My quest to find out more about the women who came before me.
Shortly after my grandmother’s death in the late 1990s, my mother showed me some fragile and faded photographs of our family ancestors. For me, it was a powerful experience to get a better understanding of where I came from.
The photograph that intrigued me the most was the picture of a scornful-looking woman. My great-great-grandmother. My mom knew nothing else about her.
There is something in her expression, pictured below on the bottom right, that makes my heart lurch a bit. What I see is someone who had a rough life.
This woman was such a mystery to me that I began a mission to find out more about her. Now keep in mind, this was more than 20 years ago when resources were not readily available on the Internet.
I was lucky to live in the same state that she lived in. So I went to the state archives and started my search. Being a twenty-something girl, I must have stuck out in the crowd of mostly older folks doing genealogical research.
Within an hour of pouring over paper and microfilm records, I found her. My great-great grandmother’s name was Bridgett. The record gave me her full name, her age, her address, her country of birth, the year she immigrated, the name of her husband, and the names of her children living at home.
So many questions were answered and yet so many questions were created in that one moment.
The story passed down to me was that my great-grandmother, Ellen, fled to the United States from Ireland during the Irish famine. But that story was incorrect. According to the census record, it was Bridgett. Ellen was born in the United States.
I happened to be planning a trip across Europe with my friend the same year as that discovery. I made a last-minute attempt to try to locate places in Ireland where Bridgett could have lived. After consulting with a few distant relatives, I was told to try a tiny village named Brideswell in Roscommon County.
When I arrived at the beautiful green countryside of Ireland, I trekked through farm towns, walked through ruins of churches and cemeteries, and spoke with kind farmers with kind faces and calloused hands who remembered a family sharing Bridgett’s last name but that family was long gone.
It was an amazing journey, but I didn’t find any more clues about my family history.
I had wished I asked my grandmother more questions. I never even thought to ask my grandmother what town in Ireland was our family from.
I had to continue on with my journey online.
What I have learned about Bridgett
Bridgett fled Ireland in 1844 during the Irish Potato Famine. She didn’t know how to read or write in English. She married young. Her husband, son, father, and father-in-law were all named James. She had 11 children and buried five.
Her oldest son James became a lawyer and explored the world before settling in Argentina. He returned to the states every few years to visit her. Bridgett outlived her husband and died at the age of 82 — although that age is just a guess because she seemed to change her birth year with every census.
Bridgett’s daughter Ellen, my great-grandmother, had 14 children and often took in children that needed a home. My mom told me that Ellen ran an unofficial soup kitchen in her backyard. Maybe the tragedy experienced by her mother of losing so much in the famine compelled her to have a part in healing it.
On a cold day in February, about 20 years ago, I got the chance to visit Bridgett’s grave before moving south. She is buried next to her husband and two of her sons who died young.
It gave me a sense of peace to be able to find them and pay my respects.
I could almost feel Bridgett looking down at me and smiling — for I am sure that even though she could do a pretty good scowl, she must have had a beautiful smile.