The Foundation’s March 2020 American lecture tour was set to be another extensive outing with 14 events in 10 states. We did not quite realise at the time how the Covid-19 crisis would engulf the world, upending our carefully laid plans. Although staff managed to complete five dates, the speed at which events unfolded meant the remaining nine programmes could not go ahead.

Tour report by Fintan Mullan

Gillian Hunt and Fintan Mullan left on 4 March via Icelandair, happily spending a few hours’ layover in Keflavik en-route to the first event in Chicago with the Irish American Heritage Center. If one had a chance to read the runes again (a Nordic metaphor is not inappropriate given our means of travel), we might have realised a small mix up at the airport in Chicago was a more ominous portent of things to come than we imagined.

As any regular flyer knows, a suitcase does not last long at the hands of baggage reclaim around the world, and so it was that UHF’s team set off to O’Hare with brand new, blue hardshell cases; the problem is so did another traveller originating their journey in France. As the carousel emptied we spotted two blue bags. One indeed was ours. The other was not, and the mistake – of a mere second – resulted in one of our cases heading off towards the Chicago suburbs without us – we feared one of us would be poorly clothed and laundered in the weeks ahead.

Quick thinking by Gillian enabled us to use the name and phone number on the label to contact the young man via WhatsApp (the phone number was for a landline location in Lafraye, 60510, France), who agreed to return to the airport at once. A long delay that evening, a missed rendezvous at the airport and a late arrival at the hotel, gave us the night to dwell on the dilemma. But it was resolved the next morning, the correct case recovered, the cases liberally plastered with UHF bumper stickers to avoid a repeat of the episode and we shrugged off the considerable inconvenience just averted as but a small glitch in getting the show on the road.

The lecture tour proper began on Friday, 6 March, with the Irish American Heritage Center where a large crowd attended this most active of Irish cultural hubs. Here Gillian demonstrated to the audience the new digitised tithe books for Northern Ireland which came online on the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland’s website in autumn 2019. The tithe books are available via PRONI’s electronic catalogue meaning researchers have remote access to this valuable resource.

We were welcomed back to IAHC by our very jovial hosts, Terri O’Connell and Meg Buchanan, met acquaintances from last year and made many new ones, and enjoyed a lively session with the family historians of the Chicago area; the Center’s own family historian, Brian Donovan, contributing as always to proceedings. Terri had treated us the previous evening to a Chicagoan speciality – deep pan pizza. And we looked forward to returning to the Windy City to do it all again with the Newberry Library two weeks later. And Covid? On our arrival in the Great Lakes area people were aware of it, but at that time it seemed to be a problem that was still far off.

2020 Lecture Tour 1

The next day we were delighted to be back in snowy, magical Madison WI for a Saturday event with the Wisconsin Historical Society and the effervescent Lori Bessler. Again a significant number of those attending we had met on previous visits, and we had the opportunity to meet an old friend of the Foundation from 20 years before. Audrey Johnson previously of Sparta WI, had hosted the first event on the first American tour that Fintan Mullan had undertaken (along with veteran Dr Brian Trainor) back in May 2001. Audrey and her sister were unable to attend the programme but had made the journey to say hello.

A long, traffic-laden drive to Chicago Midway airport, a late night flight and even later arrival at BWI airport, followed by an early morning drive to York PA for the Sunday afternoon programme, seemed reminiscent of any recent tour year with the hectic schedule and convoluted travel connections. Before the programme, hosted by the South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society and York County History Center and held in the marvellous History Center building, Fintan and Gillian broke bread with the Foundation’s long-time supporter, collaborator and contributor to Familia, Gary Hawbaker, who had come over from Elizabethtown PA to look after the book table.

Something was apparent when we appeared in York. The organisers had expected a full house, indeed prepared for such with the interval refreshments, but the room was less than full – late in the day, in fact just before the Foundation’s staff arrived, participants had started to pull out as they were reluctant, maybe even uncomfortable, about being in a crowded room with others. The impact of coronavirus on events was beginning to be talked about, and York was our first brush with it. Nonetheless, we had an enthusiastic crowd fielding lots of questions and after the event we enjoyed a warm and extremely convivial dinner before our gracious hosts (including Guild life member, Richard Konkel) sent us on our way to Staunton VA.

2020 Lecture Tour 2

Being back in Staunton, a beautiful small city, which in the years we have been visiting had really begun to recover much of its former bustle, was heart-warming. As was being in the pleasant spring sunshine of Virginia (after the frigid weather of the northern states), and appearing again at the Staunton Public Library with our unflappable host Melissa Davidson and her team. It was a great boost. An even greater one was the fact the whole crowd for this sold-out event turned up. It calmed our jitters for what might lie ahead.

We even had time to meet Dr Katharine Brown for lunch mid-way through the day-long programme. Guild members may be familiar with Katharine’s work as academic, university teacher, museum administrator, publisher and formerly head of the Research and Collections Department of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton where she is also active in local history and family history circles. Dr Brown has also contributed articles in past issues of Familia.

Back in chilly weather the presenters had a free day in Indianapolis and used it visit the Eiteljorg Museum, spotting an autographed quilt on display, which was on loan courtesy of History Nebraska.

This is an excellent example of an alternative genealogical source. The caption to it reads:

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The women of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Nebraska made this quilt for the Reverend and Mrs S. Mills Hayes when they departed the church. The quilt has 549 names embroidered on it, presumably members of the congregation. As a physical representation of the bond this community shared, the quilt was a way for the Hayes family to remember all the friends they left behind.

The next day we delivered an afternoon into evening programme for an intimate group in the Irish Lion Restaurant and Pub in Bloomington IN. Readers may be interested to know that one of the photographs used in the opening credits of the hugely popular television comedy series from the 1980s, Cheers, is of the Irish Lion, Bloomington. The event was the brainchild of member of staff, Sheanin McConnaughy, who saw it as an opportunity to give back to the local people in Bloomington with Irish and Scots-Irish ancestry and a philanthropic gesture on the part of the Irish Lion to support Ulster Historical Foundation’s outreach work. What a wonderfully thoughtful act by Sheanin and her colleagues.

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Gillian and Fintan enjoyed an engaging afternoon with the group, and were able to chat freely over dinner before the evening lectures and final Q&A. At the close of proceedings one gentleman approached us to apologise that he perhaps seemed a little distracted and unengaged during the presentations. He was a university administrator (Bloomington IN is a college town, home to the Indiana University, Bloomington) and had been in a virtual meeting that afternoon where a decision was taken to send some 40,000 students home – Covid was now top of the news.

As the speakers travelled back to Indianapolis to make the onward journey the following day to Richmond VA, the President of the United States announced a travel ban and restrictions on flights between USA and Europe. Not immediately aware of the impact of this decision that evening, early the following morning these birds came home to roost.

Waiting in Indianapolis airport, the mobile phones began to buzz. Four of the hosts emailed one after another to advise that due to public health advice in their localities the programmes had to be cancelled. Immediately concerned for the viability of the rest of the tour, the UHF team wondered what programmes could be salvaged. Our friends in Philadelphia PA, Charleston SC, St Charles MO, Little Rock AR and Coeur d’Alene ID all indicated a willingness to go on. And we were en-route to deliver a programme the next day in Richmond. Thirty minutes later, before we boarded the flight, the Library of Virginia emailed to say tomorrow was cancelled.

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What could we do? We took our flight anyway and arrived in Richmond that evening. Our delightful contact at the library, Ashley Ramey, was both sympathetic and quick thinking. She invited us to the library the next morning to audio record our presentations to be distributed to those who had signed up to attend. As Ashley graciously brought us to meet a number of her colleagues on an extensive tour of the Library’s impressive holdings we became introduced to the elbow-bump. Americans, long-famous for their hefty, friendly handshake when welcomes are first made, were now adapting to a nascent awful new reality.

With flights, hotel rooms and car hire all booked and paid in advance for the rest of the tour schedule, there was nothing else to do but continue to follow what was fast becoming a ‘ghost’ itinerary. Our next engagement, Frankfort KY, had already had to cancel, but to get to Philadelphia we needed to travel to the Blue Grass State, and some of our hosts were keen to meet us to see that we were well.

The grey rainy Saturday in Frankfort – such an attractive small city usually experienced in glorious sunshine – somewhat reflected the sombre mood. But everyone did their best to keep spirits up and talked of better days ahead. We were struck by the comment of one of the women when she remarked that an epidemic was not new to her, she remembered the ghastly polio epidemic of the 1950s. An omen for the grim year that lay ahead?

Not to be completely undone by the pandemic the Kentucky Genealogical Society arranged with us to have the programme recorded when staff returned home and it was delivered virtually in September 2020. In addition, we must pay tribute to Christopher Padgett, President of KGS and his board members, for not only did they arrange the virtual programme, and pay the Foundation’s costs in full, but arranged to purchase all the book stock we had brought to Frankfort for our book table.

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The Society donated the books to local libraries and institutions in the vicinity. This truly philanthropic gesture helped to reduce the Foundation’s financial loss (as many of the books were pre-purchased from other publishers) and ensured researchers in the Frankfort area had access to some excellent new resources. Chris and his board are to be warmly applauded.

In the rain we drove to Louisville airport to catch flight for Philadelphia. Our friends in the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania have hosted the Foundation every year since approximately 2012, and in a number of previous years as well. They were determined to go ahead with the programme as they too had a lot invested in the event, and as usual many participants were attending from out of state and would be travelling, in some cases, a long way.

The airport waiting lounge was again the scene as another hammer fell. Our friend Gary (from Elizabethtown PA) emailed to ask had we heard the news. The Governor had closed a number of counties in the Philadelphia area to all public gatherings. Our event in the Brookside Manor, Feasterville-Trevose, PA was in one of the counties named. As we arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, GSP President, Carol Sheaffer and her team contacted us to inform us of what we already knew. Philadelphia was off and the tour was over. A few of our hosts in the remaining locations were minded to go on, but we knew it was futile. The tour itinerary was becoming a collapsing retreat – just as we got close to an event the public health authorities closed gatherings down in that area. Accepting the reality, in some senses a load was lifted.

A few members of the GSP team would be on duty at the Brookside Manor the following morning to intercept those who had travelled some distance and were not aware the event had had to be pulled – the cancellation had been forced on us that late in the day. As our hotel was very nearby we agreed to meet up Sunday morning for a farewell chat with Carol, Nancy and the others. One of the GSP gang pointed out that Brookside Manor was only yards from the boundary of a county that had not been closed by the Governor. Kismet.

We commiserated with one another about the situation – so many had invested so much in putting these events together. Foolish now when we look back, we made the suggestion that perhaps we could return in October 2020 and reschedule the events for then! Carol was stoical. She was old and wise enough to not get in too much of a flap. She smiled ruefully and said, we’ll do it again. That was the last time we saw her alive.

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Getting home was now the priority. On the credit side we were not far from the airport; on the debit side Icelandair did not have a desk there. Note to self – in an unfolding crisis do not rely on a small, under-resourced airline. Their telephone number remained unanswered despite how long we remained in the holding queue, and so over breakfast in Denny’s in a small village, literally at the edge of the airport runway, we weighed up our dilemma. To us, at least at that point in time, it seemed the options for getting home were closing down fast.

Finally getting through to Icelandair, they wanted an absurd sum per person to fly from Philadelphia (we were due to go home from Seattle at the end of the tour). The eye-watering figure demanded for rerouting, plus the advice from our friend Fran Bach in Yakima WA to avoid Washington State at all costs, and Seattle in particular, settled matters. We flew home that night with Delta and arrived in Dublin on the morning of 16 March 2020. It was the first time we had been home for St Patrick’s Day in nearly ten years, and it was one of the oddest St Patrick’s Days we can remember.

Given the lives that have been lost and the livelihoods destroyed by the pandemic, the disruption and cancellations experienced during the March 2020 lecture tour is perhaps small beer in comparison. But being a long way from home at the time brought matters into sharp focus. Early in the tour mostly things seemed normal: during those first five programmes we hugely enjoyed meeting those ever-enthusiastic family historians, as we always do. But the speed at which events changed on the ground was relentless. For a time we had front row seats as we watched the world grapple with the ensuing chaos the virus caused. All the same we would rather be home.

While we were glad to get home when we did, the abiding memory is of the generosity and thoughtfulness of people everywhere. Our tour hosts went to great lengths to see that we were safe, and safely on our way.

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Contacts from across North America and previous hosts asked if we needed a place to stay (not just for the night, but to ride out the first lockdown); they enquired if we were able to get home; and when we got home, that all was well. We regret that the hard work of so many was undone, but hope that perhaps in 2022 we may have the chance to restart the programmes and even visit some of the places we were meant to in 2020.

Carol Sheaffer passed away on 6 June 2020. She did not die of Covid-19. While she had been poorly for a while, she was expected to recover, but sadly did not. Many others have died because of Covid and thus we would like to take this moment to pause and remember all the loved ones at home and overseas whose lives have been cut short. We hope 2021 will bring better times.

The programmes that were delivered

  • Irish American Heritage Center, Chicago, IL
  • Madison WI
  • York PA
  • Staunton, VA
  • Bloomington, IN

The programmes that had to be cancelled

  • Richmond VA
  • Frankfort KY
  • Philadelphia PA
  • Pittsburgh PA
  • Charleston SC
  • Newberry Library, Chicago IL
  • St Charles MO
  • Little Rock AR
  • Coeur d’Alene ID