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Rosie O'Donnell uncovers her Kildare roots

A trip back into her family’s past for a TV show revealed that the comedian’s great-great-grandfather and family lived in Naas workhouse during the Famine.

Rosie O'Donnell (centre) pictured with Mario Corrigan, executive librarian of Newbridge Library, and Karel Kiely, who helped research her family's history.
Rosie O'Donnell (centre) pictured with Mario Corrigan, executive librarian of Newbridge Library, and Karel Kiely, who helped research her family's history.
Image: Mario Corrigan, Newbridge Library / The Kildare Nationalist

WITH A NAME like O’Donnell, it was clear that the US comedian Rosie O’Donnell had Irish heritage.

But what no-one knew was the emotional story behind her family’s emigration from Ireland and the rags-to-riches tale of hope it symbolised.

O’Donnell delved back into her family’s past on the TV show Who Do You Think You Are, where she was given the opportunity to find out more about her mother’s history.

While she knew that her father’s family were Irish, what she didn’t know was her mother – who died when O’Donnell was just 10 – had ties to the island.

Her search took her to Canada, where she found out that her mother’s grandfather had arrived in Montreal in 1855.

He and his family were originally from Rathmore, Co Kildare, but had lived in Naas workhouse for at least a year amongst the poorest of the poor during the Great Famine of Ireland.

Rosie flew to Ireland as part of her search, where she met with Mario Corrigan, executive librarian at Newbridge Library.

He and his team, James Durney and Karel Kiely, worked for months to uncover O’Donnell’s links to Kildare.

They spoke to the Kildare Nationalist newspaper this week about what it was like to meet the TV star and how finding her ancestors’ names in a Poor Law Union minute book was akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

“She was really nice and interested,” Corrigan told the paper. “The first time she found out about the workhouse was here in this room with me.”

He said she was “very emotional” to hear the Murtagh family’s story.

During the Famine, destitute and starving people were sent to workhouses, also known as poorhouses, which were run by the Poor Law Unions.

James Durney explained to the Kildare Nationalist that he had been given the name ‘Andrew Murtagh’ to search for.

He went through the Poor Law Union minute books where he discovered a note from a meeting on 28 June 1854, where a Mr Terry McDonald and Mr George Wolfe proposed that Andrew Murtagh of Rathmore, and his wife and four children, be sent “immediately” to Canada as emigrants.

Finding their names was “very rare – you could have 300 families in the workhouse at the time”, he pointed out.

Without the work of the local studies department in preserving these minute books, this link to Ireland would have disappeared.

An emotional O’Donnell said of the discovery:

I always had felt that my life was blessed and if the McDonald and Wolfe family had not sponsored Andrew and Anne [Murtagh], I would not be here…I would not be me. And that’s pretty intense to think about.

Watch Rosie O’Donnell’s trip to Newbridge below:

Read the full article in the print edition of this week’s Kildare Nationalist, which is available until Monday 18 July>

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