Monday, October 20, 2014
Working Around the System
I close my eyes and can still see the calligraphic lines of Father James Flanagan's hand rhythmically unfolding across the pages of the Ballyagran parish register. Those dark images of the 1830s are still imprinted on my mind. I will likely carry their memory with me on my journey back across the Atlantic—but clutch my files in safekeeping in my carry-on bags, just in case.
This research trip to Ireland, home of my Irish-American father-in-law's eight great-grandparents, has given me three weeks of material to mull over. There have been moments to ponder. Moments in which time stood still as I sensed intangible connections. And long stretches of time, seeking the unfindable.
Researching outside one's own country brings a person face-to-face with one's own assumptions. And those assumptions often crumble in the face of reality. What we take for granted through our experience, researching at home, will not always be the same system we encounter abroad. While Americans traipse merrily along the unwinding trail from the 1940 census backwards through the decades at home, their immigrant ancestors left behind governments which might not even be in existence now.
"Frame of reference" has become a buzzword for this month's research experience. In the States, we expect our government to collect certain types of information, and learn how to extract from those documents what is useful for our genealogical pursuits. We expect to cross-apply that assumption to the governments of our ancestors. This does not always hold true. Other governments—indeed, other organizations in general—collect vastly different types of information based on what suits their purposes. I spent the greater part of this last week, essentially conducting the equivalent of what, in America, might be looking at rent rolls of apartment managers—all in the interest of finding some clue as to the whereabouts of my husband's ancestors.
If documents are basically collections of what "We the People" deem important for our government to record and store, they become a window through which others may glean hints of what we count as important. As much as Americans see themselves as being from a "young" country—after all, empires like those of the British and even more so the Chinese, vastly outclass our history—as American genealogists, we blithely flip through the pages of our decennial census records in one form or another, (with only one hiccup), back through 1790. Yet from where I have traveled this month, I could photograph the ruins of an Irish monastery or castle dating from years labeled with only three digits, yet drive less than an hour to access census records that can't reach beyond 1901.
For those of Irish Catholic heritage, this could mean struggling with the researcher's brick wall as recently as the late 1820s. An Irish immigrant willing to brave the unknown to cross the sea to a New World in the 1600s would have had a better chance of being discovered by a descendant in American documents than would his siblings who remained behind in their homeland.
I learned, in this past week, to adopt a "systems" frame of reference in assessing my progress in research here in Ireland. We as researchers will only be able to access what has been left behind by a country's collective determination of what is of value to them. The systems each country has developed, over the decades—and even centuries—leave behind records which may be of value to us in tracing our roots. The key is to determine which system has collected the names, dates and identities which provide the clues we seek. While every system of collective activity will accumulate paper trails, we can never assume the systems we've come to take for granted in our own country will be the same ones valued—or even practiced—in another country.