This week’s Who Do You Think You Are? took Rosie O’Donnell on a journey to find the identity of a mysterious woman who’s picture hung in her childhood home, as well as tracing her ancestors back to Ireland.
They started filming during her radio show, where she joked that, what if she wasn’t Irish Catholic, but instead found out that she was Jewish. Even though she was joking, this isn’t so far from the truth. Some people believe they know their background and may find it’s quite different. Throughout history, Jews have been persecuted, forced to convert, and often hid their identities from their descendents.
The Keeper of the Photos
Her brother, Ed O’Donnell was called in to start the show. Rosie described him as “the keeper of family photos and history and whatnot.” Ed had a picture that Rosie remembered, someone they still couldn’t definitively identify. He also had an interesting copy of Daniel Murtha’s WWI draft card, their grandfather.
After reading the draft card, Ed then asked Rosie where she thinks someone would start their search. This is where she said, “It’s not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV.” At least she realized that right at the beginning of the episode. These shows make a lot of the research look easy when it really takes hours, and sometimes months of research, just to find a single document.
Jersey City, NJ
In the voiceover on the drive to New Jersey, Rosie said she wanted to track down the mysterious woman from the photo and had to track down more about Daniel Murtha. At the Jersey City Free Public Library, she met with genealogist Suzanne Nurnberg. Going to the microfilm reader, they looked for Daniel in the census, based on his address. In the census, they found Daniel, then his parents also on the same page. Printing out a copy, they examined the details from the census.
Born in French Canada, Rosie automatically jumped to saying Montreal, instead of Quebec. Suzanne suggested “somewhere in that area” as a more correct assessment. Rosie was also looking for the town where his parents were born, which was not shown on the census, and usually isn’t.
“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 really is to get the exact place of origin in Ireland; not an easy task.” Suzanne was not only correct about Irish immigrants, but for all immigrants. A good deal of the research I do involves making the leap from the US back to their European origins. Depending on when they immigrated, if and when they naturalized, finding that information can be easy or nearly impossible.
Rosie asked about any more information, and Suzanne pointed out more details about Daniel’s wife, Ellen. When Rosie asked about an earlier census, Suzanne plugged Ancestry, having found the earlier census for the family on the site. It’s curious why they didn’t go straight to Ancestry for the first census. Maybe they were using this episode to demonstrate that not everything is online and sometimes you have to search microfilm. The earlier census revealed Michael to have a different wife, and Rosie immediately realized that she could be the mystery woman from the photograph.
Suzanne suggested that Rosie go to New York to try to find more information about Anna, also mentioning that Rosie should check other spellings for the surname. This is also common among immigrants. Many would change their names to Americanize the spelling, or simply changed their names for other reasons. Sometimes name spelling variations happened because our ancestors were illiterate, so the record-taker spelled the name however he wanted.
At the Municipal Archives, Rosie met with chief archivist Ken Cobb who had the death certificate for Anna. Noticing the cause of death, Ken suggested looking at the newspaper for any more details of the incident.
At the Brooklyn Historical Society, Rosie sat at a microfilm reader again, where she found the obituary that explained the event, reading all the details and taking notes. Her notebook had been briefly seen in an earlier scene. She followed up with historian David Rosner, who had another article about the accident.
Heading to the neighborhood mentioned in the article, Rosie met Rev. Robert Czok at the Catholic church to find baptismal records in search of the child that survived the accident. Flipping through the book, he found the listing for Elizabeth, which was not bookmarked as we’ve seen in other episodes. Of course, it was naturally found ahead of time, but in real research, the pages aren’t marked for you before you arrive, and it may take some time to find the listing you are looking for.
In the next voiceover, Rosie said that she got in touch again with Suzanne Nurnberg in New Jersey and asked her to send whatever she could find on Elizabeth. Realistically, we know that the research was already done, so Rosie didn’t have to ask Suzanne to do more research, but that is often how the research really goes. As one clue is found, then a new batch of research is begun to find more.
Returning from the commercial, it seemed like an unusually long recap for this season, almost like they tried to show a lot of time had passed while Elizabeth was being researched.
“Somehow, Suzanne went and found Lizzie Murtha…” Rosie said in the voiceover. Somehow… Armed with the census, a marriage certificate, and a family tree (that wasn’t shown on screen), the show went back to its family tree chart, where we saw more of Lizzie’s family. We also learned in this section that those charts can be kind of random, when Rosie said that Lizzie’s son Christopher was the oldest child, but he was shown as the third of four children on the chart.
Meet the Cousins
In Secaucus, New Jersey, Rosie met her cousins descended from Lizzie. Rosie told them what she had learned about Lizzie and showed them the photograph that they recognized. She also read Lizzie’s obituary to them, which must have been in the package that Suzanne sent her, though it wasn’t mentioned before. It also verified that Daniel and Lizzie must have known each other.
Both of these events are familiar to me and many genealogists: meeting relatives you didn’t previously know you had, and having a mystery photo verified by other relatives. The only way to really verify someone’s identity in a photo is through other people. No matter how much research was done about Anna and Lizzie, unless they found a photo in a newspaper, they could never know for sure who was in that picture without those cousins knowing.
In the next voiceover, Rosie said, “now that I’ve found all that I can about Lizzie and her mother Anna…”, except how much did she know about Anna? Was there nothing before her death? Did they find her birth, marriage, her parents? It makes more sense that either nothing was found, or that wasn’t the focus of the research. After all, Anna was not related to Rosie and collateral people are often not researched. She shifted her focus to Anna’s husband, Daniel’s father. She went to Quebec to find more.
They Really Were in Montreal
Rosie met archivist Guillaume Lesage at the Notre Dame Basilica, hoping to find more information about the family. She looked down the page to find the baptism of Michael Murtha in Montreal, which included his parents’ names that she did not previously know, Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle. As Guillaume translated the record, Rosie grabbed her notebook to take notes.
He sent her to the National Archive of Quebec to meet archivist Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, who had a copy of the 1861 census. Going back to the family charts at this point, they seemed to list the kids in birth order this time, showing three born in Ireland and three in Canada.
Back to Ancestry, they searched the Drouin collection, apparently searching by Ann’s maiden name, where they found a death record. Rosie stated that she was at a brick wall again, having not found the Irish place of origin. While brick walls are not uncommon in genealogy research, this was not one. Having a brick wall involves searching for records and not finding them. In this case, the only records Rosie had seen were the census and the death records, neither of which mentioned the origin beyond “Ireland”. Or was there a lot more going on that didn’t make the episode besides the previously completed research? Denyse suggested Rosie look for the obituary.
At the Grande Bibliotheque, Rosie again used the microfilm reader to find the obituary.
“I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt, in another time, in another country, in another language.” That quote was almost perfect. Genealogy research is almost a scavenger hunt, though I usually prefer to compare it to detective work or puzzle solving. She was in another time and another country, but it was clear that the newspaper she was searching was in English.
Finding the obituary, it said that Ann Doyle was a native of Kildare, Ireland. What they didn’t explain was why she was listed by her maiden name. Is this usual for Irish immigrants to continue to use their maiden names after marriage? Having done no Irish research myself, and certainly not everyone has, it would have been nice to mention why they didn’t find her listed by her husband’s name, or why they even thought to search for her by her maiden name.
“I feel like I won the lottery, in a way, because I never thought there would be a mention of Ann Doyle’s death in the newspaper, but there it was.” Rosie seemed awfully calm in her excitement when she found that obituary. It also seemed unusual that they went straight for Ann’s death and obituary and not Andrew’s or their other three children who were born in Ireland. Of course, according to one of the genealogists for the show, Kyle Betit, we know that a lot more research was done. As he stated on the ProGenealogists’ blog, “We searched many other records, and no other record stating where this family came from in Ireland has been found in North America.” So from this, I can probably assume that all the research that is not shown on TV has probably been done; everything I question in these nitpicker’s versions, where I say that they should have done something or ask if they bothered to look, they probably did look at.
Finally to Ireland
In Dublin, Rosie met with genealogist Nicola Morris. Why Rosie drove the car is beyond me, but she injected her own humor into the show a few times and maybe it was just another attempt. At Manor Kilbride Church, Nicola showed Rosie the baptismal records from the parish. Rosie shared a copy of the Quebec census, then Nicola showed her three of the baptisms, finding another child who was not listed in the Quebec census. Nicola also mentioned that the fourth child, Thomas, was not found in the register, probably because the register was incomplete. Here again we get some realism. Sometimes the record can’t be found because it just doesn’t exist anymore. However, sometimes it is also the case that a child is recorded by a different name. They didn’t mention in the episode the birth years of Thomas and Patrick to verify that they were different people, but they soon mentioned that there were the four children in the family.
Details about the Potato Famine in Irish history followed; explaining foreign history is always appreciated in the US version.
Nicola suggested that Patrick may not have survived to leave for Canada, but watching the rest of the episode, this is never verified.
Nicola sent Rosie to meet librarian Mario Corrigan at the Kildare Library in Newbridge to look into the Poor Law Union records. He showed her the original books from 1854. She asked a lot of questions about the workhouse before finding the listing in the book showing that they did live there and were recommended to be sent to immigrate to Canada. Both Mario and Rosie were wearing the white gloves while looking at the book. Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don’t; there don’t seem to be any consistent rules across various historical societies and archives.
Rosie then visited the site of one of the last standing workhouses, in Birr, where she met historian Gerard Moran for a tour. She likened the living conditions to a concentration camp.
Her brother arrived and they went to a pub to share what she had learned. They ended up in a pub called Murtagh’s Corner, joking that a relative might have owned it.
Conclusion and Opinions
Although we know that all the research was done prior to filming, this episode tried to make it look like Rosie was really doing the research. Of course she was guided, but maybe she expressed more interest in doing the work “erself, thus looking through the microfilms and the flipping through the books a little more than in some other episodes.
They spent almost half of the episode in Ireland, learning about the history of the Potato Famine and even more on the workhouses. This seemed a little mis-weighted, but it was the more impactful part of the story. As Rosie said, “We all have the choice to focus on the horror or the redemption, and the gift is to focus on the redemption.” This is definitely true of Jewish research; no matter where your family was at the time, at some point, you will run into relatives who survived or were victims of the Holocaust.
This is the first episode of WDYTYA where I had a negative opinion of the featured celebrity. During the episode, Rosie seemed genuinely kind to everyone and sincere about the research, but sometimes she just says things that rub people the wrong way, like her recent agreement with Helen Thomas’s statement that the Jews should stop “occupying” Israel and go back to Poland and Germany. I can only hope that after her experience in Ireland, Rosie realized what she was saying. Would she want to live next door to the workhouse where her family had lived and the one child apparently died? Still, at least her family was there for survival and not extermination.
This article continues the Nitpicker’s Series, Season 2.