Wednesday 20 August 2014

Who do you think you are?

More than 20,000 visitors attended last year's inaugural ‘Back To Our Past’ genealogy exhibition at the RDS, Dublin. Ronan Abayawickrema looks ahead to this year’s event

The good old days: A Benn family photo from the 1930s with (l to r) a cousin and John Francis, Wakely, Thomas and Cecil Benn
the Benn boys (l to r) Arthur, Cecil, Thomas, John Francis and Wakely

It’s a long way, in distance and time, from Australia in 2011 to Co Wexford in 1796.

Yet Katharine Kennedy, from New South Wales, has traced her maternal line back to that date more than 200 years ago, when her Irish ancestor, John Gore, married Hannah Humphries in the village of Duncormick.

Most of us have some of knowledge of our family history, passed down by parents and grandparents, and going back two or three generations, at most. But Katharine Kennedy now has documented evidence of one of the major events in the life of her ancestor, which took place as the Napoleonic Wars were raging and the United Irishmen met to plot revolution. How many people can say that?

“I've always had an interest in history, and particularly family history,” says the 36-year-old housewife. “My mother began researching the family tree, and I have picked up where she left off. I have been researching since I was about 17.” One of the research sources Ms Kennedy used was the findmy website. Launched in May, the site aims to make more than 50 million Irish records available online within the next 12 months.

A joint venture between longestablished genealogy company Eneclann and Brightsolid Online Publishing, which runs the popular findmypast UK site, will be one of almost 60 family history exhibitors at the Back To Our Past/The Over 50s Show at Dublin's RDS next week.

This is more than double the number of history exhibitors at last year's inaugural exhibition, which attracted more than 20,000 visitors. Back To Our Past organiser John Low says he expects attendance this year to exceed that figure, and adds that it will be the largest gathering of genealogy/family history experts under one roof in Ireland. These figures indicate a huge surge in interest in family history in Ireland, but what has prompted such a significant growth in a pastime that once largely seen as the preserve of Irish Americans?

“The growth in family history in Ireland can definitely be attributed to the popularity and publicity surrounding television shows such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are' and RTÉ's ‘The Genealogy Roadshow,'“ says Cliona Weldon, general manager of Brian Donovan, CEO and cofounder of Eneclann, also credits the ‘ Who Do You Think You Are' franchise with popularising family history, but says that other factors are also at play.

He cites the “grey euro” as one such factor, as retired people often find they have the time and money to investigate their family tree. “What matters most to people in that age group is their family... most people's engagement with history is very personal, and very much driven by their own family experience.” Ms Kennedy agrees. “I think people like to find out about their family history to have a link to the past, and a sense of belonging to a place or a culture, particularly in countries like Australia where ancestry is often multicultural.”

Cliona Weldon thinks that the huge publicity surrounding US President Barack Obama's Irish visit and his own Irish roots has also led to a greater interest in the area.” Much of the research into the president's Irish ancestry was done by Eneclann, which will also be an exhibitor at the upcoming show.

In 2007, an American genealogist discovered Mr Obama's Irish connection — something of which the future president himself had been unaware — after finding a name and date in an Irish parish record. Prior to Mr Obama's visit to Ireland, Eneclann's director of research and co-founder Fiona Fitzsimons, together with genealogist Helen Moss, took this scant information and started their research.

What began as a training exercise for a member of staff quickly became a major, publicity-attracting project for the firm, as it helped the Department of Foreign Affairs by providing details of the president's Offaly connections to help plan his visit to Moneygall. Eneclann traced various branches of Mr Obama's Irish family, including the Donovans, back to the 1760s, and the Kearneys, for whom the records go back to 1698.

“You can't get back that far for everyone,” says Ms Fitzsimons, noting that Obama's family feature in documents such as land and business records because they were middle-class Protestants. Indeed, for many people, researching the history of their Irish ancestors poses more problems than tracing, for example, English forebears. In 1922, numerous public records were destroyed when the Four Courts were shelled in the Civil War.

Documentation lost included the 19th-century census returns, Church of Ireland parish registers, most wills before 1904 and a collection of medieval documents. The loss of these records are serious problems to be overcome for anyone seeking to research their family history, according to Aideen Ireland, head of the reader services division at the National Archives of Ireland. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of alternative sources for those who wish to trace their ancestors.

“You've got to be more creative with Irish research,” says Brian Donovan. “You've got to think beyond the obvious sources you'd use elsewhere.” Other research avenues include the Landed Estate Court Records, which are records of Ireland's big estates and the tenants who lived on them, and Griffith's Valuation, which records 19th-century rate payments.

The Glasnevin Trust, another exhibitor at this year's Back To Our Past show, also offers an alternative to the destroyed census returns, particularly for Dubliners, as it has 1.5m burial records for Glasnevin Cemetery, dating back to 1832, detailing the deceased's name, age, and home, as well as who booked the funeral. Another vast resource will shortly be made available online, as findmypast. ie will be putting up the Irish Prison Registers from 1790-1924 before the Back To Our Past show.

At one time, Ireland had the largest prison population per capita in the world, and these records will enable people to find out something about how their ancestors lived, rather than just collecting names and dates. “The stories contained touch on the major themes of Irish family history, from poverty and destitution, to rebellion and social confrontation,” says Ms Weldon. “Almost every Irish family was touched by these records, as offenders, their relatives or their victims.”

Eneclann's Mr Donovan, who says the registers span everyone from general criminals to rebels to the drunk and disorderly, will be giving a presentation entitled ‘Your Irish Ancestors and the Law' at Back to Our Past. As businesses, both Eneclann and charge for their services. Prices depend on the service offered, from a package of 100 credits for €9.95, which can be used to access various records on findmypast. ie from five credits a go, to fees starting from €360 to hire one of Eneclann's consultant genealogists to do the research for you. However, the National Archives offer an alternative route for those who want to pursue their research for free.

The archives' reading room, in the former Jacobs' biscuit factory on Dublin's Bishop Street, has a wealth of records, including digitised census returns, and hard copies of court cases and wills more than 20 years old, national school records, solicitors' records, and a number of private collections. There is also a consultant genealogist on duty until 1.30pm every day, to help novice researchers, or those who have encountered a specific obstacle.

Whatever research route you choose, the reward is the chance of finding out more about how your forebears lived in an age utterly different to our own. Katharine Kennedy might know little of the experiences of her ancestor John Gore, whom she thinks was a Protestant landlord. In the turbulent years following his marriage, some of the bloodiest fighting of the 1798 Rebellion raged in Co Wexford.

However, she does know that his line continued, as she was able to find the 1831 death notice of John's son, Richard, in a record called the Tipperary Clans Archive on This is what Donovan calls “the thrill and excitement of actually discovering that document”. To experience it, it's important to keep an open mind. “That's half the fun and pleasure of doing family history,” says Mr Donovan. “It's not a story you know the answer to until you've done it.”

Back To Our Past is on from October 21-23 at the RDS, Dublin 4. For more information, visit,,, glasnevintrust. ie and

Half-price ticket offer

Back To Our Past is offering readers half-price tickets to the show. Simply bring this article to gain entry for one or two people for €5 each (normal admission price is €10).

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