How I got into this mess

Anyone working in genealogy is regularly asked “How did you first get involved?” which I translate as “How the hell did you get into this mess?”

Here’s the long version of my response.

Forty years ago, I had been living in Italy for four years, teaching English as a foreign language in private language schools and had become deeply Italianised. Italy has everything – food, culture, style, history, landscape, weather … I thought Italians had completely mastered the art of living well. I wanted to be Italian.

But TEFL in a private language school anywhere is not the most fulfilling or lucrative way to earn a living, so I decided to come home to do the Ph.D. which would then enable me to get a university job in Italy.

Grotesquely badly-dressed and inexplicably happy Irish people, 1981

Back in Ireland (which to my Italianised eyes then seemed to be full of grotesquely badly-dressed people eating grotesquely terrible food but all having a great time), I had to fund myself. A friend’s partner with a degree in history was doing piece-work for the Genealogical Office. Though like everyone else in the country at the time, I thought of professional genealogy as a form of intellectual jarvey-ism, the piece-work side suited perfectly. I could make the rent in a day or two, then switch back to the doctorate.

The friend said his partner wouldn’t mind helping me start (without bothering to ask her first, sorry about that Anne), so I turned up at the GO office in the National Library, picked up a research file, wandered out into the Reading Room and fell flat on my intellectual face.

Eventually, I learnt the ropes and discovered to my surprise that I had an aptitude for it, which mainly consisted in having a very high boredom threshold. The amount of research required to make a living escalated steadily until I was completing more than a dozen research files a week, had settled down happily and was beginning to look for ways to climb the genealogical food chain. But that’s a different story

What about the Ph.D? Big mistake. First, for all my Italianisation, I hadn’t realised that it’s impossible to get work in Italian third level education without being part of a well-established mutual back-scratching network. Second, I made a disastrous choice of subject for the Ph.D., the poetry of John Ashbery. Yes, the John Ashbery who died a year ago at the age of ninety. The John Ashbery renowned for his productivity, who published almost thirty books of poetry, most of them after I started my thesis on him. He just outwrote me.

My early induction into Irish genealogy

And the short version of my response is that I was cursed in my cradle by an evil fairy.

Is the Golden Age of Irish genealogy over?

Golden Age? What Golden Age, you might ask.

All things are relative. For decades, Irish research fumbled awkwardly around the great smoking crater that was the destruction of the PRO in 1922.  Genealogists were viewed askance by Irish archives, and not without reason: one of my most vivid memories is of watching a colleague speed-search a box of original 1911 returns, creating a tiny blizzard of 80-year-old paper fragments in air around her. A few more speed-searches like that and there’d have been no 1911 left.

Before digitisation

We were groping in the dark, finding the same nothing again and again. No wonder our hearts leapt when the first digitisations began – the old, deeply-flawed CD-ROM index to Griffith’s, the fuller Eneclann/National Library transcript, the early 1911 censuses for Dublin, Belfast and Kerry. (Why Kerry? Because the Minister for Arts at the time was from Kerry. Whatever made things happen.)

And then the dam burst: the Catholic registers, all the surviving censuses, and post-1858 wills, rootsireland’s collection going online and finally the mother-lode, the General Register Office’s birth, marriage and death collection at (See here for a rough list of what’s currently online.)

After digitisation

Four sources are almost universally relevant for Irish genealogy, the GRO records, the surviving censuses, the surviving church records and the two nineteenth-century tax surveys, Griffith’s and the Tithe Books. All four are now online, substantially complete and mostly free to search.

For a few years, it seemed like every six months brought another wonderful breakthrough. If those years were a Golden Age, it is certainly over. There’s plenty still to be done improving what’s there, and filling in what’s missing – Church of Ireland registers, estate papers, the Land Commission records and much more. But the big beasts have been slain.

It was a Golden Age that made our ancestors findable at last. Now all we have to do is actually find them.

Genealogy is just not that interesting.

Ok, I only wrote that to get your attention.

But … there is some truth in it. The stamp-collecting side of family history, adding name after name and pasting them into the album, can be compulsive, but it’s a little dull. As my mother used to say, “What are you interested in them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?”

John Lennon’s not very interesting stamp album

So why do I do it? First off, the research can be good fun. A lifetime of mislaying car keys has left me with a passion for finding things. Fitting them together once they’re found can also be deadly – all those gnarly little puzzles entangling records and families.

More seriously, a lot of genealogy involves reknitting broken family connections and uncovering forgotten family members. I remember one woman telling me about a family photograph from the early 1900s from which her great-grandmother’s face had been cut out. This was the only picture of the woman that survived and the family had long wondered if this was revenge in some long-forgotten feud. Then, clearing out a deceased grand-uncle’s attic, she found a locket with the cut-out photo. Far from revenge, it was love that had taken the face.

And genealogy is also the business end of microhistory, famously defined by Charles Joyner as the ‘search for answers to large questions in small places’. All of the written histories that have stayed with me are small scale with great ambitions: Iris Origo’s mesmerising reconstruction of the life and character of a run-of-the-mill thirteenth-century Florentine trader, The Merchant of Prato; Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, three decades of a medieval French village brought stunningly to life; Frank Dikotter’s monumental evisceration of Mao and his legacy, The Tragedy of Liberation, Mao’s Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution, all done with local archive material and eyewitness accounts, creating an unanswerably detailed mosaic of everyday horror.

In Ireland too, small places have raised large questions. The townland of Ballykilcline in north Roscommon was the scene of a violent rent war in the 1840s. The end result was the dispersal and emigration of almost its entire population. Two wonderful matching microhistories tease out the causes and consequences. Robert Scally’s The End of Hidden Ireland (1997) describes the conflict, resulting evictions and mass emigration, and Mary Lee Dunn’s Ballykilcline rising: from famine Ireland to immigrant America (2008) takes the story up on the other side of the Atlantic.

One thing all microhistories have in common is that they always, rightly, show lives as ever more complicated, always unfinished, with no simple moral tally.

So in future, when people ask me what I do, I’ll tell them I’m a microhistorian. All 5’6″ of me.