Irish Roots »

  • ‘Dead Money’ even deadlier

    March 25, 2012 @ 11:02 pm | by John Grenham

    Having seen two more episodes of RTE’s “Dead Money”, I have to modify last week’s comments. It’s clear that the programme is not just good, it’s superb, an object lesson in how to captivate an audience with a single story. The two researchers, Steve and Kit, are television naturals who come across as relaxed, compassionate and funny. (And also wear entertainingly matching shoes.) Steve is an outstanding researcher. If I’d lost some ancestors, he’s the one I’d want looking for them. The single story in each episode is nicely self-contained and always embodies some wonderful piece of  complexity: how, after 150 years, there are only two descendants from a family of thirteen; how easily families can split and scatter over three continents; how the hurt of an abandoned child can endure through world wars and successful careers and happy marriages.

    A little of the asperity of last week’s column may actually have been displaced irritation at the main competitor, the English ‘Heir Hunters”, running intermittently on BBC2. Though the premise is identical, “Heir Hunters” revolves around the money, reflecting the different natures of the companies involved. Whereas Steve and Kit work as professionals for lawyers, on an hourly rate, Fraser and Fraser, the English company, get nothing if they don’t find a beneficiary. And “Heir Hunters” seems to have been made for the Attention Deficit Discovery Channel, with ad breaks every five minutes and a complete recap of the story every six minutes.

    ‘Dead Money’ may be in a different league, but its glossing over awkward details can still jar. Steve really should tell his brother that Irish General Register Office Indexes are online, for instance. And there are occasional odd leaps of logic or sudden omissions. If some people didn’t want their stories told, it would be interesting to hear why.

    Perhaps some of my sharpness last week may have been because Steve and Kit are now genealogists-on-the-telly, and I’m not. Perish the thought. Isn’t “The Genealogy Roadshow” repeating on RTE1 at 4.45pm from Tuesday to Friday this week?

  • ‘Dead Money’: right on the money

    March 19, 2012 @ 9:13 am | by 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 an 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.

  • Irish-America: the last frontier for Irish multi-culturalism

    March 12, 2012 @ 9:01 am | by John Grenham

    Irish-America is the softest of soft targets, especially at this time of the year. Dress up a straw man in a green waistcoat and red beard, stick a dudeen in his mouth and a pair of buckled brogues on his feet, and let the jeering begin. Irish-America can, of course, be its own worst enemy. I still sometimes wake in a cold sweat at the memory of the Mother Mackree Irish Strudel House in Milwaukee. But a few simple considerations should give the choir of begrudgers pause.

    First, in America “Irish” partakes of none of the European enmeshing of race with nation with state that has sparked a thousand wars. Instead, it is just one of the range of available add-on ethnicities: the word simply means something different in North America. A transatlantic “false friend” is the reason for the intense discomfort most Irish (nationality) people feel when Chuck Kowalski corners them in a bar in Peoria to tell them he’s Irish (add-on) too.

    But “Irish” still remains the most peculiar and intense of American ethnicities. In the 2000 US census there were 43 million German-Americans, making them the largest ethnic group. But the population of Germany is 82 million; there are 15 million Italian-Americans, and 61 million Italians; 12 million Mexican-Americans, 114 million Mexicans. Contrast that with Ireland: 41 million Irish-Americans, but only 6 million Irish. That disproportion is extraordinary and it can be frightening for some Irish (nationality). Hence the Leprechaun-bashing.

    One of the best things to come out of the Troubles was a realization that “Irish” had to be stretched, first to include the British-Irish of Northern Ireland, then to cover both the diaspora and the “New Irish”: Turlough and Wojciech and Donald. St. Patrick’s Day reminds us there is still some stretching left to do. Add Chuck.

  • Court records from the 1850s

    March 5, 2012 @ 12:26 pm | by John Grenham launched their transcripts of Irish prison registers last October, and they were a revelation, a treasure-trove of circumstantial detail that fleshed out the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Now the site has followed up with the first instalment of the Petty Session Order Books. The detail has become even more circumstantial.

    The Petty Sessions were the District Courts of their day, dealing with minor offences and civil proceedings, and the Order Books cover the nitty-gritty of court business between 1850 and 1910. Inevitably, alcohol is the single largest problem. Many a great-grandfather is recorded here “drunk while in charge of jennet and cart in a public area”.

    These are not primary records, such as censuses, that permit the initial identification of families and individuals. But the light they cast on everyday lives is extraordinarily vivid. My own grandfather is here, testifying for the prosecution at the age of fourteen in a case involving two individuals in court for stealing a half-pint of whiskey “valued at one shilling and two pence” from his employer. They ended up with a month’s hard labour in Tullamore jail.

    A veil of discretion is required for less upright members of the family, but among the reasons for their appearances before the Justice of the Peace are: allowing a dog on the byroad without being efficiently muzzled; a refusal to quit licensed premises when requested to do so; “having charge of an ass with cart attached and not keeping same on the left side of the road”; and refusing to pay for the damage caused by the trespass of three lambs on a neighbour’s land.

    Currently online are records of 1.2 million cases. More than ten times as many, another 15 million, are to follow over the next year. The mind boggles.

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