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.

Getting Started

With St Patrick’s Day just gone it seems like an appropriate time to talk about Irish ancestors. They say everyone is a bit Irish on St Patrick’s Day but how do you find out? The goal of this entry is to provide some basic tips on some of the initial steps you can take to get you started and perhaps even make it easier if you intend to hire a professional genealogist to undertake research for you later on.

The first step is to try and identify where in your family the Irish connection is. Even if you have a typically Irish name such as O’Connell and O’Neill, you may be surprised to discover your Irish connection isn’t as obvious as you would think. While the largest bulk of Irish immigration took place in the aftermath of the Famine, there have always been Irish people making their way out into the wider world. Just recently I came across an interesting article about how George Washington allowed his troops to celebrate St Patrick’s Day during the Revolutionary War in 1780. Irish people have been settling in the UK and Continental Europe for even longer.

Once you have identified the Irish connection, then the next step is to try and narrow down a county of origin. This isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Too often we have to sort through conflicting information. You might have folklore that has been passed down through the generations suggesting your ancestor came from a certain part of the country but documentation may suggest otherwise. The best way to be certain is to gather as much information as you can, marriage and death certs, census records and if possible, church records. It’s always possible a baptismal record may contain more detail than a standard birth cert. While people had little hesitation in fudging details when it came to government records, they would always be cautious about lying to their priest.

When you are ready to begin your search in Ireland, take a bit of time to become familiar with Irish geography. Remember that the 32 counties of Ireland break down into countless subdivisions of baronies, parishes, townlands, poor law unions, electoral districts etc. Depending on the time period you are examining, having some knowledge of these divisions can make your search much easier.

Irish Poor Law Union Map (Courtesy http://www.workhouses.org.uk)

Surnames can also be a valuable way to find an ancestor. Even common surnames tend to be typically found in certain counties. For example Ryan is most often found in Tipperary and neighbouring counties, Sullivan in West Cork and Kerry and so on. A very useful guide for the distribution of Irish surnames and their variants can be found courtesy of John Grenham on his website.

Irish records have a reputation for being difficult, partially due to the large gaps left by the Public Records Office fire of 1922. But the truth is that there is a lot of information available, starting with the 1901 and 1911 census. Parish records, land valuations, birth, marriage and death records and even historic newspapers can all be extremely valuable in your search.

Once you locate the county of origins for your ancestors it is also worth checking out the websites of local libraries and archives. They may have information and even transcripts of other records unique to that county or city. This may include specific estate records, commercial directories etc. More and more records are being made available so never assume nothing exists.

DNA can also be useful. Ireland may be a bit behind other countries in terms of how many people have taken commercial DNA tests but it is growing in popularity. Only recently, one of our most popular Irish talk shows The Late Late Show was devoted a segment to discussing DNA in genealogy. You can see an excerpt below and watch the full programme here:

Of course DNA testing isn’t a magic bullet. Sometimes it can cause more confusion but if you feel you’ve exhausted every other option then it is worth doing, especially as the costs for the various tests gradually become more affordable. The Internation Society of Genetic Genealogy has a very helpful introduction to the basics of DNA for tracing ancestry.

If you are seriously stuck and at your wits end, then feel free to consult a professional. We don’t bite and are always willing to offer some advice to get you started. You can find contact details for professionals in Ireland here and here. Local archives and libraries might also be able to put you in touch with an expert in the area you are searching.

The final piece of advice is to never lose hope. It can be tough going and there will undoubtedly be many false trails but in the end hopefully it will be worth it.