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Digging up some Irish Roots


My name is Ted Shaffrey and I’m an American. That is to say I was born there, I’m an optimist, I say “Have a nice day” without a touch of sarcasm and my eyes well up when I hear the national anthem.

My mixed ancestry qualifies me as your classic European mutt, with, according to my late grandmother, even a dash of Native American blood thrown in from Maryland somewhere.

But our last name is Irish, so I’ve always been told, where my great, great grandfather emigrated from on my dad’s side, and we’ve always felt a powerfully emotional tug from the Emerald Isle.    

Now I’m not of the notion that researching my family tree will answer any of the “whys?” of life, such as ‘why am I here’, or ‘why I sometimes wake up at three in the morning craving ice cream?’ But as I was planning a trip to Ireland anyway, curiosity got the better of me and I typed Shaffrey, a rather unusual surname after all, into an Internet search engine to see what would come up.

I skipped through the dozen or so Shaffreys here in America whom I’ve never met, including a fellow journalist who works in Washington D.C., where much of my family is from, and found a Shaffrey who is an architect in Dublin.

Yes, Dublin, Ireland! How wonderfully exotic! I tease my own enthusiasm, now, but really it was quite thrilling at the time. And certainly these Irish Shaffreys would know more about the family name than any distant kin of mine here in the New World.

My immediate family knows virtually nothing about why my great, great grandfather came to America from Ireland in the mid-19th century, though we’ve always assumed he was escaping the potato famine like millions of others.

Upon arriving in Dublin I took one of those hop- on hop-off bus tours to orient myself.

About halfway through the tour, the guide pointed out the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street, noting that it was a good first stop for people researching their Irish genealogy.

“For a small fee, you’ll get your family history,” she said. “For a slightly larger fee, they’ll keep it to themselves.”   

Her quip got me thinking. I can barely get along with the relatives I have now, do I really want to add to the list? Nonetheless I stepped off the bus and entered the library.

“Now you see most of the census records in the Public Record Office were destroyed by fire during the revolution,” for Irish independence in 1922, the library’s head genealogist, a Ms. Patricia Moorhead, said to me. “Haven’t you seen the movie ‘Michael Collins’? There’s a pretty fair depiction of your family history being blown to smithereens.”

Nonetheless, we poured through some 19th century tax ledgers that documented about a dozen Shaffrey families, most likely farmers, who lived scattershot from outside Dublin up to the northwestern coast of the island. Called the “Tithe Applotment Books and Griffith’s Valuation” these books, however incomplete, are the best existing record of that period, along with what remains of church records. 

But, as I was unequipped with my great, great grandfather or grandmother’s date and place of birth, or any first names beyond them, it was an inexact quest, and children’s names are not listed. 

These old tax records convey the tragic enormity of the potato famine as well as any narrative; when the names and numbers climb into the 1850s they tell of more and more families, Shaffreys included, who didn’t pay their taxes because they had either left the country or had died. My ancestors were likely among them.

In 1845 the population of Ireland was 8 million. By 1920, there were only three million people in the country, as it became a tradition in impoverished Irish families to seek their fortunes elsewhere, millions of them in North America.

Indeed, it’s been estimated that around 50 million Americans today can trace some Irish blood lineage.

As for my personal search, what was left by the beginning of the 20th century, according to the tax records, were a handful of Shaffreys who remained in Ireland, north of Dublin.

Ms. Moorhead, the lovely woman who was helping me, knew Patrick Shaffrey as it turned out. She had met him briefly, years before, and had heard he was now a widower.

“Your last name is really unusual,” Ms. Moorhead said to me. “The odds are you’re probably related to any Shaffrey you might find.

“Tell Patrick I said hello,” she added, her eyes alert and warm. “Don’t forget.” This seemed to me a promising sign. At least for Mr. Patrick Shaffrey.

I went on to find out that most Irish don’t even know their ancestry before the mid-19th century, if that far back.

Researching Irish roots is a cottage industry in Ireland, with several nonprofit and for profit services available. The best first place to start is the National Library at http://www.nli.ie/. The site has numerous links to other sites and services. Before beginning any search its best to acquire birth and death certificates in America as far back as you can go and interview any surviving relatives.

While walking down Dame Street afterward, a sign in a shop window caught my eye. It urged visitors with Irish ancestry to come inside to find their family crest and history.

Now I’m as suspicious as the next guy over these coats of arms everyone returns with from Europe. Hasn’t history shown that it’s largely the poor, ambitious and persecuted who migrate in search of better tomorrows, while the land-owning, family crest- class stayed on?

No, the fellow selling the coat of arms assured me with a wink, these crests are not invented or borrowed royalty, they are from an era when most people could not read or write, so they had to have a family or clan symbol to stamp on contracts and the like.

Sure enough, when I typed “Shaffrey” into the store’s database a coat of arms popped out. At the top of the poster were two royal-looking red lions standing on their hind legs (you know the ones) framing a knight who sat taught upon his noble steed. Below this was the title “The Ancient History of the Distinguished Surname Shaffrey” followed by the names of a bevy of experts who had done research on Irish genealogy.   

What came after were several paragraphs of attractive calligraphy that largely dealt with the history of Ireland. However, as I poured through the elliptical and ambiguous prose, I gathered that the name “Geoffrey,” of which Shaffrey is apparently a derivation, is an Anglo Norman name. I was able to verify all of this later.

My ancestors apparently came from an early wave of people to settle on the island: the Celts were first conquered by the Vikings, who were in turn conquered by my ancestors, the Anglo Normans, who were from Normandy in Northern France, in 1172. (Though a fellow Anglo Norman later explained to me in a pub that we hadn’t “conquered” the Vikings, we were merely more improved and decided to sternly share our wisdom–how’s that for ancestral diplomacy!).

The name Geoffrey, the printout continued, was common in the northern half of the Ireland, specifically County Donegal and around the city of Derry.

After I left the family crest shop and walked down the street in no direction in particular, I came across one of those copper plaques that are all over Dublin, joyfully indicating where part of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” unfolded. This novel, of course, spins the tale of Leopold Bloom, a young advertising man who spends one day searching Dublin for his father, having a series of aimless yet poignant adventures along the way.

If Dublin were destroyed by fire, Joyce supposedly once boasted, they could rebuild the city just by reading his book. I decided then it was high time I find the business address of this Patrick Shaffrey and knock on his door.

His office was on Lower Ormond Quay in the center of town, overlooking the River Liffey, certainly one of the nicer pieces of real estate in Dublin. A sign in front was emblazoned “Shaffrey Associates.”

I rang the bell, and explained my mission to a female voice at the other end of the intercom. A moment later a woman in her 30s with a shock of red hair opened the door. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, each emphasizing our last name, which was one in the same. Her name was Grainne (pronounced Gron-ya) Shaffrey and she was an architect, she explained, like her father Patrick, who was presently out of town. 

But alas, I had found my Irish connection. She invited me in for tea and we told our stories.

“There’s always been this feeling among the Irish that there are more Irish people outside of Ireland than in the country itself,” she said. Indeed, even the Irish constitution makes reference to the country’s “exiled children in America.”

The conversation grew warm and I found myself asking open ended questions just to hear her accent and to study her face and mannerisms for tells of Shaffrey history.

I was not the first to undertake this quest, it turned out. Every few years, she told me, someone with the last name Shaffrey knocks on the office door. But due to a scarcity in official records, they’ve been unable to find definite links.

“We’re a new country,” she said. “Only 81 years old. We’re younger than America. We’re still a very unsettled people with a love of the rogue: quick to change, quick to forget the past and quick to move forward.”

She then looked closely at me and said: “You look a bit like my aunt, with the small Irish face.” I quietly panicked. Do I have a small face?

I was planning to spend the next week driving around Ireland so I arranged with Grainne to meet again upon my return to Dublin, when her father Patrick, who knew the most about the Shaffrey history, was expected back in town. We embraced like the family we might be, and I left.

The next day as I drove through the countryside it occurred to me that, from what I could tell so far, it would be difficult to dream up better distant relations than these Irish Shaffreys, socially conscience and friendly to boot. 

While hiking along the Cliffs of Moher on the Atlantic coast of Ireland a few days later I struck up a conversation with a farmer who was rebuilding a stone wall to keep his livestock from falling into the ocean.

He told me that a neighbor of his, another farmer similarly at work, had once started talking to an American fellow hiking this same trail when the two quickly discovered they were related. The reunited cousins made their way to a local pub to raise toasts to one another.   

Many Irish seem to recognize their place in the American consciousness as keepers of an old world flame, relish this role, and display an immediate intimacy with visitors. They are proud of America’s success. Many of the country’s emigrants went on to become fantastically successful in the New World, taking over political leadership of such cities as Boston, Chicago and New York, and ultimately the entire country under the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

“We’re like another state,” folks said to me more than once.

Because of Ireland’s poor historical records, you can almost pick and choose your relations depending upon with whom you’d like to share a pint. This was a great and modern sentiment, I concluded. After all, if you go back far enough, we’re all sons and daughters of Noah, or Africa, however you’re inclined. 

After about a week of touring southern Ireland I wound up in County Donegal, where my ancestral kin had possibly lived.

It’s a land of rolling green hills where, according to lore, the locals have piercing eyes from a lifetime of staring over the tumultuous ocean to see who is coming; where the gale winds are so harsh they regularly knock over cars; and where the locals once decapitated an English map maker for fear he was part of a military plot.

This is the kind of place where it may be raining furiously, but if you walk ten minutes you’ll find dry earth and the sun shining. If I’m descended from here, then maybe that explains why I’m so adaptable.

When I got back to Dublin I arranged an evening visit to the offices of Shaffrey Associates.

Patrick Shaffrey turned out to be an immediately likable man in his 70s. He’s one of those guys who you can never quite figure out whether he’s pulling your leg or not.

“So you’re Irish are ya?” he said. I replied in the affirmative as I set up my camcorder.

“Americans are so technical,” he said. So many people have said this to me overseas, that I resolved that when I got home I would finally figure out all the functions on my VCR.

“Shaffreys never had big land, but we was a caring people,” he said. “Shaffreys used to win the prize for best kept farm, indicating a family who valued things, had no means, just values.”

I looked into his eyes. He was telling the truth. But there was also a part of him that reminded me of an Atlantic City fortune teller I once met who told me I’d live a long, wealthy life and marry a beautiful woman. In other words, he was telling me what I wanted to hear.

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