Six habits of the highly effective researcher

1. Lose the blinkers. You need to keep trimming away your own presumptions, because otherwise they’ll just grow back. No, not all Cholmondeleys were Protestant. Yes, some nineteenth-century families moved back to Ireland from the US. No, we’re not all descended from Milesius.

2. Gnaw. If you can’t find what should be there, don’t give up. Look at records for adjoining areas, look at earlier and later records, try different spellings, different forenames, different families in the same area.
You are a dog and this is your bone. Grrrr.

3. Know where the devil is. In the detail, of course. For example, that the date of your great-grandfather’s arrest for public drunkenness was the day after your grandmother’s birth. He was out celebrating.

4. Turn off the computer and go down to the library or archive. What’s online may be wonderful, but it’s still only a small fraction of what survives.

5. Stare at records. There is nearly always something more to be learned from a record, no matter how well you think you know it. Recently, I noticed on my grandfather’s familiar 1901 census return that the head of the household in the shop where he was an assistant had recorded him as a “cusion”. Tracing her family showed he was in fact her second cousin, and revealed a plethora of related lines. Welcome to the extended family, all you Flynns, Shines, McManuses and Seerys.

6. Think sideways. Your family were all small tenant farmers, with no property and hence no reason to leave a will. But what about their uncle the priest? Maybe he left one? And every testamentary record after 1858 is an open book at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie.

If the genealogist implied by all this is a sceptical, hard-bitten picker of nits …  Oh well.

14 thoughts on “Six habits of the highly effective researcher”

  1. Well said and always worth going back to. Recently I discovered facts right before my eyes that I didn’t see for over the past 30 years. My German side turned out to be Polish and another family had the records thinking that the records belonged to them. They kindly passed it all on to me when they noticed it matched my family rather than match theirs.
    A huge discovery was on a passenger list I viewed many times. It wasn’t until I looked closer at a tiny small cross placed in front of one of the children’s name, causing me to search deeper to find out what it was for. Very tiny at the other end of the line was a date. I found an article in a local newspaper telling of the child dying at sea & being buried in the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland & the US. I had always wondered why I couldn’t find anything on a spouse for the girl or other records, then I knew. Thanks so much John. Enjoy your work immensely.

  2. Thanks, this is a good shot in the arm to continue to look at records that I didn’t think were related and to take a closer look at those that I know are!

  3. Enjoy this – and all your posts. When I feel I cannot do more in my research – I get ideas and inspiration from you! And I would love to learn more about the Shines you mention in the 5th habit. My grandfather and great-grandfather come from Roscommon – but I have hit the proverbial brick wall trying to go back and further.

  4. My great grandfathers shop books were given to PRONI, and tucked into pages here and there are scraps of their lives-a note from a daughter asking why they haven’t written to her, pathetic notes excusing late payment of bills, my grandmother’s teenage doodles….wow.

  5. OK, John, I’ll keep on looking for my John Regan, presumably from Roscommon but who seems to disappear from NJ records between 1855 and 1870…surely there’s something I’ve missed, Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Thanks John. I live in Belfast, Ireland. Over the past four months I have grown my tree to over 1600 people. I have discovered that my grandfather had 8 children from two marriages and only three children survived – noone in my family knew. Through dogged research (and some trial and error), I have now made contact with two 2nd cousins 1x removed in England neither of whom knew each other prior to their genealogy work and we have spoken on the phone. Through DNA results I have confirmed on second cousin, met another, am in contact with a potential third and have email contact two 4th cousins – one in Australia and one in New Zealand. We are collaborating to finally press through our brick wall of who were the parents of our ancestor born in 1792 near Portglenone. So many stories picked up along the way.

    1. That is so exciting. I didn’t even know my paternal grandmother was full Irish until I found my dad’s family through DNA testing. Here I was, an only child, 7th granddaughter of grandparents who had 15 kids!!! I went to an Irish Catholic school (mostly) in Chicago, and lived within blocks of grandparents, cousins, relatives galore. It’s great to know, whatever one finds out because it brings our family to life for us. I have relatives all over the US–most of the Irish are here, but bunches of cousins in England, and some distant Irish ones. My Dougherty 3rd great grandfather was from Donegal (Ulster) but no records, or hardly. No luck with my German family (my second great-grandparents were from Germany but Bavaria and Austria German comes from my mom’s side, from Slovenia. Looks far back, from Carinthia, which no longer belongs to Slovenia. However, my mom’s paternal family are still in Slovenia and I know where they live. I can’t wait to visit!

    2. That is so exciting. I didn’t even know my paternal grandmother was full Irish until I found my dad’s family through DNA testing. Here I was, an only child, 7th granddaughter of grandparents who had 15 kids!!! I went to an Irish Catholic school (mostly) in Chicago, and lived within blocks of grandparents, cousins, relatives galore. It’s great to know, whatever one finds out because it brings our family to life for us.

  7. All good advice, however, for me 4 is impossible as I live on one side of the pond, while all the archives/libraries are on the other…that said, I do search archive catalogues routinely, rather than just using the big genealogy sites. Have made some interesting discoveries that way.

  8. Excellent extra hints to add to researching. Some I already use but liked the examples given. Will review a few of my older records. Thank you for the valuable advice.

  9. I have tried all of these but the Irish libraries, makes it hard when your in another country and records from early 1700s no longer exist. I’m looking for a location in Templederry, Of a Stephen William Mooney that I would like to visit on my next visit. The Mooney family lived there from around 1820 to 1834. Stephen Mooney leased a house and land from Sara and Robert Otway.

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