Sunday, 11 September 2016

Irish inheritance

The newly released Strategic Plan for the future of the National Library of Ireland is a signal of hope to those with a few Irish genes, especially because of the promise of connection [NLI Strategy 2016-2021 connect, p.9]. It's breathtaking to realise that the NLI has been in existence only since 1877, long after so many of its population left the country with their life stories, going as far as possible around the planet to Australia and other challenges.

Those of us descended from the green and wet still feel a genetic attachment, through a particular way of looking at the world, laconic conversation, a dry sense of humour, and a laid-back approach to the stress arising from hardship. But it has also given us a determination to find out more about those origins, and see the small patch of earth where our families once lived.

Find My Past Ireland
So it was on one such adventure earlier this year that I was in Dublin, traversing historical pathways. Alas the National Library was closed to all-comers over a whole long weekend. 

And Kilmainham Gaol, which had once locked my great-great-grandfather in prior to his journey to New South Wales, now locked his great-great-granddaughter out. I am sure he would have at least noted the irony, although he might have been puzzled by the interest.

Perhaps both lock-outs, due to the one-hundredth anniversary commemorations of the 1916 Uprising, could be justified, but until the digitisation promoted by the NLI is a complete substitute, it remains a compromise

Indeed the only heritage agency to create a different experience was the Cork City and County Archives. Archivist Brian McGee, despite having a heavily scheduled day, went out of his way to share his knowledge not only to satisfy the curiosity of a very small number of the Irish diaspora but also, as he explained, to make up for the transgression of past data destruction, including over four censuses and in the Uprising's final devastating outcomes in 1922.

Access to original holdings such as workhouse registers helped to fill in the as-yet-undigitised gaps, but Brian noted they too would be put online as soon as resources became available. A different kind of hardship not envisaged in the nineteenth century, but nevertheless one which has led to stress. 

Would it lead to less travel? Probably not. Such a professional approach to what in the past has been perceived as superficial requests by many such agencies, including Australian ones, is likely to encourage more.

His colleagues were also only too happy to facilitate further discovery - when asked about a particular surname, the assistant said "just go outside, throw a stick and you'll hit one". Luckily we didn't have to resort to that technique. 

But the Corcaigh approach was infectious, as having sent us on successfully to Dunmanway, the local public library, historical society, and the administrator at the oldest Church there - St Patrick's, which echoed with the surnames of nineteenth century Victoria - provided useful leads for two more of our Irish families.