Irish Roots


March 19th 2012

- now also available as an Irish Times blog.

John Grenham

Genealogy is spawning an entire range of television sub-genres. One of the most popular is now the fly-on-the-wall heir hunter documentary, following probate genealogists as they attempt to track down missing beneficiaries of the estates of individuals who die without leaving a will.

RTE 1's version, "Dead Money" (Tuesday, 7 pm), features Steve and Kit Smyrl, two brothers who run the Massey and King probate genealogy company in Dublin and each week covers a different family, with the duo piecing together a jigsaw of generations and contacting missing heirs

The first problem is one common to all such programmes. How research really works is impossible to portray accurately on television. No one wants to watch a researcher staring down a microfilm reader for three hours. Or, more likely these days, repeatedly punching a computer monitor. But there are limits to how much glossing over is acceptable. In the first episode Steve picked a name from the telephone directory and found an heir at the other end of the line. The hair stood up on my head. Random cold-calling ranks on a level with the Ouija board as a genealogical research tool.

There is also some unnecessary coyness about exactly how probate genealogists make money. It is straightforward and perfectly respectable: they race other researchers to identify surviving family, and take a percentage of the estate in return for revealing its details to the beneficiaries. "Dead Money" settles for a vague impression of saintliness.

Nonetheless, the programme is utterly compelling. As Episode 1 was starting I was crossing the room and stopped to see what it was like. I was still standing in the same spot when the credits rolled. Family stories grip like nothing else, and the makers have capitalised on this superbly by focusing each episode on one unfolding family story. And RTE are running each instalment without any ad-breaks.

Don't start watching if you have anything else you should be doing.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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