As a historian of the family my focus is on the local, the parish, the micro world.
Often the task is to reveal the lost histories of families who do not stand out in the records. Ordinary lives don’t usually warrant a page in history. In the past, people were born, baptised, work , were enumerated as and when the powers that be ( the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus), wanted to count them for tax purposes. They married, had children and died. Our task as family historians is plot these events in the records left behind and to build a picture of their lives.
Once we have used the tools available to us – the parish registers, censuses and civil records – we can map out the where and the when of our forebears lives. For many of us, our aim is to better understand the world our ancestors inhabited. What was it like to marry at 17? To have twelve pregnancies? To lose half a dozen children to what are now preventable illnesses? To be overwhelmed by the responsibilities unwittingly taken on? What was it like to be left motherless, and to be raised away from siblings? And over time for the existence of a sister and brother to be forgotten? What was it like for emigration to result in the loss of a family history? Perhaps the only way to survive in a demanding new world of opportunities was to leave the rich and possibly proud history of extended family behind?
One source I like to access is the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Ireland’s poet of the mundane’ who created something Epic out of the ordinary. Kavanagh’s work illustrates many of the lives we have had the privilege to research in the past year. Patrick Kavanagh spanned both urban (On Raglan Road) and rural (The stony grey soil of Monaghan). Even for this urbanite, the evocation of his childhood Christmas sings out and I share it with you today.
Thank you to all of you who commissioned us to research your families. It has been the greatest privilege to go on these journeys with you through the past.
Outside the cow house, my mother
Made the music of milking
The light of her stable –lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings
By Carmel Gilbride