Proof, No Pudding

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.

Michael of Thomas Regan and Margaret Murphy, Sepetmber 3 1839, Ballyporeen

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.

Slim foundations never bothered a good step-dancer

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.

10 thoughts on “Proof, No Pudding”

  1. I suppose it was a case of “find a place of origin” at all costs and this was the best they came up with. I’m wondering why no-one questioned it at the time. Well done again,John.

  2. Thanks Mr. G … for trying to keep all of us “family searchers” on the straight and narrow .. tough as it may be sometimes! It is when we find those records that always look just soooo good and possible … we weaken! Shall remember part of the quote above “and just because it can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true”!

  3. Wow I visited that center. If I had known I would have demanded DNA tests to verify a connection. That is rather shoddy research and apparently hasn’t been improved upon. Pres. Reagan has been deceased a long time.

  4. I take it the centre was built in the 1980s. Would this happen today, do you think? My impression (perhaps a wrong one) is that, with increased interest in genealogy and vastly improved access to the Irish records, there is now a better appreciation of standards of evidence.

    (An undocumented assertion on my part, which may represent a leap of illogic!)

  5. Well made point. I’m looking for the baptism of Timothy McCarthy in Cork c/a 1815-20 and there are at least 80 possibilities. At the present I have a top possibility, a #2 possibility, a half dozen plausible others and perhaps 15 maybes. Perhaps I’ll never reach a level of reasonable certainty unless perhaps a DNA lead lets me significantly narrow the search.

    1. Hi Gilbert, I’m researching the family of a Timothy McCarthy too, married to Jane Mahoney, born 1800-1820 in Cork. Minimally there were 9 children and they all had very common names – John, Michael, Timothy, Patrick, Daniel, Cornelius, Denis and Eleanor … but they also had a Peter, which is not a very common name for the time or place. In your search for your own Timothy McCarthy, if you happen to see any baptisms of a Peter McCarthy, son of Timothy McCarthy, please contact me at lindamaitland@telus.net. Btw, our McCarthy family settled outside Quebec City and Timothy, the son, according to his father’s will, left the country for places unknown. Would you like to exchange details?

  6. I’ve had a similar feeling when I watch the genealogy TV shows such as “Finding your Roots”. I have assumed that they have applied some level of due diligence and skepticism which doesn’t make it to the final “on air” show, but I am a skeptic. I think the shows expect that the audience wants pudding, not proof.
    I’m looking for best practices in distinguishing “proof” from conjecture. What would you suggest?

  7. I found this little piece of info on Ronald Regan rather interesting as my GG grandfather’s name was Thomas O’Reagan from Dublin I was told, we have no name of his father or siblings but he was a Catholic going into the priesthood but never completed his vows, took part in the Irish rebellion of 1798 so of course his family would have disowned him and so would the parish he had been attending so I have come up with a dead end. Once he arrived in Canada we have found some information after he married a protestant but again back in those early years Catholics did not marry protestants either.

  8. Hi John,
    What do you think about the more recent genealogical research done on Barack Obama and ex Vice President Joe Biden’s Irish ancestors?
    Having researched my own Cooley peninsula ancestry I was suprised that anyone could trace Joe Biden’s ancestors back there to such an early date with such certainty.

  9. To clarify (in my own American mind), the Catholic Registers for Ballyporeen are associated with both Clogheen and Templetenny:

    http://registers.nli.ie/parishes/0116
    http://registers.nli.ie/parishes/1096

    I descend from Michael and Margaret (Carroll) Mahony who were married in Clogheen on 29 January 1815:

    “Matrim. Conj. Michaelem Mahony & Margaritam Carroll / Joanne Cole & Patritis Carroll Testibus Matthias Casey”

    They subsequently resided in the nearby parish of Kilbehenny, Limerick.

    I am interested in connecting with anyone else researching the Carroll families of Ballyporeen/Clogheen/Templetenny. It seems likely that Patrick Carroll was a close kinsman of Margaret (Carroll) Mahony.

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