Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)
American visitors uncover Irish roots and new friends in Carlow.
By Anna Maria Gualtieri
Source: The Nationalist dated 10 January 2017. Page 26.
ON a clear, sunny day last August, my mother and I stood at the top of Rossmore hill looking out at the beautiful view of Co Carlow below. The spot was well worth a visit just for the incredible vistas it offered, but it had even more significance for the two of us.
My mother and I are Americans but we had just learned that Rossmore was the place that many of our Irish ancestors had come from before they’d immigrated to the United States of America. This discovery was not only incredibly thrilling for us, it was deeply satisfying, too. For a very long time, no-one in our family had known what part of Ireland our ancestors originated from and we’d been trying to solve the mystery for nearly 20 years.
That we had an answer now at long last and were actually visiting the spot was only thanks to two wonderful people in Carlow Bernie Walsh and Michael Purcell.
My mother and I had met Bernie and Michael earlier that day at Carlow County Library. My mother and I were in Ireland as part of a larger family trip across the country and we decided to stop in Carlow on the off -chance that we might learn something more about our family’s past. When we arrived in Carlow the previous evening, we noticed a small article in the Guide to County Carlow. It said that there was a genealogy service at the library and that it was possible to make an appointment with a genealogist there and that the first half-hour was free. We jumped at the opportunity.
My mother’s family, the Kelleys, is like many other Irish-American ones. We’re very proud of our Irish heritage but in the century and more since our ancestors left Ireland for the United States, we’d lost important knowledge about our family’s origins. Over the years, as the branches of our family tree grew and spread in America, we still longed to know where in Ireland our deepest roots lay. In the 1990s, my mother’s sister Susan began searching painstakingly for clues through immigration, census and death records in the United States.
From these, we suspected that our Kelly ancestors had most likely come from somewhere along the border of Carlow and Queen’s (Laois) counties. But the American records could only take us so far and we had been unable to pinpoint a more specific location.
When my mother and I first walked into Carlow’s library, we hardly dared hope that the genealogist there would be able to solve this long-running family mystery. Still, we thought that at least we might discover some new piece of information to take us farther on our search.
Bernie, the library’s resident genealogist, greeted us warmly soon after we arrived. Immediately, she began asking questions and taking down what information we knew about our ancestors Michael Kelly and Anne Delaney. Then we held our breath as Bernie turned to her computer and began typing the details into a database.
In a matter of moments, she pulled a record up onto her screen. My mother and I stared, unable to make any sense of it. But Bernie quickly explained that it was a church record for Michael Kelly and Anne Delaney’s marriage in 1859. And there at the top of the record was the information we’d so long been searching for: an address. They’d lived in Rossmore in the parish of Graiguecullen/Killeshin. My mother and I looked at the computer in happy disbelief. In less than ten minutes, Bernie had helped us find an answer for which we’d been searching for almost two decades. She then proceeded to pull up record after record for the baptisms of Michael and Anne’s children. Each one confirmed their address as Rossmore.
All of this was so much more than we expected, and as she pulled up the last baptismal record, we didn’t think there was any more we could possibly learn. But at that point, a man sitting nearby spoke up.
The gentleman told us that he’d overheard us talking about Rossmore. Bernie quickly introduced us to him. His name was Michael Purcell and she told us that not only was Michael a local historian but he was an invaluable source of information about Carlow and the surrounding area. Michael was in the library to do some research of his own, but now he pulled out a little book. It turned out to be one that his uncle Pat Purcell had compiled of gravestone inscriptions in local cemeteries, including near Rossmore. Michael began reading some names aloud from it. Suddenly, two grabbed our attention: John Kelly and Johanna Brennan.
They were Michael Kelly’s parents: my great-great- great- great-grandparents!
This meant that we not only knew where our ancestors once lived but we also knew where some of them were buried: Killeshin Catholic Church. The book even detailed where the headstone was located in the churchyard and included a map.
Michael told us: “You can go visit it; it isn’t very far from here.”
My mother and I literally started jumping up and down on the spot because not only had we just learned where our ancestors lived but that we could actually go there. Time, however, was running short. We had to leave Carlow that evening for Dublin, where we’d catch an early-morning flight the next day out of Ireland. And that’s when we learned how truly generous and considerate the people of Carlow are. Michael offered to drive us up Rossmore and to Killeshin Church, while Bernie continued the record search for us. They knew we didn’t have much time and Michael was concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find the spots ourselves.
Soon we were sitting in Michael’s car as we drove out of Carlow and up towards Rossmore. As we drove, Michael shared the history of the area with us − indeed, what was really the history of our family. He shared details with us about the local dialect, about how Rossmore was changed by the Famine and about what Rossmore had been like when he himself was a boy.
Yellow wild flowers that lined the road drifted in the breeze as we passed. Rossmore seemed like a quiet, peaceful, isolated place. Suddenly, we didn’t have to imagine any more where our family might have lived. We could see it through the car windows. Michael truly gave us a sense of the community our ancestors came from and what the sheer effort of living here had been like nearly 200 years ago.
Eventually, Michael pulled to a halt at the top of Rossmore. My mother and I
hopped out of the car and took in the glorious view of the surrounding
countryside that spread out below us.
We felt a real overwhelming pride that we came from such a beautiful place.
Michael then drove us down to Killeshin Church. Making our way through its cemetery, we knew Michael was right. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have found our ancestors’ headstone. The inscription on it was well worn away but, thanks to Michael’s familiarity with the cemetery and his uncle’s recording of gravestone inscriptions and locations, we were able to identify it.
As we stood in front of the headstone of our many-times-great-grandparents, we traced the faint letters of the name ‘Kelly’, a name so important to our identity. This was the person and this was the place where our family name originated. Seeing it gave us a real, concrete link to the place our family came from, as well as to our ancestors themselves.
But then we got another surprise.
Michael pointed out that next to John Kelly’s gravestone was a much more recent Kelly headstone, with lovely flowers obviously still being cared for. He then suggested that perhaps we still had Kelly relatives living in the area.
Happy and excited at this prospect, Michael then drove my mother and I back to the library, all the while imparting priceless information about the history of Rossmore, of Killeshin and Carlow. Michael’s friendliness was so open and welcoming. We couldn’t believe the time and effort he put into making the dream of two strangers come true.
And back at the library, the genealogist Bernie greeted us with even more records she’d found about our family as well as information about Rossmore and tips for how we could continue the search on our own. We were so impressed not only by her skill and expertise but how hard she had worked to help us. When it was time for us to say goodbye to both her and Michael, it felt like we weren’t saying goodbye to people we’d just met; it felt like we were saying goodbye to friends.
As my mother and I left the library that day, the sun was beginning to set, casting a golden light over the town. We felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to utilise Carlow Library’s genealogy programme. Both it and local historian Michael Purcell took us forward a huge step (or really, several) in tracing our family’s past that we never could have made on our own.
‘In less than ten minutes, Bernie had helped us find an answer for which
we’d been searching for almost two decades’
We felt a real overwhelming pride that we came from such a beautiful place.
And until now, there had been no prospect of our family having living relatives in Ireland. Finding relatives in Ireland would mean so much to us and would strengthen our connection to this beautiful country even more. If there are any relatives of John Kelly, Joanna Brennan, Michael Kelly or Anne Delaney still living in the Carlow area, we would so much like to get in touch with you. We can be reached through Michael Purcell at his email email@example.com .
For 20 years, our family asked the question: where did we come from in Ireland? Now, because of Carlow Library’s genealogy programme and Bernie and Michael, we finally have an answer. Since returning home to the USA, we have shared pictures, records and stories with our aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews and our interest has only grown. And so far, not a day has gone by when we haven’t thought of Rossmore or been grateful that we came to Carlow.
We can’t wait until we visit again
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