When we seek to learn of our ancestors’ lives in Ireland, we need to particularly consider when they emigrated. Had they been able to choose to leave, to purchase their own passage and sail as one might today? Had they given up or sold off their holdings in Ireland to their landlord or to a relative, offering more stability for those they left behind? Had there only been enough property for one sibling to inherit, necessitating immigration or upwardly-mobile marriages for the rest? Had they been involved in some form of rebellious activity that caused them to keep low profiles and try to avoid arrest? Did they intentionally cover their tracks so as not to be found? Had they been forced to leave their homes, their counties, Ireland herself? Were they indentured servants, required to work for seven years to secure their freedom in America? Had they been part of the overcrowded “coffin ships” of the starvation years, or might they have stowed away secretly on a vessel that traveled across the ocean for another purpose? Had a party been held for them before they left, or had they quietly slipped away from their neighbors in the dead of night?
Until we learn any of these answers we may continue to wonder. Many of our ancestors seemed to simply appear at some point in time in some place, and it is only through the story of their descendents—us—that we begin to make our own hypotheses backwards in time.
There had been shortages of food in 1740-1741 Ireland (“the forgotten famine”) and crop failures in the latter part of the nineteenth century, including a “mini-famine” in 1879 (An Gorta Beag) that was concentrated on the west coast. Although these did not cause the vast number of deaths as had occurred between 1845-1847, they did cause families to relocate to more urban situations in Ireland and to emigrate in large numbers. Many had begun to leave in the 1840’s, if they could, and there was a deluge of immigrations in the 1850’s, of those who had survived the previous decade. The latter part of the nineteenth century seemed to have brought in another large wave of Irish immigrants to New Haven County, Connecticut, where there were many factory jobs to be had, a vast improvement upon the backbreaking labor that the immigrants of the 1820s provided.
For those Irish Catholics who arrived in Connecticut just before the most dire years of the potato blight, settling into established Congregationalist towns seemingly without difficulty, other sets of questions might be raised. Had some been middle-men favored enough to have been landlords themselves? Had the predominance of Anglo-Irish surnames in early nineteenth century New Haven, Waterbury and Naugatuck, Connecticut, pointed to some form of familial stability through fortuitous marriages that had occurred in Ireland? Had, for example, my great great grandmother Butler and her family made it financially possible for my great great grandfather Meagher to emigrate and for their youngest child to leave a fortune that is still awarded annually as a scholarship? While we may never learn the true answers to such questions, especially where records no longer exist, it may at least be assumed that ancestors who first appeared in the census of 1850 or later had likely survived starvation years in Ireland in some form.
Recently a particular book became helpful to me in considering the lives of the later Irish settlers in America. Several years back I had started reading Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s Rossa’s Recollections 1838 to 1898 Memoirs of an Irish Revolutionary, but I found it to be too disjointed to follow and had to put it down. I needed instead to do more research and better understand the times in which he lived and the events about which he spoke. Rossa’s Recollections began as a collection of articles he published in his newspaper, the United Irishmen, between 1896 and 1898, while living in New York. The book found me again when I could more fully appreciate it.
While this blog has been devoted to things Maher, behind the scenes I have also continually worked to flesh out the rest of my family and all our other 100% Irish surnames—including O’Donovan. This is what led me to my bookshelf to pick Rossa’s Recollections back up. So, although this first post of the year is about an O’Donovan, I feel that it could stand as a parallel example extending to the transplantations of the O’Meachairs from Ikerrin—and any number of old Irish families from their original sites—throughout other parts of Ireland and the world.
The overarching emigration story is, of course, equivalent to that of all immigrants, and the particulars in relation to Ireland are equivalent to that of so many other countries that have been aggressively colonized by others. That story continues to be played out globally, century after century. Although I don’t mean to dwell on history that others have long sought to put behind them, as a relative newcomer to an active awareness of my ancestors’ roots, I find that I cannot help but continue to pick at the scab in order to try to understand things better for myself.
O’Donovan Rossa and his family survived what he refused to call The Great Famine and he, like so many early families with old Gaelic roots, held a hatred for the “plunderers of his land and race” throughout his lifetime. His book left no holes barred in these regards. Rossa was thirteen in 1845, the first year of the potato blight in which the Irish were forced to continue to supply England with the harvests they raised, even as their own source of sustenance vanished. Rossa’s uncle and family had sold their property and left for America four years earlier, and they gradually brought the rest of the family over beginning in 1847, after Rossa’s father had died and his family had been evicted from their home. Within a year one brother was taken in by his aunt’s family in another area of Ireland; another brother, already in America, sent for his mother, brother, and sister to emigrate there, and Rossa remained alone in Skibbereen, where he lived with another family in one of the poorest parishes in southern Ireland.
A living link between old Ireland and individuals he knew and to whom he was related in America, Rossa filled his Recollections with first-hand memories of a pivotal period, when the hearts of families were equally stretched between both shores of the Atlantic Ocean. He recalled the mourning and wailing that accompanied the goodbyes when a family member spent their last night in Ireland before emigration, particularly on the day of his own family’s departure. While the children could begin new lives in a new world, Rossa explained that for the elders it was much more difficult away from anyone they knew, akin to trying to transplant a fully grown tree and expecting it to thrive. We should keep this in mind regarding our own oldest ancestors, many of whom may not have been able to read, write or even speak English.
Rossa held distain for the Irish who gave up their (and England’s) native religion in order to survive and prosper. Rossa’s family, also like so many others, took pride in not having “taken the soup,” and were assured by their parish priest that there was honor in giving up all that one owned rather than giving up one’s faith. The family losses, like premature deaths, experienced through emigration were also felt by mothers who lost their sons to soldiers who came into the towns to take young Irish boys as recruits for the English army. Others joined American armies and famously populated many of the regiments during America’s own colonization efforts, her fight with England, and during her Civil War. Rossa’s brother was in the Sixty-Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment; another served on a warship; and his brother-in-law was in the Sixty-Ninth Pennsylvania Cavalry.
Rossa took a different route—he became one of the first members of the most famous of the historic secret societies formed with the intention of freeing Ireland from English rule. He recalled his own contribution of the name, the Phoenix National and Literary Society, that began about 1856 and had about forty members. (Rossa liked the association with the mythical bird that would rise from the ashes of a previous one.) Two years later, James Stephens arrived in Skibbereen to recruit Phoenix Society members into his own Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. He carried a letter of introduction from James O’Mahoney to one of the members, and Stephens first initiated Dan McCartie. McCartie initiated Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa the next day, who then initiated Morty Moynahan, and on the movement grew, spreading throughout Ireland and into America as the Fenians.
While there is more to say about this vein of the recollections, I would rather turn to another aspect that I found to be very interesting—genealogy. The great Irish scholar of Irish language and professor at Trinity College, John O’Donovan, helped O’Donovan Rossa untangle some of his own family history. Originally from Rossmore, the parish of Clonoulty, in south Tipperary, Rossa’s family’s lands were taken and the family had to move several times until they finally found a place in which they could settle. This was in Ross Carberry, County Cork. His great grandfather, Donacha Rossa, had six sons, and these six family lines extended far and wide throughout southern Ireland and into America. Several of Rossa’s stories underscoring his own family connections struck home to me, as I continue to seek linkages between various extended points of my own research to others’ and between people who settled in the same places through what I perceive as wave migrations. (I understand this phrase to mean the continual bringing over of people that they knew and were related to in Ireland, to settle in the same vicinity that they did, initially.) Many of us very likely have relatives now in disparate places who live by surnames about which we have no knowledge, but whose ancestry derives from the same set of roots in Ireland.
Forbidden by copyright to quote from Rossa’s book, which would lead me to writing much more, I can only recommend that others read it, and I now have happily added it to my Pinterest board of recommended Novels and Memoirs About Ireland. Rossa’s Recollections may be read online through Open Library and on Google Books and purchased through several venues, including Amazon. My copy was published by the Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, 2004.
His book. O’Donovan Rossa’s Prison Life: Six Years in Six English Prisons, may be read online on Internet Archive and as a Google Ebook.
For more information about Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa see the following links:
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved