Irish Roots

September 28th

John Grenham


Genealogy is not respectable. Just ask a historian. Unlike history, where the truth is sought - in theory at least - for its own sake, genealogy is not disinterested: nobody pursues other people's ancestors for the sheer joy of discovering who they were. Nobody you’d want to live close to, at any rate. The goal of genealogy is purely selfish, the uncovering of more and more about your own family and, by extension, about yourself. From the point of view of the historian, genealogists can seem blinkered amateurs digging around in records they don't understand, harmless at best, more often a nuisance.

By its very nature, then, genealogy lacks academic credibility. So what value has it? On a purely practical level, demand from genealogical researchers for access to records can transform historians’ raw materials, the original sources. Witness the wonderful National Archives of Ireland census website.

Less tangible, but more important, is genealogy’s civilizing effect. Getting to know your ancestors puts your own life into a much broader context, and makes it harder to think of yourself as the centre of the universe. As you follow descendants in the various branches and begin to realise the vast numbers of third and fourth cousins you have, you get a very vivid sense of just how interconnected we all are. It also becomes clear very quickly that everyone's ancestry is very mixed indeed. Counter-intuitive maybe, but genealogy is an excellent antidote to snobbery and racism.

Genealogy is the worm’s eye-view of history. It is as close as it’s possible to get to the daily reality of past lives, lived the way we are living our own lives in the here and now, contradicting statistics, challenging prejudice, denying stereotypes.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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