Veteran Voice (Ellenore): A Genealogy Geek
Let me begin by making a guilty confession. I am addicted to genealogy. I always feel embarrassed when I tell people, as it just seems such a geeky pastime. But, geeky or not, I find it fascinating.
If I had any pre-conceptions about my own ancestors, most of whom were tenant farmers in rural Ireland, it was that their lives were pretty mundane. I assumed they were fairly decent, law-abiding people, and I was quite sure that nothing very interesting had ever happened to them. No sniff of scandal or even a hint of excitement had been handed down in the family lore.
So what did I find when I went looking? Well, they turned out to be a more interesting bunch than I ever imagined. One relative was convicted of arson in Melbourne in the early 1900s. He apparently set fire to the hotel he owned in order to get the insurance money, and then scarpered off to New Zealand before the police could arrest him! Another, a great aunt who emigrated to Australia in 1880 with her husband and five children, within two weeks of arrival had to commit all five children into an orphanage after her husband dropped dead of sunstroke--as reported in the Brisbane Courier. My poor aunt was left with five children under the age of ten while knowing nobody in Australia. Luckily, she got back on her feet and was able to get the children released to her several months later.
Another relative helped build the railway line deep into the Queensland outback whilst his young wife, Ellen, who had emigrated to Australia with him four years earlier, lay dying of tuberculosis, a disease to which she would succumb in 1914, aged only 23. Ellen was buried in a little town deep in the Queensland outback. One day, while sitting in my home in Connecticut and trawling the internet, with total amazement I found a photo of Ellen’s gravestone in that remote Queensland cemetery.
I found other sad stories, one of a relative who had died in her early 20's of a botched abortion, a procedure she likely felt was her only option given the shame and opprobrium that was heaped on unmarried mothers in the Ireland of the first half of the 20th century. The parents of another young relative never spoke to her for the rest of her life because she got pregnant out of wedlock. And, sadly, several suicides also came to light.
But it has also been quite inspiring to witness the march of progress in my family. Many family members left the small Irish farms of their parents and emigrated to the U.S. and Australia in the late 1800's or early 1900's. You see these immigrants described in the census records of their new homelands as laborers, farmhands and domestic help. As you follow the records showing the occupations of their children, you see policemen, firemen, innkeepers, sales ladies and even the odd teacher. But the third generation is a very different picture. These grandchildren are professionals--engineers, lawyers, doctors. Indeed, one third-generation relative was the Assistant Surgeon General of the United States!
If my family can produce such stories, you can be certain that yours will also. Discovering them is such a fun journey, and it is immensely satisfying to understand, finally, exactly where you came from.
Ellenore is retired lawyer who is putting her story telling skills to new use by educating her two daughters about their Irish heritage, and relishing the treasure hunt, jigsaw puzzle and travel that her research requires.