When my grandmother, Mary Lyons Kelly, died at 78 in New York City, her three daughters summarized their mother’s family roots in a modest obituary: “Born in Liverpool, England, of Irish parents. Preceded in death by husband, Joseph Kelly, and daughter Mary.”
That was about all they knew of her early years. My grandmother simply didn’t talk about her past. She emigrated from Ireland in 1919, and it was as if crossing the Atlantic had washed away that first part of her life.
But her story is hardly unique. My grandmother was part of a phenomenal wave of Irish migration — one of 7 million to leave the Emerald Isle since the 1600s. At the time she arrived in New York, Irish immigrants accounted for about 5 percent of the newcomers to the United States. But in previous decades, from the 1820s through the Great Famine and into the 1880s, one-third to one-half of all the people starting new lives in America sailed from Ireland.
They came seeking refuge from poverty, hunger and oppression. They found prejudice and hardship, but also opportunity — and they changed the culture and history of their adopted land.
From President John F. Kennedy to Grace Kelly John Huston, Eugene O’Neill, social activist Dorothy Day and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, it’s an understatement to say the Irish have “arrived” in America. According to the 1990 census, 40 million Americans identify themselves ethnically as Irish, behind only British (50 million) and German (49 million).
Tracing those Irish roots has become a passion for many in recent years. It can be a challenge for genealogy novices, and even experienced searchers are always reminded that those who lived in desperate poverty in Ireland couldn’t take pains to record family histories. But even the slimmest leads can turn into real genealogical treasures, if you’re persistent — and lucky.
The luck of the Irish genealogist
In the case of my grandmother, among the few details known about her childhood were: She was orphaned at a young age and went to Ireland to live with an aunt and uncle. Over the years, she lost track of her siblings. At 19, a cousin’s wife sponsored her passage to New York from County Mayo. After passing through Ellis Island, she worked as a housekeeper and later at a bakery in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
After World War II, my grandmother asked the American Red Cross to help locate her brothers and sisters. In those pre-Internet, pre-genealogy-craze days, the Red Cross was among the few resources for tracing relatives separated by emigration and war. Evidently the search fizzled, and it wasn’t mentioned again.
In the 20 years after her death, though, our extended family has gradually “reassembled” many parts of my grandmother’s life. We’ve visited the farmhouse in Lismagansion, Aghamore, County Mayo, where she lived after losing her parents; found a 93-year-old woman in nearby Knock who remembered my grandmother as a girl; and connected with a distant cousin in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Bringing back some of her past has drawn our family closer together. We joke that my grandmother would have been hooked on computer solitaire and agree she would have been a great consultant for the current wave of Irish books and movies. But mostly, we’ve come to appreciate how hard her life was back in Ireland. We’ve come to know, too, that starting over in America was a struggle for her as well as my grandfather and my dad’s parents — all of whom came out of Ireland in the early 1900s.
The first specific lead to my grandmother’s past came out of the blue. In the late 1950s, a cousin named Patrick Logan knocked at her door. It was his mother and father who raised my grandmother after her parents died. Pat Logan had heard from mutual friends that she lived in Manhattan with her husband and daughters.
Over the years, my mother and her sisters kept in touch with Pat’s children. In the mid-1980s, one of his sons visited the Logan Family farm in Lismagansion, near the Shrine of Knock. He discovered that the farm, which stretches along the banks of the River Glohr, had passed in 1971 to Patrick and Mary Henry and their son, Paul.
I first visited the Henrys in 1989, with my husband and my sister. Although the Henrys had built a new home on the land in 1982, they graciously showed us the one-room, whitewashed cottage out back where my grandmother had lived with her cousins. The Henrys had converted the tiny room into a tool shed.
Planning your trip to Ireland
It’s never truly hot or truly cold in Ireland, but winter days can be short and dreary. Summers are more reliably pleasant, with the sun setting around 10 p.m. in June. No matter when you visit Ireland, though, bring an umbrella, raincoat and light wool sweater.
Hotels and rental-car companies offer lower, off-season rates for fall and winter. You don’t have crowds to contend with, but the weather can be unpredictable. Also consider travel in early fall or late spring, to get lower rates and reasonably good weather.
Touring Ireland is definitely cheaper than touring England, but the Irish Tourist Board says you should figure on spending 20 Irish pounds per person, per day for eating, drinking and sleeping. If you want the best hotels, shows, etc., you’ll pay more. Dublin is probably the most pricey place in Ireland. So if you limit your time in the big city and explore more of the countryside, you’ll spend less.
Bed-and-breakfasts are everywhere in Ireland, and they’re much more economical and homey than hotels. Plus, you get a breakfast that will keep you satisfied most of a day. Directories are available through the Irish Tourist Board at (800) 223-6470, <www.ireland.travel.ie/home/> or <www.irelandvacations.com>.
Eurail passes and the Irish version called the Rambler Pass offer unlimited train travel for a specified amount of time. (Some types of Ramblers also allow bus travel.) You have to buy the Eurail pass before arriving in Ireland, but the Rambler is available at train stations there.
For more information about traveling in Ireland, besides the Irish Tourist Board, you can contact the Irish Embassy in the United States: 2234 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20008; (202) 462-3939.
They also pointed us in the direction of 93-year-old Delia Welch McGann and two other neighbors who knew my grandmother as a girl. All three remembered she’d been born in England and that her parents had died within a year of each other.
We were able to look through the baptism and marriage records at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Aghamore, where the Rev. Joseph Moran showed us Lyons and Logan family entries going back to 1864. (The church’s records recently were indexed as part of a nationwide effort to build a computer database for the Irish Genealogical Project based in Dublin.)
In recent years, the Irish Family History Foundation has been organizing genealogical research centers throughout the Republic and Northern Ireland and computerizing a broad range of ancestral records. It’s almost as if Ireland is reclaiming its past and putting the pain of emigration into perspective by simplifying access to information about the exodus.
From JFK to Grace Kelly, John Huston, Eugene O’Neill, social activist Dorothy Day and Rosie O’Donnell, it’s an understatement to say the Irish have “arrived” in America.
The greening of America
The high points in that exodus were always linked to low points in Irish life — persecution by the British, desperate poverty and, of course, the Great Famine. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Protestants from Ulster were among the first to leave Ireland for the frontiers of colonial America. (The British government essentially forbade Catholic emigration until 1827.) But the hemorrhage of emigration that forever changed Ireland started in the early 1800s.
Between 1780 and 1830, Ireland’s population quadrupled, from 2.3 million to 8 million. Much of the populace lived in extreme poverty, made dramatically worse by such disasters as torrential rains that destroyed potato and grain harvests and outbreaks of smallpox, typhus and cholera. About 20,000 people left Ireland for North America in 1815 alone; 50,000 others died of disease between 1816 and 1818.
An even larger wave of emigration to North America — 400,000 strong — came in 1827. And between 1830 and 1841, another 400,000 people emigrated to England, mainly to London, Liverpool and Manchester.
Then, between 1845 and 1855, as a completely unknown blight ravaged Ireland’s potato crops, one-fourth of the population fled the country and the Great Famine. About 1.5 million went to the United States, 340,000 to Canada, 300,000 to Great Britain and 70,000 to Australia. Some 1.5 million in Ireland died of starvation or disease.
Those fortunate enough to escape the desperate situation at home dutifully sent money back to Ireland, hoping to bring other family members across the Atlantic. The cost of a steerage-class passage to America during the famine years was $5 to $20, a small fortune in those days if you were poor.
If your ancestors were among those who made it from Ireland to America, you can start getting in touch with your heritage as simply as reading any of the explosion of books about growing up Irish in America. You might visit any of the U.S. cities that are meccas for Irish culture and history. And you could reverse your ancestors’ course and plan a visit to Ireland.
You never know what you may find. After my family returned from our own trip to Ireland, the Henry family in residence on the old farm sent along the address of a man named Leonard Lyons Logan who’d visited them in 1972. I wrote to him in Hermosa Beach, Calif, and discovered that his father’s brother was Pat Logan and that both of his grandmothers shared my grandmother’s name, Mary Lyons.