“History is such a big deal these days, and people like to see themselves as part of it. They like to know where they came from and how they fit in.” Historian Turtle Bunbury, author of the Vanishing Ireland series and co-presenter of The Genealogy Roadshow, is explaining why people trace their family trees.
Irish-American blogger Gerry Britt agrees, albeit in more colourful terms: “Americans are mobile. We’re all from somewhere else. In my old mixed New York neighborhood, you were well aware of your ethnicity, almost always through insults!”
Grappling with an entire family’s history can be daunting, so start simple, advises Turtle. “Interview the elder members of your family. Gather whatever information you can, irrespective of quality. A detail that may seem trivial at the start could prove the key to a whole episode.”
For Gerry, the pickings from his direct family were slim. “My Irish-born grandparents all died early. My father had some research done when I was little, but I never had a chance to discuss it with him later or see the records. I only remembered that we were from County Tipperary, near Thurles. The internet took me from there.”
Ah, the internet. It has revolutionised genealogy, and it certainly helped Gerry. “I did almost all of my research online – countless late nights, eating cereal and clicking on link after link. It’s addictive!”
There are dozens of sites out there, but the Irish government-sponsored irishgenealogy.ie is a good place to look for official records. Ancestry.co.uk allows you to build a tree that you can keep private or share, which helpfully means faraway cousins can add to it. Myheritage.com is cheap and easy to use. You can print out book reports of a tree and invite others to help, but it doesn’t have searchable records.
But what if you discover a family skeleton? “That’s half the fun!” says Gerry. “Grandpa was a bootlegger? Great-grandma stabbed her first husband? Cool!”
“It can be awkward,” smiles Turtle. “I once had to tell a respectable client that her grandfather was an IRA hitman in the Civil War era – I'm not sure she was happy knowing that. And I had an Australian client whose great-grandmother was transported on a charge of prostitution. When I told him, he just laughed and said, ‘Tell it like it is, Turtle!’”
Whatever you find out, discovering your heritage changes a person, says Gerry. “My tree was really only a map that led me to the people, the land, and the culture that had shaped my family for hundreds of years. When I finally got to Ireland the sense of comfort was overwhelming, but the sense of community was even stronger.
“My grandfather left Dromban over 100 years ago. But when villagers introduced me to another local they always said, ‘This is Gerry Britt, home from America.’ I can’t explain it any better than that.”