52 weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Genealogy Friends

It’s quite a while since I wrote about any of Amy Coffin’s 52 weeks of Abundant Genealogy topics but this week’s motivated me to re-awaken my efforts.

The topic for Week 35 in the series is Genealogy Friends. Amy says “Genealogy friends are wonderful people. Don’t you agree? Tell us about a genealogy friend in your life. How did you meet? Do you share any common ancestors or research interests?

Who would not agree that our genealogy friends are great people? But they’re also a wonderful support to each of us in our on-going research. The Geneabloggers community is a perfect example of how a group of virtual friends can make such a difference to our enjoyment of family history.

However today I want to wind the clock back a couple of decades. Back in those olden pre-internet days, we made contact with fellow genealogists at family history societies where we’d all be ensconced every weekend, and some evenings, pursuing our research leads and learning through tailored classes. We advertised our “Wanted” lists in the society’s magazine and if we were lucky someone eventually replied by snail mail. These days we blog and email and can make connections in minutes, if we’re lucky.

I got lucky with two of my family branches way back in those times and there are two friends who take equal billing. Both responded to my research interests which included the surnames Gavin and Sherry. One lady, Betty, lived in Sydney but was originally from Brisbane, the other, Carmel, lived in Los Angeles and was also from Queensland. Both were my mother’s contemporaries and it later transpired that they had all attended the same Catholic girls school in Brisbane of which I was also a past pupil. How strange a set of coincidences is that?

Back and forth our snail mail letters travelled as we untangled the links between families.  We collaborated on certificates, sharing the costs and swapping clues and hypotheses.

Betty and the Sherry/McSharry/McSherry family

Betty quickly enlightened me on why I wasn’t finding the McSherry family in Queensland’s migration records: they had arrived under their Irish name, Sherry, and the parents (James and Bridget) and most of the children, nearly all adults, had then changed their surname to McSharry supposedly to grab on to the coat-tails of Queensland’s famous railway company McSharry and O’Rourke.

My ancestral line, Peter the eldest son of this family, arrived a year later with his wife and two small children, one of whom was my grandfather James Joseph. The tricky bit was that this family’s surname became McSherry so Betty’s husband and my mother were 2nd cousins, but with different surnames –McSharry and McSherry.  No wonder I was confused as a novice researcher.

Betty and I wrote and phoned and even had a couple of meetings in Brisbane and Sydney, and we kept pursuing the elusive James Sherry aka McSharry, who disappeared off the face of the earth. Betty was an experienced researcher but at no point did we manage to find what happened to James though Betty’s husband had a theory or two. To this day the mystery remains unresolved.

We did manage to pin down some of the mysteries before Betty had a severe stroke, which completely incapacitated her. It was a tragic loss of a bright, vivacious and intelligent woman caught in a no-man’s-land of brain damage.

Carmel and the Gavin/Gavan family

Carmel lived in Los Angeles and it transpired that she had been part of an important research team working on the Rh negative factor when it was first discovered. Not that she told me that – imagine my surprise when I read about it in the history of our alma mater.

As our typed snail mail correspondence criss-crossed the Pacific we worked out that we were actually researching two different Gavin families.  However both families and their offshoots lived on the Darling Downs near Dalby for long periods and shared some names. Her Gavins came from Galway while mine came from Kildare and there was no connection, but of course we couldn’t just walk away from the intriguing links. I would say there’s no doubt at all that the two sets of families knew each other in those early pioneering days. And of course as I collected data on my own I also collected info on Carmel’s lot. Imagine my excitement when at Expo 88 I found the record of her great-uncle’s convict record newly available through the Irish exhibition. She shared certificates that turned out to be for my lot, I sent photographs of the gravestones she had erected on StradbrokeIsland for her great-grandparents. Along the way we broke down a few myths which would have caused her ancestors to roll in their graves.  They would however be astonished to know what amazingly clever and successful descendants they had.

It was Carmel who started me on the habit of writing narratives of my families even as I researched them, something I continue to this day.

Carmel and I, and my youngest daughter, managed to meet in Los Angeles not long before she died of cancer. It was so sad to see her struggling with her illness yet determined to meet me in her home and have her husband Larry show us around LA.

 Vale Betty McSharry and Carmel Montgomery, thank you for the wonderful collaboration and friendship we shared. I still think of you both often and miss you. What fun we’d have had together in the internet era.