[ A guest post by Tony Hennessy, a friend and a colleague in Accredited Genealogists Ireland who specialises in magnificent bespoke family trees. See the end of this post for an example. His work deserves to be much better known and he should be stinking rich. More at his FaceBook page.]
Once upon a time, not so many years ago, it was believed by some that to have a family history worthy of exploration one must be in possession of a large country estate, a glorious military career or at the very least a double-barreled surname and a magnificent moustache. Happily we have discovered in more recent times, with the help of television programmes and the wonders of the internet, that every family has a story to tell. That being said, many stories simply remain untold and become lost to posterity.
I’ve been engaged of late with a group of Traveller men from Pavee Point, investigating their family histories and recording the results in the form of large family tree charts. While the process is both enjoyable and fascinating, the business of researching Traveller genealogy can also be challenging, to say the least. Where a ‘countryman’ like myself may expect to find their ancestors firmly ensconced in the parish and townland of origin for two, three or more generations a Traveller family might include ten children baptized in six different parishes in four different counties! And don’t expect to find them in the 1901 or 1911 censuses. Only the most zealous of census enumerators ventured forth beyond the confines of bricks and mortar to include those living in barrel-top wagons and makeshift shelters in camps and along the byways of Ireland.
Another challenge is the limited amount of surnames – and first names too. How many Martin McDonaghs or John Reillys can one family contain…?! It may be for this reason that Travellers might refer in conversation to ‘Mikey’s Martin’ or ‘Oul Davy’s Mainey’s John’, not unlike native speakers of the Gaeltacht areas, the name becoming a miniature family tree in itself. For the same reason nicknames are also quite common and so I’ve met Bullstail, Fewsticks, The Needle Collins and the Longtail Quinns and others along the way, all of whose soubriquets we’ve included on the family trees.
Those who died in tragic circumstances or children who died in infancy are so often part of a family’s story, whether they be Travellers or settled people, and while their names may be rarely spoken they – and maybe their photograph – can find a home on a family tree. As well as a genealogical record of one’s ancestors, a family tree becomes a Document of Remembrance.
It is a striking fact that over the course of just one generation the traditional nomadic way of life of the Travelling people has simply ceased to exist. Today’s older generation, whose lives have straddled two very different worlds, are a rich repository of living history and folk memory – and a wonderful source when compiling a family tree – and it is important that their first-hand accounts of Traveller life from that earlier period are not lost as time inevitably rolls on. The story of the Irish Traveller is an intrinsic part of the Story of Ireland itself. On 1st March 2017 the status of the Travelling community as an ethnic minority within the Irish Nation was finally recognized by the State. And there is a Bill currently working its way through the Dáil which, if passed as expected, will include the teaching of Traveller heritage and history as part of the school curriculum. These are big steps along the road to a more understanding and inclusive society and are very much to be welcomed.
At the request of the National Library of Ireland the three completed family trees will be presented to the NLI.