THEY came from nearly every corner of the world, from Hawaii, from Colorado, from New Zealand and from Australia, from South Africa via Bristol, from Italy and from all over Ireland.
They came seeking answers, looking for links and long-lost cousins. They came to find out who they are and they found friendship, friendliness, fun and an abundance of knowledge.
They also found the music of their homeland.
This was the Harnett International Reunion and they had a ball.
“I am not surprised at the level of interest,” said James Harnett from Abbeyfeale, one of the main driving forces behind the four-day event. “The 2012 event opened my eyes.”
Then, he explained, they had organised a Harnett gathering “ in a time of recession to try and get a bit of business into Abbeyfeale for the weekend.”
“What happened was that people from outside the area heard about it and turned up, expecting genealogy. Then a demand came from abroad since to put on an international gathering.”
That demand was met last weekend when up to 200 people took part in a full programme of talks, genealogy consultations, visits, tours, a concert and a Gala Banquet.
“We have been working since last August to deliver this,” Mr Harnett said. But he credited Will Harnett from Chicago with providing important seed capital for the idea. That particular Harnett passed through Abbeyfeale a few years ago and left €40 in an envelope for James as his investment in an international union. Unfortunately, James added, he was unable to make the weekend due to a death in his wife’s family but his two sisters were enthusiastic participants.
Ger Greaney from Ardagh was one of four genealogists who provided free consultations all through what proved to be a very busy Friday with dozens of people passing through their hands.
“I have never seen such a wide spread,” he admitted. Some came with little or no back information, perhaps a birth-certificate of a grandfather but no more. But thanks to digitisation and the internet, Ger and the team had access to a wide range of records: Irish birth records from 1864 to 1917, Deaths from 1864 to 1964 and Marriages from 1864 to 1937. They also turned to the census records of 1901 and 1911, to Land Registry records, shipping records and Wills and Testaments in trying to track down past relatives and begin to trace a family tree. A list, compiled by Ger Greaney, of thousands from Limerick who were in the old IRA was also useful as were old newspapers such as the Freeman’s Journal and the Limerick Chronicle.
In genealogy, Ger has discovered, every family has a skeleton or two and reported court cases can bring this to light.
The talks which also took place throughout Friday were an additional help to those tracing relatives such as Michael McNamara from Ardnacrusha. “I’m trying to find my Harnett relatives,” he said, fresh from a talk by Dr Kathy Harnett Sheehan from the US on “How DNA can help you find your Harnett ancestors”.
Rebecca Davis, also from the US, gave a talk on how to use the Registry of Deaths to help build up the family tree. “It can take a little work,” she remarked.
Earlier in the day, Paul McLoughlin, New York and Colorado spoke about the Harnetts in America. His particular interest, he told the Limerick Leader, is doing research on the McSweeny Chalice, believed to date from 1640 and now in the possession of the Archdiocese of New York.
“It is the oldest chalice in the Archdiocese,” Mr McLoughlin said. His great-great-great grandmother was Honoria Harnett McSweeny and the chalice had been passed down through the priests in the McSweeny line. “It was brought over in 1896 from the McSweeny priests in Cork to their cousins in New York and given to the archdiocese on the centenary in 1908. That centenary celebration was the high point of the influence of Irish prelates.”
Peter Harnett and his wife Penelope came from Bristol for the occasion and contributed hugely to the event. Penelope delivered a talk on the Harnetts of India and England, which featured Peter’s grandfather, William Faulkner Harnett who trained as an engineer in Glasgow before heading to India.
Peter himself was born in South Africa. “We came to Listowel a year ago because the family had called their houses Listowel both in Capetown and in England,” he explained. “We stayed in Listowel and somebody recommended we talk to James, who took us around the cemetery.” Later on Friday, Peter was part of the entertainment at a mighty concert in Tournafulla where he played guitar and where Newcastle West tenor Brian Harnett was the headline act, along with plenty of local traditional music talent.
The weekend programme also took in a visit to Newcastle West and Fuller’s Folly, built in 1859 by William Fuller Harnett in 1859 where one of his descendants addressed the group. They also visited Desmond Castle and stopped at the sculptor of poet Michael Hartnett in the Square before moving on to the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum and coming home through Athea.
On Saturday night there was a Gala Banquet in the Devon Inn Hotel, with a sumptuous dinner, wine, live music, dancing and a piece of the Harnett Reunion Cake and on Sunday morning, the Harnetts set off on a tour of sites around Abbeyfeale connected with the family, including the monument to Patrick Harnett shot by the Black and Tans in 1920. They also visited the old graveyard in the Square where a Harnett tomb goes back to the early 1700s. The weekend finished with Mass in Duagh.
To mark the event, the organisers also published a special 88-page magazine with information and articles on the Harnett clan and some local history and commissioned t-shirts, notebooks, keyrings and other memorabilia which could be bought throughout the weekend.
This was not a vanity project or elitist, James Harnett stressed, although he admitted to coming across the attitude: “Who do they think they are?”
“Every family has a history,” he pointed out, and arguing that this is something that other families could do. ‘
“The heart has been ripped out of rural Ireland in some respects. Small farms and small businesses have gone. Post offices and garda stations have closed,” he explained.” We have lost a lot. But we still have a lot to give. People want to come back and visit.”
In his book, such gatherings could be aimed at three groupings of people: those born reared and living in West Limerick; those who have just emigrated and those who have never been here before.”
“This is something that other clans could do. It could be rolled out for other families,” he pointed out.” Look at all the people involved and the buzz it has created.”