• by Dave Miller

Finding information on an ancestor when you don't expect it...

I’m always writing about surprises you can expect from time to time in your family research. I have personally run across many records that have disproved family stories. I’m sure you’ve been there too. You discovered a record you didn’t expect to find, or stumbled across some little piece of information that you didn’t know about an ancestor. You can call those “ah hah” moments. That’s the moment you look at a document about an ancestor and just sit there for a minute staring at that document. Sometimes you just sit there in disbelief, but the proof is there.

That was the case when Theresa Sinocular discovered new information on an ancestor during a recent trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland. Theresa and her family knew that her ancestor Hugh O’Hair lived in County Down in the early 19th century and that he eventually left for Australia, but was not sure why or the events that led up to his departure from his native Ireland. Theresa and her family were in Downpatrick and just happened to visit the County Down Museum asking for directions. The Museum is located inside one of the historic buildings that once housed the County Gaol of Down. This particular Gaol housed inmates from 1796 until 1830.

After receiving directions from one of the staff members, Theresa and her family were planning to go elsewhere to look for information on her ancestor Hugh. In a conversation with the museum staff member, Theresa gave the name of the ancestor to see if there was any information in the museum’s database. A few minutes later, the museum staffer walked in with paperwork that indicated that Hugh was actually an inmate at the prison in 1823. He was imprisoned at this facility for six months before having to walk over 200 miles with other prisoners from Downpatrick to a hearing in Cork. Hugh was actually scheduled to be hung as a result of forging notes. Instead, Hugh was sent from Cork in September 1823 to Australia where he spent the rest of his days in, and some years later, out of prison.

Theresa said she was stunned to see this information since they didn’t have any idea why Hugh had left Ireland. It turns out, many prisoners in Ireland were sent to Australia to serve the rest of their sentences. Many never returned or were ordered never to return upon their release from the Australian prison. That was the case for Hugh, who was later given land and some sheep to start up his life after his release from prison.

Theresa recalled the moment when she read the material at the County Down Museum as “very surreal.” Not only did she learn what had happened to her ancestor Hugh and why he left for Australia, she also had a better understanding what he experienced as a prisoner in Downpatrick. Prisoners back then lived in very bad conditions. Many never survived the living conditions at the time which also resulted in the outbreak of disease. Hugh survived the six months in the Gaol as well as the long walk from Downpatrick to Cork and the eventual trip to Australia; a very exciting moment for Theresa and her family.

We all experience an “ah hah” moment at some point in our family research! That is the time when you find that little nugget on an ancestor which can throw your research upside down and sometimes by accident. It may also give you that moment when you realize just who this ancestor really was and how they lived their life. You get a sense that you really knew who they were when they were alive. And now with that new bit of information in front of you, it’s almost as if they were standing right next to you.

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