Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Just the Beginning...

In a few weeks my mother and I will head to Baltimore, Ireland for the annual Driscoll clan gathering.

It occurred to me earlier this spring that it might be a hoot to know a few things about our family history when we go, such as the town in County Cork from where our family originates. Naively, I took the few scraps of info my mother had in her possession and went online to see what I could find out.

Two months later, I now have a new full-time obsession, avocation and passion.

I started out knowing a fair amount about my grandparents and some about their parents, but almost nothing about my immigrant ancestors, my great-great-grandparents. All I knew was that Timothy Driscoll, a maritime engineer, came to NY State (by way of Ontario, traveling down the St. Lawrence) from County Cork, Ireland. He married an Irish-born girl named Ellen and the rest is history (so to speak).

As I delved deeper into the family notes, I discovered that Ellen was Timothy's second wife, and that I had a whole other family that I never knew about. Timothy had been married to Sarah Shepherd in Ireland. They had two children and emigrated around 1847, at the height of the Irish Famine migration.

As I began to do research online, I wondered how I'd gone so long without ever knowing about my family. How disconnected we all must be from those to whom we owe so much. I discovered all sorts of triumphs and tragedies, stories I wish I had been told as a child. I learned of how my great-grandfather's sister Elizabeth, who became the matron of the family after Ellen's death, was hit by a taxicab right in front of her own home and killed instantly, and how her nephew Frederick had died while his new wife was pregnant with their first child. I found the aunt I never had a chance to know, who lived only 2 days and is buried in an unmarked grave in Massachusetts.

Some of the most interesting historical tidbits come from the children of Timothy's first marriage, to Sarah Shepherd. Timothy's grandson, William, married a widow named Minnie, who seems to have had a few colorful skeletons in her closet. Her mother, the widow Kane, was arrested in 1889 for selling cut-rate booze out of their home. And Minnie's first husband was arrested for wife battery. Not long after, he "fell" from the boxcar of a moving train and was killed. There were suspicions and an inquest, but they never discovered any evidence and let the case drop.

Slightly less scandalous, but highly amusing, in 1876 my own great-grandfather and his younger brother (along with 16 other local boys) were arrested and thrown in the lockup for childish hijinks that caused damage to a railroad car. The newspaper reports that they "made the day hideous with their howls and shrieks," and tortured the constables by singing Sunday school hymns at the top of their lungs all day long, until their parents finally arrived to bail them out; "'We Shall Meet on That Beautiful Shore' seemed to be the favorite."

I found most of these tidbits and many more interesting facts about my family from Oswego-area newspapers. In the past I would have had to travel to the area and search through microfilm at the local library or college, only being able to look for those events that I really already knew about (i.e. obits). But recently I stumbled across one of the most amazing websites I've ever encountered for NY State genealogy. It's called Old Fulton NY Postcards and the man who runs it has scanned and posted millions of area newspaper pages from 1810 to 2005. And what's even more amazing is that they are searchable through the wonder of OCR (Optical Character Recognition software). There's an emphasis on Oswego, Fulton, Syracuse, Rochester, Auburn, but it does branch out into wider territory, and he adds more pages every Sunday night. It has literally changed my life. Although it has certainly given me facts about my ancestors of which I was not aware (i.e. exact dates of death), the real value has been in how it really makes them come alive with all sorts of very human details: in 1918 my grandfather had a perfect second grade attendance record for the month of May; my great-great-grandfather fell on hard times and lost his home in 1855; my great-grandmother was bedridden and extremely ill after the death of her husband and son, and almost died, as well.

It's really nifty. If you have any connection to the area, be sure to check it out:

I now know that after Timothy retired from sailing, he became a policeman and made captain. He died before he ever saw any of his grandchildren. Ellen's given name was Eleanor and she was devoted to St. Mary's church. She died from a sudden illness at the age of 85, and my great-aunt, Mary Eleanor, was named for her. And yet, even with the massive volume of information that I have been able to uncover, I still don't have the pieces that I long to find: where in County Cork Timothy originated from and who his parents were, so that I can find my Irish family; and what Ellen/Eleanor's maiden name was, so that I can find out anything about her family--my family. So many of the vital records no longer exist, and those that I have been able to secure, leave those lines blank.

I am hoping to head up to Oswego soon to visit the family parish and hopefully be allowed to look through the church records; I'll also comb the county records center and the special collection at the Penfield Library at SUNY to hopefully find some clue that will provide the link to Ireland.

All of my genealogical travels are dedicated to my grandfather:

Leo Xavier Driscoll
December 3, 1910
January 10, 2004