Finding My Roots In Ireland: Family Genealogy Road Trip

Genealogy in Ireland
Family Genealogy Trip in Ireland
Glengarriff, Ireland

It only took me 34 years to visit my family’s ancestral homeland of Ireland. Joined by my parents & sister, we traveled to the Emerald Isle to research our history.

Like most Americans, I’m a mutt. My family immigrated to the United States from Ireland, Poland, Germany and England. Mostly from Ireland though — including my paternal grandmother.

Concentrating on the side of the family with the most recent links to Ireland, we decided to visit the area where my grandmother was born. A small south-western coastal village called Glengarriff in County Cork.

I was especially excited for this journey, as it was the first time that my family members were going to travel with me internationally, and years since we’d traveled together for any kind of road trip. Woohoo!

O'Neils Bar Dublin
Guinness For Breakfast
Dublin Sights
Dublin Castle

Arriving In Dublin

The first order of business after renting a car at the airport was driving to Dublin and grabbing a large Irish breakfast with a few pints of Guinness at O’Neil’s Bar & Restaurant. At 10am of course. We were off to a good start.

Hey, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in Ireland?

We spent the rest of the day exploring Dublin by bus and on foot. Everyone was running on little sleep due to the intercontinental flight the night before, so our activities were kept to a minimum.

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle was originally built as a defensive structure for the city of Dublin, later serving as residence for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who governed for the King of England. These days it’s used for presidential inaugurations and state functions.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is Ireland’s largest church, founded back in 1191. Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) was once the dean, and is currently buried here. Dublin actually has two cathedrals belonging to the Church of Ireland, the other being Christ Church Cathedral.

Teeling Whiskey Distillery

Most people who visit Dublin go to the Jameson Distillery, which is just a showroom for tourists. The only working Irish Whiskey distillery in Dublin is called Teeling. We watched the whiskey process from start to finish and tasted the difference between single grain, single malt, and age.

READ MORE: 20 Fun Things To Do In Dublin

Cashel Castle Ireland
Rock of Cashel
Colmans Cathedral
Port Town of Cobh

Irish Genealogy Road Trip

Now that we’d experienced a taste of Dublin, it was time to embark on the core mission of this trip. Searching for any information we could find about my grandmother’s life in Ireland before she sailed to Boston in 1930.

Prior to traveling to Ireland, my sister Lindsay had done some research on which helped us track down basic United States immigration records for my grandmother.

To expand on those, we also enlisted the services of Eneclann, a genealogy research company. They provided a detailed report based on Irish census information with all kinds of interesting facts we’d never known before!

Like that we came from a family of fishermen and farmers.

Armed with this new knowledge we rented a car and began driving southwest across Ireland on the M8 through the town of Cashel and the city of Cork stopping at famous landmarks along the way.

One such landmark is the port town of Cobh, formerly Queenstown, where 2.5 million of the six million Irish people who emigrated to North America left from. Including my grandmother in 1930!

READ MORE: How I Claimed Irish Citizenship By Descent

Glengarriff, Ireland
Carraig Dubh House
Paudie & Kathleen Connolly

Glengarriff Village

Arriving in Glengarriff after navigating some of Ireland’s notoriously narrow roads, we checked into a quaint local bed & breakfast called Carraig Dubh House perched on a hillside overlooking the town. It was here we met the cheery owners Paudie & Kathleen.

They would be the key to unlocking the mysteries of our quest.

We explained that we were in Glengarriff as part of a genealogy trip, and asked if they might remember my grandmother or her family. Of course they did! In a small town of 800 people, everyone knows everyone.

My aunt had given us an old postcard of Glengarriff from when she visited a while back. It was said to feature the McCarthy family home that my grandmother grew up in.

Glengarriff Ireland
Old Postcard of My Grandmother’s House
Ellen's Rock Glengarriff
We Found It!

Searching For The House

Our hosts took one look at the postcard and confirmed our suspicions. Yes that’s where she grew up, and it still exists! In fact it’s just down the road…

The traditional 3-room Irish home made of stone is located at a place called Ellen’s Rock, a famous spot for photos when Glengarriff was a popular tourist attraction and ocean cruise destination in the early part of the century.

We jumped in the car and headed over to see it for ourselves.

Sitting on the edge of Bantry Bay, the building has seen better days yet was still standing. Turns out it’s owned by my father’s cousin Teddy, a long-lost family member none of us had ever met before.

Our next mission? Track down Teddy and buy him a beer!

Everything seemed to be falling into place perfectly.

Ireland Family Trip
My Dad Meets His Cousin Teddy
Garnish Island Ireland
Garnish Island Gardens

Meeting With Relatives

Teddy keeps the McCarthy family tradition of fishing and sailing alive as a boat captain for the Harbour Queen Ferry. They take tourists out on fishing trips and ferry rides to the beautiful Garnish Island Gardens.

We went down to the docks, but unfortunately just missed him, so we decided to ride the ferry out to Garnish Island and explore the gardens. Motoring past happy seals sunbathing on rocks.

Concluding the island excursion, we surprised Teddy with an unexpected family visit. He seemed a bit taken aback, and not sure how to respond. Who are these strangers from the United States claiming to be relatives?

We made plans to meet later that evening at The Cottage Bar, a favorite local watering hole in town. Hopefully we would all get to know each other a bit better over a few pints of Guinness.

Glengarriff Church
Sacred Heart Church in Glengarriff
Glengarriff Cemetery
McCarthy Family Plot

Learning Family History

Teddy brought his wife Abigail to join us at the bar. Luckily she acted as a translator too, his thick Irish accent difficult for us Yankees to understand! We learned that Teddy likes to work on old boats, just as my father does.

My great grandfather Timothy was apparently a fisherman & boatman. He boasted the most groomed mustache in town, and was always seen wearing his favorite bright white pea cap.

My sister Lindsay apparently looks just like Teddy’s daughter Marie.

One mystery we never solved is why my grandmother sailed from Ireland to the United States on her own when she was only 17 years old. Everyone we spoke with seemed to remember her siblings, but almost nothing about her.

The town church and local cemetery was our next stop, paying respect at my great grandfather’s grave and chatting with the local priest. My grandmother’s birth was never registered in official county documents, but we did have her baptismal record from the church.

Father Michael Moynihan explained to us over coffee that this was common in those days, as many people from the countryside didn’t bother to travel to the city to register their children so soon after birth, and often forgot to later.

Sheep in Ireland
Irish Traffic Jam
Ireland Road Trip
Learning to Drive on the Right
Exploring Ireland
Towering Cliffs of Moher

Wild Atlantic Way

Overwhelmed with all that we had learned in just a few days, it was time to say our goodbyes and continue our Irish road trip up the West coast along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The complete route stretches 2,500km (1553 miles), however we were driving the southern section up through Dingle and on to Galway before heading back across the country to the capital. I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but the highlights for me were Slea Head Drive and the Cliffs of Moher.

Driving in Ireland can take some getting used to! The back roads are super narrow with no shoulder to pull off on, locals drive fast, curves are sharp, and sheep are plentiful.

But by the 3rd or 4th day I started to get the hang of it. A good trick is to buy the “learner” sticker sold at gas stations so locals don’t get pissed at your incompetence on their roads.

Overall I’d say our Irish genealogy road trip was a success. Together we teamed up to track down relatives, learn about our heritage, and experience a little Irish culture, food, drink, and hospitality.

Ireland’s coastal landscapes are breathtaking to see in person. It was a memorable journey, and I’m happy I experienced it with my family. ★

Travel Planning Resources For Ireland

Packing Guide

Check out my travel gear guide to help you start packing for your trip. Pick up a travel backpack, camera gear, and other useful travel accessories.

Book Your Flight

Find cheap flights on Skyscanner. This is my favorite search engine to find deals on airlines. Also make sure to read how I find the cheapest flights.

Rent A Car

Discover Cars is a great site for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search both local & international rental companies.

Book Accommodation is my favorite hotel search engine. Or rent apartments from locals on Airbnb. Read more about how I book cheap hotels online.

Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Ireland

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I hope you enjoyed my story on finding my roots in Ireland! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:

Have you ever been on a family genealogy trip before? Do you want to? Drop me a message in the comments below!



Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 10 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
Matthew Karsten
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Comments (44)

  1. Hi there from a fellow Irish lass. I enjoyed reading your story about your family traveling through Ireland. Currently, my brother and I are researching our family roots too.
    He’s a real pro and started 35 years ago doing it the old fashion way. The library and corresponding with reliable people from our area around Powerstown and Mayo. We signed up with Ancestry and did the DNA test.
    We are so happy to have found relatives from our childhood and many past generations, as well. We share our interest and together research using our own computer. We have found relatives going back to the early 1700’s.
    Thanks for your entertaining story. We enjoyed it very much.
    Our relatives came over to Chicago in the mid 1800 and lived in Bridgeport. Proud of our family history and how they struggled to make our lives better!

  2. This is a truly amazing post – so enjoyable and interesting to read. (I wrote a post myself a few weeks ago on my few days in Ireland, but yours make mine look like it’s been written by a kindergarten kid!) Matt, You were my initial inspiration to start a travelblog and I always look forward to your newsletters. Keep them coming :-)

  3. What a cool trip to take! I’m an avid reader of your blog, and one of the things that I think sets it apart from a lot of other travel blogs is your stunning photography. The photos are gorgeous, and one of my favorite parts about reading each post! You probably spend a good chunk of time setting up and taking cool photos, and I was wondering how a family trip impacted that. Did you find you had less time to take pictures or did everything work out like usual? I’d love to hear back. Thanks for all the work you put into your travel blog, I enjoy reading it so much!

    • Hi Eileen, great question. The photography aspect definitely changes things when traveling with other people. Waking up early to drive to special locations for the best light (or fewer tourists) for example.

      I didn’t want to completely inconvenience my family with this stuff, so I tried to relax a bit and treat the trip more like a vacation, but they also got a “behind the scenes” look at how I work, and how much work is really involved. I think they enjoyed it!

  4. What a great idea. Nice read and sweet pics. Took this trip at the end of May. Scenery through the Dingle Peninsula and Ring of Kerry was jaw-dropping. Never felt so small. Keep up the good work with this blog.

  5. This story brought me to the verge of tears. You are so lucky to have this opportunity. I learned that people are innately good and respond to goodness with goodness. A smile goes a long way. Great story and the pictures of those smiles is just inspiring for all of us to someday venture into the ancestral realm!

  6. Hey Matt,

    Nice Adventure!

    I belong to a small fishing village by the Arabian Sea too… Gorai.
    You could look it up.



  7. Thanks for the wonderful blog, Matt! I loved reading about your adventures with the fam and seeing the great pictures! I am so impressed with how much you were able to find out about family! I had visited many of those place but certainly not all. TERRIFIC! ?

  8. It’s always great to read about someone learning the Irish ways. I love a morning Guinness, but it only seems to be something I do when in Ireland – odd really. Great post!

  9. Never thought of such a wonderful trip with family. What a lovely story it was Matt. Come to India I can help you to drive in the right

  10. Wow, I’ve never thought about it. It would be interesting to do such thing in China to know the line from my mom :D

    Anyway, thanks for sharing beautiful photos of Ireland. I know about Ireland and want to visit it someday since I became The Corrs’ fan lolss …

  11. That’s was really a damn cool idea of visiting the ancestral homeland, that too by road with the family.Lovely experience shared, feels like me plan for a destination by road. Since years even myself have not been traveled with my family.That was truly inspirational kinda off journey Mathew.
    thanks for sharing the experience through out your journey.

  12. I was smiling the whole time when I was reading this. Just so happy that you were able to come back to your ancestor’s place and met long lost relatives! Plus, Ireland is such a beautiful and well-preserved place. I could stare at these pictures for forever.

  13. Guiness for breakfast – way to go! I love Ireland, so much history and lovely people too. Have an adventurous 2016!

  14. Yes I went in August and met a couple 2nd or 3rd cousins. I went to the family farm that my great grandfather built and where my grandfather was born. I never knew my Grandfather, he had died before I was born, but the similarities in looks and personalities of his brothers grandchildren to my father was fascinating. I need to go back and do more research as no one knows beyond my great grandfather, not even if he had siblings. But Ireland is amazing and it was difficult to go back to the USA.

    • Hi Peggy, You and I share the same last name and I wonder if we’re somehow related. My father was born in Summit, New Jersey to Robert J. Muldowney. His mother Ruth and brother Bob moved to Queens after their father died in his 40s.
      Last night, an Irish born friend encouraged me to apply for an Irish passport as my maternal grandmother was born in Kinsale and raised in Cork. She came to Boston on her own in the 1920s eventually settling in New Jersey after traveling back home to Ireland a number of times. Her name was Nora Cavan.
      My father’s family came from County Mayo. We don’t know much about his side of the family. Although I remember, on one of our trips to Ireland seeing a horse trailer with the name Muldowney on the side.
      I’d love to hear about your travels to Ireland. Take care, Anne

  15. What a lovely journey, it is wonderful that you could find your grandmother’s home, so many of them have been knocked down over the years.

  16. You are damn lucky to have found whats missing in you. thank you for sharing your experience, the journey to you destiny by pictures. its really nice.
    Marry X’mas and happy new year

  17. This is such a cool trip idea. Being a Luna, it’s been difficult to trace our roots back as it’s such a common word in so many different Latin-based languages, but I love this idea for a research trip!

    • Ahhhh, yeah common names are tougher to trace. Apparently many Irish census records were destroyed in a 1922 fire, we were lucky that ours weren’t part of that.

  18. Great story, I know the feeling I help people visit their ancestral homelands and make contacts in their hometowns. We are going to northern Ireland in July 2016.

  19. Cool. I plan to do the same thing. My Dad’s family comes from West Meath in Ireland, and I want to do what you did someday. Been researching on Ancestry, but really want to go there. Glad you made the journey. Looks like you had a blast.

  20. What a meaningful travel experience! Ireland looks magical, but it is even more special when you are so deeply connected. I also went to South Korea twice before moving there for three years when I reunited with my birth parents. They took me to the house where I was born in a small village and my grandparents’ (and their parents and their parents!) grave. I didn’t know anything about my own parents for 24 years, so seeing this much was indescribable. I recommend everyone to travel to travel their roots!

  21. My sister went through the trouble of researching our family roots years ago. I know my father is from Viterbo (Lazio) but I had no idea most of his family were from other regions in Italy. I have never actually gone to search for the places though. I will, one day!

  22. Glad you got to experience all that Ireland has to offer, Matt. No place on earth like it! I backpacked through Ireland and fell in love with Dingle, myself. A year later I moved there! Ireland is just one of those magical places that welcomes you in. It was a tough day when I had to move back state side. Will treasure those memories forever!

  23. As an Irishman, it never ceases to amaze me how those ‘Irish traffic jam’ images always make an appearance on blogs like this. Glad you enjoyed your trip. Don’t wait so long to return.

  24. Matthew, this story gave my goosebumps and it made me smile!
    I’m so glad you found what you were looking for and your family looks lovely. I’m off to Ireland myself in 2016 – not to trace any family though. But after several years of living in the UK I think it’s about time.
    I love how you have a picture of the postcard and then actually found that same house.

  25. Great post! Been following you on snapchat, it’s making me really want to go to Mexico! Keep up the awesome work, it’s very inspiring!

  26. And WE were so blessed to be able to experience it all with you!! I loved observing your creative process in person! Thanks, Matt!!