Irish Roots

October 12th

John Grenham


Like many people involved full-time in genealogy, I was initially very sceptical about “Who Do You Think You Are?”. In the first BBC series and the later RTE version, there seemed to be a great deal of sleight of hand: most research problems could be solved by looking in a big book in a picturesque country church. The franchised format also seemed very restrictive – a celebrity finding out their ancestry at the same time as the viewer, travel to distant record offices, contrasting family branches, a narrative twist. It seemed like a combination of celebrity reality show, travelogue and soft-focus historical who-done-it.

In the second RTE series, currently running, something is different. The first three programmes have been excellent. I suspect the basic change is that the programme-makers are now more confident that they can keep viewers’ attention. The unfolding research is allowed to happen at a relatively slow rate, at least for television, with the result that it becomes quite engrossing. The telling of the family story and the uncovering of that story are beautifully paced, and the subjects are obviously chosen to represent as wide a span of Irish social and cultural history as possible. The programmes also illustrate the humanising effects of family history. Even the glossiest celebrities lose some of the professional sheen as their family backgrounds emerge. There is still some omission of the hard graft of actual research, but then nobody is going to make a programme showing someone staring into a microfilm reader for five hours.

One lesson from the recent Diarmuid Gavin programme: if you want future researchers to be able to track you down, give your children conspicuous names. Having a great-grandfather with the first names Crichton Strachan made all the difference for him.

Who Do You Think You Are? is on RTE at 9.35 pm on Mondays.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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