Most people have very limited horizons when they think about their ancestors. It’s hard to feel a direct personal connection with anyone more remote than a great-grandparent. Eyes glaze over when you try to tell people of earlier generations, and one good reason is that the numbers inflate so rapidly, to the point of disbelief. How can you possibly have almost 33,000 direct ancestors just five centuries back? (The answer, of course, is that you can’t: think cousin marriage. Then think of something else.)
But when you lift your eyes to the geological timescale things start to get really peculiar. A simple, striking, scientific fact is that every single life-form so far examined shares the same ancestor. You, me, Kim Jong-Un, bacteria, jellyfish, dinosaurs, mushrooms and slime mould all descend from a single, original, living being. It has even acquired its own acronym: LUCA, short for Last Universal Common Ancestor. Current theory posits it as a small, single-cell organism, estimated to have lived some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.
One of the implications is that the beginning of life on earth seems to have been a unique occurrence in the 4.2 billion-year history of the planet. Understandably, this makes many scientists squeamish – such an event is so vanishingly unlikely it begins to look like evidence for some kind of outside intervention, and legions of microbiologists are busy positing alternatives – unfound alien lines, multiple lines that were outcompeted by ours, cross-species sharing of genetic material. But the strongest evidence is still for a single, unique origin, as Darwin put it in The Origin of Species, “some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed”.
Hence my favourite of the many excuses for unsuccessful genealogical research: “We’re all brothers anyway, man.” Or at least 500th cousins.
The question is unanswerable without legions of ifs and buts. Take the undying belief of large numbers of families in the west of both Scotland and Ireland that one of their ancestors was a survivor of the wreck of the Armada in 1588. As many as 24 ships were indeed wrecked on the Irish coast, but the conditions that greeted anyone who made it ashore were hardly conducive to procreation. The English military force in Ireland, too small to fight off an invasion, compensated with savagery, slaughtering every Spaniard who couldn’t be ransomed.
Historians of the episode emphasise how few survived by pointing out that an envoy of Phillip II sent to Ireland in 1596 to seek out survivors could find only eight individuals.
But hold on. What about those eight?
If just one of them had two surviving offspring who stayed in Ireland, who in turn each had two offspring – not an unreasonable survival rate – and this rate of reproduction continued in each of the 13 or so generations down to the present, that single survivor would now have 8192 descendants, plenty to provide a basis for a family tradition. Though, of course, the tradition remains impossible to prove.
That’s the difference between genealogy and academic history. Because we focus on individual stories, the strangest statistical flukes crop up again and again. The unlikely Balthazar McGuffin will appear nowhere in the records of the 1870s, where you expect him. But dozens of Balthazar McGuffins will then begin to crop up in the records of freed slaves, or medieval guild rolls, or at the court of Catherine the Great. “Black swan” events like these give historians attacks of the vapours, and very understandably.
As for quantum physics, so for history: at the smallest level, the normal laws of time and space do not apply.
There are two sure-fire ways to make someone brought up in Ireland squirm. The first – especially effective if you’re North American and wearing tartan trousers – is to ask about “the leprechauns”. Watch them furtively check out the nearest exits.
The second is to ask if they speak Irish. Almost everyone in the country has undergone fourteen or fifteen years of daily lessons in the language and almost everyone can just about come out with a few fragments of token pidgin (the cúpla focail).
The result is a profound, squirming ambivalence about the language. On the one hand, it’s dinned into us from an early age that Irish is “part of who we are”, an ancient tongue uniquely evolved to embody the Irish national character, the official language of the state. On the other hand, our real mother tongue is English, and has been the mother tongue of our ancestors back more than six generations. And the Irish we were taught in school was not a language like French or German, a medium of communication. It was a form of advanced obedience training, a series of phenomenally complicated grammatical hoops to be jumped through.
Aidan Doyle’s A History of the Irish Language (Oxford, 2015) sheds much light on how this state of affairs came about. The author, a lecturer in Irish and linguistics in UCC, approaches Irish from the point of view of historical linguistics rather than with the customary deference of Irish-language revivalism. He concludes that as early as the mid-eighteenth century the language was doomed as an evolving, living, European vernacular. The annihilation of the Irish-speaking propertied classes in the wars of the previous century meant it had no chance to develop “print-capitalism”: no newspapers, pamphlets, contracts, novels, advertisements. It had been made the language of the dispossessed, spoken only, beautiful and utterly powerless.
But Doyle’s most extraordinary finding is that the language as it now exists was virtually re-invented in the late 19th century. The revival movement started and led by Douglas Hyde was an Irish version of the contemporary Europe-wide mania for nationhood, combining crude ideas about evolution with near-racist notions of ethnic purity.
It was a very strong mixture. Here is Hyde writing about his relationship with Irish in 1886: “…the language I spoke from my cradle, the language my father and grandfather and all my ancestors in an unbroken line leading up into the remote twilight of antiquity have spoken … “.
Hyde’s family came to Ireland in the Elizabethan era and were granted land in Cork in return for services to England. He learned Irish in his teens, and was almost certainly the first member of his family ever to speak it. The power of his desire for a Gaelic Irish identity to match Magyar Hungarian and Bohemian Czech must have been almost overwhelming. It was certainly blinding.
The language became a potent symbol of national identity, more important than any linguistic facts. And that is what led to its reinvention. For the enthusiasts of Hyde’s Gaelic League, the actual language still spoken in parts of the remote west and south was impure, debased by generations of contact with English. So they purified it. The end result was a small group of urban Irish-language experts whose mother-tongue was English teaching the Irish language to larger groups of students whose mother-tongue was also English. The inevitable result that English-language idioms, grammar and syntax seeped into the “revived” tongue.
The results are still with us. My own favourite example is the Irish-language sign in my local park urging dog-owners whose pets foul the grass to “Glan suas é”, “Clean it up”, an utterly idiomatic English phrasal verb translated word by word. Imagine a sign in French that says “Nettoyez-le en haut.”
So the answer to the question “Why are there no genealogical records in Irish?” is that there are no written records of any description in Irish before the twentieth century.
That hybrid “Ancestry/FindMyPast” might be unfamiliar to some. After all, these are the Coke and Pepsi of online commercial genealogy, fierce capitalists supposedly competing for every advantage. But the 10 million or so transcripts separately released on March 1st last on ancestry.com and FindMyPast.ie are indeed two copies of the same recordset.
Some time last July, after the National Library of Ireland made its Catholic parish register microfilms freely available (at registers.nli.ie), Ancestry looked into FindMyPast’s eyes and FindMyPast looked back at Ancestry and they each said, “You’re going to transcribe these, aren’t you?” Very sensibly, they agreed a joint project and split the cost. And then, as the release date approached, did their best to get the jump on each other, with FMP announcing the release well in advance and ancestry hogging the TV and newsprint publicity on the day itself.
I think ancestry won, even though they had RTE and The Irish Times announce the records on the non-existent “ancestry.ie”.
At the time I was looking for a family called “Lonergan” in Mitchelstown baptismal records between 1825 and 1845. There are good transcripts for Mitchelstown on rootsireland.ie, courtesy of the Mallow Heritage Centre, so I extracted all their Lonergans (and variants) over those years, 46 records in total.
I have subscriptions to both ancestry and FindMyPast and couldn’t resist the chance to compare what they would find. The results were hair-raising. Using the broadest surname variant options on each, the same search produced 24 records on FindMyPast and just 16 on ancestry. (You can download an Excel file with the results here).
The difference can’t all be down to transcription errors and omissions. Much of the gap between the 46, 24 and 16 appears to be caused by the three sites’ differing surname variants systems: apparently ancestry doesn’t consider “Londergan” a variant of Lonergan.
But there is no doubt that Mallow picked up many entries that the new transcription missed. Those old non-image-linked transcripts were made from the original registers, not the sometimes-dodgy microfilms. Rootsireland, all is forgiven.
Of course, no definitive verdict is possible on the basis of such a tiny sample. But the moral is clear: if you’re using any transcript, continue to sup with a long spoon. And maybe you should add a few inches to the handle for the new transcripts.
It’s not just me, or the time of year that’s in it. There really are many, many more shops selling heraldic key-rings in Ireland than anywhere else. Why should this be?
There are two sorts of heraldry, the genuine stuff, Norman, feudal, replete with sables, bezants and stags rampant, where a coat of arms is personal property transmitted down the generations through the eldest male child, just like any other feudal possession.
Then there’s “souvenir” heraldry, where everyone of the same (or remotely similar) surname is apparently entitled to bear identical heraldic tea-towels for all eternity. Elsewhere in the world, the distinction between the two is clear. In Ireland, the border is a bit hazier.
The main reason is the way heraldry has been regulated in this country. Up to 1922, Ulster King of Arms, based in Dublin Castle, regulated the bearing of coats of arms in Ireland. After independence, his Office languished in post-colonial limbo until 1943, when it became the Genealogical Office, and Ulster was replaced by the Chief Herald of Ireland. The first Chief Herald of Ireland was Dr. Edward MacLysaght, a staunch republican given charge of the most intensely Anglo of all Anglo-Irish institutions. With understandable zeal, he set about creating Gaelic Irish versions of some of the Anglo traditions. One result was the debacle of the Chiefs of the Name of a few years ago. Another was the concept of “sept arms”, where every member of the same (rather loosely-defined) kin-group is entitled to bear the same arms.
Although the impulse to claim equal status for the Gaels was understandable, and perhaps necessary, the truth is that heraldry just did not exist in Gaelic Irish culture. The distinction between arms as personal property and as group or surname property was almost erased in MacLysaght’s classic Irish Families. Hence the proliferation of heraldic coasters.
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.
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.
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
, 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?
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.
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!
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.