How I finally found my long lost Irish ancestors


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I have been doing genealogical research for eight years now and have served as the Education Chairperson on the Board of Directors for the Irish Genealogical Society International (IGSI).

Although I am not a professional genealogist, I believe that I have had tremendous success in my research. I began my family research during graduate school, after completing a research class, and I found myself missing the thrill of the hunt, the obsession of the dig, and the discovery of the obscure.

My family, of course, thinks that I am absolutely crazy, but, if you are reading this, you understand the genealogical bug and already have been bitten. In my own mind, I always envision the dual images of a Boston terrier with a toy in its mouth and a mad scientist with hair askew when thinking of a good genealogist.

I believe that a really good genealogist doesn’t let go of a lead and neither do they necessarily care about how they might look when they are on the hunt. I hope that the story of my hunt inspires you to look again at your research or to start your own hunt.

Rule 1: Don’t let the impossible scare you

My mother’s name is Kathleen Sullivan. Yes, Sullivan. Furthermore, she has two separate Sullivan lines in her tree as well. Did I let that scare me?

My first line of attack was to sort out all the Sullivans in Belle Plaine, Minnesota by using the Federal and Minnesota state census records. The church history book and other old articles described Sullivans in a variety of ways: Big John Sullivan; J.J. Sullivan; Foxy Sullivan; the Kerry Patch Sullivans, et al.

Sorting out all of the Sullivan families took time and patience as some were from Cork, some from Dublin, some from Kerry. I paid particular attention to middle initials if listed in the census. The use of an initial was one way to distinguish James T. (b. 1825) from James C., his cousin, (b. 1818). Also, the family groupings of children and the wives’ names helped to differentiate the Sullivan clans. While researching in the census, I like looking at the family groupings immediately above and below the one that I am focusing on because neighbors could be, and in my case often were, relatives.

Pay particular attention to the 1900 census as it recorded the year of immigration, the number of years in America, and whether or not they were citizens.

My next big break came after visiting the graveyard in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. I had obtained a plat map of the cemetery from the church and knew from this source where to find my great-great grandfather’s grave, James T. Sullivan.

 I found out that he was indeed one of the “Kerry Patch” Sullivans by correlating the census with old articles. Encouragingly for me, his siblings and mother were buried in the immediate vicinity. His family was unique among the other Sullivans in the area because there were seven sons in the family. But the big breakthrough came as I looked at the topographical features of the land around the tombstones.

There were three distinctively lowered sections, covered over with grass, just a few feet to the northwest of my great-great grandfather’s grave. Nothing was listed on the church cemetery plat map. Following my hunch that something might be there, I kicked away the grass and spat on the stone only to find an amazing clue: a townland listed on one of the gravestones and a parish (both spelled incorrectly) on another one.

 The graves were the family of James C. Sullivan, my great-great grandfather’s cousin. The townland was in Kerry, confirming the county. Our Sullivan cousin’s wife’s birthplace was listed as Fieries, and I assumed that this townland had to be close to our Sullivans. After referencing the Alphabetical Index of Townlands book at IGSI, I had a good idea of the general area from which my Sullivan family came.

What did I learn from this experience? First, trust your hunches and pursue them. Secondly, the Americanized spelling of the Irish geographical place names are attempts to phonetically replicate the names and most, if not all, fall short.