03 September 2010


     Basically, genealogy is an activity for individuals. Unless we are lucky enough to have a relative sharing the same research goals, we family historians pursue our ancestors by ourselves, online or at archives or libraries. And, for those seeking ancestors of most nationalities and ethnicities, genealogy research can be accomplished alone because their research is dependent on records and written materials. I am often envious when I meet an Italian or English or Polish researcher who was able to discover, in one church or town, ancestors all the way back to the Middle Ages. Rare is the Irish researcher who is so lucky.
     I have written often about the reasons why Irish research is so difficult. History, rebellions, fires, and oral traditions have all played a role in disrupting our ancestors' paper trail.
     I know Irish researchers who have an impressive knowledge of records and borders and boundaries, but still can't find their ancestors. You can't always find your Irish ancestors on a film or a census, or at the NLI or GRO. Sometimes you have to leave the library.
      Sometimes you need a Beatles' song: "I get by with a little help from my friends."
     Irish records can be so very local, and so very scattered, that it is virtually impossible to find them without the help of fellow researchers or Irish locals.
     I am constantly amazed by the discoveries that are made when Irish family historians come together, online or in person, to share their successes and frustrations. There is a group of researchers in the Philadelphia area that meet monthly (we now call ourselves the Irish American Family History Society), and almost every month at least one person is helped by another. Our meetings often include a formal presentation, but we try to keep our format "seminar-styled," with most of the time devoted to sharing.
     I will share some of the tips that the members reported as helpful at this week's meeting:
1. If you are researching or traveling, ask the locals, perhaps in a library or a pub, for the oldest resident or the local historian. One of our members did so in Co. Tipperary and was taken to the oldest woman in the townland, who happened to remember the member's cousin. Other members have asked for introductions to local historians and were able to advance their research considerably. Even here in the US, there is often a person who "keeps" the history of the town or urban neighborhood.
2. Sign those guestbooks when you travel! Some members have been helped by contacting persons they found in guestbooks at bed and breakfasts, museums, and heritage centers. I, myself, was found by a cousin who saw my name in a guestbook I signed in Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone.
3. Ask others to look at the records you have found. There is no substitute for a fresh set of eyes. You never know the details you are missing until someone else points them out. One member had a record that mentioned that her ancestor was a "brushmaker." Once another person pointed out to her that she might want to begin researching brushmakers, she embarked on that route. When she went to Ireland, she met a researcher who knew that her brushmaker ancestor would have been an urban fellow, and they began to look in Waterford City records first before looking at those of the countryside. Not only did she find her ancestor via this research route, her discovery led to other generations.
     So, don't be a wallflower, join the dance! If there is no local genealogical society near you, try to get a few fellow researchers to meet at a local library or coffeeshop. If you go to Ireland, talk to the locals and to the staff at libraries and museums. You are Irish, you have the gift of gab, so use it!