Behind the scenes at The IFHC: ¿hablas español?.

I Speak no Spanish, They Spoke no English.  Get the Translator!

Very many people around the world have some Irish ancestry. This is due to what has become known as the Irish diaspora – the spreading of Irish people to countries around the world due to waves of either voluntary or enforced emigration from Ireland. And every so often at the Irish Family History Centre (IFHC, Dublin), we get people from these (to us) faraway places looking for their Irish roots. The major problem in helping them can be that we speak different languages.

Usually, English is the common denominator and a basic, but intelligible, conversation can be struck up. But once in a blue moon, the descendants of an Irish ancestor arrive who literally speak no English. In mid-June 2017, I dealt with one such case.  They were a married couple from Argentina and both spoke only Spanish. I speak a little French, but no Spanish whatsoever. There is an Irish member of staff who works for EPIC (the emigration museum in the CHQ Building) who is fluent in Spanish and who sometimes helps the IFHC out … but he was off that day. I was on my own.

All the most fundamental details that we needed to get going, such as who was marrying who, dates of birth, dates of marriage, any brothers or sisters of a particular person, and so on – all became huge difficulties to clarify.  I spoke slowly, used all manner of hand gestures and ingenious mime, but it was tough going. The couple were, of course, just as frustrated as I was, but we both knew that patience and perseverance would prevail. Then the husband of the couple then had a brain wave. He got out his smart phone, went on to Google and set up Google translate. Brilliant!  He typed in his information, I typed in my questions, and everything got translated between Spanish and English.  It worked a treat.

As it turned out, the key bit of information they needed to get the Irish connection with confidence was a marriage certificate in Buenos Aires, which would give a father’s name and so pinpoint which of five possible people in Dublin were the ones they were looking for. I also gave them web links to Argentine genealogy from the Wiki section of  So, despite the substantial communication problems, I managed to clarify their problem and point them in the right direction. They went away smiling with a happy “Muchas gracias”.

By Patrick Roycroft

Patrick Roycroft

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