Behind the Scenes in the National Library’s Genealogy Room.

Behind the scenes in the Genealogy Advisory Service @NLIreland

The fun of the genealogy service in the National Library is that we never know in advance who we’ll meet, or what stories we’ll hear.  Our job is to listen, to identify verifiable facts and events, and to guide enquirers in their research.  The search never ends, because family history isn’t just about the past, it allows people to explore personal identity.

Here are some of the stories we’ve heard from recent visitors to the Library’s Genealogy Room.

 

Kay Caball reflects on what a difference a name, date and location can make to enthusiastic ancestor hunters.

 

When I attend the Genealogy Room, I seem to hear the same refrain from overseas visitors, who come with little or sometimes no information, but a hunger to find their Irish ancestors. We all know the situation where a couple will sit and wait to meet a genealogy advisor. Full of enthusiasm, they are having a great holiday in Ireland and want to feel part of the country their ancestors left.  They might be American, Australian, British or Canadian but they are here now and also want to be ‘Irish’.

Ironically, if you can get a few morsels of information flowing, it brings memories back and can develop the path to partial identification at least.   In July I had a Canadian couple John & Helen who would have dearly liked to find anything they could on John’s maternal grandmother. 

They knew her name ‘Mary Smart’ born in Ireland, and married in the U.S, to John Leitch. They had no dates, location or parentage in Ireland.  With patient questioning of John about his mother’s age we got to a possible range of birth-year for Mary Smart between 1880 and 1890.  Then, John’s wife who had been silent spoke up: ‘Didn’t your Auntie always say that the family were from Castlefin?’ 

Well now that was a foot-hold! But was it Castlefin, Donegal or Castlefin in Tyrone?  Having also asked John for names of Mary Smart’s siblings, one of whom was Carson, it became clear that the family had a cultural identity other than Catholic. As the evidence mounted up, we began to bring the family into focus, as having their origins in Tyrone. 

Straight into Find My Past and up comes Mary Isabella Smart b. 1883. We saw a potential ‘fly-in-the ointment’ in that the Registration District was given as Armagh, but we noted that the boundaries of the District crossed county borders to include districts in county Tyrone.   It was enough to propel family research.  Using Griffith’s Valuation, we also found that the names ‘Smart’ and ‘Leitch’ were prevalent in a district of Tyrone. 

While we had not definitively found anyone we had opened up the possibility, shown our visitors the  online tools needed, and given them the incentive to talk to older relatives when they returned home.  They were bitten by the research bug – and were hooked!

 

Fiona Fitzsimons considers the network of Irish merchants, traders, and colonial government in America, before the Revolutionary War.

Ireland is a small island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, connected to the rest of the world by the seas that surround it. While the historical population was once much greater, family histories seldom ‘cross-over.’ However sometimes when they do, you are left with more questions than you have answers to.

Recent Canadian visitors to the Library surprised me, saying that they wanted to trace the origins of an Irish ancestor George Croghan (1720-80).

George Croghan was born ca. 1720 to a Dublin merchant family. His father died young, and left two sons, George and a brother Nicholas. His mother remarried Thomas Ward and had at least one further child Edward Ward. 

By the 1740s George Croghan immigrated to colonial America, and settled on the frontier of Pennsylvania State, where he learned native American languages, as he sought to establish himself as a fur-trader. Croghan met another adventurous Irish immigrant, Sir William Johnson (dubbed the ‘Mohawk Baron’).

Croghan and Johnson developed a close friendship: both men married Native American women and raised families.

With family support from the Irquois, Croghan established himself as a successful fur-trader. His brothers from Ireland appear to have re-connected with him in America –it’s probable they were involved in retailing the furs – after all, who can you trust in business better than your own family.

I have a professional and an personal interest in tracing the Croghan family: professional, because I’ve encountered Croghan researching other families including the Johnsons, Fagan  (Dublin and Killarney), and Clark (Sligo) families: a personal interest, because research indicates the Croghans may connect with my own Fitzsimons family, also Dublin merchants who settled in Philadelphia before the Revolution.

Between 1740s and 1780s the American frontier was prised open, even as opportunities for Irish and English Catholic families closed in Ireland and Britain, because limits were set on religious freedom, which extended to civil rights including property ownership. The young men of these Irish families looked to America, for adventure and opportunity. Many of them had family already there: brothers, cousins and uncles, in the army, navy, or in colonial government. It must have created a heady atmosphere, as they spilled into colonial America, like Dick Whittington, seeking fame and fortune. Renowned historian Kirby Miller reiterates this same point, that the Catholic contribution to America starts earlier in the 1600s and 1700s, and is of greater significance, than is recorded in history books.