Behind the scenes in the National Library’s Genealogy Room: September.

Late in August two young Toronto women wearing the distinctive hijab scarf dropped into the Genealogy Room to ask for help with family history. Rizvana Kezi and Zainab Choudery have no Irish ancestry: Risvana’s family originated in the Indian sub-continent; Zainab’s in Pakistan; both families relocated in the 1970s-80s in Canada. Now both young women presented in the Genealogy Room, eager to trace their family origins.

Family history is global. No matter where your roots actually lie, the process of research is the same the world over.

I sat down with these two engaged, articulate young women, and walked them through the beginner’s steps that we’ve all followed at one time. First, talk to your parents, aunts and uncles, or living relatives from an older generation, to hear the family stories. If they’re agreeable to it, record your conversations, and take photos to make a visual record; ask for copies of any relevant records, artefacts or evidence; keep good notes, noting time, date, place and the name of the person interviewed.

Before you begin research, draw up a draft family-tree, with dates of births, marriages and deaths. One of the most common errors I see with ‘newbie’ research, is people confusing generations, so they mistakenly assert their great-grandfather was married to their great-x2 grandmother. It’s a simple mistake, but errors like this if not quickly corrected, can have the unfortunate knock-on effect of raising an impenetrable brick-wall.

Start simply with census and vital records where they are available. Pakistan, like Ireland, is a former colony of the British Empire, and the historical records made prior to Independence in 1947 are detailed, but tend to reflect the interests of the colonial ruling class – security and land (who owned it, who occupied it, and what wealth it could produce).

As you develop your research, cross-compare family records and official documents, to ensure that you are always tracing your family and not their doppelgängers – people of the same name, living in the same district, at the time your ancestors were there.  Initially, your research will focus on ‘collecting’ dates of events: births, marriages and deaths. These dates provide the framework of your narrative –  the stories of individuals and families that encompass your family history.

Finally, write up your notes as you go along. In order to write, you must think about the evidence, and many people find that it’s only at this stage they discover the nuances of the story.

The issue of identity – who we are, and where we come from, is layered. This experience is heightened for the children of immigrants in the country of settlement. It was a privilege to assist Rizvana and Zainab that morning, on taking the first steps of what may become the hobby of a life-time.  FF.


A lovely young lady from Australia wanted to enquire about a house in County Monaghan called “Skyrick”. She had in her family papers a letter written in 1848 from Ireland. The woman who signed the letter was Catherine Connolly, a sister to her great-great grandfather. In the letter Catherine expressed her fears of the poverty around her and how she would survive with her daughters. She contemplated moving to Australia. The letter was sent from London and seems to have been written for Mrs. Connolly. “Skyrick” was of course the townland “Skerrick”. We looked up Griffiths Valuation and found a Catherine Connolly still resident there during the 1850s. Her descendent was delighted to know that she probably survived the worst years of the potato famine as the family knew nothing of her story.

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