British Institute, Salt Lake City, UTAH, 21-25 Sept. An interview with Fiona Fitzsimons

“I would say that the single most common error I see among genealogists, is that they don’t question the bias of their sources.  Many people invest so much in tracking down a relevant document, that once they find it, they accept it uncritically.  Or, people put too much weight on a source – like an age in a census”



How long have you been a Genealogist? And when did you get started?

Fiona: I’ve been a professional Genealogist, full time, since 1996. Before that, I began doing genealogy a few years earlier, in my own academic research work, which was with Professor Katherine Simms at Trinity College. I was doing a study of a number of Gaelic lordships in the early modern period. Ireland and England were lineage societies, and I had to understand the family connections to understand the politics.

The family in Ireland, had an extra legal dimension not found in England. In 1500s and 1600s Ireland, children born outside of marriage could be ‘legitimized’ with full inheritance and succession rights – most famously the 1st Earl of Tyrone, who until he was 17 was known as the son of Matthew Kelly a blacksmith in Dundalk. His was a real Irish ‘rags-to-riches’ story.

Brian: So tell me about those early years of doing Genealogy, when you were starting out.

Fiona: The Faculty of Science in Trinity contacted the Faculty of Humanities, looking for a good graduate student willing and able to do some historical research for members of the Faculty. My initial point of contact was through the late Anne Walsh, [a well-known and loved Librarian in the Berkeley Library in Trinity College Dublin, who has since died]. I think Anne thought of me, because I was forever plaguing her to show me new sources and books for my own research. So, I was the first person Anne had in mind, which was very lucky for me.

Brian: What were they looking for?

Fiona: The Faculty of Science wanted two things: research for family histories, and guided tours around Dublin by someone who knew the history of the city.
The people I worked for were mainly visiting Fellows in Dublin for a term, and who vaguely knew they had an Irish connection and wanted to document it when they were here. Sometimes I did the whole family history from A to Z – I would quite literally research a family until I ran out of documents. Sometimes I was asked to find a specific thing – for example one mathematician from an Ascendancy family wanted to find a record of a legal action his family were involved in, in 1776.

Brian: That’s very specific.

Fiona: [Laughs] Yes, well, I remembered the date because it corresponded with the American Revolution. That’s an old historian’s trick!

Brian: How do you think your academic training helped you moving into Genealogy?

Fiona: My academic training in Irish History is the grounding for all my research. I learned early on how to develop a case even where the evidence was very limited: how to squeeze the last drop of information from a document; and, just as importantly, I leaned at what point the sources can’t deliver anymore, and you have to stop research.

So a rigorous academic training is actually one of the best preparations you can have for Family History.

Brian: In 1996 you founded Eneclann as a business, and two years later in 1998 it was incorporated as a business. So what motivated you to found Eneclann? What did you want to achieve?

Fiona: I wanted money in my back pocket. [Both laugh]. At the time I was a student, and I’d spent very many years broke. Quite simply, I wanted to be able to pay my own way. I worked at the same time I was studying – tutoring in Trinity, and later I worked as a research assistant for academics in the School of History and the School of Economics, as well as for the Famine Research Project. But I wanted a job that I could do in my own time, and on my own terms. ]

We set up Eneclann in the very early days of the web – the pre-history, B.G. “Before Google.” [both laugh].

I recognized that the web was a way to reach people: although I didn’t have any conception of just how far it could reach into people’s lives. But I did recognize that it was a vehicle by which I could get in touch with family history buffs overseas.
I wrote my first website after I read the Dummies’ Guide to HTML one weekend. I put the new website up on the Trinity computer, unofficially of course. [both laugh]

We approached the Trinity College Innovation center, because we wanted to do something bigger. We met Dipti Pandya and Professor Eoin O’Neil. Eoin was tickled pink, not just that someone from the Humanities had an idea for a business, but that it was already up and running, and we were making a profit.
We were one of the first three companies online in Ireland, and probably also in Europe. Eoin O’Neill applauded that entrepreneurial spirit.

Brian: What do you enjoy most about being a professional Genealogist?

Fiona: I love research. But my first love, what I enjoy doing most, was always writing. I find writing incredibly tough, very very difficult. I found it interesting to interview Melissa Johnson recently, when she talked about the writing process [Eneclann Newsletter March 2015].
My take is a little different. Have you ever used an old well, where you had to winch a bucket heavy with water up a long way? Well that’s what writing is like, on a good day.
But I also find that when I’ve finished writing, or completed a case, I get a huge sense of achievement. Once I’m done, I forget all the hard work – the journey that took me to get to that point.

Brian: So what’s your area of specialization? I imagine it’s a fairly broad range given your role in charge of research and PR work at Eneclann.

Fiona: I am very lucky in Eneclann, in that I work with a research team. The heart of the team are myself and Helen Moss. Helen and I have worked together since 1999, and we’ve built up different areas of knowledge.
In addition there’s nine other historians on staff. That’s a level of expertise in Irish history that you wouldn’t normally find outside of a University History Department. If I can’t answer a question immediately, there’s probably somebody in the building who can, or who can direct me to the sources to answer the question.

Every good genealogist has to be a G.P. – to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sources and of events. My own specialization is pre-1800 Genealogy. I particularly like working with the Registry of Deeds. I think it’s a hugely important source and its potential is largely untapped even by genealogists in the know – because the finding aids are of such poor quality. The Registry of Deeds are basically the records of the Irish middle classes. The Irish middle class was a large, active, disparate and interesting group. These are also the people that had the resources to emigrate, before mass emigration. So the records of the Registry of Deeds are a key source for early settlers in the Americas.

I’ve spent a good deal of time working with Estate records as a source. For example Trinity College was one of the largest land-owners in Ireland, before the break-up of the big estates. What people often don’t realize is just the sheer level of detail found in rentals, but also in the administrative records. In Ireland land is often better documented than people. You can use Estate records to really drill down into the locality, and find out who was on the land.

Brian: Can you give us a genealogical tip or method you always recommend to people?

Fiona: A good methodology is really important. No amount of research tips can replace that.
On a personal level, I still make research mistakes but thankfully there’s longer intervals between my mistakes [Laughter]. The number one mistake that everyone makes, is not copying down the manuscript reference number, so that you can’t find a document again. That’s my number one research tip – write down the document reference in your research notes.
Also, always cross-reference the indices in archival/ library finding aids. You’ll find a greater number of documents relevant to your subject of study.

Brian: Okay. Tell us about your role as track leader for Irish research in the British institute, this September in SLC.

Fiona: I’m going to be teaching over five days. I’ll also provide one-to-one consultations with each of the participants to try and help them advance their own research.
What I bring to the table, is a deep knowledge of Irish history and of the sources, online and in Irish and British archives. I have a real interest in finding new sources. I write a column for History Ireland: in which I look at a different source every issue, usually something that is difficult to access or less well known, and so is rarely used by professional genealogists.
The History Ireland column probably summarises my career– I took what was a personal interest, and built a career out of it.

Brian: What can you expect people to take away with them if they attend the course?

Fiona: I hope anyone that attends the Irish Track, will take away with them the fact that Irish family history is very, very doable.
When I first went to conferences in the U.S. and Canada, the people attending would ask “how can you research family history when all the records were destroyed?” In the last decade over 120 million Irish records have been published online, and Eneclann contributed to two thirds of this – no mean achievement for a small company!
Ten years ago, I used to say that I could trace almost every Irish family back to the 1830s. Now it’s often possible to trace Irish families earlier. Now the new frontier to break in Irish research is 1800.
Digitisation has also meant we can rapidly search records we mightn’t otherwise have thought to look at. One of the best example of that is in my own family. My Fitzsimons have a strong nationalist tradition. It would never have occurred to me to search the British Army service records for any of my crew. And yet a couple of years ago I found my great-great grandfather’s enlistment record. He joined the army in 1838 at the age of 18 years, and spent his tour of duty in the West Indies. Knowing this opened up a whole vista to me. My family were small holders, living on poor land, and I often wondered how they survived the worst years of the Famine. So I found my answer, but it wasn’t what I expected – my great-great grandfather enlisted.

Brian: For the queen’s shilling. [both laugh]

Fiona: He took the queen’s shilling, and I’m very glad he did, or I might not be sitting here. But I would never have thought to look in the British army service records. Because my grandfather, the grandson of the man that enlisted in 1838, was a Volunteer and was even imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail.
In a sense, digitization has opened up stories which may have otherwise remained hidden. Family stories that stopped being told because a couple of generations later, they don’t necessarily fit in with the stories the family told about themselves.

Brian: So people attending your course will learn more about the rich complexity of Ireland’s people, and their history.

Fiona: The rich complexity of Irish people, their history and culture, yes. I also hope we can confront some of the myths…
Brian: What does it mean to be Irish?

Fiona: Yes, I hope to get the people that attend my track to look at the diversity of Irish identity, how it shifts and changes over time.
Historically Irish culture was quite accommodating to outside influences. We have the tales of the Italian and Spanish soldiers that landed on the Kerry coast in 1580. They were met by young Irish maidens who took the soldiers and sailors into the woods, and scandalised the Papal Party. [Both laugh].
Ireland was historically connected to Britain and Europe by the sea. The Irish welcomed Jewish merchant families expelled from Spain. Some of these families settled and assimilated.
And Ireland was at different times a ‘half-way house’ for radical protestants and catholics, looking for greater religious freedom and on their way to the Americas.
But the Irish overseas are also an opportunistic lot, and they often marry out of their own group. So for example, just because your family has been Baptist, Catholic or Episcopalian for the last few generations, doesn’t mean they always were.

Brian: So do you have any parting words?

Fiona: I hope we have some fun with the Irish track at the British Institute.


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