It started as a gifting problem.
My father was turning 70. Not your run-of-the-mill birthday. A landmark. The usual gifts -- a history book, golf shoes -- just wouldn't cut it.
Then a lightbulb went off: a trip to Ireland. The old country. He'd always wanted to go. And it seemed so simple: I'd pen a gift certificate ("This entitles you to one trip to Ireland, with chauffeur"), pop it in the mail, and wait for the goodwill to flow. Down in L.A., my brother Brian, also stuck for a good gift, signed on, too. Dad got choked up when we told him. We had a hit, and we'd take it on the road come summer.
Now, Ireland and me are old friends, going back to my student days there in the 1980s, and though I'd only been back briefly since, I was, after all, the travel professional. I began to sketch out a route.
But my father, I found, had his own plans.
On his side, our family is 100% true-green Irish, immigrants who settled in New York's notorious Hell's Kitchen neighborhood at the turn of the 19th century. On my mother's side, the blood may only be half Irish but the temperament is nothing but.
And, my father knew, we still had relatives over there. Letters -- at least a few of them over the last quarter century -- had proved that. Two we even had addresses for, and would contact. It was just a matter of finding the others.
Our two-week itinerary would take us south to counties Limerick and Kerry, then hug the west coast northward to County Clare, ferry out to the Aran Islands, then continue north to Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal. From there, we'd cross into Northern Ireland to visit the scenic Antrim Coast, then shoot southeast for a short visit to Dublin before flying home. It was an ambitious schedule, but still allowed time to linger in all the counties from which our ancestors had emigrated. And to find those cousins, of course.
But we didn't have to: They found us.
The message was waiting at our first B&B, which we'd reserved ahead of time. Sean O'Sullivan of Drumcolliher, County Limerick, requests the honor of a visit from his American cousins.
And three hours later, jet-lagged and dazed, there we were: meeting his family, sipping tea in his kitchen, comparing family photographs, examining century-old marriage contracts, and connecting our stories. Then an inspiration, and we're making the short drive from his farm to another, where we unlatched a gate, drove down a long, muddy path, and found ourselves standing at the homestead where Lizzie McCarthy -- my great-grandmother -- was born on May 18, 1880.
There wasn't much left. One thick stone wall, facing rolling farmland. To one side, a stone kiln where they baked lime into whitewash for their walls. I imagined the thatched-roof cottage that once stood here. That's how my great-grandmother lived.
"I couldn't stop thinking," my father said later, "what a beautiful place she'd left, and how her life changed when she emigrated." In 1902 she boarded the Cunard steamship Germanic and sailed for New York, where in 1906 she met and married John Hannafin of Castlemaine, County Kerry. John died in 1921, leaving Lizzie alone to raise her own five kids and four foster children. My father shakes his head, remembering. "She was a strong woman."
The following day, we met Paddy McCarthy, age 82, son of Lizzie McCarthy's brother Bill Dan, son of the legendary Big Dan.
"You take after the old McCarthys," he said by way of greeting, looking up at the three of us. "Oh, they were powerful big people."
He was the first embodiment of old Ireland we met, a living genealogy with a tweed cap, a walking stick, and a memory that held onto every member of the family going back 200 years. He spoke as if he'd known them all, and at Knawhill ("The Hill of Bones") he led us to their graves and told their stories.
He talked of those who had emigrated to the States and then come to visit over the years, and of them all he said the same thing: "They came home." Us too: We'd come home. As if even though our people left a century ago, and we ourselves had been born in America, we'd only really been visiting there. Our real home was here, in this place.
It's like the old joke about an Irishman proposing marriage: "Mary, how would you like to be buried with my people?"
It was a strange sensation, this sense of roots, made stranger still when Paddy would point from the car window toward a house along the road and say, "Those people over there, they're your cousins too."
It was a motif that repeated throughout our trip.
In Castlemaine, setting of the Irish ballad "The Wild Colonial Boy," B&B proprietor Mary Murphy took us aside after we checked in. "I know your family," she said. "Your great-grandfather's brother James lived right down the road."
And sure, he had. And sure, there were people in town who remembered him. Richie Boyle, owner of Boyle's Hardware, was a boy when James ("We called him Hayes, because he was a great fan of a footballer by that name") came to work for his family.
"We were in the pub one night," he recalled, "and someone remarked how a certain player had kicked the ball in a match that week. Hayes, he said, Â?Sure, it wasn't like that at all,' and he jumps up, takes a two-pound sack of sugar he had, and drop-kicks it to show how it was really done." He paused, laughing at the memory. "Oh," he said, spreading his hands wide, "sugar flew aaaall over the room."
Far from having trouble finding our roots, they were fairly reaching out to snare us.
Aside from the emotional high this kind of travel inspires, we soon realized that planning an itinerary around these kinds of small towns has another advantage: exclusivity. Often, we were the only visitors, and thus privy to an Ireland far removed -- and far more authentic -- than the country's more popular tourist cities and towns.
Bustling Galway, for instance, is a vibrant, international city that could be anywhere in Europe. But twenty miles to the north, somewhere outside the small city of Tuam, our maternal cousins Roger and Joseph Glynn were living as if the 20th century had only just arrived, never mind the 21st.
"You're going to visit Roger and Joseph?" said Mary Harlowe, a second cousin who'd learned we were in-country through some mysterious Irish bush-telegraph, and had tracked us down at our B&B. "You'll never find it. I'll have to lead you."
And she did. Down unmarked back roads, past the ruins of a castle where my mother's grandmother played as a little girl, all the way to the farm where that little girl's nephew, then age 84, lived with his son.
They greet us at the door, both dressed in rough work clothes and boots, both courtly even though -- or maybe because -- they receive so few visitors. We exchange stories, Roger's going back to the days of the Black-and-Tan paramilitaries, sent by the British in 1918 to suppress the Irish rebellion.
They sit for a photo, both ramrod straight in their wooden chairs. We show them our old pictures, and Roger squints at one through poor eyesight. He point to a child of two sitting beside his grandmother and younger brother. "That's me," he says.
That night, we meet Mary again for dinner. She and her husband are my age, hovering just above 40, and live in a modern Ireland far removed from Roger and Joseph's rural time machine. Yet even in them there's that powerful sense of home and connectedness, most evident when Mary takes us for a visit to her uncle Patrick's farm. There, behind the house, we stand looking out over forty acres of fields that stretch over a hilltop and out of sight.
"This is our place," she says.
Planning Your Own Genealogy Trip
Your ability to find relatives, living or dead, depends to a great extent on the connections your family has managed to maintain. In our case, family members in the U.S. had maintained postal (and in one case e-mail) contact with living relatives in several of the counties from which our ancestors had emigrated. In Donegal, however, home to my paternal grandmother's people, the Cattersons, we had no leads whatsoever -- but had we had more time on the ground, we might have been able to find some. One older man we met in Castlefinn, on the border of Northern Ireland, said, "Cattersons? We're lousy with Cattersons," and proceeded to name half a dozen he knew personally. We were almost certainly related to some of them, if not all.
The most valuable asset for planning any genealogy trip is having a close relative who's already involved in genealogical research. In our case this was my mother, Carol Hannafin, who helped plan our trip even though care-giving obligations to my grandmother prevented her from taking part herself. We literally could not have done it without her. Many of the resources listed below came from her research.
For those just starting out, the U.S. National Archives has a list of helpful ideas at www.archives.gov/genealogy, including information on how to access immigration records (i.e., passenger ship arrival manifests) as well as naturalization, census, and land records in the U.S.
Immigration records are particularly useful because they list the immigrant's last place of residence, which may lead you to living relatives still residing in the area. The Ellis Island website (www.ellisisland.org) is useful for people whose ancestors arrived in the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924. You need to know your ancestor's approximate date of birth to access these records, and will almost certainly have to sift through a lot of false leads.
The genealogy website www.ancestry.com has online passenger lists of ships arriving from foreign ports to New York (1851Â?1891), Boston (1820Â?1943), Baltimore (1820Â?1948), New Orleans (1820Â?1945), Philadelphia (1800Â?1945), and Los Angeles, San Pedro, San Francisco, and Ventura, California (1893Â?1957). Access to their database is subscription-based.
Microfilm records of passenger lists up to 1955 from scores of other arrival ports are available for hands-on inspection at the National Archives (www.archives.gov) in Washington, D.C.
Other records -- census, birth, land, death, etc. -- can help you track your family backwards, to help pinpoint when and from where your people arrived in the U.S.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a., the Mormon church) has been collecting and preserving genealogy records for more than 100 years -- because, as their website says, "We believe that every person is important and that families are meant to be both sacred and eternal." Their website, www.familysearch.org, is the largest vital-records (birth, marriage, death) database available worldwide, and access is free.
Two paid-subscription websites, the aforementioned www.ancestry.com and www.heritagequest.com, also offer digitized versions of many federal census records, as well as other genealogical resources.
The Irish Times newspaper has an ancestry page on its website (www.ireland.com/ancestor) that includes passenger manifests from immigrant ships that left Ireland between 1667 and 1934. Other genealogical resources include a surname search by parish, an ancestor search function, and links to in-country resources.
The National Library of Ireland's family history research pages (www.nli.ie/new_serv.htm) offers copies of the Irish Census and other useful records.
The Irish Genealogical Project (www.irishgenealogy.ie) offers records from the whole of Ireland and is supported by government agencies in partnership with the three major family history and genealogical research associations in Ireland.
Church records are the most reliable genealogical resource in Ireland. Writing to St. Gobnait's in Castlemaine, we were rewarded with four pages of detailed information, including names, dates, and the location of family graves in town. For Roman Catholic records and contact information for parishes, go to www.home.att.net/~Local_Catholic/Catholic-Ireland.htm. For the Church of Ireland, go to www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/genealogy/parishes.htm.
If you want help planning your trip, UK-based Ancestral Roots Travel (www.ancestralrootstravel.com) specializes in tailor-made ancestral travel and genealogical tours across Europe, for both small and large groups. They can arrange for you to stay in the towns and villages where your ancestors lived, visit buildings and churches that were in use when your ancestors lived there, and visit local archives and meet with local historians.
Resources for Other Countries/Regions
Eastern European Jewish Heritage: The company Route to Roots (www.routestoroots.com) specializes in research into Jewish roots in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova/Bessarabia, and Galicia/Austro-Hungary, and can help you plan customized travel to your ancestral towns.
Sephardic Jewish Heritage: Upscale Heritage Tours (www.heritagetoursonline.com) provides Jewish heritage tours to Morocco, Turkey, Spain and South Africa, seeking to put the history of those countries' Jewish communities in context.
African Heritage: The oldest African-American-owned travel agency in the U.S., Henderson Travel (www.hendersontravel.com) offers African heritage tours in Senegal, the Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa, in some cases visiting sites associated with the slave trade. Boston-based Specter Travel (www.spectortravel.com) also offers heritage tours in many of the same areas.
Scandinavian Heritage: The Nordic Company (www.nordicco.com) can plan independent group travel in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, the Baltics, and Russia. Bridge to Sweden (www.bridgetosweden.com) helps plan trips that focus entirely on the area where your family lived and on your Swedish relatives.