independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Bringing history back to life

History buff Brian Donovan has turned his passion into a thriving business

Brian Donovan of Eneclann

WHO do you think you are? One man with the answer is surely Eneclann's Brian Donovan. His company will not only discover the secrets and history of your home, they will do a full background check on your ancestors and even restore ancient documents long thought lost.

As we come towards the end of the Noughties, our interest in history and where we come from is increasing dramatically. And history buff Donovan is at the cutting edge. From discovering that Barack Obama's ancestors were wig makers to helping make the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, he is increasingly in demand.

Donovan and his wife Fiona Fitzsimons set up Eneclann as a campus company when both were post-grad history students at TCD in 1998. The couple's initial passion was in bringing history to life for a wider audience. The first project was researching family history, which was just taking off as a market at the end of the Nineties. They became the first online Irish genealogy research agency. The timing was fortuitous, as genealogy research has become increasingly popular. According to a recent MSI survey, interest in genealogy is up to 73 per cent among Americans, and the British are close behind.

But it's not just elderly Americans looking up their European roots, Eneclann was involved with RTE's Who Do You Think You Are?, tracking down Charlie Bird's grandfather to Bermuda and helping Joe Duffy to find his granny's brother's graveyard in Ahmednagar in India. The company has a website, www.irishorigins.com, where people can either research their own history or pay for Eneclann to do it for them.

The resources they call on are amazing. You can search for everyone who departed on a ship from Derry, Liverpool or elsewhere; you can search baptism records going as far back as the 1700s; they can even access police and army reports. "We have 35,000 search and raid records across Dublin during the War of Independence. We can find out who was arrested, who said what, what was taken," says Donovan.

Increasing numbers of people are paying for access to these records (it's only a few euro) to trace their own background, or indeed the history of their house. A few turn up surprises. One American woman, a Noraid supporter, found that her grandfather had been an RIC sergeant. "But she wasn't displeased," Donovan says. "We turned up his notebook -- it was full of descriptions of Fenian suspects, so she has some real history."

In recent years Donovan has been increasingly focusing on digitising old records and books, giving new generations access to them. In fact Donovan was responsible for digitising the Griffith Valuation, one of the largest 19th-century Irish resources.

Other projects included one at the Department of Defence, where Eneclann recovered more than 140,000 records. "They were disastrous and badly damaged, many almost luminous with fungus," Donovan says. Now they're all cleaned, stored and packed away.

The firm also won the contract to amalgamate all the records of children in the State for the Department of Health. It took seven archivists 18 months to catalogue more than 200,000 records and create a comprehensive name index. In another project Donovan and his team had to dig archives out of the Customs House, getting rid of dead rats and pigeons in the process. In fact, the work can be so dirty that many of the archivists he employs have to be inoculated against all sorts of weird diseases which can survive for up to 50 years in damp paper.

Only last week Donovan signed an exclusive deal with the Mormon Church -- a huge deal in the archivist world. Mormons believe it is necessary to baptise their ancestors, thus there have been Mormons in the National Archives for decades, photographing all records on to microfilm.

"The Mormons have one of the world's major archives, it's simply enormous. Now we have access and are going to digitise all the Irish records," says a delighted Donovan.

The company employs 20 people and has turnover of more than €1m a year. However, this digitising is an expensive business so Donovan is going out for another round of BES fundraising, this time through his own accountant www.osullivanassociates.ie/eneclannbes.htm.

"Investors will be able to see exactly what they are investing in -- unlike other offerings, where the broker chooses the investments and the investor must operate blind," he says.

Indeed, with its growing collection of assets Eneclann is very attractive to international companies seeking to consolidate in the area. In recent years there have been a number of high-profile acquisitions. One archive, ancestry.com, sold for $300m in 2007.

Meanwhile, Donovan has got to get back to digitising those Mormon records.

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