Irish Roots

June 28th, 2010

John Grenham

One of the great unsung joys of genealogy is getting to poke your nose into other people’s business. Recently, I was idly looking up the baptisms of Seán O’Casey (http://short.ie/xujmq2) and all of his siblings (http://short.ie/7qn296) when the thought crossed my mind, “What would Seán O’Casey himself think of this?”. The answer, I’m sure, is that he’d be horrified, not so much at the fact that someone would be interested in his family – writing six volumes of autobiography surely qualifies as attention-seeking – but at the sheer ease with which such casual rubber-necking is now possible.

What O’Casey’s generation saw as a right to privacy turns out to have been merely a series of practical obstacles to access: the records were in out-of-the-way archives, it wasn’t clear what parish held them, each volume of baptisms had to be searched individually … Once you abolish each of these barriers by making records instantly accessible to anyone with an internet connection, something fundamental changes. The record-keeper and the person recorded no longer have control. The researcher is the one in charge.

Such a shift in attitudes to privacy, most visible in the online social networking world where entire lives are uncomfortably transparent, is one of the main reasons for what seems like a sudden change in official attitudes to genealogical records. Previously, secrecy was the default mode. The stock response to a query used to be “What do you want to know that for?” But secrecy didn’t serve us well, it was used to hide too many abuses of power. We can’t regret that it is now impossible.

So poking your nose into other people’s business is no longer the preserve of genealogists. Indeed even the phrase “other people’s business” now sounds quaint.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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