Elizabeth Keane

Taking research personally

KeaneOne goal in picking a topic for my senior honors thesis was to combine an issue of personal relevance with a close study of a writer’s works, biography, and the environment that surrounded him or her while writing. I asked some of my family members about existing research on our Irish roots, and my grandfather told me that his father emigrated from Inisheer, the smallest of Ireland's Aran Islands, around 1900.

I was intrigued. Many writers have studied and visited these islands because the inhabitants have preserved traditions for hundreds of years, despite modern advances on the mainland. Irish writers have found inspiration in the extremely isolated feel of the culture and the difficult, weathered lifestyle that Aran Island life demands.

Jonathan M. Synge, for example, is noted for his piece “The Aran Islands,” written after he spent five summers living with a family on the middle island, Inishmaan. Synge began his work around 1900, just after my great-grandfather's emigration to Boston. By reading Synge’s work, I hoped to learn about my great-grandfather’s lifestyle. Yet, in any narrative, one is never sure of the degree to which the writer has related fact, observation, or personal deduction. I knew if I could visit the Aran Islands and compare Synge’s writing with my own research and observation, I could become a primary researcher, rather than one who relies solely on the work of others.

UROP helped make this happen. My expense award made it possible to spend one month in Ireland, comparing other Irish writing with Synge’s, and searching for clues to link my family to the Aran Islands. As part of my project, I kept a journal of my interactions and observations of island life. It served as an ethnographic study of sorts, including history alongside my own experiences.

Through Irish census, birth, and marriage records, I located a family history research center in Galway. I was surprised to find my great-grandfather did not come from Inisheer, as our family had always thought. He came from Eddy Island, a smaller isle near the Arans, just off the west coast of Galway. Only seven families lived there at the height of its population, but the Eddy Islanders’ lifestyle showed similarities to that of Aran Island.

After this discovery, I contacted descendents of the six other families that once lived on Eddy Island. These people have been a great resource for my project, relaying the history they have collected. But this relationship did not end with my research. My family has started planning an Eddy Island descendents reunion two summers from now. Thanks to support from UROP, I have been able to teach Irish-American Keanes about Eddy Island and correct a familial history that has been passed down orally for three generations.

--Elizabeth Keane '01