Megan Smolenyak, greatest Irish genealogist on top of her game
She’s traced Barack and Michelle Obama’s roots, who’s next?
Megan Smolenyak is the expert genealogist behind such discoveries as Barack Obama’s Irish roots and the true identity of Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. With ancestral links to Cork, Kerry, Longford and Antrim, Smolenyak is always happy to discover “surprise Irish” in her research, though her work goes far beyond traditional genealogy. We had the chance to talk to her about her most famous findings, the other aspects of her work and the best way for us amateur genealogists to begin to trace our roots.
Genealogy has been a hobby of yours since you were a child. What initially piqued your interest?
It was a homework assignment that got me started. We had to go home and find our surnames. The reason I had claimed the Soviet Union is because my father, who was clueless about our history, told me that we were from Smolensk, which makes sense because it sounds a lot like Smolenyak. That’s what triggered me.
So your father didn’t know much about his family history?
It’s funny, my mom’s side – the Irish half – had been here [in the US] longer but they knew a lot more. When you have a funny name like Smolenyak, a lot of families just did their best to assimilate as quickly as possible. It typically takes about two generations, I find, between the immigrant generation and those here today before they start to become interested. In those first couple of generations, you take it for granted because your parents or grandparents have the accent, and so that’s what had happened with my dad.
You recently told Irish America magazine, “If I weren’t me, I’d probably want to be – well, me.” What is it about your job that you love so much?
I love so many aspects of it, but I would have to say I’m addicted to the thrill of the hunt. I love solving mysteries. Certain ones like Annie, my girl Annie, they just grab onto me and they don’t let go. I become sort of obsessive about it, which I suppose is sort of annoying for others [laughs]. I love that aspect. … I truly just lose track of time when I’m totally immersed in a case. The stuff that I do with the Army, for example, it’ll be 14 years in April that I’ve been doing that, and I’m still like a kid in a candy store when I get a fresh batch of cases after all these years. I love digging and finding solutions.
Annie Moore is just one of many newsworthy cases you’ve worked on. Are there certain discoveries that you’re most proud of or connected to?
Well, Annie’s been a part of my life now for 11 years. She’s probably the one I’ve been the most obsessed with. … Every time I think I’m wrapped up with her, she pulls me back in for another round.
The higher profile ones, like Barack Obama going to Moneygall, I loved that because it was really fun to be a part of. … But also, a lot of the stuff I’m proudest of, quite frankly, is the stuff you never hear about, like individual Army cases or cases with coroners or things I’ve helped the NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] with. Or, for example, another hobby I have is orphan heirlooms, where I do research to return items that have strayed from family hands back to the family. Those kinds of things can be very meaningful to individuals, so a lot of the most important stuff I do is the stuff you would never know about. It doesn’t make a big splash, like the work I’ve done on the Obamas, but it makes a big impact for just one, two or three individuals.
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