Welcome to Poor Irish & Pilgrims. My parents never said much about their childhoods, much less about family history. The impression they gave me was that the world before they were born, was irrelevant, uninteresting and devoid of value. But I mined for what I could get, and Mom was the richer source.
When prompted, Mom recalled her Granny Dolan (born in Ireland) would faithfully brush her long, dark hair before bedtime. Granny inspired my mother’s loathing of tea, because of the bitter brew she served from the pot of leaves she kept boiling on the stove all day. As unappetizing as that sounds, Granny also boasted of her robust appetite and would chide her girls at table for watching their figures. In 1954, she walked many miles to visit Mom and her new great-granddaughter, when she was 86 years of age.
Granny ruled the house, so Mom’s grandfather,Thomas, was known to disappear into the cellar from time to time, where he could enjoy a quiet draught of beer. A Boston city employee, Thomas was a skilled gardener and loved trees. Mom said that after the hurricane of 1938 struck, he made his way to her house to assess the damage to the yard, where a full grown tree had been nearly toppled. Her grandfather braced himself and used his back to push the tree back upright, so it didn’t die.
I’m grateful to have these glimpses into my great-grandparents’ personalities and passions.
My parents were products of Irish-American Catholic culture, which they imparted to their children, but beyond church rules and rituals, a chorus of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” on St. Patrick’s Day, was the extent of our tradition. So, I assume their parents didn’t make any big deal out of the ancestors either.
The elders had a right to be more focused on day-to-day survival, having endured wars and the Great Depression. It’s understandable their children despised everything used, faded and old. This American generation rushed headlong into the modern era, exalted the automobile, left family and the old town home behind to keep up with the Jones in the suburbs.
While Dad never gave satisfying answers to my questions, he did say we were English, Irish and German. How surprised he would have been to know that vague clue was the seed of a wonderful adventure for me!
My ancestors include Mayflower passengers and Dutch settlers of New Netherland (modern New York). Some were orthodox religionists, some zealots, and others got branded heretics. Come the American Revolution, they were patriots and loyalists, and the research goes on into the tragedies and triumphs of immigrants, refugees, heroes, villains, and eccentrics.
Digging for roots opens you up to the universal human story. It may shatter long-held beliefs, expose lies and reveal scandal. You may grieve for parents who lost a child from an illness one of your own survived. You may weep over a photo or a letter written by a person you never knew. You may feel frustrated by some dead person’s terrible decision, and smile for the once destitute immigrant who overcame all obstacles to achieve the American Dream.
I feel sorry for the families who don’t share ancestor stories. Discovering relatives whose lives played out against the backdrop of national and world history, we find context and connectedness for ourselves. When you climb the family tree, the conceit of “our people” falls away to reveal that we are all people. I can’t think of a more important lesson in life.
About the author
Christine M. Roane is a writer in Springfield, Massachusetts with an inordinate fondness for history. Her work has appeared in American History and Ancestry magazines, Learning Through History and the 3rd Edition of Scribner’s Dictionary of American History.