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.

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