DNA is just one part of the bigger genealogy puzzle—genetic results can help with brick walls, but documentary evidence is essential. If you read this monthly blog for the DNA content, you may want to come back next month, because today I want to digress to talk about my recent experience with a guided research trip.
If records exist with evidence to answer our research questions, we want to find them. With our most challenging brick walls though, sometimes we don’t know where else to look, or how to interpret the clues.
Some genealogy organizations offer guided trips to repositories like those in D.C., or the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or New York archives, etc. There are a lot of plusses to having a guide—especially if he or she will offer you personalized advice on which records might help your particular question, or direct you to someone who can. A good guide knows what’s hidden in the bowels of these buildings, can explain how to analyze what you’re seeing in the documents you unearth, and help you to mine all the relevant data too.
There is always the risk that you’ll spend a lot of money on the trip and still fail to find an answer. It’s part of thoroughly exhaustive research, but it might be frustrating too. Is it worth it? In some ways, it reminds me of scoring Super Bowl tickets if you’re a football fan. Is it worth the expense to vacation with like-minded folks doing something you’re passionate about, even if the game has a disappointing outcome? Only you can decide.
Unlike football, with genealogy trips there are steps you can take to improve your odds of success—but there are still no guarantees.
What follows is a report on my recent experience. For the past year, I’ve been preparing for Donna Moughty’s guided research trip package in Ireland.
Donna has 25 years experience with genealogy. She coaches other family history buffs and gives presentations on methodology and on Irish resources. Since 2012, Donna has been escorting small groups (max 15 people) on annual excursions in Dublin and Belfast to conduct boots-on-the-ground research. I signed up for her 2019 Dublin group.
Donna tells folks considering her trip that they should already know the Irish county of interest. She wants us to succeed, and if we haven’t discovered that much from our research back home, we may not do much better in Ireland. Participants should also identify one or more focused questions—this is a best practice for all our research. Before heading abroad, Donna expects us to exhaust all the resources already available to us, and she supplies checklists to help us prepare. The trip package includes consultation with Donna to make sure we’re developing effective research plans. Here’s one example of valuable feedback I received. I had located a scholarly book on the Irish Church Missions’ efforts in western Galway in the second half of the 19th century, and in my consult, I discussed the book’s bibliography with Donna. She unexpectedly got me the email address of the author so I could direct some specific questions to her.
Donna also provided us with links to the different repositories on our agenda and encouraged us to review their online finding aids and catalogs before the trip. Anything we could do at home before the trip would leave us with more time in Ireland to focus on tasks that we could only pursue there.
Boots on the ground
We met every morning at breakfast in a private dining area in our hotel (Buswells Hotel, included in the package) to discuss the day’s plans. Each place on our itinerary was in central Dublin and walkable, with one optional exception that only two of us needed. At each repository, Donna helped us obtain reader tickets when applicable, use lockers, learn the rules for requesting materials and making copies, and she made sure we understood where to find experts who could help us. She floated around during the day, offering individual assistance as we worked. And she was available at breakfast, lunch, or dinner to chat about our successes and failures and where to try next. What follows is a brief list of what we did each day.
Day 1, Sunday.
Folks who arrived earlier could hook up with Donna earlier, but for the rest of us, she arranged an afternoon meet-n-greet at our hotel lobby. Sunday night dinner was included in our package, and illustrious genealogy guests Fiona Fitzsimons and Brian Donovan of Eneclann (and FindMyPast and the Irish Family History Centre) joined us to chat about updates in Irish genealogy. They were gracious in answering individual questions about our goals too.
Day 2, Monday.
Off to the National Archives of Ireland (NAI) in the morning. Figuring out what they have and how to request something from their holdings can be quite intimidating! Donna arranged for archivist Gregory O’Connor to spend a couple hours providing our group with an orientation. In the afternoon, Donna led two of us to the bus we needed to take to the Representative Church Body Library (RCBL), which has surviving Church of Ireland registers and more. She had given librarian Bryan Whelan a heads-up about our research needs, so he was expecting us. Then she escorted some of the others to the General Records Office (GRO) for vital records, while the rest continued researching at NAI. There would be time later in the week to return to NAI for anyone who needed it.
Day 3, Tuesday.
All day at the National Library of Ireland (NLI), across the street from our hotel. Once again, Donna had arranged orientations, provided here by Niamh and Christina. This is a closed stacks library; we need to first order materials on the website. The staff conducts regularly scheduled pulls and we collect the books at the desk. One room has work stations where we can search some Irish newspapers and other online databases. Items in the manuscript collections must be ordered a day ahead of time and are viewed in a different building at the end of the block. Donna checked in periodically with each of us to see if anyone needed help.
Day 4, Wednesday.
In the morning, half our group walked with Donna to the Valuation Office (VO), which has revisions to the Griffith’s Valuation (GV)—a sort of tax record. This is one of the most valuable repositories for those of us who had family in Ireland after the early-to-mid 1850s, helping us track our families’ movements. (And for the rest of us, even if our ancestors emigrated earlier, they often had kin who remained in Ireland and are of interest.) Donna coached us individually in how to use these cancellation/revision books.
The VO is too small to accommodate our entire group at one time, so meanwhile, the other half of our group enjoyed the nearby EPIC museum of emigration. At lunchtime, we all met at EPIC for a presentation by Declan Brady of the Irish Family History Centre. Then we swapped; those who had been at the VO explored the EPIC museum and those who’d spent the morning at EPIC spent the afternoon at the VO with Donna.
Day 5, Thursday.
This was a free day for participants to visit or revisit whatever their personal quests dictated. That morning, I returned to the NAI to look at estate records, microfilm church records, and some initial valuation (house and field) books that preceded what we know as Griffith’s Valuation.
Donna took some of us to the Registry of Deeds that afternoon, where Paul Gorry provided expert assistance. But some others, like me, passed on that to hit the General Records Office (GRO). While many civil records are now available online, some of the older ones are not yet digitized. At the GRO, we could get copies of those and also search the index books for a small fee.
In the evening, Donna brought our group to Ireland’s oldest pub—The Brazen Head—for a traditional Irish dinner, with live music and storytelling (included in our research trip package).
Day 6, Friday.
Everyone was free to do whatever worked best for them. While at the National Library on Tuesday, I had ordered some items from their manuscript collection and scheduled to view them on Friday. So I headed there Friday morning to examine those fragile but fascinating sources.
By afternoon, I decided my brain was full. So I indulged in being a tourist—visiting the National Gallery, St. Stephen’s Park, pedestrian Grafton Street, and some bookstores.
For our final night together, we were treated to a classy dinner at nearby Shelbourne Hotel and John Grenham, author of the iconic book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, joined us for some lively conversation.
Day 7, Saturday.
The NLI is open Saturday morning, and some of the group may have returned there. I decided to take a day trip down to County Wexford to meet a DNA cousin, check out the Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience with Anita and her husband Paddy, and try to figure out our common ancestor too.
Yes, a high percentage of my time in Dublin was spent trying to conduct thoroughly exhaustive research and falling short of answers. But I expected that, going in. I did come away with some treasure. I’ll share a sampling from just one of my Irish lines here.
Background for my top research goal:
I knew that my great-grandfather John Harrigan and his widowed mother had both emigrated from Ireland to Detroit Michigan in the 1880s. I knew John was born in County Galway and his parents were Cornelius Harrigan, a scripture reader and schoolteacher, and Barbara Conneely. Cornelius and Barbara had both been married previously and had children from those prior marriages. I’d found Barbara and her daughters in Detroit, but no record of Cornelius and his other children after John was born in 1868. I hoped to find church marriage records and maybe evidence of Con’s death in Ireland on this trip. I also wanted to know where they were living in 1868 when John was born. (No civil or church record of his birth have been found.)
What I did find for this branch of the family
- (RCBL) signatures (!) for Cornelius Harrigan as a witness on several church marriage records between 1859 and 1869. (It was fun to see he signed his name Cornelius O’Harrigan!) I found baptism records for two of his children too.
- (VO) evidence that he rented a house (but no land) from the immediate lessors, the Irish Church Missions, in the townland of Ballinaboy in County Galway from 1856 to 1874. And then, he disappeared. This is about 12 km from where he appears in the Griffith’s Valuation, and it should be where his son John was born in 1868, answering one of my top priority questions!
- (NLI) a sketch of the school in Ballinaboy where Cornelius taught in the 1860s. Lots of other relevant social history context.
- (GRO) news that my great-granddad John Harrigan had a previously unknown baby sister! When she was born in Clifden in 1875, her father’s residence was reported as America! Less than a year later, the little girl died in the Clifden workhouse, a pauper. Those were huge revelations. Did Cornelius go to America hoping to send for his family later, leaving them all in the poorhouse? Or maybe he abandoned his family, and his wife Barbara gave his residence as America to save face?
I have lots more research to do now! Many times, a research trip may not answer specific questions but will uncover new leads. (Just like DNA evidence often does!)
Was it worth it for me? Absolutely! Honestly, spending a week visiting libraries and other repositories is my idea of a fun vacation, regardless of outcome. Especially when every day included mealtimes sharing discoveries and brainstorming with others with the same passion. I know some of my colleagues made more exciting progress than I did. I wasn’t able to touch base with everyone at the end of our week, but I was thrilled with my finds. And even the sources that didn’t yield my answers were worth checking.
Donna Moughty was an outstanding research guide, going above and beyond daily to coach us and make things easier for us, always focused on helping us succeed. If you’re willing to do the prep work and if a week like this sounds like your kind of fun, I highly recommend that folks with brick walls in Ireland consider taking a trip with Donna! For her 2020 programs: see her webpage here.
I also recommend reviewing the book Genealogy Standards (written by the Board for Certification of Genealogists and published by Ancestry.com, 2nd edition, Washington, D.C., 2019), especially standards for Planning Research, pp. 11-15.
Because of my research in Dublin, I was able to pinpoint where in County Galway my great-grandfather was born in 1868 (assuming it was where his father was living then, of course.) A few days later, I was privileged to visit that location with all my siblings—a lifelong dream. The house no longer stands, but it was a powerful experience to walk there and look out over the views our Harrigan family would have seen, and breathe the same air, and ponder their lives, their challenges, their choices.
And now, I’m home again. With lots to process, I’m ready to update research plans and pick up on the latest DNA matches and news in genetic genealogy too.
© November 2019, Ann Raymont, CG®