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#5: From Ireland to America – Finding My Ancestors In Pennsylvania

For my final semester of college, I had to create a “capstone project” in order to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in Storytelling. I decided to use the opportunity to fly from Colorado to Pennsylvania to discover who my Irish ancestors were. I visited churches, schools, birthplaces, and cemeteries, collecting dates and locations. But the best answers I got about who they were were and what their lives were like came from a phone call I had weeks later with a professor of Irish studies at NYU.

Episode Transcript

Ron Stauffer:  Good morning, this is Ron.

Kevin Kenny:  Uh, hi, Ron, Kevin Kenny.

Ron Stauffer:  Hi, sir. How’re you doing?

Kevin Kenny:  Good. How are you?

Ron Stauffer:  Excellent. This is Kevin Kenny PhD. Dr. Kenny is a professor of Irish studies at NYU, that’s New York University for Americans like me who haven’t spent much time on the East coast. Professor Kenny is, according to one of my own history professors, today’s leading expert on the migration of the Irish to America in the 19th century due to the Irish potato famine. I could spend a lot of time bragging about his credentials, a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a doctorate from Columbia University in New York, a former professor at University of Texas, as well as Boston College, the author of at least six books, and a member and leader of multiple historical organizations.

But while that’s impressive, I didn’t wanna talk to him about academic developments or esoteric concepts about the Irish diaspora. In May of 2019, I asked this Ivy league professor to call me so we could talk about my great, great grandmother. Last year, I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in storytelling at Metro State University in Denver, Colorado. It was my final semester and I had to complete a senior project in order to graduate. This capstone was supposed to serve as the culmination of everything I’d learned up to that point. It would be a showcase where I could prove to my professors and classmates that I actually paid attention in school and learned the kinds of skills that my career choice would require.

Most students used this as an opportunity to create a project that would serve as a portfolio piece for future employers, which is, honestly, a fantastic idea. But for me, it was totally irrelevant. As a self-employed business owner, I had absolutely no need or interest in spending time on a project to show to a potential employer since my plan is to never work for a boss ever again, as long as I live. I’m sure I’ll share more about my highly cynical view of employers and employment in a future episode, but I won’t go there now.

My point is this final project was going to be an opportunity to put everything I’d learned over the years together for a big conclusion. But since I really didn’t need to share it with anyone else, I decided to make it personal. Some of my classmates did capstone projects, such as How to Build a Website, or Why the JAM Stack is Superior for Web Development, or one that stood out from the rest, A Day in the Life of a Burlesque Dancer. All of these were fine and interesting, but for me, I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to go back in time and shake my family tree to see what would fall out. I wanted answers to some questions that had been lingering in my mind for over 30 years.

I’d always been fascinated by the questions, who am I, and why am I hear. Now, many people ask themselves these questions all the time, but they do so from a very philosophical and eternal perspective. They understand that there are big picture answers to those questions, but I think that some people seem to forget that those questions have very practical and simple answers as well. For example, take the question, who am I. One very simple yet accurate answer is, I’m a child of my parents. And this, to me, begs another question, who are they, which, of course, can also be answered, they are children to their own parents. Well, if you then ask, and who are they, I know the answer to that, my parents’ parents, or my grandparents. That’s easy.

I have lots of wonderful memories of my grandparents, spending the night at their house and coming over for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and things like that. But if you take this line of questioning up another generation or so, that’s where you start to lose me. Who are my great grandparents, or my great, great grandparents? Now that’s a deep thought, and a question I don’t have an answer to, especially with the Irish side of the family. I’ve always know that my paternal grandmother’s side of the family came from Ireland, but really, that’s all I’ve known. I never knew who these people were. I didn’t know when they came here or why or how. I’ve always wanted to learn more about this, and so I figured, as long as I’d be spending time in college working on a massive research project that I don’t need to help further my career aspirations, why not use this as the opportunity to uncover the mystery of the previous generations of my family?

I decided that my capstone project would focus on getting answers about the Irish side of the family, the Irish side of me. Specifically, I wrote out a list of questions I wanted answers to. Those were, number one, who exactly were these people? What were their actual names? Number two, what was their experience like when they came here? Number three, when exactly did they come to America? Number four, where exactly in Ireland did they come from? And where exactly in the USA did they end up? And finally, number five, why did they come here? What specifically made them decide to get on a ship and sail over 3,000 miles to another country?

Many, many Americans have Irish ancestry. That’s obviously not unique to my family at all. But over the years, I’ve spoken with perhaps dozens of people whose families “came from Ireland” and I was never satisfied with the extremely general answers I got when I pushed for specifics. Almost nobody I’ve met who claims Irish ancestry has done any research to find out which person in their family tree came here first, where they came from, where they left from, why they came here, or where their final resting place is. This has always puzzled me. Why would you not want to know the answers to those questions? And even more interesting question is, what if you still have family members back in Ireland? Do you know? Have you contacted them?

In case you can’t tell, I have a long history of irritating people by asking so many questions, and I suppose this is just one of those many topics where I want deep substantive knowledge rather than just repeating something vague I’ve overheard from someone else in the family over the decades. So, to create my capstone project, I took five days during my spring break to fly from Colorado to Pennsylvania to visit the East coast to glean as many answers to these mysteries as I could find. I visited churches, birthplaces, schools, cemeteries, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, getting answers to filling in the blanks in my family history.

But most of the things I discovered on my trip were only based in cold, hard facts or data. I was able to get answers on dates of birth, dates of death, and final resting places, but all of those just created a black and white outline, a skeleton of what happened and when. I needed to call in an expert to help add life and color to this picture. It was one thing for me to see born 1840, died 1893 written on a headstone as in the case of Andrew McElwee, my great, great, great grandfather, but I needed someone to help me figure out what happened between those dates. There’s a whole lot of life that happened in those 53 years, and I wanted to know what that life might have looked like.

So that’s why I wanted to talk to Kevin Kenny, the Irish studies professor. He didn’t have all the answers, of course, but he certainly knew more than anybody else about this exact topic, and amazingly, he knew all about the exact town in Pennsylvania where my family lived. Mount Carmel is a coal mining in Northumberland County, deep in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania near the Appalachian mountains. Fans of the faux reality TV show, The Office, would be pleased to know that it’s about an hour outside of the fictional headquarters of Dunder Mifflin in Scranton.

So, after my trip to Pennsylvania, I spent some time collecting my notes, reviewing photos, scanning death, birth, baptism and census records, and I created a profile for each of my family members, where they lived, where they were born, where they died, et cetera, and then talked to Dr. Kenny to help me fill in the blanks to get a sense of who these people were. I told him I was researching three sets of family names. Number one, the Gradys, who came to America some time between 1849 and 1870. Number two, the McElwees, who came here between 1844 and 1862. And number three, the Callahans, who came here circa 1884. I asked about which of these families, if any, would have come to America specifically as a result of the famine.

Kevin Kenny:  So, the first two, it would be plausible, the impact of the famine on emigration really was from 18- 1845 to 1855, it’s a whole decade of disruption. The famine itself lasts until 1851, but 1851 is the peak year of emigration. That’s when emigration reached its- its highest point. So, anytime between, uh, 1845 and 1855, that’s what we would count as the famine migration. So, both of the first two, especially if the first one who is [inaudible 00:09:25] those years would have been during the disruption caused by the famine. But then the famine, in turn, leads to massive long-term emigration, but continues, uh, for the rest of the 19th century. So, the famine is a trigger for continued emigration.

Ron Stauffer:  I was able to pinpoint a few specific counties where we suspect our family members came from in Ireland, and as you might guess, their surname was a very helpful clue in determining their county of origin. So with that in mind, I asked him to describe what was life like for people back then in those locations. For example, what was life in County Sligo like for the Gradys in the 1820s, and what was County Donegal like for the McElwees in the 1840s and 1850s.

Kevin Kenny:  It’s interesting that you came up with the Donegal connection because a lot of people from Donegal settled in the mining region of Pennsylvania, partly Northumberland County, where Mount Carmel is, but also Schuylkill County and Carbon County. So when you mentioned the name McElwee, that certainly struck me as northern name and a Donegal name. Donegal is the most… one of the most, uh, remote parts of northwest Ireland, um, the county south of it is Sligo. So it’s the same part of the country, the northwest corner of Ireland. So that would be the poorest, uh, part of the country. It would be the part of the country where people were most likely to speak Irish. Most Irish speakers that’s Gaelic at that time were bilingual. They spoke English as well. But the- the more elderly among them probably w… still would’ve been monolingual Irish speakers, which is interesting.

And it would’ve been a part of the country from which there was relatively little emigration before the famine. People have started to emigrate from Ireland before the famine, but from that part of the country, the poorest part of the country, people didn’t emigrate for two reasons, basically. One is they couldn’t afford to because the poorest of the poor never emigrate, it’s always the people with some resources who emigrate. And secondly, they didn’t really want to. They wanted to stay if they could. What allowed them to stay was potato cultivation, um, subdividing their farms into small holdings, children could, um, take over, but that whole system then breaks down because of the famine, because subdivided land holdings was dependent on potato cultivation. But as the potato failed once, you’re not gonna take that risk again.

So that’s the kind of society they came from. It’s one where they had very small farms. They were tenants. They didn’t own the land. They rented the land from people higher up in the social scale. They lived on very small farms, sometimes, uh, as small as a quarter of an acre, but that was sufficient to grow potatoes, to feed, um, their children. They had large families, and nobody knew the famine was coming, so it was a fairly stable, uh, but poor society, which emigration was low traditional Irish culture and so then the language survived in that part of the- the country most. So what I’m saying would apply to both Sligo and Donegal.

Ron Stauffer:  So, having established the fact that in all likelihood, these people were subsistence farmers with large families who came to America almost entirely due to the failure of the potato crop. I wanted him to do a little myth busting. I asked him about a rumor, that Pop-pop Pete, my great grandpa, apparently told my dad a few times, many decades ago. When my dad asked him, “Hey, Pop-pop, why did your family come to America anyway?” He responded, “We got kicked out of Ireland for stealing pigs.” I’m sure you can tell by now that I was looking for answers and I couldn’t let this one go. I asked Dr. Kenny to comment on this. Did he think this was a joke? Was it a lie? Was it the truth? A mix of all three? Were the McElwees literally exiled from Donegal for stealing pigs?

Kevin Kenny:  It could be a joke or a metaphor, but it can be the truth as well, all of those elements of folklore do. So whether it’s literally true, I wouldn’t know, but does it indicate something about the society, um, sure, it does. And it gets back to the point I made that the people in Sligo and Donegal didn’t own their land. They were small tenant farmers, they were very poor. Historically, the Catholic population have been dispossessed of the land centuries earlier as part of colonial conquest. So if, for example, you went, uh, fishing for salmon or trout, you would be fishing on the landlord’s property and you would be subject to prosecution or eviction.

When it comes to animals, people raised animals usually with the intention of selling them to pay the rent, so you would keep the family pig or the family cow and you would raise it and then you would sell them. So the money you got would- would be used to pay the rent. That might be the only cash transaction that was going on, and- and your family, before the famine, that’s the kind of society it- it is. So un- under situations like that, whether it’s a literal truth or a joke, it definitely contains metaphorical truth.

Ron Stauffer:  Next, I wanted to find out about the mindset of the people who decided to actually go to America, and also, the people who decided to or had to stay behind. Was leaving Ireland for America a happy, hopeful thing, or was it a desperate, last ditch effort by people who would do almost anything to survive? Did they feel they could only save one person, or was it part of a more elaborate plan of getting family members out one at a time? Did the family wave goodbye with cheers and excitement, hopeful for the future, or were they sad and upset that only one or two of them got to leave and that the rest were destined to die if they stayed? Was there resentment involved?

Kevin Kenny:  They’re elements of both. The first thing is emigration before the famine is- isn’t common, especially in the more remote and traditional regions. When a person leaves, it’s often an [inaudible 00:16:00] of- of what we refer to as chain migration, the process whereby one migrant goes out, finds work, and then brings a sibling or family member over, that’s traditionally how the Irish and many Europeans did it. The person who’s leaving is actually really leaving not as simply as an individual, but as a family member. Migration is an extension of family networks, but with the expectation of the migrant will help the family by sending money back to the family, either for passage tickets for other siblings or for the upkeep of- of the family. So that’s one scenario.

Another scenario is, uh, if somebody comes to America does well, that there will be resentment, that the- the people are getting ideas above their station, especially if they don’t pay attention to their family, or if they come back to Ireland for a vi- a visit and flaunt that wealth.

Ron Stauffer:  Many people are familiar with the concept of an Irish wake. This is where when a person dies in Ireland, it’s customary to immediately start preparing the body for viewing and a family wide celebration is held where the mourners actually partake in merriment as they say their final goodbyes to the body in an open casket before the burial, often accompanied with games, song, dance, alcohol, tobacco, and storytelling late into the night. But what I had never heard of before was this concept of a wake before someone had even died. Apparently though, that’s exactly what happened when some Irish folks left for America.

Kevin Kenny:  There’s a tradition in 19th century Ireland, especially in the west coast of Ireland, we’re talking about that when an emigrant leaves, because return actually is highly unlikely, this tradition called the American wake where the community holds the equivalent of- of wake. So you have a wake in an Irish culture for somebody who dies the night before a funeral, this is a wake the night before the emigrant leaves because the community knows they’ll never see him again. So emotionally, that’s, um, surrounded by sorrow and grieving more than anything else.

Ron Stauffer:  This underscores an important point, families hosting an American wake did so because they knew that the person leaving Ireland for America would, in all likelihood, never be seen again. In fact, as Dr. Kenny explains, of all European immigrants, the Irish, historically, had the lowest rate of return migration, so this was definitely a permanent arrangement. Contrast that to, say, my wife’s family, who originated from Italy, and you can see a huge contrast in expectations.

Kevin Kenny:  The expectation is that they won’t return. The Irish have some of the lowest rates of return migration of all A- American emigrants, less than 10%, maybe 5%, compare that to Italians, it’s opposed to 50%, Italians come and go, which, also, they don’t expect to see the Irish again.

Ron Stauffer:  I then wondered, why America? Why was it that so many people fleeing the tiny island on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean came all the way to America thousands of miles away rather than taking a much shorter ride to mainland Europe?

Kevin Kenny:  The Irish know a lot about the United States. They don’t have a- a romantic conception of the place. They just know that there’s really heavy demand for labor in the United States, and consequently, wages are high. So if they can get to the United States, they know that they have about a chance to make a life for themselves for any family members they bring over, and that’s a product, again, of chain migration.

They also know that, you know, conditions are harsh in American industry, but if it’s a choice between those harsh conditions and potential starvation in… by staying in Ireland, then you’re still gonna make the move. And some of the harshest conditions are in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. It’s a brutal place to work.

Ron Stauffer:  This brings me to the very specific part of my questions for him about Mount Carmel, a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, which, as you heard, he says, was a brutal place to work. He’s not kidding. As I mentioned earlier, Andrew McElwee died at 53. Today, that would be considered tragically young. And Bridget Callahan, who eventually became Bridget Gallagher, my great, great grandmother, the one who spurred my interest in talking to Kevin Kenny in the first place, was married at least twice and perhaps, three separate times. While that might not sound scandalous today with the extremely high divorce rate we have in the 21st century, back then, in Irish Catholic society in coal mining towns, divorce was almost certainly not a factor. Her multiple marriages were likely due to being widowed more than once. I asked Dr. Kenny to comment on this to give me a sense of what her life would’ve been like.

Kevin Kenny:  When I did census research, came across multiple households that were headed by women with no, uh, male breadwinner [inaudible 00:21:05] in, uh, in the house, and there was no husband. The woman was described as a widow. There was no indication of- of what had happened to the husband, but sometimes, I’d find households clustered with three, four widows in a row. And I- I know that there were a lot of, uh, mining fatalities. And I got [inaudible 00:21:25] there and speculated a little bit. So, no, it doesn’t surprise me that mortality would be high among men in that period.

The fact that she married several times, lived in- in a mining community, suggests to me that- that some of the men were killed, accidents, desertion and abandonment are all high. She lived for a long time by the standards of that period, and most people suffered greatly during the famine than combination of poverty and malnutrition, and to these and then the harsh conditions for men working underground meant that they lived much shorter lives.

Ron Stauffer:  Throughout this project, I was almost overwhelmed at the sense of just how hard life was in Ireland in the early 1800s, and it’s no surprise that they wanted to leave and find a better life elsewhere. But one thing that was a surprise to me was just how hard life was in America after they had arrived in the land they came to in order to seek a better life. Mining life was miserable, deadly work. Life expectancy was low, fatalities were common, and working men were easily replaceable.

There are many conclusions I came to while doing my capstone project, but one of the most powerful as I kneeled down on the grass at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Locust Gap, Pennsylvania, just outside of Mount Carmel, was this, these were tough, brave people. They left a hard life out of necessity and came here and found an arguably better but still very tough life here. Due to their hard work and sacrifice, I’m here today and my own children are here today.

I’m thankful for my Irish family. I’m thankful for the Gradys, the McElwees, the Callahans, the Gallaghers, and I wish I could’ve met them. I have the utmost respect for the choices they made to leave a difficult place and a difficult circumstance and seek a better life elsewhere. They’re an inspiration to me, and I hope I can do the same for my own family, if needed.

If you have immigrant ancestors, I highly recommend that you spend some time over the next few months, or even years, and dig around to see what you can learn about them. Who are they? Where did they come from? And why? Find out how your own life is better today because of the choices they may have made in the past. Honor them if you can by learning their names and seeking their final resting places.

As it turned out, my senior project wasn’t just an item I checked off on a list of things I needed to accomplish in order to graduate, it felt like a capstone of my first 30 years. I didn’t just use the skills I’d learned in school, I used the skills I’d acquired in life up to that point, a knowledge of my personal family history, being a good listener, knowing which questions to ask, and how, remaining incurably inquisitive, and willingness to travel far distances to seek answers to the mysteries that I had pondered.

When I finally put this project to rest, I really did feel like I was ready to graduate, not just from college, but into a new stage of life. I’m happy that I was able to use my schooling as an excuse to learn more about me and the people who came before me, the people who literally made me who I am.

I’m sad that I never got the opportunity to meet these fascinating people, who are now laid to rest in the hills of Pennsylvania, but I’m thrilled that I now have a better sense of who they were and what they experienced. I know their names, where they lived, who they married, what they did for a living, and at least a little bit of what their life was like. In that sense, you could say, they spoke to me from the grave, and I was happy to listen. Thanks for listening.

If you liked this episode of Micron (or even if you didn’t), let me know! I’m always open to feedback, including questions, comments, and episode suggestions. Send an email to feedback@micronpodcast.com. You can also leave a review on Apple Podcasts here, which would be super-helpful as I try to grow the reach of the show. Thanks!