Sunday, October 01, 2006

From small acorns

I recently started some work on my family tree and the results are here.

My interest in getting a more comprehsive picture than the vague bits of knowledge that had been floating around was sparked by three things. (i) I had got a free family tree programme with a computer magazine and in order to try it out I had to enter in some data. This made me aware of the big gaps in my knowledge of my family background. (ii) I had photos from my mother of her grandfather and some of his family and, in particular, his shoe and boot shop in James's Street, in the centre of Dublin, taken around the beginning of the last century. (iii) Having retired from the day job I had more time to follow up leads and assemble the bits of the jigsaw.

Raiders of the lost ark
I had no idea of the public sources available nor of the amount of time required to follow up tenuous leads. Neither did I have any idea of how personally involved you can get in this stuff and of how emotionally you can react to the things you find out.

An archivist whom I met in the course of my expeditions said she often thought that people should go into therapy before embarking on this type of quest. I can now see what she meant.

Nevertheless it is an interesting voyage of discovery but one to which there is no end this side of the grave.

- sources: It is quite amazing the extent of the sources of information that are out there in the public domain. Today we are used to this and expect to find out all sorts of things about people by just putting them into Google. We don't expect there to be much out there about our own family over the last 150 years, unless, that is, we come from a particularly famous or notorious background. You would be amazed, however, at what can be gleaned from indexes of births, deaths and marriages and from the actual certificates themselves, all of which are in the public domain (sometimes for a fee!). Street directories can trace family movement; census returns can fill in a mountain of detail; and even poring over maps and photographs can bring its own form of enlightenment.

- shocks: But be warned. This can be a dangerously revealing exercise, exposing not only the white, but the big black family lies and concealments. Not for the fainthearted to be sure. So far I have unearthed a grandfather who was found drowned in Dublin's River Liffey after having gone missing for a week, and a grand aunt who died in an institution in which she had apparently resided for about 30 years.

- discoveries: I also discovered that one of my grandfathers was a twin; that I had British Army and RIC connections on both sides of the family; and that people either lied about, or were sublimely unaware of, not only the ages of those around them but their own age as well.

- lacunae: Clearly much historical source material has been lost or destroyed over the years. We Irish bemoan the destruction of the Public Records Office in the course of the civil war. This destroyed a vast amount of pre-1922 material, including, to my own cost, coroners' inquest reports. At least most Irish people are aware of this problem from the outset. It is, however, disturbing to discover that photographic archives in private hands are either incomplete or have been dumped. It is also annoying to find that the rent/rates records of occupancy of the Dublin Artisans Dwelling Company which built half of Dublin, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, have been unceremoniously skipped as recently as the 1980s. These records were a vital complement to the existing Dublin street directories for the period, as the directories do not record individual occupancy for these estates and Dublin Corporation did not keep any record of occupant's names.

Rewriting history
In any event, I think I made my own small contribution to history along the way.

I arrived at my grand uncle John's grave in Glasnevin expecting to find John, his wife Tess and their son Matthew. This expectation was based on the cemetery's computer records which I had been given at the entrance. Imagine my surprise when I found the tombstone recorded an additional occupant, a daughter who was buried as recently as 1996. I informed the administration who promptly (electronically) exhumed her from the non-existant grave in which she was recorded as reposing and reinterred her in the correct location. Can I now claim to have rescued someone from Limbo. I hope so.

In exploring the photos in the Irish Architectural Archive I found them a bit sparse on older photos of James's Street so I donated a copy of the photo of my great grandfather's boot and shoe shop which will now be available to other researchers.

Professional help

I would like to record that the staff in the archives I have consulted have been extremely helpful and courteous, not to mention tolerant in the extreme. They must be fed up with the enthusiastic "Eurekas" and expressions of frustration of individual researchers, but they don't show it and even evince an interest in the researcher's progress towards the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

Fellow researchers
You keep meeting the same people as you progress around the various archives. Some are young and have a specific and limited purpose. Others, like myself, are having a general poke at their families' past and appear to be going through some sort of a belated mid-life crisis.

Still, exchanging experiences and tips is a constructive experience, and this support group is probably some substitute for the more formal therapy envisaged by my archivist friend at the outset.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have just begun searching for my family in Ireland. My grandfather visited and lived for a short while back in Ballyhaunis in the 1980's (where his family came from), but unfortunately he is no longer with us to ask questions. All I have are small stories and some photosgraphs. I have dates as well as names, but I'm not turning up with much information. I've visited Ballyhaunis twice and plan another trip this summer, but I'm still behind the eight ball. Any idea of how to proceed? Some records were destroyed in the 'great fire'. (birth certs)... Where shall I begin?