By Christine Rousselle
The popularity of genealogy research, particularly through the use of DNA kits and online resources, is a sign that humans are longing for a sense of community and kinship, a panelist at the World Meeting of Families’ panel “The Importance of Belonging: Exploring Contemporary Interest in Genealogy” theorized Aug. 22.
Genealogy research has become “like an addiction,” particularly in Ireland, said panelist Dr. Michael Egan, of the Irish Family History Foundation.
Those seeking to research their Irish roots, however, have their own unique set of challenges. Many of the country’s records were destroyed by a fire in the nineteenth century, and during a period Irish Catholics faced strict British penal laws, in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, records often were not kept or kept very loosely.
Add in the spelling variations that naturally arise when transliterating spoken Irish into English, and it can be very tough for anyone to find Irish ancestors, Egan explained.
But the advent of DNA ancestry testing has revolutionized people’s abilities to track down their ancestors, as it makes it easier to examine concrete connections between people, particularly families who were separated over the generations. Egan’s organization has put 23 million of these records online since 1984.
For those without access to grandparents, such as myself, online records can seem like a godsend.
The theme of 2018’s World Meeting of Families was “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World.”
Thanks to my own experience with genealogy, the Maine Irish Gaeltacht Project, Carna Emigrants Centre, and the Maine Irish Heritage Center, I was able to experience my own kind of family-related joy a few days prior to the opening of the pastoral congress by visiting the place where my ancestors lived.
Panelist Paidrigín Clancy, a folklorist and expert on Irish spirituality, thinks that the popularity of genealogy research can be explained by long-ago cultural norms. In Ireland, particularly, culture imbibed from the traditional language places an importance on community, kinship, and family.
“I live in a Gaelic or Irish-speaking community,” said Clancy, “And in that language, when we meet someone new, we don’t ask ‘Who are you?’ as we do in English. We ask ‘Cé leis tú?,’ (which means) ‘Who do you belong with?’”
In the Gaelic tradition, Clancy explained, a person’s identity is not just their own. Rather, it is “bound up with each other, with our kin-group.” These traditions also place an utmost respect on deceased ancestors, and Irish-language Mass includes prayers for “those who have gone before us in the path of truth.”
In addition to our genetic heritage, Clancy thinks it is important that Christians, both in Ireland and around the world, strive to remember their faith background as well.
“We are genetically Christian,” said Clancy, “we are bound together.”
Rev. Dr. Jeremy Corley, a lecturer in sacred scripture at Pontifical College in Maynooth, Ireland, agreed that there’s more than a simple “biological ancestry,” saying that Jesus Christ provides a different type of “family lineage” for Christians. Still, genealogy is mentioned in the Bible, he reiterated, and that there are many references to both patrilineal and matrilineal lines.
“Genealogy can offer a clue to identity,” although he did point out that one has 64 great-great grandparents to which they can choose to identify with. Through Christian baptism, Christians become descendants of Abraham, he explained, and heirs to his promise.
Amoris Laetitia’s emphasized the importance of grandparents, said Corley, as they are “living history, living witnesses to history,” who are able to pass on family stories and traditions.
I never had a chance to meet my great-grandparents, James and Annie Coyne–they died long before my mother was even born, when my grandmother was still fairly young.
James was born on the now-uninhabited Irish island Illauneeragh, which is located off the coast of the town of Carna, in County Galway. The island is so small it does not appear on Google Maps, unless you know exactly where to find it.
Annie was from nearby Bontroughard, on the mainland. Around the start of the 20th century, they both left Ireland, and like many people from the region, they wound up in Portland, ME. They were married there in 1915, settled down, and eventually had nine children.
Flashing forward a few decades, James and Annie’s middle child, Anna, would stand up a nice Italian boy on what should have been their first date. As life would have it, they’d end up marrying; my mother was the youngest of their five children.
Like many immigrant families, most of my grandmother’s siblings married immigrants from other places; my Irish ancestors seemed to have a penchant for marrying Italians. As a result of this, Irish culture in our family diminished quickly. Nobody spoke the Irish language after they immigrated, and my relatives were given fairly standard English names in an effort to quickly assimilate.
While I had always been drawn to this part of my heritage, until this past Sunday, I had almost no information about who my ancestors actually were, or what their lives were like back in their old country.
Last year, my family submitted DNA samples to the Maine Irish Gaeltacht project, which seeks to establish genetic family links between the Irish diaspora in Maine and those who are still in Ireland. Because of this project, on Sunday, I was able to connect with my living, breathing relatives who still reside in County Galway. I attended Mass at the church where both sets of my Irish great-great grandparents likely were married, and where my ancestors may have been baptized and received other sacraments.
After initially not knowing much information about my past, thanks to the miracle that is the internet, I now know that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a man named Patrick Mulkerrin, who was married to a woman with the maiden name Cloherty. (Unfortunately, that’s all we know about her, but that’s still impressive for seven generations back.)
At the conclusion of her talk on Wednesday, Clancy said that “In walking the ground of our ancestors, we walk in respect of their story. We integrate and thereby make ourselves more wholesome, or holy, one could say in some way.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Christine Rousselle is a DC correspondent for Catholic News Agency.