Feeling Connected: A Journey With My Irish Ancestors

29/08/2012 22:45 BST | Updated 29/10/2012 09:12 GMT

It was after my granddad died in July 2010 that I began to become interested in researching my family history. One day I just realised that, even though I had lived with him for 20 years, I had never asked him about his parents or grandparents or what it was like growing up in Ireland in the 1930s. At his funeral I was surrounded by people who all had a tale to tell about my granddad and as much as it warmed my heart to hear what my granddad got up to in his youth, I wanted to know more. Not just about my immediate family, but about all the nameless ancestors, without whom I would not exist.

I began researching by going to my nan. All good ancestry books recommend speaking to your living relatives and finding out as much as you can from them before going any further. Luckily my nan could trace her maternal line back to the early 1800s, and knew enough about my Granddad's family to give me a good start at researching myself.

I had always wondered if I had any nationality in me other than Irish, hoping that possibly I might have had a Japanese great grandmother or a secret uncle from Peru. What has my research shown? That every single person in my family tree is of Irish descent, on both my mother and father's side. I do have a few ancestors who moved to America, for a 'better life' I've deduced. The sad thing about some of these ancestors is that, from looking at various US censuses, their new lives didn't seem any better than the one they thought they were escaping from. One young man was drafted into the army and died fighting in his twenties. Another had moved in with an uncle in New York in one census, but by the next one he was living in a single room with six other Irish men, before later dying in a mining accident. Hardly the American Dream.

One of the most interesting things for me about researching my family tree is applying these individuals' lives to the history at the time. It wasn't until I had applied the context to my ancestors that I could understand why so many babies and young children were dying between 1845-1852. Of course, this was the time of the Great Hunger, The Irish Potato Famine. In all the excitement of realising you are connected to a major historical event, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that these were real people. What brings it home for me is that the house my Dad grew up in in Galway, had been inhabited by his family since at least the early 1800s. I never realised when I was younger, that when my dad walked past the small stone cottage calling it 'the old house' he meant it had been his house. And that when he said he had to cross a mountain to get to his school, he was being serious.

Having the opportunity to touch the walls that your ancestors themselves resided within is a fantastic yet odd experience, knowing that during the famine just staying alive would have been a struggle. The location of this house is still extremely rural today, and by looking at the Griffiths valuation I can see that though their neighbours were just 1000 ft away, there seems to be no other inhabited houses for miles in the mid 1800's.

This in turn made me wonder what kind of lives my ancestors lived. The censuses of 1901 and 1911 were helpful in getting me a step closer to 'knowing' my family. Occupations of all house occupants are listed, and it turns out that all the male Heads of the households (on both sides) have been farmers, speaking only Irish. The wives were, well, wives. The children had learnt English from school presumably and there was a nun and a priest thrown in there somewhere, not forgetting the 'rural postman' career one ancestor branched out into. Not a job I would have envied on a dark winters morning in the middle of nowhere. The most worrying occupation I found was 'Servant'. The family in question were not one of means so how they hired a servant was beyond me. More research showed that it had been the wives sister, and unmarried, that is all she was good for!

So far I have reached back into the 1700s and will keep trying to go back further. I want to know these people, their joys, struggles and beliefs. And though I realise I may never know all this, what I have found out already makes me feel connected to something greater, which inspires me to keep researching.