Digging for Irish Roots 



by Ray Riegert

We no sooner reached what I had believed was the summit, when my Irish-born cousin pressed forward, urging us on to the "last" peak. One arm clutching her eight-month-old son and the other pointing toward the steep rock pile that rose directly in our path, she picked her way nimbly among the boulders. Our final ascent, she explained, was along an ancient cairn, a heaped-stone monument built from 40,000 tons of rock and measuring 200 yards around.

"They say it's werr Queen Maeve's burried," she said, referring to the 1st century Irish ruler who reputedly warred against the men of Ulster. "But that cud be blarney fer all I know." We were at the top of Knocknarea, standing on a huge grave archaeologists date to 1000 B.C.

Together with her husband and two young sons, Heather had led us earlier through "The Glen," a natural limestone fault that forms a unique habitat at the foot of Knocknarea and is home to several rare plant species. It was that rarest of days in Ireland; the sun burned through the clouds for an entire afternoon and baked us as we wended our way past ancient peat deposits and up sedimentary outcroppings.

From the top the vista swept 360 degrees with Sligo in the foreground and Donegal Bay to the distant north. Here along Ireland's west coast the Atlantic shimmered to the horizon and the solitary figure of Ben Bulben, a flat-iron mountain that is Sligo's natural signature, lay open to view.

Gazing at its sharp slopes, deep green and swept with wildflowers, I remembered the day 25 years ago that I climbed "Big Ben Bulben." A college student then, I had come back decades later to show my family what I had found. Planning our summer vacation, I had reminded my two teenage kids that in the simple mathematics of genealogy since I was half Irish they were a quarter. We talked about how we were going in search of Ireland's past and our own roots.

It seemed fitting that the first place we checked in was Markree Castle, a stone fortress dating back 350 years that today is a bed and breakfast run by a tenth-generation member of the founding family. Arriving late at night, we heaved open the dense wooden doors, climbed a darkly-lit stone staircase and were greeted by a portly gentleman in his fifties. He had the pale skin and rose cheeks of an Irishman with a wisp of graying hair that appeared perennially windblown. "Charles Cooper," he introduced himself in unassuming fashion.

It wasn't until the next morning, ambling around the cavernous lobby, that we noticed among the faces in the portraits and stained-glass windows a close resemblance to "the clerk" who had greeted us. Charles Cooper's great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Edward Cooper, had been given the castle by Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was the English general who swept through Ireland in 1690, claiming it for the King. A hero to Irish Protestants and the devil incarnate to Catholics, he played a key role not only in Charles Cooper's family but in mine as well. Or so we found out when we visited my mother's family, which hails from a long line of Irish Protestants. As we wandered around the beautiful stone-and-brick church that dominates their tiny village, finding the graves of numerous ancestors, we noticed a familiar date on the cornerstone indicating when the chapel was built ~1690.

My daughter Alice and son Keith were a lot more interested in the farm Heather and their other relatives owned than which side of the religious divide our family lived on. It spread across 300 acres and numbered among its inhabitants 30 cows, 80 sheep and 400 turkeys. The turkeys, Heather's husband Robert explained, were strategically hatched during different times of the year so that come Christmas some would be 10 pounds, others 12, and still others 14 or 16 pounds. He worked the fields in a tweed sport jacket and knee-high rubber boots.

I smiled to think about the last time I had been there. I was twentysomething and my great-Uncle Willie owned the place. Within a half hour of arriving, he gave me an unforgettable lesson in the true meaning of the expression "make hay while the sun shines." It was a warm summer day, bright with a soft wind, marred only by approaching clouds. His alfalfa fields had been cut and dried and the hay lay in an endless succession of golden piles. He had six, maybe eight hours to gather it into the barn before the storm hit. Welcoming me to the farm, Willie handed me a pitchfork.

We never did trace our roots back as far as Charles Cooper, but we did find the 1848 baptism record of my great-great grandfather in the church and evidence that an earlier ancestor was the chapel's warden in 1782. Through Ireland's Genealogical Office we discovered that other ancestors had worked as fishing guides or "gillies" near the Ring of Kerry in Ireland's lush southwest corner. In 19th century Ireland, to borrow from Bruce Springstee n, "a man was brought up to do what his daddy done." Generations of my relatives led fisherman to the best salmon spots along the Sheen River.

They worked on an estate one owner called "the most interessant place in the world for both Improvement and Pleasure and Healthfulness." Little wonder that today it's a resort, the Sheen Falls Lodge, that rests right along the river within casting distance of a waterfall. To support the family, or the memory anyway, we hired a gillie and set off past the hotel's ancient five-arch bridge along a river dark as peat and pocked with salmon pools. Those angler genes must have disappeared over the generations—after several hours learning (or trying to learn) to flycast and pulling hooks from overhanging branches, we decided that family tradition would best be served by retiring to the Lodge's La Cascade dining room and ordering poached salmon for dinner.

Our search for roots led us next through the emerald heart of Ireland en route to Dublin. We had made reservations at the Conrad International Dublin. It's a beautiful hotel with excellent service and a great reputation, though I have to admit I hadn't consider any of this when I chose the place. Like all great choices, it was based on word of mouth. I had heard that it was easy walking distance from the genealogy office and that the concierge had helped a friend trace his ancestry. Most important, the Conrad houses Alfie Byrne's Pub. An Irish original, Alfie Byrnes was ten times the Lord Mayor of Dublin. He commuted between official functions by bicycle, tipping his hat to his constituents as he pedaled past. He also was a friend to the members of my family who never made it to the United States.

Somehow everyone's Irish roots lead them inevitably to the country's capital. "Dear Dirty Dublin" is where all the records are housed. It also happens to be the main port of embarkation for the millions of immigrants who departed for the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Together with my two teenage researchers, I plunged into musty records at the Genealogical Office. At the accompanying Heraldic Museum, decorated with the banners of Ireland's clans, we discovered the family crests from both sides of my mother's family.

It was at the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle that we uncovered the mother lode. A perfect setting for searching out your family's past, the castle is ancient, imposing, and crowded with history. King John built it 700 years ago, spiking traitors' heads on its gate and leaving his enemies to languish in its cavernous dungeon. Happily, we were placed in a room where we not only got to keep our heads but were actually allowed to pore over castle records.

King John's fortress, besieged on numerous occasions over the centuries, was last attacked during the Easter Rising of 1916. Combing through passenger manifests, we discovered it was during this volatile revolutionary period that my mother's mother and father both left for America. Growing up in Irish villages only forty miles apart, they didn't meet until they arrived in New York.

It was for the three of us a magical moment. We had come to a castle laden with Waterford glass chandeliers, gilded plasterwork and seven centuries of dark Irish history. We were sitting at a table strewn with court records, eyes glazed by endless lists of names, when we combed a column of type and discovered one Richard Irwin (my mother's father) departing Dublin aboard the Columbia on August 20, 1912.

Just another name, another number to the rest of the world. To us, it was like uncovering a clue to the holy grail. Our Ireland vacation had turned into a quest, an effort to complete a puzzle, and now we had placed another key piece in the jigsaw. Eventually we found that two years later, Margaret Jane Kerr (my mother's mother, then a young girl of 16) boarded a ship bound for Ellis Island.

By doing a little research before we left home and then dabbling in detective work on our vacation, we had unraveled some of the mysteries that dwell in the history of all families. By the time we got back home, it seemed like our work was done. But that was until I started recounting the story to my father's family. They too had done some digging, tracing the family back a few generations only to come up with a huge question mark named Albert Riegert. My great-great grandfather, he was the ancestor who first moved to the United States. But he had not happily boarded a luxury liner or even taken passage on a tramp steamer. It seems that Albert had been kicked out of his native Germany by Kaiser Wilhelm himself. "If you can figure out why," my aunt told me, "the whole family will finally understand how it was we came to be Americans."

For next year's vacation, we're booking tickets to Berlin.


General Information: Contact the Irish Tourist Board (345 Park Avenue, N.Y., NY 10154; phone: 800-223-6470 or 212-418-0800) and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (551 5th Avenue Suite 701, N.Y., NY 10176; phone:

800-326-0036 or 212-922-0101).

Lodging: Rooms at Markree Castle (Colloney, County Sligo; phone: 011-353-71-67800; www.markreecastle.ie) run about $130 a night including a full breakfast in the grand dining room; Sheen Falls Lodge (phone: 011-353-64-41600; e-mail info@sheenfallslodge.ie) in Kenmare, County Kerry has deluxe rooms priced at about $215; at the Conrad Dublin International (Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin; phone: 011-353-1-676-5555; e-mail info@conrad-international.ie) doubles are in the $250 range.

Tracing Your Irish Roots: There are over 35 million Americans of Irish descent. If you are among them and are interested in digging in the "ould sod" for your Irish roots, there are agencies and websites galore to aid in the search. The first step is gathering as much information as possible from within your family. Ask elderly relatives if they remember the county (better yet, the town or village) from which your family came. This can lead you into the parish registers, which sometimes reach back to the 18th century. It's also helpful to find out your ancestors' dates of birth, death and marriage; occupation; and middle names as well as first and last names.

The most complete information is at the Genealogical Office (2 Kildare Street, Dublin 2; phone: 011-353-1-661-8811; www.nli.ie, e-mail info@nli.ie). The Office of the Registrar General (Joyce House, 8/11 Lombard Street East, Dublin 2; phone: 011-353-1-635-4000; www.groireland.ie) contains birth, death and marriage records dating back about 150 years. Also consider the Public Record Office at the Four Courts and the Registry of the Deeds (Henrietta Street); the State Paper Office in Dublin Castle; and the National Archives of Ireland (Bishop Street, Dublin 8; phone: 011-353-1-407-2300; www.nationalarchives.ie; e-mail mail@nationalarchives.ie). For Northern Ireland information contact the Public Record Office (66 Balmoral Avenue, Belfast BT9 6NY).

There's also a private agency, the Hibernian Research Company (P.O. Box 3097, Dublin 6), that has helped trace the roots of everyone from President Ronald Reagan to tennis great John McEnroe. The average cost for preparing a family tree is 150 pounds. You can get a list of other research companies from the Genealogical Office.

The National Archives in Washington, D.C. can help with dates and ports of arrival of Irish immigrants into the United States. Their records often include the age and trade of the individual as well as their ship and port of departure.

Irish Records by James G. Ryan and Tracing Your Ancestors by John Grenham are both useful books. You can even join one of the 250 Irish clan gatherings that take place every year on ancestral sites; contact Clans of Ireland (c/o Genealogical Office).

Ray Riegert is the author of Hidden Hawaii and Hidden San Francisco and Northern California. He is also the publisher of Ulysses Press and lives in Berkeley with his wife Leslie and his two one-quarter Irish kids, Keith and Alice.