Put 28 people that all have Irish ancestors on a bus with a driver from Limerick. Add three professional genealogists and a tour guide from Belfast. Then, spend ten days touring Ireland. That’s what I did for a week and a half in April.
Ancestry ProGenealogists has partnered with Go Ahead Tours for Heritage Travel experiences. They are offering genealogy cruises, ancestral home visits, and guided ancestry tours. Currently, the guided ancestry tours include itineraries in Italy, Germany, and Ireland. I took the “Highlights of the Emerald Isle” tour.
Before my tour ever began, I consulted with Irish genealogy expert, Kyle Betit. I was interested in learning more about my 4th great-grandfather, George Cowan (because even professional genealogists have brick walls and need other genealogists, with specialties in those areas, to help them out). This consultation, and the ensuing written report, was included in the cost of my tour. Kyle validated the research I had done so far (which is just as important as making new discoveries). He also provided me with a list of new research strategies to try to determine exactly where in Ireland George was born and the name of his parents.
I took the AncestryDNA test several years ago. But, if I hadn’t, a DNA kit and analysis of the results would also have been included.
On tour, we stayed at lovely hotels, ate delicious food, and mingled with fascinating people (both locals and the others in our tour group). Along the way, Kyle, and the other professional genealogists accompanying us, provided us with classroom style presentations about various aspects of Irish family history research. I kept thinking, “This is like a genealogy conference. But, on a bus. And, in the courtyard of a manor house. And, in the National Library.” Not to knock genealogy conferences but these venues were way more interesting (and relevant) than a boring classroom in yet another convention center.
We saw quite a bit of Ireland over the course of those ten days. I loved every place we visited. But, three locations from my trip stand out.
Our tour started in Dublin. There, in the Docklands, along the banks of the River Liffey, in a historic building built in 1817, is a new experience that opened in Spring 2016. Billed as “the world’s only fully digital museum,” it is called EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum. More than 10 million emigrants left Ireland for destinations around the world – some voluntarily, many under duress. While in the museum you walk through interactive exhibits that allow you to view the history of Ireland and the emigrant experience in a whole new way. You learn about ways in which the music, dance, personalities, talents, and vision of the Irish (and their descendants) have affected the world, particularly the United States, for generations. I was in awe.
Several days later, we found ourselves in County Wexford. There we boarded the Dunbrody Famine Ship, an authentic reproduction of an 1840s emigrant vessel. The stark realities of these “coffin ships” and the desperation of those who were forced to leave their homeland due to starvation was almost tangible to me that day. And, while I originally went on this trip to learn more about the Ireland of my 4th great-grandfather, George Cowan, I started thinking more about my 2nd great-grandfather, John O’Brien that day.
George Cowan was a proud Ulster Scot, born in Northern Ireland, up in County Down. He came to the United States shortly after the American Revolution, got married, and raised a family of 13 children (one of whom became a U.S. Congressman). John O’Brien’s family were famine immigrants. He moved from state to state, fought in the U.S. Civil War, and eventually ended up in Arkansas where he worked his way through several wives, had a few children (one of whom I am named after), and died at the ripe old age of 89, or 91, or 99, depending on which of his stories you believe.
There are some DNA matches to that branch of my family tree that suggest that John O’Brien’s family may have been from County Clare or County Galway. So, while on tour, I worked on exploring John’s origins. (And if you follow The Barefoot Genealogist video series I do, you know he has been a long-standing brick wall in my family tree.) A few quick questions and consultations with the professional genealogists on tour and I now know precisely which resources I need to explore to gather the evidence I need to determine exactly who John’s parents were. (I gained a whole new appreciation for the decades of experience that go into developing the knowledge and skill necessary to become a professional genealogist with expertise in a specific area of research.)
I also gained a brand new appreciation for what life was like in the wilds of Ireland’s west coast in the 1800s. The highlight of the entire trip, for me, was visiting the Dan O’Hara Homestead in Connemara. We got a demonstration of turf cutting. We came in from the biting cold and huddled around a fire in the tiny cottage where tenant farmer Dan O’Hara lived with his wife and seven children. We listened to stories and songs of Ireland. They were everything I always imagined Ireland to be. I could have stayed there for hours.
Alas, my time in Ireland came to an end all too quickly. But, I now know why the saying goes, “I left Ireland. But, Ireland never left me.”
Ireland, Italy, or Germany? Where will you go?