Genealogical gouging?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Platform, Volume 19

US President Barak Obama addressing the crowd at College Green on 23 May 2011. In the wake of the discovery of his Irish roots and visit, genealogical research has been identified as a major growth area of the heritage/tourism industry. (Irish Times)

US President Barak Obama addressing the crowd at College Green on 23 May 2011. In the wake of the discovery of his Irish roots and visit, genealogical research has been identified as a major growth area of the heritage/tourism industry. (Irish Times)

Sir,—I am writing to you, and to others involved in Irish local history and genealogy, out of sheer desperation and frustration! I am hoping that in your professional position you may, in some way, be able to raise the problem of access to Irish records with those who have the power to affect matters! If I may explain: I, like thousands of others worldwide, have been tracing my family history for the past five or six years. My family has branches in Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada, the USA, the UK and several branches from Ireland, and I have accumulated a wide experience of using genealogical sources in a number of countries. I have made tremendous headway in all countries with the help of their national and regional archives, their local studies centres and more specialised museums and archives . . . with the exception of Ireland. I use the internet constantly in my research and in all countries basic source material, such as parish records, can be searched first on-line, using a combination of websites for cross-checking, and are almost always free.Often I want to make a more in-depth search and to do so I visit county record offices or local museum archives, having first searched within their on-line catalogue for references to explore further on arrival. At those offices, I find parish records freely available on microfiche, together with countless other documents (wills, land deeds, old correspondence, apprentice records, etc.), copies of which can always be obtained at a reasonable fee. For instance, I located in Salisbury Record Office a copy of an ancestor’s early police examination book—cost £4. From Charleston Library, South Carolina, for £15 inclusive, I obtained a copy of an ancestor’s will, bills of sale for slaves (!) and land records. My point is that all of this material is treated as the property ‘of the people’ and is readily and freely viewable in public rooms at these places.In contrast to this, when I try to research Irish records it is exorbitantly expensive and difficult to get at. I am very far from being alone in finding this a near-insuperable problem. Whenever one enters genealogical forums on the internet, as soon as the question of access to Irish records arises, one finds people expressing the same opinion: they are difficult and the system is set up in such a way as to extract the maximum payment from the public. It is time that people engaged in local studies and genealogy were aware of the view that has been formed of the Irish approach. I appreciate that these are stringent ecomomic times but this cannot be the reason for such charges and such limited accessibility. The situation was exactly the same long before the economic recession.I, along with many others, was delighted when many Irish counties placed their parish records on-line . . . until I started to use them. The website has been set up in such a way that you pay a significant sum even to pursue one marriage or one death. One can examine and try to eliminate the ‘wrong’ record(s) and in the process have to pay a huge amount of money. This really does often put the information that is rightfully ‘theirs’ beyond the reach of the average member of the public.Because of the huge cumulative costs of using Irish records on-line, I have twice in the last five years visited Ireland with the express intention of visiting the areas and heritage centres relevant to my own ancestors to search records for myself. Again, even this results in great frustration! There are no public search room facilities. The records are all exclusively in the hands of the staff manning the centres. For instance, in County Mayo, one centre had one research member of staff on duty and anything that I wished to consult had to be relayed by the receptionist to the researcher upstairs (whom I never saw) and then the response relayed back down. I had no idea what the researcher had looked at or how thoroughly it had been done. I did not get any real help and knew that it would have been better for all concerned if I had had access to the documents and records myself.In the second centre in Mayo that we visited there was a reception desk, with a barrier down. The public were to stay on one side and the duty officer on the other. It was immediately clear that no records were ever to be handled by the public. There was, however, a large board advertising ‘the commissioning of your full family history’. When we asked what this was about it became clear that that was the main purpose of the centre—to attract people to purchase the services of the staff at the centre to produce a family portfolio on their behalf. The cost was again excessive (geared towards a perceived lucrative American market perhaps?). This was another very disappointing visit to Ireland for family history; for the second time we left with little progress made. We knew that all the information was there but simply not available to us. What makes the situation worse is that the centres, on their websites, so often invite the public to ‘come and visit and trace your ancestors’. What they mean is that, if you come, they will do it for you, if you pay their huge fees! This is infuriating when you use your annual holiday to visit from abroad!At the end of five years of researching my Irish lines I am currently left with many loose ends. I wanted to pass on to my grandchildren a complete family dossier. I have thick, full files for all countries, but when I turn to the Irish lines the file is quite meagre. What has proved to be the last straw was when I realised that I now need to look into County Clare records and, having read the forum chat, realised that the same problems would be encountered all over again—namely, that a visit would be pointless—and also that County Clare parish records are not even included at all in the national on-line databases. When I telephoned the Clare Heritage Centre to ask when they thought their parish records would go on-line, I was told that they are reliant upon volunteers and that it would be some considerable time. Why, then, persist in very time-consuming individual commissions instead of putting maximum resources into the transcription of records on-line to make them readily accessible to the maximum number of people? I am reaching the point where I feel that I shall have to give up on my Irish ancestors. It is simply too difficult.I am aware that material is available in public search rooms in the National Archives in Dublin, just as there are the UK national archives at Kew, but this is hardly a satisfactory substitute for accessible regional archives. We have visited the National Archives in Bishop Street once, but far prefer to conduct research in the regions where our ancestors lived. Dublin is no substitute for visiting the towns and villages of Mayo, for instance. I should add that when we visited Mayo and Galway we found the local people extremely helpful, although of course they could not give us precise factual information. The local Roman Catholic priests were also very generous with their time, looking back in their registers for us, when I’m sure they had more pressing things to do.—Yours etc.,JACKIE GIDDINGS (Mrs)Yelverton, Devon

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