Monday, January 30, 2012

30 before 30: chasing dead relatives

I am blogging my way through my  30 accomplishments before I turn 30...

In 2010 we took a family trip to Ireland. It was an amazing trip for many reasons and you can click on that link if you want to read about our trip.

What I loved most about that trip is how we spent one memorable day "chasing dead relatives" as our guide Liam called it. He said it is quite common for people to return to Ireland and look for family history. I thought we were going to go visit the towns my great-grandmother and great-grandfather were born in. Turns out we took a little adventure.

We started by meeting up at the home of some distant cousins. Let me tell you-- we thought it sounded a little sketchy. We landed in Dublin and were told that these cousins we had never met were sending us transportation to take us to their home. We had no idea what to expect and we joked that all eight of us would be showing up in some tiny apartment with some crazy people. We were wrong.

First of all we got picked up in some fancy cab bus that fit all of us. Then we pulled up to a gorgeous home where the table was set with the fine china. My grandfather met his first cousin and there were lots more cousins of varying degrees and of all ages.
Brandon, me, an Irish cousin, my sister Cristina, my brother Ryan and another distant cousin Pedraig
Then there was a traditional Irish dinner that was pretty amazing. And wine. And beer. And cake. And all our fears about this dinner with our Irish family were gone. They were fabulous people and quite the dinner hosts.
They had a fancy cake for us.
The next day we left Dublin and headed west and north into areas not usually destined for tourists. My mom had done some primary research and so we knew what towns we were headed for. We were in search of the home where my great-grandfather was born. We ended up in a town where we learned that our name was actually a variation of "Towey" and it turns out just about everyone in the town had the same last name. Liam divided us up and sent us into local bars and told us to ask people about our great-grandfather. Yes, we actually went into bars and markets and asked people if they knew about a man who died 40 years ago. First of all, let me tell you how difficult is to ask about a guy named "Anthony Towey" in a town where everyone has an uncle or cousin or brother named "Anthony Towey." Secondly, we actually got some useful information.

The "Towey" kids
So we did what anyone would do next: we went to the cemetery and started searching for headstones. Since my great-grandfather died in the United States, we were looking for the burial sites of his parents. We spent at least an hour searching through a cemetery from the late 1800 and early 1900s. The thing about old cemeteries in Ireland is that amongst the many marked graves there are hundreds and thousands of unmarked sites for those who died in the famine. Due to the mass of poor people who died during the famine, many were placed in mass graves. Others were marked simply with a stone. It was humbling, sad and educational. As we walked through the final resting place of so many Irish, I was full of mixed emotions for so many people who had died. We read so many headstones and wondered about so many of the people who are buried there. It felt a bit strange, so I appreciated when Liam told us that he believed that the dead were to content to have any visitors.

My parents trying to read the worn down inscriptions

After we failed to find what we were looking for on the "old" side of the cemetery we crossed the street to the more recent side. Naturally, my brother and dad struck up conversation with a grave digger. All of a sudden the grave digger is on his cell phone talking to the guy who is the holder of the church records. And 15 minutes later I am walking down a country road in Ireland with my family with some vague instructions on how to get to the home of this guy. We find his home and he leads us to his backyard where he has laid out several books on the table.

Handwritten church records.

Unfortunately the record books didn't have exactly what we were looking for. But it was pretty amazing to be sitting in an Irishman's backyard, looking through handwritten death records. 

Next thing we knew we were back in the van on the way to the little village where we had heard the family property was. We had a small description from the Dublin family of what we were looking for, so we started looking for a "boreen." Now if you know what a boreen is, you are far ahead of where we were (turns out it is a little path-- a little path that the cows took).
 We were on a tiny little road in our huge van and we started stopping at people's homes to ask if they knew where the "Towey" property was. People kept pointing. The kids followed us with bikes. My dad introduced himself to all the neighbors, each time repeating the story of what we were looking for.

My dad talking to one of the locals.
Finally we found the boreen. After a days worth of searching, we walked down a little worn out path to find the remains of a one room home where my great-grandfather was born.

The boreen.
There was little left to be seen on the property where my great-grandfather was born. We found a few rusty tools and some falling down walls. But I was standing in a place where three generations ago my family had humble beginnings. I reflected on how lucky I was to be there with my parents, my siblings, my grandfather and my husband. I marveled at how amazing it was that in one short day we had such an exciting adventure, searching for just a little proof that one day our family before us had walked those same streets.
Remains of the home.
We continued our trip as planned and had a lot of other amazing experiences unrelated to searching for our family. At the end of our trip we made a brief detour to have lunch in the town where my great-grandmother was born. But that one day was special to me and all of my family. On that day we put aside our own desires. We put aside our biases and fears. We trusted in our Irish guide and we met a lot of people along the way. One day in Ireland we chased dead relatives.


  1. Erin, I hope to chase dead relatives this year in Germany. I was finally able to connect my grandmother to a town and now am in contact with a distant relative. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  2. Incredible! Sounds like such an awesome adventure. I absolutely loved Ireland when I was there. I was mostly in Dublin, but spent some time in Limerick as well.

    My mum's side of the family is Scottish and we still have some distant relatives there (my maternal grandmother emigrated from Scotland to Canada in the early 1920s), so our family is planning on taking a trip there in either 2013 or 2014. My mum and her brother have been, but none of the "kids" have been. I'm hoping we can make it happen!