Monday, February 24, 2014

To research or not to research

A lot of people ask me if I will be doing any research when I go to Ireland in April.  My usual reply is – sort of.  If research means sitting in libraries or archives for hours hunched over eye-strain inducing microfilm, then the answer is no.  While I’ve been to a few of the County Heritage Centers (where you can’t do your own research anyway) and to the Valuation Office in Dublin, I’ve never been to the National Library or Archives.  On any of the trips I’ve taken to Ireland in the past, and the one I’m taking in April, my time was/ is so limited that I hate to spend any of it cooped up in a place my own ancestors certainly would have had no contact with.  My research philosophy while in Ireland is to get out into the countryside, see the places and meet the people who live near where my ancestors lived.  This is not something I can recreate from home, or hire a researcher to do for me.
I know lots of genealogists take research trips to the foreign homelands of their ancestors, and I haven’t ruled that totally out for the future (don’t tell my husband!), but somehow I feel a trip to see where an ancestor left to come to a new land is something that has to be felt on a deeper level than just sitting in a library.  I remember the first trip to Ireland we went on, the country as viewed from a tour bus.  It was fine for a first trip to a place where a passport was needed.  One of the lunch stops we made was in Durrow, County Laois, a mere 13 miles from where I knew my great great grandfather, James Walsh came from.  I had an overwhelming urge at the time to actually see that place, not to just come close.  (which is probably why we returned to Ireland, driving ourselves, for the next 3 years!)  Somehow “coming close” just didn’t do it for me.  The need to actually immerse myself in the places my ancestors were familiar with was (and is!) a very palpable one. 
On a later trip to Ireland, I had a distant cousin as a guide who showed me a ruin of a house where his grandparents lived (second cousins to my grandfather), the stone wall that was likely was part of a dwelling where my great great grandmother was born, and we walked to roads they would have taken every day to work or visit each other.  All of these places were high in the Slieve Bloom mountains between Counties Laois and Offaly, places I never would have thought to look on my own.  This is the kind of research that makes the experience of finding my ancestors so much more real. 
Everyone from the bartender in the local pub to the family at the B&B you stay at has advice as to where you can find your family.  It doesn’t matter if your family left the area during the famine time 170 years ago, someone is bound to know SOMEONE who has the surname you are seeking, and they are more than happy to claim you as a relative.  Even if their memory of that time is a little fuzzy, J you can be sure you will be told a good tale about something a relative did.  Nothing beats walking in your ancestors’ footsteps.
Of course there may be records in Ireland that cannot be accessed from here in the United States.  This is where the professional researcher comes in.  And I don’t just say this because I am a professional researcher, I really do believe they play an important role in the quest to find out as much as we can about our Irish ancestors.  I hired a professional researcher at the National Library in Dublin long before I became one myself, and it was money well spent.  A professional who is familiar with the records they are using can find information much more quickly and efficiently than someone who not only has to educate themselves on the content of the records, but also the physical setup, rules and scope of the repository they are visiting.  My time is better spent experiencing Ireland on the ground, a researcher can be hired from your couch.
So when you visit Ireland or any other foreign country your ancestor called home, get out there and experience it!  The library will always be there to be used, but that old graveyard may disappear under a bulldozer before you get back, or an older relative you did not know you had may not be around to answer questions anymore.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Genealogical Journey- Then and Now

I’m finally going back to Ireland on April 10.  My last trip there was in November 1999.  That’s 14 years of waiting to finally get back “home” again.  A lot has changed in 14 years for me- I’m a mom now, my former genealogy hobby has turned into a career, I’ve accumulated a lot more knowledge (and paper!)  But the biggest change has got to be how technology has affected how we do everything- from trip planning to ticket purchase to reading restaurant reviews.  Genealogy research has changed a lot, too, and definitely for the better.
Back in 1999, email was reigned supreme.  It was enough to be able to email the people we were staying with in Laois, have them do a little fact-finding for us and arrange meetings with some of my relatives who lived nearby.  Church records had been computerized, but access was only through the county heritage centers (who would be glad to search them for you- for a fee!) or the benevolence of the local priest.  If you wanted to see where your ancestor lived before emigrating, the Griffith’s Valuation maps were available in Dublin at the Valuation Office, then you took your paper road map and tried your best to pinpoint locations comparing the 19th century map with your airport-purchased tourist map. 
Despite these old school methods, we did pretty well in visiting places and meeting distant relatives of both my husband and myself.  I got to walk the countryside of County Laois through the Slieve Bloom mountains and see the remaining stone wall of the cottage my great great grandmother Ann (Mortimer) Walsh was likely born in before her journey took her to Troy, NY.  My husband was able to pour his own pint in pub around the corner from where his great great grandmother Ann (Myles) Doherty lived shortly before joining her sons in Providence, Rhode Island.  All this with limited computer access, and no GPS or wifi!
Our 2014 trip will be pretty different.  Our airline tickets, car rental and accommodations were all arranged online.  No longer do we have to rely on a typed description of a cottage we want to rent, there is a web page, plenty of pictures, reviews, and a“Google Maps” street view to satisfy our curiosity.   
Access to records in Ireland has improved significantly in the last few years, making it possible to see Ann Mortimer’s baptism record in an online database at the RootsIreland website, and to access the map showing Ann Doherty’s cottage in County Galway where it stood in the 1850’s with an overlay of today’s roadmap.  Countless family historians all over the world have done research on their Irish families, making it easier than ever to connect and compare notes through Ancestry message boards, Facebook, the Ireland XO website, or a simple Google search.
So what will be my strategy for seeking out my roots on this trip?  Visit the local pub, seek out the oldest, most knowledgeable person in the townland, pick the brain of my B&B host, walk the back roads.  Not so different than in 1999.  Some things never change!