5 ways to discover your Irish heritage in Ireland
By Ireland specialist Shannon
Years ago, on a visit to Ireland, I introduced myself to a fellow diner at a restaurant.
‘Shannon Dirrane,’ I said, pronouncing my name as I had my whole life — dirRAIN.
‘Is that an Irish name?’
‘Yes, my grandfather was born on Inis Mór.’
‘Your name is DirrAHN’, he corrected me, gently but firmly. ‘That’s how you say it properly. Welcome home.’
During my many trips to Ireland since then, I’ve learned this is a common experience for Americans with Irish heritage when we visit. Locals are always welcoming of lost sons and daughters returning to the ancestral home. From casual conversations with locals at a pub, to whole museums, there are plenty of ways for Irish-Americans to reconnect with our roots, whether your ancestors left these shores two generations or two centuries ago.
EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, Dublin
Located on the River Liffey in Dublin, on the docks near the mouth of the bay, EPIC traces the wide reach of the Irish diaspora through space and time.
The museum bills itself as ‘the world’s only fully digital museum’ and the high-tech displays offer an interactive way to explore your history. They also provide a stark contrast to the curved stone tunnels of the building. The museum is in the basement of the Custom House Quay, which was built in 1820 — the feeling of age permeates the cool gray stone walls.
Here, you can watch videos and hologram-like displays that depict 1,500 years of Irish emigration and its influence around the world, especially in the US, Canada, England and Australia. You’ll hear stories of real people from history and see and hear some of their writings.
There are exhibits on dance, food, sports, and on music, featuring Ireland’s own U2. It also examines Irish influences in American politics, with a special spotlight on John F Kennedy, the most prominent American president with Irish heritage. You can take quizzes to test your knowledge, including one on notorious Irish criminals around the globe.
If you’ve ever wondered how to trace your Irish heritage, the Irish Family History Centre offers perhaps the best answer. There are stations that let you comb through the museum’s databases to learn more about your ancestors, with experts on hand to help you follow the paper trails. If you want to take a deeper dive into your gene pool, you can pre-book a longer, more thorough session with one of the staff genealogists.
Dunbrody Famine Ship, New Ross, County Wexford
Two hours south down Ireland’s east coast in the tiny village of New Ross, the Dunbrody Irish Famine Ship offers a more narrowly focused look at Irish immigration. The Dunbrody is a faithful replica of one of the notorious ‘coffin ships’ that carried those leaving the country during the Great Famine of the 19th century (known in the US as the Irish Potato Famine). The museum carefully examines their experiences.
The ticket you buy to get into the museum is a facsimile of a ship’s ticket, marked with the name of a real person who left Ireland to escape the poverty and hunger. Stepping onto the rocking deck clutching a ticket in my hand sent a frisson of terror through me at the thought of what they’d suffered.
So many Irish tried to escape the famine by packing onto these small, dark ships, only to find more death and suffering aboard. Mortality rates were as high as one in three, thanks to dark, airless holds where disease, hunger and leaks took their toll.
There were two costumed interpreters on board, each portraying a different historical figure, one poor and one better-off. For me, the most compelling was the woman in steerage who related her family story and the harrowing passage to the New World. The poor, crammed in tightly below decks, were only allowed on deck one hour a day, to enjoy some fresh air and cook their one meal a day. Otherwise, they had to huddle in the dank, rank darkness of the lower levels, gnawing on hardtack and using only the most rudimentary toilet facilities.
If your ancestors left during the Great Famine, the museum provides a look at the dangerous journey they took to make a new life in America.
Cobh Heritage Museum, Cobh
Another two hours south along the coast is Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’). This was a major maritime and military hub, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was known as Queenstown. Millions left Ireland in ships launched from the docks here, including the one that brought my own grandmother to America.
I found the name of her ship, the Mauretania, on a wall in the exhibit and then visited ‘Heartbreak Pier’ — the dock where my grandmother herself waved a final goodbye to her family members before leaving for a new home.
Clearly, the focus here is broader than you’ll find at the Dunbrody. In addition to coffin ship stories, you’ll find exhibits that examine emigrants to the States during later exoduses, as well as convicts who were transported to Australia and the Cromwell-era Irish who were forced into indentured servitude in the West Indies.
This was also a stop for the RMS Lusitania and the last port of call for the RMS Titanic. The doomed ships’ stories feature heavily, especially the Titanic, and the exhibit examines stories of individual passengers. For instance, you’ll learn about Jeremiah Burke and the message in a bottle that he dropped from the deck of the Titanic itself, as well as Father Frank Brown, whose photos taken on board managed to survive. You can also see a large replica of the Titanic itself.
Titanic walking trail with Michael Martin, Cobh
The story of the Titanic runs deep through this part of Ireland — the ship was primarily built and crewed by Irish and many of the passengers were also Irish. Michael Martin has made a lifelong study of the ship and offers a guided tour of the city, tracing important sites and landmarks.
His passion and depth of knowledge was on full display on the day I took the tour. Standing on the windy quayside, he detailed the timeline of the ship’s short life and its visit to the port.
The tour includes sights such as the original White Star Line ticket office. In fact, aside from the name, Cobh remains largely unchanged from when the Titanic called here. Thanks to Michael’s evocative narrative description, it was easy for me to imagine scenes from more than 100 years ago — the chaotic bustle of the docks in the early morning hours, vendors hawking hot drinks to the sleepy folks waiting for their new lives.
Two tender ships brought mail, supplies and passengers out to where the enormous Titanic was anchored, its four enormous smokestacks trailing dark tendrils in the fast breeze. And handfuls of elegant ladies and well-dressed gentlemen, as well as second-class passengers, boarded via the tender PS Ireland, while those with steerage berths took the PS America.
In all, 123 of Titanic’s 2,435 passengers embarked in Queenstown. Only a third survived.
No one I am related to sailed or worked on the Titanic, but if your ancestors did, Michael or one of his trained guides can research them (given enough prior notice) and include that information on your tour.
Titanic Belfast, Belfast
Whether you’re related to someone with Titanic ties or merely interested in the tragedy, if you’re in Belfast I suggest visiting Titanic Belfast. This museum is a huge, splashy multimedia extravaganza that examines every detail of the ocean liner’s life, death and eventual rediscovery.
The museum is located right next to the shipyard where the vessel was constructed and the exterior is made of four jutting angles that reach up to the same height as the ship’s deck. Standing under the towering, gleaming slabs of aluminum, I got a new appreciation for just how enormous the Titanic was.
Inside, the high-tech exhibits include a ‘fly-through’ virtual tour of the ship, from prow to stern, as well as an interactive display that lets you see the seafloor and the wreckage there. There’s also a ride that takes you back in time to tour the dockyard, where you can see the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, being constructed.
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