With genealogy blinkers on and up to your tonsils in luverly, luverly databases it can be hard to grasp the implications the records have for other areas of research. An obvious beneficiary is Joycean studies. Many of James Joyce’s characters are based on real individuals, often appearing under their own names. The period he writes about is slap in the middle of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, transparent and free online; Dublin parish registers are also online; and Dublin newspapers, and Dublin directories, and Dublin voters’ lists and maps and …
A few examples: Miss Douce “of the bronze hair”, immortalised in the Sirens episode of Ulysses, set in the Ormond Hotel, was actually Maggie Dowse, “manageress” of the Bailey in Duke St. in 1901 and a sister-in-law of the owner, William Hogan. No doubt “Douce” was a more suggestive variant.
The Dubedat family are celebrated in one of Ulysses’ many joyously puerile jokes – “May I tempt you … Miss Dubedat? Yes, do bedad. And she did, bedad.” And there they are in Dublin Church of Ireland registers, the Du Bedats, Du Bidats, Dubédats …
Like genealogy, collecting Joyce trivia can become compulsive, and can lead in unexpected directions. A four-word headline noted in passing in Stephen Hero, “Mad Cow at Cabra”, recalls the practice of driving cattle through the city streets from the markets in Prussia Street via Phibsborough down to the cattle boats at the North Wall. Sometimes, understandably, a cow would run amok. As so often in Joyce, even the tiniest details are made out of real incidents. The Irish Times of April 2 1904 has two tiny news-items side by side on page 6: “Cow Shot at Cabra Road” and “Supposed Mad Dog”. Maybe even Joyce sometimes got confused?
As well as causing excess mortality in cats, idle curiosity is a great source of unlooked-for discoveries. Grazing the online 1911 census again recently, I tried searching the “infirmities” column under “More search options”. This is the section of the return where individuals were to be described as “Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic”. The aim, one presumes, was to collect medical statistics, and the nature of the afflictions chosen implies interest in heredity. With hindsight, this looks like the beginnings of eugenics.
Inevitably, a large number of people filling out the form misunderstood its purpose, and saw this section as an invitation to tell the government about their health. All of these returns can be retrieved simply by choosing “Other” in the “Specified Illnesses” search box.
In the midst of the cheerful lists of “All right” and “No infirmity”, and the rather less cheerful “Bad Corn” and “Cold in Chest” and “Want of Money”, one return stood out. As their infirmity, Ellen Barry of Churchill Terrace in Sandymount and her two daughters had entered “unenfranchised”. Further investigation showed a number of similar returns, including a Kathleen Shannon of Lower Leeson Street who entered the wonderfully tart “Not naturally [infirm], but legally classed with imbeciles on account of my sex”.
The description of census day on the National Archives website, part of the fascinating and underappreciated contextual material, points out that the suffragette movement throughout the United Kingdom had called for a boycott of the census. Evidently, some suffragettes decided to be visible to history (and the census enumerators) by protesting on the form, rather than simply refusing to fill it out. Further idle grazing even shows a number of women recording their religion as “Militant suffragette”.
This is history in wonderful personal detail, and it is only possible because the National Archives has positively insisted on idle curiosity by making every single aspect of the censuses searchable.
Genealogists tend to focus very closely on questions of evidence. The reason is very simple. Many apparently sound family trees are riddled with inconsistencies, leaps of illogic and undocumented assertions. It is all too easy to waste weeks researching non-existent ancestors before uncovering the flaws in such pedigrees.
Given the nature of much genealogical evidence, with garbled family stories, ludicrously repetitive naming traditions and half-obliterated parish registers, absolute certainty is often impossible. The best a researcher can aim for is a well-reasoned argument that takes account of any surviving records or traditions, and assesses probabilities as dispassionately as possible. Even then, the pattern-seeker’s trap awaits: if you stare at gibberish long enough, it will start to look intelligible.
Take the Irish ancestry of Ronald Reagan. The earliest documented ancestor is Michael Regan, who married in England in 1852 and recorded his father as Thomas. The English 1851 census (very fortunately) gave Tipperary as his place of origin and his age as 21. So far, so good. And the researchers who searched Tipperary parish registers did indeed find a Michael, son of Thomas Regan, baptised in Ballyporeen in 1829.
But at least 20 of the 53 Catholic parishes of Tipperary have no records for the years around 1830. Both Michael and Thomas are unimaginably common forenames and there were more than 50 Regan households in the county at the time. Even for parishes that have records, five minutes on rootsireland (which only covers two-thirds of the county) will get you at least ten Thomas Regans baptising children over the period. So it is perfectly likely, probable in fact, that more than one Michael, son of Thomas, was baptised in the relevant period. A very slender basis on which to build the Ronald Reagan Visitor Centre.
However good the documentation, however impeccable the reasoning, humility and scepticism are always required. In the words of science writer Jonah Lehrer, just because something is true doesn’t mean it can be proved.
And just because it can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.