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Family Records: Episode 202 <<

Suzanne's Story: Diary of a Diary Quest

Suzanne Suzanne was lucky. Her great-grandfather left a tiny slip of paper upon which he'd written the townland from which her family originated in Ireland. It also included the name of his uncle, who just happened to be famous. That scrap of paper, given to Suzanne by her grandmother, was the catalyst which took her Irish genealogical line back to 1685!

Suzanne began her journey of discovery by going to the Family History Library where attendants helped her find references to the famous uncle, "Honest John" Martin. He had been a member of Parliament and a Young Irelander. Researching the Young Irelanders, she learned that John was accused of treason and sentenced to exile in Tasmania.

On a return trip to Salt Lake City, Suzanne focused on researching the records of the church the family had attended. After some digging, she was thrilled to find a book by Rev. Cowan that included a genealogy for both of Honest John's parents! When she read the book, she discovered that most of the genealogical information came from the diaries of James Harshaw, an uncle of Honest John's. Suzanne was determined to read those diaries!

She went online and asked if anyone had heard of the Harshaw diaries. A thoughtful stranger forwarded her query to Marjorie Harshaw Robie. Marjorie had recently been on a national morning show discussing the recently discovered Harshaw diaries - news to Suzanne! - and was in Ireland at the time donating the diaries back to Ireland. The story of the diaries was a miracle all by itself. To learn more about their remarkable recovery, please see Suzanne's story in In Search of Our Ancestors.

Old Records Once Marjorie came into possession of the diaries, she began the tedious work of transcribing all 1,300 pages of the six volumes and shared them with the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. They agreed to microfilm them and notified the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), who declared the diaries "the most important historical document in all of Ireland." It was a diary of a simple tenant farmer, but included items of infinite worth to the Irish people.

When Marjorie returned from Ireland, she lent Suzanne her own copy of the diaries, and Suzanne then spent the next three months going daily to her local Family History Center to read the microfilm. The diaries told of the sentencing and transportation of Honest John. She read about the deaths of John's brother and sister-in-law nine days apart, leaving seven orphaned children. She learned that John, a bachelor who had just returned to Ireland with a pardon, undertook the task of raising these children. The names on her pedigree chart came alive and she wept with joy, admiration and appreciation for the diary of a simple tenant farmer.

Best of all, Suzanne and her family were invited to Ireland for the dedication of the new headstone for James Harshaw, the farmer who had kept this diary. There they met numerous Irish relatives and walked in the homes of their ancestors.

So the ancestral quest that began with a simple scrap of paper ultimately led to diaries that featured Suzanne's family. Not all of us have family records as detailed and revealing as the Harshaw diaries, but virtually all of us have some scattered clues such as the scrap of paper that started Suzanne's journey. Whatever form they take, these family records are a critical component in our ancestral search. And once you've used them, you'll realize the importance of leaving some family records for your descendants!
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