Find Your Family Tree: Writer Kathleen Norton Uses Ancestry.com to Find Family in Ireland and Beyond
Using the World Wide Web to dig for your roots
Illustration by Chris Reed
You might call it the luck of the Irish.
The story begins with a photo of my great-grandfather Matthew Fitzsimmons, an Irish immigrant from Kingscourt, County Cavan. His daughter Mary (my grandmother) kept the photo on her dresser and as a kid, my job was to dust it.
That photo now hangs in my Hudson Valley living room. It kicked off a recent yearning to find my roots, which like so many others in our region, go back to the Emerald Isle. And since my husband and I were planning a trip to Ireland in late spring, it seemed only natural to do a little digging.
To start my search, I first went to the Ellis Island Web site. I learned that Matthew was 18 when he left Ireland with about $35 in his pocket. I signed up with Ancestry.com to find out more about Matthew. I knew one of his brothers had become a successful grocery executive out west, but over the years contact between the families in Ireland and the U.S. had dwindled away.
A few days after starting to use the genealogy site, I got a message from a Kathy Brown in California. She had been sent an “alert,” which tells Ancestry.com users when others are looking at similar family documents, indicating a possible link. Kathy Brown said that her great-grandfather was named James Fitzsimmons and he’d been the owner of a grocery store chain. She also knew that there had been a cousin back east named Mary Fitzsimmons Norton.
I froze — Mary was my grandmother. Kathy Brown and I were the great-granddaughters of the two immigrant brothers.
She then sent me an old family photo of some unidentified relatives from back east.
My parents were in the photo.
She linked me to cousins on her side, and e-mails began to fly. Now the clock was ticking down to our trip. Kathy, having far more family information than I did, shared what she knew, while I set up an appointment to look at parish records in Kingscourt. Online, Kathy saw a recent Kingscourt death notice for “Paddy Fitzsimons,” with pictures of a gathering in his honor. That spelling was the one our relatives had used in Ireland. In one photo, a man stared back at me, his face the exact image of my grandmother’s.
With the help of the funeral parlor and the parish priest, we discovered that Paddy’s relatives were in our family tree, and that his daughter-in-law worked at a local pub.
Once we arrived in Kingscourt, my husband and I got copies of church records, and then stopped in at the pub unannounced. “I’m from America and I think I’m related to your father-in-law and your husband,” I babbled to Bernie Fitzsimons across the bar. She quickly called her husband, Martin.
Martin’s recently deceased father, Paddy, was a son of Thomas — the brother of immigrants Matthew and James. That made Martin a second cousin once removed to Kathy Brown and me. He was also the man whose photo we’d spotted online.
Martin and Bernie and their daughter Laura had us to a grand dinner at their home that night and showed us the remains of the house where three generations of Fitzsimons had been born, including Martin and the great-grandfathers. Later, I did not sleep a wink. My only regret was that I had arrived in Ireland too late to meet Martin’s father.
Martin’s family has since linked the American cousins to more family living in Australia. We all share a family Facebook page. Martin and Bernie plan a trip to New York to see us this fall, and the rest of us hope for a big reunion in the future.
Now I look at my great-grandfather’s photo and think of a teenager who never saw his birth home or his parents again. I think of a family that lost touch but, amazingly, has reconnected. I wonder if it was fate, or coincidence. But my bet’s on that old Irish luck.