My Family Tree Research
By Michael Breen
This last week, I discovered that I have relatives in the United States that I never knew about. I don't know who they are yet, but they're there somewhere.
My hobby, you see, is family tree research. I took it up as a student. It was less dangerous than my first pastime, which was rock climbing. People frequently asked why I did both. The famous response about climbing mountains ― because they are there ― doesn't work so well with birth, marriage and death records.
It began as a curiosity, but you start to appreciate, when you're uncovering the three main events and the census returns every 10 years, that births of children who later become your gray grannies in Mother Hubbard dresses, led detailed lives, were real people, and, in every moment, took breaths, just like you.
Then you start connecting emotionally.
Recently, I made a guess that my great grandfather had an elder brother named Edward. This was logical because the Scots-Irish tradition was to name the first son after the paternal grandfather, second son after the maternal grandfather, and vice versa with daughters. I found this Edward Breen in the slums of the Scottish textiles and shipbuilding city of Glasgow. Of his seven children, four died in infancy, and the sixth just four days after the birth of the seventh.
Such stories make you wonder about their character and how they impacted their families, and you. I believe that this psychological inheritance is the real meaning of lineage. Blood is the form, while the character-shaping reality is the substance. Thus, an adopted child is as real a child as a blood child and the female lines are as much a part of who you are as the male line. The great grandfather who carries your family name is, after all, just one of eight.
That said, I am over-focused on the Breens because, for the last 130 years, this side of my family has lived under the shadow of the disappearance of my great grandfather, James Breen, a blacksmith, from his home in Carstairs, near Glasgow. For some reason, James left his wife, a coalminer's daughter named Isabella Weir, to raise their children on her own.
If anyone ever knew the when, where and why, the story died with them. My father, the youngest of seven, said it was never mentioned. As a result, no one knew anything about James, where he came from or who his family was. Our past is a mystery.
There was some evidence of psychological devastation. Three of my father's aunts and uncles never married, which was unusual in those days. He was never allowed to meet two of the aunts and assumed they were alcoholics. His father was a pious churchgoer and businessman who burned himself out by the time he was 50 and never worked again.
I used to think this was because of James' desertion, but I wonder too about the character of the woman who he left, their mother. There is a theory that, out of a natural impulse to heal yourself, you tend to fall in love with people who, to you, appear to exhibit the worst, not the best, characteristics of your parents. My grandfather, William Breen, married a regal churchgoing Scotswoman who ruled the house with an iron rod. At mealtimes, Granny sat at the head of the table, and Granddad William would sit, not at the other end, but along the side of the table with the children. That makes me wonder about his mother.
When I found James, his parents and three siblings in a one-room house in Hamilton, near Glasgow, in the 1861 census, it was like a revelation to my relatives. In the ``where born" column, it said, simply, ``Ireland."
Over the years, I've tried to find out where in Ireland they came from and where James went, but drew a blank. My brother found a James Breen on a ship to New York in 1882 but we haven't confirmed it was the same one.
In the past few months since my mother's death, I have revived this old hobby. One cousin dug up a photo of James, Isabella and five of their children, including my grandfather, taken around 1872. After 30 years of imagining him, he now had a face, including a bald head.
Now, of course, you can do a lot of research online - finding people is one of the biggest uses of the Internet after shopping and porn - and it was there, last weekend that I found him. In 1887, at age 45, he married a Canadian widow, Caroline Tripp, in a village called Sundridge, in Parry Sound, Ontario. She had a 5-year-old daughter from her first marriage. The following year, they moved across the border to Cheektowaga, outside Buffalo, N.Y.
They had three children there. One daughter, Ruth, doesn't seem to appear anywhere else. A son, Milton James Breen, lived in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and died in Benton, Ark. I don't know if he had children. Another daughter, Clara, married a man named Hewitt Griffin in Steuben County, N.Y. They had four children, three of whom may still be alive.
When I find them, I just hope that they care, and have pictures and stories. They may, I hope, even know where we are from in Ireland.
Michael Breen is chairman of Insight Communications Consultants Exclusive Partner of FD International. He can be reached at mike.breen@insightcomms