The Genealogy Show 2019

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I’m just back from attending and speaking at the first ever The Genealogy Show, which was held at the NEC, Birmingham, UK on June 7th and 8th. This was my first time speaking at a UK genealogy event. I’m very appreciative to have had this opportunity. It was also great to get a chance to fly into somewhere that wasn’t London. The short flight time between Cork and Birmingham was a major advantage, plus being able to just walk into the NEC from the airport. I didn’t get to explore Birmingham itself but maybe next time.

I was speaking on the Saturday about using oral history for genealogy. I didn’t get a massive turnout for my talk and ran into some technical hiccups when the interview clips I had hoped to play didn’t work. But those who were there seemed to enjoy the talk. Given that this was my first time delivering this particular talk, it gave me the chance to figure out what worked and what didn’t. The next time I give this talk I might go for a title which is a bit more obvious and gives an audience a better idea of what to expect. But I had several interesting conversations with people on the topic of oral history afterwards.

Aside from speaking I also participated in the Personal Wizard consultations. I was most impressed with the fact that the show had laptops at each of the tables, saving the hassle of bringing our own. I don’t know if I was able to help anyone break down their Irish brick walls during the consultations but I would hope I at least pointed them in the right direction. What was of particular interest to me were the amount of Irish who seem to have been in the UK even before the Famine. This shouldn’t be a surprise but due to the increasing numbers who emigrated from the 1840s onwards, we of course tend to associate this period with Irish settlement abroad.

Everyone I talked to was very friendly, from the exhibitors, fellow speakers, to all the show volunteers. Everyone there seemed to be enjoying themselves. There was a wonderful international feel to the show, with exhibitors, speakers and volunteers from the UK, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United States and of course Ireland.

One major highlight for me was getting to meet the author Nathan Dylan Goodwin and pick up a signed copy of his book. His genealogical mystery novels are always something I look forward to. I also was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the new book ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy‘ by my friend Dr Penny Walters.

My only complaint (if you can even call it that) is that I didn’t get a chance to attend more of the talks. I was too busy chatting to people outside.

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The Genealogy Show will return next year Friday 26 and Saturday 27 June 2020. Thank you to all involved. I’m already looking forward to next year and putting together ideas for potential talks.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

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.