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Jacksonville resident scours old records, helps people reconnect with their Irish roots

Maybe Aunt Mary talks about family over in Ireland. Or you treasure a fading photograph of your great-great-grandfather dressed to the nines. Or your mother remembers the beautiful old lullaby her mother sang.

So you know you're connected to the Emerald Isle but you don't really know many details, maybe not even where exactly in Ireland your family lived.

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Jacksonville resident Roger McDonnell spends several hours a day scouring old records to help people with Irish roots reconnect with their cousins in County Clare or an aging aunt in County Tyrone.

McDonnell, 65, a retired government employee, was lucky. He grew up knowing some of his family history. His grandmother Nora Roddy immigrated to the United States and spoke about her family back home.

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"Grandmother Nora got me interested in Ireland," he said. So he knew about the farm where she and her sister Mary came from and who her brothers were. Of seven children, six emigrated and the youngest son stayed on the farm.

"In the 1800s, that was pretty much the pattern," McDonnell said.

In addition to his grandmother's stories, he has all the research his mother Agnes Brennan McDonnell collected on her family — in pre-Internet days. McDonnell has continued to research the history of his family and his wife Susan's family, also Irish.

She wrote a 20-page family history on her own family and another one on her husband's family.

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His Aunt Mary Colgan collected family photos — portraits of well-dressed young men and women. Copies had been sent back to family in Ireland to show how well the immigrants were doing, McDonnell said.

And he has visited Ireland seven times, including the couple's honeymoon trip 41 years ago — Grandmother Nora had encouraged that visit.

"Knowing my past and where my family came from was important to me," he said.

McDonnell is a volunteer for Ireland Reaching Out, an Irish-government-sponsored program to connect with people around the world who claim Irish roots. Working on line, he serves as a parish liaison in Roscommon, home to some of his Irish ancestors.

Earlier this year, he was singled out as Volunteer of the Year, receiving a crystal plate from Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson at ceremonies at the embassy in Washington, D.C.

"We have just over 200 internationals but only a handful are as active as Roger. He typifies the selflessness of a volunteer, offers his time and expertise extensively and has helped us reach out in the U.S.," Laura Colleran, a spokeswoman for the program in Ireland, said in an email.

Ireland Reaching Out started as a pilot in 2009 and then became a national program in 2012, "working to reconnect 70 million Irish Diaspora back to their place of origin in Ireland," according to its website irelandxo.com.

Colleran said the website has 50,000 monthly visitors and almost 100,000 registered users. A new website is due out in April, she added.

"It will be easier to use with more interactive features that will help people engage with their parish of origin and build stronger ties with that place," she said.

Colleran noted that the Irish, too, are interested in connecting with their family around the world. "Communities such as Bournea in County Tipperary have embraced the concept of Ireland Reaching Out as a way to celebrate their diaspora and involve the whole community in heritage and genealogy projects," she said.

"The program connects people at the local parish level in Ireland, to hook them up with descendants who left 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago," McDonnell said.

The website has message boards for every county, province, parish and townland (the smallest municipal unit) in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, according to McDonnell. He and other volunteers — who live in Ireland, the United States and Australia — answer questions posted on message boards. Typical queries begin with "I'm in search of the birth certificate/record," "I am trying to find the death dates," or "I am looking for information about my ancestor."

McDonnell, who is always researching the next bit of information about his family, signed onto the website as a user in 2012. He was recruited to serve as a parish liaison. "So I signed up," he said.

McDonnell researches requests from several parts of the Republic of Ireland. And he's quite devoted to his work, spending up to four hours a day searching websites, databases and a host of books with very small print that he keeps on his own bookshelf. Over the years, he has learned to search online data bases from churches, the census and other government sources. There are several online subscription or membership websites that hold millions of records, he said, such as Roots Ireland and Find My Past.

"Roger picked up on all those nuances and it became easier for him," said Susan, his wife.

One of his pursuits has been manually transcribing census records to put on line. He's been through records for Roscommon, Mayo and Leitrim. He's learned some patterns and traditions, such as how names are passed from father to son.

McDonnell admits the search isn't always easy.

Records from before the 1860s are rare. Irish census data from the late 1800s until 1901 were lost due to fire and the Irish Civil War.

"They're not there so we have to look at other sources," he said.

As for church records, "You're lucky if you can find any ... before 1860," McDonnell said. In all research, "Our aim is to get the people down to the townlands if we can," he said.

He notes that the Internet is making the search easier. The National Archives of Ireland has posted surviving census data on its website that people can use free of charge. Go to nationalarchives.ie.

McDonnell understands the desire to make a connection to one's Irish heritage. He's felt the excitement of being "home."

"I walked on the ground that my great-great-great-grandfather walked on years ago," he said.

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