28 May 2010


      Sometimes we family researchers see brick walls where they do not exist. We strive for certainty in a field in which certainty does not exist. You want proof beyond ALL doubt that Adam O'Firstman is your 10th great grandfather? Ahhh, 'tis but the stuff of genealogical dreams.      In my last week's post, I discussed the role of hearsay in our genealogical research. So much of the evidence upon which we family historians must rely is tainted by hearsay and other problems of reliability and authenticity. So, the question arises--when can we, in confidence, enter onto our charts and computer programs the "fact" that Adam O'Firstman is our 10th great grandfather?
     If you need that answer for a lineage or heritage society, I must tell you to stop reading right now and consult the society's requirements. If you demand that your research must reach a professional level of proof, then consult a professional or one of the guidebooks on genealogy evidence.
     But if you are like most of us family historians--trying to preserve your family's history with your best efforts--you can avoid many of the pitfalls of bad research methods by understanding the standards of proof. There are two pitfalls to avoid. One is to become so frustrated with the standards of proof that you drop family history research altogether. I recently met a woman who attended a local genealogy class and decided that she would not pursue her family history. She despaired of being able to follow all the rules and "must do's" the instructor had presented. The other pitfall is to be so accepting of those online  public trees that you click on one and import it into your genealogy program and call it your own. Most of us occupy the middle ground, the gray area. At some point, we satisfy ourselves that Adam O'Firstman is an ancestor and move on.
     An awareness of the standards of proof helps us to make an intelligent decision as to when we can move on. We need to be concious of how stong a case we have built for claiming Adam O'Firstman.
1) Reasonable suspicion is the lowest standard. In legal terms, a police officer can stop you but not arrest you if she has reasonable suspicion. So view reasonable suspicion as those genealogical clues that warrant a stop and a bit of research (e.g., family tales say that our ancestors are from Galway).
2) Probable cause will get you arrested. In genealogical terms, probable cause is a signal that you are on the right research path (e.g., an obit saying that Adam O'Firstman was born in Co. Galway).
3) Preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not to be true. This is the standard used in US civil courts. At this stage, you might be comfortable claiming Adam as your ancestor, with source notations and perhaps a note explaining how you reached that conclusion.  You have reached this stage perhaps when you have found a baptism record for Adam O'Firstman, the only man of that name baptized in Galway in a certain decade, plus you have records of this Adam's children, and their names match those of your known ancestors.
4) Clear and convincing evidence is more substantial than "more likely than not."
5) Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard used in US criminal courts. Note that this standard is NOT "beyond ALL" doubt, it only eliminates REASONABLE doubts. Unreasonable doubts can still exist. What is an unreasonable doubt? Well, let's say that Eve O'Firstlady gave birth to you before six witnesses, you have official and DNA records of your existence and parentage, plus you are the spitting image of Eve when she was your age.But if you insist that, as in Irish folklore, Eve is not your mother because the faeries took you from your cradle and replaced you with a changeling, then you are asserting an unreasonable doubt.  From this point, standards of proof become philosophical and scientific arguments--I'm not going there!
     Many of the problems associated with proving ancestry can be avoided by always noting your sources. By doing so, you are preserving the evidence that supports your decision to accept an assertion of ancestry as true. You allow other family members and future generations to evaluate for themselves whether you have met your burden of proving that Adam O'Firstman has earned that spot on your tree branch. By the way, be aware of the difference between "burden of proof" and "standard of proof." The burden of proof refers to the party or person who has the job of persuasion. A prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant guilty. You have the burden of proving that Adam O'Firstman is your ancestor. The standard of proof  measures whether you have met that burden. Always meet your burden of proof by providing sources for your findings.
     Oops, I forgot to mention the standard applied by my late father, may God rest his soul. The "Jim Large" standard places the word "alleged" before every name I have placed in the family tree. Like Dad, some people simply can't be convinced. We all have a "doubting Thomas" in our family who questions all those hours of exhaustive research we have done. But then, my Dad was a cop, and in the justice system, he served at the stage where the criminals are "alleged" and  are "innocent until proven guilty." I am more comfortable in the gray zone since my job as a prosecutor involved building a case and meeting the burden of proof--as does my job as a family historian.
     Welcome to the gray zone!

21 May 2010


     Hearsay evidence can be both simple to explain and difficult to understand in the context of genealogy. In its most rudimentary form, hearsay occurs the moment a person says "he said" or "she said." In its most colloquial form, if it ain't "straight from the horse's mouth," it's hearsay. In court, most hearsay, with some exceptions, is excluded from being presented as evidence. Why? Because the law is suspicious of the trustworthiness of hearsay evidence.  Hearsay has the same faults as the "whisper down the lane" game: by the time a story or fact is retold several times, it is usually mangled. "Grandpa Tim was from Ballykissangel" can become "Grandpa Jim was from Bally, Kilkenny" in a few short generations, especially if the story is related after a few pints at a wake.Like the justice system, we family historians would prefer that our evidence come straight from our ancestor's mouth.
     But, we all know how difficult it is in our genealogy research to find even double or triple hearsay evidence, let alone direct testimony from someone long deceased. So we search and search and search for that reliable piece of evidence that will PROVE that Tim Kelly from Ballykissangel was an ancestor. Well, good luck with that quest! We Irish researchers, we often have to "make do" with evidence that is hearsay or circumstantial or just plain guesswork. That doesn't mean that we have to give up our research, it means that we have to be intelligent and aware researchers so that we can make an educated guess or a sound decision regarding registering information on our family tree.
     A caveat: my remarks are not meant for those who are collecting family records with the aim of obtaining membership in a lineage society. In that case, you must follow the society's guidelines for acceptable proof.
     Family stories, while strictly speaking are hearsay, should not be disregarded. They are folklore--an oral tradition of preserving history. The Irish tradition is an ORAL one--Brehon law was passed down by memorization. The great bards preserved Irish history, not in writing, but in songs and stories and poems. To me, it seems natural that our ancestors relied on the spoken word rather than on records compiled by their rulers. So don't discard your family stories. Maybe the edges of the family lore are frayed, and a few of the stitiches are lost, but the weft and warp of the story containes strands that hold solid and true.     
     We all tend to place great weight on written records, giving them the place of honor on our list of sources. But we often forget that written records can themselves contain information that is far more unreliable than our family lore. Did you ever consider that US census records can contain double or even triple hearsay? Here is a scenario to consider: a tired census taker with a headache scribbles down answers given by cousin Sally who is home from work sick with the flu, has just a vague idea of what year Uncle Tim was born, but answers dutifully because she is scared of the government agent. Are you really going to trust the date of birth in the census over that in the family Bible as recorded by Great Aunt Ellen, Tim's older sister?
     My favorite piece of hearsay is the death certificate. Not only does it contain hearsay, but it is impossible for the subject of the record to correct it, ever.
     Hearsay evidence might not be admissible in court, but it does play a huge role in building a case or solving a murder. When a detective hunts down a suspect, she relies on hearsay all the time. What's the word on the street? Who has heard about the whereabouts of the suspect? What did the suspect say to the victim?  A good detective would have a fine tuned, but discerning, ear for hearsay and its worth. As family historians, so should we.

The Latest Buzz

     The latest buzz in the Irish genealogy world is of two new additions to online records databases. The first is the addition to the site sponsored by Ireland's Department of Culture, Tourism and Sport. The records to be uploaded on June 16th include Church of Ireland records for pre 1900 Dublin City, and also Counties Cork (City and West Cork) and Kerry. Other RC and Church of Ireland records are already available online at
Do keep this site on your favorites list and check it every so often, as the search and records are free.
     The other news concerns the 1901 census. The National Archives, which already has the 1911 census online, plans to upload the 1901 census to its database in June. This census will be available to researchers online in full, not in installments as was the 1911 census. The link to the present Archives census:
National Archives, Ireland, 1911 census

13 May 2010


     This week it's time to catch up with what's new online in the field of Irish genealogy.
     First, a source that is going to disappear very quickly so visit it NOW:  ADAM'S Auctions will be auctioning letters written during the famine years. The auction's online catalog gives detailed descriptions of each letter, including many names. The letters are a heartbreaking glimpse into the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor).
     Next, a reminder to researchers to check the IRISH GENEALOGY PROJECT (IGP) pages at least once a month for new files that have been added. In April, the IGP added the following:
CO. CLARE (Photos of Quin Friary; Returns of deaths for Lahinch, Moymore, and Sandfield Auxiliary Workhouses)
CO. DOWN (Rent Roll 1749 Estate of Captain Ross)
CO. DUBLIN ( Deansgrange Cemetery; photos of Crinken St. James and Shankill St. Anne's;  directory of Apothecaries 1791-1829; Dublin Gazette list of Fugitives for Debt 1730-1)
CO. FERMANAGH (photos of St. Tierney's in Roslea)
CO. GALWAY (Kilclooney Cemetery)
CO. KILDARE (4 Dec 1739 Fugitives for debt)
CO. KILKENNY (Kilkenny landowners 1870's)
CO. MONAGHAN (Kilmore Church of Ireland graveyard)
CO. TIPPERARY ( Evictions 7 Sept 1885)
CO. WICKLOW (photos of Bray Methodist Church; headstones of Burgage Cemetery in Blessington)
CO. WESTMEATH (headstones of Multifarnham Cemetery)
     The IRISH FAMILY HISTORY FOUNDATION (IFHF) has added more records to its online database. For those researchers who have not yet used the IFHF database, it contains over 40 million Irish (Northern Ireland and Republic) birth/baptism, marriage, and death records. The search is free but returns only a limited glimpse of the records--viewing the details of each record costs 5 euro. The IFHF has recently added Co. Wicklow Church of Ireland records, Derry City gravestone inscriptions, and Inishowen (Northeast Donegal) records.
     Finally, I want to give a "shout out" to a fantastic personal family history site created by John Meehan. His Meehan pages are a wonderful collage of names, records, photographs, and stories. His site also includes other family names such as Doyle, 0'Connor, and Lynch.

07 May 2010


     I would like to pause today and pay tribute to the hardships that our Irish ancestors overcame to establish their new lives in the United States. Whether they settled in the cities or on farms, coast or prairie, rarely are any of our ancestors' stories a tale of easy assimiliation and streets of gold. We researchers often look at census records from the mid 1800's, in particular, and forget to stop and think about what historical events the people listed might have experienced first-hand. I would like to hightlight one such historical event, the anniversary of which occurs today. It happened in Philadelphia, but the experiences of those immgrants were mirrored elsewhere and shed light on the welcome your ancestors might have received in America during that time period.
     On this week in 1844, the Irish immigrants in Philadelphia experienced violence, fire, and death at the hands of anti-Irish mobs. Generally, the mobs were said to have been incited by Nativist or Know-Nothing political parties. Historians, of course, have various views of the instigators and causes, so I will not delve into a historical discussion here, but will post links below for those who care to learn more about the riots. The violence began on May 6th, 1844, and by May 8th many buildings and churches were burning, including St. Michael's on North 2nd Street, where my great-grandmother was baptized. (An aside here for Philadelphia genealogical researchers--records were lost in the fires) .
     This sad anniversary reminded me that my ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They were not only witnesses to history, they were part of it. Was my great-great grandmother Mary Lagan in any danger from these mobs? Did Owen Tracy, her future husband, get hurt? Were they scared? Did they watch their church burn?  Did they wish they were back in County Tyrone?
     What prejudices and hardships did your ancestors experience? How did they feel when they were called names or denied jobs?  If you don't know, please take time out from climbing your family tree and explore the history of their times, their cities, and their own little neighborhoods. Learn about their "shoes," then place yourself in those shoes.
     Then, thank them.


05 May 2010


Wow! I am posting a link below to a report submitted by Jim McNamara to the Clare County Library. It is a great example of the wealth of information contained in the Outrage Papers (see my previous blog post about them).
(A reminder--check out the Clare County Library site and visit the other  Irish libraries online sites--a wealth of information continues to be placed online by county and local libraries!)