Irish Roots: Leave something for the next generation to discover

Ancestry. com, like most commercial genealogy sites, provides an online family tree service allowing subscribers to visualise and share their research and conclusions. Browsing through the "Frequently Asked Questions" on that service recently, I came across something that gave me pause: "Many members have family trees that are not yet finished."

Well, yes. Because what exactly would a "finished" family tree look like? The Mormons, God bless their sunny optimism, aim to unite the entire human race into a single tree going back to Adam and Eve, but they still have a ways to travel. For the less theologically inclined, such a tree would have to reach back at least 3.8 billion years to the last common universal ancestor, the Methuselah microbe. Even then would it be "finished"? What about the origins of the elements making up the microbe, and the origins of the sub-atomic particles making up the elements?

I always knew genealogy would eventually lead to theoretical particle physics and the 11 dimensions of the space-time continuum. Some of my distant relatives come from dimension seven.

The point is that, like families, family histories don’t come to neat conclusions and never proceed in straight lines. Research is always episodic: a day’s exploration here, an evening online there, visits to out-of-the-way archives tacked on to weekends away – if you start doing genealogical research you will forever be picking it up and putting it down.

Plan for that. Record whatever you search (not just whatever you find) in a way that will make it easy to remember when you pick it up two years later. Otherwise you’ll have to do the research again.

And don’t expect to finish, whatever says. Your tree will always be gloriously messy, its loose ends dangling all over the place, an eternal work in progress.

Think of it as leaving something for the next generation to discover.