Events: Irish Family History at Drew University

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:

Emigrants and Exiles, An Irish Family History Symposium

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.


Maura O’Connell: Irish Blessing

Here’s a singer I can’t resist, even if sometimes I get cross at her because once she covers a song, she pretty much ruins it for anyone else by hitting it so far out of the park that there’s no point trying to get it back again.

I saw Maura O’Connell years ago at a venue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It being close to St. Patrick’s Day, a significant segment of the audience was stoked for Irish!!! Music, especially one spirited gentleman wearing trousers in a spirited shade of kelly green.

O’Connell proceeded to flummox them with her own unique and beautiful take on Irish singing. Despite starting out with De Dennan, a traditionally-minded Irish band, Maura was (is) a pretty eclectic solo act — Irish as they come, but definitely marching to her own drummer. For the first 15 minutes or so on that South Florida night, she weathered occasional shouts of “Sing something IRISH!”, before silencing the hall with Gerry O’Beirne’s gorgeous “Western Highway,” after which even the guy in the kelly green trousers piped down and none of us looked back.

Maura O’Connell sings a version of the traditional Irish Blessing that, typically, sounds like nobody else’s. May the wind be at your back, etc. and Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Good Reads: The Famine in Toomevara

The Famine Clearance in Toomevara, County Tipperary, by Helen O’Brien. FourCourts Press, 2010.


This is a slim, nonglitzy volume that looks like the kind of graduate thesis you’d find tucked away in a university library. It reads a bit that way too: concise and clear, but distinctly academic in tone. The author isn’t aiming for a potboiler and she does not even appear to be auditioning for a spot as an expert on Who Do You Think You Are? Although I’d watch an episode with her in it, for sure.

I ordered the book upon a recommendation from a member of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society email list, and because Toomevara is a village in the part of Tipperary my ancestor Martin Haigney might have left in the early 1850s. I was curious to read a Famine-era study specific to this region.

I was not expecting anything overtly genealogical, and O’Brien’s book does not deliver that (although she certainly mentions many local surnames). Her mission is to analyze what this one little village of Toomevara was like going into the crisis of 1845-52, how the famine shook it to its foundations, and what effects and memories lingered afterward.

It’s revelatory background for anyone (like me) who has always been vaguely aware their Irish immigrant ancestors “came over during the Famine” without considering the suffering and dislocation behind that decision. The “clearance” in O’Brien’s title refers to the forced eviction of 500 villagers on 28 May 1849, an incident brutal enough that it rated indignant articles in local newspapers, and even a discussion in the British House of Commons. As one resident recalled years later:

About 5 p.m. the work was over, the place in ruins and the only roof for souls was the vault of heaven. The people gathered their fragments of furniture, doors, dressers, old boxes and built sheds along the channel of chapel wall and school house, a few in the school house yard and the gardens at the rear of the two houses in Chapel street …

Ultimately even these pathetic digs were unacceptable to the authorities, and in February 1850 a work gang of local recruits — the “hut tumblers” — pulled down the makeshift shelters of about 20 evicted families who had refused to disappear to neighboring villages or into the workhouse.

However upsetting contemporaries may have found all of this, there was little recourse for the villagers. As O’Brien illustrates in painstaking detail, the Famine was not an era chock-full of options. There’s no shortage of bad guys in the narrative, but some of them might surprise. O’Brien’s analysis certainly shows inactivity on the part of the great landowners, but the system that subdivided and subleased huge holdings into tinier and tinier parcels meant that a confusing web of agents and subagents made the more direct decisions about who could stay and who must go.

Disturbingly, these hard times often pitted villager against villager. Local folk were part of the gangs who tumbled the huts in 1850  and in the initial eviction in 1849. For some it may have been a way of ensuring protection from being evicted themselves; in other cases workers were promised lumber from the cottages they pulled down.

Ultimately Toomevara, like most of Ireland, was transformed by the crisis. O’Brien notes that 187 surnames recorded in parish baptism registers between 1831 and 1852 disappear from the records after the Famine, reflecting the degree to which deaths and emigrations changed the village forever. Long and angry memories remained, not only toward the British and Anglo-Irish power class, but toward fellow Irish who took advantage of the upheaval and dispersals to enlarge their own land holdings.

In her introduction, Ms. O’Brien says that while the Famine has been extensively studied in a general way, “ample room exists for more local studies on the topic.” To judge from the way this concise book brings these horrible years into a vivid and personal focus, she’s absolutely right.

Coming Up: Irish Records, Northern Sources

Well, this  looks interesting:

DIPPAM, which is short for Documenting Ireland: Parliament, People and Migration. This website’s official launch is scheduled for March 21.

It’s billed as “an online virtual archive of documents and sources relating to the history of Ireland, and its migration experience from the 18th to the late 20th centuries.” The site pulls together documentation from a number of repositories and sources in Northern Ireland.

The three major areas outlined at the link include:

Enhanced British Parliamentary Papers on Ireland, a database of 15,000 official publications from a collection of parliamentary papers from the era of the Union, including bills, reports and commissions of inquiry.

Voices of Migration and Return, which includes more than 90 narratives from interviews with “returned and non-returned migrants from Ulster (9-counties) gathered during the course of two studies on contemporary migration (2004-2008).”

• The Irish Emigration Database, “a virtual library of emigration-related primary sources, principally letters to and from emigrants, compiled by the Centre for Migration Studies, Omagh”; a collection of 33,000 records culled from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and private sources, apparently to be expanded as new records become available.

The site’s development team includes experts from Queen’s University, Belfast, the University of Ulster, the Centre for Migration Studies and Libraries Northern Ireland.

At the URL you can read more details about the collections. There are also two PowerPoint presentations (scroll down to the bottom of the page) available for download about Belfast migration. It’ll be fascinating to see what things look like after the launch. If you’re in Northern Ireland, check out the home page for a series of workshops being held about this project.

(h/t to C. Tuohy on the Co.-Tipperary mailing list.)

Follow Friday:

Listen, I like just fine, but every once in a while I get a little bug-eyed at how much it just keeps growing and growing, merging  into everything that lies in its path. Some days it’s hard not to feel like Steve McQueen and friends confronting the Blob outside that funky 1950s movie theater.

I continue to poke and prod at Ancestry’s sprawling holdings — not only the obvious stuff like censuses, but at esoterica like the family histories, church histories and old society programs squirreled away in the card catalog. However, I freely admit there are days when the sheer volume of material (and quirky search engine) overwhelm me.

That’s when I’m grateful that it is still possible to find online repositories that are focused and personal labors of love, like ConnorsGenealogy.

This is a site maintained by California researcher Pat Connors, and once I get past that fact I honestly don’t know where to begin, there is such a variety of well-organized information here. On the home page, there are regular updates about what’s new and what’s coming up, a very good starting point.

If you are interested in Irish research, this is a great place to visit. There are photos and townland maps, arranged by county. There are also baptisms and marriage listings for Connors/O’Connors and various other surname interests of Pat’s, and even if you’re not related, you’d be surprised what might be in there. For instance, I don’t think I’m related to Pat, but because there happens to be a Troy, N.Y. section to the site, I stumbled across a date for my great-great-grandfather’s declaration of intent.

But even without that, I’d love this site for its wealth of general information about Ireland, its surname registries and the energy that bounces through the entire endeavor. Sites like this have the real-person touch that can help a beginner chart a path that takes them beyond the index-searching stage. Which is where we all need to go, sooner or later.

Links, 10.4.10

One of the perks of blogging is that one can just skip the introduction if one doesn’t have anything snappy to say. In fact, it is probably better to shut up if one doesn’t have anything snappy to say. Let the links speak!

Emerald Isle stuff: The National Library of Ireland has made several collections of vintage photos available online. Not sure how long they’ve been up, but they’re very interesting. Images date from the mid-19th century. (h/t to Bob Ryan of the NY-IRISH listserv) … Also, they write letters to the editor over there. Especially when they’re disgruntled at the service at the Irish Records Office. This one is a masterpiece of factual detail and polite contempt.

Wasteful or prescient?: There is criticism in Norfolk, Va. about hiring a cemetery records keeper for $42K annually when the city’s finances are strapped, as are many municipal finances nationwide. The city says the current system of index cards is falling behind. Critics say the records are in good shape due to the current efforts by a mix of city staff and volunteers. One can only hope the record keeping doesn’t fall by the wayside, however it ends up getting done.

Brick wall basics: I always like Martin Rigby’s columns in the Liverpool Echo. This time out he offers a clearly written primer on  attacking brick-wall problems. I wonder how often all the really obvious stuff has been tried before a brick wall is declared? I think I’ll use this article to make a checklist for myself.

Blog bits:

— Kimberly Powell tackles tombstone translations (and gives me a chance to alliterate away, while she’s at it).

— Sassy Jane blogs about the anatomy of a mistake. This sort of ‘fess-up is always incredibly helpful to read.

— Chris Staats uses a nifty construction analogy to sort out his arguments about Internet research, pro and con.

— At GeneaBloggers, a call for genealogy blog participation in Blog Action Day 2010: Water, with some intriguing prompts to get you going. Also via GeneaBloggers, we are reminded that the academic journal site SAGE Journals is offering free access until October 15 — a good chance to gather background on whatever esoteric question is on your mind.

I’m off to buy a pumpkin for the squirrels to attack. Hope you enjoy the week.

Despised and Dying: The Irishmen of Duffy’s Cut

In the newsbag yesterday came a striking update on what I can only regard as the cautionary tale of Duffy’s Cut.

“Duffy’s Cut” was a stretch of railroad line in the beautiful, hilly country of Chester County, 30 miles west of Philadelphia, Pa. It got its name from Philip Duffy, an Irish-American labor contractor who hired a crew of Irish immigrants to dig for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.

Researchers have long tried to find the grave of 57 laborers who died there when cholera ravaged the work site in  August 1832. As a railroad supervisor put it: “This man [Duffy] has been rather unfortunate … Nearly one half of his men died from Cholera.”

The quote is from The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut (2006), written by a team of researchers, including twin brothers William and Frank Watson. Duffy’s Cut has been a longstanding mission for the Watsons. (I got the book from my brother Jim, who lives in the area.)

The book’s meticulous evidence tells a gripping and awful story. Young, strong and dirt-poor, the Irishmen did what newcomers to America always do: the jobs nobody else wants. By all contemporary accounts, the Duffy’s Cut stretch was a particularly nasty job.

Cholera had broken out in Philadelphia the previous month. When it reached the railroad camp in the Chester countryside, hysteria trumped decency. The locals quarantined the sick workers at the site and, basically, left them. Nearly all died and were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Their families were never told what happened. The incident got short shrift in official communications, except as an explanation for construction delays. It lived on only in local memory and, as time passed, local folklore.

In 2009 the Watsons, after years of research and explorations, finally found a shin bone. Their team has now uncovered seven sets of remains — and a disturbing new twist: Four of the skulls show signs of trauma, including a possible bullet hole. As William Watson tells reporter Kathy Matheson, “This was much more than a cholera epidemic.” The Watsons now believe that many of the workers did die of cholera, but others may have been killed by vigilantes — perhaps from a mixture of fear of infection, plus contempt for marginalized, cheap laborers.

I find the story of Duffy’s Cut mesmerizing, in large part because I can’t understand how anybody could hear it and still think it’s OK to ignore the rhetoric of hate and prejudice that pulses through so many media outlets today. It’s repulsive. And it’s hypocritical. It boils down to remembering where you came from, and few of us were welcome when we got here.

Consider, for instance, the Sisters of Charity, the Roman Catholic nuns who were one of the few groups to provide competent, compassionate nursing in that long-ago epidemic, including to the victims at Duffy’s Cut. Glowing reports of their bravery were forgotten in the nativist riots that swept Philadelphia a dozen years later. The sisters’ seminary was burned to the ground, along with a number of Catholic churches and rectories.

So I guess it’s not surprising, what they’ve found at Duffy’s Cut. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when somebody decides that the wrong birthplace, or the wrong religion, can make a human … less than human.