Be the family storyteller, Seanchaí

Jumpstart your Irish roots search now

Olive Horgan, left, and Jannet L. Walsh driving to the train station in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland, June 1, 2018.

By Jannet L. Walsh
Aug. 4, 2021
Murdock, Minnesota

Curiosity and the luck of the Irish are absolutes when setting out to explore your ancestor’s origins.

But that’s just the beginning. Recalling family stories, trips to Ireland, a family photograph – all played an incredible role in understanding my Irish ancestors.

However, I didn’t know this at the time.

Although one hundred percent American – with mixtures of German, Prussian, Luxembourgian, Scottish and Canadian – I now carry the torch in discovering and understanding my family ancestors.

My father Martin J. Walsh Jr. was the first torch carrier. In the mid-1970s, he described that we were part of a what he referred to as “Archbishop John Ireland’s people.” That is, they were assigned to settle in rural De Graff, Minnesota, about three miles west from Murdock, a century before. De Graff was the first in a series of Ireland’s efforts to resettle 4,000 Catholic families in west central and southwestern Minnesota. This I learned from the 1985 St. Bridget Catholic Church, located in De Graff, application for historic places, now part of the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places.  My family and other early settlers “proved up” their farmlands to become U.S. citizens. This also required them to renounce ties to their old worlds in Ireland, Canada, and other lands. Descendants of these setters, myself included, continue to live and work in rural Swift County, Minnesota. 

My father was our family storyteller, in Irish it’s Seanchaí (sounds like shawnakee).Aside from being a great father, perhaps that was among his most important duties in life.  Now I’m taking over the job, splicing together our family’s Irish roots.  Obituaries and documents fill his 1940s suitcase, albeit needing to be to be organized and details recorded.

Photo Martin J. Walsh Jr, of Murdock Minnesota, Kodachrome, removed from mount for scanning: Information written on slide: Marty Walsh, Seaside, south of Belfast, May 1953.. Photo provided by Paul M. Walsh.  View more from 1953 trip to Ireland.

About 2010 I left Florida for my home state of Minnesota to care for elderly family members. Out of curiosity I launched my own Irish genealogy project. The project then became an obsession — and then a quest — to put together the pieces of my family’s history in Minnesota and Ireland.  The result is a nonfiction book, Higgledy-Piggledy Stones: Family Stories from Ireland and Minnesota., It is scheduled for publication in 2022 by Shanti Arts Publishing.  I never set out to write a book. However it is the natural result of discovering stories about my family that were lost or untold for some 200 years. Through travel and guided research, I was able to find very specific origins of my family in County Kerry near Killarney town, dating back to about 1820s.

How to start Irish genealogy search?

  • Starting place – First, start at home with your family.  Perhaps one or more family members have picked up the touch to gather family records, family trees, documents and stories.  In most cases, this person will appreciate you reaching out to them to share, or meet with you in person, if possible. Look for photos, letters, birth, marriage, death, military, church or religious documents and more to tell your story.
  • Interview family elders – Act quickly to interview and record stories of your elderly family members, in person or online. Prepare a list of questions related to childhood, their home growing up, parents and grandparents, immigration and citizenship, holidays, special events and more.  If possible, take photos the day of the interview, along with an audio recording or video.  Shortly after interview, transcribe or write out the answers — it is too easy to lose audio or video files, then your history is gone forever.  Be proactive and make notes when interviewing family members; that will make transcribing the interview go faster.  Try to collect any historical photos, or make copies, and ask about family documents, religious artifacts, including the family Bible, as it’s often used as a historical family record book of births, marriages, deaths, and so.
  • Local, state museums – Next, continue to search locally, or places your family lived or established their roots in the United States, Canada or other locations.  Start with the county museum, library or courthouse. You might find records with which to begin your search at little or no cost.  I spent a lot of time at the Swift County Museum in Benson, Minnesota, uncovering some of my father’s documents he had shared in the 1970s; as well as U.S. Citizenship papers, old newspapers and more.  I also researched at the Minnesota Historical Society, uncovering documents related to my family as settlers in Stillwater, Minnesota.   This list of state archives can jumpstart your search.
  • National Archives – Another great resource is the National Archives in Washington, DC.  Either online or in person you can search genealogy, immigration, census, naturalization, military, and more research topics. My family found Civil War letters written from battlefield to family back home in Minnesota.
  • Family tree, charts – The National Archives also has great references for creating your own family tree, such as ancestral chart, family group, charts for kids and more.
  • Homestead documents – If your ancestors were farmers in the United States, it’s likely they were homesteaders. That meant they had about five years to prove up their farmland before receiving a patent to own the land. Search documents at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management website, listed by state and counties. Homestead National Monument can also help you with your search, website and contact. A few park rangers from Homestead helped me online and by phone.
  • Online genealogy websites –  Ancestry has both paid and free subscriptions.  I started with a paid subscription, but now have it free.  This is a great way to connect with other family members with established family trees.  I also have a free subscription to FamilySearch, recently finding marriage records dating back to 1857 of great-great grandparents originally from Ireland living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I haven’t yet explored the paid version of this service, but really liked I was able to find documents quickly using the extensive databases.
  • Online newspapers – I’ve used a paid version of Newspapers.com, helpful to search historical newspapers. There’s also Irish Newspaper Archives for searching historical newspapers from Ireland.  Your local and state historical societies, libraries, school, college or more might access to historic newspapers you can inquire about searching. 
  • Irish church documentsIrishGenealogy.ie, free, is the site I found most of my Irish ancestor’s baptism and marriage records.  You can search church documents (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian), along with civil records, and more, run by the Irish Department of Tourism, Culture and Art.
  • Griffith’s Valuation –  Griffith’s Valuation, the first full-scale valuation for property in Ireland, overseen by Richard Griffith, published 1847-1864.  It is one of the most important surviving 19th century gynecological sources for Ireland. I used this to search for specific locations in Ireland, called townlands, where my family lived and worked in County Kerry.  Here’s a list of townlands and counties in Ireland.
  • Irish Census – The National Archives of Ireland has census records for 1901 and 1911, and fragments from 1821-51.  I used the census to research locations my family was associated with in Ireland.
  • Cemeteries – Visit cemeteries your family is associated with locally, or in Ireland.  Make notes, take photos, and even make a sketch how to find the graves of your ancestors.  For poor people in Ireland before the 1820s, or even after, it’s possible only a pile of rocks marks your ancestors grave, although you could get lucky and find a marked gravesite if your family was wealthy, part of the gentry class. Church and cemetery caretakers can be a resource for maps and records related to your ancestors.  Search military graves, and Find A Grave for searching for family graves.  
  • County libraries in Ireland – A county library in Ireland helped me with my genealogy search, at no cost.  Look for the county most associated with your family in Ireland, and ask for help.  Visit Libraries Ireland website and search for the county most associated with your family’s ancestors.
  • National Library, Dublin – The National Library in Dublin offers free genealogy advisory serves, online and in person. They also offer free access to subscription sites, you can inquire about. I visited the National Library more than once during my search.
  • Cobh Heritage Centre – The Cobh Heritage Centre, located in Cobh, County Cork, formerly called Queenstown.  Over three million Irish immigrated from Cobh Harbour, searching for new lives, or escaping the Great Famine.  I visited Cobh in 2019, and hired genealogist Christy Keating to help me tell the story of my ancestors’ exile from Ireland, an extremely rewarding and professional service.
  • Hire a professional genealogist – If you are thinking about hiring a professional genealogist, there’s a few things to consider.  Susan Riley, Ph.D., genealogist from Minnesota, put together a list of suggestions for hiring a genealogist.  Riley’s recommendations include:  Check out the person’s website; determine the genealogist’s credentials and experience; ask for work samples; insist on a written contract establishing goals, price of research, timetable; meet using video conferencing, such as Zoom, to clarify everything; and start a small, inexpensive project to see if the geologist is reliable.

“Hiring an accredited genealogist is great, but I, for example, do not have that credential.  I am a former college professor with a Ph.D. and decades of research experience who has turned to genealogical work.  In that transition process, I had to study genealogy and I continue to educate myself through books, webinars, and more to stay up-to-date,” said Riley. 

Riley suggests clients should look for a genealogist who is a member of the relevant organizations, such as the Association of Professional Genealogists, APG, but that is no guarantee of quality.  The APG does not monitor its members.  She thinks in the coming years groups like the APG will begin insisting on credentials and perhaps monitoring its members for compliance with its code of ethics, but the profession is not there yet.

Get organized, get started
No matter if you plan do the research yourself, or hire a genealogist, do keep a notebook to record your research and finding, print out digital documents to keep organized and safe when your computer crashes. Date your work and document your sources. It’s much easier to do so at the onset rather than have to go back and figure it out.

Ready for Ireland?
Do as much research as possible before heading to Ireland.  The more you know beforehand,  the easier it will be to find potentially more details about your ancestors, and create more stories to share for generations to come.  I encourage you to be your family’s storyteller, Seanchaí!

About the writerJannet L. Walsh, of Murdock, Minnesota, is a photographer, writer, and educator. She is the author of forthcoming creative nonfiction quest narrative Higgledy-Piggledy Stones: Family Stories from Ireland and Minnesota, scheduled publication is 2022 by Shanti Arts Publishing.  Follow Walsh on Facebook and Twitter.

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