No wands, no pointy hats

One aspect of genealogy I’ve always loved is that it can’t be mass produced. When you get past one or two generations, possible family connections mushroom with head-spinning speed. This is the very definition of scientific chaos theory: a butterfly flaps its wings in Venezuela and suddenly you have more fourth cousins than the entire population of New York.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped people (corporations) from trying. One of my earliest involvements in genealogy was with an American tour company advertising mass-produced family trees as part of a package tour of Ireland. It lasted one season, after the hapless tourist reps had to fend off outraged visitors waving their single-page reports and wanting the tour coach to go simultaneously to Cork (the Crowleys), Longford (the Kiernans) and Donegal (the Gallaghers).

IFHF researchers find a Murphy in 1990

Even the group behind the wonderful, the Irish Family History Foundation, started life as attempted mass tourism, a network of centres where the tour coaches were supposed to pull up for the tourists to file past researchers in white coats busy printing out their ancestry from giant bleeping computers.

And that little ad probably flashing at the bottom of the page even as you read this?  Just enter a surname and have their AI get your lineage back beyond Adam? Mar dhea.

Such ads also embody the belief that things have to be constantly simplified for researchers, which is the source of endless problems as sites try to shoehorn everything into the same over-simple framework. No! Complicate things!

The wizard start page

This much said, I’m partly guilty of something similar. The step-by-step wizard on this site is an attempt to take whatever someone knows about their Irish ancestor and produce an nonthreatening summary of sources and links to get research going. It’s modest enough, just trying to apply the trigger-dates and locations to the information entered. A gentle kick-start, in other words.

The latest YouTube video walks through the wizard a few times with different information. It’ll give you a sense of how much (and how little) the thing can do.

No wands, no pointy hats.

5 thoughts on “No wands, no pointy hats”

  1. But, I am certain you look dashing in a pointy hat…
    Thank you for this little wizard. I learned a few alternate spellings from it and believe those will come in very handy.

  2. The magic wands of Royalty and some churches had made the tracking of some ancestors almost impossible beyond the seventeen century time line
    History of Irish name records have been tampered with in terms of land areas parish names and when somebody could , or could not be bothered to register a new born , a d then the elderly denomination had a spurt on their ages to record that they were old enough to claim a pension .
    What the hell happened to owning up and honesty?

    1. I think that maybe a little unfair on our ancestors and officials of the time.

      Firstly official bdm records only started in 1864 in Ireland, so up until then church records were the only official records. Priests didn’t have the same education they have now and often had stock Latin phrases for official records, and recorded the bare
      Imagine it’s the middle of winter and your registration office is 20km away, you have no transport and the most accessible route is a single un-tarmaced path. Added to that your wife maybe unwell after childbirth or your primary concern is providing food of any sort. I think I’d be tempted to leave it for a while, as time goes on you forget. Or you’ve left it beyond the legal deadline and face a fine, so you lie about the date; which is why some dates of birth appear after dates of baptism.

      Birthdays weren’t important and rarely celebrated, even when my parents were young, so actual age only became important when the pension came into being.

      Also many of the population couldn’t read or write, so the registrar would have to make an educated guess as to the actual or intended spelling based on his experience. Accents and pronunciation must have varied as much then as now, so it wouldn’t have been an easy job.

      It’s all part of the fun and a chance to play detective. The satisfaction in resolving a missingor out of place relation is similar to solving a detective novel or jigsaw puzzle.

  3. Well said. We have to remember how little spelling mattered to people who could barely read. Even Shakespeare spelled his name differently in various places. Go on the internet today and attempt to correct someone’s spelling or grammar mistake and you get told ‘Who cares!’ ‘Don’t be the spelling police.’

  4. In my searching the name McDonnell (my Mam’s maiden name) I have come across so many registered variations of the name, in one case the father was MacDonald, the son was MacDonnell and the grandson was McDonnell. I go with whatever the registered spelling was and leave it at that.

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