21 March 2010


     If we family historians are serious about breathing life into our family tree and understanding our ancestors as the persons they were, we should not forget to learn about Irish culture and customs, particularly those of the era in which our ancestors lived. Did your great great grandmother warn the faeries before she threw the dirty water out the door? Can you imagine your great grandfather's wake? Did your great great great aunt dance in the crossroads? Did her son attend a hedgerow school?
     Learning the history of Irish customs and culture provides us with a peephole into the daily lives of our ancestors. Knowing about customs also provides us with genealogical clues. Do you have a recipe handed down for generations? Your family's way of making lamb or bread might be a regional recipe and might point you to a geographic location for your ancestors. Does your family use words or expressions that are rather unique? Could your grandfather be using an old expression from the hills of County Tyrone, or might it mark your great grandfather as a Cork man?
     After one of my recent talks, two of the audience members related genealogical stories related to music. One woman sang a song her Jewish father (who married an Irish girl) would sing to her as a child.The song was about being Jewish but wanting to be buried by the River Shannon.
     The other woman told me of hearing a song sung in an Irish pub when she visited the county of her ancestors. The song was about three brothers who had left for America. It turned out the three brothers were her grandfather and uncles.  From now on, I will listen a bit more carefully to the lyrics during an seisun!
     I have heard from a few people who have stories or poems written by an ancestor.A woman in my Irish group at my local Family History Center, Rosemarie McGinty, has a genealogical and cultural treasure handed down from her grandfather, Patrick Kearney of Co. Kilkenny and Philadelphia. He left behind about 40 poems, many of them about friends and family. Reading these poems, a family researcher might find genealogical clues hidden in description of places or people. The same is true for other types of art or writings done by an ancestor. A painting, a story, a letter--all might contain a key to unlocking more family history.
     Gleaning clues from a letter or poem or story often requires an understanding of the customs and culture of the time in which the write lived. For instance, one of the poems in Rosemarie's collection is written in the manner of a Sean-bhean Bhocht (Shan Van Vocht/Poor Old Woman) piece. This style of poetry is political in nature, with the "Old Woman" representing Ireland. So the inclusion of such a poem in her grandfather's writings may be a clue to his political leanings, and might lead Rosemarie to search for associations or clubs he might have belonged to in Philadelphia.
     One of Patrick Kearney's poems may yet provie Rosemarie with a town of origin for her family in Co.Kilkenny. In one stanza of  "Fond Remembrance of Christmas Morning in Ireland," he writes:
"The Franciscan Church we now can see
     In veneration we called it the Friary.
As I entered its portals I was too thrilled to pray
     As I gazed on the crib built by Father Day."
Following these clues, Rosemarie is researching friaries in Co. Kilkenny as well as the identity of Father Day.
     Of course, we are all not lucky enough to have a poet for an ancestor. But many of us have letters, postcards, jewelry, and other heirlooms that, when examined with detective eyes and with a knowledge of the customs and culture of our ancestor's time, might yield new clues we can use in our research.