Looking back, looking forward

The end of a season at TimeLine brings about some natural reflection. The similarities between the first play of our season, A Raisin in the Son, and the last, Juno, are not lost on me. Both feature a fierce matriarch holding a family together, a headstrong daughter, a wayward son, and a possible change of life because of money. They are of course also about politics, hate, fear—and family. The Normal Heart and The How and the Why are also about those family connections, whether it is the family we choose or the science of genetics we hope will explain our similarities and our differences.

(pictured from left) Ron Rains, Jonny Stein, Marya Grandy and Emily Glick portray the Boyle family in the musical "Juno."
(pictured from left) Ron Rains, Jonny Stein, Marya Grandy and Emily Glick as the Boyle family in the musical “Juno.”

It is the family connection that most interests me. During our first production meeting for Juno, I found we were all mentioning that we are of Irish decent. I think this tendency to claim our countries of origin is very American. We are a country of people who either picked up and left or were forced to leave, so there is some part of us that is always looking back, hoping to trace those threads for some explanation of who we are now. This is similar to our mission at TimeLine.

On a very personal level I thought I might dig into my genealogy and see if I could find out more about my Irish ancestors. I am a dramaturg after all; research is part of my métier so, cockily, I set out to find my Irish ancestors.

My first call was to my Mom, keeper of our family albums.

The family lore always held that we were Irish who fled to Canada, then immigrated into the United States as Canadians. From her I got the following details: My great great great great grandfather John Hanna was born in Ireland (no city) in about 1794. He married a woman named Mary and at some point left Ireland. One of their children, my great great great grandfather Joseph Hannah (note the spelling change) was born in May 1835 in Upper Canada. Joseph Hannah married a woman named Samilda (that’s promising for research because it is unique).

I thought I’d first try online searches without the aid of any paid genealogy sites. I found a post in a free forum for someone looking for a John Hanna born in Ireland circa 1794 who married Mary. They seemed to have some sons born in Kilkeel, County Down, Ireland in 1818 and 1822; two others were born in 1825 and 1826 in Canada—all earlier than my ancestor Joseph. Someone had answered her query that there were no hits in search records in Kilkeel in County Down. They mentioned that records for Protestants are scarce. This was new to me. We always believed our ancestors were Catholic. However, Kilkeel is in Northern Ireland, which makes a Scots Irish ancestor more likely.

Now I had to question my other received knowledge. We believed they were Irish Potato Famine refugees, so I checked the dates. The Potato Famine occurred roughly between 1845-1852, so moving to Canada also seems early for the famine. Many Scots Irish immigrated to the United States in the 1700s, but that seems a bit early for my ancestors. There were bad harvests in 1815 and 1816, followed by a typhus epidemic from 1817-1819—were they avoiding that? Perhaps they were trailblazers, or a younger son without land, or just in search of something different. One source I found said it was half the price to sail to Canada rather than the United States. Is that why they went to Canada? So far I have more questions than answers.

Joseph Hannah
The photograph of my Irish or Scots-Irish ancestor, Joseph Hannah

I decided to register for a trial of a genealogy site. Fortunately my sister had used the same site and I was able to look at the family tree she had created. I was thrilled by the discovery of a photo of Joseph Hannah, but my sister’s efforts hit a dead-end with John Hanna born in Ireland. I used the site’s search engines and could find the family in later U.S. Censuses listing the country of origin as Ireland and the age, but again no Irish records appeared.

In desperation I tried Hanna and Kilkeel. This was assuming that woman and I had the same ancestor; which seemed plausible. I discovered that there is a “Hanna’s Close” in Kilkeel named after a family that emigrated from Scotland and settled near the Mournes mountains in County Down. An image search of the area turns up charming whitewashed cottages with colorful doors and low stone walls. A search of a Kilkeel history website turned up stacks of Hannas, both Catholic and Presbyterian. Most of the dates are much later than my John Hanna and it gave me the sinking feeling that there are a lot of John Hannas and I’d probably have to go to County Down to look.

I will keep digging into this history, because I like a good mystery. I had emailed the woman on the genealogy list and she emailed me back to let me know she had let her hunt slide for the time being. I emailed another contact on an Irish history site focused on the Mournes and have yet to hear back.

A cottage in Kilkeel
A cottage in Kilkeel

I think about about what it means that my search feels vague and full of dead ends and a lack of information. Names change or are misspelled, a census worker has terrible handwriting, a fire happens at a county clerk’s office and suddenly those connections become tenuous. But at this past Sunday’s performance of Juno, I took a white pin and put it in our lobby map of Ireland at County Down. It is a start.

In thinking about Juno again, my thoughts turned to the complexity of families. What name would a child born to the Mary in the play have? What if helpful neighbors misdirected census worker away from the Boyle’s home? How muddy would the Boyle family tree be? Our pasts, our families, our present are all messy, which is why we look for opportunities to understand.

This has me thinking ahead. There are all sorts of families. My TimeLine family is getting ready for The Apple Family Plays next season.  Those plays will focus on that ordinary time in most families when gathering, bickering, eating and talking politics are inextricably linked. The Apple Family Plays (That Hopey Changey Thing and Sorry) will feature more TimeLine Company Members than have ever appeared on stage together. These are friends I have worked with, celebrated with and mourned with and I am looking forward to the messiness of this family gathering as the natural balance to looking at the past.

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