I had myself a bawl

I’ve often been publicly sceptical about some of the claims of genetic genealogy. “Ethnicity estimates”, in particular, seem to me about as scientific as the old apartheid test that marked a child as “nie blanke”. Does a pencil fall through their (straight European) hair or catch in their (kinky non-European) hair? University College London’s Department of Bio-sciences calls this stuff “Genetic Astrology“.

So I settled down to watch the BBC’s “DNA Family Secrets” with beady eye and curled lip at the ready. And ended up in floods of tears.

There’s nothing innovative about the format or the production: each show takes three individuals or families who want to use DNA testing to answer a particular question, usually to clarify a missing family member. The questions are teased out, the telegenic scientist tells them how hard it’s going to be, they come back to find out the results and have their big reveal. Very little technical detail is included, but occasional glimpses do emerge of the vast amount of research done.

For example, one Liverpool man with no idea of his father’s identity discovers he’s alive, in Ireland, with a fleet of children all delighted to discover the link.

The telegenic scientist, Dr. Turi King

But confirming that link needed a huge amount of work: first identifying a fourth cousin in the US via DNA; then locating the common ancestral family in nineteenth-century Ireland through documentary research; then working forward to uncover a range of possible living descendants/relatives; then persuading some of them to take their own DNA tests. The research work probably took more than a year, but only the end results are shown, taking about five minutes airtime. The BBC have deep pockets, and they use them well.

With the mystery solved and the new family revealed, though, the effect is extraordinary, and wonderfully touching. On every table between presenter and individual sits a large and necessary box of tissues. Deep pockets, used well.

Two general points in the end, I think.

First, DNA research can be astonishingly powerful. With work and care, it can fill in seemingly impossible gaps in family knowledge.  But the same power can also throw up unexpected (non-televised) results that might easily damage existing families. So use with caution.

And second, the emotional impact of seeing fractured families heal is enormous, and makes terrific TV. Either that or I’m a big crybaby.

Online estate maps

A few weeks back, someone (Hi Donna) contacted me to tell me about some wonderful estate maps they’d found online. Here they are, and if your ancestors were from Kildrumsherdan in Cavan, congratulations.

And then I started thinking about where online the records are. The National Library of Ireland web catalogue has always been more than just an online finding aid for NLI holdings. It includes almost 70,000 historic Irish photographs, lots of weird and wonderful eye-candy and of course my pets, the Betham prerogative will abstracts.

Weird and wonderful eye-candy

But I’d always thought of the digital parts of the catalogue as fautes-de-mieux, visually interesting bits and pieces shoehorned online via the catalogue for want of a better alternative. No no no.

It’s now  a major route for NLI digitisation, with a huge selection of manuscripts and images, as well as a  plethora of criteria to play with. You can slice and dice by era, topic, format, author, region … And suddenly  it’s 5 am.

Still weird, less wonderful

The real question, at least for genealogists,  is how items are chosen for digitisation (and why more estate rent rolls and tenants’ lists aren’t there). NLI’s need to  play its part in historic commemorations is one clear criterion. For the decade of the revolution that created the Irish state, there is a magnificent online manuscript collection,  a trove of letters, trial records, posters, handbills, even an envelope containing “One of the bullets that killed one of the leaders in the Sinn Fein Rebellion, Ireland 1916”.

The envelope, and the bullet

As far as I can make out (by educated guesswork), the main other criterion for digitisation and inclusion in the catalogue is that an item is in need of conservation. This is how the Betham collection got online, and why only the half that needed conservation is there.

Maps are the single class of manuscript most liable to damage by handling, thus earmarked for conserving, thus finding their way online. So a digital search for “estate” in the catalogue returns almost 60% maps.  And what maps.  Tenants with acreages, boundaries, records of disputes, rents due … Add a county name to the search and see what pops up. There are wonderful records here, for periods when nothing else survives.

And some oddities:

Near this lies buried one of the Kings of Leinster who was killed by the son of Bryan Boru King of Munster (Parish of Castletownarra).

It’s hard to argue that the most vulnerable manuscripts shouldn’t be first in the queue for digitising. But the few rentals that have made it online (by being bound with maps) give a tantalising glimpse of what could be. What will be.

A hands-on video of me playing with the catalogue and happy as a pig in the proverbial is here.