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.
‘People are skeptical. [They think] it’s the e-mail from the Nigerian prince.’
“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 Emmys. 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.
The Smyrl brothers tapped Brophy to find the descendants of the three, who would be Broderick’s first cousins and entitled to a portion of her estate. Despite the abundance of Shaughnessys in Massachusetts, Brophy said he made quick work of this case, thanks to obituaries and other vital records.
Convincing the local families that they were the beneficiaries of a $1.5 million estate in Ireland, however, was a bit of a challenge.
“People are skeptical. [They think] it’s the e-mail from the Nigerian prince,” said Brophy, referring to a prevalent online scam. “Their first reaction was that it was a scam.”
Beth Schiavone, whose grandfather was Henry Shaughnessy, and her six siblings certainly believed it was a scam when they first heard they could be getting an inheritance.
But her father, William Shaughnessy, who had suffered a debilitating stroke and was nearing the end of his life, hoped it was true. As Broderick’s first cousin, William was a rightful heir.
“It was laughable to him that now that he can’t even walk he might have a little bit of cash,” Schiavone, of Worcester, said in a recent interview. “He sold automobiles most of his life and it was a struggle.”
William died in 2009, not knowing whether the inheritance story was true.
A couple of years later, the family received a letter indicating they were among 17 beneficiaries of Broderick’s estate, each getting $36,000, Schiavone said.
“And the next thing you know, they were trying to get all of us to meet,” Schiavone, 46, said. “We have Shaughnessy relatives from Newton, Mass. We had no idea.”
From Newton is Roger Shaughnessy, the son of Edward Shaughnessy and Broderick’s first cousin.
The family of heir Margaret Minihan, daughter of Elizabeth Minihan, did not come forward to claim the inheritance, believing it to be a scam, Brophy said.
A family reunion of long lost relatives certainly made for good television, said Michael O’Connell, executive producer of “Dead Money.”
“We wanted to have the ‘Oh my God!’ when they met each other,” said O’Connell, whose inspiration for the show came after seeing the state’s unclaimed property list published in The Boston Globe while visiting the city several years ago. “When this family walked in, I recognized them immediately from the family resemblance. It was amazing, it was extraordinary.”
Patricia Fontaine, whose father was named after her grandfather, Henry Shaughnessy, said she could see a resemblance between Roger Shaughnessy and her father when she met him.
“It was really fascinating really how people look like each other,” the 60-year-old said. “We couldn’t get over some of the stuff. It was so familiar.”
The show’s production company flew in one of Broderick’s cousins to the reunion from Galway.
“She shared her stories about Mary with us,” Schiavone said. “It made it better; it wasn’t just this random check from somebody we didn’t even know. . . . You can put a face to somebody now, because we really didn’t know anything about Mary, except that she passed away and she had this home. It made it more tangible for us.”