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Genealogy: Combing through family records for a sense of place

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Walk up the River Shannon from O’Connell Street to the north side of Limerick, almost to County Clare. Somewhere in St. Munchin’s Parish is the house where John and Hanora O’Connell lived before they left Ireland for the United States sometime in the early 19th century.

“I’m looking for the ability to walk the right street and see the right house,” said Glen O’Connell, their great-great-grandson. It’s a journey that’s taken over 25 years.

Aided by the Internet, genealogy is a growing pastime. Some say it ranks second only to gardening in popularity, though the exact numbers are hard to pin down, much like John O’Connell’s home.

Since stepping down from Georgetown County Council in 2010, Glen O’Connell has devoted more time to researching his family. He is now president of the Grand Strand Genealogy Club, which meets once a month at the Chapin Library in Myrtle Beach.

“The whole process is about problem solving,” O’Connell said.

The roots of his interest in genealogy go back to 1987, when he worked for Boeing and was sent to Ireland to develop a project with Aer Lingus. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have much sense of what being Irish meant,” he said.

Before he left he received a 40-page family history from his aunt. “The notion was with that I would be able to find out where my family came from,” O’Connell said.

He and his wife, Betty Kay, lived in Cork, only about 60 miles south of Limerick. It seemed simple. It wasn’t. While there were plenty of O’Connells, it was hard to find the right ones. In the five years he lived there, he was never able to find a single relative.

He had better luck in the U.S., where his great-great-grandmother, now a widow, shows up in the 1850 census in Chicago. The family shows up in Iowa where they farmed for a couple of generations. O’Connell remembers meeting his grandfather at the farm when he was a small child, before his father moved their family from Minneapolis to the West Coast during World War II. O’Connell grew up in Seattle.

“What really intrigued me is if I could find out the where of it, I could go there and walk the streets and talk to the people,” he said.

After attending a National Genealogy Society conference in Cincinnati last year, O’Connell and his wife headed down the Ohio River to the area of southern Indiana and eastern Kentucky where his mother’s family lived. It was his second conference. In addition, he has attended the week-long forum on Irish ancestry at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

“Irish genealogy is reckoned to be the most difficult,” O’Connell said. “Records are very hard to find.”

But the Irish have found that genealogy represents an opportunity to boost tourism. This year, the O’Connells will travel to Ireland with a woman Glen met at Samford who specializes in genealogical tours. He hopes to be able to find the home of his ancestors in Limerick.

“My whole motivation – you’ll never know it all – I want to go where they were,” O’Connell said.

He got closer to that goal a couple of years ago when he discovered a significant error in the genealogy given to him by his aunt. Looking through a database in Ireland, O’Connell found that his great-great-grandmother was born Hanora Kennevane, not Hanora Burke. That made it possible to figure out which John O’Connell was his great-great-grandfather.

“There were lots of Michaels and Johns. The problem was finding the right Michaels and Johns,” he said.

He isn’t the only one searching for them. O’Connell has connected with others working on different aspects of the family tree. One he met through the website ancestry.com.

“It’s the 800-pound gorilla,” O’Connell said of the site. It had 2.5 million subscribers last year and revenue of $487.1 million.

The Mormon church has a free website, familysearch.org, that is also popular. The Grand Strand Genealogy Club also provides resources for members and supports the Chapin Library’s resources.

While computers have made access to records easier, if not always cheaper, the search often requires looking through paper records. The home office where O’Connell works is filled with boxes of documents and three-ring binders filled with research acquired over the years.

The genealogy club, which meets the second Saturday of each month, has speakers who talk about the process of genealogical research, such as strategies for getting around what are known as “brick walls.” Those are the places where genealogists are stymied in their research.

Learning about the process is where O’Connell recommends people start. He also suggests talking with older relatives.

“What they know is going to be extraordinarily important,” he said.

“I am the old person in my family,” O’Connell added. “I didn’t start early enough.”

This article is the first in a series on genealogy.

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