The boy standing next to the Model T was 14 when the photographer took his picture. It was 1921. Having left school after eighth grade to help support the family, he found work at a local market. As the store’s delivery boy, he drove the Tin Lizzy Ford to transport goods to customers.
“Those were different times,” says historian and Rider University professor Thomas Callahan Jr. The boy in the photo would eventually become Callahan’s father. His photo is one among 24 the younger Callahan included in his book, “I’m Sending a Shamrock to Remind You of Home” subtitled “Roscommon Families and the Irish Diaspora 1875-1950.”
The book explores what life was like for those who immigrated to America during and after the potato famine, known as “the great hunger,” and the ones who stayed in Ireland. Based on his personal family research, Callahan says it is a study of history “from the bottom up.”
Callahan will share what he learned about finding his heritage and how you can research your own family at two upcoming free events: A book signing at the State Library, 185 West State Street, Trenton, Wednesday, March 12, at noon, and a signing at the Lawrence branch of Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike, Lawrenceville, Thursday, March 27, at 7 p.m.
Callahan began his formal family search in 2009. He had been teaching a course at Rider titled “The History of Ireland” when a student asked him to share his own Irish heritage. In that moment, he realized how little he really knew: just that his grandmother, Kate McCormack (maiden name), was born in Slieveroe in County Roscommon, had immigrated to America, married Patrick Callahan, and eventually settled in Chatham, New York. The professor also knew various other facts but realized he wasn’t close to knowing the whole picture, and — to provide answers for his students — he decided it was time to find out.
His first step was to compile the information he had casually collected on different occasions over the past three decades. In 1982, while vacationing in Ireland, he had found his father’s first cousin, J.P. McCormack, who was still living on the family farmland. In 1993 Callahan’s father, Thomas Sr., died, leaving behind legal papers that gave him names of relatives in Ireland and upstate New York.
From these papers he was able to find his first American cousin, Grace McCormack. In 2001 he received some additional information via E-mail from Grace’s niece, who was working on McCormack genealogy.
Now, with papers and names on hand, Callahan was ready for the big search.
He contacted his cousin Grace, and through her and her sister Jeanne, learned that one of his grandmother’s elder brothers had come to American in 1892, settling in West Orange. But his cousins couldn’t give him many details beyond that.
Unless someone comes from a wealthy or politically important family, he probably does not have a good collection of records representing his family history, Callahan says. Callahan describes his family as common people, and like many searchers today, he conducted his research by finding as much specific information about his family as possible and then investigating how these facts fit into general trends. In Callahan’s case, this encompassed immigration to America and life in Ireland.
After speaking with his cousins, he checked a number of online people finders but with poor results. It was time for professional help, he decided.
Over the next two years Callahan used several online sites including Ancestry.com and Privateeye.com, plus several resources from the state of New Jersey: the State Archives, Department of Health, and the State Library. He made three trips to Ireland to visit relatives and research at the National Archive and the National Library in Dublin.
Thanks to the Internet and searchable databases, Callahan said his research was much easier than it would have been when he had considered the project in the early 1990s. However, he found there were restrictions and limitations with each resource he used.
The most recent U.S. census records available to the public today are from 1940 because of a 72-year black out of information to protect the privacy of living citizens. In addition, most of the 1890 census was lost in a fire. Another issue Callahan faced was that Ancestry.com does not have all the records managed by individual states.
For the Irish side of the family, the problems with census records were even more challenging. The waiting period for Ireland’s census is 100 years. Worse yet, though Ireland had conducted census inventories every 10 years between 1821 and 1911, only the 1901 and 1911 records survived. Records were lost in fires and the Anglo-Irish wars. During World War I the British government deliberately pulped records to alleviate a paper shortage. No census was taken in 1921, and the next report from 1926 is not scheduled for release until 2027.
But in spite of limitations, the results from the resources outweighed the challenges. It would have been nearly impossible to pursue the project without them, Callahan says. Even with the roadblocks, the journey was fun, and the challenges made the search all the more interesting. “It almost becomes addictive, you become a detective. If one angle doesn’t work, you try another,” he says.
If discovering your own family history appeals to you, Ancestry.com is a great place to start, Callahan says. The website draws on an extensive database of public and private genealogical records maintained by the Church of Latter Day Saints. In addition to census releases, Ancestry gives you access to more than 31,000 collections of records including ship logs, military, immigration, land and wills, and voter records, to name a few.
Of all the records available, the ones used most are the U.S. census reports, which the government has issued every 10 years from 1790 to 1940. From these records, you can find heads of household, other members, ages, birthplaces, occupations, immigration and citizenship details, marriage information, military service, and more.
A visit to the New Jersey State Archives at 225 West State Street in Trenton can help fill in many vital statistics not available at Ancestry.com, Callahan says. He also found he could obtain actual certificates from the New Jersey Department of Health providing he had exact dates and could prove he had a right to them.
In addition to formal records, Callahan was able to track family members from old newspaper articles from the New Jersey State Library at 185 West State Street, and an online source, Privateeye.com, which led him to relatives in Florida.
The rewards of researching your family heritage go far beyond a visual representation of your family tree, listing names, births, and deaths, says Callahan. He learned that like many immigrants, his family came to America to work as gardeners, coachmen, servants, railroad workers, and other unskilled laborers.
There is a running joke in the family that Callahan told a reporter from his hometown newspaper, the Chatham Press: Family members back in Ireland had believed the streets of this country were paved with gold. When American relatives wrote home, they would say, “They are not paved at all, and they expect us (the Irish) to pave them!” Within two decades, the Callahans progressed professionally to become physicians, lawyers, professors, and entrepreneurs.
Thanks to his research, Callahan says that as an only child, he went from having no family to belonging to a large family with cousins living across the U.S. and in Ireland. To date, he has met nearly 20 of them.
Callahan grew up in Chatham, New York, where his father — with his eighth grade education — worked for the New York Central Railroad, became a gunsmith, and served one term as the town’s mayor. His mother, Evelyn, was active in several civic organizations.
Though Callahan completed his family research just a few years ago, he has been interested in history since he was a child. After high school, he received his bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York, Albany, and an MA and PhD from the University of Connecticut. He is a fellow at the Royal Historical Society and a member of the American Conference for Irish Studies and the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland. In 1981 he joined the history department at Rider University, where he teaches Irish and British history.
Callahan lives in Pennington with his wife of 34 years, Ellen, who — by happy coincidence — has worked for about 25 years at the New Jersey State Archives, where she is now the collections manager.
While “Sending You a Shamrock” focuses on the lives of individuals from the McCormack and Callahan families, the book gives readers a larger perspective of American and Irish history. “The big picture of history is always composed of small portraits,” Callahan says.
#b#Adventures In Genealogy#/b#
Thomas Callahan Jr., “Sending You a Shamrock,” book signing, State Library, 185 West State Street, Trenton. Wednesday, March 12, noon. Free. 609-278-2640.
Also at the Lawrence branch of Mercer County Library, 2751 Brunswick Pike, (Darrah Lane & Route 1 South). Thursday, March 27, 7 p.m. Free. 609-882-9246.
Maureen Wlodarczyk, “The Genealogical Journey of Discovery” focuses on her 30-year search to discover her grandmother’s Irish roots. She will also talk about genealogy research and DNA testing. Free. Hopewell Valley Historical Society, Pennington Methodist Church, 60 South Main Street, Pennington. hopewellvalleyhistory.org. Wednesday, March 19, at 7 p.m. E-mail HVHist@aol.com.
#b#Irish in America#/b#
How and why the Irish came to America and what they did once they got here had a lot to do with the conditions they left behind. As Professor Thomas Callahan points out in his book (see story above), the potato famine of the 19th century in Ireland could be compared to “the Black Death that had swept through much of Europe 500 years earlier, killing millions and reducing the population by an estimated 30 to 40 percent.” Though the famine had killed far fewer people, the percentages were comparable, when one takes into account the percentage of the population that either died or was forced to emigrate.
But there was also a stark contrast between the two. The Black Death led to conditions that ultimately favored the peasants. “Economic conditions assured that English peasants emerged from the disaster of the plague generally better off than they had been,” writes Callahan.
“In Ireland 500 years later, however, the end of the Famine did little to invigorate Irish agriculture. There were now considerably fewer farmers and agricultural laborers, but this did not translate into prosperity for those who remained, particularly in hard-hit areas such as such as the west of Ireland, especially Connacht. The extensive shift from tillage to grazing meant that fewer laborers were needed, and the phasing out of holdings of less than five acres resulted in fewer sons being able to get a small portion of their family’s holding so that they could marry and start their own families.
“More and more, farms were passed intact from generation to generation. This trend also deprived many Irish women of the opportunity to marry, plus prospective husbands who had to wait for their parents to die before inheriting land now were often much older than before. In addition, the advent of large-scale commercial farming in England, plus the growing ease and shrinking expense of transporting agricultural goods, put Irish farmers at a severe disadvantage.
“To make matters even worse, the industrial revolution in England and laissez-faire trade policies pursued by its government had destroyed most native industry in Ireland, except for the linen mills. Irish cities stagnated in the 19th century; with the exception of Dublin, most contracted in size.
“So excess rural men and women were faced with bleak prospects indeed. They could not migrate to growing factory towns such as those which absorbed English farm folk. They could stay home and single, working on their parents’ and brothers’ farms, competing for whatever seasonal work that might be available, or they could emigrate, an increasingly popular alternative. Even with the end of the Famine, wholesale emigration continued. Between 1856 and 1920, over 3.5 million emigrants abandoned their homeland in search of a brighter future.”
Once in America, Callahan says, “Irish immigrants had a wide choice of possible occupations. Most of them involved heavy manual labor at first for men or domestic service for women. But, especially in cities, the sheer number of Irish drew the attention of political machines such as Tammany Hall in New York City. Give the Irish public service jobs as police or firemen and you would be assured of a loyal turnout on election day.
“Yes, many left Ireland because they had no choice, but others left because they wanted more than they could hope to get at home. Before the end of the 19th century they crossed the Atlantic and could start life here with a blank slate. No ‘papers’ — birth certificates and the like — were necessary to get in. They often said they were younger than they actually were in order to be more employable.
“The early immigrants pushed their children to get educations and work hard so that they would do better than their parents. Back in Ireland, there was little opportunity for such social mobility due to the lack of many careers outside of farming. In fact, many Irish at home were annoyed when their American relatives urged them to strive for more.”
But if everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s also true that the Irish here are Americans year-round. And as Callahan points out, “we Americans have always looked to getting ahead.”