Rita Davern has produced two documentary films about her family’s Irish roots, their immigration to the United States and how they came to own Pike Island and 80 acres of land in the Highland Park neighborhood of Saint Paul.

The second of those documentaries, Burren Girl, is being streamed now through October 31 as part of the 10-day Twin Cities Film Fest (visit twincitiesfilmfest.org).

The film recounts Davern’s journeys to the family’s original home in County Clare, Ireland, and her grandmother’s hometown of Burren, Ireland, and her grandmother’s immigration to Saint Paul where she married a distant cousin with the same last name.

irish countryside
Rita Davern (right) surveys the Burren countryside during a tour of the Irish farm owned by her distant cousin, Michael Davoren (left).

In Burren Girl, Davern introduces viewers to a colorful cast of Irish people who assist her in uncovering her family’s origins in that windswept region of the Emerald Isle. The new film comes just a few months after Davern released another documentary about her family, Stories I Didn’t Know. That film, which was part of last spring’s Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival, tells of how Davern’s great-grandfather secured a homestead on Pike Island and the role that land played in the Dakota War of 1862.

Davern, 71, traveled to Ireland several times to learn about the birthplace of her grandmother, Anne Davoren, who at age 19 immigrated to America in 1887 in search of a better life. The documentary “goes back to my grandma’s farm and includes a whole bunch of other farm families who are Davorens and are still there and still neighbors and still don’t know their heritage either,” she said.

“I was determined not to let this story I uncovered get lost again,” Davern said. “It really matters to me that the next generation understands who we are and where we came from. That’s what compelled me to do something I didn’t have a clue how to do.”

In Ireland, Davern found documents in British and Irish archives related to how the Davoren clan founded a law school in Burren in the 1500s and preserved Gaelic law from as far back as the eighth century. The documents, written in Middle Irish, are now being digitized in Galway. “They’re working hard to make them accessible,” Davern said.

The family’s history in America began with the immigration of William Quin Davern. Rita’s great-grandfather settled in the Saint Paul area in 1851. He served in the state Legislature and on many municipal boards and commissions while living just outside of the capital city in Reserve Township, the future neighborhood of Highland Park. William Quin’s son, William Austin Davern (born in 1863), married Anne Davoren, and their youngest son, William Joseph Davern, was Rita’s father.

William Quin and his family occupied Pike Island and an 80-acre farm roughly bordered by today’s West Seventh Street, Snelling and Montreal avenues, Fairview Avenue and Edgcumbe Road. The family sold off the farm to developers in the 20th century, but the farmhouse is still standing on Davern Street near the top of what is known as Davern Hill.

Work on Stories I Didn’t Know began more than six years ago when Rita’s niece suggested she make a film about her Irish roots and traveled with her to Ireland. Kevin Koenig, a friend of Rita’s son who was trained in filmmaking, agreed to help. Koenig and Davern began taking classes at Film North and put together a 20-minute clip that helped secure a grant from the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation.

Rita Davern surveys the Irish farm where her paternal grandmother was born and raised.

“I didn’t know how to write a script, but because I got the grant, I could hire somebody who knew what they were doing,” Davern said.

That person was award-winning documentary filmmaker Melody Gilbert. She told Davern the film needed to focus on her as a guide to unlocking the family’s history. The women collaborated on Stories I Didn’t Know, but Davern took over the writing and directing of Burren Girl.

Davern and her four siblings grew up in Merriam Park, though she now lives in Macalester-Groveland. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, she worked as a communications consultant with several major corporations. She and her husband adopted a Korean boy, Chris, who died at 27 after a long battle with cancer. That tragedy led Davern to a second career as a parenting coach. Becoming a filmmaker was never a consideration until her semi-retirement.

“I was determined not to let this story I uncovered get lost again,” Davern said. “It really matters to me that the next generation understands who we are and where we came from. That’s what compelled me to do something I didn’t have a clue how to do.”

“I think audiences will appreciate Rita’s dedication to trying to understand her family history and the stories that get uncovered along the way,” Gilbert said. “Her journey of questioning and healing is something we can all relate to if we’re willing to go there. Rita wasn’t afraid to open that door, even if it took her somewhere painful. We should all be so brave and persistent.”

Davern family
Highland Park pioneers, William Q. and Catherine Davern (seated at center) posed with their growing family near their farmhouse on Davern Street just north of what is now Saint Paul Avenue.

— Frank Jossi


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