of the lecturers mentioned, if your Irish left Ireland in the 18th century, there’s a good bet they were Scots-Irish. Within a hundred years of the era in which the British established Protestant “plantations” in Ireland, economic and agricultural downturns forced many of these families’ descendants to emigrate, mainly to North America.
As researcher Clare Keenan Agthe noted, there’s a rule-of-thumb emigrant timeline drawn from patterns noted by Irish researchers, to wit:
1600s: Native Irish
1700s and early 1800s: Scots-Irish
Mid-1800s: Native Irish
It’s only a general guideline, of course. However, for those just starting out on their Irish adventures, these lesser-known timelines are worth keeping in mind. It’s easy to assume our people left in the Great Famine years because, so often, it’s true — how could it not be, with such a massive population shift? But it’s also possible that they left at other times, for other reasons.
Irish history is like that.
(I’ll be posting other tips from this conference as I go through my notes. There was so much great information and — by the way — Megan Smolyenak dropped by to show everybody how to give a great genealogy lecture and be funny while you’re at it!)
I’m looking forward to April 16. You’re probably saying, “Who isn’t?” But not only is April 16 the day after Tax Day, it’s also the day for this:
It’s taking place practically in my own backyard, at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Check out the speakers and topics. Excellent stuff!
* Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, “Right Annie, Wrong Annie”
* Professor Christine Kinealy, “The Famine is only part of the Story. Why your ancestors came to America”
* Dr Anne Rodda, CG, “Immigrant Imprints: American and Irish records that tell the story”
* Claire Keenan Agthe, “Offbeat records for New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia”
* Judy Campbell, “Family History Search Catches a Tammany Tiger”
* Alan Delozier, “Family History from a Religious Perspective”
* Julie Sakellariadis, “Imagining the Past: Using Historical Resources to Find Stories from the Past”
* Dr Thomas Callahan Jr., “Looking For Katie: The McCormack Family in America”
The link takes you to the website of the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, which is co-sponsoring the event with Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. You can download a .pdf file of the conference brochure and registration form, if you are in the area and might like to attend.