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Rosie O'Donnell

Rosie O’Donnell’s moving journey back through her mother’s ancestry in the second season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” illustrates the horror and the redemption of the Irish immigrant experience, the pain of losing a mother, and the feeling of gratitude at what our ancestors endured and triumphed over. Rosie discovered the enduring importance of our families’ histories and of even our distant family connections. In her family history, Rosie found a deeper context for her own life experience. It’s a journey and a discovery many are fortunate to share when we look into our roots. It’s why people do genealogy research and it’s why we at ProGenealogists have chosen genealogy for a profession.

For all of those involved, including Ancestry.com and ShedMediaUs, researching Rosie O’Donnell’s ancestry was exciting, gratifying, fascinating, and sometimes tearful. From the “miracle baby” who survived the explosion that killed her mother, to the document showing that Rosie’s family was rescued from an Irish workhouse and sponsored to escape to Canada from the devastation of the Great Famine, it was marvelous to see the awe-inspiring stories we had researched shared with millions of viewers.

Genealogy research takes time and skill. Of course, it just isn’t possible to describe all of the nuances of in-depth genealogy research in a 42 minute television presentation. Seasoned genealogists could tell that there were many hours of research that could not be presented on the show. Nonetheless, this impressive episode unfolded the most compelling and important records from research in three countries: the United States, Canada, and Ireland.

Having lost her own mother at the age of ten, Rosie was particularly interested in her mother’s side of the family, and this is where the journey began. Rosie’s mother was a Murtha (also spelled Murtagh). Rosie traced four generations of her Murtagh ancestors back in time, learning about each generation. She was able to learn about her ancestors’ lives in New York and New Jersey, and to connect with cousins. She also discovered that between Ireland and New York, the family lived in the Canadian province of Quebec. In Quebec, Rosie learned the specific county where her Murtagh ancestors originated in Ireland – County Kildare!

Miracle Baby

Rosie’s parents and grandparents kept a photo of a woman in their home whose identity was rather a mystery. In the course of this episode, Rosie found out that this woman was a family member who had suffered a terrible ordeal. In 1881, a kerosene lamp exploded and Anna Murtagh (the woman in the photo) sustained terrible burns from which she suffered for 20 days before dying. Incredibly, she was holding her one year old daughter Elizabeth in her arms when she was burned, but the baby was unscathed. Elizabeth grew up to have a family, and in the episode Rosie was able to meet these cousins of hers descended from this “miracle baby.”

The mother died, but her protected daughter brought forth her own large family. Newspaper articles described this explosion incident in detail and added much to Rosie’s understanding of her family – just like another newspaper article would help her find her home place in Ireland. Newspapers gave such important details for Rosie’s family history, and they can for many of us. Many newspapers can now be searched online at web sites like Ancestry.com. They can give insight into aspects of our ancestors’ lives beyond their birth, marriage, and death dates.

Finding a Home in Ireland

Many people want to find out exactly where in Ireland their ancestors originated. It’s a wonderful goal, and when you find the place, it can open to amazing, life-changing experiences. Setting foot on the places where your ancestors lived in Ireland and learning about how they lived and what they went through is truly extraordinary. Often, it’s necessary to find some record in the United States or Canada that states a place of birth in Ireland for your immigrant ancestor in order to find your family in Ireland. Records such as death records, military enlistments, tombstones, church records, passenger lists and naturalization papers are among the many sources that may tell the Irish birthplace.

In Rosie’s case, when her ancestor Ann (Doyle) Murtagh died in Montreal in 1876, a newspaper published a death notice revealing that she was born in County Kildare. We searched many other records, and no other record stating where this family came from in Ireland has been found in North America. That one record was the key to opening up Rosie’s experiences tracing her roots in Ireland.

The Irish Famine

Rosie’s great-great-grandparents, Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle, married in the late 1830s in Ireland. They lived in Blessington Catholic Parish, on the County Kildare – County Wicklow border. They had several children in the late 1830s and the 1840s. The Great Potato Famine hit Ireland beginning in 1845, and its effects were felt for many years. By the early 1850s, the Murtagh family had been reduced to dire poverty, and they were residents of the Naas Workhouse. However, they were comparatively fortunate, since about a million of their compatriots died as a result of the Famine. The Murtaghs were also fortunate in that the poor law commissioners (local officials who looked after the poor) paid for them to emigrate from County Kildare to Montreal, Canada. This is how Rosie’s ancestors ended up in Quebec before the family moved down into New York and New Jersey. In fact, at the Kildare County Library, it proved possible to find an actual document stating that Andrew Murtagh, his wife, and four children had their passage paid to Canada by the poor law union. This was a rare document to find! It is stunning to look into the poor law minute book and see this very family described so specifically.

Rosie learned so much about her mother’s ancestors in this presentation. She found that others in the family had lost mothers young or lost children young. She discovered her Canadian connection, and she met new cousins. She found out where in Ireland her ancestors came from, and she was able to visit the parish where they lived. I think the producers offered us a very moving, challenging, and meaningful presentation that will inspire many of us to look closer into our Irish ancestries and into our family histories no matter what their origin.

Research Manager on Project:

Kyle J. Betit

Project Hours:

1127 Hours

As an avid traveler and the manager of Ancestry’s travel program, Kyle enjoys taking people on ancestral journeys, whether it is on a group heritage tour or to visit their exact ancestral homes. Kyle is an expert genealogist, lecturer, and author residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. He grew up in Juneau, Alaska, where he started researching his family history at the age of 9, under his grandmother’s tutelage. By age 16 he was working for a genealogy company in Salt Lake City. Kyle began traveling regularly to Europe for genealogy research in 1993. Kyle is one of the co-founders of ProGenealogists. His research interests include Ireland, Eastern Europe, Catholic research, and genetic genealogy.


Kyle has appeared on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” television program with Bill Paxton, Trisha Yearwood, Chris Noth, and Scott Foley, among others, and he has worked on many other episodes, such as those for Matthew Broderick, Rosie O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jason Sudeikis, Chelsea Handler, and Cindy Crawford. He was a co-editor of the popular genealogy journal The Irish At Home and Abroad, and he is co-author of A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Irish Ancestors. He lectures widely in North America and Europe.