On the hunt for Irish relations

“Do you have relations from Ireland?” is, without fail, one of the first questions that Irish people will ask when they find out you are American. It is a fair question, given the extensive Irish Diaspora and the country’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States. It is an even better question since I live in Cork, from where, it seems, half of America’s great great grannys and grandpas seemed to have been born or immigrated. However, my answer to the Irish relations question over the course of my Mitchell year has always been a confident (if somewhat apologetic), “no, no Irish relations or roots to speak of.” My family is not very genealogically inclined, but I was always told that we were of pure Scottish origins – descendents of the land of shortbread, smoky whisky, kilts, and (the indisputably best James Bond) Sean Connery.

Much to my surprise then, when I called home a few months ago, my Dad said “You know, I think your grandma mentioned something about having ancestors from Ireland.” He and my stepmom dug up the scrap piece of paper where my grandmother had written various family facts, and sure enough, it noted that my great great grandfather was born in Cork in 1845. ‘Thanks Dad, I thought, you couldn’t have thought of this 10 months ago when I moved to Ireland, and before I started lying to half the population of the country about my heritage.’

While the legitimacy of that scrap of paper is questionable, I figured a bit of family tree investigation would be a fun project at the least. I mentioned it to my good friend Jo here in Cork, and it turns out there is little else Irish folks love more than finding an American’s ancestral connection to the home country. Jo (and her entire family) have taken on the mission with vigor.

Last week, we paid a visit to Nell in Carrigtwohill, a small town three train stops down the line from Cork, where Jo grew up. Nell minded Jo and her siblings growing up, and her husband Carl conveniently has a hobby/business tracking down people’s (mostly Americans’) Irish ancestors. Jo and I showed up at the doorstep with a “thank-you-for-helping-me-discover-my-identity” lemon tart (always good to bring citrus-themed baked goods to Irish tea), and we spent the next few hours having a lovely chat. Like many good conversations in Ireland, the conversation weaved from how I have been enjoying my experience at UCC, to the sad news that the family cat had to be put down last month because of a hemoraging tumor, to the new ducklings that Jo’s father brought home from the wildlife park, to the couple’s recent vacation to Poland (shaky amateur home videos included, of course). The visit eventually wrapped up, I told Carl I would email him the name and dates I had for my family, and off we went (very little business happens in Ireland on a first visit).

And so the hunt has begun.

Whether something comes of it or not, I don’t really mind. That afternoon’s cuppa and chat were enough to call the project a success in my mind. More than that, it was a reminder of the warmth and hospitality that I have experienced here in Ireland – whether it is an invitation to Easter dinner with Granny, a cooked breakfast in bed after a late night out, or an offer to use the shower when my hot water goes out (again), my friends here in Ireland never cease to amaze me with their generosity. As the Mitchell year finishes up in the next couple of months, I find comfort in the fact that this kindness and friendship will be a part of my life forever. No matter the outcome of my investigation into my family heritage, I know that Ireland will always be a home.

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