Saturday, December 01, 2007

Shoots, Leaves and Branches

It's time again to report progress on growing the family tree. I have been solidly hacking at it now for almost two years and am amazed and fascinated by what has emerged in that time.

I was relatively (no pun intended) ignorant when I started out. I had met some family members and had bits of paper and photos relating to others, but in the overall I was very vague on the whole thing. I now know a lot more about the family, including more about the members of some of the far flung branches than they know themselves. Tricky that.

There are now over 500 people, between living and dead, entered in the tree. At some points it spans 9 generations and the earliest births are around 1800. I should really be concentrating on going back further, at least as far as my own ancestors are concerned, but I have found so much fascinating material on the way that I have allowed myself to be seduced into filling out the blanks on those I have already discovered, and moving sideways rather than backwards as my curiosity about some of these people is aroused.


In the tree generally, and not confined strictly to ancestors, I have 3 drownings, 4 generations of coopers (5 coopers in all), 4 members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, 3 British Army (including one who died on the Somme in WWI), and for balance one rebel sentenced to death by the British, commuted to 15 years penal servitude, released within months on the signing of the Treaty, took up arms against the new Irish Government and spent most of the rest of his life interned by his own.

I have 3 native Irish speaking ancestors.

The tree now covers 18 of the 26 counties and among the 70 separate occupations identified so far some of the more esoteric are: Attorney General, Alderman, Blacksmith, Barman, Dance Instructor, Detective, Fireman (railway steam engine), Lock-keeper (Grand Canal), Neurosurgeon, Pawnbroker, Royalette (Theatre Royal dancing chorus), Signalman (railway), Timekeeper (?), TD (Member of Irish Parliament) and Silkweaver.

Some deaths are memorable: in one case a mother and two daughters-in-law died from the same kidney complaint which can be caused, inter alia, by mercury poisoning; in another case the death certificate records the cause of death of an 89 year old female ancestor as old age - without dementia. I'd say she gave the Lord a run for his money when she turned up on his doorstep.

I have also met family members I didn't know I had. One of these found me when he put his Granny's name into Google and got one hit - my website, where his past was all laid out before him, like one of those TV chefs taking a dish out of the oven which they just happen to have put in earlier.

Pursuing the tree has given me an interest in subjects which passed me by in the past:

  • the functions and history of Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council). The Council has a long and chequered history, including in relation to the national struggle, and I had an Alderman relation on the Council during some of its most turbulent years in the early 20th Century, when it was even abolished for a number of years.

  • the history and geography of Dublin city. This includes urban planning in general and, in particular, water supply and sewerage systems in which James's St. was central for a period. There are plans underway for regenerating the Liberties, including the old harbour and basin area behind James's St. and I have been following, and participating in, the recent the planning consultations for this project.
  • Guinness has been a significant player in the development of not only the area around James's St., but of Dublin in general as far as employee social welfare and housing were concerned. The company has opened its personnel archive to interested parties and I have got the employee records of three out of the five coopers so far.
  • the RIC, while operating as a native police force, was also the ears, eyes and arms of the Crown and many of its members found themselves in tricky situations as a result.
  • WWI had more or less passed me by until I found that an uncle had died in a botched operation on the Somme and a grand uncle, while injured, had survived the war and returned to hard times in Dublin.
  • Catholic Emancipation more or less passed me by in the history class in school, but in real life it may well have opened up opportunities for my ancestors and their relations and I can't get away from Glasnevin cemetery (the dead centre of Dublin) where many of my relatives are buried. Daniel O'Connell got this non-denominational cemetery established to facilitate Catholics (mainly) who were subject to a certain amount of harassment at funerals to Established Church graveyards.
  • my faith in the Divine Database has unfortunately been shattered by this exercise. The system where you had to produce a recently issued baptism cert to get married and where the marriage was then entered on the original baptism register, looked, on the face of it, like a beautifully closed system which protected against bigamy. However, when you factored in human behaviour the system proved to be full of holes. Pity, it looked great on paper, so to speak.
  • I have also learned the irrelevance of administrative boundaries when it comes to settlement. People may get very attached to their county football team, and you may be lucky to live under a County Council which provides a better service than others, but when you are tracing back family origins and attempting to disentangle the cousins from one another, such boundries are irrelevant. For example, East Limerick and North Tipperary are all the one, genealogically speaking, and it is sometimes not even clear which county a particular village is in, or at least to which it owes its primary allegiance.

The exercise has also put pressure on my own technical competence, in a very constructive way:
  • I can be a bit scattered so I was using a free family tree computer programme to store, manipulate and report my findings. I was getting so much material and my ambitions for presenting it were increasing at such a rate that I invested in a more advanced programme which is great but where I am still on a sharp learning curve.
  • I have always enjoyed taking photos and this venture has put me, my new digital camera, and my photo processing package through our paces.
  • I originally put up a page on my website to carry family material and this has now grown to over half the site. I can practically talk HTML in my sleep at this stage, but the presentation of the material still continues to be challenging and puts pressure on me to master new techniques. I have also enlisted the help of Feedblitz which emails interested parties when I update the site, and have managed to tweak the system so as not to send out alerts for trivial updates.
  • and finally, the most recent technical addition to my armoury - Google maps. I had intended, from the beginning, producing a map showing the geographical spread of the family, particularly in Dublin city itself. However, hardcopy versions become quickly outdated and are not scaleable. Enter Google maps and a little bit of code-nicking and hey presto!

I have had great fun following up sources and squeezing them dry. I exaggerate - so far I have only creamed the surface. I have pored over indexes of births, deaths and marriages and then over the certs themselves. I have read wills that would make you weep. I have visited graves that would bring tears to your eyes, both of sadness and anger, and sometimes even a wry smile. I have got eyestrain from the small and often fudgy print in newspapers, not to mention the microfilm version of them. I have cursed the sloppy digital archiving of newspapers and despaired at the wanton destruction of housing rent records and photo-archives. I have enjoyed picking up on oral history from family members, both old and new. And I look forward to the promised unveiling of the 1911 Census (Dublin) online in the next few days.

You can catch up on all of this, as well as staying in touch with future developments, here.


Dexter said...

Super post, really enjoyed the flow and emotion in it.

Póló said...

Mirabile Factu Visuque!

The 1911 Census has appeared online and can be searched from here.

You can search by name and street.

If you want to check out a particular numbered house on a street, but don't know the name of the 1911 occupants, pull up the street, click any name and look at form B1 - House and Building Return. This will give you a listing of the names of the occupants of each numbered house. Find the name of the people in the house you are after and look them up.

I've only done a skite through it so far but they seem to have done a marvellous job on it.

Census data is supplemented by some nicely crafted and illustrated historical commentary.

Congratulations to all at the National Archives and to the other listed people who helped, and to our Canadian brothers (and sisters, and in between) for their pathbreaking efforts in this area.

Go mairfimid is go gcaithfimid é.