Author interview: A 30-year search for an Irish family's history
This week I came across an interesting story from Maureen Wlodarczyk, author of a new book called Past-Forward A three-decade and three-thousand-mile journey home. It chronicles a search for her Irish family history that took her thirty years of work to complete. Ms. Wlodarczyk wrote the book in tribute to her grandmother, who celebrated her Irishness, but knew very little of her ancestors who came to the U.S. from County Sligo in the potato famine years of the 19th century. I talked with Maureen about her huge genealogy project and what got her going on it. (Her book is available here.)
What made you embark on your 30-year search for your Irish family background?
From my early childhood, I was very close to my maternal grandmother Kate who was the daughter of first-generation Irish-American parents, as I am the only daughter of her only daughter. Over the years as I was growing up, I heard bits and pieces about her “difficult” childhood, the loss of her mother when she was nine and her father’s drinking and inability (or unwillingness) to keep the family together after her mother’s premature death from tuberculosis in 1913. The knowledge that she had endured so much but yet went on to marry at 16, a marriage of over 50 years, becoming a wonderful mother to five sons and a daughter, and a devoted grandmother and great-grandmother made me so proud of her….and so sad to know that while she was the essence of family to us, she knew next-to-nothing about her own family and had no meaningful good or positive memories of the family members she had known as a child. I became very curious to know more about her childhood and thought that if I could discover her Irish family history, I could dilute those bad memories with a broader generational story of our Irish roots, hopefully replacing disappointment and shame with some amount of pride in knowing “who we were”.
Did you find out exactly when your relatives came over from Sligo (your grandmother was born in the U.S., right?)
Yes, she was born in Jersey City, NJ. It took over thirty years of off-and-on searching and the advent of the internet and genealogy resources like ancestry.com and the Heritage Centres in Ireland, but I did confirm my great-great-grandfather John J. Flannelly’s birth in Skreen Parish, County Sligo in 1841 and his parents’ (William and Mary Lang Flannelly) marriage there in 1832. That led me to find that William & Mary and their 6 children (including my great-great-grandfather John) arrived in New York City on November 28, 1846 on the packet ship “Marmion”. They left their home to escape the Great Famine.
What did you find out about your family history that surprised you?
I discovered, just a few years ago, that my immigrant great-great-grandfather John Flannelly served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was hospitalized in Williamsburg, VA after the Battle of Williamsburg in May 1862. Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I have always been drawn to Williamsburg VA, having vacationed there many times over the past 30 years, and have been a part-time resident of that city for the last ten years (long before I discovered my great-great-grandfather had been there as a soldier). I consider myself a person of very strong intuitive sensibility and suspect that drew me to Williamsburg to walk on the very streets where my great-great-grandfather had walked more than a century before.
Are you the only one in your family interested in this kind of information?
I am not the only one who has shown interest but my level of interest and need to search are well beyond any other family member’s. But, I do have a genealogy “buddy” who is always game for an outing….even a day of “cemetery-hopping”: my mother’s cousin Dorothy. She is in her mid-80s, the daughter of my grandmother’s sister, and has the energy and enthusiasm of a person half her age.
Did your grandmother seem interested in knowing about her family history? Did she see herself as a person influenced by her Irish heritage?
My grandmother enjoyed being Irish. St. Patrick’s Day was a favorite holiday when she watched the NYC parade on television and also would watch the John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man”. When it came to her own family, for the reasons I mentioned before, she struggled with some level of shame or embarrassment about things that had happened between her parents and in the aftermath of her mother’s death. While I was able to get her to tell me some details about those years, she was somewhat reluctant to reveal things that had happened. It was the same with her sister. That’s why I say that “time can’t heal all wounds”. I know it didn’t for my grandmother.
What were the main roadblocks you ran into in getting the documents about your family, and how far back were you able to trace your genealogy in Ireland?
The main roadblocks were the fact that my grandmother only had limited family knowledge and that the records available in Ireland prior to the mid-nineteenth century are very limited in many locales. Also, before the last decade and the ever-expanding resources available on the internet, it was necessary to travel to access records or to write to vital statistics departments, waiting a very long time for a response and hoping that the person who handled your request did a thorough job….the kind of job one would do for themselves. So far, I have been able to trace my Irish roots back to the second half of the eighteenth century and my great-great-great-great-grandparents Owen and Mary Flannelly, who were born in the 1770s.
What did you find harder about this project – doing the research or writing the book?
The research was harder and much more protracted, having come in dribs and drabs over so many years. That’s not to say the writing was easy. I had a couple false starts and then, when I decided to write the story in the form of a letter to my grandmother, I found the vehicle for telling the story as I would have told it to her, had she lived.
What, if any, related tangents arose from the search for your family history?
In the last three years, I convinced a male family member to participate in a YDNA testing program under the auspices of a family clan organization in Dublin, Ireland. Those test results put me in touch with new DNA-discovered “cousins” in the US and in Ireland and they have become extended family. I am now an officer of that organization, the Flannery Clan, and help members by doing genealogical research, which has been very rewarding for me and very exciting for them. Not only did I finally solve the mystery of our Irish roots but, where during my grandmother’s childhood the family was broken apart in many ways, we are now (a century later) rediscovering and restoring family connections.