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Fact and fiction in family history

February 24, 2016

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Photo of Union troops taken by A.J. Russell, near Fredericksburg, Va., prior to battle in May 1863.

 

By Patricia Phelan

When Irish Americans find out I’m a professional genealogist, they often like to tell me stories about their ancestors from Ireland. The trouble is, these tales are often what my father used to call a load of malarkey.

I often hear the old saw, “The spelling of my family’s name was changed at Ellis Island.” This is usually announced by someone whose ancestors sailed to the U.S. during the Famine—but Ellis Island’s doors didn’t swing open until 1892. No matter the year, however, immigration officials were not in the habit of renaming anyone. In fact, the manifest listing all the passengers on a vessel was compiled by the shipping line before the ship set sail—and shipping clerks had neither the power nor the motive to perform name changes.

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A man I’ll call “Jack” believed his Irish granny, who came to the U.S. in 1912 at the age of 13, was immediately put on a boat back to Ireland because the uncle scheduled to meet her arrived a day late. But this reverse commute would not have happened. Instead, the girl would have been released to her tardy guardian when he showed up. It’s also doubtful that Jack’s granny was so young, because the Immigration Act of 1907 required minors under 16 to be accompanied by a parent.

This same granny supposedly recalled hiding from the Black and Tans as a child. But the Black and Tans weren’t recruited until 1919, seven years after granny had settled in the New World.

   And then there’s Mary, who insisted her forebears could never be traced. Mary claimed her ancestors, born in the mid-1800s, hailed from an Irish town where the priest refused to record baptisms or marriages lest the English get their hands on the sacred info. What the English were going to do with registers of sacramental milestones was not made clear to me. Unfortunately Mary clings to this myth, even though Catholic church records for her family’s place of origin are available from 1818 on.

Another woman sincerely believed her great-uncle had to flee Ireland in the early 20th century because he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. But this could not have happened—that brutal punishment for high treason was finally outlawed in 1870 (and had been last used in 1817, against English radicals, though the quartering part was commuted). She also told me that during the American Civil War recruiters met her great-great-grandfather as he stepped off the ship in New York Harbor and forced him into uniform. This is pure blarney. While 150,000 Irish men fought in that conflict, their service did not begin on the docks.

A fellow with Cork roots claimed that anyone bearing his surname is usually a Protestant because their Catholic ancestors “took the soup”—that is, converted to Protestantism in order to obtain food during the Famine. But this is a great exaggeration. In his “Finding Your Irish Ancestors in New York City,” Joseph Buggy writes, “The few documented cases of food for conversion to Protestantism were seized upon and developed into the nationalist myth that huge numbers of Catholics were forced to give up their religion to feed their starving children. But it is simply not true.”

Most Irish Americans are proud of their roots, but sometimes they are misinformed about their heritage. Before passing on an immigrant ancestor’s story, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s not a load of malarkey. Copyright 2016 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd.

Brooklyn-born Long Island resident Patricia Phelan is a genealogist specializing in Irish and American genealogy. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Phelan, the editor of the newsletter of the Irish Family History Forum, said of her own roots: “I am descended from Ryans of Dublin, Mansfields of Kerry, Wrenns and Nannerys of Longford, Fitzpatricks, Reillys and McIntyres of Cavan, and Murphys and Lowndeses of Meath, as well as Collinses and McNultys from somewhere.”

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