Irish Roots: The bad old days of commissioned research

Doing genealogical research for clients was thankless and laborious. These days, we just help people with their own research


I started doing commissioned genealogical research back in 1982, God help me, working first for the old Genealogical Office and later for Hibernian Research. Both were loose arrangements, to put it mildly; research was unsigned and secretarial staff provided a buffer between researchers and clients. And a buffer was essential.

In the majority of cases, clients would know only the county of origin of their ancestors, if they knew that much, and we employed much ingenuity in trying to narrow the focus of research: cross-referencing surnames in property taxes, hunting down unusual forenames, picking out younger family members in General Register Office records (in the basement of the Custom House at that time, and where you could feel free to light up).

But, inevitably, much of the research was unsuccessful. Hence the need for a buffer. And hence, too, written reports that had to be scrupulous to the point of pain, listing, describing and justifying every source consulted.

It was hard work, intensely frustrating and laborious. Character-building, perhaps, but only in retrospect.

After a break of almost 10 years, I dipped a toe back into the world of commissioned research a couple of years back, and I was astonished at the changes. First, and most important, the presence of so many records online makes it possible to scout up ahead, as it were, and give the client a much more accurate estimate of the likelihood of success. Much less groping in the dark, many fewer complete failures and no need for buffers.

Second, what we ought to have known 30 years ago is now absolutely clear. No professional does a client’s research. All we do is help them with their own research.

And finally, the ubiquitous curse of the Internet: power devolved into the hands of the individual. Power to make your own videos, do your own conveyancing, bankrupt yourself share-dealing.

And do your own genealogical research.