When You Assume

It is natural when conducting research to rely, in part at least, on assumptions. Sometimes when the paper trail becomes patchy they are all we have to go on. But these assumptions can sometimes lead us down the wrong path. We are often told that people in Ireland didn’t move around much before the mid 20th century. That if we could trace them to a particular region then there was a good chance they had been there with several generations. However, recent research for clients and into my own family has made me rethink this.

For instance when we receive information from elderly family members we tend to trust it. That information might state the family had been present in that particular area since records began. Of course we’re going to assume this information is correct, especially if we don’t have a reliable paper trail. It makes for a good starting point in our research and can help us get further. Unfortunately putting too much faith in this information can lead to mistakes. Recently I’ve been doing research into a particular branch of my family in Tipperary, prompted by contact with DNA matches on Ancestry. I had information from my grandfather, written down several years ago, giving a year of birth and location for his maternal grandfather. It was within the same parish and seemed plausible so I didn’t see a need to question it. It was only as I went back further and started digging into the parish registers and other records that I began to realise there could be a mistake. A marriage record suggest this individual married into that particular townland. It still places him in the same parish so not a huge deal. However, looking for baptismal records for the year he was born raises questions. The only individual with that name born in that year within the county is listed as being born several parishes over. Not impossible and goes back to assuming people always stayed within the same area. However, when I searched for his death record the age was off. For those born before civil registration was introduced in 1864 sometimes they simply guessed at their age. So that’s not completely reliable either. However, looking at the census records also throws up questions. This individual is listed on the 1911 census as being born in Co. Limerick originally. All of this evidence taken together is too much to ignore and it suggests the information from my grandmother was incorrect. I can understand where the mistake came from. In the days before online research I assume my grandfather or someone else before him simply asked the local parish priest to look into it for them. He found an individual with that name in a nearby parish and assumed it must be them. This is a mistake that any of us can make and frequently do, even professional researchers.

Talking of parish records, another area that can cause confusion when searching on certain websites are the diocesan boundaries. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the boundaries for a diocese don’t always correspond to the county boundaries. So parts of Cork are in Kerry diocese and some parts of Kerry fall within Cork and Ross. Most of North and East Cork is under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Cloyne and a lot of South Tipperary is part of Waterford and Lismore. This also holds true for parishes. Some parishes sit in more than one county, such as Kilbehenny which straddles Tipperary and Limerick. This is especially important if you are searching for records on Roots Ireland. I was puzzled recently as to why my search for baptismal records in South Tipperary wasn’t producing results, until it was suggested I try searching under Waterford. Suddenly I was getting a lot more information. You can check out a map of the various Irish diocese below.

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When searching for ancestors we should also keep in mind the upheaval caused by the Famine. When we think of migration, we tend to imagine outward migration, of people saying their goodbyes on the quayside before embarking for a new life in America, Australia or the UK. But we shouldn’t ignore internal migration. The Famine led to depopulation and an availability of land. Should we be surprised that some took the opportunity to take land elsewhere, even if it was just a neighbouring parish?

So the lesson is to never put too much faith in our assumptions. Don’t be afraid to question received information and to independently verify. It might mean disproving long cherished family myths (which isn’t always appreciated) but the whole point research is to know for certain.

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Crowdsourcing

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A dog living it up. Courtesy of the Poole Collection from the National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive

I originally had a different topic in mind for the latest blog but reading this article about the National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive got me thinking about crowdsourcing and some of the projects out there which take advantage of it.

What exactly is crowdsourcing? According to the Miriam Webster dictionary it can be defined as “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.” Wikipedia might be the most well known example, although there is disagreement as to whether it truly counts as crowdsourcing.

Not surprisingly many genealogy and family history related projects have been keen to tap into crowdsourcing. Sometimes we do it without even realising what we are doing. One of the best examples is on social media. Many of us will have at one time or another posted an image of a difficult to read record in a Facebook group or on another platform in order to solicit help from others.

However there are a number of more formal projects based around the crowdsourcing method. Many of those who engage in researching family history, either at an amateur or professional level, will be familiar with the free website FamilySearch, which is run by the Church of Latter Day Saints. While the website is a treasure trove of genealogical information, not everything on it is indexed. As a free website there is a limited amount of resources they can devote to indexing all these records, particularly when new records are constantly being added. The solution is to allow members of the public to participate in this indexing. If you are frustrated at the difficulty in trying to locate a record on FamilySearch then one solution is to lend a hand with the indexing. That way other researchers won’t have the same problem. You can find out more here.

In Ireland, our institutions have been quick to embrace crowdsourcing. In 2011, the National Library of Ireland uploaded it’s photographic archive to Flickr, making them freely available to browse from anywhere in the world. Alongside that, the library began soliciting help from users to identify the places and people featured in the photos. I wrote a post on this collection a few years ago when discussing sporting ancestors. I would highly recommend browsing through the collection. Who knows what family secrets you might help uncover or mysteries you might be able to resolve.

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The National University of Ireland Maynooth also saw an opportunity with crowdsourcing when they created the Letters of 1916 project. Launched in 2013, this was the first public humanities project in Ireland. The original goal of the project was to collect letters from 1916 and make them available online. The letters weren’t just those belonging to libraries, archives and universities. Members of the public were also encouraged to contribute their own letters from the period to the project and collection roadshows were held around the country. Once a letter has been contributed, volunteers can register to assist with transcribing. The letters cover a wide range of topics, from official government correspondence to letters of a more personal nature. The project has been such a success that it’s remit has been expanded to cover the entire revolutionary period in Ireland, from 1916 to the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923. Anyone can volunteer and it’s a great way to learn more about the period.

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If you have an interest in Irish folklore, then my recommendation would be to explore the Schools Collection of the National Folklore Collection. These stories were collected by primary school children throughout the country in the 1930s and came from interviews they conducted with relatives and neighbours. The stories range from the origins of local placenames, to tales of the supernatural. Volunteers are needed to assist in transcribing the collection. It’s always worth doing because you never know what you might find. Searching through the collection revealed that some of my own relatives had been collectors.

There are many more examples of crowdsourcing projects out there and most don’t require more than an hour or two of your time every so often. Be warned though that once you start volunteering you might find yourself addicted.

Of course, crowdsourcing won’t work for every family history project and it requires effective management in order to succeed. But when it works it can be a great way for professionals and members of the public to learn more about the past.

 

APG Professional Management Conference

I have been a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists for two years today, so it seemed fitting to mark the occasion by talking about my recent experience as a speaker and attendee at the APG Professional Management Conference in Washington DC and also go into a bit of detail about what the association is.

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The Association of Professional Genealogists is an independent organization whose principal purpose is to support professional genealogists in all phases of their work. This includes the amateur genealogist wishing to turn their knowledge and skill into a vocation, to the experienced professional seeking to exchange ideas with colleagues and to upgrade the profession as a whole. The association also seeks to protect the interest of those engaging in the services of the professional.

The APG represents over 2,700 genealogists, librarians, writers, editors, historians, instructors, booksellers, publishers and others involved in genealogy-related businesses. APG encourages genealogical excellence, ethical practice, mentoring and education. The organization also supports the preservation and accessibility of records useful to the fields of genealogy and history. It’s members represent all fifty states, Canada, and thirty other countries (including Ireland).

As someone still in the relatively early days of his career as a professional genealogist I have benefited greatly from membership of the APG. It’s not only through their public directory, which has sent numerous clients my way, but also through the resources they make available to members. This includes regular webinars, a quarterly newsletter, report writing samples and guidelines. The APG also has a code of ethics which it’s members are bound by.

One of the great resources made available by the APG is it’s annual Professional Management Conference. This year the PMC was held in Washington DC from September 29th to October 1st. I had submitted a proposal for a paper earlier in the year and to my surprise it was accepted. This is was my first time presenting a paper at such an esteemed gathering. I arrived into DC on the day before the gathering and made it to the hotel just in time for the introductory social gathering that evening. Despite only knowing most of those there through their reputations I was warmly welcomed. The ‘Speed Dating for Professional Genealogists’ event helped to break the ice. Everyone I met there was very friendly and hospitable.

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The conference was officially opened the next morning by the current APG President, Billie Stone Fogarty. Over the course of the three days we were treated to some fantastic speakers. Topics ranged from discussions on particular record sets to the use of DNA in genealogical research to more business focused areas, such as liability, marketing, podcasting, certification and accounting. There were also some inspiring poster presentations on the Saturday evening.

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My own paper on digital preservation and Irish genealogy was well received and it prompted some fantastic discussions afterwards. I was also lucky enough to get to know many of the big names in genealogy. People such as Annette Burke Lyttle, Kate Eackman, Leslie Lawson, Marianne Pierre-Louis, Katherine R. Wilson, Judy Russell (aka the Legal Genealogist) and J. Mark Lowe to name but a few.

A special mention should also go out to Meryl Schumacker, who was presented with the APG Young Professional Scholarship. The purpose of the scholarship is to recognize a student and/or young professional with a significant interest in genealogy and with a strong interest in developing a professional career in genealogy. It’s great to see young genealogists getting this sort of encouragement, given that there seem to be so few working in the profession.

While in Washington DC, I also had an opportunity to visit the US National Archives, the US Capitol, a few of the Smithsonian museums (including the new National Museum of African American History and Culture) and the Library of Congress.

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The US National Archives

The APG PMC proved to be one of the most inspiring events in my career as a professional genealogist and has given me plenty to think about regarding the direction of my career. In the short term I would hope it encourages me to go even further in the service I offer my clients.

Next years PMC will take place in Kansas City, MO from October 4th to October 6th. If you would like a taste of what the 2017 PMC had to offer, members can purchase recordings of twelve of the presentations here.

The next genealogy event for me here in Ireland will be at Back To Our Past next weekend in the RDS. You will find me at the Clans and Surnames stand over the weekend with my colleague Lorna Moloney. Come over and say hi to us if you can.

A Sense Of Place

There is an often expressed sentimentality among the Irish diaspora for the ‘ould sod’ or the original homestead that their ancestors came from. It is something that those of us  living in Ireland too often dismiss or mock. We like to believe that modern Ireland has evolved beyond such concepts, that we are citizens of the world who aren’t tied down to anything as simple as a piece of land or particular homestead. But yet that isn’t quite true. While those of my generation have experienced unparalleled freedom and the ability (at least in theory) to pack our bags and move elsewhere, it is impossible to completely forego all attachments. For myself, I have spent the majority of my life living just outside Cork City. But there is still a part of me that thrills at the sight of the Galtee Mountains and feels to some extent like I’ve come home. Perhaps this is simply due to so much time spent visiting family in Tipperary and walking the region during my childhood.

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Galtee Mountains

Equally I know friends born in Ireland and who have lived out their entire lives here who feel that home is London, Edinburgh or Paris. Our sense of home isn’t always tied to where we lived our entire lives. The next time an enthusiastic descendant of Irish emigrants comes seeking the ancestral homestead, instead of dismissing them or laughing at them, perhaps we should try our best to help them. We might even learn something ourselves in the process.

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Grace Kelly visiting Drimurla, Co. Mayo where her grandfather originated

But how does someone go about this process? Too often many of those researching their Irish ancestry don’t have a lot to go on. Maybe they only have a surname and a vague recollection of a certain county being mentioned by elderly relatives. Sometimes they will get lucky and might have documentation such as a death certificate or passenger listing which lists the place of origin. However, even then the name can sometimes get mangled in the period between boarding the ship and arriving at the destination. This was typically down to a lack of standardised spelling of placenames and also a lack of literacy among those emigrating.

There is help at hand though. One of the best resources for tracing Irish placenames is the Placename Database of Ireland, which can be conveniently found on the Logainm.ie website. The site is very user friendly and is invaluable in trying to locate a specific Irish placename. It provides a listing of baronies, civil parishes and townlands along with streets in Irish towns. For some of these placenames it also has a helpful breakdown of how the name has evolved over the centuries. Many have kept much the same name with some spelling variations, while others have undergone more drastic transformations with the original name being lost completely.

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Another great resource for Irish placenames is Irish Ancestors, John Grenham’s website. Over the years John has amassed a large database of Irish surnames and placenames. His website includes maps of the various different parish types and Poor Law Unions. An invaluable resource when trying to figure out the relationship between the old Civil Parishes and modern Roman Catholic Parishes.

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However, one thing to keep in mind when trying to figure out where your Irish ancestors came from is the unreliable nature of mapping in the age of Google. When planning a trip to Ireland it is easy to look at a map and assume that because it’s a small country that everything must be close together. This isn’t accounting for geography, which Ireland has no shortage of. Neighbouring parishes might be separated by an inconvenient mountain range or a lake, perhaps even both. The road system was often poorly maintained or almost non-existent. The vast majority of people had to travel by foot and as such rarely ventured beyond their own own immediate surroundings. Someone born in Macroom, West Cork is unlikely to have ever set foot in Cork city. Journeys that we can now complete in hours would have taken our ancestors several days.

A very useful means of making sense of the landscape are the Ordnance Survey Ireland Maps. The first maps were produced in 1847 at a scale of at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile. Ireland was the first country to be mapped to such a scale. In times gone by it was necessary to use the physical copies of the maps held in local libraries or purchase them from the OSI. Thanks to modern technology however it is possible to use the online map viewer to overlay the modern and historical maps. This can provide some invaluable perspective on the landscape our ancestors inhabited.

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Historic 6 inch Ordnance Survey map of Ireland 1837-1842

Just remember when researching your family history to underestimate geography at your peril. Also keep in mind there are no shortage of excellent publications on Ireland and it’s landscape. Before making your journey it might not be any harm to pack an old fashioned atlas of Ireland rather than relying on Google Maps and GPS to help you find your way around.

 

How The Other Half Lives

As part of the recent Clans and Surnames of Ireland event in Nenagh, we took a field trip to the nearby town of Portumna, Co. Galway. The purpose of the journey was to visit the magnificent Portumna House and the Irish Workhouse Centre.

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Portumna Castle

Portumna Castle is a semi-fortified stately home which was originally built in the early 17th century as home to Richard Bruke, the 4th Earl of Clanricarde. It was occupied by his descendants until a fire destroyed most of the building in 1826. The house is undergoing significant restoration by the Office of Public Works and currently the ground floor is open to visitors, along with the gardens. We were treated to a talk by the always entertaining and informative Kenneth Nicholls, who went through the history of the family.

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Map of the original floors

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Restoration work continues on the other floors

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Reproductions of family portraits

A few hours spent taking in the splendour of Portumna Castle and the gardens was impressive enough but that was followed up by our visit to the Irish Workhouse Centre, which was on the other side of Portumna.

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Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna

It’s certainly difficult to find a greater contrast between the splendour of Portumna Castle and the grim reality of the nearby workhouse. Going from one to the other, even on a bright sunny day, can be particularly jarring.

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Toilets in Portumna Workhouse

Plenty has been written on the horrors of the workhouse system in Ireland and the squalid conditions that those unfortunate enough to end up there had to endure. It should be noted that the workhouse in Portumna wasn’t among the worst of these institutions. It was built after the Famine, mainly to take some of the overflow from other workhouses in the region. However, conditions inside were far from pleasant. Families entering the workhouse were separated, with little hope of seeing each other again. This included taking children from their parents. Often the only escape was through emigration.

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Sleeping quarters in the workhouse

The workhouse and the stately home might seem to exist in completely separate worlds but they were closely linked. The landlord of the area, or one of his representatives, often served on the Board of Guardians for the workhouse and would have plenty of influence on the conditions endured by it’s residents. Not least in paying for assisted emigrations, which offered an escape from the workhouse. What caught my eye during the visit to Portumna was in the room once used by the Board of Guardians for their meetings. The windows allowed plenty of light in, however the window facing out into the interior courtyard (where the residents would have gathered) was high up on the wall. This meant that while the room was lit, those meeting in the room didn’t have to concern themselves with any views of the abject poverty on the other side of the wall.

Although many records concerning admissions to workhouses in Ireland have been lost, many of the minutes for the Boards of Guardians still survive in local archives. You can find a list of workhouses in Ireland and the location of surviving records here.

When researching your family history it is worth remembering to look at both sides of the social spectrum in order to fully appreciate the times they lived in.

Maximising Your Family History Research

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View of Nenagh from the top of Nenagh Castle

I’m not long back from a great week of genealogy at the Clans and Surnames event held at the  Nenagh, Tipperary. The event was run by the esteemed Lorna Moloney of Merriman Research and involved a week of talks, outings to Portumna, Co. Galway and family history consultations from professional genealogists such as myself. I delivered a talk on the first day of the event titled “Maximizing Your Family History Research: Tracing Your Regional Ancestry”. This talk was delivered mostly off the cuff, without any detailed notes, and no PowerPoint presentation. However, I felt that it might be helpful to put together some of the main points from the talk for anyone who is interested. Some of what I’m about to say may seem obvious but all too often it is the obvious which can trip us up.

My first piece of advice for anyone researching their family history is to discover what they can from their own family before going online. How far back is the Irish connection? Which particular surnames connect you to Ireland? Write all this stuff down and keep it with you. That way if you get an opportunity to dive in your research you will know where to begin.

Don’t put all your trust in genealogy websites. This is not meant as an attack on these particular services, far from it. The various online databases have made a massive contribution to genealogical research and cut down on the amount of time it takes to do research. However, like Google or any other search engine, these websites exist to tell you what is there, not what isn’t. They won’t tell you that a particular record set has a specific gap for the area where your ancestors came from. Instead they will aim to provide you with the closest match. Any online transcription is also prone to errors. Some were transcribed by people who were unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Irish spelling or came from a faded microfilm copy of the records, rather than from the original source. For these reasons it is important to double check and cross reference with other available sources. Hopefully no one database has exactly the same errors as every other. One mistake could have major consequences for your research and cost you years of work.

When searching for your Irish ancestors, familiarise yourself with the historical geography of Ireland. The different types of administrative division can seem confusing at first, especially trying to differentiate between civil and ecclesiastical parishes and wondering what a townland is. But it is impossible to avoid these terms and fortunately there are some excellent books and websites out there that help explain how these different divisions functioned.

Be mindful of distances. It’s easy to look at a modern map of Ireland and assume that your ancestors could have travelled throughout the county or traversed half the country in a single day. The reality is that most of our ancestors probably never travelled further than the neighbouring parish until the early 20th century. This is important to remember if you know your ancestors came from West Cork or Kerry, but you found someone with a similar name in Dublin a year later, and then have your ancestors back in the home parish immediately afterwards. It’s not impossible that this could be your family but ask yourself how would they have travelled such a distance in a time before paved roads, cars or public transport? The majority of Irish people at this time were farmers, who may have been lucky to own a horse and cart. The terrain in many parts of the country wasn’t easy to traverse and many rural roads were even worse than they are now.

There is no substitute for local knowledge. Not everything is online, or at least not with the big websites. Even when they add so many thousands of individual records regularly, they will never get everything. It is often assumed that anything that wasn’t lost in the 1922 Public Record Office fire, must be held in Dublin. That is far from the case. Ireland is fortunate to have an excellent network of county libraries and archives. While not all of them have an abundance of online resources, that doesn’t mean they should be discounted. Once you’ve narrowed the search for your ancestors to a particular area and feel you can’t go any further, why not check to see what is available locally. Perhaps land records, newspapers or street directories held by the local library or archive will provide you with the information you’ve been searching for. Local historical societies are also worth contacting. Perhaps someone transcribed a now lost record set. It can also be worth contacting the parish your ancestors came from directly. Perhaps some registers survive which weren’t included in the National Library microfilms or were simply missed when these records went online.

That being said, there is a lot of valuable information contained in the National Library of Ireland and the National Archives. Only a fraction of their collections are online and they contain a lot of other records which may not seem relevant to your family history at first glance. But they might provide you with some useful context for understanding how your ancestors lived.

DNA can be helpful for getting around brick walls, but it is best used in conjunction with the paper records. It can also create more confusion if all your research tells you that your ancestors came from one part of Ireland but your DNA is matching strongly to another area. This is why double checking your research is important.

The most important lesson is persistence. Genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint. Even professionals run into occasional brick walls. As frustrating as it is, don’t lose hope. There is always a possibility of a new record set appearing which provides you with that elusive clue or maybe just stepping back for a bit to recharge will bestow a sudden flash of inspiration. Perhaps fresh eyes might spot something you overlooked. Some ancestors may always be out of reach, but you can still try to understand the history of the period they lived in. No matter what obstacles you encounter, remain positive.

 

Searching For Connections

I attended yet another excellent workshop at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on Wednesday, organised by the fine folks in the Irish Family History Centre. The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, a PHD student in Kings College London, on the topic of using newspapers to trace female ancestors. Instead of the usual newspaper sources, obituaries and marriage notices, she concentrated on the competitions in newspapers for what they can tell us about peoples lives. It was a fantastic paper and really got to the heart of what genealogy is ultimately about, finding those connections and giving context to the lives of our ancestors.

One of my favourite sources for this is the Schools’ Collection in the National Folklore Collection of Ireland. It can provide some very valuable insight into how our ancestors lived and some of the customs they believed in. The material in the Schools’ Collection was compiled by school children in the 1930s. Under the supervision and guidance of their teachers, they went out and interviewed relatives and neighbours about local folklore. Sometimes you might get lucky and come across a familiar name among the collectors or interviewees. Even if you don’t find someone you know, the folklore itself is fascinating. Some of it might seem far fetched, especially stories about fairies and leprechauns and other supernatural creatures. But we should remember how different the world was for our ancestors, especially those in rural areas before the advent of widespread electrification. Just because they were superstitious doesn’t make them ignorant or stupid.

One of the more interesting pieces of folklore I have come across are the customs centred around various festivals. You can read the transcription here.

Many of these customs were connected to specific parts of the country and might give you insight into how people of the time lived their lives. Too often we only focus on the hardships they must have endured, forgetting that there was more to their lives than just toil and hard work. They had games, gatherings and storytelling.

What is most enjoyable about this collection though is the opportunity to lend a hand in transcribing some of the records. It’s very straightforward and doesn’t take that long to transcribe a few pages at a time. It is especially gratifying when you can transcribe a piece of folklore collected by a relative.