Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Slow Versus Slower

It's been a long and delightful three weeks we've spent in Ireland—my husband and I, joined later by his two sisters, as we spent time with our daughter, the college student in Cork, and then the full week of genealogical research on our eight Irish family lines—but nevertheless, it's good to be back home.

After an experience like that, I can't help but reflect on what went well about this time away from home, and what turned out to be less than exemplary progress.

In the main, I can safely say as researchers, we've been spoiled by the digitization of records. Say what you may about resources like Ancestry.com or even the freely-accessible treasure chest of documents at FamilySearch.org, you can't beat accessing the very record you are seeking with one click of a "Search" button.

Yes, I know, even so, online research may entail the tedium of going through countless records of people with the same "John Kelly" name and date of birth. That can certainly slow down your progress. But just try your hand at slogging through the faded chicken scratch of an overworked Catholic parish priest serving in the western hinterlands of Ireland just after the rough pre-emancipation years, and you will be quickly disabused of your tendency to label online research "slow."

While some aspects of research progress can't be helped—how am I to know, for instance, whether a specific ancestor will be included in parish record microfilms at the point where I expect him to appear?—I've had some thoughts on how I might approach such a research trip on a second attempt.

First, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about what isn't there, so cut those losses and move on. It was so frustrating to finally get to the County Limerick film roll for the Catholic parish of our Flanagan and Malloy ancestors, set it up in the reader, crank forward to the label listing the entries included, and realize that not only the marriage record for Stephen Malloy and Anna Flanagan fell into the date gaps, but also the baptismal record of their only child's birth. Sometimes, there are ways to access, ahead of time, whether specific dates have been lost from records now available; sometimes not. Some records, by time of filming, were so fragile as to have been unreadable; some records were lost or misplaced. Though some are later recovered and added to collections, that will not always be the case.

I learned to substitute for the disappointment of such findings the more flexible question, "So, what's next?" At least in our case, I had seven more lines to follow up on while we were here.

Once we had bought our airline tickets, I had had a moment of regret, thinking perhaps it would have been better to do the paperwork before embarking on the fieldwork of driving to the sites of our ancestral homes. What if I discovered something which would alter the course of our tour through the countryside of Ireland?

In retrospect, though, I found the hands-on experience up front became a finding aid for me. As I progressed through microfilms of sometimes jumbled collections—jumping from dates, mentions of townlands, parishes, and sacraments of baptism alternating to marriages—I could get my bearings as I remembered the names of neighboring church parishes or townlands. Remembering the names of the areas we had driven through helped orient me to which sections of microfilms were more pertinent to our family's records. And, as it turned out, with the one exception of the Flanagans showing in a neighboring townland to the one I had originally anticipated them to live, I didn't unearth any startling discoveries that would inhibit my research progress. Neither, however, did I uncover any of the earth-shaking revelations I had hoped for.

The pace of research, in the main, was as slow as the rhythm of the passing pages as my microfilm reel cranked forward. The more faint the images—or more illegible—the slower my progress.

The others in my research group seemed to have similar experiences. I don't recall anyone sharing a "Eureka!" moment. Finding verification for already-held hunches seemed to be the best-hoped-for outcome. There is a lot of "cranking out" and not as much crashing through those brick walls. The speed of discovery can be astoundingly glacial.

Still, there is no replacing such an experience. I was glad we were able to take the extra two weeks to see the specific places where our ancestors originated. This we could not have done without the prior legwork of finding records before even stepping out our door and heading on our way to Ireland. Ironically, it seemed I found more about these Irish ancestors through the records I located in the United States, than through the records found once we arrived in Dublin.

On the other hand, if we had not made the effort to travel to Ireland, we would never have experienced the remoteness of the townlands, the quality of the land from which our ancestors attempted to extract their livelihood, or the layout of the nearby villages where they came to trade or socialize.

It was a worthwhile experience to see what Irish genealogical researchers are up against, with many of their records—documents such as the types we have come to take for granted in the United States—no longer in existence, owing to wars or other upheavals. It was informative, as well, to see the ingenuity applied to the task of research in developing ways to work around these unfortunate losses. In the process, not only did I learn new research resources and techniques, but had my eyes opened to the need for flexibility and creativity in the face of insurmountable roadblocks to research progress.

Photograph: View, looking south, from the road near the cemetery at the Cathedral ruins at Aghadoe in County Kerry. Somewhere near here was the townland where our Kelly and Falvey families originated. Photograph courtesy of Chris Stevens.


  1. Jacqi, glad to read your are home again. Sounds like your made wonderful memories of the emerald isle.

    1. Colleen, it was such a treat to be able to visit the many very different regions of the country, as well as to access the holdings in their archives. Of course, I wish I had been able to make more progress in some of the microfilms, but I'm very thankful for the opportunities for research and discovery that we had.

  2. Now you need to rest up! You did it! A trip you have been looking forward to for a long time! Just to visit the areas where your relatives lived must have been worth it! :)

    1. Oh, definitely, Far Side, the trip was so worth it. Don't think I'll ever forget that memorable drive up Tountinna in County Tipperary!

  3. Someday, the computer will "read" all those records and do it "pretty well" (not the OCR gibberish of today!)

    I hope the records remain in existence until they can be digitized.

    1. Working with some of those microfilms, it was obvious that even the microfilms need upgrading. The film itself is cracking, breaking, and badly streaked. Who knows if the original records are still in any condition to revisit, but if at all possible with the advent of new recording technology, new versions of these crumbling records should be made--at the risk of otherwise losing those records entirely.


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