Analysis

Thursday 31 July 2014

No one will 'find' themselves in dusty old birth records

The genealogy craze is harmless fun, as long as we're not looking for our 'true identity', writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 21/09/2008|00:00

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Time was when we used to laugh at US presidential candidates for desperately scouring the family tree in the run up to an election, in the hope of finding some tenuous link to the Emerald Isle and thereby snapping up a few extra votes from gullible Irish-Americans.

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Then the genealogy craze took hold and, before long, we were all at it. There are websites, magazines, night classes; there are even professionals you can pay to do the donkey work.

Now along comes Who Do You Think You Are? -- a six-part series on RTE television following celebrities as they trace back their ancestral lines and which started on Monday evening with Charlie Bird -- and, if we're not careful, we'll soon be swamped with parish registers, birth certificates and DNA databases, as even more Irish people rush to drag their own renegades, royals and rogues out of the family closet.

It's harmless fun, as long as it's kept in check, but genealogical travellers who head off down this never-ending road invariably fall into the trap of thinking that they're discovering who they "really are" in the course of finding out how many months pregnant great-great-great-granny was when she married great-great-great-grandfather. They buy into some deluded notion that they're finding the missing pieces inside themselves.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a straight copy of a BBC original, and it's a sad reflection on the lack of creativity in RTE that homegrown broadcasters didn't think of it first, because this show could have been designed with Irish audiences in mind.

Family still means everything here. The idea of family, that is; the thing itself tends to be more problematic. It's like the old joke about how the only thing worse than being away from your family is being with them. But what exactly is ever learned from tracing your family tree, except that you had these ancestors and here's a few things that a few of them did?

RTE promises "new facts, surprising revelations, moving testimonies and experiences", and they'll get them, as likely as not because that's the nature of the beast. Dig down three or four generations and anybody who can't find a wealth of scandal and heartbreak and mystery is either not trying, or is cursed with the most boring ancestors in history. Bird's forebearers instantly obliged with family links to scenic Bermuda and some potentially racy stuff about a woman who married two brothers, at different times.

For Bird, who wasn't close to his parents and knew little of his family, it was bound to be fascinating, but if you think about it, he didn't really learn anything, except a couple of extra facts, and such details are tyrants and charlatans mainly anyway. Drawing conclusions from them is a fool's game, not least because of the selective nature of the game.

Without wanting to sound like Germaine Greer in full Female Eunuch cry, tracing a family tree is only possible if you isolate the male line and give it greater significance than the female. It has to be that way, because otherwise, the thread gets lost in time, and becomes more like a labyrinth from which escape is impossible, than the branches of a tree.

But that's the point, isn't it? The labyrinth is the true story of who we are, and anything else is an illusion, however comforting. And the further back you go, the more random and insane the notion of ancestry becomes. There's a man in Somerset who has spent 28 years tracing some 10,000 of his "relatives", all the way back to William the Conqueror, Alfred the Great, and even one king of France (wot, only one?)

It's like people who believe in reincarnation. They're always convinced they were Cleopatra in a past life, never the long-forgotten ass whose milk went into her baths.

Tracing a family tree like this is only possible by ignoring the millions of other people from history who had just as much (or maybe that should be just as little?) genetic input into who you are than a sackload of emperors and geniuses. Literally millions.

Trace a line back 600 years and what you have is 16 million ancestors. Go back 80 generations and the figure rises to a trillion trillion (which is actually greater than the total number of people who've ever lived, but that's maths for you).

The US National Centre for Biotechnology Information puts it as bluntly as it gets by pointing out that, if you trace the line back far enough, every single human on the planet would eventually be shown to be related.

We're all, at the very least, 50th cousins to everybody else, which is really a far more agreeable way of looking at the world than obsessively trying to isolate whatever you've fooled yourself into believing makes you special. Genealogy is just a modern day version of primitive ancestor worship. Identity is not so easy to pin down. Thankfully so.

By playing simultaneously on people's insecurities and vanity, the whole business of genealogy is reminiscent of an experiment conducted by psychological illusionist Derren Brown, in which he gave 100 people a personalised astrology reading based on the scanty individual data they had provided. Invariably, they found his insights spookily accurate. They felt he had seen deep into their souls. At which point he would reveal that the 100 readings were all identical. The statements, which the recipients considered personal and profound, were mere commonplaces which they bought into purely because they wanted to.

In future, for convenience's sake, everybody should just be given a copy of the exact same family tree, showing that they're descended from Brian Boru and Beethoven and Bach and Beckett (and that's just the Bs), together with a few virtuously poor ommadawns to even up the historic scales. They'd all be happy with the findings and nobody would be any the wiser. Well, until they started comparing notes with the neighbours -- but it would serve them all right for falling for the "DNA is destiny" nonsense in the first place. Blood may be thicker than water, but it's nowhere near as thick as the people who think they'll find out who they really are in the faded ink of a centuries old register of births, marriages and deaths.

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