Irish Roots


September 17th 2012

Theory and Practice

John Grenham

A confession: the last time I had any formal training in history was for something called the "Inter Cert", back when giant elk roamed the country. Despite thirty years of trying to catch up, like every autodidact I still have some peculiar gaps in my knowledge. Napoleon? Who?

Most trained historians take for granted a theoretical framework for what they do. In the day-to-day grind of chasing family events and land records and parish registers, the absence of such a framework doesn't usually matter, but a dim sense persists that what's going on is a form of practical history, albeit one far removed from the stately procession of rebellions and heroes and wars that I was forced to memorise so long ago. That's one reason why Anne Patterson Rodda's new book Trespassers in Time: Genealogists and Microhistorians (Rodda, 2012) is so welcome.

The writer is both a working genealogist and a historian, and her book attempts to place the practice of genealogy in the context of the study of history. She approaches the question methodically and thoroughly, starting with a wide survey of the ways history is practised - political, economic, social, cultural, local, micro - and then producing step-by-step examples of genealogical research that show how perfectly family history fits the microhistorical school. Her case histories themselves are intensely interesting, all Irish, and ranging from a group of small Catholic tenant farmers in the tiny parish of Kilbannon in north-west Galway to Protestant nationalist associates of Daniel O'Connell and William Smith O'Brien. The book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the connections between local and family history and the broader disciplines of which they are a part.

Like Molière's M. Joudain, who found he had been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it, I was delighted to discover that I'm a microhistorian. The book is available from amazon.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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