Thursday, October 27, 2011


A family in search of its Irish roots finds a country trying to hold on to its heritage

In America, Ireland can sometimes seem as much an idea as it is a place. Perhaps 45 million Americans claim Irish roots, usually with great pride, and they credit (or blame) that heritage for everything from hot-temperedness to a love of storytelling and music to a weakness for drink.

Enlarge The Times-Picayune In the desolate but scenic Doolough Valley, in County Mayo near the west coast, you see more sheep than people. The road through here was the site of the Doolough Tragedy in 1849; at least seven people -- and perhaps far more -- perished in the course of a march to register for aid during the Great Potato Famine. A simple plaque by the roadside is all that marks the event today. The Essence of Ireland gallery (8 photos)
But I've always been a bit cynical about Americans' relentless claim to Irishness, my own included. For most of us, it's a romantic notion. Having roots in Ireland, with its hard-luck history, hints at fighting the odds. (For some Irish-Americans, such as those growing up in South Boston, actual odds may have been fought.) Tell someone you have English heritage, meanwhile, and you might as well say you were born on third base.

Anyhow, while I've been kicking around the idea of Ireland, and Irishness, for about four decades, I'd never actually been there until this summer, when the perfect occasion arose. My best pal from college was getting married to an Irishwoman, and the wedding was to be held at a castle in County Laois (say "leash"), not too far from Dublin.
While there, I thought, I'd scout around a bit on some family history. My grandmother passed away earlier this year, and we planned a family reunion and memorial in May. One of my jobs was to see if I could track down any scraps of information about my great-grandmother, Nora Hurley, who emigrated from Ballinlough, County Roscommon, around 1900, to work as a domestic in Boston. (Not to say I've overcome long odds.)
So, here was the plan: We'd toast my friend, then spend a week or so cruising around the country, mostly the west coast, poke around Nora's old stomping grounds, and cap it off with a few days in Dublin.
We had the (mostly) good fortune of being there at the same time as Queen Elizabeth II, who was making the first visit to Ireland by a sitting British monarch since the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922, and President Barack Obama, who popped in to visit some distant relatives in the village of Moneygall. To the Irish, generally huge Obama fans, the queen's visit was nonetheless a far more momentous thing -- no surprise, given the fraught history between England and Ireland. Both visits, though, helped illustrate the elusive nature of Irishness.

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City editor Gordon Russell can be reached at Comment and read more at

For the full story, go to


N.B. If any of my readers think they may be able to help Gordon in his search for Nora Hurley, please contact him via the email above. I know a number of SKS's research in Co Laois...great to be able to help a fellow researcher link to his family.
Thank you,

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