Cats and Genealogy

My cat has no need of genealogy.


She has a sense of the past, for sure. Every time she sits on my lap, purrs and kneads my thigh I’m reminded of the explanation for her behaviour that I read a few years ago (and which now, despite trying, I can’t forget). Apparently, the kneading derives from her memories of massaging her mother’s teats to express milk when she was a kitten. However queasy the thought, it points to some dim connection between past security and present comfort hard-wired into her tiny brain.

I think a similar hard-wired sense of the past is widespread in nature, or at least in mammals – it’s hard to imagine a shark feeling homesick. That instinctive use of memory to shape the present is the impulse that lies at the root of our own need for history. In pre-literate societies, the intricate stories that were passed on and elaborated from generation to generation provided explanations of ancestry, making the present more intelligible by colouring it with the glow of the past. The durability and sophistication of these stories already took us a long way from instinct.

Language is the medium that made possible that accretion of social memory spanning multiple generations. And written language is what allows social memory to become truly accumulative, with each new generation standing on the shoulders of its predecessor, learning from its failures, expanding its discoveries.

Yet another reason to know our ancestors better, and yet another reason to ensure that their records are well-preserved and widely available. And one more reason why the cat is on my lap and not vice versa.

She seems perfectly content to do without accumulating social memories. Her memory of her past may be dim and purely instinctual, but she seems to get a lot of comfort from it.

Or perhaps she’s just tenderising a large prospective dinner.

Strong smart Irishwomen

Ireland in the 1950s had little use for strong, smart, independent-minded women. The cult of the Irish mammy may have elevated women to quasi-divine status, but it also ensured they were kept out of public life, pure but in purdah, heavily surveilled, intensely controlled.  For those who wanted to retain their independence and use their minds, there were few options. An obscure niche, well out of sight of political, social and religious hierarchies, was one possibility. And the Genealogical Office (aka The Office of the Chief Herald) provided just such a niche.

As the successor to the deeply Anglo-Irish Ulster Office of Arms, the GO remained a stubbornly square peg in a round republican hole.  Although nominally a part of the National Library, it existed as a semi-detached limbo; piece-work employment, unheard of elsewhere in the Irish civil service, was the norm, and provided opportunities to intelligent, well-educated women available nowhere else. As a result, an extraordinary group coalesced around the GO between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Myra Maguire (1928-2015) was a brilliant young watercolourist who became the GO’s first in-house heraldic artist. Her 240 paintings of arms in Edward MacLysaght’s seminal Irish Families: Their Names, Arms, and Origins (Irish Academic Press, 4th ed. 1991) have metastasised world-wide across tea-towels, maps, mugs, key-rings, golf-tees, plaques, place-mats … In later life professor of Calligraphy at NCAD, Myra was amused at her little paintings’ longevity and remained remarkably equable about the lack of any acknowledgment, or payment.

Rosemary ffolliott (1935-2009) revolutionised professional genealogical research in Ireland from the very start of her work as a GO freelance. Her meticulous attention to evidence and passion for accuracy could be intimidating, but we all live in her shadow.

Elish Ellis, née Clune, (1919-2009) was primarily a consummate historian, but never lost her passion for the individual family stories that make up genealogy. She was instrumental in founding the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (now AGI) in 1987, and served as its president for a decade.

Frances-Jane Ffrench (1929-2002) frightened many people, including me. A more unlikely Republican Socialist has never existed. But there was never any doubt about her zeal for correcting the inaccuracies of Anglo-Irish genealogy.

And the last survivor of these women, Eileen O’Byrne died last month at the age of 93. Her keen mind, enduring curiosity and gentle spirit made her a delight to all who knew her. Her death was the spur for this post.

The work they did will live on. So too should their memory, and the memory of their times.

Rootstech again

It seemed obvious that I should write something summarising Rootstech. But the parable of the blind men and the elephant came to mind – anything I could write would only be a description of one part – a trunk? a tail? a bit of a leg? So what follows makes no claim to be a verdict on the event.

To be frank, I found it overwhelming. The one “General Assembly” I attended felt like a mixture of Oprah and Nuremberg. The buzzword was “story”, now a requisite part of every sales pitch. And it went on for almost two hours.

One part was genuinely moving and surprising, though. David Isay’s StoryCorps is a wonderful oral history project that deploys mobile recording booths across the US allowing families and individuals to tell their own stories and then storing the results in the Library of Congress. Some of the samples he played were truly extraordinary – a murderer who had become a surrogate son to the woman whose son he killed; the father of an Iraq veteran gone off the rails who refused to give up on him; a black surgeon paying heartfelt tribute to the uneducated father who had always helped and believed in him.

At first I thought “Only in America”. Then I remembered the good old Irish confessional, a dead ringer for those mobile booths. An Irish version of StoryCorps would be brilliant.

By far the most interesting talks I attended were on the techie side. I didn’t know there’s an entire eco-system of Software Developer’s Kits for FamilySearch, allowing developers to plug in and use it from the inside. When I get time …

The continent-sized exhibitors’ hall was also a bit much for me. Many fantastic products and stands

The biggest family tree in the world. From the Rootstech exhibitors’ area

, but so, so, so many of them. I ended up fleeing to my hotel room.

Where I worked on inventing the ideal Amercan food, at least based on what the TV was telling me. Bacon-wrapped Steak N’ Lobster deep-dish pizza, anyone?

Rootstech attendees

Yesterday I tweeted that Rootstech had registered 26,000 attendees. I was repeating what I’d heard from the stage at the Friday “General Assembly”, but a few hours later I thought I must be mistaken, that the figure surely included online participants. So I went away and had a look at figures for other years, to give some sense of context.

Nope, 26,000 (probably more by now) was right. Add in the online followers and it’s getting towards the quarter-million.  Stupendous.

One reason is Salt Lake City. Latter-Day Saints make up a majority of the population of Utah (though not SLC itself) and genealogy is an obligation for any member of the Church. So there’s a huge captive audience.

But still, I repeat:  stupendous

Jetlag and rootstech

Still arriving in installments, with bits of sanity turning up unannounced at all hours. In spite (because?) of that, the first day here has been amazing. It’s given over to an “Innovator Summit”,  a mix of genealogy business and tech talks.  The by-the-way assumption of literacy in both genealogy and all sorts of coding languages (javascript, PHP, Ruby, C++ and more) is just wonderful. The US has an entire weird and wonderful ecology out there, where this stuff is taken for granted.

So it’s not just one guy in his dressing-gown in the front room in Drumcondra hacking away. I’m normal, Ma, I’m normal!

One aisle of three in the FHL lined with drawer after drawer of microfilm of GRO records. Sshh! Don’t tell the Registrar-General!

I also managed to spend a few hours in the Family History Library, where  I was mobbed (in the nicest, most Mormonly way) when word got out that someone knew something about Irish records.  But they have more Irish records on microfilm than any other repository on the planet. Granny was taught how to suck eggs.

The meat-and-potatoes classes kick off tomorrow, and the multi-acre vendors’ area opens for business.

Salt Lake City will probably seem less surreal when the jet-lag wears off, but it’s plenty enjoyable already.

The end of the ‘Irish Roots’ column

The Irish Times‘ ‘Irish Roots’ column, which I’ve written since February 2009, is coming to an end in ten days or so, with the last one due on February 8th. The decision wasn’t mine. Like all newspapers, the Times is struggling to stay solvent as it goes digital, and just can’t afford to do everything it used to. Ah well.

I think it’s a mistake  – but I would, wouldn’t I?

Yes, it’s very important for a newspaper to have a digital-first approach. But the paper ‘paper won’t die. It might shrink to a fraction – 20%? 30%? – of glory-days circulation, but a kernel of true believers will remain. Look at what’s happening with CDs and book-shops, which should be long dead if the digital visionaries had been right. Instead, you have to fight through the crowds to get into the last big book-shop in Dublin, Hodges Figgis.

That kernel of true believers will be the basis of the Times‘ survival, I think. Unless they drive them away by shrinking the physical newspaper too much.

Enough venting.  I’ll continue to write about Irish heritage and genealogy in this blog, if only because it’s too late to stop now.