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Irish- American Heritage Month and Ancestry


Do you know the history of your people? Growing up, both sets of grandparents loved to tell stories. At one point, my grandfather loved telling stories so much we bought a recorder so we could capture some of those memories. I wish I could remember all the stories today as I think about our family's history. 

All of our families hail from somewhere and I think its fascinating learning about the history of our families. 

March is Irish- American Heritage month and I'm glad to be able to claim Ireland as a part of my ancestry. 

While on my bucket list, I've never been there and I'm not quite sure what area my Dunn clan hails from. My mom tells me that two  sets of Dunn's immigrated to Maryland's Eastern Shore, so it can be confusing to track down the ancestry properly, especially because names often became Americanized over the years. 

A quick history lesson: Irish and Scot-Irish who immigrated to Maryland often settled in Baltimore. As expansion east, towards the ocean in the 1690's, Scot-Irish were prompted to move east to develop land for farming and agriculture rather than city life. The area, known as Somerset, housed Irish who worked intensive labor jobs for very little wages. Their lives were considered even lesser than slaves, as they held little meaning and little dollar value to the rich. 

Somerset eventually developed into smaller communities/ villages and counties as expansion occurred. My family grew up along the Nanticoke River in Wicomico County. Most of the area I grew up in had county and towns named after the Native Tribes originally in the area. 

I don't have the complete history of my family. Someone out there does and I would love to see it. I've always been passionate about travel and history, but genealogy is something I have never been into until I relook at the history of the areas I've grown up in or have lived in. 

One of my earliest memories is of my great- grandmother Sula Dunn. "Sula", shortened from Ursula, was born in 1885 on the eastern shore of Maryland. She died in 1885, about a year and half after I was born. My mother says I should not remember her, being that young, but having an almost 100 year old great- grandmother, who wore an eye patch, sat in a rocking chair, and definitely spoke with a dialect I didn't know (her Irish ancestry apparently came out as she got older) probably impacted me more than my parents realized. 

Sula's family lived in a town called Waltersville, which eventually turned into Bivalve, MD. For any who are really into their family's location, do a quick google search on the name of the town/ city. Bivalve derives from "two-valves" that oysters have.. which is intrinsic to the economic life of this farming community. 

The town, just off the Nanticoke River, was perfect for oyster harvesting and farming.  Oysters were sold for 30-40 cents a bushel.. a lot different than current Oyster price (which is up to around $50 or more now in my area.. yikes!).

Sula Dunn was from a strong Irish family. Her family worked hard, lived on what they made, and figured out how to make life work with little money. Most of the family either farmed, harvested oysters, or worked on the water in some format. In fact, that was the main economic life of that community. Living on the water, being Watermen, is a rough life. One has to be resilient, deal with whatever weather, catch, or issues are thrown at them, and has to be adaptable to ever changing tides (both in the water and in trading). The resiliency in my family has been passed down through generations, even to my sister and I. 

I've heard my mother describe her childhood in the same way. She will not say they were poor, but even by 1950's standards, they were definitely lower class. Growing up without electricity, running water, and living on a farm taught her how to save and scrimp by with what she had. The Bivalve/ Naticoke community is important to her because it surrounded her, caring for her and supporting her when she was young. Now, she still shows those same character traits to others, even if she doesn't live there. Family... and communities that act like family.. help each other when they struggle, when they grow, and when they are happy/ sad. 

The Irish and Scot-Irish families that were farmers and watermen off the Nanticoke River played an important role in the trade and creation of oystering in Maryland. Unfortunately, as commercialization took over, railroad industry made it easier to ship, oyster harvesting became difficult as supplies were depleted. Eventually regulations led to the industry's destruction, causing the economic growth of the area to fail. 

My family never made much money as Watermen and had to find other means of support once the oyster industry gradually stopped. Yet, they figured out how to make do, preserved, and found industries or careers to support them.

Learning about our family's history can be fun, can be difficult to process, and can help us learn more about "why the way we are". After all of this, I learned that my stubborn streak comes from having family that didn't give up and pushed on regardless of the set-backs they faced. 

Do you know your family's history? 


  1. My daughter and I have gotten interested in genealogy in recent years. It's so fascinating to learn about our family's history!


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