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