The cowboy taxonomist rides again

One of the perennial problems I face is responding to the question “What do you do?”

“Genealogist” doesn’t quite cover it (and constitutes a dangerous open invitation to tell me about Granny Murphy). “Software developer” isn’t right either, because all the software I do is connected to Irish genealogy and heritage. Same for “writer”, same for “teacher”.

Poster - Destry Rides Again (1939)_01
That’s me, in the red hat

Twenty years ago, out of sheer badness I occasionally used to answer, “I’m a cowboy taxonomist”.  Taxonomy is the science of pigeon-holing, and at the time I was deeply involved in developing the software that underlies almost all of this website. It entailed dozens of interrelated categories and sub-categories, all ready to store information about genealogical sources.

To my surprise, I found I enjoyed it. As I put it to a poor, puzzled soul I once cornered as a party: “I have no interest in looking at every single gravestone transcript in Co. Tyrone. But I really, really want to know where they all are.”

When I originally collaborated with The Irish Times in putting the results of this cowboy taxonomy online, the plan in the back of my mind was that I’d use that income to keep on expanding and populating those pigeon-holes. And to some extent, that’s what happened. To misquote John Lennon, now I know how many pigeon-holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

But many other things got in the way over the years, and the expansion slowed way down.

The collaboration with The Times is now ending, and one of the unexpected side-effects is that the classifying juices have started flowing again.

Already, the way newspaper transcripts is handled has changed completely – you can now compare, county-by-county, what years of what relevant newspapers are online (look at Waterford, for example). General Register Office records likewise, now down to local registrar’s district level.

And I have plans. Map the surnames in Pender’s Census. Rejig the old step-by-step wizard to reflect the revolution in online access. Master the explosion of new gravestone transcript sites. More record-images, more maps –  Irish research ever simpler, ever more transparent.

Which suggests another response to that what-do-you-do question: “OCD genealogist”. Or is that just tautology?

The crocodile got dentures: parting ways with ‘The Irish Times’

After 18 years, the Irish Times/Irish Ancestors sub-site is winding down and transferring here, johngrenham.com.

IrishAncestorsIT
Then …

From this morning, the Times is no longer accepting payment for any reports, instead offering a link that will take the user here, to a free version of each report. From next week, some of the legacy services will be redirected, telling users (and Google) that the service has moved permanently. A week-by-week process will increase the number of services redirected until May 23rd, when the Irish Times sub-site will cease to operate.

IrishAncestorsNow
Now

All the services on this site will remain free until May 11th,  after which a soft pay-wall will ask for a small monthly subscription after five free daily page-views. All users who have paid for Irish Times/Irish Ancestors reports will continue to have full free access here.

Obviously, I have mixed feelings about the change.  From the very outset in 1998, it was clear that a genealogy sub-site was out of place on a newspaper website, especially a genealogy sub-site not fully owned by the newspaper. I always thought of the relationship as symbiotic: I was the little bird that picked the crocodile’s teeth.

Ironically, it’s the success of the internet itself that has finally produced this parting of the ways. While the Times website was the Cinderella of the organisation, hard-working but neglected, my sub-site was welcome. But as the online side came front and centre, the Ancestors bit fell behind,  increasingly clunky and out-of-date.

By last year, it was clear that there were only two options. Either the sub-site got serious attention, with redevelopment and some marketing muscle, or it had to go.

In the end, it’s entirely understandable that, if the choice was between using scarce resources for online journalism or for redeveloping a genealogy sub-site, there could only be one result.

The crocodile got dentures.

You and me and Kim Jong-Un

Most people have very limited horizons when they think about their ancestors. It’s hard to feel a direct personal connection with anyone more remote than a great-grandparent. Eyes glaze over when you try to tell people of earlier generations, and one good reason is that the numbers inflate so rapidly, to the point of disbelief. How can you possibly have almost 33,000 direct ancestors just five centuries back? (The answer, of course, is that you can’t: think cousin marriage. Then think of something else.)

KimJongUn
The very man

But when you lift your eyes to the geological timescale things start to get really peculiar. A simple, striking, scientific fact is that every single life-form so far examined shares the same ancestor. You, me, Kim Jong-Un, bacteria, jellyfish, dinosaurs, mushrooms and slime mould all descend from a single, original, living being. It has even acquired its own acronym: LUCA, short for Last Universal Common Ancestor. Current theory posits it as a small, single-cell organism, estimated to have lived some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

One of the implications is that the beginning of life on earth seems to have been a unique occurrence in the 4.2 billion-year history of the planet. Understandably, this makes many scientists squeamish – such an event is so vanishingly unlikely it begins to look like evidence for some kind of outside intervention, and legions of microbiologists are busy positing alternatives – unfound alien lines, multiple lines that were outcompeted by ours, cross-species sharing of genetic material. But the strongest evidence is still for a single, unique origin, as Darwin put it in The Origin of Species, “some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed”.

Hence my favourite of the many excuses for unsuccessful genealogical research: “We’re all brothers anyway, man.” Or at least 500th cousins.

The normal laws of time and space do not apply to genealogy

How much can we rely on family oral tradition?

The question is unanswerable without legions of ifs and buts. Take the undying belief of large numbers of families in the west of both Scotland and Ireland that one of their ancestors was a survivor of the wreck of the Armada in 1588. As many as 24 ships were indeed wrecked on the Irish coast, but the conditions that greeted anyone who made it ashore were hardly conducive to procreation. The English military force in Ireland, too small to fight off an invasion, compensated with savagery, slaughtering every Spaniard who couldn’t be ransomed.

Historians of the episode emphasise how few survived by pointing out that an envoy of Phillip II sent to Ireland in 1596 to seek out survivors could find only eight individuals.

streedagh
Streedagh strand in Sligo, site of one of the bloodiest massacres of shipwrecked Spaniards in 1588

But hold on. What about those eight?

If just one of them had two surviving offspring who stayed in Ireland, who in turn each had two offspring – not an unreasonable survival rate – and this rate of reproduction continued in each of the 13 or so generations down to the present, that single survivor would now have 8192 descendants, plenty to provide a basis for a family tradition. Though, of course, the tradition remains impossible to prove.

That’s the difference between genealogy and academic history. Because we focus on individual stories, the strangest statistical flukes crop up again and again. The unlikely Balthazar McGuffin will appear nowhere in the records of the 1870s, where you expect him. But dozens of Balthazar McGuffins will then begin to crop up in the records of freed slaves, or medieval guild rolls, or at the court of Catherine the Great. “Black swan” events like these give historians attacks of the vapours, and very understandably.

As for quantum physics, so for history: at the smallest level, the normal laws of time and space do not apply.