Irish Genealogy – When to Hire a Genealogist

Irish Genealogy can present a lot of "brick walls" as you progress with the research into your Irish family history. I often get emails from people wondering asking if they should hire a genealogist based in Ireland - and wondering how to go about it.

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Irish Genealogy – When to Hire a Genealogist

So, I got in touch with Noreen Maher of Hibernia Roots and asked her some questions that we  frequently come across in our reader forum.

The purpose of this interview was to:

  • Look at Irish family history research from the perspective of an active Genealogist on the ground.
  • Provide you with a means of deciding when, if ever, is the right time to seek the professional help of a genealogist in your family research.

So – here are the questions – and answers! Do feel free to leave your follow-on questions in the comments section at the end of the interview!

Mike: What attracted you to becoming a Genealogist?

Noreen: It all started with me researching my husband’s family after my mother-in-law died – my son is the youngest grandchild and I wanted him to know more about his paternal side. I had a lot of skills and experience that made it a natural choice for me. Once I got started I realised I didn’t know where to find information, apart from the Irish census online.

I decided to sign up for a course to learn how to research and ended up studying for a Diploma run by the Association of Professional Genealogists of Ireland. It’s addictive!

Mike: What are the special challenges of Tracing your ancestors in Ireland for both the individual and Genealogist?

Noreen: For individuals, it’s the fact that every day new databases are coming online. There are so many sources that it is difficult to know which one is best or most reliable. However, there are still so many records, and documents that are still held locally such as church parish registers etc.  – whose digital release are delayed due to lack of funding. It can be frustrating, hearing an announcement of a planned release date and you watch that date pass you by!

For genealogists, it’s probably the fact that we lost a huge treasure of records –  including the earlier census forms which were destroyed in fire during the Irish Civil War in 1922. It means we have to be more resourceful – obscure documents and records such as land records,  electoral rolls, petitions and so on take on a more valuable role as “census substitutes”.

Ireland GenealogistMike: What sorts of situations/brickwalls cause a person to call you and say “I need help”?

Noreen: TV shows make genealogy look easy but in fact you need to be a “project manager” – meaning analytical, organised, and focused on the task.  Many people start out by looking for someone famous in their family. They have heard stories and want to prove a connection but don’t really know how to go about researching their family tree. It can be overwhelming with so much available on line. Because of the internet, people feel research can be done at a ‘mouse click’ from your sofa.

But with Irish genealogy, it is only realistically possible to trace ancestors back to the late 1700’s – unless your ancestors were landed gentry. Most of the Irish that emigrated, were of the poorer classes who had no choice but to leave. Record keeping wasn’t a priority and most of the tenants on land or working class had poor levels of education – most unable to read or write. On top of that, records may have been destroyed or no longer exist. All of these factors can bring your research to a halt.

However, a good genealogist will be able to assess the case, review the family’s research so far, check to see if any records exist for the time period and then guide them to the next step or take over the project to completion. In the last 10 years,  people have become more affluent but also pressed for time. A genealogist can cut through all the information and sources and will be up to date on the latest releases and availability of records – they then use a tried and tested methodology to produce a report.

To engage a genealogist too early is a bad idea as it can raise expectations. A genealogist needs some facts, family names, dates etc to start with. I always suggest that a potential client starts with themselves and works back – to look at their own family records such as birth or marriage certificates, gravestone inscriptions and any family documents such as wills or photographs. If they can trace back to their ancestors arrival in their new country whether it’s the U.S, Canada or Australia they are then ready to move the research to Ireland.

Mike: I have noticed that some people are wary of spending money and getting nowhere with a Genealogist. What do you say to them?

Noreen: Most Irish genealogists offer a free assessment as a starting point. If there are insufficient records existing for the family, then I inform my client whether it is feasible to progress to a report. Only at that stage is payment required.

I am always willing to tailor my research to the specific requirements of the family. However, there are occasions when a genealogist has to spend time searching for family members with negative results. Sometimes that is exactly what the client needs – to prove or disprove the existence or verify a story passed down in the family. But a minority of clients may not appreciate a negative result.

Mike: What should a person look for when they are looking to engage a Genealogist in Ireland?

Noreen: When you engage a genealogist you are handing over your family records and anecdotes and entrusting them to the care of the genealogist. You should check the genealogist’s credentials.

Always check their website – does their style or approach appeal to you? Once you make the initial contact, do you feel a rapport – do you feel that the genealogist understands your needs? How flexible are they or do they have set report packages? Are their pricing structures visible?  The National Library of Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland provide genealogical assistance and research resources on their websites.

Mike: Can you give a couple of examples of the work that you were happiest (or surprised) with?

Noreen: A client knew his grandfather was in the Royal Irish Constabulary (Irish Police force pre-1922)) but little was known in the family or talked about. By obtaining a copy of his eldest child I (and the family) was surprised to see that he was also in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and released from the RIC to serve in France in the First World War. He survived and was readmitted to serve in the RIC until it was disbanded in 1922. I managed to find his military medal card record and his RIC service record.

Another client asked me to find out about her paternal grandmother’s death. Her father was reared by his paternal grandparents and only knew she died young and as his father had to work, the child was left with his paternal grandparents. I discovered her grandmother died of TB aged 19, a few weeks after giving birth to a daughter who only survived about an hour. Nobody in the family knew there was a second child. It is a tragic story but bitter sweet, finally knowing what happened.

I submerge myself in every case I deal with – and it can be very emotional finding out what happened. I still get personally involved in each one as if they were my own family!  It’s great when I find a batch of records and put the final pieces of the jigsaw together.

Mike: Finally, can you share your top 3 time-saving tips if someone still really wants to carry out their own ancestry search by themselves.

Noreen: My Top 3 Tips – specially for people who are getting started are:

  1. Start with yourself and work back in a direct line – one family side at a time.
  2. Identify free genealogy websites that hold the information you are seeking.
  3. Keep records and notes as you go along – either hard copy or on the many online family tree databases (some free, others subscription-based).

Finally, when you have got this far – but still hit brickwalls – remember it is always a good idea to involve others. You would be surprised just how well a genealogist can help you to get unstuck – and set you off again on the right direction!

Thank you to Noreen Maher of Hibernia Roots.

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