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"ClanDonnell" is a collection of stories of one Irish clan that tell the history of Ireland through the lives of people. The retired business lawyer from Detroit began by researching his family tree and then broadened his study to find out where Clan Donnell originated. The whole process took three years of work nonstop, he says. His easy-to-read history was released two years ago by Michigan-based Burrowing Owl Press.

McDonnell is also a storyteller who travels the circuit of Celtic festivals, including a three-day event in St. Augustine, Fla.. He was at Page after Page in downtown Elizabeth City earlier this month to sign his book and tell tales from Irish tradition.
McDonnell said many people are curious about their Irish heritage but often know little about how their ancestors came to live in the United States..
Most are surprised to hear "The Great Hunger" was triggered by more than successive blasts of potato blight, he said.

As the British confiscated their land, Irish farmers moved to less productive sites where the potato became their staple crop. Potatoes were ideal because the high-yield plant could be grown on just a few acres. When the crop failed, Irish farmers could not pay rent and were thrown off the land they needed to grow food for themselves.
McDonnell's illustrated book contains a sketch of homeless Irish farmers huddled beneath a bridge with only a single blanket to share.

Problems worsened with poverty. Typhus killed hundreds as the homeless poor struggled to survive. Some found jobs in workhouses, but crowded, unsanitary conditions led to death and burial in mass graves.

Then came the mass exodus of a million or more.

"The Irish people for several hundred years were the nation's No. 1 export," said McDonnell.
Many of the emigrants flooded the United States, including areas of North Carolina. McDonnell said the Celtic influence in local folk songs in the western part of the state is no coincidence.

In one of his tales, McDonnell writes about Katherine Donnell, who became an orphan at age 14 after her parents died in a workhouse. At the time, Australia was a growing colony with a shortage of women, so Katherine was recruited as a domestic servant. McDonnell found her name on a town manifest in Sydney but he does not know her fate. The girls, who spoke native Irish and grew up walking on dirt floors, were not trained in the manners of domestic servants, he noted.

The story of Katherine came from his research of original documents online, which McDonnell said was surprisingly easy to find. The time-consuming part was wading through hand-written manuscripts written in old-style English. McDonnell said his trips to Ireland were mostly to identify locations and take photographs.

He has plans for another book about Irish Folklore but said his travels to Celtic events has made the progress slow so far.

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