It started with a text message from my son. He was looking for “our family’s immigrant story” for a college class.
“Which one do you want?” I asked him. “Bohemian, Irish or Polish?”.
Irish was his response.
I fired up my database program and sat down to write a quick story about my great-grandfather John Reilly’s voyage to America.
Then something strange happened. I noticed a date. Actually a year. 1905 to be exact. The year John Joseph Reilly left Dublin, Ireland and traveled to America courtesy of his aunt Alice Cusack.
I’ve written about John’s travel to America before. I’ve known about his 1905 ship passenger record for about 10 years. But until just four days ago the date never clicked for me.
If John Reilly traveled to America in 1905 that means he was living across an ocean 4,000 miles away in Chicago, when his father Andrew Reilly died in Ireland in 1908.
Ten years ago this little fact did not stop me in my tracks. But now after losing my own father this past year, it did.
My reaction to this find was both emotional and exciting. Emotionally because I could now offer some empathy to the great grandfather who only shows up in the margins of my memory. Did John mourn for his father? Did he feel guilt at not being with his mother and siblings as they mourned? Six short years later John named his 1st born son after his father. No doubt a common Irish tradition, but in this case it is also a poignant reminder of his father buried in Ireland.
The excitement I felt after this discovery was due to the possibility of finding some missed genealogy clues. Did John return to Ireland for his father’s funeral? If so, there could be more ship passenger records to find. Or possibly a passport application. Was there mention of Andrew’s death in a Chicago neighborhood newspaper? What about the correspondence between John and his family? Does that still exist?
I guess that is what family history is all about. Uncovering the questions and facts that make up our unique story.