Finding success in our failures

10 years ago

Those genealogy shows make it look so easy, and it makes sense; we all want to flaunt our successes. It is one of my favorite things to do. However, I wouldn’t be fair or honest if I didn’t admit there were failures along the way. If genealogy has taught me anything, it has taught me that, like life, you can find success in your failures if you look at it the right way.
It no longer bothers me that I can’t get back to Ireland with my ancestors. I have learned so much more about their lives here in America in the late 1800s than I ever expected I would. I learned history in school only because it was required. But in trying to explain the mysteries of my Irish ancestors, I have absorbed and incorporated history by accident. An example would be trying to figure out how my Great Grandmother Bridget, who lived most of her life in Hartford, Connecticut, managed to have her only son in New York.
In my mind, maybe because I have lived in Dover all 40 years of my “adult life” I figured my ancestors were also pretty well glued in place. It took a change in perspective with a view to life in a city in the 1850s for me to begin to tackle this one. I take my car for granted, I go where I want when I want, but my apartment-dwelling ladies, with nowhere to keep a horse and carriage, did not have private transportation. What they did have, however, was the new, aggressively marketed passenger rail system, which was larger and stronger than it is today.
Talking to my Italian Aunts who grew up in the 1930s I began to understand that taking the train from Connecticut into New York City for a night’s entertainment was like a run to Bangor for me; essentially no big deal. Adding that historical perspective, I realized that Bridget did not have to live in New York to have had a baby there. It could easily have been a short visit or even a day trip with an unexpected delivery.
Learning that my Great Grandmother Kittie Gallagher was working in photography in 1880 was a nice connection for me because I worked in a photo lab for a few years. But putting it into historical perspective, I began to be truly impressed with her. I realized that she was only 16, a first generation Irish-American who probably spoke heavily accented English, and female to boot. Yet she managed to get a job like this in the competitive Hartford market after the huge Potato Famine influx of millions of unwelcome Irish to America. Beyond that, she overcame the challenges of a difficult life with four small children and two husbands who died in their children’s infancy, and overcame the culture of her time to develop her own business and become a property owner/landlord.
Do I know where they came from in Ireland? Afraid not. Have I learned enough about them to feel like I know these women who died decades before I was born? Yes I do; and I am so proud.
Columnist Nina Brawn of Dover-Foxcroft is a longtime genealogy researcher, speaker and teacher. Reader emails are welcome at Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at Cary Medical Center’s Chan Education Center at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.