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Uncovering Family Stories in Ireland

Tennessee native finds a hero among her ancestors on the Emerald Isle

Echo Montgomery Garrett with husband in Ireland

Echo Montgomery Garrett

My mother used to joke that, rootswise, we were “Heinz 57” — a little bit of everything from Western Europe, though mostly English.

Only shortly before my father's death in 2014, did a relative tell me that his background was mainly Scottish. Over the next few years, a DNA test and further research confirmed this and more: My father came from a dominant clan in Scotland with a few ancestors immigrating to Ireland. My mother's roots were also in Scotland but with a web of connections throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Echo Montgomery Garrett

Age: 59

Home: Nashville, Tennessee

Ancestral home: Ireland and Scotland

I was elated to finally have what I'd always wished for: a clear understanding of where my family was from.

So, two years ago, I decided to explore my newly discovered Celtic roots.

I set off with my husband, Kevin, just after St. Patrick's Day 2018. Our first stop was in Cork, at the Cobh Heritage Centre, an immigration museum housed in a restored Victorian railway station. More than 2.5 million Irish departed from the tidy, colorful harbor town in County Cork (as did the ill-fated Titanic).

The resident genealogist took one look at me and said, “I am guessing your people were originally from Scotland. You are Scots-Irish.” How could he know so much about me in a glance when I went most of a lifetime unaware? When I told him my maiden name, Montgomery, he shared that the clan Montgomery was one of three that led the Scottish immigration to Ireland.

Farmland on Mizen Head on the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route in West Cork

Trish Punch / Getty Images

He also explained why tracing your Irish roots can be surprisingly challenging. Most of the records were destroyed during the Irish civil war in 1922 and the burning of the national archives.

Plus, “Nobody had birth certificates, and most of the records were baptismal records in the churches,” he said. What's more, the new immigrants were suspicious of government, so when they arrived in the United States, they often gave either St. Patrick's Day or Christmas as their birth date and might have been vague about where they were born.

As we toured the pastoral island — including Belfast, a sister city to my hometown of Nashville — I felt something I'd never experienced on our other overseas travels: that I wasn't merely an outsider exploring a new culture but, rather, was connecting to a people and place that were already a part of me. The music, the food, the lay of the land and the rhythm of the place just spoke to my heart.

Motoring along the Causeway Coastal Route, one of the world's most famously gorgeous drives, we had jaw-dropping views of the northern Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea, framed by craggy limestone cliffs.

Our guide was Mark Rodgers, an ancestry specialist and owner of Dalriada Kingdom Tours. I'd sent him lots of information on my family, many of whom were from County Antrim.

He'd told me that my ancestor Governor George Walker, who was also bishop designate of the town of Derry, was a hero, credited with saving the town from a 105-day siege that ended Aug. 1, 1689. The Siege of Derry, led by James II, was the first major act in the Williamite War in Ireland.

“I wasn’t merely an outsider exploring a new culture, but rather connecting to a people and place that were already a part of me.”  

— Echo Montgomery Garrett

The highlight of the drive was exploring the Giant's Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site with roughly 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns that rise out of the sea at the Antrim plateau. (Parts of Game of Thrones were filmed here.)

As we stood surveying the geological wonder, I wondered if any of my ancestors had been dazzled by the same otherworldly landscape and sea that inspired the myths of giants using the columns to march to Scotland.

As though he could read my thoughts, Rodgers said, “Your family has deep roots here.” Tears came, triggered both by the sheer beauty of the site and by being given the gift of a connection to it.

We concluded our trip in Dublin, where I met Nicola Morris, a genealogist who often consults for the BBC program Who Do You Think You Are?, for tea at the Merrion Hotel. Morris said she was able to find a little bit on my Irish background beyond Governor Walker.

“Your people were strivers, looking for a better life,” she noted. “You had to have great courage to board a vessel and leave everything behind, knowing you'd likely never return.” Now that I've discovered my roots, I long to return again and again.

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