Ireland: A family gathering in Dublin

By Diana Plater

Diana Plater's family has yet to find the answer to a family riddle: Who was their great, great, great grandmother? And why did they have a tradition of the name, Stuart, running through generations? She travels to Ireland to look for answers.

Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel. Photo / Supplied
Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel. Photo / Supplied

Day One:

Our first appointment is with Helen Kelly, the "genealogy butler" at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, over high tea.

My cousin, Jan, and I had sent Kelly a pile of information about our "immigrant ancestor" - our great, great grandfather, Nicholas Foran, who was born in 1805 in the townland of Leighlin (pronounced Lachland) in County Carlow.

He emigrated to Australia in the 1840s and his daughter, Mary Stuart Barnet (nee Foran), was both our fathers' grandmother. I remember my father telling me this formidable woman faced prejudice, either for her religion or her Irish roots.

"Did you know you have both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland (Protestant) ancestors?" Kelly asks us, including Nicholas Foran, the mid-19th century Catholic Bishop of Waterford.

We wonder about the possible love story that brought together a Catholic Foran and a Protestant Stuart in a time of great political and religious turmoil.

Religion, Kelly explains, is hugely important in Irish genealogy.

"We have to bring religion into it, because we have to see what's available in terms of church registers and we all are a mixture," she says.

Day Two:

Armed with information we go to the Valuation Office at the Irish Life Centre to search the revision books of Griffith's Valuation. These are updated surveys of owners and tenants of property, established by Richard Griffiths in the 19th century.

We are looking specifically for the townland (a cluster of green fields, the rural equivalent of a street) of Whitefields in the civil parish of Islandikane in County Waterford. This is the family home referred to in a newspaper article my great grandmother had kept about her visit to Ireland with her daughter in 1910, and where we believe her grandfather may have grown up.

The revision books are brought out and we examine the spidery handwriting and colour coding. They're all Forans listed but we're not sure how we're related to them.

We stay overnight in Laragh, a gorgeous little village, where we meet a very unusual man dressed traditionally (he says) in a kilt. He tells us his grandmother, descended from chiefs, still owns the tribe's ancient book of Gaelic poems.

Day Three:

After visiting the beautiful Glendalough monastic site, we drive over the Wicklow Gap, a barren and haunting landscape, then tour Russborough House, near Blessington, which houses the Beit collection of art.

Nearby I spot a sign for the Pipers Stones, a Bronze Age stone circle. We climb over a style and tramp across wet fields, past even wetter sheep than us, to inspect these mysterious boulders.

Closer to Carlow town, under umbrellas, we gaze at the 5000-year-old Brownshill Dolmen; it's thought religious rites were performed here.

We head down to Leighlinbridge (the historic village that covers the townland of Leighlin) and visit the parish office at St Lazerian's Catholic Church.

Liz, who works there, brings out the yellowing baptism books but we find nothing. She tells us she feels rooted in this landscape, knowing exactly who she is descended from. We leave just a trifle envious.

Day Four:

In a wild hail storm we drive to Dromana House and Gardens near Cappoquin in County Waterford to explore the Stuart side of the family. Once a medieval castle, it's on a spectacular site high above the River Blackwater, where salmon fishermen spread their nets.

The present owner, Barbara Grubb, who takes us on a tour, can trace her family - the Villers-Stuarts - back 21 generations, telling us that the most notable person who lived here was Katherine, Dowager Countess of Desmond. She died at the age of 140, in 1604, supposedly from falling out of a cherry tree.

According to notes in Mary Foran's Bible, Henry Villiers-Stuart was her great uncle, so possibly our illusive great, great, great grandmother's brother.

Well, if we are related at all, we must have good genes.

Day Five:

After checking out Waterford Crystal and the bishop's former home, we meet up with our possible fourth or fifth cousin, Anne. Her mother is a Foran, with whom Jan had made contact through other relatives on ancestry.com.

She takes us to Whitefields and the family church, the Sacred Heart, overshadowed by the ruins of Dunhill castle, where we inspect the graves.

While we allow the landscape to speak to us - what Kelly calls the "goosebump trail" - we don't believe our John Foran is among them.

A great night of music in Kilkenny (even better than Waterford the night before) reinforces our Celtic roots.

Day Six:

On our last night we enjoy a performance at the Dublin Dance Festival after chatting to Kelly, who reminds us: "Cupid knows no barriers". This is only the beginning of the tale.

- Useful sites for Irish family history include familysearch.org; census.nationalarchives.ie; irishgenealogy.ie and rootsireland.ie.

- AAP

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