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.