Michigan attorneys celebrate their Irish roots

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It’s Easy Being Green: When Irish eyes are Smilin’

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

On a visit to Ireland, Tom O’Brien’s relatives took him to a graveyard where, with the help of a genealogist, he found the gravestone of the first O’Brien in his family buried there, born in 1700.

It was an exciting discovery for the Miller Canfield attorney, whose family still owns a sesquicentennial farm in Northfield that has been in the family name for 178 years.

“My father’s family settled in Washtenaw County before [Michigan] became a state,” says O’Brien, who inherited a passion for genealogy from his father, Judge Francis O’Brien, who asked relatives about family history, then assembled vital statistics such as births, baptisms, marriages, deaths.

He accessed census reports and sent for war records, and communicated with the National Archives to obtain passenger lists with departure and arrival dates. O’Brien has written for additional military records, and has used search engines such as Genealogy or Ancestry.com, and city directories. 

“Finding a very knowledgeable historian and genealogist in East Cork County really made a difference,” he says. “There is a DNA project involving the O’Brien clan worldwide that is getting some traction. Who knows, maybe I will find some more distant relatives.”

O’Brien’s great-grandfather, Michael O’Brien, lived on a farm in County Cork. Since an older brother would inherit “Garrananassig” — Gaelic for “garden of the well” — Michael left for America. Arriving in New York in 1835, he lived in Boston before coming to Michigan — at that time considered “the West” — and by 1837, had acquired land in Northfield Township. 

“When the Michigan territory was being settled, many Irish immigrants came to Detroit through the Erie Canal, attracted by self-government, affordable land, freedom of religion and the prospect of a better life,” notes O’Brien, a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and a member of the Incorporated Society of Irish-American Lawyers (ISIAL).

In 1845, Michael O’Brien enlisted in the U.S. Army, fought in the Mexican/American War, and in 1847 was wounded in the Battle of Churubusco outside Mexico City.

“That battle pitted Irish-Americans, like my great-grandfather, who fought for their new country, against Irish who had defected from the American Army to fight on behalf of Mexico,” O’Brien says. 

The O’Briens were fortunate in tracing their Irish roots.

“Michael wrote to his brother John in Ballycotton and the address was passed down for generations,” O’Brien says.

On a trip to Ireland in the 1960s, O’Brien’s parents told the story to a representative of the Irish Legislative Assembly, who made inquiries – and Francis later received a letter from a direct descendant of John. 

“We’ve become close to that family, visited them in Ireland many times, and their daughter, Brid, lived with us one summer in college,” O’Brien says. 

Many O’Brien descendants live in Cork County near the fishing port of Ballycotton, where last summer’s reunion drew more than 150 people  from the U.S., Australia and Switzerland.

Another ISIAL member and former president, Judge Michael Riordan from the Michigan Court of Appeals in Detroit, has more recent roots. A first-generation Irish-American, his parents hailed from farming and fishing families on the “Ring of Kerry” in southwestern Ireland.

His mother, one of seven children, came from Rossmore Island on the Kenmare River, outside the village of Sneem. His father, one of 16 children, was from a farm outside the village of Glenbeigh, overlooking Rossbeigh Strand on Dingle Bay.

After World War II, Riordan’s mother followed relatives to the Bronx and worked as a domestic, before becoming housekeeper/cook for her uncle, Fr. Patrick J. O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Detroit — and founder of the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1956.

Riordan’s father lived with relatives in Binghamton, N.Y., before following siblings to the Bronx, where he met his future wife at a Kerry football dance at the Tuxedo Ballroom. 

“After working for the gas company in Chicago for a year, he moved to Detroit and married my mother,” Riordan says. “He worked for Michigan Consolidated Gas’ street department, with many other Irish immigrants, and did side jobs. My mother stayed at home and raised our family of five.”

With several cousins in Ireland, Riordan has visited many times, most recently in 2011 with his children and wife, Meghan Kennedy Riordan, an attorney with roots in County Cork.   

Joseph Patrick McGill, president-elect of ISIAL, treasurer of the Michigan Irish American Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Gaelic League, is the youngest of 11 children, the seventh son, born on the seventh of March, and named after his maternal grandfather and St. Patrick.

McGill traces his roots back to great-great-great grandparents, much of the information handed down by word of mouth as well as through researching U.S. National Archives and non-U.S. based records.

Some of those Irish ancestors were ship builders in Belfast who came to America seeking better opportunities. While many entered North America through Canada, more immediate ancestors came to Detroit via Cleveland and Chicago.

They came primarily from the south of Ireland, and one branch, originating in the Belfast area, died out in the mid-1980s. 

“My parents traveled to Ireland to settle the estate and recover various artifacts from the farm which were gifted to my 11 brothers and sisters,” McGill says.

McGill also has multiple family items ranging from photographs to furniture.  A particularly favorite item now belongs to his son, William Henry McGill, III, named after his grandfather, Dr. William H.
McGill and his great-great-grandfather, William H. McGill, a Civil War veteran who worked in the newspaper business as a typesetter and who on retirement received a set of tools engraved with his signature. 

“My son has what’s left of that tool set, representing a direct link to his namesake,” McGill says.

While McGill no longer has relatives in Ireland, he has Scots-Irish relatives in Kirkintilloch, Scotland, near Glasgow, who emigrated during the Great Famine.

McGill and his wife Lauren visited Ireland in November of 2002, and got engaged at Kilkea Castle in Kildare on her birthday. 

“We later married on New Year’s Eve, 2003 — an Irish tradition — including 43 members of the immediate families in the wedding party. Not to leave out the bitter from the sweet, my father passed away just two days later. His lasting gift to us was the struggle he endured clinging to life until after our wedding — but at least everyone was in town for the funeral!”

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