How I finally found my long lost Irish ancestors


 In addition, she was an American, so the directions were precise, yet detailed. You will find that when you drive in Ireland you will invariably get lost. Getting directions from the Irish is very different from getting directions from an American. On more than one occasion I was told that what I was looking for was “a wee bit down the road.”

Signage is also very hit and miss. Oftentimes, I drove for many miles without any indication of whether or not I was even on the right road. At first I found this frustrating, but then I realized that I was the guest in the country and came to appreciate the feeling of being lost in such beautiful scenery. Eventually, I always found what I was looking for.

I found Carragraigue with the help of the O’Kiefe, Coshe Mang, Slieve Lougher and Upper Blackwater in Ireland collection, commonly known as the “Casey Collection” at IGSI.

Casey was a physician who documented church records specifically in the Blackwater River area of Cork and Kerry. I found, with the generous help of my distantly-related Shea cousins, our family’s baptismal certificates listed in the collection.

The collection is, simply, horribly arranged in several volumes. It appears that there is no rhyme or reason for the organizational structure of the collection. Nonetheless, with the assistance of a wonderfully clear index created by the Wisconsin Genealogical Society, the volumes are decipherable. Next, I checked the Griffith’s Valuation on microfilm, which is now available in digitized version on-line through Irish Origins, and ordered the corresponding plot map from the Land Valuation Office in Dublin.

Tim Shea, my great-great grandfather and an early Minnesota pioneer, was already in the United States when the Griffith’s was being compiled. However, as I found in many of my other avenues of research, oftentimes a mother or remaining younger siblings remained behind until money could be sent for them to immigrate. Tim’s mother and younger brother were listed on the Griffith’s. She eventually did immigrate and is buried in St. Thomas, Minnesota alongside her other children.

With the aid of the Discovery Series map, I located several church ruins and graveyards are in the immediate area. These maps list ruined churches in red ink, but the maps do not state that there may be a graveyard in the ruins. In my case, that was the case: a graveyard lies within and around the ruins.

Additionally, this ruin had a plaque that read the church had been burnt by one of Cromwell’s men on July 27, 1651. Four hundred people were inside the church at the time it was set afire. This was a personal epiphany for me. I had certainly read how Cromwell had devastated the larger Irish cities, but this small church was in the middle of nowhere. It made me realize how complete the holocaust had been.

As I walked through the ruins, one stone in the interior of the crumbling walls unambiguously caught my eye. It read: "Timothy Shea, erected in memory of his father Owen Shea, died Feb. 1795, age 68 and mother Ellen Shea, died 1786, age 51." I knew this couldn’t have been erected by my Tim, the American immigrant, as he hadn’t been born yet, but he was the eldest son in the family.

Another helpful clue: if you are familiar with the Irish naming conventions, then you know that the first son is named after the father’s father. I believe that the stone in the church ruins was therefore erected by my Tim’s grandfather for, as it states, his father.

The dates fit generationally well, and, for me, the most convincing element is that I could, and did, easily walk from the family farm land to the ruins which lay not a half a mile to the due north. I now strongly believe that Owen Shea is my 5th great grandfather. I would never have uncovered this information had I not gone directly to the townland, or had I not walked on the old roads that my ancestors had trodden upon.

Rule 3: Don’t rule out anything until you have looked at it yourself

I remember early in my research someone told me that The Search for Missing Friends collection was worthless. Boy, am I glad that I didn’t listen to them. Reprinted queries taken from the Boston Pilot Newspaper (1851-1905), The Search for Missing Friends is an 8 volume collection of tiny search enquiries, really more like snippets, of Irish immigrants desperately looking for their relatives. Reading the ads always brings tears to my eyes: mothers looking for their sons or daughters; brothers looking for their brothers; wives looking for their husbands. In our age of instant communication – telephone, e-mail, and text messaging – it takes a little imagination to understand how someone might have gotten lost.