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Understanding your family history is so much more than just names and dates. It’s also a study of history; the time and place in which your ancestor walked the path of life. For many genealogists, it’s those bits and pieces of everyday life that holds us to the adventure, determined to walk the same trail.
In my pursuit to understand the life of my 3rd great grandmother, Bridget (Conlin) McGowan, it became important for me to consider the life she left behind in Ireland. Born in 1843, she came to America sometime around 1855. As a twelve year old, what would she be expecting to find in this new world? Leaving behind her homeland, still reeling from the famine, would she see this journey as an adventure, or a struggle?
Putting myself in Bridget’s place, I used the Irish Newspapers, Directories & Social History records collection to examine what was being said about her destination. It is unknown if the Conlin family knew where they were going to settle, but they lived first in Connecticut, and appeared to remain there at least five years. Five formidable years in Bridget’s life.
In the September 11, 1848 issues of the Cork Examiner, a story was reprinted from an American paper, “An American Execution.” The story is told, in great detail, of the execution of a convicted murderer, the editor making the additional comment, “Some of these details sound strangely to an English ear.” Quite an impression this must have made on young Bridget!
Of course, it was not all so dramatic, and much of the news was regarding trade, immigration, and politics. Perhaps she would have been hopeful if she had been told of the February 24, 1830 issue of the Freeman’s Journal, in which a very favorable review of U.S. “Temperance Societies” was provided by a New York representative.
News from Home
The first years of a new life in a country that was, to many, overwhelmingly large, must have included moments to look back to Ireland; to wonder what twists the roads would have taken if only, “we’d stayed.” In the Banner of Liberty (Middletown, New York, May 30, 1860), they reported on the “Depopulation of Ireland,” in which the author calls out the misrepresentation of “most English writers,” on the true state of the nation. The article continues on to compare the data from the office of the Registrar General of Ireland from 1859, drawing a correlation between the estimated average produce of crops, and the emigration from Irish ports.
It must have been crushingly difficult to read these reports, constantly weighing the decision in your mind. What of the family, friends, and neighbors they left behind? Is life here, in America, on the brink of Civil War, any better?
Through it all, though, advances in technology make it feel as if you are more connected than ever before. December of 1856 saw numerous publications report on the completion of the submarine telegraph line, connecting the continents in a way that had never been seen before. The US newspapers, New York Herald, Evansville Daily Inquirer (Evansville, Indiana) and the Weekly Wisconsin all provided details to their readers. This effort improved the flow of communication, certainly, but the news at times was difficult to hear.
Focused on the Home
This process began as an attempt to understand the historical events taking place in the world of my ancestor. However, it forced me to consider her emotional journey, as well. It was a journey shared by thousands or Irish men and women, and yet, each experience was unique. Most would never see their native Ireland again. Family history is, by its very nature, an emotional pursuit; should we not all make the attempt to empathize with those in our past?
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