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Commentary: How I spent my summer vacation

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We spent a lot of our vacation in cemeteries: a couple of church plots in England and a week’s worth of well-maintained and also abandoned graveyards in Ireland.

We were fortunate to afford a summer trip overseas. Also, I’m lucky to be married to a family historian, who used every website and archive online to plan an itinerary that avoided wild-goose chases and reference-room delays to find the churches and pathways of our ancestors.

After spending time in more cemeteries than I had previously visited in my life, it became obvious to me we were on a ghost hunt, of sorts.

Genealogy and family history, from my armchair perspective, consists of a lot of detective work, research, planning, documented proof and a dollop of creative imagination.

 Graveyard at the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Ballymore, County Westmeath, Ireland. Joseph Kirk Ryan

Graveyard at the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Ballymore, County Westmeath, Ireland. Joseph Kirk Ryan

Is this Dougherty in Ireland, that Doherty in New York? Is Bridget at 17 in Ireland the same person five years later in Philadelphia who is 19?

Could be. Correct ages and consistent surnames were elusive in the 19th century records.

However, the facts of a person’s life recorded on headstones lend an air of permanency and certainty to final resting sites. But good luck with that in Ireland. If your family members have markers, they had some means before or after the 1840’s famine. Many burial sites are only marked by a large rock, because that’s all a family could afford.

For families with resources, however, if the marker selected was limestone, it will require a few “good guesses” to read. The decades, the rain, maybe acid rain, have not been kind to tombstones in Ireland.

On more modern markers carved with Irish family names, one reads of the deaths of children, the loss of sons in war, women in childbirth. So many called “beloved,” “dear sister,” or “greatly missed.”

All are gone and left in their wake are headstones, tokens of their lives and carved laments.

Irish churches by the graves are usually open and visitors look for the font where a great-grandparent was baptized and light a candle for ancestors who left the Irish parish so their descendants could have better lives.

A week immersed in family history — in graveyards that, no matter where our people came from, are our common destination — easily becomes a retreat.

It’s a physical and spiritual time apart, communing with the past, praying for the souls who brought us to where we are now — by a church at a grave — and considering where we will eventually be.

 

Ryan is editor/general manager of The Dialog.