herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Don't get me started: Genealogy

Has anyone else noticed the current, and growing obsession with genealogy? Years ago, people used to go to great lengths to bury family secrets of any kind -- what you didn't know wouldn't hurt you -- but these days, we want to know them all, good or bad. The good bring admiration, but even the bad bring a certain amount of kudos.

The success of the show Who Do You Think You Are?, made armchair genealogists out of all who watched. Suddenly, in this modern world of therapy and self-analysis, we all wanted to know who we really were, as if the past could somehow go some way to explaining the present. And there are myriad reasons as to why we want to know about our history.

It could be for historical or sentimental reasons, or medical ones, to create a document to pass on to children, or to work out if we can blame our ancestors for at least some of our current woes. I met a man recently who wanted to prove that infidelity was in his family's genes (there's one for Tiger Woods!)

The topic of ancestry and family trees has become a regularly overheard conversation among folk; people chatting about how they would love to have someone pull together their family history as thoroughly as "that show on the TV does". But for years, we always assumed that taking on something like this ourselves would be simply too daunting; hours spent in libraries, sifting through church records or not knowing even where to begin with national archives. But with today's prodigious access to information, this potential knowledge is not necessarily a research team away.

At least getting started has never been easier. With the 1911 Irish census now available to anyone with access to the Internet, and the 1901 census to follow by the middle of this year, a trip to the past can be done in your lunchtime.

The online censuses are a truly fascinating experience. There are the almost alien job descriptions in comparison to today's classifieds, the vast number of people in one family under one roof, and the tragic evidence of lost children. There is also an option to view a scanned-in copy of the actual census paperwork, and seeing these forms, in the handwriting of your grandparents or great grandparents is astonishingly moving.

However, this is not serious research. It is an important and compelling resource for all of us but you'll have to be prepared to use a bit of elbow grease; and bear in mind that what you dig up may not be what you hoped for.

I came across a story some years ago, about a woman in the US who was convinced she didn't belong to the family she was raised in. It clearly seemed to be snobbery rather than any deep-rooted disconcertedness that was the motivation for this logic. She believed she must have come from better stock, despite the fact that her family had given her plenty of love. But nonetheless, she went to great lengths to trace as much of her family tree as possible, and guess what she found out? She was indeed part of that family, and she had accidentally married her cousin eight years previously. Ouch.

We all have an idea of who we are; yes we are a product of the past, but we are equally one of the present. If you want to put together a family tree as a thoughtful gift, or a resource for future generations, then go for it; and enjoy the journey. If your motivation is to make yourself more interesting through your ancestors, or the hope of discovering you are the rightful heir to a fortune, then be warned; you may just find out that you've married your cousin.

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