independent

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Back in time with Maureen and Julie

Reporter David Medcalf visited the Lacken home of Maureen and Julie Phibbs, the mother and daughter team who bring Irish genealogy to a worldwide audience

Maureen and Julie at home in Lacken
Maureen and Julie at home in Lacken

Phibbs. The editor of 'Irish Roots' magazine is Maureen Phibbs. Now which branch of the Phibbs clan would that be, you may well be asking.

The name, says Maureen, is supposed to be from England but the family has been here in Lacken near Blessington for at least two centuries. During that time, they have farmed the same hilly holding in the same townland where she now lives and works in a tidy bungalow next door to the original farmhouse.

She took the slightly unusual surname on marriage to Pat Phibbs, as she was brought up a Hickey from near Millstreet in Cork.

She reckons that the interest in genealogy which she pursues through the magazine reflects her growing up in Munster.

'The old people spoke for hours at the fireside,' she muses, recalling the days when she sat and listened to her elders. 'They knew who everyone was connected to.' There, in brief, is the essence of the hobby which she now pursues as a business - it is all about connections.

Most of us share a curiosity about who were are and where we came from, a curiosity which has allowed her publication to reach a striking milestone.

'Irish Roots' recently celebrated its 100th edition and Maureen certainly sees no reason to quit now that the century has been attained.

The desire to trace roots and make those connections generates countless lines of enquiry for her and her team of writers…

She reveals that it was romance which brought her from Cork to Wicklow, via the emigrant trail followed by so many of her generation.

She went to England in or around 1960 and met her husband-to-be at an Irish ballroom of romance - Saint Chad's in Birmingham.

It was in the English Midlands that she found employment at an information centre run by Oblate priest Father Richard Murphy.

She spent her working day dealing with the everyday crises of people fleeing the feeble economy back home in Ireland, often arriving at New Street station penniless.

Maureen's task was to assist them to find accommodation and put them in touch with likely employers. When she came home to Millstreet in 1968, it was to marry her Wicklow man and the couple were soon back in Britain.

The enterprising Pat Phibbs had his own digger, earning contract work on new roads in Devon while his wife kept the books for their new company.

Eldest daughter Julie was born at Tiverton in Devon but was destined to grow up in Lacken where the family transferred to in 1973. The move back to the hill farm occurred because of a tragedy, as Pat's brother died in an accident.

The sheep pastures supported the family of six children with which Pat and Maureen were blessed, all of the offspring now living and working in an Ireland much changed from the one in which their parents grew up.

The future editor of 'Irish Roots' had her hands full with the demands of small children at the time but the seeds of her current pre-occupation were sown back in 1982.

A call came through from an Australian man called Stephen Phibbs who was in Ireland on the trail of the Phibbs clan back in the homeland.

He was endeavouring to make a connection (that word again) between those with the surname who emigrated Down Under long ago and those who hailed from Wicklow.

'I have tried to make that connection myself but there is a link missing,' she ponders. She never got to meet Stephen Phibbs but a light had been lit nonetheless and Maureen's curiosity had been gently roused. She rang the priest in Valleymount, only to be told that the parish records were not open for her inspection.

'Now they are free for the world to see online,' she laughs.

As her brood grew up she was ready to enrol when the 'Tech' in Blessington advertised a series of local history nights.

And she ventured as far as Naas another evening to hear a talk given by Noreen Higgins on family history.

Maureen was so taken with the topic that she made sure that Noreen was invited to Blessington where a class of 20 or so fellow enthusiasts attended genealogy classes on Tuesday nights.

And the message from the lady in charge was that everyone should have 'Irish Roots' magazine.

It was published at the time by Tony McCarthy in Cork, who established the title in 1992 for eager subscribers around the world.

Maureen used to receive it quarterly in the post and thought it a great pity when Tony indicated that he was poised to step down with no obvious successor.

'I thought "that's a real shame". I was upset and disappointed. I was giving out - and then Julie said that we would give it a go.'

The deal to take over the magazine was hammered out in 2007 after McCarthy met mother and daughter at the Hibernian Hotel in Mallow to discuss practical details.

Julie was poised to move to West Cork at the time and reckoned that, with a decent internet connection, she could handle the commercial side of things from there.

They were prepared to take their new acquisition seriously and, when the first subscription cheques dropped into the letter box, they realised that they would have to do just that.

They had inherited a steady readership and a worldwide audience but they were prepared to make changes. They introduced more glossy colour to the pages and announced their arrival by putting country singer Daniel O'Donnell on the front page.

While Maureen has concentrated on content, Julie has been the driving force behind modernising the presentation. Under her stewardship, innovations such as the digital edition and an 'Irish Roots' app have been introduced. She has also forged a deal with Barnes & Noble in the United States, putting the magazine on the shelves of 600 shops across the US.

Julie and Maureen take opportunities to meet their readers - and potential readers - attending trade shows in the UK and in Ireland: 'Family history was once thought of as being for Americans but more and more Irish are taking an interest,' reports the junior half of this very effective partnership. 'We are into our tenth year with the magazine and we have a readership of 40,000 - I plan to triple that.'

Julie is back in Lacken, her residency in Cork brought to an end by a brush with breast cancer. Coping with the treatment for the disease was made a little easier by the diversion which plotting the quarterly publication provided.

Mother Maureen reports that she receives mail and emails from all over the world from people anxious to dig into their origins. She advises them that, though there are many sources dealing with the 19th century, going back pre-1800 is usually tricky except for those who have aristocratic forebears.

'Irish Roots' recently gave readers a few tips on how best to set about tracing Wicklow ancestors. Here are a few of the facts and pointers contained in the article:

1: There are 15 Roman Catholic parishes in the county and 25 Church of Ireland parishes. The oldest Catholic register begins in 1748 for Wicklow Town. The C of I parish of Enniskerry is even older, dating back to 1662.

2: The national censuses of 1901 and 1911 make fascinating online reading at www.nationalarchives.ie.

3: For those who want an excuse to visit Dublin, Catholic baptismal records up to 1890 are held on micro-film at the National Library of Ireland in Kildare Street.

4: While Wicklow was not the county worst affected by the great famine of the mid-1840s, the population dropped by around a fifth, with many individuals and families emigrating.

5: The National Library holds a list of Wicklow voters from 1843 - document MS NAI 1843/64 - just one of a number of valuable documents listed in the 'Irish Roots' article.

6: Great work has been done compiling the inscriptions on gravestones - consult your local library or try www.igp-web.com.

7: The journals of local history societies can offer rich pickings, with groups active in Bray, Greystones, Roundwood, Blessington and west Wicklow.

8: Extensive records exist for the Powerscourt estate in the north of the county and Coolattin in the south.

9: Old newspapers contain nuggets of information, with the 'Bray Gazette' published 1861-1873 and the 'Wicklow Newsletter' appearing 1857-1927, with some back numbers on line at www.irishnewsarchive.com.

10: While they may highlight the crimes of a few black sheep, a dozen Petty Sessions courts around County Wicklow kept records from as early as 1834, with the original documents held by the National Archives at Bishop Street in Dublin.

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