Context is key.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the surge of interest in family history and genealogy is that is has put historical research and learning to the forefront of the minds of people who otherwise might have said they had no interest in history.

One of the greatest challenges facing those teaching history as a subject, be it at primary, secondary or, to a lesser extent, third level, has been maintaining the engagement of their students. The great thing about genealogy and family history are that they tend to be personal and when something is personal or relatable we tend to be more likely to engage with it.

However, there is a flip-side to this, in that there are now many people engaging in genealogy and family history, who lack a historical context for the time periods in which they are researching.

Context can mean everything. It can explain why a couple had three children in four years between 1910-14 and then none until another three in quick succession in 1919-24 (World War I 1914-18). It may also offer a pointer as to why your ancestors left Ireland circa 1850 (Height of the Great Famine 1845-52). Or even answer why so many members of a family died in 1918-20 (Spanish Flu pandemic)

The above examples are extremes, but much more localised events can have similar impacts; the clearance of tenants on estates, localised famines and food shortages, natural disasters, etc. Knowing the history of the places your ancestors lived and the times they lived through, can provide vital clues to research. Equally for emigrant ancestors what was happening in their ‘new world’, was the emigration push or pull? Were your ancestors ‘convicts’ or colonisers?

Studying secondary literature can really help to explain the actions of your ancestors or offer clues for further research. And remember, that’s no exam at the end, the only result that matters is you gaining a better understanding of the lives your ancestors led.