It’s Your History


What does history mean to you? Time was when school history was all about dates, battles, monarchs, heroes, myths and legends. A keen memory could keep you top of the class. But there is another kind of history – your history. The family historian, although working on a small canvas, has much to offer to our understanding of the past.

With all the exciting developments online there has never been a better time to learn about those who went before. Not just a fashionable trend, we are now perfectly poised to reveal the pattern of lives lived. Where they went to school, how they earned a living, why they made the decisions they made, to stay or to go, the opportunities, or in many cases, the lack of opportunities.

Always fascinated by history and by family, genealogy is the perfect fusion of my two passions. Beginning formal studies in 2000, on a part time basis, I took time out in 2008 from my professional life as an academic administrator, to continue full time studies in family history. My experience, qualification and passion can help you reveal the wonderful tapestry of your family’s lives.

Census of Ireland, 2nd April 2011

The first week in April 2011, sees the one hundredth anniversary of the 1911 Census. On April 2nd 1911, Irish families completed their Census forms and in doing so, they have left us a rich legacy of fairly accurate information on who they were, so that we can know who we are.

In the attached form, there are many clues. Bridget, the widowed head of household, was born in the City of Dublin. So, any search for her baptismal record would be directed to Dublin city parishes. Bridget’s oldest daughter, Catherine, was also born in the City of Dublin in approx 1883 but by the time Christopher was born, in approx 1885, the family had moved to the village where they now resided. What prompted the move out of the city? The Census won’t answer that, but it directs us to ask that question. It is important to interrogate the census carefully, and to follow the information gained there to the fullest.

Who were the two children, listed under their own names as boarders? Without the publicly available knowledge of the census, subsequent generations of the family would never have known that the young Margaret was not, in fact, a blood relative.

Census of Ireland 2nd April 1911

The peripheral villages circling the city of Dublin were seen as ideal places for the boarding out of city children, who, for one reason, or another, were unable to remain with their mothers/parents/families. In some cases, the ‘host’ family became the family of the boarded out child. The concept of family, in these Dublin villages, was expanded to include boarded out children.

How to help families cope with children is an age old problem, and different solutions have been adopted over time. In the 1950s, a ‘closed’ adoption, where identity was a closely guarded secret, was seen as the answer. In the Dublin of 1911, boarding out, where the children’s identity was acknowledged, is more akin to the form of ‘open’ adoption now in place since the 1980s. And so the census shows us how we have almost come full circle in the way we view children in families and communities.

There is of course the thrill of seeing the signature of a great grandparent. But there is more to know. Despite having adult sons, she was the head of household; that she had a heart big enough to raise more children, despite her widowhood. We can deduce, from the occupation listed for Elizabeth, that being female was no barrier to acquiring the skill of shorthand and typing, in an era when being a secretary was often the preserve of men. Where did Elizabeth acquire this skill?

The census then is a wonderful springboard from which to learn more about the lives our ancestors lived. As the Irish population once more setting about completing their census forms – on April 10th 2011 – we have much to be grateful to our ancestors for the clues bequeathed to the social and family historian.

Who do you think you are?

Carmel Gilbride with the President of APG, Kenyatta D. Berry, London

Billed as the National History Show, this event at Olympia in London’s Kensington, sponsored by, in association with the Telegraph newspaper, contained a strong Irish presence amongst the exhibitors, reflecting the great enthusiasm for tracing Irish roots.

My involvement at the show was with Association of Professional Genealogists, the worldwide membership organisation. This was APG’s first venture to Europe. At Stand 519, on Sunday, the final day of the show, I had the great privilege of meeting aspiring genealogists, thinking of taking the plunge from hobbyist to professional. I had no hesitation in recommending APG which offers an umbrella to its many diverse members. In turn, clients who hire an APG professional have the reassurance of knowing that they adhere to APG’s Code of Ethics, to ensure that the highest standards will be adhered to when research is carried out on their behalf.

There was a wealth of information available, especially in the many talks and seminars over the three days of the show. But a combination of participating at the APG ‘booth’ (as my American friends referred to it!) my attention being drawn to the drama surrounding the counting of votes in Ireland’s election meant less time to focus on all that was on offer.

Back to our Past – RDS October 2010

The inaugural Back to the Past exhibition at Dublin’s RDS was the occasion for the family history community to focus on their passion for genealogy. As an exhibitor, it was a great opportunity to meet so many who share this enthusiasm for the study of family history.

Photo by Neil Moxham

One question that was raised continuously was ‘how did you get your family back to the 1600’s?’ With a lot of hard work, that’s how! But, it would be true to say that I focused on my family history, I learned all there was to learn about my family in its community, and slowly, over time, their secrets revealed themselves to me. I took time to listen to older family members, my father especially, who in turn had listened to his uncle. I am the lucky recipient of a strong oral history tradition, strongly rooted in one area.

But, not everyone has this to fall back on and this is where the expertise of the family historian comes in to play. Sifting through sources, undertaking the important work of documenting our ancestors’ past, we can then begin to can piece together the history of a given family. The next important step is to contextualise that family’s place in the social, economic and political of its time. This is vital for families fractured from their Irish past, through emigration.

Exhibitions like Back to the Past are an important opportunity to come together, to share our learning’s, to shed light on those who went before.

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