Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Family History Enlivens the Page

Macosquin River in Aghadowey Parish, near Coleraine, Londonderry.
As I began listening to my aunts and uncles tell family stories in the early 1990s, it occurred to me that who you are now really does depend on where your ancestors were when.  Twenty years later I am certain that I would not be here if my Protestant and Catholic ancestors had not left Ireland in the mid-1800s -- they would not have been allowed to speak to each other in Ulster. Certainly, the mill my fourth great grandfather operated on this river in Northern Ireland would have been for Protestants only.

But these are just my most "recent" ancestors, the Orrs and the Rooneys.  Going back from my dad's mom, the families were here in the 1600's.  One group went from Massachusetts to Indiana, another came into the mix in Virginia and many of their succeeding branches went to Warren County, Kentucky.  Research showed that some of those who fought in the Revolutionary War got land grants there.  For some reason (largely the Civil War and the actions leading up to it and following it), many of those families went to Lawrence County, Missouri.  And they stayed there for nearly 100 years.

At the same time, my Rooney ancestors built canals in Indiana and moved on to Kansas.  Then came World War II, and my Catholic Kansas mom (Rita Rooney) went to DC to find work, and my Missouri dad (Miles Orr, and nearly all of his eight brothers and sisters) were in and around DC during the war.  And, voila, the two families that would have been enemies in Northern Island hooked up. 

Thanks to a bit of OCD, I worked with cousins on both sides to pull together family history materials.  So far only the Orr side has made it into formal print, though the thousands of names in my family tree have many stories and photographs associated with the names.  Visits to the National Archives and innumerable local history libraries are still more fun than online research -- and often lead to more accurate links.  It's the local history books and news clippings that add color to the names.

Nothing tugs at my heart strings more than a note from someone who located a great, great grandparent through my research.  These notes remind me that most of my distant cousins did not have family that stayed long enough in one or two locations to blend with a locale.  We Americans tend to have more shallow roots these days.  However, wherever we land we can learn the local history, even if it is not our family's history.  If we stay rooted for a generation, local history not only becomes our own, we add to it.

As a fiction writer, I garner ideas from the family stories -- not the kind of ideas that would lead a quirky uncle to see himself in one of my characters.  It's more a perspective, a recognition that every character has their own history, and knowing it makes them come to life on the page.

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