During the early years of the 20th century most of the Irish men who lived in Portland, Maine worked the docks as longshoremen, including for three generations the men in Margaret Feeney Lacombe's family. Recently, Margaret began feeling that a part of her family's past was slipping away. "When my father died, I lost all of that history, really because there was no one left who remembered any of the stories; no one to tell me where they came from. So I wanted to find out what I could while I could."
Margaret was especially curious about her grandfather, Martin Feeney. She knew he came to America as a boy from County Galway, Ireland, but what she really wanted to know was the name of the town he came from so she could go there herself. She started by looking for Martin's marriage record. The Web site for the Maine State Archives has a marriage index where she could find the date of Martin's marriage. She requested a copy of the complete record, but when the record arrived in the mail Margaret had the first of a series of disappointments. It told the parents' names and said the groom was born in Ireland, but didn't say what town he was born in.
Margaret knew the approximate date of Martin's death, and that he had died working down the longshore, falling into the ship hold. Accompanied by her daughter Nicole, Margaret went to the Maine Historical Society where she found a very unusual document for pinning down the exact date of Martin's death - the minutes of the Portland Longshoreman's Benevolent Society meetings.
After searching through all the entries for 1902, the year she thought her grandfather died, Margaret found nothing. As Nicole continued to browse through the ledger, she came upon an entry in 1903. Martin J. Feeney had died on March 25, 1903. "Moved, seconded, carried that the heirs of Martin J. Feeney receive $100 death benefits," the record stated.
With this information, Margaret could look for the death record. Luckily, the Maine Historical Society had a set of microfilms of vital records for this time period, which Margaret used to find the death record for Martin J. Feeney. The record told her that he had died at Maine General Hospital, and gave his birthplace as Ireland, but didn't say where. Another dead end. Margaret decided it was time to track down her family in County Galway itself. At the Family History Centre in Galway, a researcher helped her locate the marriage record for her great-grandparents, Thomas Feeney and Mary Hernon. Finally, from this record Margaret found the information she sought: the name of a town. The Feeney's came from the small town of Lettercalla on Leitor Moire Island.
And so Margaret and her family set out for Lettercalla. At the local grocery store Margaret asked if there were any Feeneys left in Lettercalla, and learned that an elderly man named Patrick Feeney still lived in town. Patrick Feeney, 80, spoke only Gaelic, but his niece Peggy translated Margaret's questions. Indeed, a Thomas Feeney had lived in the house Patrick now owned and had emigrated to America many, many years ago. This was the home of Margaret's ancestors.
Thomas Feeney had lived in the Lettercalla house in the 1870s with his wife, his children, his brother and his family. Fourteen people in a one-room cottage. Times were hard; the stony soil as unyielding then as it is now. Thomas and his family left for America. Patrick is the grandson of the brother who stayed behind. Margaret remains elated at discovering her family's history. "This is the same ground that my ancestors walked on. This is the same house that they lived in. And to know I still have family living there, that makes me feel very connected to history and connected to the family and all of the long line of Irish ancestors."
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