Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rethinking Those Unavoidable Brick Walls

“Oh, no, a brick wall,” most genealogy researchers exclaim in dismay when they encounter those invisible yet palpable blocks to progress. From that point onward, it is supposed, nothing further may be uncovered on the specific person or line being pursued.

During my three weeks in Ireland, I’ve had some time to re-examine attitudes towards those brick wall research dilemmas. First, of course, I’ve long ago realized that what might amount to a brick wall on an ancestor at one specific point may not always remain so. Stuff turns up. Busy capitalists eager to sell their genealogical research wares come up with yet more old records which handily answer questions about our family history. This is great for those of us willing to revisit sticking points and prod and poke around until we can burst through to new discoveries.

But will there always be more ways to poke around for fresh information? Will there always be more document discoveries?

Think about it. I just spent three weeks in Ireland, looking for more resources to chart eight of my husband’s family lines. I had already made it back to the early 1830s, just using resources findable in the United States. Do you think I was able to push that dateline any further back in time by making a trip to the originating location?

The irony of date discrepancies is not lost on me. In a place where people routinely drive by ruins dating back, at the very least, one thousand years, it is quite unusual to happen upon genealogical material granting entrance to times any earlier than that same 1830 decade. The politics of the era, combined with the likelihood of the culture to see record-keeping concerning the common classes as of less importance, may have contributed to the research challenges we face now. Of course, for the landed gentry of the time, the case may have been different, but that was not, apparently, the calling of the people making up my husband’s heritage in Ireland.

Lack of usable documentation is not the only contributor to my research roadblock. Even if the government overseeing rule of Ireland had seen things differently back then, there would still be a brick wall awaiting me at some point. Think about it: whether your ancestors remained in the well-documented United States earlier than my sticking-spot in 1820s Ireland, at some point, the paper trail would have run out. It might not have happened until before the first United States census—maybe not even in colonial times—but at some point, records kept about most people would have run out.

Eventually, all of us will run out of paper trails to follow. Yes, I know there are some who are fortunate enough to claim descent from some renowned king in the Middle Ages, but not everyone can say that. At least I can’t—not at this point. And there may be no finding of any “missing link” to connect me with such a claim. Ever.

As I cranked through hopelessly-dim filmed copies of two hundred year old crumbling records last week, my mind couldn’t help wandering through such thoughts. People kept saying, “Well, you know…” Records in Ireland, especially of the Catholic persuasion, weren’t really kept before that point. That never-broken chain, winding from child to parent, step by step through the generations, had stopped at that missing link.

I had to ask myself: at what point would I be satisfied with this quest? Would it make everything better if I could just find one more generation preceding that 1820s roadblock? Wouldn’t I then want to press further back in time? If we can conquer the records of one generation, why would we be satisfied to stop before the next generation?

Since my genealogical research is not done for religious purposes—I’ve been smitten by the genealogy bug solely because I have this inexplicable need to know—there is no pressing requirement to keep looking, once the door is shut. But for some reason, I keep wanting to know—to know what lies beyond, who came before, what life was like for that generation.

Likely, the story for those ancestors in 1820s Ireland was that they lived in the same townlands as their parents did. Worked the same land. Lived the same lives.

Or did they? There are, after all, stories of people groups who traveled long distances, or overcame exceptional odds, to end up in the residences where we found them “living the same lives.” Examining Irish history, I became aware of the swirl of ethnic variations present in Ireland over the centuries—not just the British, but the Normans, the Vikings, the Celts, came to this island at one point or another to settle. Even now, I’m aware of Polish and Romanian immigrants adding to the mix.

I may never know the precise details of our family’s story in Ireland. The Y-DNA test for my husband suggests some Viking activity in his case, for that “deep” history. But I will have to make my peace with the gap between 1820-something and the dates of Viking settlement along the coasts of Ireland. There may never be another document discovery to provide me an alternate way around my Irish brick walls. And I will have to accept that.

Facing that fact requires me to clarify just what it is that I’m seeking in this family history pursuit. Not only for my husband’s Irish lines. But for all our family heritage. Genealogy is not just a merry waltz back through the generations, world without end, amen. While it may be a struggle against the forces of time which age and destroy old documents, it is inevitably also a losing battle against the choices which went into deciding what—if anything at all—should be documented. For those powerful enough to claim the right to make that choice, the paper trail may still survive. For those unimportant to The Powers That Be, at some point, there will be no trail to follow.

We cannot step backwards in time indefinitely. Genealogy is not an endless loop. While on its face, that thought may bring disappointment for those of us who continually want to know, “What happened next?” the restrictions that fact places upon us will help us better hone our research expectations.

Some people bridle at the comment, “I’ve finished my family tree.” It is, of course, an impossible task. On the other hand, to come to that realization that it can’t be finished means that you are finished.

That may actually turn out to be a freeing concept. It helps us put our research in a box. It helps us delineate the task for each line. Ultimately, it helps us face up to the need to develop goals in keeping with those limitations.

When I saw that brick wall looming in front of me at the National Library of Ireland, close to the end of my week there, at first it was depressing. It made me realize, however, that while I may not be able to press backward in time any further in Ireland, there are many other lines and projects I’ve yet to conquer. Which is a good thing, for none of us have the luxury of limitless time in which to accomplish even the things which we can achieve.

Old graveyard outside church ruins at Ballina in County Tipperary in Ireland

Photograph: View from graveyard into interior of ruins of Templekelly Church near Ballina in County Tipperary. Photograph courtesy Chris Stevens.


  1. Thank you Jacqui, I felt (in the USA) that I was coming to the end of my Irish research. With my information ending about 1820-1850, I guess I came to the end myself. But I would like to get back to my 2x great grandparents, but I think the information no longer exists.

    1. Oh, Claudia, please don't let my findings discourage you! Results, as they say, may be different for you--or others also wishing to pursue their roots in Ireland.

      In our circumstances, we were dealing with Catholics in rural settings--two strikes against us for seeking records. Your case may be vastly different, especially if you are researching Church of Ireland members, land owners, or urban dwellers. Then, too, even among the various church parishes, there are variances in how far back the dates of records reach--or what gaps may be existent in the parish.

      Besides that, Claudia, we felt that the most valuable--and thrilling--part of our trip was to retrace our ancestors' steps back to the parish or even townland where they were first documented. Seeing the land, traveling the old routes, understanding the overall local history can add so much to your comprehension of what your ancestors' experience was like--and possibly provide some clues as to how to proceed further with your research.

      There are finding aids which you might better access through the websites in Ireland, such as the National Library's own site, or even by using rather than Someone I met during our trip will be sending me a list of online resources, which I'm planning on sharing. It is certainly worth attempting these other resources. Who knows? Maybe yours were ancestors hiding within those few pockets of remaining documentation. Best wishes to you as you continue to pursue the possibilities!

  2. You can only do what you can do and hope for more resources someday:) like with the horned hats...I am impressed:)

    1. That Viking result sure tickled my husband. Having spent his teen years in Texas, he wants his Viking helmet horns to be Texas Longhorns: seven feet, tip to tip ;)

  3. I always thought when I "hit the end of the chain" I would go back and see if I could find (much) more about all the hundreds or thousands of people in the tree. Get more on the "dash" - something I don't think one will ever "be done doing."

    1. There is definitely a lot more that can be found about that "dash," Iggy--especially for those ancestors who lived in the United States.

      We have such a richness in our data stream, especially when you consider both the length of time we have been preserving essential documents, and the breadth of variety. Especially with newspaper archives being digitized, it is becoming relatively easy to find even the briefest of mentions about ancestors in local newspapers from across the continent. And sometimes, those are the most fascinating search results!


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