Irish Roots

John Grenham


Everyone starting their own genealogy gets the same advice, over and over: “Talk to your family”. The reasons are very obvious: why spend hours combing a parish register for information that Auntie Biddy can give you in ten seconds? If you’re lucky, Auntie Biddy will also tell you the stories of the different families, the sort of anecdotal meat that s bare skeleton of names needs. And some kinds of information – the marriages of great-grand-uncles, the emigrations of third cousins – are just impossible to reconstruct from records.

If it’s so obvious, why is it emphasised so much? Because people just don’t do it. A constant refrain from every almost every family history researcher is “I never aksed them about it, and now they’re all dead”.

Why such a common failing?

First, most people become interested in their ancestry in middle age or later, by which time most or all of the previous generation are gone. Then there is quite a delicate etiquette in interviewing an elderly relative about previous generations, with its implicit acknowledgement of mortality: there is a natural reluctance to say “Quick, before you die, tell me about your cousins”. Most importantly, people don’t realise how fragile and perishable such family information is.

The reason I’m going on about this is that, of course, I didn’t take this advice myself. As a result I spent ages laboriously reconstructing indirect branches of the family – who married whom, who their children married and so on. And then, wonder of wonders, I discovered a second cousin who had taken the advice and interviewed his uncle. Legions of second, third and fourth cousins emerged from obscurity.

So steel yourself, and talk to Auntie Biddy before it’s too late.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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