For the month of March (also known as Irish American Heritage Month) IrishCentral is tapping into the heartbeat of the Irish American community. The Unsung Heroes series features inspiring individuals from across the US who do extraordinary work in their communities and respective fields. From advocates to artists, from local legends to dedicated educators; from a high school baseball team to dynamo nuns in their 80s, these people are making a difference and to them we tip our hats in thanks.
It’s no secret that the Irish like to claim people. The current U.S. president, vice president and first lady; celebrities ranging from Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert to George Clooney and Katy Perry. In addition to their Irish ancestry, these people have one more thing in common – the person who traced that ancestry: Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak. (Yes, that is her full name; more about it later.)
Smolenyak’s work helps us better understand who we are and how far we have come. A renowned genealogical detective with a 95% success rate (that’s over the course of fourteen years and thousands of family trees) Smolenyak is responsible for some of the most important and news-worthy genealogical research of recent years. She has also consulted for everyone from Ancestry.com and Top Chef to the FBI and NCIS.
Though Smolenyak works on cases across all heritages, a number of her most prominent findings have been in the field of Irish genealogy – perhaps because it’s something she shares. Her great-grandmother Ellen Nelligan emigrated from Dromlegagh, Co. Kerry during the famine, and she has traced her Murphy and Shields branches to Cork and Ballymena, Co. Antrim, respectively. She also holds Slovakian ancestry through her paternal side, and it was through tracing that ancestry that she met her husband, Brian Smolenyak, who shares the same last name (hence the double Smolenyak).
For all of Smolenyak’s ground-breaking research into the roots of beloved and famous figures, it’s the stories of the underdogs that mean the most to her. The prime example of this is Annie Moore – the Irish teenager who was the very first person to immigrate through Ellis Island when its doors opened on January 1, 1892. Annie's story received renewed interest in 1992, during Ellis Island’s centennial and restoration, and her relatives came forth to talk about her legacy. The only problem, which went unnoticed for quite some time, was that she had been born in Illinios. They were celebtating the wrong Annie.
Megan shared this discrepancy with the genealogical community in 2006 and offered a $1,000 reward to whomever could find the identity of the real Annie. Just few weeks later they had found the real Annie and her living descendants, and had even found her grave – an unmarked stone in Calvary Cemetery, Queens. The story made the front page of the New York Times, and in 2008 Annie received a new headstone and a long-overdue memorial ceremony.
Smolenyak is the founder of Unclaimed Persons, a group through which genealogists volunteer to help coroners identify next-of-kin, and works with the U.S. army in its efforts to repatriate soldiers who died abroad in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam so that they can be finally laid to rest. Just last week, she passed the milestone of 1,000 cases with the Army’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
One of her most fascinating army cases was that of Private Thomas D. Costello, an Irish immigrant and WWI soldier and who was found in Bois de Bonvaux, France. Born in Galway in 1892, he came to America with three siblings, and Megan was able to track down his great-grandnephew, who traveled from Maine to attend Private Costello’s final burial at Arlington National Cemetery on July 10, 2010. The following year, she found more living relatives of Costello's in Tuam, Co. Galway.
“It’s important to know about your history,” she said in a 2013 interview with sister publication Irish America. “In tough times, when you learn what your ancestors endured, it really does give you a sense of hope and strength to know their blood is flowing in your veins.”