Around 1851, 15-year-old Patrick Farrelly left his home in County Cavan, Ireland, and embarked alone on a dangerous journey to the United States. It was a migration shared by millions of Irish during the “Great Hunger,” a devastating famine with origins not only in natural disaster but in centuries of British colonial oppression, one which would alter the American population.

More than a hundred years later, his teenage great-granddaughter looked at an old photograph of Farrelly and began her own journey – to discover what had happened to him. Lois Farley Shuford recounts her decadeslong search and the remarkable discoveries she made about her ancestors, and the times they lived in, in the absorbing memoir Finding Home: An Irish American Story (AnTobar Books, 2022). 

The Farley family (the Irish name was later “Americanized”) had few pieces of evidence of Patrick’s life – some letters to his daughter, his military pension records and a haunting photograph of Patrick as an old man.

From these fragments Farley Shuford followed a transatlantic trail to Ireland, and across the United States, using archival records, newspapers and most importantly, visits to sites and encounters with people to bring her family history to life. 

Evanston author Lois Farley Shuford researched her family’s history to write Finding Home: An Irish American Story about her ancestors Bridget and Patrick Farrelly, who came to the U.S. in the 1800s. Credit: AnTobar Books

The author deftly weaves together an account of her search with vividly rendered descriptions of key episodes in Farrelly’s life. The book takes us to rural Ireland, a country of great beauty and poverty, where 19th century tenant farmers remained shackled to the power of absentee landlords through centuries of British rule. When the potato crop failed for several years in the 1840s, British politicians callously left the Irish to starve, refusing them access to other food sources and even blaming them for the crisis. 

Like many desperate families, the Farrellys sent a family member to try his luck in America. Many died on the journey in what were called “coffin ships” for their appalling conditions.  

Patrick made it to Philadelphia. He enlisted in the Union army and found himself fighting in the Civil War, witnessing the horrific battles at Bull Run, Gaines’ Mill, Fredericksburg and Antietam.

After the war, he returned briefly to Ireland and married Bridget McKenna, who returned with him to the United States. They raised children, living in Philadelphia as well as New Haven and Farmington, Connecticut, where Patrick worked as a gardener. Eventually they went west to the new state of Nebraska, perhaps hoping to improve their lot by owning land. Instead they experienced a series of tragedies. 

From teaching to admissions to writing

I spoke with Farley Shuford, a longtime Evanston resident who raised her family in a 100-year-old house in town, about how she came to write Finding Home. She had a long and varied career before turning to writing after she retired.

After a stint teaching seventh grade at St. Zachary School in Des Plaines, she taught at and eventually became director of Reba Place Day Nursery, an Evanston early childhood education program that’s now known as Reba Early Learning Center.

She recalled, “After 15 years, during which I had breast cancer, I decided though I loved my job, I needed something new.”  She eventually became a full-time staff member at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, working as assistant director of graduate admissions and coordinator of the international graduate residency program. 

“It was great fun,” she said. During job-related trips to Dublin she pursued research on her Irish forebears. It was not until she retired in 2013 that she took all the pieces of writing and, with the help of the Off Campus Writers’ Workshop and a writing coach, turned it into a book. 

With the manuscript completed, Farley Shuford made the decision to self-publish. “If I had been 20 years younger,” she said, “I might have spent a year looking for a literary agent. I also considered submitting to a hybrid press like She Writes, but they had an almost two-year waiting list just to vet the manuscript. I wanted to get the book out.”

Modern parallels

Much of the book was written during the early years of the COVID-19 crisis. The parallels between the suffering of the Farrellys during the diphtheria epidemic of the 1880s in Nebraska, which took the lives of two of Patrick and Bridget’s children, and the pandemic were not lost on the author.

Credit: AnTobar Books

Then, as now, impoverished and marginalized communities suffered disproportionately because of their poor living conditions and lack of access to health care. Likewise, global crises continue to impel people to migrate in search of safety and a better life, challenging us to confront ongoing issues of inequity and injustice. 

Farley Shuford noted that many of the parishioners at her Evanston church, St. Nicholas, are emigrants from Mexico and Central America who are making new homes here and transforming the community.

Farley Shuford acknowledges that much about the past, and her Irish ancestors, remains unknown. “What I do know of Patrick, first, is that he was a survivor, and part of that was his ability to maintain a sense of perspective. 

“He survived unimaginable suffering, but he came out saying, in a letter he wrote to his daughter, ‘Prosperity does not try anybody. It takes adversity to do it. Notwithstanding that my path was a little rough betimes, it was not so bad as it was for thousands who were probably more deserving.’ 

“He still saw life as good. He never had wealth, he lived through a famine, the Civil War, and the deaths of his children and his wife. But he became a gardener – he chose life-giving work.” 

As for Bridget, her story is more tragic and shrouded in mystery. Farley Shuford’s family rarely spoke of her. Like many women of the 19th century, she is almost invisible in the historical record, except for the fact that she gave birth to six children, three of whom died before adulthood. 

Persistent searching finally led Farley Shuford to the discovery that Bridget suffered from mental illness, attempted suicide and was eventually institutionalized in Nebraska’s first mental asylum. Such experiences were stigmatized and frequently covered up with silence.

“In writing about Bridget, the best I could do was put myself in her shoes,” Farley Shuford said. “Life would have been terribly isolating for immigrant women in rural America. I tried to imagine – what would it have been like?”

A family connection?

Finding Home makes its writer part of the story; the search for her roots becomes for Farley Shuford a journey of self-discovery.

That turned out to be true for me as well: Reading the book, I found that Patrick and his family had settled in Columbus, Nebraska, shortly after the town’s founding – in the same decades that my own ancestors, three Carrig brothers, emigrated from Ireland and made the journey west to Columbus, where they settled for the next 150 years. Patrick was the gardener at the church where my father’s relatives worshipped. Could the families have known each other? 

After we had shared our amazement at these coincidences, Farley Shuford remarked, “It sounds trite, but we are all connected, we are one family. To try to walk in the path of your ancestors is something I recommend to everyone. Stand on the ground where they stood, however it may have changed.

“Learning about Patrick and Bridget, following their path, gives me a sense of legitimacy as a human being. It makes me feel part of the world. That was the best gift this book gave me.”

Maria Carrig

Maria Carrig is a former professor of English and theater who writes about local authors, culture and the arts.

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  1. I picked this book up because of a friend who had read it twice.
    My husband and I took this book on our winter road trips, reading it to each other while the other one drove. We found ourselves, more than once, in a parking lot reading to the end of a chapter before leaving. It’s a gripping story about this man’s family and all of his challenges, too many ending in tragedy including the untimely deaths of his wife and several children. Clearly he had a strength of character to be envied. In addition, because of the author’s painstaking research, we learned so much about the Civil War, its leaders, the soldiers as well as the civilians during that time. She tracked down information about his actual battalion allowing us a detailed look at the life of a Union soldier.
    Treat yourself to this immigrant’s family saga and appreciate the author’s thorough research that went into this wonderful story.

    1. Erica, thank you so much for your kind words – its means so much to me that others can resonate with this story and learn and appreciate the lives our ancestors led, and the lessons they leave for us. I am so glad you liked it!

  2. Lois Farley Shuford’s beautiful Finding Home is more than an Irish immigrant story.
    Yes, Shuford relates her family story. However, I think thoughtful readers of all ages and backgrounds can relate to the experiences of those in their own families who preceded them. And grow from the experience. I recommend it!

  3. I read this book and loved it. I want Ms. Farley Shuford to know that it lit the desire in me to know more about my own Irish relatives. It led me to a flurry of research (and a quick discovery of why she focused mostly on her great grandfather-it quickly gets overwhelming the farther you back!) What a invaluable gift indeed to feel that connectedness.