Tracing my family tree: my ignorance of world history and how it affects my family tree

In the 1930 census, my great grandfather’s family said they were from Northern Ireland, my great grandmother’s family from Irish Free State. That I don’t even understand the difference makes me realize how truly ignorant I am.

One of the things that has been really driven home to me as I research my family tree is just how ignorant I am – about my ancestors, about world politics, about U.S. history.

Take today’s new discovery: I’ve been curious about why, in some census records, my family identifies themselves as from “Ireland,” sometimes from “N. Ireland,” and sometimes from “Irish Free State.”

To get some clarity about why that might be, I wrote to the Association of Professional Genelogists in Ireland. I got a quick response from Nicola Morris, who explained that the term “Irish Free State” was only used after 1922, when the Irish Free State was established following the War of Independence. It follows the ratification of a controversial treaty of 1922. Morris explains further:

“This term referred to the 26 counties that today form the Republic of Ireland.  It was not uncommon to find families in the US using the term Free State when referring to the origins of their parents or grandparents. It would have distinguished their place of origin as being from the 26 counties rather than ‘Northern Ireland’   Also, if any family had a republican leaning, it would perhaps have been important for them to acknowledge the steps that Ireland had taken to independence prior to 1922.  The Irish republican movement raised a great deal of money for the support of the state in the US, so the details of the struggle were well publicised in Irish circles in the US.”

Going back through census data, I learned that before the 1930 census, all of my Irish ancestors simply identified themselves as being from Ireland.

In the 1930 census, however, they got more specific. The Larkins and Maloneys now considered themselves from Irish Free State, while the Sheerins and McDade/McDevitts (that’s another mystery) noted they were from N. Ireland.

From what little I understand so far, discussion around the dinner table might have taken a bit of an interesting turn, seeing as how my great grandather James Sheerin’s parents had Northern Irish ties while my great grandmother Mary Ellen Maloney’s parents came from Irish Free State.

I always wondered how my Irish and Italian grandparents connected, but now I’m curious about how politics in Ireland might have affected life here in the U.S. for my family.

I think we forget that when our ancestors came to the U.S. they didn’t necessarily break all ties from home. I have no idea if my family was politically active – my guess would be not, but then again you don’t have to be involved in politics to have an opinion and voice it. But either way, that they identified themselves as either one side or the other does suggest they were still very connected to what was going on back in Ireland.

Another day, another mystery … and another topic to research.

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