Updated: Oct 10
As I pull up to the old grey-stoned church that now hosts my appointment with Roscommon Roots Heritage & Genealogy expert Mary Skelly, I wonder - could the rumors be true? Another professional Irish genealogist - one from Epic, The Irish Emigration Museum, was helpful with our Roach and Lamb ancestors but didn't find the Liston or (O') Hanlon surnames in Roscommon. She left us with, “Look in Limerick - in Southern Ireland or Tipperary. That’s where you will find the Listons. Oh, and the Hanly surname may be a derivative of (O’)Hanlon.”
But what might Ms. Skelly discover?
Did this old stone building hold my family secrets? Would it reveal unbroken ties, generations back? A short half hour (and €60) later my answer would arrive. Kind-eyed, sweet-smiled, Strokestown research expert Mary Skelly excitedly looked me in the eyes and said these memorable words that brought a peculiar warmth to my chest:
“You definitely have ties to Strokestown.”
She produced a single piece of paper containing the information from my ancestors’ wedding. I had never seen it before. Maurice James Liston and Elizabeth Hanlon were married in Aughrim Parish in County Roscommon. The hunt was on! Where was Aughrim? Was the church still standing?
There was only one church to be found on the serene country roads of Augrhim but nobody was there. It was getting late so we retired for the evening. That was when I noticed the most fascinating detail - the genealogy appointment that day was on 22 Sep 2023. I looked at the document she gave me and there it was in black and white - incredible! Their wedding day was 23 Sep 1850! The next day was the anniversary of their wedding!
I knew this year that the autumn equinox would fall on September 23rd. A quick look on the internet confirmed that not only was it the autumn solstice, but incredibly, in 1850, the autumn solstice was also on September 23rd! It seemed my ancestors were quite intentional about it as Monday is not your typical wedding day. Another fascinating connection!
I pointed out these incredible details to my husband and a sense of childlike wonderment spread across his handsome face... and then a grin as he promptly asked me to renew our wedding vows the following day at the same church. I was thrilled!
The next day we donned the best apparel in our suitcase and set out determined to get the answers I sought. Was it THE church? If so, could we find our way into the church where my ancestors were married? Would I be the first person to pick the lock at a church just to get in to pray and to promise? Only the good Lord above knew the answers.
It grew close to sunset as we arrived at the church and exited the car. And quite unplanned, serendipity met us there! The church bells began ringing! It was as if someone, maybe a little bird, had told them that we were coming - there to celebrate a wedding 173 years ago and to renew our wedding vows with each other! (see the video below)
Defying the rain with our trusty umbrella, we rushed up the steps to the church and looked out at the view Maurice and Elizabeth would have seen leaving the church after their nuptials. After angelically resisting the temptation to pick any locks, we stood on the steps prepared to speak our promises to one another again and were preambled by the haunting call of the long-eared owl speaking his approval (or was it an objection?) as a witness. Again we marveled at the impeccable timing of it all when we were suddenly startled by a smiling woman who seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
“Hello? The door’s open! Open the door! Were you standing there in the rain?” The smiling stranger greeted us.
The church was indeed open and apparently, we had arrived thirty minutes before a mass unadvertised on the internet. The door was unlocked (no picking necessary!) so in we went… to a breathtaking site.
The priest (substituting for the local one) confirmed that a portion of the current church was indeed standing when my ancestors were wed. The church was built on the site of an even older church that was built before the early 1700s. There were also later additions enlarging it to what it looks like today.
Little did my ancestors know that only five years postnuptial they would tragically die in Cuillmore leaving two young sons orphaned during the Great Hunger. But with the help of a charitable aunt, the sons survived the end of the Potato Famine and left for America at the tender ages of 9 and 7. Oral tradition (from recently-met family member Doxandra McCaw Cook) holds that the boys had notes pinned to their little jackets announcing the name of one P. O'Sullivan who would receive them in New York City. It must have been a scary, harrowing journey across the ocean to a new and uncertain life. Both boys survived the coffin ship and made their way to Ohio.
Many Irish who emigrated during The Great Hunger found new homes and families among the First Nations of the Americas. Of course not all, but many, relationships forged between the two people groups were beautiful - a Blessed Blend - a blending of two ancient cultures and people with similar histories of trauma and suffering at the hands of the same colonizers.
As the Ambassador of the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee I know that when our relatives were removed from our ancestral homelands of the southeast United States and forced onto the Trail of Tears in 1838, a quarter of the Cherokee people died along the way. We lived a history already painfully walked by many Irish on their own trail of tears before coming to America. We lost our land - the places where our stories lived, our elders, our children, and we lost more than can be described by mere words. Those who were not removed hid, intermarried, and even changed their racial designation on official censuses. Ironically, the term "Black Irish" was coined to explain the dark skin, hair, and eyes of the mixed-race progeny.
But there is one thing we never lost: Our connection to our ancient homeland. It is this connection that was activated in another corner of my soul as I experienced the impeccable timing of walking with The Creator upon ancestral lands. The first time I spoke wedding vows to my husband was on my ancestral Cherokee lands and now, 19 years later, we have spoken our vows once again - this time, on the ancient land of my (O’)Hanlon ancestors whose history goes back in County Roscommon to the indigenous Picts.
Does Ireland have a homecoming? Is there ever any desire for those descended from the ones who boarded the coffin ships to reconnect generations later? I hope the desire lies in the heart of the Irish, waiting to be breathed upon by an awe-inspiring true life adventure that thumbs its nose at coincidence and adamantly whispers that Éire will welcome her own back with open arms - and leave great green smudges as she kisses them warmly on both cheeks.