Budding genealogists trace family roots

AMANDA CUDA acuda@ctpost.com

Article Last Updated: 03/07/2008 11:41:32 PM ES

Jonathan Shea's family tree has its roots in Ireland, but its branches stretch across the globe.

Shea, a foreign language professor at Housatonic Community College, traces his paternal roots to the Irish counties of Offaly and Mayo, but his relatives emigrated to several different countries, including not just the United States, but also Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.

He has traveled all over, trying to learn as much as he could about his family's background. That's because genealogy, the study of family history, is something that's fascinated him for a long time. He isn't alone.

Genealogy is a hobby that's become increasingly popular in this country, as legions of Americans seek to learn more about their roots.

"People simply have a desire to know where they came from," said Shea, the author of "Going Home: a Guide to Polish-American Family History Research."

To help others — particularly those of Irish descent — learn more about their past, Shea will lead a discussion from noon to 4 p.m. March 15 at Housatonic. The event, which will feature Shea and other speakers, will teach local Irish-Americans how to trace their family trees back to Europe, using resources in the United States, Ireland and online.

It's the second in a series of genealogy lectures Housatonic has hosted. Shea said a seminar last year on researching Polish and Eastern European heritage drew a capacity crowd. Upcoming lectures will focus on other ethnic groups, including Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and French-Canadians.

Irish ancestry was picked as the topic of this month's lecture to coincide with St. Patrick's Day on March 17.

Shea said the Irish have long had a large presence in the state and, at the time of the Civil War, one in six people living in Bridgeport had been born in Ireland. "The Irish were the first non-Anglo-Saxons to come to this area," he said.

Shea will be one of three speakers at the March 15 event. Others are Janet Pestey, a board member of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists, the state's largest genealogical society, and Dan Lynch, a professional genealogist who lives in Trumbull.

Each will discuss a different aspect of researching family history. Shea will talk about local resources — birth and death records, probate files, church registers, etc. — that people can use to find out where their families come from. Pestey will talk about resources in Ireland that can help Irish-Americans continue their research, and Lynch will talk about how the Internet can help in the hunt for ancestors.

The talk is co-sponsored by Housatonic, the Connecticut Society of Genealogists, and Connecticut Ancestry, the state's oldest genealogical society.

Connecticut Ancestry Vice President Robert Locke said everyone is interested in genealogy to some degree. Many people go to great lengths to stay in touch with their families, sending holiday cards and the like,.

"We all keep track of our families to some extent or another," Locke said. "It's just a question of how far you want to take it."

Locke said he's been studying genealogy for about 30 years, and was spurred on to learn about his own history following the American Bicentennial in 1976.

For Shea, his interest in this pursuit grew partly from his love for foreign languages and history, subjects he said are intertwined with genealogy. He also longed to learn more about his own background, and always loved listening to family stories of his grandmother, who lived to be 100 years old.

Pestey is a retired teacher living in Wallingford, and said she was looking for a way to occupy her time after leaving her profession in 1992. She took a class on genealogy, and was hooked.

A love of this hobby sort of runs in her family, Pestey said. "My mother was always very interested in family history," she said. "She knew more about my father's history than he did."

Pestey is part Irish on her mother's side, and said there are many resources in that country people can use to track their ancestry, including Griffiths Valuation, a survey of property ownership done in Ireland in the 1800s.

But researching your roots at city hall or libraries takes time, as does traveling abroad to rummage through another country's records. And many people — particularly those who are still working — simply don't have that kind of time.

That's where the Internet can be a big help, Lynch said. Lynch is a 22-year veteran of the computer industry who served as a consultant to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

Search engines can be an invaluable resource for those researching their family backgrounds, Lynch said. The Internet has aided him in his own research on more than one occasion. For instance, after his grandmother's death, Lynch found a photo among her belongings that intrigued him. The photo, of a group of six or seven people, was at least 100 years old, with nothing written on the back to indicate who these people were.

The only clue was a photographer's stamp from a studio in Italy. For the next 15 years, Lynch showed the photo to many family members, asking them if they knew anything about it. No one did. Then, he posted it online and, within two years, a 95-year-old Italian woman contacted Lynch, telling him that she was one of the girls in the photo. It turned out that the woman was a first cousin of his grandmother, but that the two women had never met.

That's the great thing about genealogy, Lynch said. You never know what you'll find.

He said he's given several talks on genealogical research before, and, every time, someone gets back to him afterward, with a story about tracking down a family member.

Learning more about your past is an addiction, Lynch said, and all it takes a little push to get hooked. "Once the seed takes hold, it's all over," he said.

The Irish genealogy workshop takes place from noon to 4 p.m. March 15 in room C232 of Housatonic Community College, 900 Lafayette Blvd., Bridgeport. If you're interested in attending, contact Shea at jshea@hcc.commnet.edu, the Connecticut Society of Genealogists at csginc@ctfamilyhistory.com or Connecticut Ancestry at info@conecticutancestry.org.