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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 25, 2012 @ 8:25 am

    The Scale of the Problem

    John Grenham

    I still remember vividly the first research report I worked on. My job was to find a David Fitzgerald in East Limerick in Griffith’s Valuation, the 1852 property tax survey. At the time, the only way to do this was to identify roughly which parishes had Fitzgerald households (!), then comb them all by hand looking for Davids. So I wearily resigned myself to grinding through microfiche after microfiche. But then Croom, the second parish I searched, produced a David Fitzgerald. What luck!

    As I sat down to write the report, though, doubts started to niggle. Yes, David was an unusual forename at the time, but just how unusual? So I went back and continued looking. And of course, it immediately began to rain David Fitzgeralds: in Ballingarry, Emlygrennan, Ballinlough, Knockainy …

    The point of this is not (just) to show how green I was. The fact is that without some idea of the scale of what you’re searching, it’s impossible to interpret what you find. If you don’t know that half of the population of West Cork is called O’Driscoll, you’re likely to fall on the first Patrick O’Driscoll you find and install him as your ancestor. The appropriate metaphor is the hoary old one about the blind man trying to describe an elephant, depending on touch alone.

    The same problem of scale applies to time-periods. One of the imaginative leaps genealogy asks is to try to see the world through our forebears’ eyes. But trying to grasp how our ancestors saw their own past can be very hard. What did the world look like to someone for whom the Famine had not happened, was inconceivable, for whom The Battle of the Boyne was as recent as the Great War is to us? Distance always foreshortens perspective, chronologically, geographically, genealogically.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]