Sunday, November 13, 2011

Meeting our Inishowen Family

How beautiful and rugged is the coast pictured above?! That's the view from Malin Head, the northern most point in Ireland. Breathtaking! This is where my paternal Great Grandfather lived and worked in the 1800's. He was born in 1839 - just around the time the Great Famine struck Ireland. It's amazing he survived at all, let alone marry twice and father 15 children!

I have spent the past 3 years tracing my ancestors in Ireland, England and Canada. I have met some really incredible folks along the way. All the research culminated with a visit to County Donegal to finally meet my cousins - descendants of my Grandfather's sister Philomena.

I'll recount the happy occasion of our meeting after sharing with everyone the story of my incredible good fortune and simple 'Irish Luck'. I also believe that divine intervention had a hand in bringing some amazing folks into my life. See if you agree:

In March 2011, having reached the limit of genealogy information available on-line, I decided to look for a genealogy expert based in County Donegal. The records I needed to extend my knowledge of my ancestors were in Ireland. Most held by local churches. I also needed someone who had experience with obtaining public records and interpreting the 150 year old land records of the townlands of the County. After looking at many options, I found Boyd Gray of West Ulster Genealogy. Boyd and his business partner Barbara worked doggedly for months. They found siblings of my Great Grandfather Daniel and siblings of my Great Grandmother Susan. Boyd even made a trip to Culdaff in July to meet with my cousins and photograph the homes (or remnants of) my Great Grandparents. They solved the mystery of what happened to my Grandfather William's brother, Phillip. Phillip's name appeared on the family gravestone, though no one knew the exact story of his death. [He died in what appears to be a fishing accident off the coast of Wales] So many other little details were traced with enthusiasm - at times I was overwhelmed just taking it all in! Here's a photo of Boyd, who I was so thrilled to meet in Culdaff on Saturday evening, Nov 5th.

My second occasion of Irish Luck came in the form of an email from a wonderful lady named Ellen. Upon booking our flight to Ireland, I sent a letter to each of the parish priests in the towns we planned to visit. [We also visited the parish and family farm of my paternal grandmother's family in County Sligo]. The priest in Malin Parish responded to my request to view the parish records almost immediately. He informed me that he had forwarded my request to the Parish Archivist - who would search the records on my behalf. The letter included the names of my Great Grandfather and both his wives. Ellen is the Parish Archivist. She also happens to be our third cousin! What luck! She was able to put me touch with Paul and Maureen, who are also third cousins, living in England. We exchanged information, spoke on the phone and sent photos to each other. We also filled in a lot of 'blanks' on each others family tree. Amazing! Here's a photo of me, Ellen and her friend Mary, taken on the evening of our 'Clan Gathering':

On Saturday morning, Nov. 5th Ellen and her sister Margaret met us in Malin Town to give us a tour. They picked us up at 9:30 and we spent a good part of the day together. We had some really good conversations and laughs. I was so overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness shown by these two wonderful ladies. Here are some of the sights we saw that morning:

Another view of Malin Head

This cottage appeared in the pages of National Geographic & on a cereal box!

Suzanne braving the strong winds on the peninsula

Hmmm, I wonder if they are related?!

Locked out of our own pub!!!

That's Margaret on the left, Ellen on the right. Pumpkin Head in the middle!

Just one of the three rainbows we saw that day!

Remnants of a family homestead

This was once the home of our Great Grandfather, Philip Farren

This is Mr. McLaughlin, who allowed us to walk his property to get to Philip's house. Mr. McLaughlin provided a wealth of information about our ancestry - just by knocking on his door! Thank goodness for Ellen - Suzanne & I would never had dared!

This is Margaret and her husband. Suzanne & I will be helping Margaret with a project in the near future. [more about that later!]

Mr. McLaughlin's cows... I think we disturbed their lunch!

Finally, the big evening event was upon us... we were finally going to meet our cousins! This branch of our family - still living in the town where our Grandfather, "Willie" was born - are the children and grandchildren of our Grandfather's sister, Philomena. The second we walked into McGrory's Pub, there were hugs and kisses and smiles exchanged all around. In those smiles I saw familiar features... there was no doubt we were related! Suzanne and I were so touched and grateful that some of our cousins drove nearly two hours to be at the gathering. Eleven of us settled in nicely, enjoying a few drinks- (soda for me as I was driving those narrow Irish lanes!) and sharing a delicious meal. Here's the few shots I managed to take... we were all so busy laughing and talking, I'm lucky I got these!

Left to Right: Suzanne; Cousin Mena; Jamsie and Mary (Jamsie is the son of Philomena so he's our Dad's cousin/our 2nd cousin); the side of Ellen who is leaning over to talk to Kathleen, (the widow of Jamsie's brother, Danny and mother to 11 of our cousins!); and cousin Catriona - who, along with our cousin Eileen in Dublin, was instrumental in getting everyone together that evening!

And here's a photo of the family just as the evening was about to end:

Left to Right: That's me and Suzanne; cousins Catriona, Josephine and Mena; Kathleen; cousin Neal McGrory (proprietor of McGrory's pub/ our Great Grandmothers were sisters!); and sitting in front Jamsie and wife Mary.

That evening in Culdaff will remain in our hearts and memories forever. All of our relatives were so forthcoming with the stories of their lives and what they knew of our families here in the US. We shared many stories - some hysterically funny and some so very tragic. We shared with them the losses we knew of... the deaths of our Grandmother Kathleen, our cousins Patty and Valerie; and the loss of our Aunt Kathleen. We were not alone in our losses - our Irish family had witnessed tragedy as well. The exchange of information regarding our losses helped to identify common illnesses that seemed to run in the family. This will benefit all of us, knowing that there might be a genetic link to some of the maladies that have affected our ancestors and our contemporaries.

I should also mention here that our cousins are an accomplished lot. They are all successful in their chosen professions and have beautiful families. In the past week I have seen incredible photos of the next generation of cousins - they are a stunning group of children - all with angelic faces (and I'm hoping a bit of devilishness too!). The evening was just the beginning of all of us getting to know one another. I can tell you though, I really like knowing that I'm related to such wonderful individuals. I can't wait to see all of them again! As you might guess, we are expecting them here in California and in Philadelphia in the coming months/year. I'm looking forward to sharing more fun times and having our kids meet their Irish cousins!


  1. Hi Michelle,
    I have just read your commentry and saw those lovely photos of malin head, very well put together, I was chatting to my Auntie Philomena, my Dads sister in Scotland on Sat and Sun evening and told her all about our meeting. She had so many more stories about you Grandad Willie and would only be delighted to share them with you. she remembers him very clearly and hopefully we will get her out to the States eith us maybe next year. She is a powerful lady full of laughter and fun. I will phone you some day to fill you in. Send me your tel no. I will vlose off now and get some sleep. Best Wishes, Phyllis

  2. This was so much fun to read, and I laughed out loud when I saw the Farren Pub. How funny is that?!

    I just love the way you were able to find out so much about your family. I wish it were that easy for me to find out more about my mother's family. I have my father's lineage back to 1632 Derbyshire England. Perhaps I should go to England and do some research?!

    Anyway.. I think it's fabulous that you have not only traced your lineage and have met living relatives, but that you also have discovered information (medical) that can only empower you all to keep a closer eye on your health.

    I'm glad I had the time to read tonight. This is all so fascinating!