Irish Roots

September 12th, 2011

John Grenham


With "The Genealogy Roadshow" on RTE1 now finished, it's possible to come out from behind the couch and begin to assess the experience. Objectivity is difficult. The urge to jump up and down and shout, "Look at me, Ma! Look at me!" is powerful and enduring.

Watching the programmes was very different indeed from making them. Stories that were just problems to be solved or lines to be remembered during filming became intensely touching when the camera showed the depth of the feelings produced in the participants. I'm thinking of the astonishment and joy of the American family meeting a completely new branch of their family in Ireland, of the woman seeing a photograph of her grandfather for the first time and recognizing her own face in his, of the family finally imagining in dramatic detail how their grand-uncle fought and died in the First World War.

But the real lesson of the series is one already known to anyone who has done any genealogical research, a lesson perhaps not treated with enough respect by other programmes that depend on celebrity subjects to hold the viewers' interest. There is an endless variety and a recurring fascination in the family stories that stretch back behind absolutely everyone, however humble. To retrieve and reconstruct these stories can evoke the dense skein of everyday history as if it were our own experience and let us feel its detail in ways that no other form of research can match.

On a personal note, though, I was a little disappointed. Years ago, children in Dublin used to annoy cyclists by shouting out helpfully as we pedaled past, "Hey Mister! Yer back wheel's going round!" I was hoping to hear some of them in the street shouting after me, "Hey Mister! Where's me granny?" No such luck.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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