Genealogical Appreciation

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Traveller Caravan in Cork Public Museum

Last Friday afternoon I attended a fantastic lecture on Irish Traveller genealogy and culture at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street in Dublin. This was the first of the 2017 expert workshops organised by the Irish Family History Centre.

The lecture was prompted by recent DNA findings from a new study carried out by scientists in the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and the University of Edinburgh. You can read a bit more about that here. However, instead of simply concentrating on the genetic side of things, the lecture allowed for a member of the Traveller community, Michael McDonagh, to talk about Traveller identity.

Those outside of Ireland might have only the vaguest sense of who Irish Travellers are. Coming up with a definition that doesn’t sound condescending or discrimination can be difficult. Sometimes they are referred to as Gypsies or Tinkers, along with many other derogatory terms. Perhaps the simplest definition is to say that Travellers are a minority group within Irish society  who maintain their own separate identity. There have been many rumours and misconceptions as to where they originated from. Some believed they were an entirely separate race from the Irish, more closely related to Roma Gypsies. Another widely held theory was that they were the descendants of those forced off their land during the Great Famine. This last belief was to be responsible for much of the prejudice faced by Travellers and a lot of the harm done to their culture through a misguided belief that they should be reintegrated into mainstream Irish society. While the motives for this may have been benign, the lack of proper understanding of their culture caused a lot of long term damage. The talk from Michael was a fascinating insight into this culture. I would have loved to stay on afterwords to talk with him and ask some questions but unfortunately I had to rush for a train back to Cork.

What the DNA evidence has shown is that Travellers are not related to the Roma and are indeed Irish. What it also suggests is that they split from mainstream Irish society roughly around the mid 1600s. The authors of the study are cautious in trying to identify any specific historical event which might have led to the split, which seems sensible. Further testing might alter those conclusions and push the split even further back. The full paper of the study is available to read for free here. Hopefully this will lead to a better appreciation of Irish Travellers and their place within Irish society as a distinct group.

The lecture and the study also got me thinking of two articles I had read in recent months concerning the Tenement Museum in New York. The first article reported on a rise of anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the museum and how staff were attempting to deal with this. Then a few weeks ago, Annie Pollard, their Senior Vice President for Progams and Education, wrote this article on the immigrant experience in the past compared to the present immigrant experience.

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One of the restored apartments inside the NY Tenement Museum (Image courtesy http://tenement.org/)

What all of this got me thinking about was the role that genealogy can play in conversations relating to discrimination and prejudice. It’s worth remembering that the waves of Irish and other immigrant groups arriving in the US in the 19th century weren’t always met with open arms. Some of the rhetoric directed against them is reminiscent of what has been heard in more recent times. Can genealogy help lessen some of this hostility?

Perhaps it is human nature that we will always be suspicious of those who speak a different language, have different cultural traditions or simply don’t look like us. Genealogy certainly isn’t a magic bullet for defeating prejudice but at the very least maybe it can help us appreciate some of the commonalities we share with other groups.

Secret Family Histories

What’s your family secret? We all have one. That skeleton in the closet that we can’t help but be fascinated by, despite the refusal of other family members to acknowledge their existence. Sometimes it can be something personal, an addiction or an illness that was always referred to euphemistically. Perhaps it could be the lack of a marriage certificate, or the date of the wedding coming a bit too close to when the first child was born. Then there are the other types of omissions, the ones that might have resulted from an ancestor being caught on the wrong side of history. Every country has this because it is human nature to try and simplify our historical narrative. This side was ‘good’ and the other side was ‘bad’.

With the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland and all the various discussions taking place, it is easy to assume that Ireland has put all our historical hangups behind us. That we have learned to accept our past and any of the uncomfortable truths hidden there. To some extent this is true. Irish soldiers who fought in WWI now get the recognition they deserve for their bravery and sacrifice. While those who served as members of the pre-independence police forces haven’t been rehabilitated to the same extent, their role in Irish life during the period is better understood.

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Group of Royal Irish Constabulary officers and men (Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland)

I have come across some of this myself when looking into my own family history. Most of my maternal side of the family would have considered themselves to be of Irish Republican lineage. However, that wasn’t the case for everyone in the family. I had one great uncle from Co. Waterford who had served in WWI and was also a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was stationed in Co. Wexford where he died in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. His death wasn’t particularly glorious, being accidentally shot by a fellow constable while on patrol. To me and some of my cousins this proved fascinating, but other members of the family weren’t as interested. Perhaps because his role as a servant of the British administration in Ireland during a contested time doesn’t fit with how the family see themselves. This is not to criticise. It is simply who they are. All of us have our inbuilt biases.

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Exterior of the Curragh Internment Camp in the 1940s (Image courtesy of Irish Examiner)

A recent visit to the National Archives of Ireland also put me in mind of another aspect of Irish history that is often overlooked and it’s connection to my own family. Ireland maintained an official policy of neutrality during WWII, although a number of Irish did enlist with the British army and the armed forces of other Allied forces. On the home front there were those who believed in the old maxim that Britain’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. The IRA launched a bombing campaign in Britain. In order to maintain their position of neutrality, and avoid a potential invasion by Britain, the Irish government felt the safest course of action was to intern all those suspected of IRA membership. This was certainly not the first or last time such a policy was carried out on this island. The internees were placed in a camp in the Curragh, nicknamed ‘Tintown’. Among those internees, was my grandfather, his brothers and some of their friends. My grandfather never liked to speak of his time in the Curragh and it is a period rarely discussed in Irish history. I suspect there is a certain shame when it comes to the history of internment without trial.

This being my first research visit to the National Archives, I wasn’t entirely sure of how I would find the appropriate records. Were they considered criminal records? Or were they military? Or perhaps they fell under another category entirely? I guess I’ve been spoilt by the easy access to online catalogues. I approached the archivist on duty and sought her help. I think it shows how rarely these records are consulted that it took her some time to figure out what they were held under. We eventually located some of the records related to the Curragh under the Department of the Taoiseach. Although I didn’t locate anything specifically connected to my grandfather on this visit, I did come across one illuminating account of how order was maintained in the camp. Some of the guards carried guns and during one particular disturbance, they opened fire on the internees. A number were injured and one died of his wounds not long afterwards. I don’t know if my grandfather was present for this disturbance or if he had any involvement in it. I can tell I have more research to do and I have become curious about delving into this period. If anyone reading this does have more information or photos of internees from the period, please send me a message.

All of this has made me realise that genealogy doesn’t stop within recent memory. Just because we knew a previous generation, doesn’t mean that there is nothing more to uncover. Sometimes these secrets may be uncomfortable but that is the inherent risk with delving into our family history.

 

Why Genealogy?

This post was prompted by a very thought provoking blog from John Grenham last week titled ‘Why Do You Love Genealogy’? It’s something anyone considering a career in genealogy or even approaching it as a hobbyist should read and ponder on. It’s certainly something everyone will have their own perspective on. I felt that it might be useful to write up my own thoughts on this question and a good way to get back into regular blogging.

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Reading Room in National Archives of Ireland

So why did I decide to become a professional genealogist? At first glance it might not seem like a smart career move. Unless you work for a company in an office somewhere (such as Ancestry or Findmypast) then chances are you will be going solo. There are no set hours. Genealogists by their nature tend to be slightly obsessive and tenacious. We will sometimes work long into the night exploring the latest record sets or just trying to track down that elusive ancestor.

But that is a big part of what I enjoy about being a genealogist. There is the thrill of discovery. It’s hard to describe that feeling of achievement when you finally decode the information on a marriage certificate or that census form. Each clue can lead you in unexpected directions. There is always something new to learn. No enquiry is ever exactly the same. A seemingly routine search could start in a neighbouring parish and take you halfway around the world before ending back where you started. But on that journey you uncover so many amazing stories.

As someone who is obsessed with history, genealogy is also an eye opener. Too often we only learn history through the big events. The rise and fall of empires, the wars and famines, the ascension of kings to thrones. But genealogy gives you a different perspective. Instead of the broad sweeps you discover the smaller, more intimate stories. Sometimes these will even contradict the established narrative surrounding past events.

But perhaps what I enjoy most about genealogy is that it matters. We can watch the various celebrity genealogy shows and roll our eyes a bit (“Well of course they are going to be related to royalty aren’t they?”). But even with all the editing and multiple shots required for an episode of a tv series, we shouldn’t underestimate just how strongly we feel about our ancestors. Often when we research them, the stories we uncover will tell us something about ourselves. Whether we like it or not, our ancestors form part of our sense of identity.

I’m sure I could write a lot more and maybe someday this will form the basis of an article or a talk. But for now I think what I’ve written above will suffice. Hopefully I’ll have more thoughts soon.