Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Helping others to trace their Irish roots

I used to roll my eyes at Yanks looking to trace their ancestry but now I’ve made a business out of it, writes Joe Buggy

Sat, Sep 7, 2013, 15:00


Joe Buggy

Many Irish people roll their eyes when they hear about the Yank coming to Ireland to trace their Irish ancestry. I know I was sometimes guilty of that when I worked in the tourism industry during my college summers. That might seem like a surprising admission from someone who now earns an income working as a professional genealogist in the United States.

When I moved to the New York area I had no intention of starting a business. But the stipulations of my visa entailed not being allowed to work for the first six months. I needed something to do every day, so I indulged in my love of history and genealogy, courtesy of the outstanding facilities at the New York Public Library. The more I learned about genealogy in the US, the more I learned that it is a multi-billion dollar industry with monthly website subscriptions, DNA tests and professional researchers for hire.

Irish genealogical research was a substantial part of that, and I saw a gap in the market for an Irish born person. Being a native gives you a natural understanding of the quirks of genealogy in Ireland. For example, why you can have eight Brennan families in the one area who all claim not to be related to each other and have nicknames such as ‘The Plough’, ‘The Rock’, and ‘The Hill’ or how someone can have a date of baptism before they were born.  These are the aspects of research that can bewilder an American genealogist.

But a deeper understanding also began to dawn on me. Irish-Americans were trying to find the place of origin of their Irish born ancestors. Their ancestors had come to the United States, taken a huge risk in their lives, not fully sure that everything would work out as they hoped it would. These immigrants wanted to build a successful life for themselves. They hoped their children and future descendants would remember and be proud of their Irish heritage. These immigrants were like me.

Many emigrants reading this article might not be aware of their own ancestry beyond where their grandparents were born or that a patch of land has been in the family for a number of generations. But as the initial couple of years abroad lengthens like an evening shadow, you begin to contemplate marrying a non-Irish person or having children outside of Ireland. You will no doubt want to imbue your child with a strong sense of being Irish and where you come from. Your genealogy is an incredibly important part of that. And this is what descendants of Irish emigrants are keenly interested in. You might have only been out of Ireland for a few years, but it has a very real chance of turning into a few generations.

For many this has already happened and they are now the descendant of an Irish person who emigrated in previous generations. John Grenham, author of the Irish genealogy bible Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, has a weekly blog in the Irish Times. In the run up to St Patrick’s Day 2011 he told an incredible story about one such Irish-American family.

They had left famine ravaged Ireland, one of hundreds of thousands, and had managed to get to Liverpool in the hope of travelling to America. They endured death, misery, disease and squalor to get to the dockside to board the ship to New York. As they were about to board, they noticed their youngest child was missing.

Despite frantic searches he could not be found, and they were faced with the choice of staying, with the loss of their passage-money and the knowledge of what awaited them in Liverpool, or leaving without the child. They left. Immediately after arriving in the US, the mother began to write to Liverpool police stations, orphanages, charities, anyone who might conceivably have come into contact with her child, and continued  to write for the rest of her life. She never discovered what happened to him. Her other children had to promise to continue the search after her death, and then her children’s children and then their children in turn. Over a century and a half, the agony of the woman’s loss became embedded in the family’s story of itself, generation after generation, each one taking up and pursuing the lost child again.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be the grandchild or great grandchild of that woman upon hearing that story? The burning desire to find that lost little Irish boy on the Liverpool docks, an ancestor they never met. Their genealogical endeavors hoping to bring to a close the haunting tale of their family history. For many others the rudimentary can be just as important. Finding the place of origin of a great-grandfather who had to leave his family because he was the sixth son on a rented three acre plot of land. Family lore like that, from the extreme to the elementary, make up the powerful narratives that drive countless Irish-Americans to trace their ancestors back to their patch of land in Ireland.

So the next time that you meet an American tracing their ancestry in Ireland don’t roll your eyes like I sometimes did in my naivety. Instead, direct them to the county library. Don’t let the local barstool gombeen tell them that their ancestors “took the soup” because they have no O’ before their name. Instead, tell them that all the records were not destroyed in the destruction of the Four Courts in 1922. Gently correct their well-meaning stereotypes about Aran sweaters, corn beef and cabbage, U2, The Quiet Man and Guinness. Teach them about Philip Treacy hats, boxty and dillisk, Two Door Cinema Club, Once and new Irish microbreweries. But above all, understand that knowing where you come from is something that is incredibly important to a person who had an ancestor that left Ireland.

Joe blogs about his work at and tweets at @nycgenealogist. His first book, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors in New York City, will be published in early 2014.