Last spring I went to Belfast. It was my fifth trip but my first time going solo.
No family to visit this time as the generations I knew well have all passed on.
No family in tow. On previous visits I had brought my husband and children along. Yes, this time I went solo and it was a quite different experience.
My heritage is half Ulster Scots, sometimes known as Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish, 1/4 Irish and 1/4 Scottish. While I have distant but lost connections with Bushmills, Northern Ireland, my relationship with Belfast and Whitehead feel quite intact as they come through my grandmother who emigrated from there to Montreal in 1924.
As I traveled Northern Ireland this time, exploring it rather than visiting family, my relationship with my long-deceased grandmother changed. I came to understand her better and, at the same time, I came to understand myself better as well.
Travel and Identity
As I traveled I told a number of people about my Northern Irish heritage. Every time I told the story of my grandmother and saw the responses to the struggle that was her life my relationship with her shifted somewhat.
To give you the abridged version, my grandma grew up on Mayo Street in the Shankill parish of Belfast. As I understand it she went to work in the mills at the age of 10. She had little education and it wasn’t until later that I learned why all cards and letters were written by my grandfather. By the time she was 16 her parents separated. The three sons went to live with their mother and the three girls stayed with their father. At that point my grandmother was to manage her father’s household and raise her sisters, Elizabeth, 6 and Annie, 4. (Annie died at 8 years old of the Spanish flu that killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide.) By the time she was 26 and Beth was 16 my grandmother felt she had done her duty. In the attitude of the times, she was a spinster, too old to get married. She was also not willing to spend her life in the linen mills. With her father’s permission she emigrated to Canada to be a domestic.
This was the simple story I had grown up with. She was a stoic woman so no drama was attached to it. These were just the facts of her life.
But as people listened to her story, people who were far closer than me to the meaning of working in the linen mills, about what a divorce would have meant in early 20th-century Belfast, they filled with compassion. It was their response that changed my relationship with her.
My grandmother was stern, not warm and cuddly, but she was a survivor. I always considered her strong and now I really understood why she had to be. She had worked in the mills at a young age. She was abandoned by her mother. She had nursed her dying sister. She had bravely emigrated with just one friend to Canada not knowing if she would ever see family again. She took on life with a will to control it as best she could. I have enormous respect and compassion for her.
Ancestry Research in Ireland and Northern Ireland
As I traveled Northern Ireland I was driven more than ever to understand the context of my Grandma’s life. I changed my itinerary somewhat to include:
- The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum
- An abandoned linen mill in Lisburn and a wander along a street lined with cottages (fully renovated) from that long-ago time.
- The Ulster American Folk Park south of Derry.
- The Ulster-Scots Centre in Belfast
- The Irish Family History Centre beside the Epic museum in Dublin
Visiting all these places I gained a glimpse into her life in Northern Ireland as well as the migration wave she was part of.
Simple Advice for Exploring Your Heritage
It was by digging into family history that I originally came to love history. Not the history of wars and politics but social history that reveals the daily life of a people and the forces at play that change lives. To make your travel personal I suggest three things:
- Talk to family members who hold the memories. Get what details you can and don’t angst too much over contradictory information. I’ve received lots. Even incorrect details reveal information about your family. They point to the values that guided those who came before you. If you want to understand how important stories are, regardless of the facts, watch Big Fish. You can see the trailer for it below.
- Gather all the information on a site like Ancestry.com. There are other sites of this nature but my sister and I use Ancestry.com. I have their app on my smartphone. I can refer to and even update data while traveling. I found this to be very helpful.
- Decide what you want to see as you travel. Nothing can replace seeing where your family lived in previous generations regardless of how it has changed. Seeing a street within a neighborhood can bring clarity to stories you’ve been told. You may want to go to an archives or perhaps you like cemeteries. Go and explore to connect with your past on an emotional as well as a factual level.
Learning about your family is learning about yourself.
My brother-in-law likes to joke with a “watch out, the Waugh women are in the house”. Yes, my sister and I are both strong. Understanding my grandmother better, I understand where we get it from.