NBC's Who Do You Think You Are certainly did an improvement with last night's episode, featuring comedian/ actress Rosie O'Donnell.
For once, WDYTYA actually featured, and talked about some of the research techniques involved in this amazing, and heartwarming tale of an immigrant family!
The episode opened with O'Donnell meeting with her brother, who was the keeper of the family photographs. He showed her a portrait of a young woman from their grandmother's home. They remembered the portrait always hung in the home's playroom. It was of a lovely woman, and looked to be from the 1880's or thereabouts.
Going to the Library, O'Donnell found that Grandfather's father, MIchael Murtha, had been previously married, as she searched through old census records. The 1880 Census showed him married to a woman that was not her grandfather's mother, but named Anna. Rosie had to determine what happened to Anna.
Heading to the New York Archives, she found Anna's death certificate. Under the cause of death, she discovers the woman was injured in an explosion from an oil lamp, and lingered 21 days before succombing to her injuries. O'Donnell's next step is to see if she can find an obituary or newspaper account of the accident.
Heading to Brooklyn's Historical Society, O'Donnell does indeed find the obituary. Here she does find the obituary, and finds out that the young woman was actually cooking breakfast for her husband with an infant in her arms, when the infant pulled the oil lamp over, and there was an explosion. The infant escaped, unharmed. This infant would be her grandfather's half-sibling!
Now, Rosie had to determine what happed to the baby.
She headed to Greenpoint, in Brooklyn to the Catholic church closest to the place her ancestor's had lived. St. Anthony Alphonsus. There with the help of the church historian she found in the records of baptism, that her great-grandfather and his wife Anna had baptized a baby girl, Elizabeth Murtha in 1881.
Desiring to know what happened to baby Elizabeth after losing her mother, Rosie then contacted genealogist Suzanne Nurnberg, who found Elizabeth on the 1900 Census. Ms. Nurnberg even handed O'Donnell a complete genealogy on Elizabeth's descendants. Elizabeth had married a man named Frank Smith and had four children.
O'Donnell was now off to Seacaucus, New Jersey to meet with Elizabeth's living descendant's. Her grandchildren!
Those descendant's readily recognized their grandmother as the woman in the portrait that O'Donnell's brother now had. They also gave O'Donnell a copy of Anna's obituary so that she could learn more about the woman, who had lived to be an elderly woman.
O'Donnell's focus now shifted to her grandfather's father, Michael. Census records indicated he was born in French Canada, and his parents both born in Ireland. So O'Donnell headed to Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal and met with archivist Guillame Lesage.
Lesage found an 1855 baptism [25 Feb 1855] in Montreal for Michael and his parents are listed as Andrew Murtaugh and Ann Doyle. Murtaugh was listed as a "day worker".
Lesage suggested O'Donnell head to the National Archive of Quebec to see if they could determine when and how the family had immigrated. Here she met with archivist Denyse Beaugrant-Champagne, who located an 1860 Census with the family on it. There was Andrew and wife Ann along with 6 children, 3 whom were born in Ireland, and 3 [including her great-grandfather] who were born in Canada. The National Archive was also able to tell her that Ann died around 1876.
And so, O'Donnell headed to La Biblioteque to locate Ann's obituary. There, checking the microfilm hereself, O'Donnell found Ann's obituary. She died 19 Jun 1876. Her obituary listed her as beloved wife of Andrew and a native of Kildare, Ireland. At this point O'Donnell burst into a song about County Kildare that her father used to sing, and wondered aloud if it was somehow connected.
So... off she flew to Dublin, Ireland, and here she met with genealogist Nicola Morris, who had found some records on the family, and was able to further direct her to Parish Blessington, County of Kildare. She suggested that O'Donnell head there, checking the local church for Baptism records.
Of the three known children born in Ireland, Daniel, Elizabeth and Timothy, O'Donnell found Daniel and Eliza's baptismals. Not finding Timothy's, she did uncover a fourth child born to Andrew and Ann, Patrick, who was baptized in 1846.
Patrick was baptized just prior to the great Potato Famine which resulted in mass starvation on the continent. O'Donnell wondered if Patrick had been lost to this great famine, as he was never found in immigrant records.
She then headed to Kildare Library where she met with Executive Librarian Mario Corrigan who pulled out the Minute Book from June 1854 of the Poor Law Union. It was to this "welfare assistance" group that one could apply for paid passage to North America. To qualify for this asisted immigration one had to have been in the workhouse. This was at the height of the famine, and was essentially considered "the last stop".
Corrigan found in the minutes, Andrew, wife Anna and four children. A proposal was made by George Wolfe for the family to be given the assistance to immigrate to Canada.
Discussing their obvious dire conditions and reasons for wanting to immigrate, O'Donnell commented, "It's very overwhelming....It's pretty intense to think about."
Wanting to know as much as possible about their conditions immediately prior to their immigration, O'Donnell heads to the site of the very last standing workhouse in County Kildare, where she is met by Professor Gerard Moran and given a tour and information regarding the facility.
Meeting at the front door, women would be escorted to the left, and men to the right, children aged 2 to 15 were taken to respective gender dormitories, in the attic. Each dormitory, adult and child, held 40-50 straw mattresses, which were kept directly on the floor. Here as many as 4 people at a time would sleep in a single bed. Of course this led to harboring of disease. When cholera and typhoid epidemics ran rampant through the facility, as many as 10 persons a day would die.
"I don't know if there's ghosts here or what.... but I can definitely feel a heaviness, oppressive presence," O'Donnell commented as she walked through.
After viewing the facility and walking through the tour, O'Donnell is obviously emotionally touched and spent, she commented on the atrocity and then said, "Now get me the hell outta here!"
Once outside, O'Donnell stated it helped her to see that her pain wasn't the only pain suffered in her family [O'Donnell and her siblings lost their mother when she was only 10 years of age]. Of this, she stated, "It doesn't diminish my own pain, but it's no longer the focal point. And that's a blessing." She went on to state she had come to peace with her own loss by finding out what her ancestors had endured.
"I can't wait to tell my children the story of the fragility of life... we have the choice to focus on the horrors or redemption, and we choose the redemption."
By far the most excellent piece that WDYTYA has done to date. And to think, since I was not a real fan of Rosie O'Donnell, I even contemplated not even watching last night! You can bet for certain, I'll be glued for each and every episode from now on!