Irish Roots

January 31st, 2011

John Grenham


Genealogists tend to focus very closely on questions of evidence. The reason is very simple. Many apparently sound family trees are riddled with inconsistencies, leaps of illogic and undocumented assertions. It is all too easy to waste weeks researching non-existent ancestors before uncovering the flaws in such pedigrees.

Given the nature of much genealogical evidence, with garbled family stories, customary naming traditions and half-obliterated parish registers, absolute certainty is impossible. The best a researcher can aim for is a well-reasoned argument that takes account of any surviving records or traditions, and assesses probabilities as dispassionately as possible. Even then, the pattern-seekerís trap awaits: if you stare at gibberish long enough, it will appear to become intelligible..

Take the Irish ancestry of Ronald Reagan. The earliest documented ancestor is Michael Regan, who married in England in 1852 and recorded his father as Thomas. The English 1851 census (very fortunately) gave Tipperary as his place of origin and his age as 21. So far, so good. The researchers who searched Tipperary parish registers did indeed find a Michael, son of Thomas Regan, baptised in Ballyporeen in 1830. But at least 20 of the 53 Catholic parishes of Tipperary have no records for the years around 1830. Both Michael and Thomas are unimaginably common forenames and there were at least 60 Regan households in the county at the time. So it is perfectly likely that more than one Michael, son of Thomas, was baptised in the relevant period. This was a very slender basis on which to build the Ronald Reagan Visitor Centre.

However good the documentation, however impeccable the reasoning, humility and scepticism are always required. In the words of science writer Jonah Lehrer, just because something is true doesnít mean it can be proved. And just because it can be proved doesnít mean itís true.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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