Cameras rolled as Patricia Fontaine and Margaret Shaughnessy stood side by side in a Newton hotel conference room in February of last year marveling at how much they resembled and sounded like the other.
Fontaine, of West Roxbury, and Shaughnessy, of Newton, are cousins who grew up only a few miles apart but were meeting for the first time in what was the culmination of a trans-Atlantic chain of events that started in the unlikeliest of ways — with the death of a woman in Galway, Ireland, in 2008.
With the help of an Abington genealogist, the two women, along with other cousins and siblings, were found to be descendants of the family of the Irish woman, Mary Broderick. Their relation was only part of the news. Fontaine, Shaughnessy, and some of their relatives were identified as rightful heirs to Broderick’s $1.5 million estate in Ireland.
“When we came to find out that I actually have cousins who live in Newton and I live in West Roxbury — I thought it was amazing, the whole thing,” Fontaine said in a recent interview. “The money is one thing, but to trace our family tree, to find out who was here, it was amazing.”
The moment the families met was captured by a television production crew filming a documentary series called “Dead Money,” which follows genealogist brothers Kit and Steven Smyrl in their search for heirs to unclaimed estates in Ireland.
“Dead Money,” which premiered last year on Irish network RTE, was nominated for an Irish Film and Television Award, that nation’s equivalent of the Oscars and Emmies. It lost in its category at the awards ceremony last month.
A key player in the drama was genealogist Michael Brophy, who helped the Smyrl brothers trace Broderick’s ancestry lines on her father’s side, ultimately leading them to Fontaine, Shaughnessy, and their parents and siblings.
Brophy joined the film crew in the Newton hotel that February to witness the families meeting for the first time. As someone whose work keeps him in libraries or scouring online databases, Brophy said he rarely gets to see the part where the subjects he’s been researching receive their reward.
“That was very gratifying,” Brophy said. “It’s a good story with a happy ending. It helped out a lot of people, a lot of good, common people, and it brought together a family.”
Like most in the ancestry field, the 48-year-old Abington resident took on genealogy as a hobby, his interest piqued after the 2002 funeral of an aunt, when her son put together a book of her family history.
“ ‘This is great stuff,’ ” Brophy recalled telling his father after the funeral. “ ‘What [do] we know about the Brophy side?’ My dad said, ‘Not much.’ So we put together a family history.”
Soon, he said, he became a “genealogical obsessive.”
“It gets you hooked; it’s like an addiction,” he said. “People are fascinated with who they are, they want to know where they came from.”
At the time, Brophy had a sales job for a struggling medical products company. Seeing the writing on the wall, Brophy founded Brophy Professional Genealogy and Heir Tracing in 2004. The following year, he was laid off from his sales job.
He specialized in Irish-American ancestry, which is how he connected with the Smyrl brothers. Before “Dead Money,” Brophy said he had worked on about 10 cases with them.
So when the search for Mary Broderick’s paternal family took a turn to Massachusetts, the Smyrl brothers knew whom to contact.
Broderick, born Mary Shaughnessy, married late in life and had no children or siblings. She moved to her husband’s farm in Galway, where she lived well after her husband’s death. In 2008, at 78, Broderick died, leaving no will for her estate valued at $1.5 million. Under Irish law, her estate would be inherited by the closest living relatives. In this case, Broderick’s estate would go to her first cousins or their children.
With the heirs on her mother’s side quickly established, the Smyrl brothers set about looking on her father’s side. Broderick’s paternal grandparents had 10 children, but in post-famine, late 19th-entury Ireland, most of the them had to emigrate to find work.
Six of the Shaughnessy children (Broderick’s aunts and uncles) left Galway for Massachusetts, many of them finding work in an iron foundry in Waltham. William Shaughnessy, Broderick’s father, stayed in Galway, along with three other siblings.
Because the majority of the Shaughnessy siblings and their children died before Broderick, only three who still had living descendants were ultimately entitled to inherit: Henry and Edward Shaughnessy and Elizabeth Minihan. Those three were among the six siblings who had emigrated to the United States.Continued...