There’s Always a Kernel of Truth

Megan Smolenyak


Solving a Long-held Family History Mystery Leads to an Enigmatic Playwright

I couldn’t understand it. My nana had an amazing memory. As a professional genealogist, I’m more aware than most that we should take our family lore with a grain of salt. Whether deliberately or accidentally, it’s distorted as it travels through the generations, but everything she told me had turned out to be accurate, consistently borne out through my careful research. Everything except that one story.

Nana’s Claim

Nana — known to others as Beatrice Reynolds — wed James Shields in 1923, and with that marriage came an Irish immigrant father-in-law, David Shields, who enjoyed regaling her with tales. The one she was proudest of was our relationship to Academy Award-winning actor, Barry Fitzgerald, known for his Abbey Theatre performances and film career (Going My Way, The Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley). Barry Fitzgerald was the stage name of William Shields, and according to Nana, Barry aka William was her father-in-law’s first cousin.

Actor Barry Fitzgerald whose birth name was William Joseph Shields (by unknown, eBay, Public Domain)

As with all the other nuggets she told me, I set about proving it, but came up short. Every few years, I’d pull out my notes and have another go. No luck. Then came DNA testing. Surely genetic genealogy would help me substantiate what the paper trail couldn’t because Nana was always right.

Nope. In fact, genetic research disproved the connection. So was it wishful thinking? I mean, what Irish American wouldn’t want to claim Barry Fitzgerald in their family tree? Sadly, Nana was long gone by then, so I’d just have to live with the mystery.

My Turn

Fast forward a number of years. Because I research other people’s roots for a living, my own are neglected, but late last year, I indulged myself and took a dive into my own ancestry. My Shields branch called to me because it was the stubbiest one on my family tree, ending just a generation before my Ballymoney-born great-grandfather, David Shields — the same fellow who had been Nana’s father-in-law. David’s father’s name was William, but that was where the line ended.

So many advances have occurred in Irish genealogy in recent years that I figured I had a chance of pushing back a little…



Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (