In Myles na gCopaleen’s wonderful parody of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Beál Bocht (The Poor Mouth), the narrator, Gaeilgeoir Bonaparte O’Coonassa, describes his first day at school.
The teacher demands, in English: “Phwat is yer nam?” The response, in Irish, begins: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot.” Whereupon the teacher calls him to the front of the class, hits him over the head with an oar and screams: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”
When he regains consciousness, Bonaparte discovers that every other child in the class is also officially Jams O’Donnell.
In some parts of Ireland genealogical research involves distinguishing one Jams O’Donnell from another. For Byrnes in Wicklow, Sullivans in south Kerry, Dohertys in Donegal, or Bradys in Cavan, the problem is not finding a needle in a haystack. It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.
When people with ancestors like Jams O’Donnell ask a genealogist for advice, we rarely do the honest thing and tell them to find a new hobby. Instead, they’ll hear a long description of the process of reconstructing and comparing families, getting the right children in the right birth order, painstakingly accumulating circumstantial evidence that just might, eventually, with luck, identify the right people.
I was recently hoist with my own petard, trying to find one particular Ryan family in Caher parish in south Tipperary with only the children’s names as a guide: John, Michael, Mary, Margaret, James and Catherine, God help me. I identified all 53 Ryan families in the parish baptising a child with at least one of these names between 1828 and 1838, then retrieved all other children baptised outside those years to the same couple and then reconstructed all the families. It was a long and painful process. And there was not a trace of the family I wanted. Serves me right.