My link with Ireland: Nana

Nana, Whelan, Ireland, The Gathering

My grandmother, Nana, as a teenager in northern Ontario.

Getting ready to trace my Whelan roots in Ireland for The Gathering

On September 17, I will set foot in Ireland, land of my ancestors, for the first time. My trip is the culmination of more than a year of planning and research — and it’s all part of The Gathering, a massive, year-long tourism initiative to celebrate Irish culture and bring the Irish Diaspora back to the homeland.

My Nana is the reason I have long wanted to go to Ireland. When I was growing up in southern Ontario, my grandmother, Nana (born Monica Whelan), lived with us and was like a second mother to me. I always thought there was something very Irish about her — despite the fact that she was 5th generation Irish-Canadian. She died when I was a teenager, a huge loss for me. So, going to Ireland will, I think, help me feel reconnected to her — and to my roots, too.

Will I feel at home in Ireland? Will I feel the call “of the blood?” Will I feel I am with my people? And will they seem familiar to me, because of my Nana? This is what I want to find out when I “walk the ground” of my ancestors.

The Irish connection

Nana was a very young grandmother, very youthful and decidedly glamorous, in my eyes anyway. She was kindly and loving; a talented seamstress and baker of sweets; and a captivating spinner of tales and stories. But there her resemblance to any typical notions of grandmothers end. Her sartorial style permanently inspired by the between-the-wars elegance of Wallis Simpson, Nana wore taupe a-line dresses, ropes of stunning costume jewelry, full makeup and long, tapered nails. At 60, she looked about 15 years younger, though she smoked a pack of Export ‘A’ cigarettes every day, often through a long, tortoiseshell cigarette holder.

Whelan, The Gathering, Ireland, Canada

My grandmother, Nana, right, with her sister Elizabeth Whelan.

At an age when I became conscious of these things, I sensed there was something very Irish about Nana, though she had never set foot in Ireland. Nana was born Monica Whelan in northern Ontario, the eldest of nine children. She was apparently the first baby born when Haileybury became incorporated as a town. Both her parents, all of grandparents and all of their parents and grandparents were of Irish descent.

Though she was in fact 5th generation Canadian, because Nana grew up in Irish communities surrounded by other people of Irish heritage, I think she absorbed the culture, to a degree. She loved to tell stories, she drank strong tea and she used colourful Irish expressions like:

If you kids don’t behave, there’s going to be wigs on the green!

But of course, I don’t really know if Nana was hard-wired to be Irish or not because I’ve never been to Ireland and I don’t know if her “Irishness” was something I sensed or something I made up. And the same is true for me. From what I know of typical Irish characteristics, I seem to have many of them: I love to talk, tell stories and embellish. I have strong feelings, a tendency to poetic pensiveness and a love of mythology. I love tea, horses and being outdoors. And I have a rebellious streak — I hate being told what to do — which apparently is DNA encoded: my ancestors came from Cork, which has long been known as a hot-bed of rebellion.

The Gathering, Ireland 2013 The Gathering 2013

The Gathering is a year-long festival of events all across Ireland to entice and entertain visitors, especially the Irish diaspora. It’s a celebration of Irish culture, history, people and places. To learn more visit The Gathering website; The Gathering Facebook page; and check out the travel offers on the Ireland Tourism Canada site.

The family tree

Nana’s last name was Whelan, and that is the line I am tracing for several reasons. One is because of my strong family ties, and the other is because I have in my possession a fairly detailed history of five generations of the Whelans in Canada, going back to their roots in Ireland; and also going back to the Irish roots of several of the families who married into the Whelan tree.

The Gathering, Ireland, Whelan

My grandmother, Nana, fishing in Canada.

As I am going to Ireland as a guest of Ireland Tourism, and for The Gathering, researching my family roots and planning an itinerary based on my family tree was the top priority. The first thing I did was share my knowledge about my family line with Irish genealogist Helen Kelly, of Dublin. Genealogy in Ireland is big business because there are 80 million people of Irish descent worldwide. (Ireland itself only has a population of 6 million.)

The first Whelan in my family tree to leave Ireland was John Whelan, along with his wife Clara Carty — I wrote about her in The Journey from Ireland and Back. I’m not sure when they left, but I assume around 1800. Several of their male descendents, born in Canada, married women who were newly off the boat from Ireland — most notably Hannah Roche (born 1820 in Cork) and Elizabeth Costello (born 1844 in Tipperary).

family tree colourEven with the help of a genealogist, I have not had much success tracing back these lines — the Carty family of Longford, the Whelans and Roches of Cork, and the Costellos of Tipperary. It’s just too far back, and I don’t have the wherewithal to undertake an exhaustive search.

Nevertheless, since I know where they are from, I can still “walk the ground” they trod and enjoy immersing myself in the culture of Ireland, and the beauty of the countryside.

The Whelan Gathering

The reason I am going to Ireland in September is because the Glasnevin’s Museum Whelan Family Gathering is taking place the week of September 16-23. Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum, Dublin, is a national heritage site. Founded in 1823, the cemetery encompasses 124 acres and 1.5 million burials, each bearing part of the story of Irish history. People from all walks of life, from famous politicians, freedom fighters and writers to the humble victims of the famine, the rising and the Air India bombing are buried here.

scrapbook page

Whelan family scrapbook.

I spoke with Mervyn Colville, Deputy CEO of Glasnevin Trust, about the family gatherings and the Whelan name. He told me they chose the 30 most popular, or common, surnames represented at Glasnevin and scheduled each for a different week so that people with that name could meet at Glasnevin and hold events. “It’s an open invitation,” Mervyn said.

There are about 10,000 Whelans buried in Glasnevin cemetery. “It’s a big Dublin name,” Mervyn told me; but there are no events planned as yet. He also told me the name comes originally from Kilkenny and Waterford in the 10th and 11th centuries.

“The Glasnevin museum was created to tell the stories of the people buried here,” Mervyn said. “So many stories. Some are sad and some are sorrowful.” Just like the history of Ireland, and the history of my own family, who left the country to find freedom from political oppression in the wilds of the Canadian bush.

And now I am reversing the journey.

  1. Posts in this series

    1. Going Home to Ireland
    2. The Journey from Ireland and Back
    3. On the Whelan Trail in Eastern Ontario
    4. In Search of My Ottawa Valley Irish Roots
    5. My link with Ireland: Nana
    6. Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part One 
    7. Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part Two

    Genealogical Resources for finding your family history in Ireland

The Gathering, Ireland

My grandmother, Nana, as a teenager in Canada.

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21 Responses to My link with Ireland: Nana

  1. Destination Infinity September 4, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    I think, my ancestry is basically German. That’s because the Aryan people came to India from Germany many millenniums ago. Ok, since it’s been a few thousand years, I don’t think my stand will be considered favorably if I go to Germany… 😛 That’s the reason I am happily settled here!

    Since I too possess that rebellious streak, I wonder if I too might have some Irish connection in the distant past?? Maybe 🙂

    Destination Infinity
    Destination Infinity recently posted..CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (Short Story)My Profile

  2. Sara GowithOh September 4, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    What a fantastic story Mariellen! I wish I could do such a review about my family tree and visit my relatives town!

  3. Mary Elizabeth Whelan Ravenis September 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    Hi Mariellen,
    This is so exciting to hear from you. My name is Mary Elizabeth Whelan Ravenis. My parents : Alan and Gertrude Whelan, My father was born in Pembrike Ontario to Michael and Hanna Whelan.
    Your Nana and her family Grandpa Alex Uncle Peter and your mom Barbara spent many Christmas Eve’s with my family. We would attend Mass at Blessed Sarament Catholic Church and then go to the Krafchick’s home for a celebration and late dinner.
    Your Nana was so nice and very beautiful. We also visited them at their home.
    I have two brothers Peter Michael ( deceased ) and Terence Alan. I was born June 20th 1936 and Married Joseph Vincent Ravenis Sept, 9 1961. We have 4 daughters and 13 grandchildren, and live in San Diego California. My brother lives in Burlington Ontario and has 6 children and 14 grandchildren. and 2 greats.
    Would love to hear from you.

    • Mariellen Ward September 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

      This is so exciting — it’s the first time I have written a blog that has connected me to a long-lost relative, though I am not entirely sure of the connection.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Four years of dreaming and doingMy Profile

  4. Linda September 8, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    I don´t have a family in Ireland, but by touching ground on this fab. island, I immediately felt like home. You will feel the same as people are just awesome over there and as you have Irish blood in your body. The Irish always make you feel like you are one of them.
    Have a blast during your journey. All the best!

  5. Martina Gallagher September 8, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Love it !!! Good luck at the Gathering and welcome to Ireland .

  6. Angela September 8, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    You will be very welcome to Ireland I hope you get to visit Longford, Castletownroche and Nenagh as well as Glasnevin cemetery! Enjoy your trip!

  7. deirdre crowley September 8, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    you already have a very deep connection with IRELAND, and I think if your heart and head are open to experiencing the best it has to give you on your journey , you will find some of what you are looking for.

  8. Jeanne Joinette (nee Whelan) September 9, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    Mariellen, I wish you all the best and look forward to hearing/reading all about your trip to Ireland.

  9. Hogga September 10, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    love finding out about my relatives
    Hogga recently posted..Seeing Montreal with Le St. MartinMy Profile

  10. Renuka September 16, 2013 at 9:46 am #

    Interesting to read about your Irish connection. Nice post!
    Renuka recently posted..You know you are in Sydney when…My Profile

  11. The Wanderfull Traveler September 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Very cool post! I love genealogy stories and how exciting for you that you get to do a sort of homecoming. As a Canadian I feel like we all have these feelings of longing to “return” to where our families once came from. I feel the same way about the Ukraine, England, Sweden and Norway. Traveling to these places can sometimes make you feel as close as ever to past family members and the past itself.
    I look forward to your posts and perhaps I’ll see you at TBEX!

    The Wanderfull Traveler recently posted..Sunday Pranzo Series #4: Grand Central Station Oyster Bar, NYCMy Profile

  12. Damian Murray September 18, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Well done a beautifully written piece and I really hope you find what you are looking for and have a great time in Ireland. I live in the UK but I was born in Ireland all my family are Irish – I too think you can pick up Irish traits through a bit of osmosis. I again really enjoyed your piece be sure to do a follow up.

    All the best

  13. Katie Shea Design October 2, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Enjoyed reading about your Nana!

    My roots are from Cork too and I can very much identify with all the characteristics you listed 🙂

    I invite you to read about my Nana also: Kathy Decosmo: Anna Banana My Nana


  14. Wade November 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    This is one of the cooler posts I think I’ve ever read! …also, my grandmother’s name was Nana…so you had me hooked from that point on. Awesome awesome post, Mariellen!!
    Wade recently posted..Rich Travel Blueprint: BelgiumMy Profile

  15. Cristina November 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    I love hearing stories of people retracing their family roots. Mariellen, I think you resemble your grandmother Nana soooo very much in that last photo. She’s stunning in that photo!
    Cristina recently posted..Giveaway: Building Education in AfricaMy Profile

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