Behind the scenes in the Genealogy Advisory Service

The fun of the genealogy service in the National Library is that you never know in advance who you will meet, or what stories you will hear.  My job is to listen, to identify verifiable facts and events, and to guide enquirers in their research. The search never  ends, because family history isn’t just about the past, it allows people to construct their own personal identity.

A Quebecois, Ms. St.-Coeur told me a story about the Irish ancestors on her maternal line.  Seven generations before the present, in the 1760s, Denis Power settled in what was still a French speaking district on the Newfoundland coast.  Denis and his wife Mary McCarthy are recorded as parents  to a growing family in the 1760s and 70s, in the surviving baptismal registers of the catholic church.  The family assimilated into their Francophone community over generations.  Nothing of their Irish identity survived, except the Power name down to the present.

The Irish first appeared in Newfoundland in the early 1600s.  They were seasonal migrants, fishermen chasing the herring shoals.  It wasn’t until the middle of the 1700s that the Irish  began to settle more permanently here.  The natural wealth – timber, furs and fishing – brought in young men looking  for better employment prospects than were available to them in old Ireland.

This story begins early, in the 1760s, when the surviving Irish sources, including church records, are fragmentary.  Our information is limited, we have two names and we know the family were RC. We do however know that at this time most Irish settlers to Newfoundland, came from the south-east, counties Waterford and Wexford. Irish names occur in clusters, and the ‘stronghold’ of the Power name is in county Waterford, whereas MacCarthy is further west in Cork county.  We identify a lead, and I map out some relevant early sources to examine.  She leaves happy and amused to hear that her Irish Powers, were probably originally descended from the Norman ‘le Poer’ family.  “We’re Canadian Francophone, so my family has come full circle.”

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A young American woman, light as thistledown, presents one morning.  She asks me what I can tell her about her mother’s maiden name – Flidais.  It’s not recorded as a surname in MacLysaght, the bible for Irish surnames, so I turn to what is *the* best online resource, which never lets me down and always delivers a result of some sort – the National Library’s own Sources data-base.

Sources confirms what she knows, that the name is linked to Irish mythology,*[1] but it also provides a single lead in an old book, that can be found upstairs in the Reading Room.  It’s a slim lead, but it takes her family story forward, and she’s happy.  It confirms what her mother told her years earlier, and changes it from a family story, to a verifiable fact.

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A young Irish woman in her late teens arrives in the Genealogy Room.  She has a simple family tree back to her grandparents, sketched out on an A4 sheet of paper.  I help her search for her Gallagher family in county Donegal.  To say it’s like searching for a needle in hay doesn’t adequately describe it.  Throw a stone over your shoulder in this place, and it’s a dead cert you’ll hit a Gallagher.  This girl is fascinated by the evidence for social history in the Census returns: she’s fascinated to see that in many families it’s common for three generations to live under one roof;  to see so many families in this part of Donegal where only the young adults speak Irish and English, and where the older generation are largely recorded as ‘Read only.’  I take my cue from what she’s most interested in, and show her the B1 forms that describe the individual houses, and tell us so much about living conditions at the time: details like what the house-walls were made of – cob (mud and straw), stone or brick; whether  a roof was thatch or tile; the number of habitable rooms in a dwelling; and the number of windows to the front of the house.  And the B2s, that tell you about whether a dwelling had a piggery or coop – a sure indicator that a family had access to a regular source of protein; or a stable, to show they were sufficiently prosperous to keep horses, donkeys or mules?

She’s almost hopping out of her seat!  It transpires she’s trying to come up with a project for her Master’s Thesis, on the issue of equality in an Irish community.  The census returns will provide a rich source material for her research!  This is family history, but in a wider perspective.

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We will post regular updates to this blog throughout the summer.

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