This summer my youngest daughter took a family trip to Ireland. Listening to her plan her travel brought back memories of my trips to Ireland, first as a teenager and years later when I brought my kids. Though we visited many gorgeous locations, both trips focused on the town of Athenry in County Galway. My great grandmother’s stories of this town were our U.S. family’s last connection to our Irish ancestry.
In my son’s senior year of high school he was required to research a family history project. As is often the case his project became my project and I was inspired to research my Irish genealogy.
I wrote to parish priests, librarians, and finally to the local historian in Athenry, Galway, Finbarr O’Regan. After he helped me with my research, Finbarr suggested I share my family’s story. So it was that in 1998 I was officially published in the Athenry Journal. This is the article from the December, 1998 issue:
My Dad Brought Me to Athenry…
My dad was a lover of jokes, history, and family stories. So it came as a surprise to me to realize after his death, that he’d rarely talked of his childhood or his ancestry in Ireland. Only on St. Patrick’s Day were we notably Irish wearing green and listening to old John McCormick albums.
This situation is not uncommon here in the United States. The pain of the famine, forced migration, and the first difficult days in “No Irish Need Apply” Boston, led many to bury their Irish identities. Children were given anglicized names, customs were abandoned and the stories stopped. In one generation the family was American, only privately acknowledging pride in their Irish blood.
It was my father’s idea to visit Ireland in the summer of 1967 when I was thirteen. We traveled first to England visiting all those places I’d read about my history books, and then flew to Ireland. My parents fell in love with Dublin. They wandered through bookstores, strolled down St. Stephen’s Green, and took in plays at the Abbey theater. I admit to being stumped at my parent’s rapid assimilation into Ireland, as I’d heard so little about it at home.
And then we came to Athenry. My father was determined to find the town. We must have stopped five times to ask directions. When at last we arrived he strolled through the town for only a few minutes before asking for directions to Lady’s Well. My mother and I just looked at each other and shrugged. Off we went. I imagine we must’ve passed the Castle, the Abbey, and the North Gate but my father didn’t pause. He was a man with a mission.
Finally, we arrived at the shrine and my father spoke, “This is it, just as I remember. In my grandmother’s kitchen there was a picture of this place. She often showed it to me and told me stories of Athenry. She told me to come here, stand facing the well and turn. Her land would be before me.”
We did as he said and saw the farmhouse set up on the hill. Could this possibly be the land of my ancestors?
Once more on his mission, my father jumped into the car and drove right up to the house. As a teenager I was mortified by his boldness. He knocked on the door and a lovely woman, Mary Morrissey Connell, answered. My father explained about the picture and she asked her family name.
“My grandmother was a Clasby, Ellen Clasby who married a Ryan”
“Oh yes” she said, is if this happened every day, “that’s our family”
Inspired to research and preserve our family history in Ireland
That moment remained with me for 30 years. Discovering family on ancestral land is an amazing thing for a young American.
Two years ago my son was assigned a family history project in school. We gathered what little information we had and found my Irish side wanting. So I started a search into my heritage. I wrote to relatives, dug through Massachusetts’ record books, and followed the family back through the US census. Then I turn to the most difficult part of the research – Ireland.
My first letter was the father Anthony King. He told me that the Athenry Church records did not begin until 1858, too late for my family, but suggested I write to Eamonn Madden. I did and promptly received a response full of memories of the Clasby family
I ordered microfilms of the Family History Center and found John Clasby in the Tithe Applotment book with land in South Kingsland. The 1821 census of Ireland showed my James and Bridget Hession living in the Townland of Park with their six children. Through this Hession listing I was able to connect with a distant cousin over the Internet and we worked together in the family research.
Thread by thread I put together the family history:
John and Bridget Clasby had six children in their home in Brittain‘s Gate. Their son Stephen married Bridget Hession and had a daughter Ellen, my great grandmother. This family and several of the Hessions left Ireland in the post famine years and settled in Waltham Massachusetts in a community of Athenry families. Their neighbors included the Cloonans, the Glynns, the Corcorans, the Logans, the Hennellys, and the Healeys.
I began reading Irish history and developed great pride in my heritage. I learned the hardships in my own family‘s history. I found my great-great-grandfather Daniel Driscoll of a once mighty O’Driscolls sharing a small farm in Kilroan, County Cork with 13 other families in the 1830s. I learned how my mother‘s grandfather John Leahy went to work as a young teenager to support his mother, grandmother, and sister. He would later become a well-known public speaker in Boston and would raise seven children of his own. Two of his sons became lawyers, one a priest and another an author and historian in Boston. And I learned about Ellen Clasby who left Athenry the age of 16, traveling on the ship Daniel Webster into Boston.
The year after my father‘s death I decided to take the family to Ireland. Money was tight with college right around the corner, but we managed a week’s touring of the south and west of Ireland. Our first stop was Athenry. We did a bit more sightseeing than my father had allowed, (including a wonderful tour of the newly restored castle) before heading to Lady’s Well. I repeated my great grandmother’s directions to identify the family land for my children. Cows grazed peacefully on the field before the house. My children stood enchanted.
We continued on to Clonmacnoise and Clonfert Cathedral before returning to Athenry for the Medieval pageant in the evening. A truly wonderful day!
I have no doubt that the pageant will remain my children’s favorite part of the trip. The magic began at the front gate where we searched for the correct coins to pay our way and were passed through by the kind man taking admission. In the festival crowd we felt we belonged, no longer tourists. The music began to play and the stands began to shake. It took me a moment to realize it was a tapping of feet that was causing the vibration. The pageant began and we were treated to an show about rats, witches and a wonderful little piglet.
As we sat before the castle that evening I could almost see my Clasby, Hession, Ryan, Glynn, and Higgins ancestors sharing the revelry with us.
Our last stop in Ireland was the Bunratty Folk Park. There we met an older man, a docent, in one of the cottages. He described life in Ireland in the 1800s. He told us of family’s gathered for evenings of songs and stories in front of a large hearth. He spoke of happy children and loving families.
After the crowd left, I told him about my father and his trip to Athenry. He smiled, turned, and said to my daughter–
“And one day, God willing, you’ll bring your children to Ireland and say, ‘my Mum brought me to Ireland and showed me the family farm.'”
Published originally in The Athenry Journal, No. 11, Christmas 1998
Beyond the databases – tips for researching your Irish genealogy
Researching Irish genealogy is much simpler now with so many online databases available. If you’re interested in learning about your heritage, or are planning a family trip to Ireland, check out all the online databases (most are available at your local library!) and reach out to your extended family. The stories you learn will bring your ancestors to life.
Though I envy the ease of this research, I don’t regret the days of researching through letters and personal connections. My family history project brought me many lifelong friends. I’ve had lunch with distant cousins who shared precious photos with me, I’ve received photocopies of Bible records and transcriptions of family headstones.
Irish genealogy is challenging as so many records were destroyed. That’s why it’s important to look for unusual resources. If you’re searching for your Irish heritage, write to sources in Ireland – libraries, churches, even people with the same last name if you’re absolutely sure of your ancestor’s locations. Make sure to cover any expenses your correspondent may incur. Pay for postage and/or make a donation to the church or library.
Be kind, be patient and “someday, God willing, you’ll bring your children to Ireland and say, “my Mum brought me to [Ireland] and showed me the family farm.“