Tag Archives: genealogy

Author interview: A 30-year search for an Irish family’s history

This week I came across an intersting story from Maureen Wlodarczyk, author of a new book called “Past-Forward – A three-decade and three-thousand-mile journey home.” It chronicles a search for her Irish family history that took her thirty years of work to complete. Ms. Wlodarczyk whote the book in tribute to her grandmother, who celebrated her Irishness, but knew very little of her ancestors who came to the U.S. from County Sligo in the potato famine years of the 19th century. I talked with Maureen about her huge genealogy project and what got her going on it. (Her book is available here.)

irish genealogy bookWhat made you embark on your 30-year search for your Irish family background?

From my early childhood, I was very close to my maternal grandmother Kate who was the daughter of first-generation Irish-American parents, as I am the only daughter of her only daughter. Over the years as I was growing up, I heard bits and pieces about her “difficult” childhood, the loss of her mother when she was nine and her father’s drinking and inability (or unwillingness) to keep the family together after her mother’s premature death from tuberculosis in 1913. The knowledge that she had endured so much but yet went on to marry at 16, a marriage of over 50 years, becoming a wonderful mother to five sons and a daughter, and a devoted grandmother and great-grandmother made me so proud of her….and so sad to know that while she was the essence of family to us, she knew next-to-nothing about her own family and had no meaningful good or positive memories of the family members she had known as a child. I became very curious to know more about her childhood and thought that if I could discover her Irish family history, I could dilute those bad memories with a broader generational story of our Irish roots, hopefully replacing disappointment and shame with some amount of pride in knowing “who we were”.

Did you find out exactly when your relatives came over from Sligo (your grandmother was born in the U.S., right?)

Yes, she was born in Jersey City, NJ. It took over thirty years of off-and-on searching and the advent of the internet and genealogy resources like ancestry.com and the Heritage Centres in Ireland, but I did confirm my great-great-grandfather John J. Flannelly’s birth in Skreen Parish, County Sligo in 1841 and his parents’ (William and Mary Lang Flannelly) marriage there in 1832. That led me to find that William & Mary and their 6 children (including my great-great-grandfather John) arrived in New York City on November 28, 1846 on the packet ship “Marmion”. They left their home to escape the Great Famine.

What did you find out about your family history that surprised you?

I discovered, just a few years ago, that my immigrant great-great-grandfather John Flannelly served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was hospitalized in Williamsburg, VA after the Battle of Williamsburg in May 1862. Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I have always been drawn to Williamsburg VA, having vacationed there many times over the past 30 years, and have been a part-time resident of that city for the last ten years (long before I discovered my great-great-grandfather had been there as a soldier). I consider myself a person of very strong intuitive sensibility and suspect that drew me to Williamsburg to walk on the very streets where my great-great-grandfather had walked more than a century before.

Are you the only one in your family interested in this kind of information?

I am not the only one who has shown interest but my level of interest and need to search are well beyond any other family member’s. But, I do have a genealogy “buddy” who is always game for an outing….even a day of “cemetery-hopping”: my mother’s cousin Dorothy. She is in her mid-80s, the daughter of my grandmother’s sister, and has the energy and enthusiasm of a person half her age.

Did your grandmother seem interested in knowing about her family history? Did she see herself as a person influenced by her Irish heritage?

My grandmother enjoyed being Irish. St. Patrick’s Day was a favorite holiday when she watched the NYC parade on television and also would watch the John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man”. When it came to her own family, for the reasons I mentioned before, she struggled with some level of shame or embarrassment about things that had happened between her parents and in the aftermath of her mother’s death. While I was able to get her to tell me some details about those years, she was somewhat reluctant to reveal things that had happened. It was the same with her sister. That’s why I say that “time can’t heal all wounds”. I know it didn’t for my grandmother.

What were the main roadblocks you ran into in getting the documents about your family, and how far back were you able to trace your genealogy in Ireland?

The main roadblocks were the fact that my grandmother only had limited family knowledge and that the records available in Ireland prior to the mid-nineteenth century are very limited in many locales. Also, before the last decade and the ever-expanding resources available on the internet, it was necessary to travel to access records or to write to vital statistics departments, waiting a very long time for a response and hoping that the person who handled your request did a thorough job….the kind of job one would do for themselves. So far, I have been able to trace my Irish roots back to the second half of the eighteenth century and my great-great-great-great-grandparents Owen and Mary Flannelly, who were born in the 1770s.

What did you find harder about this project – doing the research or writing the book?

The research was harder and much more protracted, having come in dribs and drabs over so many years. That’s not to say the writing was easy. I had a couple false starts and then, when I decided to write the story in the form of a letter to my grandmother, I found the vehicle for telling the story as I would have told it to her, had she lived.

What, if any, related tangents arose from the search for your family history?

In the last three years, I convinced a male family member to participate in a YDNA testing program under the auspices of a family clan organization in Dublin, Ireland. Those test results put me in touch with new DNA-discovered “cousins” in the US and in Ireland and they have become extended family. I am now an officer of that organization, the Flannery Clan, and help members by doing genealogical research, which has been very rewarding for me and very exciting for them. Not only did I finally solve the mystery of our Irish roots but, where during my grandmother’s childhood the family was broken apart in many ways, we are now (a century later) rediscovering and restoring family connections.

How I Got Hooked On Ireland

I was asked this week to answer some questions for a nice lady reviewing my book. Thought I would include my answer here. My interest in Ireland is very much about my Grandfather Jerry, who came from the small part of County Kerry that juts out onto the Beara Peninsula in Ireland’s southwestern corner (in a little town called Gurranes, near Allihies). It’s a little story that I assume mirrors that of lots of other Irish-Americans.

How did you get involved in Ireland?
I think I became interested in Irish culture when I was quite young because of my Irish grandfather. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1913, and was a pretty unusual person. He didn’t fit the typical Irish stereotype – didn’t drink much for one thing – but he has this amazing sense of humor. When my granddad was 95 years old, he was still an absolute blast to be with. He was a modestly educated person who had an intelligence and a wisdom about him that I still think of as inspirational.

It’s ironic that he got me interested in Ireland, because he never had any desire to go back there. He saw it as this impoverished backwater that no one would ever go to voluntarily, which I guess it was at the time he left.

I first visited my grandfather’s hometown in 1975 when I was doing a term of college abroad in England. It’s tough to convey just how backward Ireland was then. I stayed in the home of my granddad’s step-sister, who was the only one of his eight brothers and sisters who did not leave Ireland. She was in her seventies and was actually a little bit behind the rest of Ireland even at the time. She lived in a simple cottage with no running electricity or running water, decorated only with a lovely picture of The Pope in the middle of the living room wall (that was one of only three rooms in the house, by the way). She was so accustomed to the heavy brogue of her neighbors that she could not understand my New York English at all initially. Meeting my aunt Maggie was truly like meeting someone from a different century. Like so many of the other people I met there, she had a limited education but was outgoing as could be, smart as a whip and full of good humor. I absolutely adored her.

I would go out to a pub with her nephew Pether and it would be full of men with the same ruddy complexions all wearing the same black cap. They would listen carefully to what seemed like local secrets they were telling, nod their heads and say again and again “ooooh definite.” I think it was really about the end of the time when southwestern Ireland felt like one of the most remote places in Europe.

I returned about nine months later, and had another great visit, but then didn’t get back again for a long time. In 1999, when my wife and I decided to take two boys, age 9 and 13, to see Ireland. Although the Celtic Tiger was only starting to hit at the time, I could tell the minute we pulled out of Shannon that the place had gone through some changes. The hills were covered over with new houses, most of which seemed incredibly ugly, and things generally seemed a lot more homogenized, or alot more Americanized, depending on your viewpoint.

At first I was pretty disappointed. It seemed as though the Ireland I of my memory had been wiped out. But gradually, I started to see that under the modern surface, there was a definate eccentricity that I now view as the real culture of the place. It’s something you can’t quite touch but you recognize every time you interact with an Irish person. That’s what got me hooked on Ireland a second time. Since then it has been a hobby to me to learn as many things as I can about Irish culture. I love both the historic and the contemporary stories of the place. Working on my book and my website tends to make me feel like I have a connection to the place even though I can only visit occasionally, and I like tha feeling.

Not long after our trip in 1999, I created a newsletter for Irish-Americans called “The Irish Letter.” In time that became a website called ireland-fun-facts.com. It’s a huge compilation of proverbs, quotations, travel stories, basic facts, odd news stories from the Irish press; all kinds of different facts and trivia. Some of it is fairly serious, but there’s quite a bit of humor. The website basically makes no money, but is visited by a pretty large number of readers. So I thought it would be fun to put the type of information I collect for it into a book you can read on a train or a flight over to Shannon. Hence “The Great Little Book of Things You Probably Don’t Know About Ireland.”