Friday, February 28, 2014

Family Stories From Albany, NY

I have recently finished re-reading my copy of Irish America by Reginald Byron (Oxford University Press, 1999). The title may sounds quite broad, but the book is an incredibly detailed anthropological and sociological investigation of the Irish community in Albany, NY.

Research for the book consisted of interviews with 500 Americans of Irish descent in the 1990s, many of whom were elderly, and have most probably passed away by now. Extensive interviews were carried out with these residents, including going into detail about their ancestors. A very basic tenant of social science research is that interviewees almost always remain anonymous, but these interviewees were free to talk about their ancestors.

Some fantastic examples of elicited information include:

My grandfather came from Ireland, by way of England, and landed in Pennsylvania in 1898...He worked in the coalmines. His name was Thomas McCall. After he came up from Pennsylvania he married my grandmother who had been born here. She was Irish...her parents were form Cork and my grandfather was from Clare.[1]

My father's parents came from Sligo; what town I don't know. They were married in Sligo. My grandmother's name was Mary Ryan. She was married to John Laverty. He came here first, I'd say about 1875. [Mary Ryan] was taken to the ship twice but the relatives and everybody made such a terrible fuss that she wouldn't come. My grandfather went to the parish priest, I suppose it was St. Joseph's [in Albany], and told him the problem...On my mother's side, my maternal grandfather had studied to be a priest in Ireland, He came from Claremorris in County Mayo. He got into a spot of trouble...He wrote pamphlets in Gaelic and got into trouble over it.[2]

And check out this great family story:

My mother's mother, Catherine Fitzgerald Bryan, used to tell the story to my mother when she was a little girl in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, she and her mother Anna Fitzgerald, would meet with their cousins every year, and walk the seven miles to the Knock shire pilgrimage. My father's sister, Aunt Charlottle Black Kramer, told me the story of her great-grand-mother, Mary Ellen Kennedy, in County Kerry. The landlord's son fell in love with Mary Ellen, as she was so beautiful as a young girl of 18 years. When young Mary Ellen told her father of the boy's intentions, the next day he went to the landlord, the boy's father—they were Protestants—and struck a bargain with him. The next week, Mary Ellen and the whole family had a passage to New York City! [3]

The book also goes into macro and micro detail to explain how Irish immigrants ended up in Albany, and how they moved within the city as it developed, contributing to city and religious institutions. It's a must read if you have Irish ancestors from Albany, NY.

A 'Look Inside!' preview is available on Amazon.

More broadly, when perusing their ancestors, genealogists often fail to think of engaging with anthropological, sociological, and academic historical research. Of course it does not help that one of the main places to access this output, academic journals, are mostly behind pay walls on institutional subscription databases, such as JSTOR (With JSTOR, you can read three free articles every two weeks). If possible, you should certainly try to search in academic journals for years, locations, and events that are pertinent to your research.

[1] Byron, Reginald. Irish America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1999. p. 97.
[2] Byron. 1999. p. 97.
[3] Byron. 1999. p. 94.


  1. That's a great blog post Joe. I'll certainly check out the book. The last point you make is really important. Without understanding socio-economic, political and other historical factors genealogy is meaningless. It's simply an OCD driven date and name collection exercise.

    Ancestors only come alive when we understand their movements through how their environments challenged them. Bravo.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.