Each year across Canada high school tweens are tasked by their English teachers to research, write and present a personal essay on the history of their family. I was in Grade 10 when I found myself interviewing grandparents about our family roots which led me to rummaging through old boxes in their basement in search of a family tree, coat of arms and vintage portraits that seemed to smile back at me.
Research would reveal that I’m a rather Wonder Bread Canadian with roots in France, England, Ireland and Scotland. My mother’s side of the family has always interested me the most as we Virtue’s share an epic name. I announced to my class that my Virtue clan originally emigrated from Enniskillen Ireland to settle in Enniskillen Ontario. The rest of the story seemed to sit in limbo.
This past May I found myself staring across downtown Belfast from a suite at the Fitzwilliam Hotel, rain droplets crawling across my window. I had the following day free with no plans set in stone other than spending it with my old friend Lorna, a bubbly Northern Irish native. I was trying to piece together a last minute plan when a light bulb burst over my brow. I immediately ran to my computer, shot off a few emails and the following morning found myself embarking on a spontaneous road trip in Search of Virtue.
Clutching a coffee at the crack of dawn we drove westbound on the highway as the pitter patter of rain washed itself over Holstein cow dotted farmland. Our first stop on the road to Enniskillen would be The Ulster American Folk Park, the perfect place to start your genealogical adventure. This open-air pioneer village brings the past to life by allowing guests to immerse themselves in the story of Irish emigration. The adventure starts with a stroll through thatched homesteads of Ulster featuring weaver’s cottage, vestry, old schoolhouse and forge. After exploring an early Irish way of life visitors hop on board a full scale emigrant sailing ship which leads to the log cabins of the American Frontier. The stroll offers a wonderful source of inspiration and mediation.
Just across the entrance of the park sits The Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, which I was delighted to happen upon. Their reference only collection contains material about historic and contemporary immigration and is particularly strong in relation to Irish and North American history. Most interesting are the Ship Passenger Lists, which allow North Americans with Irish ancestry to trace back the very vessel their family sailed over the Atlantic. I spent approximately thirty minutes with a librarian here, sitting in front of a screen in search of Virtue. Ten documents were revealed and my heart skipped a beat when I rolled through a hefty doc entitled Lists of Convicts and Vagabonds. Were my family drifters, thieves, murderers? One document revealed a connection to the head of the family, a letter written on December 5th 1889 by M.E. Ling from Detroit who mentions Robert Virtue in relation to a lawsuit.
An hour later we arrived at Enniskillen Castle where I met with local genealogical expert Frank McHugh who volunteers his time at the Fermanagh Genealogy Centre located on the museums 2nd floor. I was amazed at how in mere minutes Mr. McHugh was able to pull up a history of the Virtue’s which had yet to be discovered by my family back home. He located the church birth records for Robert and Philina Virtue’s eleven children who were registered at St. Mary’s Ardess, located just a short drive up the road between Kesh and Lack. Each child’s record was also marked as residing in Stranadarriff, a small plot of farmland north of Lack where Robert Virtue and his family lived. Before running out the door Frank marked our map “between two rivers and north of a wee bridge.”
We hopped back in the car, zig-zagging through rural farmland before slowly turning onto a dirt road. I could see St. Mary’s at the end of a tunnel of trees and couldn’t help but feel giddy in my seat. It’s hard to explain the special sensation one gets when strolling through a one thousand year old church cemetery where your distant relatives once came for communion. After exploring the church grounds we rolled back onto the gravel road, past grazing sheep and over the rumble of river before arriving at the top of a hill overlooking Stranadarriff. The sun was shining as I rested my chin on a fencepost, trying to imagine Robert Virtue and his children working the fields below. On the drive back to Belfast I flashed a smile, overwhelmed by a burst of happiness that can only be described as finding Home Sweet Home.
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