Irish Roots

July 5th, 2010

John Grenham

Here’s an interesting-looking letter. Signed by a “William Grenham”. And he says he’s compiled a book on the Grenhams throughout the world, with lots of details on individual Grenhams, and the surname itself, and its place in history. But wait, that’s not all. I appear in it by name. Would I like to contribute towards the publishing costs and receive a copy? Of course I would.

Naturally, it’s a scam. But what a tidy scam. “William” makes a list of all the Grenham entries from telephone directories throughout the world and then – the beauty of it – writes to everyone on the list to sell them … the list.

For sheer chutzpah the name-book sting is hard to beat, and has been around for at least 40 years, though nowadays it is a little rarer than it used to be, at least in its purest form. The latest, rather mild incarnation is available from ancestry.com, where you can buy “a unique volume of fascinating facts, statistics and commentary following the XYZ family name as far back in history as possible.” Which consists of a series of counts of the number of XYZ records in ancestry’s databases, slotted into boiler-plate templates summarising US history.

Anyone past the age of reason knows that things are not always what they seem, and buyers should always beware. But the longevity of genealogy cons is quite remarkable. Why?

The explanation is, I think, the venerable and dangerous power of blood relations. When it comes to the notion of sharing a bloodline, most people have a dim sense of something semi-mystical, some shared essence that is nearly beyond words. Like all shibboleths, the first effect is to close out rational thought. Otherwise sensible people find themselves buying heraldic tea-towels.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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