–Rachel Murphy

In doing research in Ireland, which repositories/sources did you find most useful, and did you come across any relatives still in County Donegal?

—Rachel Murphy, Dublin

Rachel, as you probably suspect, these are not two entirely separate questions. For someone doing research on ancestors in Ireland, and that was a significant part of what I was doing on my various trips to Ireland for Suite Harmonic research, the national institutions that hold archival materials for the country are important and so are the organizations such as yours—Eneclann—that have a more specific genealogical focus. But there is always a hope of finding an actual family connection who can provide at least an oral record to add pieces of information. I was lucky on many accounts in my research but, as anyone who has ever worked on genealogy knows, there are many questions that don’t get answered. Here’s a comparison for people who have done genealogical research in the United States. One of the black holes for researchers in the US is the 1890 census because most of those records burned. Something analagous happened in Ireland. During the 1916 Easter Uprising, many national records were lost when the Post Office was shelled. The bigger the gaps in information caused by such occurrences, the stronger the hope becomes for a researcher that someone will have private documents or family stories to help fill in the blanks.

On my very first trip to Ireland, I had only the vaguest idea of what kind of research I needed to do. Beginner that I was, aside from trying to get a sense of the country, particularly in County Donegal where I knew my Given ancestors had come from, I can think of only three actual attempts I made to find information, none of them successful. One was at Trinity College in Dublin, where family lore said John Given had studied for the priesthood. Somehow, everyone in the family had missed out on the fact that Trinity wasn’t Catholic, but the first person I made inquiries of—I think at the old library on the campus—told me that basic fact and concluded that the story must be wrong. I had heard that parishes held family records and I made inquiries at the rectory in Donegal Town only to learn that most early records had been lost in, of course, a fire. Another dead end. I also had the name Given to work with and after making inquiries, found a Hugh Given who ran a bar and modest hotel with his wife. We compared family notes and concluded our Givens were not related, but I must say that Hugh and his wife treated me and my husband and young children as if we actually were family.

It was many years later before I returned to Ireland and I’d learned what most family researchers learn. If you want to make a research trip productive, you have to do your homework. By the time I showed up at the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives of Ireland, and the Valuations Office—all in Dublin—I had a lot of leads I had gained from studying the letters I had and going to various respositories in the United States. Perhaps one of the most useful things in Ireland was that the National Library had a staff dedicated to helping people who weren’t Irish understand the kinds of things to look for. It was a woman at the National Library who told me, for instance, about Irish naming traditions, something that was very helpful in knowing what names to start with. (That also helped provide me with a plot point for Suite Harmonic.) The National Archives was actually one of the more exciting places I went to when I was hunting in Ireland because it was there I found some school documents that took me very close to the world John Given had come from. The Valuations Office also had some rather obscure documents that gave me a sense of how land was held and transferred from tenant to tenant. These old records have a certain quality about them. They suggest the past the way a scent suggests a person who has just left the room.

Those were the big three for me in Dublin—National Library, National Archives, Valuations Office. I had also corresponded a good deal with the staff of Donegal Ancestry in Ramelton and I made a point of going to see them, though most of the information I got from them came through the mail. On one later trip, I also spent several days in the County Donegal Library in Letterkenny and a patron there, hearing me tell a librarian what I was looking for, suggested I go to Londonderry and its Guild Hall because they might have records that were related to something I’d found in the Letterkenny newspaper archives. It was a very lucky suggestion because a new cemetery database in Londonderry finally let me put together two sections of the family and also unearthed a family secret or two that told me something about the sociology of the period I was studying. Cemetery databases, by the way, are a great idea. I spent a lot of time looking at gravestones in Ireland, but it’s such a big job, often complicated by weather, that it didn’t do much more than help me rule out a few things.

The Guild Hall find brings me directly to your second question. On an earlier trip to Ireland, I had made inquiries everywhere I could around Donegal Town because I knew John Given was from Drumboarty, which belongs to the group of townlands in the area of the Blue Stacks that surround Donegal Town. I hired a taxi driver who’d grown up in the Blue Stacks and knew the whole area like the back of his hand. In addition to providing an important tour, he suggested various people I could talk with who might know something about the period I was looking at. The main person he recommended I see was Charles Sweeney, a retired schoolmaster. I made a couple of attempts to see Charley before finding him at home.  He was a lovely man, wiry-trim, and he smoked through an ivory-stemmed cigarette holder. As I recall, he was quite hard of hearing.

The cab driver, James McGroarty, knew the names on my list and that John Given Sr. had gone to America with his daughter Kate and Margaret Mulhern, who was identified as his cousin in his obituary. James had recommended I see Charley in part because he thought he had a Mulhern connection. He was absolutely right. John Jr.’s older cousin James Mulhern, who appears in his letters and as a character in the back story of Suite Harmonic, was Charley’s great grandfather. Meeting Charley and following up on the family leads he gave me—his daughter in London and his sister Ronnie in Quebec City—was the real beginning of putting more of the family pieces together. Charley seemed dubious that there was any connection between the Givens and the Mulherns, and it turned out his doubts were justified. As a genealogist in the US told me later, cousin is really a term of art of the nineteenth century that refers to someone who has a general rather than specific family connection.

By the time I had pursued Charley’s leads and the information I gained from his family members, found Margaret Mulhern’s will that named James Mulhern, her brother, her main heir, unearthed more census information, and received the Guild Hall information on the plots James had purchased in Londonderry, I knew what that connection was. Margaret Mulhern was John Given Sr.’s niece by marriage. Margaret’s mother was an O’Donnell and the sister of John Sr.’s wife, Margaret O’Donnell Given. I had finally put more of the family together. I also discovered what a remarkable family James Mulhern had had—how bright and accomplished and full of initiative they were—and that added to my sense of the Given children and their own gifts, many of them certainly inherited through the O’Donnell line. I had the additional bonus of getting to know some of these distant relatives through calls and letters, including Paddy Sweeney, Charley’s brother, who sent me his delightful and useful memoir of growing up in the Blue Stacks.

Of course, I relied on many other Irish sources of information in my research. At one point, I hired a genealogist who made the most remarkable find—a list of the family names in Drumboarty during the period when the Given family lived there. That list meant much more unanchored information clicked into place. But though I had help from many other people and institutions in doing my research, the ones I’ve mentioned are the ones who stand out, along with Fr. John Silke, archivist of the Diocese of Raphoe, who gave me the information that helped me speculate on the places where John Given received his education. All of the Irish research was of major importance for Suite Harmonic, and I felt fortunate to find so many helpful people and glad to see that organizations like yours continue to make more and more documents available digitally for family researchers. Every aspect of my research in Ireland, and my email and snail mail communications with so many people, added general knowledge about the Given family. Just as important, it helped me create a bit of Ireland, which was so much a part of who they were, in the pages of their story.


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