Tag Archives: genealogy

50 thoughts on turning 50: #27 We are the sum of our ancestors, at least when it comes to fear

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a lab mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

I remember, many years ago, watching an episode of “Touched By An Angel” in which the angel Monica is counseling a young girl brought up in difficult circumstances who is fearful that she’ll go on to live the same life her parents led. Monica assures the girl that just because her parents before her made bad choices in life, it doesn’t mean she has to follow in their footsteps.

“We are not the sum of our ancestors,” says the soft spoken Monica.

I wrote that quote down (as you know, I’m a quote junkie) and have mused on it often over the years. We are not the sum of our ancestors. Or are we?

According to a study out of Emory University, researchers have used olfactory conditioning to study whether or not fear can be passed on genetically to offspring. In other words, if your great grandmother had the bejeesus scared out of her by spiders, does that explain your own spider phobia? Continue reading

Loose change and history

1938 penny 002

I look at the dates on all of the coins I get as change, because you just never know what interesting things a cashier will hand you. Today, it was a penny from 1938.

In 1938, my mother wasn’t born yet. My grandparents (her parents) were young marrieds with a baby. My great grandparents were still alive. One great, great grandmother had passed away just a few years before.

When this penny was minted, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. The year after this penny was minted, war would break out in Europe.  Gone With The Wind, the book, had been published two year earlier and become a bestseller right away. The movie wouldn’t hit theaters for another year.

Random facts, but it’s funny to hold in my hand something that predates Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler on the big screen, was in existence before World War 2, was here before my parents were born. It’s one of the reasons I love studying genealogy, and putting people into a real life timeline.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #22 Flowing with the river of life

life is a river

For most of my life, I’ve been consumed with finding my purpose in life. I believe that I’m here for a reason – that God created me for something and that I’m not here by accident. And yet I’ve never really felt like I could put my finger on what that reason and purpose was.

Then a few years ago, I stumbled on a quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which reads in part:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

I wrote about it in this post, 50 thoughts on turning 50: #17 Be a link in the chain. But I wanted to take that thought a bit further today, after reading an article last week written by local sportswriter Scott Pitoniak, in which he looks back on forty years spent working at his dream job. Continue reading

A family tree mystery solved (kind of)

Those of you following along with my family tree research know that I’ve come across several mysteries just begging to be solved. One of the chief has been a mystery invoving my great, great, great grandmother Catherine Toohey Larkin and young man named Martin Daly.

In 1870, Catherine Toohey (or Tuhey) and her husband Michael Larkin were living with their children in Pittsfield, MA. Living with them were Catherine’s brother Martin, sister Ann, a man named Henry Hurst (whom Ann would marry a few years later), Catherine’s mother Bridget (Eagen) Tuhey, and a 14-year-old man named Martin Daly.

Martin Daly was a mystery to me – who he was, how he was related, why he was living with the Tuhey/Larkins. Tracing census records it turns out that Martin was born in Galway, Ireland to parents Patrick Daly and Catherine Toohey.

It was way too much of a coincidence, right? His mother is Catherine Toohey and he’s living with Catherine Toohey Larkin. He’s born a year before Catherine and Michael’s first child Mary Ann is born in Ireland.

One idea is that Martin is Catherine’s son from a previous marriage. Definitely possibe but the timing between Martin’s birth and Mary Anne’s birth are very, very close. Perhaps there is another Catherine Toohey somehow related to my Catherine Toohey who had a son named Martin who, when he emigrated to America, came to live with distant relatives.

Well, after much research – and a major clue from the folks at the Pittsfield Library Local History Department – I can confidently say that my Catherine Tuhey/Toohey is not Martin Daly’s mother.

The folks at the library shared information from Martin Daly’s obituary, including the note that at his death he was survived by two brothers and a sister living in New Zealand. I’ve also found another brother named Charles living in Pittsfield.

In the 192o census, my Catherine (Toohey) Larkin tells the census taker that she’s had 8 children, 6 of whom who are living. I can account for all of her 8 children: Mary Ann, Michael, Margaret (Jennie), William, Ellen, James, Katherine, and Annie.

That means the numbers simply don’t add up.

Another clue: at no time after the 1870 census do I find Martin living with or next door to the Larkins. Given that my family literally lived within shouting distance from each other (including inlaws and their families) – and when I say shouting distance I mean from the kitchen to the front porch – it’s a little suspicious to not have him living on the same street. Not impossible – eventually Michael Larkin Jr will die in an old age home, despite the fact that he has siblings and family living in Pittsfield. (Another mystery: in the family that literally lives together from birth to death, how did one member end up in the home for the aged? Was he ill? Cuckoo? I don’t have any record of him living with any of the siblings once his mother Catherine dies; in fact, in 1920 he’s living in a boarding house.)

It’s likely that my Catherine’s father Patrick Toohey had a brother who had a daughter named Catherine, who would of course been Catherine Toohey. That’s very, very possible. Or maybe Martin’s mother Catherine Toohey is even more distantly related – a cousin of a cousin. He may have even been related somehow to Henry Hurst, who was staying with the family. People tended to immigrate together, either with or to stay with family, neighbors, etc. they knew in Ireland.

So while the mystery isn’t solved, I can eliminate a rabbit trail of research – although I would someday like to find out why Martin Daly was in the Berkshire prison and how he came to stay with the Larkins when he came to America.

Unfortunately, I had also hoped that this would place my Catherine Tuhey (Toohey) in Galway, Ireland so I could begin to look for records there. Now I’m not so sure that’s the right place to look. I’m not back to square one, but I’m close.


My own little Lottie and it’s a long way to Tipperary

It’s been an eventful few weeks here at the Funny Farm as I trace my family tree. Not only was I able to find the birthplace of my great, great, great grandfather John Maloney in Ireland – Tipperary! – I also discovered that my great, great grandmother Annie Larkin Maloney’s had a niece was named Charlotte  Mountain – or, as the family called her, Lottie. (It was inevitable, wasn’t it, since it was a Lottie that started this whole mess.)

Annie’s sister Margaret – or Jennie, as the family called her, married a man named Edward Mountain. Lottie was one of their daughters. These people are so distant from me, time-wise; Charlotte Mountain was born in 1893. But they seem so real to me the more I get to know them. It’s like having a whole neighborhood living inside my head.

That’s the latest on my family tree – what are some interesting things you’ve been learning about your family?


Tracing my family tree: a million crazy puzzle pieces

A family notes sheet in the early stages. I just learned the names of Mary Ann McDevitt’s parents, so I started a family sheet for them, plugging in what little information I have. Their children – Sarah, Ellen and Mary Ann – all have sheets of their own with their family information.

Tracing your family tree is a little like trying to put together a puzzle when the pieces are scattered in a thousand boxes all filled with pieces that belong to other people’s puzzles. You have to sift through millions of pieces to find the ones you need.

Making the task more difficult, as you’re searching, you often don’t know what you’re looking for: an edge, a corner, a blue or pink piece?

Here’s a tip to get started: first, write down all of the facts that you know for sure. Parents names, birthdays, marriage dates, names of siblings, their vital information. Ask questions of living relatives to get the information. These are things you can write in black sharpie marker and know you won’t have to change them, details you can ask of living people and that you can usually verify pretty easily. Continue reading

My family tree: famine, poverty and religious persecution

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland. (Photo courtesy AlanMc, WikiCommons)

As I’ve been researching my family tree, I keep coming back to one question: why did my ancestors leave Ireland?

Confession: I know very little about the country where so much of my heritage was born. For that matter, I know very little about American history, other than the major events. And I’m pretty fuzzy on a lot of them, too.

I’ve heard of the Irish potato famine but know nothing about what it was, the havoc it caused, and the poverty and hunger that drove the Irish to America.

I know nothing about the religious differences that have divided Ireland for generations; “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was just a U2 song, right? And how can Catholics and Protestants be at war in this modern, tolerant world, anyway?

Like I said, I’m clueless. And yet, the little I have learned about my family makes all of those issues in history alive for the first time.

It seems that my first Irish ancestors arrived in America in about 1847, with my great, great, great, great grandmother Mary Branagan. A few years later, in 1850, my great, great, great, great grandfather John Maloney immigrated; he and Mary Branagan would marry in 1852 in Cummington, MA and have, among other children, a son named Charles.

My great, great, great grandparents Michael and Catherine Touhey Larkin came to the U.S. in 1857; they had an infant daughter Mary with them. Michael and Catherine went on to have seven more children, five of whom lived. One of them was Annie.

On November 21, 1883, Annie Larkin married Charles Maloney, thus uniting one branch of my Irish family tree.

I have no records showing the exact dates of immigration for anyone on this side of the Irish family tree, where in Ireland they’re from, when exactly they came, or in what occupations anyone was employed while in Ireland. I know when John Maloney arrived in Massachusetts, he worked as a farm hand while the rest of the family, as they grew, worked in the woolen mills.

In fact, my entire family is filled with family who worked in the woolen mills. When Charles was 12, he was employed in the woolen mills; so far that’s the youngest I’ve seen but with 10 years in between each census, it’s not unlikely that some of my ancestors who are in their early 20s were employed as spinners and sewers as children or teens.

I’ve asked myself more than a few times what life in Ireland must have been like. Because in America, things weren’t all the cozy, at least looking back from the comfort of my modern home. No running water. No sanitation. A nation on the verge of Civil War. Jobs in mills were long and difficult.

And yet wave after wave of immigrants came, believing that what they would find here would be better than what they left behind. And it sounds like, in the case of Irish immigrants during this time, they were right.

In the book “Immigrants in America: The Irish Americans”, author Karen Price Hossell explains that the plight of Irish Catholics in the middle of the 19th century was worsened by British penal laws of the 17th century depriving them of the abilty to own land.  By the early 1800s, she writes, “Catholics owned about 7 percent of the land in Ireland, even though they made up mor ethan 80 percent of the population.” While the penal laws were repealed in 1829, by then the damage was done. The Catholics were too poor to buy land even if they could.

And then, there was the potato blight.

In 1845, a potato blight that had first affected England and parts of Europe  spread to Ireland. That year, about 30 to 40 percent of the potato crop in Ireland was destroyed, but the following year nearly all of the potato crops in the country were ruined.

I don’t think we realize how well-fed we are in America.

It’s difficult to imagine today that an entire country could starve because of the failure of one crop. In modern America, we’re used to going to the grocery store and enjoying a selection of fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits that are not always even in season.

But for the Irish on the 1800s, meat was a rarity and the grain and other crops grown on the estates of landlords, as well as the livestock, was exported to England. As my mother likes to say, the cobbler’s children went barefoot.

So without the potato, the people of Ireland starved. They ate grass, seaweed, the rare cabbage. An inconsistent diet; if they weren’t starving they were sick from what they could find to eat. The Irish who worked the land as tenants found themselves in increasingly dire circumstances when they were evicted by landowners who were not obligated to provide them shelter.

In short, it was a desperate, desperate time.

It’s difficult to sit here in 21st century America and imagine that the failure of crops of potatoes could send an entire country into a devastating famine. And yet, it happened.

To put this into a little perspective, Quakers in Ireland offered some relieve by opening soup kitchens; by July 1847 there were about 2,000 soup kitchens serving hot meals to three million people every day.

The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847, an extension of the 1838 act establishing workhouses for the poor,  offered shelter – all the suffering had to do was turn over their land and agree to live in appaling, overcrowed, unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions. By 1851, three hundred thousand people lived in workhouses, and there was a waiting list of many more.

Monetary donations came from the US, India and other countries and while the blight was less severe in 1847, the crop of potatoes was sparse. The famine continued in this fashion until 1850, when the blight ended as quickly and mysteriously as it began.

Hossell writes that the English has little sympathy for the increasingly dire situation, owing to the fact that the English were predominantly Protestant and the suffering Irish were Catholics. (Ah, now the conflict in Ireland is starting to make sense.) In fact, the British response to the Irish famine is charged issue, referred to as “genocide by starvation”.

It was during the years of this devastation that my family began to arrive on U.S. shores. They weren’t alone. In 1840 about 1 million of the 17 million people living in America were of Irish descent; by 1854, that number more than doubled.

For the first time I am beginning to understand what drove them here, poverty I can’t imagine and perhaps a religious persecution that suddenly clears up the conflict in Ireland.

Like I said, I don’t know exactly where in Ireland they came from, or exactly why. But given the conditions in Ireland at the time, it makes sense that the potato famine was a catalyst, at least for the earliest of immigrants. Working in a woolen mill, living in a house, not facing famine, I suppose those things were a better life despite the fact that it doesn’t seem that way looking backward.

And it explains the deep Catholic roots of my family in Massachusetts. Not like today’s evangelical Christians spreading a doctrine, but in a lifestyle way. My family is Catholic. That’s just who they were. (It also explains why it was such a big deal that, as a teenager, I make my first communion. Despite the fact that both of my parents grew up Catholic, I grew up in a loosely faithful evangelical family and as such didn’t engage in those religious rites. But how that all came about is another story for another day.)

That’s just who we are, I guess. Devoted family, deeply faithful to their beliefs, willing to work for a better life for their children.

In other words, American.