Series in which American celebrities trace their ancestry, discovering secrets and surprises from their past. Comedienne Rosie O'Donnell traces her mother's family tree.
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Emmy-award-winning talk show host Rosie O'Donnell
is also an accomplished actor and author.
Her most recent venture is hosting a morning radio show
that she runs from her family home outside New York City,
where she lives with her four children.
I come from a large, Irish-Catholic family.
I grew up on Long Island, I'm the middle of five kids.
Once I got older and I was lucky enough to have some success,
I built a home in Nyack as a sort of haven
for me and my kids.
I wanted privacy, but I also dreamed of a place
where we could have fun and be creative.
I think the desire to provide a fun home
comes from the fact that, you know,
my childhood home was not so fun.
You know. I mean, it was sad.
My mom was sick.
I was ten years old when my mom died of cancer.
And, you know, it was the defining moment of my life, without a doubt.
And, um, it was like all the colour was sucked out of the movie.
You know? And it went to black and white.
It was life-altering.
I try hard to sort of reframe the picture of my life,
like, you know, I'm not only the motherless daughter,
I am now the mother.
So I want to find out about my mother's family
and their history.
To see them as fully fleshed-out individuals
and to understand what their journey here was like.
I'd like to thank the crew of Who Do You Think You Are,
because they're here filming... Hello! ..today.
And it's the beginning of my journey. We don't know where we're going, what we're doing.
I can't even imagine. Wouldn't the O'Donnells be from Ireland or...?
-My mother's name, McKenna, Murtha
-Irish, we're all Irish.
Imagine if we find out, like, we're going to Israel - I'm Jewish.
It's really McKenna... Rabowitz or something.
I think if we end up NOT going to Ireland,
it would be a shock.
I mean, that was always what we were told. That was our identity.
One thing about growing up Irish-Catholic,
we didn't talk about anything bad that happened. Nothing at all.
Not my mother's death,
never mind my family history.
All I know about my mother's side
is that HER mother, who lived with us,
was Kathryn McKenna.
We called her Nana.
But I never knew my grandfather, Daniel Murtha,
because he died before I was born.
Rosie has asked her brother Ed
to help her get started with her research.
I have all of, um, Nana's photos and letters
from her bedroom furniture. It was all in the same drawer.
-From when it left from Commack.
Yeah, kind of scary. So I went through all the stuff.
-What did you find? What's this?
-This is Dan Murtha's draft card
for World War I.
"Daniel A Murtha, age 22.
"Date of birth - November 22nd, 1894.
"604 Henderson Street, Jersey City, New Jersey."
Where do you think you would start looking
to find more information about them? Any ideas?
Uh, I don't know.
It's not going to be as easy as it looks on TV.
And so we begin, Ed.
Let's see what we find out.
So I need to track down more information about Daniel Murtha.
Rosie knows her grandfather Daniel Murtha's address and date of birth.
Now she's meeting a genealogist in Jersey City
to help her find more information about him in the census records.
All right, let's load it up.
OK, this... I think this is it here.
Here we are, right?
There's my grandfather, Daniel.
That was my grandfather's father.
-My great grandfather.
And then continue down on the next page.
Ellen was my great-grandmother.
Rosie has discovered that Daniel's parents, Rosie's great-grandparents,
were Ellen and Michael Murtha.
To look for more information about them,
Rosie has printed out the census record.
What does it say about Michael?
He's white, male.
He was born February 1855, it looks like.
And we have where he's born.
In French Canada.
So he was in French Canada,
which would be Montreal?
In that area, yeah. Somewhere in that area.
And his parents, we have where they're born.
Ireland. I knew it.
Now, does it say what town in Ireland?
A lot of times, vital records for Irish immigrants only say,
"born in Ireland." They don't give you the exact town.
And the hardest thing is to get the exact place of origin in Ireland.
-It's not an easy task.
So is there anything else we can tell about him from this?
I have information on his wife, Ellen.
Uh, she was born in August of 1864,
so she was almost ten years younger than her husband.
He was robbin' the cradle! You know those Murthas!
Rosie is on the trail of her great-grandfather Michael Murtha.
She knows that he was born in 1855 in French Canada,
and that his parents came from Ireland.
So she's heading to Montreal
to try to find out what part of Ireland they came from
and why they left their homeland.
She's meeting archivist Guillaume Lesage
to look at some baptismal records
from around the time her great-grandfather was born.
OK, so here is the index.
OK, we're at 1855.
OK. If you look in the margin,
you have B for baptism,
so that's what you're looking for.
Ah! There he is.
That is Michael Murtagh.
-That is my great-grandfather right there.
So that means he was baptised...
-He was baptised...
-In Montreal, yes.
That means that I am part French-Canadian.
Yes, we could say that.
I've wondered why I've always enjoyed a chocolate croissant.
-Now, maybe, Guillaume, it all makes sense.
Yes, maybe, yeah.
-OK, can you tell me what this says right here?
-Yes, for sure.
So it says that on the 25th of February, 1855,
"I, priest undersigned, have baptised Michael
"from the legitimate wedding of Andrew Murtagh,
"who was a day worker, and Ann Doyle."
Wow. I'm going to write down these names,
because I had no knowledge of his parents' names.
'So I'm closing in on my Irish heritage.'
Rosie has just found out the names of her great-great-grandparents,
Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle.
So, er, Guillaume,
do they ever list the nationality or where the parents are from?
Maybe if you go at the National Archive Of Quebec...
-Is that here in Montreal?
-The National Archive Of Quebec?
-That would be great.
-Yeah, I hope you good luck on that one.
Thank you so much.
Rosie is off to meet an archivist at the National Archives of Quebec
to try to solve the mystery of where her family came from in Ireland.
Look at this.
-This is a copy of the 1861 census.
-I see a Murtagh there.
-Exactly. That's Andrew.
He's a labourer. "Place of birth, Ireland."
Fantastic. I knew it.
Does it say anything about their children or not?
-Yes, it does.
We see here there's Eliza. This looks like she's 18.
The 1861 Canadian census
reveals that Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle had six children.
Rosie's great-grandfather Michael, George, and Ellen
were born in Canada.
But Eliza, Thomas, and Daniel were born in Ireland.
So they had three in Ireland and three here.
So, Denyse, is there any way that we could look up
any other vital records on Andrew Murtagh
or Ann, the parents?
-We can see...
-Ann, no E.
Let's try Montreal.
Look at that, there's an Ann Doyle. "Spouse - Murtagh."
And it says, "burial, 1876."
-So this is when she died.
But it doesn't list what town or county
-they were from in Ireland?
So I've sort of... I'm at a brick wall again.
If you're lucky, there might be an obituary in the newspaper.
We don't keep them in the archives,
but the grande bibliotheque is just a few blocks away.
We'll take a shot. We'll go to la bibliotheque.
-Well, thanks for all your help.
'Now I know the year my great-great grandmother died.
'This is the only clue I have to find my way to Ireland.
'Looks like this might be my last shot,
'so hopefully 1876 is my lucky number.'
Rosie knows her great-great grandmother Ann Doyle
died in 1876.
Now she's going to search for any records that could reveal
what town Ann Doyle was from in Ireland.
I feel like I'm on a scavenger hunt in another time, another country,
in another language.
Here we go.
There it is.
I don't believe it.
"Beloved wife of Andrew Murtagh,
"a native of Kildare, Ireland."
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.
We have a winner.
OK. I've got my Ireland connection.
I am sure my father used to sing songs about Kildare.
# In the county Tyrone by the town of Kildaren. #
I don't know if that's the same place, but...
Kildare, Ireland. How about that?
'At last, I have found a link to Ireland.
'I feel like I won the lottery, in a way.
'Because I never thought that there would be
'a mention of Ann Doyle's death in the newspaper.
'But there it was.
'From Kildare, Ireland.'
We have some place to start
in, er, the old country.
What are the chances of that?
It's much more moving than I expected it to be.
So Rosie is finally heading to Ireland, and the capital, Dublin.
My whole journey has been building up to this moment.
Next up, I want to find out about my great, great grandparents,
Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle.
I want to know about their family and why they left Ireland.
Rosie has arranged to meet genealogist Nicola Morris.
We have found Andrew Murtagh's family.
In a parish called Blessington,
just beside County Kildare.
OK, so do you want to go and take a look at the records?
-I do, and I have some scary news for you.
-I'm going to try to drive us there.
And I've never driven on the wrong side of the road. No insult.
-It's not the wrong side!
-Come with me. We'll see what happens.
Do you have insurance?
I do, yes. You should be fine.
-Watch yourself. You're OK, you're OK.
-OK, good. Thank you.
Rosie and Nicola are heading to a local church
close to the area where the Murtagh family lived.
In Montreal, Rosie discovered that her great-great grandparents
had three children born in Ireland.
Now she's going to search for any record of them
in the baptismal records.
All right, so what do we have here?
This is the register of baptisms and marriages
for the parish of Blessington.
So what we think this is is that it's actually a collection
of some of the records made by the individual chapels.
-Of course, the handwriting is different in some.
Now, I have this.
This is the census that I had.
-Um, I don't know if this is all the Murtaghs that we had.
OK, and so what sort of period were they having children, then?
-Um, this was...
So in the 1830s, 1840s.
Right, that's when they would have been baptised.
OK. Here is one of the baptismal records.
-"Daniel of Andrew Murtagh."
"And Ann Doyle!"
-Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner.
That would be it.
OK, are there other children?
Because from the other census, there were six that we found.
There were three and then there was a nine-year break,
and then there were three more.
We did find two other children for them in the register.
Here we go.
So there's the name of the child.
-Eileen? Or is that Ellen?
-Short for Elizabeth.
-We had that one as well.
-She's in the census?
And what date would this be?
-This page is 1839.
And the last one...
Here we go.
-So here's a Murtagh.
-Yep, that's right.
-So that's Patrick.
So there's no record anywhere of Thomas in here?
No, but I think from looking at this register,
because it appears to be in fragments,
I think that there are probably elements of it missing.
-That were lost.
And Patrick...we have no record of on the census.
-So he isn't with the family in 1861.
-He is not.
Of the three children listed on the Canadian census,
Rosie has found Eliza and Daniel in the church records.
And while there's no trace of Thomas,
there is another Irish-born child named Patrick.
A child Rosie didn't know about.
-Now, he was born in 1846.
-That was just at the start of the famine in Ireland.
The potato famine was one of the darkest moments in Irish history,
and over a million people died as a result of this national crisis.
When disease attacked the potato crops in the 1840s,
the devastation was compounded by the fact that the Irish
were already among the most impoverished people in Europe.
And most families were heavily dependent
on the potato crops for survival.
This catastrophe created mass starvation in Ireland,
and children were at much greater risk
of disease and death than adults.
The harsh reality for families like the Murtaghs
was that it was not uncommon for babies to die in infancy.
Patrick may not have survived to leave for Canada with the family.
It's a hard thing to think.
It's an impossible concept for any mother.
And, er, to know that that's sort of part of your heritage and history
makes you, I think, or me, really grateful
for the children that I have that are healthy,
that are alive, and for the time that I live in,
where, you know, it's not so commonplace.
It looks as though baby Patrick died in infancy.
But now Rosie wants to know how her great-great grandparents
Andrew and Ann and their children
survived the famine and made it to Canada.
Nicola Morris, the genealogist I met,
suggested I go to the Kildare Library in Newbridge
to look into the records being kept
by the Poor Law Union,
which she tells me was a governmental agency that provided food, shelter,
and sometimes assisted immigration for families stricken by poverty.
How are you?
Rosie is meeting librarian Mario Corrigan.
-Very nice to meet you.
-Good to meet you.
I was wondering if you could help me.
I have relatives from Kildare.
The first record we have of them existing in Montreal, Canada,
-was February 1855.
So with that information, where should I go?
You're looking for a period
when they would have left Ireland to go to Montreal?
Yes, and perhaps why, and what their life was like
before they left, if there's any way?
OK, let's look at the Poor Law Union minute books
for the year preceding, just in and around maybe June, July,
when we would expect them to actually leave Ireland.
-If that's OK. So you take a seat here.
And...what we're going to look at,
the minute book for 1854.
I'm shocked, Mario, that this paper even exists.
This is the actual paper, right?
These are the original minute books of the poor law union from,
as we're looking at here, this is in June of 1854.
And the original handwriting
of the people who had actually
minuted the meetings of the Poor Law Union.
And these are the only records that could shed that sort of light
on your family's history.
These people, if they're shown in these minutes,
would actually be within the workhouse.
Now, I'm sorry for my ignorance, but the workhouse was a place
where people lived who were not currently working?
Is that? The workhouse was what?
It was basically for the poorest of the poor.
The people who had no other recourse to work
or to any kind of home comforts.
And they would live there?
They would live there until such a stage that they could request leave.
So their life at that particular time
is really, really low.
And this is certainly at the height of the famine,
which is ravaging Ireland.
And this is the place where they can find food
and some sort of comfort.
It's almost the last stop for them.
It really is.
We're gonna start with June of 1854.
What we're looking for are the actual handwritten minutes of the meetings.
There is the name, right there. "Andrew Murtagh."
It was Andrew, Andrew Murtagh, his wife, and four children.
And this would mean that they did live...in the workhouse?
To qualify for emigration, they would be at least a year,
and possibly even more.
And this is the reasoning behind their choice to go.
To survive the workhouse system
and these difficult years, in itself, was a huge accomplishment.
"Proposed by Mr McDonald, and seconded by Mr Wolff,
"that Andrew Murtagh, his wife, and four children
"be sent immediately to Canada."
McDonald and Wolff are on the board which managed this workhouse
and workhouse district.
They people with the power are this board of guardians
and they are the people who decide
-on the people who are going to emigrate.
It is George Wolff who proposes that those people
be helped or assisted to emigrate to Canada.
So this is the proof that they went there.
Do you think they must have known the family?
There's a lot that we don't know about it, obviously.
But it's certainly... there's a feeling that it's well-intentioned.
Maybe they're concerned with their particular plight,
the condition that this man, his wife, and four small children,
who obviously say that they want to go.
I didn't know about my mother's family cos she died when I was ten.
And so all of this is sort of new information.
It's really overwhelming to, er,
to imagine and to sort of incorporate into who I view myself as as a 48-year-old woman today.
Yeah, but it's the ultimate great story
of coming from these difficult, really horrendous times...
-To a new country.
-And actually making good.
Which...obviously has happened.
Yes, it has, I think.
Not just me, but all my siblings are, you know, knock wood,
very successful at what they do.
And, you know, when you think of the death and the suffering and...
it's really, um, it's very overwhelming.
I always have felt... that my life was blessed.
And, er, if the McDonald and the Wolff family
hadn't sponsored Andrew and Ann, I would not be here, literally.
It would not be me.
There may be a descendent of theirs doing something else,
but it wouldn't be me.
And, er...that's pretty intense... to think about.
To get a sense of the kind of conditions
her ancestors were faced with before they emigrated to Canada,
Rosie is visiting the site of one of the last standing workhouses -
similar to the one where the Murtaghs lived with their children.
Doesn't look like I thought it would look.
I thought it would be smaller. It's huge.
To think how many people were in there, families and...
Rosie is meeting historian Gerry Moran
to find out about the living conditions her family endured.
So when a family arrived,
like my great-grandfather and his wife and four children,
what was the procedure?
You would get a number? You would get a...what happened?
As they came to the door here, the segregation would start.
The males go into the right-hand side,
the females go to the left-hand side.
Boys and girls from ages of two up to 15,
were kept... were segregated away.
Never saw their parents again,
after the, er, until...
That's horrifying. Horrifying. A two-year-old baby.
-A two-year-old baby would have been taken off the mother.
OK, if we head, um, inside, we can take a look inside.
-I'll follow you.
-Since I'm mildly scared.
I don't know if I necessarily believe in ghosts,
-but I definitely tell you you can feel something.
And inside here, you have the dormitories.
You could have had anything from... maybe 40, 50, sort of...
Just a bed after bed, after bed, after bed.
It was just pure mattresses. Straw mattresses.
-On the floor?
-On the floor.
We also know, from some of the, er...the evidence
-that you could have had up to four people in the one bed.
Now, the problem that that created was it led to disease.
And illness, yes. Being carried very, very quickly.
When you have cholera or typhoid,
your total may be up to ten people a day dying.
It does remind you of a concentration camp.
It has a certain feel of that to it, definitely.
We're moving up now into the-the attic.
-And this would be...
-It's quite cold up here. It's noticeably colder.
Very, very cold. Yeah, this is where many of the children...
sort of, would have been kept.
Yeah, so we're in the male side.
So this is boys between the ages of two and 15...
-Oh, my lord!
-..would have been here.
The entire nation went through a crisis.
There was a lot of death. A lot of people.
My great-great0grandfather was here.
With his wife and four children.
This is creepy.
Overwhelmingly sad. Like, literally have a stomach ache kind of...
cos you can visualise it.
Now get me the hell out of here!
Gerry, your knowledge is invaluable,
-and I appreciate you taking your time to show me this.
Bye-bye. Best to you.
It's sad. It's really sad.
To actually know, you know, that your own relatives, er...
suffered in that kind of way is pretty overwhelming for me.
You know, I only knew one thing. I had a mother who died.
That's all I knew. And that felt... felt like...
..an unliveable tragedy. It felt like an unbearable tragedy.
But now, you know, I think to myself...
her life existed because of, you know,
the suffering and pain that...
I don't know. It doesn't diminish my own suffering
but it's not any longer the focal point of my existence.
I think that's a gift.
This experience has been life-changing for me.
And I couldn't imagine coming to Ireland
without sharing my family's story
with the person who helped me start this journey.
Here he is.
-How are you?
-How was your flight?
-Good, really good.
-Oh, boy, do I have a lot to tell you!
-Found out a lot?
-Found out a lot.
-You ready to have a pint?
-Let's go find a pub cos it's the coldest day in the history of the country.
-Do you have jetlag?
-Wait till you find out what I found out.
I really can't wait to tell my children the story
about...the fragility of life
and the impermanence that we all live with.
You know, nothing is guaranteed.
-It really is.
'The fact is that the Murtaghs are, you know,'
alive and well, er, right today, inside of me.
And we all have the choice
to focus on the horror or the redemption.
And the gift is to focus on the redemption.
Murtagh's Corner. Hey, do you think
-one of our relatives owned this place, Ed?
captioning by Brian at Captionmax www.Captionmax.com
E-mail [email protected]
Comedienne Rosie O'Donnell lost her mother when she was only 10 and wants to reconnect with her by tracing her Irish roots.
She embarks on a remarkable journey taking her via French Canada to Ireland itself and discovers how the Potato Famine drove her family into poverty.
Eventually a benefactor arranged their passages to America. Thus Rosie's family were able to start a new - and more prosperous - life in the New World.