Posted by Mike Mulligan on March 17, 2016 in Ireland

I first visited America in the 1990s when I went on holiday to Boston to visit my cousins.  Boston is a city I absolutely love and for an Irish person it can feel like a home away from home. During that first visit one of my cousins asked me if we had electricity in my home. Somewhat confused I asked why we wouldn’t. But as we talked I realised we were talking about two very different places, both called Ireland.

Rose & Margaret Kelly with their grandmother in Donegal, Ireland
Donegal in the 1920s. My grandmother Rose (left) and grand aunt Margaret (right) with their aunt Catherine and grandmother Mary.

For my cousin, Ireland was a place frozen in time like a John Hinde photograph. Ireland was a place that lived in the stories told to her by her grandmother about the Donegal left behind.  My grand aunt Margaret (my cousins grandmother) left Ireland in the 1920s.  For a young girl in in that time there were two choices, get married if possible or emigrate. Emigration was not some big adventure to broaden the mind. Emigration was a necessity borne of the hardships of 1920s Ireland. So Margaret boarded the SS Cameronia, leaving her home as an emigrant to make a new life in a land built by immigrants.

A souvenir sent home by Margaret when she arrived in Boston.
When Margaret arrived in Boston, she sent this souvenir back home to Ireland.

From the moment they board that boat or plane every emigrant carries Ireland like a time capsule to their adopted home. It is their most treasured possession which they keep alive through the stories they tell their children and grandchildren. They in turn create a huge diaspora of people throughout the world who identify as Irish. These people carry Ireland with them as a longing for a place they may have never seen, a sense of belonging to a people they hardly know.

For me, modern Ireland is very different from the place our emigrant ancestors left. If there are happy maidens and athletic youths dancing at the crossroads, then they are more likely to be dancing to Macklemore than O’Riada. We spend as much time as anyone on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube (all of whom have international headquarters in Dublin). Emigration is still part of the Irish experience. But now it is often a choice rather than a necessity. And for those of us who have lived away from Ireland, it is a more connected exile with news from home online and family a Skype call away.

I’ve been back to America many times since that first visit.  I have connected with cousins from Montpelier, VT to San Diego, CA. For me these connections have been some of the most rewarding aspects of finding out about my family history. Learning about the experiences of those who left and those who stayed behind has brought us closer as cousins, bridging the gap between modern Ireland and the Ireland of our past.

The Ireland that we dreamed of has changed much over the last few decades. But some things have not changed. We still have our great love of family and our love of story. We are renowned the world over as great storytellers. This St. Patrick’s Day reach out to your Irish relatives across the world. This is a great time to tell your Irish family story.

Beannachtaí Lá Fhéile Phádraig daoibh go léir.

Mike Mulligan

Mike is a Principal Product Manager at Ancestry, based in our Dublin office. Mike has been doing on family history since he was young growing up in Donegal surrounded by generations of cousins.

12 Comments

  1. Adam R

    I’ve lived my whole life in Iowa and I have been asked (more than once) if we have electricity/Internet when I travel to the coasts. I like to think the midwest US is perceived as “frozen in time” – rather than perceived as simply backwards.

    A couple years ago, my family stayed at a cottage south of Galway near New Quay. Save for the old stone walls and the bay being right there – it certainly evoked memories of my childhood home in Iowa. I assume that comforting reminder is at least a part of why there are so many Irish descendants in the area.

  2. Lulu Kelly

    For thirty years I’ve worked on genealogy. Trying to get my husband home. He had no sense of legacy. The story had stopped and he had no real history. He had this deep longing of ancestral roots. I hit so many brick walls. I knew there was a story after all they left Ireland around 1820. What drove them out why could I not find them. The first sign of them was West Canada in a village of Irish Immigrates. Then next they had naturalization in Brooklyn and were found on ships and walking the ismus panama. I thought to myself how did this story not get told how does a family of twelve who stuck together not have a verbal story. Then in the camps of Virginia city where they wintered out with children women on the hillsides village. They were one of the first families of Sierraville, California. Where was their home why did they not ever talk about that story. I had to wait until DNA to put the pieces together. I now know that my husband family came from a small village to the north made of a hard lot, that probably left as the flax industry collapsed. They weren’t from the south part of Ireland they were from the North they were from Buncrana, Donegal, Ireland. That sense of knowing where you come from is so deep seeded in our family now and our stories have come to life. I feel like I know our ancestors and I know them well. If you are struggling with knowing that secret your struggle is part of what makes you Irish. Today is our 37th anniversary and to all of you out there I picked it so my Irish man would never forget it…..Happy Saint Patricks Day , always Lulu Kelly
    P.S. Thank you for this great story!

  3. Bonnie N

    Such a sweet story, I bet the story could be the setting for so many of us on the hunt for our families and their history. Happy Saint Patricks Day to all!

  4. Larry Rosemeyer

    My Great Granfather emigrated from West Cork in 1850. I started developing my family tree in 2012. We visited Ireland in May/June for three weeks and met a bunch of third cousins that I hooked up with through Ancestry. They threw a family reunion party in my honor. I felt like I was home! Happy St. Patrick’s day to all!

  5. Donna

    You have me swallowing hard, almost to tears. The Irish in me longs to find those roots in Ireland, before John left Ireland because he couldn’t see his beloved Bridget leave without him, when Ottawa was Biddulph, and families passed warm and not-so warm stories to their children. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, family everywhere. I miss you.

  6. Sandra Colby/Bowman

    It amazes me how the Irish heritage pulls on so many of us. My “BrickWall” is my Grandmother Cashman. Hopefully I too will be able to find my roots. Love this site….

  7. Deborah D'Amelio

    My Irish stonewall is a man who came in his youth in the 1720s. Very little is written about this group of Irish immigrants. I’d never known before I found him that I had Irish blood!

  8. Jaclyn Creighton

    Had to smile when I read the article and the author’s name Mike Mulligan! My Mulligan’s (or McMulligan as it’s also written) were from Donegal! And they are my brick wall! My 2nd great grandmother Catherine Rosella McMulligan born May 22, 1833 immigrated between 1841 – 1843 with her family. Only know that her father’s name was John. Ring any bells? 🙂

  9. Jan

    My brick wall is also from Ireland. Catherine married Timothy Crowley around 1850. By 1860 she was left alone with 3 small children and before 1860 the children were orphans in Dartford, Wisconsin ( now Green Lake). I have been working on this for 42 years. It’s on my bucket list to find out this family’s story. Maybe one day I’ll get “the luck ‘o the Irish and find out more☘

  10. Ann Lamb

    We never heard anything about Ireland from my greatgrandfather, but plenty about his adventures in America. Although he named his parents and birthplace, he did name any of his sons for his father and no sign of them can be found in the place he said he was born. I think DNA is the only way to solve the mysteries he left us.

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