12 Surprises – 90,000 Irish Genealogy Questions and Answers over 5 years (#405)
The Letter from Ireland is 6 years old this year - and the Green Room is 5 years of age! Here are 12 things that surprised us over the last 5 years as we answered thousands of Irish genealogy questions in the Green Room and with the Letter from Ireland.
You can listen to the show on your computer/smartphone by clicking on the play button above (the triangle with the circle around it). You can also download the show onto your computer by clicking on the download symbol. Enjoy!
Welcome to Season 4, Episode 5 of the Letter from Ireland Show.
In this episode of the Letter from Ireland Show we celebrate the 5th birthday of The Green Room (our member area) and the 6th birthday of the letter from Ireland. Over that time we have received and answered over 90,000 Irish-related questions. Carina and Mike discuss the 12 most surprising things they noticed over that time.
The Letter from Ireland Show is a weekly podcast that goes out each Thursday from our cottage in County Cork. Tune in to this episode – and dive straight in to a bit of Irish caint, ceóil agus craic (conversation, music and craic!).
Transcription of Podcast
Carina Collins: Hello, Failte, and you’re very welcome to the Letter from Ireland Show series four, episode five. We’re coming to you from County Cork in Ireland and in the show we’d love to share with you all about the places of your Irish ancestors and bring their stories to life.
In today’s show, we’d like to go right back there to the beginning and take you behind the scenes of Irish ancestry research. Stay with us and see what surprises that Mike and I have discovered over the last five years. Mike and I began helping people search for their Irish ancestors by answering over, wait for it, 90,000 questions. What we discovered along the way we’d love to share with you in today’s Letter from Ireland Show, but listeners remember, before we start, you’ll find all the links mentioned in today’s show in the show notes at aletterfromireland.com/405.
Now for the last five years, our membership site, which we call the Green Room is where we’ve helped people discover their Irish ancestry roots. But, we also made some very interesting discoveries along the way ourselves regarding Irish ancestry, both here in Ireland and when we travelled to the Irish, on the Irish ancestry trail to other countries that our ancestors maybe moved to.
So I hope you’ll join us now as Mike and I share some surprising observations with you. Mike Collins, it’s great to have you with us in studio. I’ve just promised the listeners…
Mike Collins: Thanks, Carina.
Carina Collins: Welcome. That we’re going to go back and maybe tell them where it all began.
Mike Collins: Yeah, isn’t it amazing, five plus years at this stage? I mean, we were just talking about this the other day, Carina, and there’s been, how to put it, I suppose if you’re kind of the sort of person who just writes a book or something, fires it out there and meets the fans every now and again; that’s one sort of operation. But in our case, we found very, very quickly that as soon as you actually put something out there, 100 questions came back, you know? And I suppose rather than actually putting our hands to our heads and saying, “How on earth do we deal with all of this?” We kind of embraced it and started first on Facebook, then on the Letter from Ireland five years ago, then in the Green Room to embrace so many of those questions.
I still can’t get over it really, but you know it really is amazing at the same time that we have that letter going out every Sunday morning to tens of thousands of people, tens of thousands of people of Irish descent all over the world. In just bringing up those stories about everything from the Irish weather, to surnames to counties, history and culture, that you literally and I literally have to put some days aside every week just to deal with all the answers.
Carina Collins: Don’t I know it. You were quick to co-opt me there for helping with those answers.
Mike Collins: I had no choice!
Carina Collins: So, I guess the five years for us, because it’s our birthday really, this five year birthday, some things came up that surprised us though about a lot of the interactions. Questions and answers going back and forth between us and the readers. We discovered some broad themes and ideas related to the Irish diaspora spread all around the world and I believe you decided to call them some ‘observations’.
Mike Collins: That sounds like a good word because no conclusions there, that’s for sure.
Carina Collins: So these 12 observations, I think it would be great to have a chat and discover what they are today. To make it easier I am going to divide them into four sections. So, let’s see, I’m sure our listeners are really wondering what it is we noticed over the past five years. Maybe they’ll agree with some of the observations and maybe some of them will resonate with you listeners. Why don’t you see which ones you agree or disagree with.
Carina Collins: So, let’s kick off. I mentioned our observations are broadly divided into four main sections and the first section I think that we’ll mention here is some of our earliest observations.
Mike Collins: Yeah, and there was a few surprises in there, for us at least. And remember, I suppose our context was, we were actually living on the island of Ireland, nice sheltered lives, and there’s a lot of things we didn’t really think about. Quite early on we got surprised by some of those things, those early observations. So I think it’ll be interesting to share those in a few minutes.
Carina Collins: Great. Our second grouping then was regarding people of Irish ancestry around the world. So this was really relating to people of Irish descent who are living outside the island of Ireland presently.
Mike Collins: Yeah, and we have an incredible diaspora, in that sense. We use that word because it’s like 10 times the amount of people in the diaspora around the world compared to those currently living on the island of Ireland. And that’s skewed way, way towards the people living outside Ireland compared to most of the diaspora, be it German, et cetera.
Carina Collins: And of course, section three, where we made some very interesting observations. While these were easy for us because these were observations relating to the people of Irish descent living on the island of Ireland.
Mike Collins: Oh yeah.
Carina Collins: Mainly ourselves and others presently.
Mike Collins: And then, I suppose in one sense, they weren’t quite surprises to us for that reason. But I think there are continuous surprises to a lot of people who are pursuing their family history research. Either by traveling over here or trying to communicate with people on this island.
Carina Collins: Now, we’re gonna have fun with that section I think.
Mike Collins: Oh yeah.
Carina Collins: And finally, the fourth part was about researching your Irish family history.
Mike Collins: Yeah. It became very apparent that there are certain quirks and certain things that you need to be aware of when actually researching your Irish family history. I think a lot of people have come across these and perhaps they either given up and call them a brick wall, or the cause of a brick wall. Or indeed kind of worked around to become quite skilled in understanding how to approach Irish family history research.
Carina Collins: Well, I’m excited to get, let’s kick this off and let’s get started.
Carina Collins: Our earliest observations as we started to write that letter and people started to write back to us, and Mondays and Tuesdays became answering day in County Cork for us, the letter. Can you share Mike, some of those early observations with us?
Theme 1: Our Earliest Observations after starting the Letter from Ireland.
Mike Collins: Sure, yeah. Let’s get going with those.
Mike Collins: Well, Carina, yeah. Our first observation was, and it sounds a bit obvious when I say it out loud here, it’s really all about the surnames. The counties they came from and the stories that accompanied some of those early replies. That was our first thing that we really, really noticed.
Mike Collins: So, first and foremost; people are really, really interested in their own Irish surname, and quite frankly, not always that interest in other peoples’ surnames. So, as soon as we actually put a little note at the bottom of all of our letters, “Please be sure to get back to us with the surnames of your family tree,” I think we were inundated really, really quickly. And to this point, I think we actually have about 30 to 35,000 replies, isn’t that about right?
Carina Collins: That’s right.
Mike Collins: Into which we actually put all of these various surnames. And we essentially have a database. So, that’s been the first thing.
We also asked people where did they think the people in their families came from. And I suppose at least 60% of them actually know the counties or certainly have it in family lore as to whether they are from County Cork or County Armagh, County Galway, and so on. We’ve put a lot of this stuff together actually in a way where we have actually presented it back to a lot of our readers to show the main counties that provided the most immigrants, for example, for immigrants in this particular case. And the more prominent surnames.
And by the way, before we go on; what’s the number one surname in Ireland? Take a guess.
Carina Collins: Go on, give it to me Mike.
Mike Collins: I’ll give you a hint, it begins with an M and finishes with a Y.
Carina Collins: Mahony?
Mike Collins: It’s not Mahony. It’s actually Murphy.
Carina Collins: Of course Murphy.
Mike Collins: Of course, yeah. See this is the problem with people who live on the island of Ireland. They’re too close to the whole thing.
Carina Collins: I know. So we’re surrounded by Murphy’s here.
Mike Collins: There you go.
As I said, what comes back basically is the actual, the surnames and the counties, but it’s the stories that people send back that are the real eye openers.
Carina Collins: Well, I’d love you to share that story right from the beginning with Mary and her dad.
Mike Collins: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Carina Collins: That’s one that I don’t think we’ll forget –
Mike Collins: No, no.
Carina Collins: No matter how many years pass.
Mike Collins: Because as you said there, there’s a fierce workload on us at the early times of the actual letter, and in some ways we were kind of wondering, should we actually continue or not? Do you remember that? And fairly early on we actually got a letter from a lady called, well we call her Mary in this case. She basically talked about how she used to get the letter every Sunday morning and herself and her dad used to actually, you know they were close enough already, if you like. But they used to get together every Sunday morning, read the letter and just have a chat about their memories from around the letter. Now, Mary’s dad was actually unfortunately dying at the time, and by the time she contacted us, he had actually passed away. But she wrote just to thank us, just to, I suppose help facilitate the special conversations that they actually had as a result of that letter. That was very touching, I must say in those early days.
Carina Collins: Yeah. I really, really felt that the stories and the shared connections, that seemed to make us a lot more Irish and people that read our letter felt Irish rather than the dry genealogy reports.
Mike Collins: Yeah. I mean it is all about the story.
Carina Collins: Would that be right to say? It’s the story that makes the connection?
Mike Collins: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you know what? I think there’s a very good way of putting that, it’s not about the name, it’s about the character. Ireland is made up of not people with a group of surnames but a group of characters.
Carina Collins: Excellent.
Mike Collins: And those characters are characters in their own stories. And everybody else is a walk-in part. But you know, they’re well able to actually tell the story then with those people as part.
Mike Collins: So whether we liked it or not, we were targeted with those stories from an early date. So that was the first thing we really noticed and talked a lot about was, it was all about the surnames, counties and especially the stories coming back.
Carina Collins: The stories and the connection.
Mike Collins: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Carina Collins: But there was another observation as well about Ireland.
Mike Collins: Will we move on to number two?
Carina Collins: Yes, please do.
Mike Collins: Because it was an early observation as you say, and it really had to do with that notion that people have. It’s kind of what we call a lazy, but kind of accurate stereotype in our minds of what Irish people look like, and what Germans sound like and what Italians sound like. But Irish people of course are meant to have freckles and red hair and …
Carina Collins: We lost out on those, Mike.
Mike Collins: Oh yeah.
Carina Collins: Neither of us go that.
Mike Collins: Well, the plastic surgeon took care of that anyway, so we say no more. I’m only kidding folks.
Mike Collins: So essentially, the point is, that Ireland is way more of a melting pot than people realize. If you think about, let’s say 10,000 years ago, Carina, there was actually this country where we’re standing just now, was covered in a layer of ice. There was no humans on it. So, from that point onwards, the island started to fill up with people, we had those early stone age settlers, people call it the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann. Then we had the later Celtic, so called invaders at the time actually, which provided a lot of what we call the Gaelic culture today and Gaelic language and so on.
Carina Collins: So you’re back about 500 B.C. there Mike.
Mike Collins: There you go. So, where did they come from? Obviously mainland Europe in the first place. After that really, I suppose, the in-comings never stopped. You had the Vikings in the 800’s moving onto the Norman’s in the 1100s. And there we have loads of extra surnames after being introduced as well. So we’ve got all the Fitzgeralds, we’ve got the various Roach’s and Condon’s and so on, all coming bringing the Norman surnames. We have the Galloglass Warriors, the English essentially, plantations start in the 1500s that, as far as we’re concerned, are as Irish as anybody else here. Give it a generation or two.
Carina Collins: Now we have a big melting pot really, of different peoples haven’t we?
Mike Collins: We do. And that has to be picked apart as we actually look at and think about those various cultures, the various languages, how they settled, where they settled, how long they settled for in some cases, before moving on again.
Mike Collins: The point is, Ireland is a much bigger melting pot than we give credit for.
Carina Collins: Excellent.
Carina Collins: Now, there was a surprise as well, with the Ulster Americans.
Mike Collins: There you go. Yeah, that’s an interesting one for us, I think, really Carina, wasn’t it? Because I suppose I heard really early observation was just how many of our readers and listeners actually had ancestors who came from Ireland in the 1700s. Especially to the colonies of North America. That was later to become the USA. So, many people think in terms of the famine in Ireland, as being the prime time to actually provide, let’s say, the main immigration trails out of Ireland. But if you go back to the actual 1700s, Carina, you’re talking about a time when let’s say, the Ulster, the Scottish, this case primarily Presbyterian people, would’ve actually settled in the counties of Ulster. They would’ve been there for maybe a generation, two or three.
Carina Collins: From plantations.
Mike Collins: Yeah, from what we called plantations. Quite frankly at that point, they considered themselves Irish. So at that point and time, they started to face increased rents, they started to face local famines and so on and guess what … in some ways pioneering was in their blood, so they noticed other opportunities in those colonies of North America and they headed off. So really up to, let’s say the time of American Independence, you’re talking roughly 250,000 people or thereabouts, leaving north of Ireland, the northern counties of Ireland and heading off to the Carolinas and all that sort of place.
Carina Collins: So not surprising then that many of our readers when they wrote back to us, were speaking about that ancestry.
Mike Collins: Well, do you know what was surprising, for me at least, was the fact that they hold dear to themselves, the sense of Irish heritage from that very specific connection back to Ireland. And that made up around about 20% of our readers. I did not expect that until I saw it. I mean, 20% is a lot of people. So we’ve got all those members out in places like Kentucky as I mentioned just earlier, who’s folks arrived in the area in the 1700s. And as far as they’re concerned, there as Irish as anybody else. Quite amazing, never expected that.
Carina Collins: Well, that’s part one and our earliest observations, and Mike, I’m sure there could be loads more. But just to recap there; the stories, the surnames and the counties were really what we found people connected with for their Irish heritage. That Ireland itself was a melting pot, with many different peoples arriving on our shores down through the centuries. And then that the Ulster Scots also constituted a sizeable portion of our readers, reminding us that not all our ancestors left Ireland as you say, in the famine times. So it was great for all these people to connect with their Irish heritage, Mike, as you say, over the last 250 years I think those people would be gone from Ireland, the Ulster Scots.
Mike Collins: And they’re all just their descendants, just waiting for us to come along and reconnect them all.
Carina Collins: So, that brings us up to part two of our observations of the Letter of Ireland over the last five years and the questions and answers that we’ve received. This of course now, part two is about people of Irish ancestry around the world. So if you’re listening and you’re around the world, this is for you.
Mike Collins: Okie dokey!
Theme 2: Observations on people who live OUTSIDE the island of Ireland.
Carina Collins: With part two and people of Irish ancestry around the world, what we really mean of course, is our observations, Mike, relating to people of Irish descent living outside the island of Ireland presently.
Mike Collins: Yeah. So I suppose coming from, in one sense this stuff was kind of news to us because we live on the island of Ireland, Carina, isn’t that right?
Carina Collins: Very often you don’t see or observe what’s in front of you really, do you?
Mike Collins: Yeah, you just live in your own bubble basically. I suppose the first observation was that people of Irish ancestry are very passionate about their Irish heritage.
Carina Collins: I agree with that for sure. That bowled me over in the beginning.
Mike Collins: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, everything from the Irish walls that they might have in the house, with all the mementos and so on, right through to, I suppose kind of cherishing certain gatherings of the family and the stories that might been passed down to them by moms and dads down to the generations. Right through to actually attending maybe very specific events, be it during the summer an Irish Fests or Patrick’s Day and so on so forth.
Mike Collins: It became, I think we continually underestimated this because what we found as well then though, there was kind of a sense of dislocation at times and frustration amongst people of Irish descent outside the isle of Ireland. That sometimes they can feel it very strongly when they come back to Ireland, if they have the fortunate chance, which could be great. And they experience the friendship of the people, they can walk some of the grounds their ancestors came from. But they can also feel a division between themselves and the people who currently live on the island of Ireland. You know, a bit of a frustration there as well.
Carina Collins: Well, one of the things I noticed, Mike, though, that you put your finger on in the early days, was when you decided to write the Bill of Irish Ancestry Rights. Which really sums up what those people would like, I think. What people living outside of Ireland, connected to Ireland, would really like, that Bill of Ancestry Rights.
Mike Collins: Yeah.
Carina Collins: That was, I think, a finger on the pulse of what was happening.
Mike Collins: Yeah. And again, even that was kind of surprising because we did it with, I’d say we took about 1,000 different readers and, at the time we got certainly about 200 replies. And what we did was, on one had you could say, “Well, to somebody living on the island of Ireland, what’s important to you? What would you like to have the rights to with regards your ancestry?” And most of the things you’re about to hear, most people living on the island of Ireland wouldn’t kind of give much of a toss about it, pardon the expression, because …
Carina Collins: Might not have got any replies to that question?
Mike Collins: No. It’s like, “What? That means nothing to me because I have it around me all, it’s like fish in water, I can’t see the water you know?”
Mike Collins: But when we asked folks outside the island of Ireland, and remember we’re talking about up to 100 million people around the world, there was … we put together basically a Bill of Ancestry Rights, which kind of keeps us on the straight and narrow in terms of what we do in your Irish heritage in the Green Room and so on. And the number one thing was to know, “Which of the surnames in my family tree are Irish?” That’s a simple request in a way, it’s what we see every day and we hear it every day.
Mike Collins: Then number two on the Ancestry Rights was, “To know what my surname means, it’s heritage and which part of Ireland it comes from.”
Carina Collins: Very pivotal too.
Mike Collins: Yeah, because it does make a difference whether you’re from Donegal or Cork or whatever.
Mike Collins: Number three, “Know the specific details of the Irish ancestors in my family tree and where each individual comes from.” I think was probably our incentive to start the Green Room at the time, was to start to offer a service to kind of dig in a bit deeper around that.
Mike Collins: Then, just kind of number four, because in a way, number three was all about the records, but number four was, “Know what life was like for my Irish ancestors at the time they lived here.” And there you’re into kind of the story, the sense of occupation, the sense of heritage.
Carina Collins: What was happening in Ireland at the time, why did they leave?
Mike Collins: There you go. What were the pressures? Absolutely.
Mike Collins: And then number five was, “To see the places of my Irish ancestors, to walk their land and homestead.” That’s very precious to a lot of people. And of course, we started the …
Carina Collins: The Homelands features.
Mike Collins: The Homelands features, to do just that and help people do that inside the Green Room.
Mike Collins: And finally, the final piece on the actual Ancestry Rights was, “To connect with my Irish living relatives if they wanted to connect with me.” And all of those I think have one word, which is connection.
Carina Collins: And that Bill of Ancestry Rights, I believe that the President of Ireland actually congratulated you on that, Mike, didn’t he?
Mike Collins: Yeah, he got back to us. In fact, we put his letter on the actual, Michael D. Higgins, President Higgins got back to us on that. And he was actually very impressed with this fact that had kind of, I suppose crowd sourced and put together. So that’s our Bill of Ancestry Rights, Carina. I think it encapsulates that first point, how people outside the island of Ireland are passionate about their Irish heritage.
Carina Collins: Wonderful. And mothers were very important as well, in bringing the culture to the areas outside of Ireland and continuing that Irish culture.
Mike Collins: Yeah, this was our next observation, basically was. It’s a bit obvious to everybody when you start to explore it, but only then. Thus, the fact that we often hear the phrase ‘mother tongue’, and I think that actually has a particular meaning in this context. So, what you notice just for example, is that a lot of the actual early settlers in Ireland, let’s say the Normans that might have come as an adventure of soldiers, right up through the Cromwellian soldiers, they would’ve been given granted land in Ireland, let’s say. They would’ve come by themselves and looked and to marry locally.
Carina Collins: So you had single men really, coming to the countryside.
Mike Collins: Yeah, and therefore; they did not bring with them the mother of their children so to speak, or perhaps their own mother. And as a result, they tend to be kinda subsumed if you like, or assimilated into the local culture.
Carina Collins: So they blended into the Irish culture to marry the Irish girls.
Mike Collins: There you go. Yeah, in other words, in a lot of cases it was the actual woman, the mother, that set the scene to set the heritage and decide, this is where we’re gonna go with our children. So you actually find, for example, a lot of those Cromwellian adventurous soldiers that actually arrived in the actual 1600’s, granted land, actually in a lot of cases they actually adopted to Roman Catholicism, so you find lots and lots of surnames in Ireland that actually came from that time. You find the same with some of the Viking times, Normans. Then by comparison you also see the other side of things where you’ve got whole families of let’s say Presbyterian settlers that came from Scotland, just for example, in the 1500’s and 1600’s and they very resolutely hung onto their culture.
Carina Collins: Where the whole family unit came over.
Mike Collins: Yeah.
Carina Collins: They held separate cultures.
Mike Collins: Yeah, yeah. Again, and I think it’s very much with the mother dictating terms in a lot of cases, and you see this kind of rolling on post immigration as well. So people leave Ireland and often, I think what’s happened, you often see kind of a lot of the Irish families where you got that strong maternal influence, that the Irish culture really continues down through the generations; the stories, the songs and so on.
Carina Collins: I’ll just interject there, Mike. I was speaking with a friend yesterday and she was saying how she grew up in England but with an Irish mother and it really wasn’t until she went to University that she felt that she really merged and integrated into the English culture.
Mike Collins: Noticed the local English for the first time.
Carina Collins: Exactly.
Mike Collins: Isn’t that amazing?
Carina Collins: It is quite fascinating even today.
Mike Collins: Most of my aunts, for example, are just like that. Lived in London all their lives, a lot longer than they ever lived in Ireland and till the day they died they had thick East Galway accents, every one of them.
Carina Collins: It’s fascinating really.
Mike Collins: Yeah. So that was the mother tongue. The mothers really brought the culture. That really became apparent in the stories.
Carina Collins: The last surprise there…
Mike Collins: Yeah, for people outside, basically it’s …
Carina Collins: People …
Mike Collins: And this was a real surprise actually.
Carina Collins: The people sometimes that really have this passion for Ireland may never get to see it.
Mike Collins: They’ve never been and they never will be here.
Mike Collins: It’s like Ireland exists as a separate country to, both where they live and where Ireland is now. And it’s like the Ireland of their imagination that they visit on a regular basis and it’s just as real and just dear to them as anything else. And I would say, I would take a guess, and I think it’s based on fact, roughly 60% to 65% of all of our readers have never been to Ireland and never will. You know? And I suppose that kind of helps and hinders in lots of different ways, it keeps things pure.
Carina Collins: It does, but it also shows, I think, how important that Letter from Ireland, to foster that connection.
Mike Collins: Yes, yes, yes.
Mike Collins: So that was a real surprise to me. And I think, I always deal with whoever says that in kind of a realistic basis, I don’t say, “Ah, sure your grand, you will be here, don’t worry.” It’s like, “Oh well, come on, lets visit Ireland together in your mind,” essentially that’s what we want to do.
Carina Collins: Well part two, we’ve learned so much about really, people of Irish ancestry around the world. I was surprised, I must say again, by the passion that these people had for Ireland and how they remembered it so passionately. Also, that mothers are so important, keeping the Irish connections. We had so many stories about maybe recipes that had been passed down, Irish sayings or what we call “piseogs” and traditions that have been kept alive in families by the mothers. And then that final observation that was, so many people keep the connection to Ireland and love it dearly even though they’ll never travel here.
Mike Collins: That’s it. Yeah.
Theme 3: Observations on people who live ON the island of Ireland.
Carina Collins: Part three here, Mike, regarding people who live on the island of Ireland, and I think we have to include ourselves there since we’re coming to everybody from Cork.
Mike Collins: Oh yeah.
Carina Collins: Is going to let a few secrets out of the bag I think, today.
Mike Collins: Ah, not all of them, Carina.
Carina Collins: Well, the first one up I think is so true. That people in Ireland are not really interested in genealogy.
Mike Collins: Yeah, we’re kinda flipping the coin here a little bit because I think this is something that we’re very aware of and very conscious of. But a lot of people who are so passionate outside of this island, and researching their Irish family history, just assume that everybody here is just going to be waiting for them to give all the answers, either by post of by email or when they arrive. And it’s a bit of a shock and a surprise that a lot of people aren’t that interested in what we call genealogy.
Carina Collins: So, that their passion isn’t shared by Irish people?
Mike Collins: Yeah, but let’s be very distinct here, shall we? Okay. My late father, who died just last year, if you were to ask him anything about the place that he was brought up and lived until he was about 20, down in West Cork, he would know all the townland names, he would know all of the families in all those townlands, he’d know all the relationships between them. He’d probably know who went to England, who went to American, when they came back, who married whom, he’d know all the stories that weren’t to be told as well, all that stuff. But I remember asking him just a couple of years ago, I said …
Carina Collins: This is when we first started getting interested in genealogy. I remember you asking your dad that question.
Mike Collins: Yeah.
Carina Collins: You asked him.
Mike Collins: Sorry, but just to keep that distinction going. Asking him about the location, asking the stories, no problem. But if I was to ask the question that was, “Are you into genealogy?” His answer, he’d just kinda give you a look for a moment or two and say, “Well, not really.” And therein lies the actual dilemma people have, really because in one sense, what was in his head was pure gold to any Irish family history researcher or genealogist. Because he would have had the parts that linked all those record that are actually there. But ultimately he’s just not all that into genealogy and in fact, he’d probably find the name itself just a bit of a turn off. He’s just not into it at all. It was for those who were outside the island. It was for, in his case, for just one priest who made it his life mission to connect all the Collins’s of West Cork from where he was based in Chicago. But he was considered, by my father, a bit of an eccentric character for doing it that way and visiting all those people and so on.
Mike Collins: So, he wasn’t really into genealogy, he’d faint at the thought of actually having his DNA tested, for example.
Carina Collins: Yes.
Mike Collins: It just didn’t make sense. I think your dad was the same as well, really, wasn’t he in terms of?
Carina Collins: Absolutely. But it brings up the next observation. And that is that people in Ireland really look at things in a very local level as your dad was doing and my dad would’ve been very much the same. Knowing all about the locale and being very disappointed if we didn’t show a similar interest.
Mike Collins: You know Carina, if you look at Ireland, the island, from outside, you see a place that’s roughly, I don’t know, maybe kind of a third the size of let’s say, the mainland of Britain. Or indeed, let’s say half the size of the state of Victoria in Australia or little dot in the middle of Texas. And you think, well how hard could that be to get your head around? And the answer is actually quite hard indeed. Because just as you say there, if you move from one part of just where we are now, County Cork to a different, the accent changes, the pronunciation of local surnames and place names changes and some people just don’t like leaving where they are, even to head up to the big [inaudible 00:29:33] up to the city.
Mike Collins: So, when you say that people look at things in a very local way, I find a lot of our folks, for example, they might land in Galway and they might say something like, “Oh I’m looking for my ancestors. They were the, let’s say, the Boyle’s.”
Carina Collins: So you’re getting on to maybe the third observation about approaching people in Ireland for help.
Mike Collins: We’ll come back to that in a second actually, yeah. Because they then hear somebody local say, “Actually there are no Boyle’s here, that’s an English name, isn’t it?” Well then you move up to Donegal and you’re surrounded by Boyle’s and you can’t throw stone but your gonna hit a Boyle. And the point is, even the surnames are all very localized. Everything is very, very localize and people tend to think about things in a very, very local way.
Carina Collins: Do you know, that’s not a new thing? I must say myself, when I went off to college and up to Limerick from Cork …
Mike Collins: All that way …
Carina Collins: And heard … all that way, and hour and a half up the road … and heard the different accents, which would’ve come from Kerry and all around maybe Munster, and a little bit up into Leinster, and I actually thought people were putting on an accent. So we really grow up in a very local way and if you don’t travel, which maybe many people, you know 50, 60, 70, 100 years ago didn’t here in Ireland, you were left with a very local knowledge.
Mike Collins: I just was gonna say that then Carina, as you say it kinda connects with the next observation because, if you’re looking to research, and you’re doing so online and so on, dropping yourself into the right location and just starting to talk to the people usually opens up the wrong word is Pandora’s Box, the right word is kind of an amazing set of connections. Because local people typically know the local stuff if you’re in the right locality.
Carina Collins: I suppose that came home very much to us as we did the Homeland features for members of the Green Room.
Mike Collins: Absolutely.
Carina Collins: We travelled to their counties and spoke to people in the locale.
Mike Collins: Will we talk about ringing the Irish bell will we? Do you remember that? Because an awful lot of people, they actually have trouble as well, this is an observation, approaching the locals for help … without getting shoved off a bit. And sometimes it can be online or by post and you just don’t get a reply. And I think a lot of Irish people are a bit shy of advance planning. So in some ways your better off just turning up and being spontaneous, which we can afford to do because we’re here. Often that spontaneity has to do with driving into the middle of a farmyard and leaving the car running, the local dog comes out barking and then the farmer comes out two minutes later to see what the dog is barking at.
Carina Collins: That’s true. It’s happened to us.
Mike Collins: There you go. And then you start chatting. And the chat tends to be about the weather, it tends to be about, let’s say, the local sporting events and then before you know it, we’re maybe saying, “Oh, we have a friend in the US, whatever, and they’re just wondering, have you ever heard of such and such a name?” Then you see them kind of looking off into the distance and telling you exactly who you should be talking to. Isn’t that right?
Carina Collins: That’s so true. You’re describing exactly what happens to us at the Homeland features.
Mike Collins: It’s like nine out of ten times. Absolutely, yeah.
Mike Collins: So understanding that approaching people in Ireland for help, people in Ireland are very, very knowledgeable about stuff in their own location. They aren’t that into genealogy for the most part, they have more than enough cousins than what they can cope with, but if you just start to talk about the local stuff that interests them, before you know it they’ll be pointing you in the right directions.
Mike Collins: I think it’s kind of important then to understand how to approach them.
Carina Collins: Very well put, Mike.
Carina Collins: So in summary there for part three about us Irish people living in Ireland, it’s a bit of a wake-up call for us Irish really, isn’t it?
Mike Collins: Yeah.
Carina Collins: It’s true. It is a rare Irish person that you’ll meet that is interested in genealogy, as you say. But we do look at things in a very local way. As I said, my dad used to be really upset if we didn’t take an interest in our own locality growing up and know all about the people living around us in County Cork. But that goes on just to prove your other observation, Mike, that we do tend to look at things in a very local way and I think you hit the nail on the head there with the observations on the tourists coming and asking for help. Sometimes the result is about the anticipation, but there is a particular way, and Irish way, of going about it.
Mike Collins: And if you keep an open mind, you’ll reap the benefits.
Carina Collins: Well, let’s move on to the last part.
Mike Collins: Sounds good.
Theme 4: Observations on Researching Irish Family History.
Carina Collins: This brings us, Mike, to the last part, part four of your twelve observations. And in some ways the previous parts were some things we hadn’t really considered, whereas we would’ve been focusing ourselves on maybe this part four coming up here.
Mike Collins: That’s true.
Carina Collins: Which is all about researching your Irish family history. That’s where we would’ve put our emphasis, so we’ve learned a lot ourselves really.
Mike Collins: Oh listen ….
Carina Collins: It’s been an education.
Mike Collins: We’re a few foot ahead of everybody else, really, when it comes down to it.
Carina Collins: And now the interesting things though about researching Irish family history and Irish genealogy versus others, because we do hear people write, “Oh, I can get such records, my family came from this country or that country, but Ireland is a disaster.”
Mike Collins: Hansel and Gretel, Adam and Eve. I have them all sorted and my folks that arrived on the Mayflower, they’re fine too.
Carina Collins: So the problem with Irish genealogy, that’s a tricky one it seems for most people.
Mike Collins: Well, it is tricky but an awful lot of it is what people believe before they go into it, you know? And, as you say there, I supposed our next observation is the key differences in Irish genealogy versus other national genealogies. If you kind of work it Carina, one level family history research is really simple. In a sense it’s only a question combining names, dates, events and places in the right order, but of course I’m being a bit cheeky in saying that. Because really in practice, it’s not that more challenging, but also a lot more fun than just that. But there are some complicating factors that lie just in the background of all your Irish family research.
Carina Collins: And I know you’ve noticed these factors come up quite a bit. So you’ve actually …
Mike Collins: Just two points.
Carina Collins: Listed them out, those two point, yeah, so they are.
Mike Collins: One is the Irish language basically.
Carina Collins: Absolutely.
Mike Collins: Yeah. And as a fluent Irish speaker, I know that you actually understand.
Carina Collins: It’s quite tricky for people for sure.
Mike Collins: Exactly. What it comes back to is if you just realize that pretty much all of our surnames and place names were put into place at a time and into use at a time when I guess Irish was the everyday language.
Carina Collins: Irish was the spoken language and all these names were in Irish.
Mike Collins: And essentially what happened over time of course, is those local, everybody in Ireland knew what they were, they knew the local place names, they knew the peoples’ surnames in Irish, they understood. But then you had an English ear coming in and saying, “Well that sounds like something. I’ll write that thing down.” So you had the anglicisation of Irish surnames and place names over time. Then of course you had the complicating factor of immigration and those surnames and place names going abroad and being listened to again, and again kind of taken down in a form of, can we still say Chinese whispers? You know, where they just kind of morphed, if you like, over time in many, many different directions.
Carina Collins: So the original surname had many variations at the end of the day.
Mike Collins: And they were foreign names if you kind of wanna say that. And people … when you got things, just to add to that, you had people kind of adopting the same given names in a family and you had maybe ten Johns or five Bridgets in the local family.
Carina Collins: That’s exasperating when you’re wondering which John Murphy is yours.
Mike Collins: But they didn’t use those names. Suddenly you have, let’s say, Bridgette becoming Delia or another one becoming Brady.
Carina Collins: So the pet names then were very different, again?
Mike Collins: Absolutely, yeah. So understanding what the things can be, so you can quickly see possibilities with kind of a very broad notion of the Irish language can actually be very, very helpful, that’s the first thing.
Mike Collins: So, we don’t teach people how to speak Irish, but we do say, “Watch out for this, watch out for that and here’s where you can find …”
Carina Collins: And I have seen that over the years, where people have suddenly realized that the surname that they have could also be spelled in a different way, and suddenly they can find the records for that name.
Mike Collins: Absolutely, absolutely.
Mike Collins: So, on the other hand then we have the second point, I suppose about the key difference in Irish genealogy is an awful lot of people believe that the records were burned in 1922 and that was it.
Carina Collins: Everything burnt.
Mike Collins: Where it is not that straight forward. Yes, certain things were burned, other census records where pulped, et cetera, et cetera. Before the advent of lets say, civil records in 1864, it was up to the vagaries of the local church, and the local priest affectively, as to what language they were kept in, where they were kept, how long they were kept, whether or not they actually were gonna be correctly annotated in that particular day. Lots of little quirky things like that. So, understanding where to go and also actually understanding the typical errors in transcription that occurs based up, back to my first point, about the Irish language, can help in actually navigate the Irish records.
Mike Collins: So the point is, an awful lot of, some Irish records are not available, that’s a given. Maybe not as many as let’s say your German records. But Irish genealogists and family history researchers have become quite adept.
Carina Collins: They have to become very inventive …
Mike Collins: At using land records, at using kind of substitutes and various types.
Carina Collins: Yeah.
Mike Collins: Yeah. Luckily, that’s luck for us. Many of those things we actually cover in the Green Room so I’m kind of quite happy we’re getting better at that as well.
Carina Collins: Yes. And we’ve seen that work really well there actually.
Carina Collins: Now one thing you always mention Mike, and I’ve seen you say to a few people in the Green Room as well, is that it’s better to go wider on your research before you start going way, way, way back in your tree.
Mike Collins: Yeah. Sometimes we get people, kind of come in and just start off straight way, “Hey, I’m stuck in 1780, can’t go back any further.” Guess what, the chances are you won’t be able to go back any further with direct records. “So what do you do?” Well, we suggest a lot more, because you will become a much more skilled researcher anyway, skilled family history person, if you go wider and understand the neighbours, understand the various connections of the family at times you do know about. Understand post-immigration for example, just who else was actually in that census from the same location and maybe with a surname in that earliest record. So, going wider and understanding the context in more detail just helps people make much more educated guesses and come up with those possibilities. And quite frankly Carina, it’s much more fun as well.
Carina Collins: Absolutely.
Mike Collins: I’ll give you one example, there was just actually a question this morning and it was the surname M-O-Y which is from Donegal, they get the history …
Carina Collins: So the surname Moy?
Mike Collins: Yeah, Moy as we would call it. I’m sure in Donegal they say it different.
Mike Collins: But you know, she was a Kelly who married a Moy and she was interested in that persons grandson in that case, right? But didn’t I happen, just by pure chance to find a death certificate, or in this case, for a Rose Moy and she was Rose Kelly Moy originally. And the informant was an actual Kelly. And then I noticed that that person got listed in a particular townland and then I was able to check adjoining townlands and notice we had Moy’s and Kelly’s living there. So, by kind of just widening things out, in this case in the 1850’s, we were able to go all the way back into the 1700’s and actually just start to get much better guesses. I won’t say that it’s actually definite at this point. But it’s that widening out and understanding the lay of the land. How the various, what people were likely to do at the time, who they were likely to marry, where they were likely to have their baptisms and children.
Carina Collins: And I know you’ve written letters on that and I know you’ve done a lot of training in that in the Green Room. To help people to go wider and find out a little bit more about what’s going on.
Mike Collins: Absolutely.
Carina Collins: And then they may get to go back, but go wider first.
Mike Collins: But now we’ll go forward.
Carina Collins: And now we’ll go on Mike. DNA. That’s certainly something with regard to Irish records, DNA. How it’s changing our understanding of breaking down those brick walls.
Mike Collins: Isn’t it interesting Carina? Most people probably don’t know what DNA stands for.
Carina Collins: Diorub… acid?
Mike Collins: Something chemical anyway.
Carina Collins: I used to know that in my chemistry.
Mike Collins: The thing about it is, I have to laugh really because in the early days, DNA was something I think was inhabited mostly by DNA nerds. Yes, I’m talking to you, boys. And these people actually work really into snipping their SNP’s and overlapping their centimorgans.
Carina Collins: You’ve lost me now.
Mike Collins: There you go. That’s what happens to me as well.
Mike Collins: And I suppose over time, the actual databases started to grow and people saw it as being a realistic way of breaking past brick walls. Because they could get their DNA tested and ideally somebody would actually show up as a connection that they could suddenly share research with. And ideally between the two of them …
Carina Collins: Third, fourth cousin, fifth, whatever.
Mike Collins: Absolutely. And not to mention of course, non-marriage events as we like to call them. And adoptions and so on. That’s been such a help for so many people. But I suppose kind of in terms of DNA, it is changing our understanding. I must say, my thoughts on this would’ve been very different five years ago or three years ago. But today it’s becoming a really useful tool. However, of course, when it comes to Irish DNA testing for ancestry purposes …
Carina Collins: We have one big fly in the ointment there, don’t we?
Mike Collins: Well, yeah I suppose. One thing is, most people on the island of Ireland aren’t testing and have no interest or use for testing for ancestry, DNA for ancestry purposes. It’s changed a small bit if you like, but not very much.
Carina Collins: Small bit, but that is a very much, I think frustrating for a lot of our listeners and our readers who are trying to trace their Irish ancestry.
Mike Collins: There you go. And I guess the other thing as well to say is, the ethnic mix of, just say for example, the ethnic mix, which is a lot of what these DNA tests are actually based on in the first place, “Know your ethnic mix, where’d you come from.” Again, most people on the island of Ireland are not interested in that. So unless you are a hard core researcher, you’re not gonna do it.
Carina Collins: Nope.
Mike Collins: So its kind of an interesting conundrum there. And just to add to that as well Carina, there’s the idea of, we have records on the one hand and we have, lets say, stories and peoples’ knowledge. We have DNA on the other hand and sometimes I do notice some people just assume the records are missing or they can’t find them and they just go down the DNA route and they kinda get disappointed when they don’t find the answer. Whereas, actually spending more time on the records, in kind of a wide way, in a knowledgeable way can actually offer an awful lot.
Mike Collins: So come the day when one of your cousins contacts you DNA wise, you have an awful lot to share with them.
Mike Collins: So we do encourage people to kind of, don’t give up on the records and hope for the DNA. But having said that, it’s a fantastic corroboration tool, so if you have a theory that your folks came from County Mayo but you’re not quite sure, suddenly doing your DNA testing, getting lots of matches for that with certain surnames can be a huge confidence builder.
Carina Collins: Huge benefit. Absolutely.
Mike Collins: So yeah, we spend a lot of our time. And I think it’ll be more and more, working with people and helping them to understand what’s useful and what’s not in terms of DNA testing for Irish ancestry research.
Carina Collins: Excellent. I suppose the key difference Mike, you mentioned that you’ve observed when researching your Irish family history, is of course the Irish language, the link that has. And the non-availability of some Irish records and how inventive that you have to be. And best to go wider on your research before going further back. And then, that DNA is changing our understand, but the records, if possible, are the best bet if your ancestors were alive in Ireland in the 1800s. So don’t expect all the answers to come from DNA.
Well, that’s the four parts Mike, and the 12 observations there.
Mike Collins: Are we finished already? Oh my gosh.
Carina Collins: Five years of writing and 90,000 answers, questions going backwards and forwards.
Mike Collins: It’s been such a ride. How long more are we gonna keep this up Carina, by the way?
Carina Collins: I’m not sure Mike.
Mike Collins: Another few days, maybe?
Carina Collins: You have been doing this now for five years every Sunday morning and your reach is going further and further. I think really of all the observations, it’s the connections that you’re making for people. The connections to Ireland and back to their Irish heritage that will stand out for me as the main motivation.
Mike Collins: I’ll just add a little bit to that Carina, as well. The added connection of people connecting with each other in the Green Room has been such an eye opener to us as well.
Carina Collins: Absolutely. So Mike, thanks for coming in and sharing that with us.
Mike Collins: You’re most welcome Carina. It was great fun.
Carina Collins: Plenty of food for thought in today’s show. But, unfortunately it’s time for us to go. And a warm thanks to Mike Collins for being with us and for you listeners, for your company on today’s Letter from Ireland Show. Thanks too, to all our friends in the Green Room and our readers on the Letter from Ireland.
Don’t forget now, to have your own say. Do let us know if any of the 12 observations, maybe they resonated with you, maybe you agree with some of them, maybe you disagree with others. Do let us know. And you can go to do that at the show note link at: aletterfromireland.com/405. Do let your comments there. We’d love to hear from you.
Slan everybody, thanks for listening and we look forward to you joining us again next time on the Letter from Ireland Show.
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Slán for now, Mike and Carina.