Family Stories by
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Prompted By Refugees

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When I was growing up, I was told that my great-great-grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland during the potato famine. The story was that he had come from a large peasant farmer family in County Clare. He and his older brother, both in their teens, had been put on a ship by their parents, because the family couldn’t feed all the children and hoped the boys would be better off in America. The mental picture of two teenaged brothers waving goodby to their parents and the rest of their family, never to see them again, really stuck with me.

While family stories often contain a grain of truth, they are rarely entirely accurate.

They supposedly landed in New York and lived there for a while until they decided to go west to seek their fortunes. My second great-grandfather made it as far west as Pennsylvania – which if you look at a map is, in fact, west of New York City – and his brother kept going. No one in my family knew what happened to the brother, but they said my second great-grandfather became a blacksmith, married a local girl, and had nine children. Eventually, he moved to the frontier in Florida to work cutting live oak, used the money he made to buy land there, and helped found the city of Daytona Beach.

Once I got into genealogy and started researching my family, I realized that while family stories often contain a grain of truth, they are rarely entirely accurate. I have been able to confirm part of this family story; some of it is inconsistent with documentary evidence I have uncovered; and for some I just don’t know yet. My second great-grandfather definitely lived in Pennsylvania, was a blacksmith, married a local girl, and had nine children. He also moved to Florida in 1866 to run a lumber mill (not exactly the family story, but close). The lumber mill failed and he went back to blacksmithing and various farming pursuits in Florida. The land he owned did become part of the city of Daytona Beach and he is recognized as one of its founders. On a 2019 trip to Florida, I was able to spend several hours at the Daytona Beach historical society and visit the graveyard where my second great-grandfather and many members of his large family are buried.

On the other hand, the documents I have been able to find indicate my second great grandfather was not born in Ireland, but in Pennsylvania in 1830. A fire apparently destroyed many of the old records from the area and I have not yet found anything else about his family, although many people living in that area at the time were Irish immigrants. I suspect the Irish immigration story is not made up, but may be the story of his father, my third great-grandfather, and the two generations were conflated. But since the Irish potato famine began in 1845, after he was born in Pennsylvania, it was not what caused his father to leave Ireland, although hunger was not unknown among Irish peasant farmers even before the potato famine. I still don’t know if my family is from County Clare, if anyone left Ireland as a teenager with an older brother, or when they might have left.

Having heard so much about my Irish ancestors, I am still trying to track down the rest of the story. What got me into genealogy in the first place was wanting to know more about these people who are related to me, and I enjoy tracking down the additional pieces to the puzzle.

Profile photo of Kathy Porter Kathy Porter

Characterizations: right on!


  1. Marian says:

    Family stories can be blurred and distorted over time, as you have found out, Kathy. It’s especially challenging when records are not available. In my family, we can go back as far as 1865 on my father’s side, in Romania, thanks to my great aunt writing things down. A distant cousin was able to visit the town where they came from and verify the last name and some of the buildings mentioned in family stories. Earlier than that, who knows? Sometimes we face mysteries we can’t solve.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      I know. Part of the problem I’m having with the Irish line of my family is that a lot of the records are obviously in Ireland, although the Irish government does have a website with links to various documents of assistance to people looking for their Irish roots. I may not ever know for sure, but half the fun is in the hunt.

  2. Good for you Kathy, and now you have me wondering about the veracity of some of the stories my family has told over the years!

    Keep digging, and Erin Go Bragh!

  3. Suzy says:

    Didn’t know you were into genealogy. Do you know our classmate Kitty Munson? She is very involved in helping people track down their roots.

    If only your forebears hadn’t come over so far back, you could be eligible to get an Irish passport. My husband’s brother, who lives in the UK, did that, since it was their grandfather who came over, and he could prove that. It was useful for him because he could work in other EU countries even after Brexit.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    We spent a lot of time several years ago tracking down my husband’s father’s side of the family. There were so many inaccuracies and lies because my father-in-law was ashamed of his parents. His mother was institutionalized and his father abandoned the family. The siblings were split up among relatives but he ended up in an orphanage. He always said his parents were dead, but after he died we tried to unravel the truth.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Yes, situations where someone is deliberately hiding something are very hard to unravel. I don’t think my family’s stories were deliberately inaccurate. It was just that they were passed down through so many generations. My information came primarily from my grandmother, who I assumed heard it directly from her grandfather, who was the subject of this story. But once I started doing the research, I realized her grandfather died before my grandmother was born, so there was at least one other person in the chain of transmission of information.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Sorting through genealogy information can be fascinating, trying to verify stories or uncover new ones. It has become easier since many records have been digitized, but there are still gaps. Because most people now living in the Americas had ancestors who immigrated, the challenge across years and continents and languages is great. Still, making the connections helps history live. Congratulations on all you have found.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    It’s odd how both sides of my family seemed to have no tales of The Old Country, nor much nostalgia for it. I never knew any of the immigrant generation, but their kids (including my fad and my maternal grandmother) seemed to have shed their European heritages completely.

    Maybe they all came over to avoid prison!

  7. Susan Bennet says:

    A tip of my hat to you, Kathy, for your genealogical tenacity and this interesting story. While tracing one side of my family, the record of my Irish immigrant side sputters out after two generations. Two many John’s and Mary’s!

    I think it’s worth mentioning that the song “Danny Boy” relates the experience of mothers saying goodbye to their sons and daughters as they left for America. Quite touching. Thank you.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Thanks, Susan. I have a similar problem, with many names in my family repeated in multiple generations. I always assumed that “Danny Boy” was about someone leaving their sweetheart, but leaving parents also makes sense.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your story is so interesting, Kathy, both the real version and the slightly real version. I applaud your efforts to track down the whole truth and wish you luck of the Irish and great success.

    I, too, am interested in family history, but have not done any genealogy, though my brother has. I started writing family history over 30 years ago when many of my father’s relatives were still alive and could share stories with me. I asked my mother for some stories before she died, but she didn’t share much. Now, no one is alive who can share the details.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I’m in the same situation, with none of my older relatives still alive. I did record some interviews with my mother and grandmothers many years ago. My mother also gave me a notebook in which she had written relatives’ names and dates of their births, marriages, and deaths. It was what started me doing family genealogy.

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