It’s a strange thing to sit at my desk in New York City to look out the window and see Sixth Avenue stretched out far below and in the distance the Hudson River, and turn and look at my computer screen and see the signature of my great grandfather Patrick Harty on the 1901 census form.

(Most of the records were burned in a fire in the Four Courts during the Civil War. But the two saved census records, 1901 and 1911, are now online.)

Patrick is 73 in 1901 and his wife Mary is 68. Their son William, who would become my grandfather, is 35 and still living at home with his brothers John and James and his sister Johanna. English is listed as their spoken language. They can all read and write. Roman Cathilik [sp] is listed as their religion. I don’t know if the misspelling of "Cathilik" is my great grandfather’s or the census taker, Constable William James Hughes.

In the neighboring town land, Mary Seymour, who would become my grandmother, is 17. She is living with her mother, Mary, 41, her father Stephen, 53, her sister Fannie, 21, and five brothers. They can all read and wright [sp] and they too are Roman Catalick [sp]. Ten of the 12 residents in the household are listed -- one is a servant Michael Furley, 24.

The two missing names are my grandmother’s sister, my great Aunt Agnes who immigrated to Australia (I’m in touch with her descendants who still live there today), and her brother, great uncle Martin who immigrated to America. Martin never married. He returned to Ireland late in life, lived out his retirement in our house and was known to one and all as “The Yank.”

The information on the census forms is not a whole lot, but yet it is.

It’s like splashes of paint that form a picture of the people whose DNA I’ve inherited. Ancestors who are buried in the graveyard where my father and mother are now buried, just a field away from the house I grew up in – the same house that my grandparents lived in and my great grandparents would have visited.

I can tell from the census records and some mental arithmetic that my great grandfather Patrick was 17 in 1845 -- the year the blight first hit the potatoes.

I can picture Patrick as a young man, the way I can picture my brother Patrick at 17, checking the potato rows and reporting back to his father.

In 1847, the worst year of the Famine when the potato crop failed completely, 55 thousand families were evicted in Tipperary.

Patrick’s family was evicted from their 10-acre holding sometime during or after the Famine. I recall my mother telling me that fact.

In 1901, according to the census, Patrick and his family are living on a farm in Ballyanny, which is across the fields from the farm that I grew up on, a farm that was once owned by the Kingsley family.

I find, what I believe to be, their census records too.

William Kingsley, 65, and his wife Mary, 50, are Church of Ireland. He is a retired Infantry colonel who was born in Westmeath. His wife was born in London. They have two Catholic servants. Mary Egan, 35, is listed as “a personal maid” who can read and write. Norah McGrath, 40, “a domestic servant” cannot read and write. Both Mary and Norah are single.

Between the census of 1901 and 1911, my grandfather William came into the Kingsley estate -- 189 acres of prime farmland. He was probably the first Catholic to own the land in hundreds of years.

By the year 1911, William’s father Patrick is dead. His mother Mary, 75, is listed as head of the household. His brother James, 40 and single, is still living at home, as is his sister Johanna whose age is listed at 28 (she would have been 32).

The census records for 1911 show that my grandfather William Harty (45) had married Mary Seymour (26). They have two of what would later become a family of nine children. My father, Patrick, is one year old and his sister Mary is two months. (I grew up with a portrait of Mary “Maureen” over the fireplace. She died of a burst appendix when she was 10).

Two servants, Bridget Healy, 16, and John Quigley, 66, are also listed. Bridget is as yet unmarried. John is single. They can all read and write.

According to the 1911 census my grandmother Mary can read and write in both English and Irish. This fact gives me pause. Most of the Irish language died out with the Famine and emigration. Mary’s father would have been born in 1848; did she learn Irish from him or her mother who was born in 1860?

I stare at grandfather William’s signature on the census form -- the way he writes “Harty” looks like it’s been penned by my own hand.

I wish I knew more about how my ancestors managed to cling on to life and land when so many died and emigrated during and after the Famine or what is more aptly called the Great Starvation.

I can tell from these two census records that the men in my family married late in life.

My great grandfather and his brothers worked hard to buy up land -- driven by a determination, or so I imagine, never to go hungry again. Only when there was a farm for each of the brothers, did they then did look to marry. The women they married were much younger. It was a practical matter, not romantic. A “made match.” I have a photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day. She does not look very happy.

My grandfather William died before he was 60, leaving my grandmother a young widow. He suffered from diabetes, which scientists now link to the “thrifty” gene that allowed people to store fat in times of plenty to prevent starvation in times of Famine. Today, my brother suffers from the same disease.

At fourteen, my father Patrick was in charge of the farm and responsible for his eight younger brothers and sisters. I believe that handling so much responsibility at such a young age shortened his life – he died in his 60s.

Part of the old Kingsley house that still survives as our “back kitchen” was a soup kitchen during the Famine, if I have the story from my mother right. I remember, too, though the memory is faint and “hushed” that when I was a child and workmen were digging the foundation for a new cow house, they found the skeleton of a young woman. My mother said she was from Famine times and had a mass said for her soul.

I keep rechecking the census forms trying to glean some more information -- something I missed. I discover in the 1911 census that Patrick’s widow, Mary Harty, my great grandmother, like my father’s mother, Mary Seymour, spoke English and Irish. And I discover another branch of Hartys that may be my great uncle John’s family.

In the 1901 census, John Harty is listed with two daughters, Bridget, 18, and Kate, 16. This discovery leads me to wonder if John was the one who purchased the land from the Kingsleys. Did my grandfather inherit our farm from his uncle because John’s daughters, as women, would not have been eligible to inherit the land?

There is so much I don’t know.

I turn to check my mother’s family in Waterford, and I get a message that the website is “temporary unavailable” due to maintenance. I wait for a while and try again, but I can't get access. I take it as a message from the ancestors that it’s time to leave things be.

I look out the window and see that night has fallen. The office is empty and I’m astonished that it’s grown so late. I have been in another world and I’m reluctant to leave.

In my mind I see the row of beech trees that were planted many generations ago on the land that became our farm. I can easily imagine some ancestor pausing there under the spreading branches. If only those trees could talk and tell me what they know of those who went before.

I long to know more, but I'm happy for what little I do know, and for the technology that allows me to reach in and probe the mysterious connections to the past.

You can find the Census Records here.

Visit the Irish America website here.