The March 2016 lecture tour, again led by Fintan Mullan and Gillian Hunt, took in 13 stops in a little over two weeks with genealogical workshops in Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Leesburg VA, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Portland OR (two programmes), Chehalis WA, Fountaindale IL, Memphis, Pittsburgh, York County PA, and finally Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Tour report by Fintan Mullan

The Foundation’s latest North American lecture tour in March 2016 was bookended by the notoriously fickle spring weather of North America. Fintan Mullan and Gillian Hunt arrived in Toronto in the snow and delivered our final programme of the tour in Halifax, Nova Scotia with a blanket of freshly fallen snow on the ground.

But Canadians and Americans (who live in the mountains or the northern states), take such matters in their stride. Indeed they are almost loathe to admit any inconvenience caused, and the more northerly the latitude they live in, the greater their prowess in handling bad weather.

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It is a testament to the Canadians’ ability to deal with such weather that when the Foundation’s staff arrived, just two days after a dump of 30cms of snow in Toronto, the roads and paths were completely clear and bone dry. In Debert NS with a 5 inch fall of snow that had come down overnight, registered delegates still arrived from all corners of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to attend the event, with only a very few having to cancel.

This though is something that has been apparent to the Foundation during the many years spent delivering these lecture tours: the commitment of Americans and Canadians to discover their Ulster and Irish roots is unrelenting and little deters them in the pursuit of this quest. In 2013 for over a week Dr Trainor and I were dodging snow storms from the Midwest all the way to the east coast. The weather caught up with us finally in Fairfax VA of all places, when we set off for Greensburg PA in about 5 inches of snow.

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Luckily the Interstates had been cleared but our satnav chose to take us off the I76 and send us on to a single lane highway which meandered over the tops of hills like the road in a Disney cartoon, leading to a lot of slip-sliding to get to our destination (we foolishly had left our road map behind in Belfast and considered it wise economy – very unwise as it turned out – not to purchase a new one on arrival in the USA). Of course waiting for us in Westmoreland County Historical Society – where there are more Scots-Irish than you could wave a stick at – was an unfazed and packed house eager to get stuck into the lecture programme.

The tour in March 2016 was no different, and this insatiable appetite for information about their forebears was made apparent to us while visiting 14 destinations across the continent: from Washington state to Nova Scotia, from Toronto to Memphis, and including the important Irish-American cities of Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and the genealogy capital – Salt Lake City. This tour was no walk in the park.

At most venues participants gathered from 8am to 5pm, to listen to full-day programmes exploring the many aspects of Irish archives and avenues for discovering elusive ancestors. The format for the day saw the speakers present on the basics and most important initial steps to take in research, to then exploring themes – the Plantation of Ulster, migration, Irish land divisions – and specific collections – Griffith’s Valuation, estate records, the Registry of Deeds – in greater detail. And the programmes finished, as always, with a Q&A and efforts to solve individual ‘brick walls’.

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While the enthusiasm for research is a constant, the diversity of the locations where family historians will gather to learn about their Ulster roots is a reminder of the vastness and diversity of the continent. The same could be said for Australasia.

The sun came out and shone at 83 degrees F in Leesburg VA. Leesburg is a little gem of a town, complete with its charming downtown red brick buildings, where you can detect more than a whiff of its colonial past, yet it is located almost directly under the flight path of Washington Dulles International Airport. We spoke in the Thomas Balch Library, opened in 1922 in an attractive building, the library’s collections focus on local, regional and Virginia history, genealogy, military history with special emphasis on the American Civil War, and ethnic history. It is also designated as an Underground Railroad research site.

On the other side of the continent the Foundation’s staff delivered a full day programme in Chehalis in rural Washington state, equidistant between Seattle and Portland OR. Although Chehalis is probably some 60 miles as the crow flies from Mount St Helens, you could say it lies in the shadow of this volcanic region of the western US. A fact that was brought home during dinner on the night before the Chehalis programme, when after the genealogy, talk turned to the famous eruption of 1980.

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The hosts spoke of their personal experiences when Mount St Helens exploded in May 1980 launching something like nearly one cubic mile of material – just thing of that scale – into the atmosphere. Interestingly, the first person to register for the Chehalis programme was a lady from Anchorage, Alaska. It seems she was not daunted by a 4,000 mile round trip nor the possibility of Mount St Helens blowing its lid again.

In Chicago, the speakers delivered two programmes in the city. The twin events represented the old and new in terms of appropriate venues where such workshops are likely to take place, and to draw an interested audience.

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We delivered the first at the elegant and venerable Newberry Library, which opened in 1887 and is located in downtown Chicago, surrounded by skyscrapers. The Newberry is a hugely important research facility for genealogists in the greater Chicago area.

The second visit was to Fountaindale Library, a modern and well-used community library facility in the Chicago suburbs of Plainfield and Bolinbrook, where two extremely enthusiastic librarians, both of whom have Irish ancestry, are keen to bring the Foundation’s experience to their local audience. Such was the demand the room was sold out, as was the overspill space on the floor above – to which the programme was relayed by video link, and a livestream was also provided for those who had to be at work, but who wanted to listen while hunched over their workstation. We will return to Fountaindale for a two day event in March 2017.

An obvious demonstration of Chicago as a melting pot for emigrant communities from around the world was evident to the travellers when staying in Bolinbrook IL. A Ukrainian restaurant was the nearest eatery to the motel, which came complete with paintings of dashing horsemen brandishing sabres, serving staff dressed in ethnic costume, and where oddly-named but very refreshing beers and a lot of cabbage (perhaps unsurprisingly) were on the menu.

By contrast, in Salt Lake City, the speakers lunched on the top floor of the Joseph Smith Building, located in Temple Square, overlooking the LDS Temple and the Family History Library – which to say it draws American genealogists in their thousands, is only to hint at its popularity.

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Thus despite the variety in locations to where we travelled, the enthusiasm and willingness to learn was undiminished, demonstrating that Appalachia and its surrounding hinterland, is not the only location where the Scots-Irish are to be found in America. People with ancestral connections to Ulster, despite where their forebears settled in North America originally, are now to be found living across the American states or Canadian provinces, and California and British Columbia are as important as Connecticut or the Carolinas when seeking to engage with the Ulster Diaspora.

Equally, given the propensity of people to follow the good jobs around in our modern era, those searching for Irish ancestors from what is now the Republic of Ireland (what we might inexactly refer to as the ‘green’ Irish) are also as likely to be found in Raleigh NC, Atlanta GA, or any thriving city in the western states.

The speakers had practically no down time, and were constantly on the move – six internal flights, as well as 2,500 miles of driving, which saw us cover over 10,000km during the three week tour. We were afforded one opportunity, on our last day before flying home, to see very briefly the attractive small city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

A refreshing walk along the harbour front boardwalk gave us time to read the interesting interpretive panels to Halifax’s role in transatlantic communications (where Belfast-born, Lord Kelvin gets a mention) and migration, which is explored further in the impressive Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

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Pier 21 is a National Historic Site which was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971. It also served as the departure point for 500,000 Canadian military personnel during the Second World War. Given that the museum is housed in the actual building used to process immigrants, like Ellis Island in New York, it conveys just how daunting the experience must have been to the newly arrived would-be settlers – though as always the humanity and decency of the Canadians show through in how, it seems, most immigrants were treated.

Pier 21 is very well done, it is in the original and therefore authentic location, and plays to the strengths and complements Halifax’s position as a major transatlantic port and communications hub. It was a timely reminder that Northern Ireland does need to get its act together if it is going to make a meaningful attempt to commemorate the important 300 hundredth anniversary of the 1718 migration from Ulster to America.

The one regret of the morning was when we went to visit Halifax old cemetery (where a number of the victims of the Titanic disaster are buried/commemorated) only to find that the gates were locked. Perhaps a cold Monday morning in March is considered out of season. It reminds us that it is not only Clifton Street Cemetery here in Belfast that sometimes has its gates locked to potential visitors. Such is the lot of family historians the world over.

During three weeks of presenting the speakers had ample time to discuss the individual family stories with those we met. Connections with all of the nine counties of Ulster, as well as a good many from the other three provinces of Ireland were all in evidence, as was the pioneering and indomitable spirit of Irish and Scots-Irish settlers.

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Whether it was working in stockyards and railheads of Chicago and the Midwest cities, staking a claim in western Ontario in a sod house (considered to be quite warm and well-insulated); sweating in the factories and mines of Pennsylvania, or freezing to death in a pine-board shanty covered with torn tar paper on the western prairies, their forbears demonstrated the ability to persevere and adapt to a new environment.

As was obvious in our North American friends’ ability to cope with the elements, it is a skill that is still very much with them. An American delegate who attended UHF’s conference in Belfast in September 2015 had resettled to a small town in middle Manitoba. It was mid-winter, with many inches of freshly fallen snow on the ground and the morning temperature read 25 degrees below zero. She phone the kindergarten to confirm that the school would not be open, to receive the response, ‘why would you think that we wouldn’t be open’.

Come hail, rain or shine – luckily South Africans, Australians and North Island, New Zealanders get a lot of the latter – family historians are dogged in their pursuit of their ancestry. It makes visiting such folk a real pleasure and if we can assist in progressing someone’s family heritage even just a little, or help them to forge some small connection to Ireland, it is a most fulfilling and rewarding aspect of the Foundation’s work.