Thursday 21 April 2011

What part did your family play in Ireland's history?

So you thought you had to be wealthy and famous to be on a TV genealogy programme? Not anymore. A brand-new show – The Genealogy Roadshow – will be broadcast on RTE1 this summer, and takes a refreshing new approach to family history. Out go the celebrities. In come the tales of ‘ordinary’ families whose ancestors were caught up in extraordinary historical events or circumstances. Their story, and with it the rich story of Ireland, will be told through the eyes of their descendents.

It’s a fabulous notion and, as someone who has never got to grips with the modern culture of celebrity worship, I was intrigued to find out how family historians can play their part in the new show. As Assistant Producer Frank Agnew of Big Mountain Productions explained to me, there’s plenty we can do – whatever stage our research has reached.

“We’re targetting two groups of people. The first group is made up of people who don’t know where to start their research or perhaps those who’ve hit an early brickwall. If these people come along to one of the four Roadshows, our team of genealogists may be able to help them get started, advise them on how to widen their search or maybe suggest ways to redirect their research focus.”

The second group targetted by The Genealogy Roadshow (see recording dates and venues below) are those whose ancestors played a role in our island’s history. This may have been a major role in a major historical milestone, or it may have been a minor part in a less-well known but significant episode. Frank says it doesn’t really matter, so long as the event helps to tell the story of Ireland.

“To give you a few examples, we’ve been contacted by the descendent of a man who was part of the Fingal Battalion 1916 that mobilized in Swords and took the RIC Barracks there, and by another whose ancestor defended the Constabulary in Limerick during the Fenian Uprising of 1867. These families already knew of their ancestral connections, and we’ll be using such personalised stories as a way of conveying these historical events.”

The 1798 Rebellion is another story the production team is researching for broadcast. They have four good potential candidates, each one having played a part but none of them household names. “They’re not famous,” says Frank. “But they were involved. So, you see, you don’t have to be related to Wolfe Tone to have your family’s story told, but you do need to be related to someone who was ‘there’ and has a story of their own.”

It might come as a surprise that Big Mountain Productions are not really seeking out family historians who’ve already ‘completed’ their genealogical research and who know all there is to know about their ancestors, famous or otherwise.

“We’re not really looking for people who’ve got all the answers. It suits us if they don’t, because we want to find the answers for them. We’ve asked everyone who’s already contacted us to stop their research straightaway. We’d like them to stop, and let us find the story.”

So anyone who has reason to believe they may be related to someone famous, or whose (unproven) family lore tells of great daring-do or adventures or achievement, would be perfect candidates for the TV company’s team of genealogists and history researchers and might end up having their entire family history put together by experts.

Frank emphasises the word ‘might’. “I don’t want to guarantee that everyone who contacts us is going to get their whole family history done. We’ll only be able to focus on the stories that lead somewhere or that we can research and prepare for broadcast in a very tight timeframe.

“We’ve got only five weeks before the first show is filmed so if a genealogy is going to take four or five months to unravel, it won’t be feasible. But there’s always the chance we could hold onto the story for series two or for a later programme in this series. Obviously, if it’s a really interesting story, we’d pursue it – good material makes good television.”

Anyone with an interest in family history is welcome to come along to any of the Roadshow recordings. You don't need to book -- just turn up and join in. There will be plenty of interest.

In addition to the production team there will be stands run by genealogical organisations and lots of regional and county groups and societies. It could provide just the motivation needed to finally get your research started, or help solve a particular problem that’s stopped your research in its tracks.

For those with a family story to tell or a mystery that needs unraveling, the production team would love to hear from you – sooner rather than later. Just pick up the phone and speak to Frank or one of his colleagues, or email them with some details. Or complete the online assessment form. All the contact details are below. Don’t hang back.

Remember, you don’t have to be related (or think you’re related) to a household name, just to someone who was important in terms of the history of the island of Ireland.

The Genealogy Roadshow will be broadcast on RTE1 on 31 July and the following three Sundays.

Recordings dates and venues:
  • Carton House, Maynooth, Kildare: Sunday 29th May
  • Adare Manor, Limerick: Sunday 19th June
  • Glenlo Abbey Hotel, Galway: Sunday 26th June
  • Venue To Be Confirmed: Saturday 8th July

Contact details:
  • Tel: 048 308 34049 (from Republic) 028 308 34049 (from N.Ireland), or 086 237 5499
  • Email: