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Be Your Own “Who Do You Think You Are” | M. K. Jones


If, like me, you are an avid viewer of the BBC series “Who Do You Think You Are?” you have been mesmerised by the stories of strange, wonderful and terrible events in the history of the rich and famous. And you may think that your own past is unlikely to be as interesting. Not true.

As a genealogy researcher for over 20 years I have come across the most fascinating, embarrassing and sad stories in my own family and those of friends for whom I have undertaken research.

Why Do We Search?

I have seen articles and opinions that say it’s a need for connection, to know who we are and where, ultimately, we come from. The leading international research community, Family Search, says that:

“Learning the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced, and it often inspires greater love and compassion for their flaws and mistakes. This compassion can easily translate to our relationships with the living, within our families and outside them.”

This resonates with me, and did so when I first took up the challenge of finding an ancestor. My journey began when my mother took an evening class in genealogy. She was referred to the internet, then in its genealogy infancy, to see what she could find. But, being at that time in her late 70s and with her first computer, she was struggling. I stepped in to help and became immediately fascinated.

The story she was researching was about her grandfather, William Dillon, who was supposed to have crossed over from the west coast of Ireland to Liverpool in the 1880s to look for his mother, who had gone on ahead to look for work. He couldn’t find her in Liverpool but got news that she had gone down to South Wales. He walked, then, from Liverpool down through the towns of the South Wales coast, checking everywhere he went. But he never found her. Eventually he settled as a lodger with an Irish community in Newport, found work on the docks, married one of the daughters of the house, and there began the dynasty.

Working with my mother’s notes, I began by finding out who was still alive who could confirm the story. This is the first step in any family research.

 Marriage certificate for the mysterious William Dillon. There is no birth in the relevant years in Ireland of a William to a Martin Dillon.

1. Find out what you can from the living.

Sadly, we had missed this opportunity, but we tried to contact as many of her grandfather’s remaining children and grandchildren we could find. Their stories were the same as my mother’s, but there was one dissonant fact: William’s son, my mother’s Uncle Jim, had been to the west coast town of Ennis and found – nothing. No record of William’s birth or any family. He had also been to the records office in Dublin and again – nothing.

I gather he then gave up the search. And he didn’t leave any notes. Which leads to my second tip

2. Record Everything

Write down, record, film everything that an elderly relative tells you. Some of the stories may have become embellished or distorted over time. But this is precious memory and is worth preserving in every case. And start to record your family tree, even if it’s only a hand-drawn copy. There are computer programmes available, and these can be shared with others. But writing down everything you find, where and when you found it will also ensure that you don’t repeat research you have already one. I found this out through my own experience.

Also, ask them for any photographs and documents they might have and are prepared to entrust to you. I inherited a stack of photos from my grandmother – my father’s mother – but none of them have names and I have spent years trying to figure out who they are. But I do have the original copy of my great grandfather’s birth certificate in 1870. A very precious document indeed.

 I inherited a lot of unnamed portraits. Centre: my grandfather and his younger brother. Right: my great grandmother (I think!). Left: No idea.

3. Do Some General Research Around What Resources Are Available

These days, when genealogy research has become an industry, there is a wealth of material out there. Spend some time finding out what there is and what is the cost, before you make a decision to spend money.

The best resources are registration records of Births, Marriages and Deaths from 1837 onwards and parish records going back, in some cases, to the start of parish recording, as ordered by Oliver Cromwell. These latter, however, are rare and the quality of the information can be haphazard. Parish records were standardized by law in 1812 and anything you can find after this time will be better organised.

Original birth certificate of my great grandfather in 1879.

4. Start with Free Internet Resources

Family Search is the best and biggest free resource. They record births, marriages and deaths and census records. But the search engine can be a bit random.

There are now the FreeReg, FreeCen and FreeBMD. These are transcriptions by volunteers. They are mainly indexes, but will give you some vital details.

If you then google “free genealogy resources” you will find a deluge of information.

5. Using Paid Sites

If you decide to pay a subscription, spend some time thinking about what will best serve you. The big 2 subscription sites: Ancestry and Find My Past, all provide BMD, census and Parish records, but they each also have their specialist collections. Each will tell you what they have before you make up your mind. Check out some others, too. The Genealogist has the 1838 tithe maps in great detail, so if your ancestor was a farmer or tenant it’s possible they can be found. This site also has a good collection of Apprenticeship records, going back to the mid 1700s.

6. DNA

I don’t have advice on this subject. I have done my own DNA and found that I am 66% Irish and 28% Western European (the “Irish” has subsequently turned out to be “Celt” and includes part of South Wales). With DNA results you get people who are related to you, closely or distantly. If you find people to add to your tree that you didn’t know about, they may be able to give you answers to long outstanding mysteries.

There are a number of sites now offering DNA at a reasonable cost. I am going to try out some of the others and will in future posts, and talk about the results and whether or not they have been enlightening in discovering more about my roots.

The end of my great grandfather’s story? There isn’t one. I am still researching. He has turned out to be an enigmatic, elusive character. But along the way I have found out so much about my Irish family. I have visited the towns from which they came, traced their lives and I feel that I know them better, now.

I am getting a clearer every day of Who I Think I Am. But I still love the challenge and the pleasure of every new “find”.

Good luck with yours.

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Be Your Own “Who Do You Think You Are” | M. K. Jones

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