Background: Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (who goes by Megan Smolenyak2 on her website in a nod to her married name) is a genealogist who has unearthed the Irish roots of many well-known people, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The author of six books, she resides in Haddonfield, New Jersey.
Tell us about your Irish heritage.
“I’m half-Irish (maternal side) with roots in Cork, Kerry, Longford and Antrim. My immigrant ancestors came between 1836 and 1882 and settled in Jersey City. My closest connection to Ireland is a pair of great-grandparents, so I just miss being eligible for citizenship.”
How did you first become interested in genealogy?
“A sixth grade homework assignment sparked my interest. We had to find out where our surnames were from and put them on a world map. Slightly misinformed, I had the whole of the then-USSR to myself. That made me curious, so I was that twisted teenager who saved up her allowance to buy death certificates.”
Why do you think so many Americans are fascinated by their genealogy?
“Curiosity coupled with rootlessness. Genealogy is a personal history mystery, which is why it’s so addicting. Previous generations often spent their entire lives in one place, taking their family history for granted since they were surrounded by their families’ homes, churches and schools, not to mention their immigrant elders. But we bounce around a fair bit today. Genealogy is ultimately about connection and provides a sense of home and belonging that many of us hunger for.”
How has the Internet changed the way in which people research their family tree?
“I tell people who are new to genealogy that they were smart to wait because the Internet can give you a running start. What took me months can often be done in hours now. Billions of records have been digitized, indexed and made available online, and social networking makes it possible to reach out to third cousins no matter which continent they call home. That said, the Internet also makes it easier to make mistakes, so you’ll want to confirm every child-to-parent link along the way.”
You have traced the roots of several high profile people, including Vice President Joe Biden. What was his reaction to learning about his Irish ancestry?
“Joe Biden has always been proud of his Irish heritage, but was unaware of many of the specifics I uncovered. For instance, one of his grandfathers was orphaned at a young age, so that portion of his family history was never passed down. I’ve been fortunate enough to research and meet a number of well known individuals, but Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert stand out as being both the most grateful and most gracious, and the common denominator I see is their strong, Irish American mothers! Both inherited a sense of pride in their roots and will undoubtedly pass that along to their descendants.”
What are some practical tips for tracing a family tree?
“First, start at home with a scavenger hunt seeking clues in your closets, drawers and attics. Dig up old photos and letters, family Bibles, yearbooks, certificates and diplomas and capture the names, dates and places they contain.
“Then talk to your elders – and I mean now! They’re living libraries and can tell you tales that would take years to uncover by other means. Enter what you’ve learned in family tree software or an online tree and start sleuthing!”
Interview by Molly Muldoon