Monday, April 11, 2016

The "Gray Area"

Area of Margaret Pinder's plot, Coolmeen, County Clare, 2014

My father had 2 grandparents of Irish origin, married to each other.  I often blog about his grandfather’s family- Walsh and Mortimer, but not as often about his grandmother’s family, Penders and Hehir.  There is one simple reason for this- the “Gray Area”.
While doubt is a normal, everyday part of genealogy in general, it seems to hold a special place of honor in Irish genealogy.  Those of us that do a lot of Irish genealogy accept that skepticism is part of the package, but somehow I’ve never gotten totally used to it.  The absence of basic records that other ethnicities take for granted in their families’ histories nearly always make it impossible to trace our Irish ancestors back much before the beginning of the 19th century.  Sometimes we cannot even find a place of origin for them.  Almost always there is doubt about the existing records- does this baptism entry refer to my great great grandfather?  Does this Tithe record mean he lived in County Clare?   
My Penders great great grandfather, Patrick, has never been found in Irish Catholic church records.  Through my own research and the research of several professionals in Ireland over the years, it’s been determined that he LIKELY came from County Clare and was a brother to several other settlers in the Rutland, Vermont area in the 1850’s & 1860’s whose baptism records could be found.  Guilt by association, so to speak.
His wife, Margaret Hehir, was born in Vermont to Irish parents named Michael Hehir and Anne McNamara, both surnames with strong Clare connections.  A naturalization record that probably refers to Michael indicates a County Clare origin, but the fate of neither Michael nor Anne has ever been determined with any certainty, and no further clues to their origins have been discovered.
My attraction to the high level of certainty in the origins of the Walsh and Mortimer clans has prompted me to investigate the area where they lived in minute detail.  Not so the ancestors with the alleged Clare origins.  While I have examined the maps, visited the area, and even been led directly to the Penders assumed homestead, the amount of doubt surrounding the circumstances causes me to take a healthy step back.
Margaret Pinder's plot, 1a, Coolmeen, County Clare, 1856

This doubt has allowed me to be very critical and not easily convinced when it comes to uncovering the origins of ancestors for clients.  I try to examine all the sources I can get my hands on and pass on to them when I have doubts.  I often inform clients that in my own personal experience, approximately 20% achieve an absolute, no-doubt-about-it place of origin for their ancestor, 20% never have any good idea, and the remaining 60% fall into the “gray area”, such as Patrick Penders and Margaret Hehir.
Skepticism, especially in examining the origins of our Irish ancestors, is a healthy thing, but it still makes me (and some of my clients!) squirm!