Category: Archive

The big dig

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Not far from there was the Kilbannon school that had featured in her grandmother’s stories. It too was now rubble. “I could just picture her walking down the road to school,” Rodda said. “The Tuam area generally felt very familiar.”
Kate Newell left County Galway in 1903, at age 17, following her sister into domestic service in Brooklyn. Later, four more sisters came to the borough, all finding work in the homes of the better off. In 1906, Newell married a chauffeur whose parents were from Meath and Tipperary. In 1927, her daughter married another Brooklynite, a hotel doorman whose mother and father were from Germany and Denmark. And in 1960, the Galway native was present when her granddaughter, 21-year-old Anne Patterson, married Jim Rodda, a barman.
Newell died the next year, at 75, never having seen again the homestead she’d left as a very young woman. In later decades she became the pivotal figure in her granddaughter’s quest for her roots and her identity. “Maybe it was because I knew her. That’s why I keep coming back to her.” Rodda said. “I didn’t know my other grandparents.”
By the time of her roadside discovery in 1996, she was a certified genealogist.
Rodda’s professional background was in counseling, adult education and college administration. Before that, in the early 1970s when her four children were still young, she’d obtained a BA and then an MA.
A dozen years ago, she started on the path that led her to her present work. It began as a simple search for her grandmother’s birth certificate for the purposes of obtaining an Irish/EU passport. She found the work fascinated her and searched for other records, such as those of her paternal grandfather, a Danish-born captain in the merchant marine, her paternal German grandmother and her husband Jim’s roots in Cornwall, England.
“It was time for a change,” Rodda recalled. It coincided with Jim Rodda’s retirement from the bar business. “It wouldn’t have been practical for me to have a regular full-time job when he was at home,” she said. “So that was part of it.
“It’s worked out very nicely because I do a lot of traveling and we travel together. He’s good at the logistics. He’s the travel planner.”
The Roddas have fallen in love with Tuam, which they visit twice a year.
Anne Rodda makes three trips a week from her home in Little Falls, N.J., to Manhattan. There, she spends most of her time in the four main repositories used by genealogists in the metropolitan area: the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, the New York City Municipal Archives, the National Archives Northeast Regional Center, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society.
A client might hire her for a block of five hours. She does the research, analyzes her findings, and types her report, which may conclude with recommendations on further steps.
“Anne is very professional,” said Joe Silinonte, a prominent New York City genealogist. “She’s very quiet. She’s not waving a flag or making a big deal about she’s doing. It’s always a pleasure to work with her.”
Rodda herself said that from her experience a good genealogists is usually “persistent, methodical, patient, a critical thinker and reader, introspective.”
Patient and methodical certainly, Silinonte agreed. It might take 10 minutes to find a record. Or it might take 10 years, as it did in the case of his great-great-great-grandfather. Charles O’Neil, a prominent citizen in 19th century Brooklyn, left no clue, it seemed, as to where he was born in Ireland. The break came with a hunch. Silinonte explored the possibility that O’Neil might have sought a dispensation for his third marriage, and if so, might have been required for that purpose to note down his date and place of birth. The bishop of Brooklyn gave his descendant permission to look at the records. And there it was: County Leitrim, 1812.
Silinonte compiled a book subsequently on the topic: “Bishop Loughlin’s Dispensations, Vol. 1, 1859-66.”
“People hire a professional genealogist because they’ve hit a brick wall and want another perspective,” he said. “And there are little things we know.” A client is often pleased with the result. “They say: You’ve hit the jackpot.’ ” he said, laughing.

The Newell search
The natural tendency is for people to trace in a direct line as far back as they can go. Rodda wanted to go beyond her grandmother’s birth certificate, deeper into the past. She knew that Kate Newell was the daughter of James Newell, a blacksmith of Kilbannon, and Catherine Acton. Rodda knew also from their 1879 marriage certificate that James’s father, her great-great-grandfather, was named Patrick. But she didn’t know if he was dead at that point, when he was born, where he lived or what he worked at.
At her request, the Galway Family History Society West sent her information it thought might be useful. It ranged from all the Patrick Newells who rented land in County Galway in the 1850s, according to Griffith’s Valuation, to the Newells who were listed in the contemporary telephone directory for Tuam.
Much of the material related to her great-grandparents, James and Catherine, and the birth of some of their children. But there was another blacksmith, Laurence Newell of Tullinadaly Road, who was, it seemed, roughly the same age as James. Intriguingly, there was a lot more concrete information about the previous generation at Tullinadaly Road. For example, the father, Patrick, was also a blacksmith. He died in 1870, at age 54. Rodda hoped that this was the same Patrick who was her direct ancestor. She had to prove, though, that her grandmother’s father, James, the blacksmith of Kilbannon, and Laurence, the blacksmith of Tullinadaly Road, were brothers.
Rodda wrote to all the present-day Newells in the phone book. She got friendly replies but all doubted there was any family connection. On the eve of her departure for Ireland, she got a telephone call from an Evelyn Kelly of Tuam. “One of my letters had been passed on by someone who knew that her mother’s maiden name was Newell,” Rodda said. Kelly told her that she and her half-sister, Trena Rabbit, were the granddaughters of Laurence Newell, the blacksmith of Tullinadaly Road.
“When we met, Evelyn and Trena brought out a picture of five young women whom they remembered their mother referring to as the Newell cousins,” Rodda said. Other than that, they knew only the picture was taken in New York in the early 20th century and that the women were all sisters who’d left Tuam.
Anne Rodda knew that the woman who was standing second from the left was her grandmother, Kate Newell. From that moment, she felt certain that the blacksmiths Laurence Newell and James Newell were indeed brothers.
Encouraged, she battled on. She eventually found that when the last of her great-aunts arrived in New York, in 1921, the passenger manifest listed her father James, of Tullinadaly Road, as her nearest relative. The address was key. He’d apparently moved home after 40 years in Kilbannon, perhaps upon the death of his older brother, Laurence. And then Rodda found James Newell’s 1923 obituary in the Tuam Herald, confirming that the two men were brothers. Among the mourners listed was his young niece — Evelyn Kelly and Trena Rabbit’s mother.
Now Anne Rodda was linked to the Tullinadaly Road blacksmiths, to her great-great-grandfather Patrick, who was born about 1816, and his wife, Bridget Kilgarrif, whom he married in 1842.
Her best guess is that the photograph of the five women dates to 1921, the year the two youngest sisters arrived on separate voyages. A sixth sister had gone back to Ireland in 1915 and wouldn’t return until 1928.
Rodda’s grandmother never discussed why she and her sisters left Ireland. However she knows that as blacksmith’s daughters, they weren’t very poor. “But they wanted something better,” she said.
She’s tracked as much information as she could about the women, whom she knew as a child, and their descendants. Some facts had been well established. Two of her great-aunt Annie’s sons, John and Joseph McFadden, were killed in World War II. The McFaddan Post of the American Legion in Brooklyn is named in their honor. But she’s also made friendships with cousins she’d previously known little or nothing about
There is a general lesson from her search of the Newells, she said. A solution can come in the most circuitous of routes. “People are interested in a particular ancestor, not his brothers or sisters. But very often that where the information is,” she said. The vital records of great-aunts and great-uncles who also came to America can reveal the county, town, village, or even the smallest geographical unit, the townland of origin.
In genealogy, as in real estate, location is everything. Joe Silinonte and other genealogists have compiled books based on information found on gravestones. His contribution is “Tombstones of the Irish Born,” which deals with Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. He was mainly concerned with citations of Irish place names. “1492 tombstones, about 5,000 people,” he said. “It’s in its sixth printing.”
Rodda believes she understands why she got so deeply involved in genealogy and why she’s become so intensely attached to Tuam in Galway. “At middle age, I suppose, I was reflecting on the past and its meaning,” she said. Identity was simpler when she was a child. People grew up in ethnic urban neighborhoods and went to Catholic schools. They were American. Then the new emphasis was on multiculturalism. Understanding one’s own culture and what shaped immigrant grandparents, and what they passed on to their American-born children, seemed much more important than before.
But she’s continued with it because it’s fun. “Each new search is a puzzle to be solved,” she said. “It can be compared with any type of puzzle, or detective work. or a scavenger hunt. It’s about finding things out.
“It’s always interesting,” she said.

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