I always wanted to be Irish. Afterall, Lucky Charms was my favorite breakfast cereal. Unlike other kids my age I loved the corned beef and cabbage dinner Mom routinely whipped up for St. Patrick’s Day. I became a rabid Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fan as a young teen. I even picked a four-leaf clover during recess and crafted a pressed bookmark to save my place in my Nancy Drew stories. Call it fate, destiny, kismet, or luck of the Irish, I hoped my genealogy search would lead me to the Emerald Isle.
Alas, early efforts to uncover my family history worked against me. I drafted my family tree for the first time to satisfy a junior high school project. I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s Italian heritage encompassing the names of Grelotti, Garino, Menghini, and Torcoletti. All four of her grandparents (two of whom I remember well) emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, making my mother one of almost 30 second-generation Italian-American cousins in the extended family. No Irish there for sure. My father’s side contained a bit more diversity. Older relatives armed me with information for several ancestral lines. Dad’s Nelson heritage trailed to Denmark, the long lines of Flansburgs and Chapmans hailed from early colonial settlers, and the Rainers emigrated from England in the late 19th century. Little was known about my Hanna family.
A few years ago, flush with time and interest, I began vigorously investigating my family history. I dug out the plastic bin containing old photographs, newspaper articles, and assorted ephemera from the past – not my past, but that of grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond. My parents and I spent a long weekend discussing names, connecting people, documenting relationships, and remembering stories. I was hooked. It wasn’t long before my hobby took over evenings and weekends when I frequently conducted research and attended genealogy classes.
I learned genealogy’s cardinal rule: start with what you know. Naturally, the internet has made exploring family history increasingly easier than years past when research required hours upon hours huddled in libraries, court houses, and cemeteries. As I was completely intimidated by starting with the Italian language, I spent the majority of my time in robust documentation detailing Dad’s early American and more recent English immigrants. Building these branches teased me into thinking this genealogy stuff was easy. But, I still wasn’t Irish.
Eventually, I tackled the mysterious Hanna line starting with a letter written by my paternal grandmother back in my school project days. She explained, “My mother [Margaret Hanna] also had a bible, but there is no history in that. One of my cousins has the Hanna History, but I haven’t been able to get hold of her. As soon as I can I will send it to you.” I never heard anything else.
Again, I started with what I knew – in the most obvious spot. I predictably found great-grandmother Margaret Hanna buried next to my great-grandfather from England, Charles Rainer. A grainy photo stowed in the plastic bin showed the smiling couple sitting on their living room couch celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1959.
The mischievous leprechaun lurking in my brain prompted me to search for their proof of marriage. The marriage license was easy to find. My eyes traced the flowing script down the page, pausing to read the fields identifying Margaret Hanna’s parents. And there in black and white, I was overcome by the luck of the Irish. Robert Hanna and Margaret Watson were both born in Ireland! The one action of moving from the known to the unknown revealed a whole new country – and ancestry – for me. In an instant I became Irish.
I stared at my laptop screen, mesmerized by the exciting possibilities, and realized my journey had just begun – a journey that would require a different research plan, fresh education, and a specialized approach to navigating the nuances of Irish genealogy. No matter. The fun is in searching for the pot of gold. A favorite Irish blessing sparks my next steps: “May the saddest day of your future be no worse than the happiest day of your past.”