Good Life

Good Life | Penn State professor’s journey to connect with her Irish roots started with a dresser

A 300-year-old cottage that belonged to Sarah “Cissie” Begley has been turned into a museum in Northern Ireland. Penn State professor Lee Newsom recently visited the cottage and new rental units on site to learn more about her ancestors.
A 300-year-old cottage that belonged to Sarah “Cissie” Begley has been turned into a museum in Northern Ireland. Penn State professor Lee Newsom recently visited the cottage and new rental units on site to learn more about her ancestors. Photo provided

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally appeared in the Derry Journal,

Lee Newsom, a professor of archeology at Penn State, would have been satisfied just to take the trip to Ireland that she’d long thought about but long put off.

But when she arrived home recently after spending two weeks in Northern Ireland, she had new, beloved friends, a clearer understanding of her ancestry, a deeper connection to her heritage and an important role in preserving her family’s history.

And it all started with a piece of antique furniture.

Newsom knew that her Irish ancestors came from a place called Ballymultimber in County Derry but always wanted to know more.

“Every time I searched online nothing much came up,” she said.

That changed in October when Newsom put the word into Google. In the first of a series of serendipitous events, the search turned up Ballymultimber Cottages — a website that had been launched that month by owners Gillian Crawford, her husband, Glenn Crawford, and her father, Alex McLaughlin. It reminded Newsom of a cottage her aunts had taken a video of when they went to Ireland in 1997 to visit the home of Newsom’s grandfather’s cousin, Sarah Begley, who everyone called Cissie.

On the website, Newsom immediately recognized a large dresser that had also appeared in that video.

“On the video Cissie is pointing out the dresser and saying how my great-grandfather, Robert John Martin, made the piece in 1896 for his uncles and ultimately she inherited it. And inside he had signed the middle drawer,” Newsom said. “I emailed Gillian and told her how it all seemed amazing but the dresser looked like the same one my great-grandfather had made. Immediately Gillian emailed me back and told me it was Cissie’s house. After finding that out, I had to come here.”

Making connections

Cissie died in 2004, after spending her life in the cottage, which was built sometime in the late 1700s. She lived there without electricity or running water and had no living relatives in Ireland. Alex McLaughlin was her close friend, and the cottage passed to the McLaughlin family after Cissie’s death.

“Gillian’s family took care of Cissie and took care of her wake and funeral,” Newsom said. “We are so grateful for that.”

The cottage sat empty for years until last fall, when Gillian Crawford, her husband and her father set up Ballymultimber Cottages — a site with two rental cottages and Cissie’s original house kept as a museum.

“We wanted to keep Cissie’s memory in the cottage, we didn’t want to put a bulldozer through it,” Gillian Crawford said. “And inside the cottage we’ve kept all Cissie’s possessions just to keep her memory alive. We didn’t even know Cissie had American relatives, so it has been fantastic to find Lee and hear the story of her aunts coming over and meeting Cissie. She was so close to all of our hearts, and had a special place in my dad’s heart.”

The first thing Newsom did after stepping foot in Cissie’s cottage was open the dresser drawer. Sure enough, her great-grandfather’s name was inscribed there — just as she’d heard Cissie say in that old video, but that no one in her family had seen in a very long time.

“It’s just such a fantastic way to reconnect,” Newsom said.

A hand in preservation

Based on the age of Cissie’s cottage and its years of being stagnant, the structure has shown signs of disrepair and received help with a crumbling thatch from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Now, there’s someone with a keen interest in the house who happens to have the skills and experience to be able to make a major contribution. Before leaving Ireland, Newsom took samples of the wood inside the cottage — the rafters, beams, even the dresser.

Newsom will soon begin work on wood identification, garnering information that will help plan for the long-term preservation of the cottage.

“I do all kinds of things of this nature, but this is the first time that it has sort of hit home,” she said.

In addition to spending time in Cissie’s cottage and with Gillian and her family, Newsom also browsed records at the Tamlaghtard Church of Ireland and has been able to piece together forgotten or mistaken pieces of her family’s history.

“I’m an archeologist and here I am doing the archeology of my past, it was so cool,” Newsom said.

She already has a trip for the fall booked at Ballymultimber Cottages, and many members of her family are also excited to visit a place so rich with their ancestral past.

“It really was a magical trip to see Cissie’s cottage and then contribute to the preservation of not only the cottage, but Cissie’s memory, too,” Newsom said.

For more information on Cissie and the cottages visit