Vagabond Tales: The Rewarding Adventures Of ‘Genealogy Tourism’

The house pictured above is a very drab house. It’s cold. It’s empty. And no one has lived in it for over 120 years.

Sure, there is a fresh layer of green paint on the door, but that was put there by the neighbors. Why they did that I’m not sure, because this house was abandoned long ago.

This house isn’t anything famous, and it isn’t in a town you’ve ever heard of. This house is in Lecanvy, Ireland, a one-pub village at the base of Croagh Patrick Mountain, 3 1/2 hours from the festive streets of Dublin.

Nevertheless, this house is very important to me, because this was my great-great-grandmother’s house, a woman who’s family one day just decided to leave it all behind and up and leave for America.

Perhaps it’s the rise in popularity of websites such as ancestry.com, but for some reason “genealogy tourism” seems to be on the rise in the world’s most famous “nation of immigrants,” the United States of America. Despite the fact that millions of families took the plunge to move to a foreign land, their children many years down the road have not relinquished the curiosity to learn more about where it is they came from.

I hunted down this house because I happened to be in town, but for many travelers this form of “reverse immigration” seems to be a sector of the travel market that’s broadening in scope.During a recent business breakfast in Hawaii, the conversation – as it frequently does with travel writers – turned to the topic of international exploits. The associate with whom I was sharing eggs and potatoes then decided to regale me with a tale from her recent trip to Sicily.

“I went there,” she explained, “to search for my family. I knew the town they were from, I hoped that some remained, but I had no contacts and really was just hoping for the best.”

Quaffing deeply from a heavily-sugared coffee you could tell from her raised eyebrows that the best part of the story was yet to come.

“For four days I had no luck. Then, on the fifth day, walking through the downtown square I saw a woman who may as well have been my twin. She noticed it too, apparently, as we awkwardly stopped to simply stare at each other. Between her basic English and my poor Italian, we nevertheless determined that she was my second cousin. Word went out amongst her Italian family, and the next weekend we had a gathering of over 50 family members who came from all corners of the country to meet their new family member. It brought me to tears.”

While the Hollywood-script is pulled straight from a Lifetime movie, by virtue of her testimony I guess scenes like this really do happen. Or, on a more commonplace family hunt, what can also happen is you find yourself creeping through an abandoned driveway in the rural hamlets of western Ireland, shivering and wet and failing to encounter any family members at all because they all up and left over a century ago – not exactly as rewarding.

Still, to be able to travel to a foreign land and peer into the history of yourself is a feeling far more rewarding than sharing a famous sight with hundreds of other tourists. Having found this old house (with help from my genealogy-loving aunt), even experiencing this cold moment in the driveway was good enough for me.

That was, until, I knocked on the door of Mr. O’Malley.

Although the occupants of my family’s house – the McEntee’s – had obviously picked up and left some time ago, the manicured lawn of their neighbor, Mr. O’Malley, was evidence that some had opted to stay right here in Ireland.

Going for broke, I figured that if anyone would know anything about the details of my Irish family I figured it may as well be the neighbors. I opened the creaky gate, inhaled deeply, and eventually I rapped three times on the bright red door.

No answer.

Damn.

Just as I turned to leave it all behind, the bright red door creaked slowly open to the warmth of a cheery old man.

“Allo!” came the Irish brogue, “are ya lost?”

“Umm, no. Actually … this is really strange, but I think my family used to live right next door to you.”

With a pair of squinty eyes and sporting a classic brown cardigan, Mr. O’Malley was wracked with confusion. Who is this weirdly-accented stranger standing on my lawn?

“McEntee was their name” I offered. “Name was McEntee.”

With a delayed flip of the switch an air of recognition coasted across the wrinkles of his face.

“Ah yes,” he stammered. “McEntee.”

“So you know them?” chimed in my sister, a red-haired, fair-skinned, reverse immigrant herself who now lives in the suburbs of Dublin.

Boats near Westport Ireland“No,” he confided. “I don’t. But when I was a boy in this same house me grandfather told me of the McEntee family who up and left for America. Sailed from the old dock down by the Westport harbor they did. Come inside, let’s make some tea.”

And so it was. I never got to bump into a long lost family member, but I somehow found myself looking at old photographs in the living of room of Mr. O’Malley’s home, a cup of warm tea staving off the chill from the damp outdoors.

We later would stop near Westport harbor, imaging what it would have been like to leave your simple plot of land in Lecanvy behind, sailing westward into the setting sun towards a place you knew otherwise so little about.

Sometimes we travel to learn more about the world, and other times simply to learn more about ourselves. In this case it’s to learn about exactly where we come from, and to walk in the upper branches of the extended family tree.

Have you ever engaged in any genealogy tourism, and if so, were there any great tales of discovery to be told?

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.