Connecting with the past

As a historian, I'm constantly seeking ways to make the relationship between the past and the present visible. While I know from my studies just how much the events of the past shape our current world, that connection doesn't always feel tangible. As a traveler, I don't believe you can truly appreciate a place without understanding what factors and events transpired there, and how those things affected the people who lived there and the ways in which they lived. I think that is part of the reason I love travel so much. No matter how many books you read about a certain event or period of history, standing in a place where an event occurred creates a physical connection that feels so fascinating to me.

Today I had the opportunity to connect on some small level with a personal tie to history, by visiting the graves of my great-great grandparents in Co. Tipperary, Ireland.

I had just enough information, based on documents my grandmother shared with me, and some census records turned up on, to know in what specific places my family had lived during the years 1901 and 1911. I guessed that if they had lived there, it was likely enough that they also had died there. Google searching cemetery records turned up their gravesites more quickly than I had ever anticipated.

However, when we arrived at the cemetery, things became a bit more difficult. The cemetery was very large, and though I had the plot number, it was still pretty difficult to find. We finally figured out what section their plot was in, and wandered through rows and rows of graves for quite some time without much luck. (I did find a grave of who I believe to be my great-grandfather's sister and her daughter, however). We enlisted the assistance of workers in the cemetery, and though they were extremely nice and helpful to the best of their ability, the caretaker was away and no one could say for sure where the correct plot could be found. Eventually, by searching the plot numbers of other graves, we did find their plot - unmarked.

It was pretty remarkable to visit the final resting place of these people who I never knew, and really, know almost nothing about, but I know that without their story, mine wouldn't be possible, and it made me sad that not only have their experiences and the details of who they were been erased by years, but that their graves are unmarked and even their names are not known by those who pass by.

Some things I do know: my great-great grandparents were both born in Co. Limerick, but raised their family in Co. Tipperary. My great-great grandfather was born in 1849, which was right in the midst of the Great Famine. (!!!) They married when she was 22 and he 27. They had seven children, 5 of whom survived at least past 1911. They died within 2 weeks of each other - him on Dec 31st, 1930 of limb (?) decay, and her on Jan 15th, 1931 of heart failure. Their son emigrated to the United States, where he married a woman who hailed from Northern Ireland. My father remembers their son (his grandfather, who he called Pop) as a very kind, softspoken man, and loved him so much that he wanted his own grandchildren to call him Pop, as well.

I also wanted to see where they had lived, but being that it was over 100 years ago, places have of course changed a great deal. I searched based on their 1911 census address, and we went to the house that may have been in the same location where they lived at that time. I wish that we had had more time to explore the area and maybe talk to some locals (who have without exception lived up to the Irish reputation for friendliness), but still felt pretty priveleged to look upon the same beautiful, rolling, green hills that made up the landscape even back then, and to take a brief moment to remember those who came before.


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