Jean Bills is a very ordinary lady, from Wisconsin, USA who is 83 years old. Like millions of people her Ancestors came from Ireland, they emigrated from Achill Island, Co. Mayo in 1848.
Jean is a wonderful Ambassador for Ireland, she visited Ireland for the 31st time in January 2013. What an amazing record!. Jean was honoured recently by the Minister for Tourism, Leo Varadkar at the Launch of “The Gathering” in Chicago.
The Minister presented her with a Certificate of Irish Heritage, honouring her Ancestors James Gallagher who was born in Dooniver, Achill Island in 1801 and Catherine McHugh born 1810.
Q. What was your reaction when you were presented with a Certificate of Irish Heritage ?
A ” I was absolutely thrilled to have been presented with this wonderful Certificate. It is hard to put into words how I feel, I really appreciated this presentation and the fact that it was recognised that I have helped to spread and support Irish culture and heritage, and also that I have been to Ireland 31 times. I am so happy and wonder if I really deserved it? If only my mother was here, she would be really thrilled, this is wonderful, so pleased for the sake of the family”. The beautiful Framed Certificate that I received is now displayed in the Irish Cultural & Heritage Centre in Milwaukee. This is a beautiful addition to our Family Tree and I can’t wait to show to all my cousins at our next family reunion.
Q: Tell me a little about your Ancestors and when they immigrated?
A: James Gallagher was born in Dooniver, Achill in 1801, His wife Catherine McHugh was also born in Mayo in 1810, They had 10 children, 3 died as infants, the other 7 survived. In April 1948 at the height of the Famine, James along with his oldest son Owen and his wife’s 2 brothers James and Frank McHugh set sail for America. They landed in NY in May 1848. James then went to New Orleans where he worked on the Riverboats and Docks until 1854. His wife Catherine was left in Achill with 6 children, after 5 years of existing during the famine, she decided to set out to join her husband and brothers with 5 children who ranged from 6 to 23 years. Grandma, Catherine McHugh’s mother couldn’t bear to see all the Children go so one daughter stayed behind and it’s the descendent’s of the lady that I now stay with when I visit Achill. The Gallagher family sailed from Liverpool on the ship Rufus K. Page on 2 Sept 1853. The Rufus ran into severe weather at sea and nearly capsized, lost bowsprit, foremast, main top mast, mizzen top-gallant mast, together with sails rigging etc. It arrived in New York on 28 October 1853 after 2 months at sea. In those days the journey took 1 month normally. James bought 100 acres of Government land, all timberland near Dellona, WI. The family reunited in New Orleans and stayed there for 18 months before going north on the Mississippi River to Winconsin where the many cousins still live today.
Q: When you were growing up was there alot of stories about your Irish Heritage?
A: I am only one quarter Irish,(the rest were all German) My mother and cousins would get together on St. Patrick’s Day and we all would have Bacon and Cabbage and wear Green going to school. We would visit Elderly Aunties and cousins on a Sunday and there would be talk about Ireland, but other than that it was predominant and they just didn’t talk about it, but I think that was kind of common with that generation.
Q: When and how did you start getting interested in doing your Family Tree?
A: I had been going to family reunions since 1982 with my mother who asked me to do the driving as the cousins who organised the reunion lived 100 miles away. They had been putting bits of the family tree together on pieces of paper and used to hand them out to all members, we would go back the next year and people would say, oh we have changes, some new borns, some deaths, some incorrect information so all had to be updated and retyped, same story next year more updates so after year 3, I decided this had to be put on Computer where you could update easily and I designed my own Family Tree. I gave everybody an ID number as we had about 50 on the family tree, set up a Picnic Table under a Tree at each reunion and each person came along and we made the updates easily on computer. It just grew and grew and now we have 7 generations which is so worthwhile. We invited our Irish cousins of which there are 4 to come to one of our reunions and 2 of them have come over. We had a wonderful time and all the cousins took turns in entertaining them and introducing them to the family members in their area.
Q: When did you first come to Ireland.
A: In 1988 I had attended my first Irish Fest in Milwaukee and after that I decided to go on a tour of Ireland. I was then 64 years of age. I actually came in 1991 on a tour that was led by an Irishman who lived in Milwaukee, I came back the next time on another bus tour and Achill was on the itinerary so I thought I would look up my cousins, however, the bus drove into Achill and spent half an hour there and sped off again, I asked if they would stop as I wanted to try and find my cousins but I was told to come back again and hire a car. This is what I did and I have been coming back ever since.
Q: I believe you were one of the founder members of the Irish Cultural & Heritage Centre in Milwaukee and the first Manager, .
A: Yes, I was a member of a Group, the Shamrock Club and we had no place to hold meetings like many other Irish organisations and Clubs in Milwaukee, the meetings were held in Pubs, peoples homes etc so I felt we needed a place that we could meet, hold concerts, we needed a place in Milwaukee where anything Irish could happen. I together with 3 friends bought a Church for $1 dollar so it cost 25 cent each. The Church had a Pipe Organ with over 4000 pipes, at the time that was worth over 1 million dollars and had many religious things hanging there. The Church’s membership had dwindled and they could no longer afford to pay The Minister, it was a congregational Church so they had to disband. They wanted someone to take over who would care for it. At the time I was in the midst of setting up Celtic Women International so we fitted their expectations as a Group, we were a non profit group. However, we didn’t have any money but we bought the Church for a $1 and then I started thinking how we would start fundraising.
Q: I believe you are the founder of Celtic Womens Association, can you tell me how this came about.
A: I suppose this is the part of me that I consider to be the Irish trait, I am an independent person and if I think I can do something, I will just go ahead and do it, I am a “Doer”. I started thinking how I could raise money, and decided to hold a Conference for Women, not just for Irish women but for Celtic Women, this would enlarge the potential audience pool. There would be 7 Nations so that was how it started. A friend of mine was an Artist and designed the logo, another friend knew a famous writer called Morgan Llywelyn and she came along and did a book signing which raised enough money to enable us to start our first conference. The conference ran for 11 years, these were unique and wonderful and held at the Irish Cultural and Heritage centre. Wonderful friendships were made and when I come to Ireland now, it is with friends that I made at these conferences that I stay with. People like Alice Taylor, Megan Ryan, Maggie Cronin from Belfas, Clodagh Horner a Tour Guide from Dublin are just a few of the many friends that I have made in Ireland.
Q: Do you have a special place to display your Certificate of Irish Heritage?
A: Yes indeed, at the moment the Board of Directors have asked that I would display it in the Glass Display Unit in the Irish Cultural & Heritage Centre, Milwaukee, but of course I would really like to have this displayed in my home to compliment my family history, I have some wonderful photos of my family going back for generations. This has been such a wonderful tribute to my Ancestors and it really is a beautiful piece.