Saturday 25 February 2012

WDYTYA? No place for Smoothies!

WDYTYA? kicked off yesterday morning in the way it always does: with a long queue of visitors stretching from Olympia almost all the way to Hammersmith. And that was just those who'd bought advance tickets!

Friday is traditionally the quietest day of the three-day show but it's still very busy, even if it took half an hour or so for visitors to wend their way over to the Irish section at the back of the hall. Soon enough, the Irish contingent were busy answering questions, offering advice and guidance, and letting folk sample their wares.

Roots Ireland were certainly busy in no time at all, showing off their online databases of (predominantly) baptisms, marriages and burials from parish registers that cover most, but not all, counties of the island. I managed to collar Karel Kiely for a brief chat and she told me that the IFHF-led site is to shortly undergo major changes.

Chief among these is the switch over to what Karel describes as the 'Scotland's People' model ie researchers purchase credits and then choose to spend them on either searches or viewing images: 'This model encourages the researcher to enter all the information they have about their ancestor before they search, she said. 'They are then more likely to discover the record they are looking for, and it should cost them less.

'This major shift is expected to take place by the end of March.'

Before then, the first of the long-promised Wexford records will join the available line-up. Two Roman Catholic and one Church of Ireland parishes will be uploaded in about a fortnight and will start to bring in an income that will fund further Wexford transcription projects. 'The reality is that transcribing records costs money,' says Karel. 'That work brings jobs to Irish people. It doesn't go abroad; it stays in Ireland.'

Following the first Wexford records online will be additional records for Monaghan, Galway East, and St Patrick's Belfast (these are already online at the Ulster Historical Foundation's site but with slightly different search features). Quarter of a million gravestone inscriptions from Tyrone and Fermanagh will also become available. This flurry of activity from Roots Ireland should be completed by May, says Karel.

Tourism Ireland sponsored a sizable stand where family historians could pose questions about tracing ancestors and visiting the areas where they once lived. Tourism experts were on hand along with The Clare Heritage Centre, Ordnance Survey of Ireland and the Titanic Story together with genealogist Helen Kelly. John Hancock of Ancestor Network was there, too, and said he'd been pretty much non-stop throughout the day.

Same story on PRONI's stand, where staff were helping researchers to appreciate the wide range of records they have available at their state-of-the-art Belfast offices.

The Certificate of Irish Heritage were also at the show, fresh from delivering Lord Seb Coe with his ancestral certificate just a couple of days earlier. The Certificate scheme is Government-backed and launched last October.

'WDYTYA? Live is the first exhibition we've attended,' said product manager Karl Elliston. 'And what a response!'

'People are very interested in learning more about their Irish ancestry, and we've been listening to their stories.

'The reaction to the Certificate has been very positive, and we're looking forward to the next couple of days!'

I caught up with Steven Smyrl, chairman of the Irish Genealogical Research Society (IGRS), between his stints on the Ask The Experts bench and the Association of Professional Genealogists of Ireland stand. He said the IGRS stand was fielding a lot of questions that show people are doing a lot of research on the Internet, but were cutting corners in the process.

'It's amazing how many people haven't done even the basic research in England. For example, if they've come across a Patrick Kennedy recorded in the 1901 English census as 'born in Ireland', they haven't thought to obtain his marriage certificate to find out the name and occupation of his father. But if they're looking for a Patrick Kennedy in Ireland whose father was Richard and a carpenter, they've got a lot more chance of finding out more about him.'

Steven said the IGRS, which is enjoying something of a revival following its 75th anniversary in 2011 and has seen a surge in membership numbers this year, is in a unique position to offer advice on how to carry out research properly. 'It has a more academic approach to genealogical research and its experts here on the stand can help guide and steer those who are not so experienced in how to get results.'

I also called in on the Find My Past stand, centrally placed under Olympia's glass roof and suffering/enjoying the greenhouse effect of unseasonably warm February weather.

With banks of computers lined up for visitors to search for free, it was rather like trying to get served on a Friday night in a busy bar so I left Ross, from the .ie arm of FMP, to it after a quick hello. Love the green 'Irish Expert' sash, Ross!

The National Archives of Ireland trio – Aideen Ireland, Catriona Crowe and Paul Gorry – hardly came up for air all day, and had the added problem during the afternoon of having to fight against the sound levels from the neighbouring lecture halls.

At Paul's own lecture on online Irish records in the morning, the sound equipment was not working at optimum levels and the organisers had replaced it by lunchtime with one that was booming out. As if that weren't enough to contend with, every time the nearby CRUSH outlet mixed up a Smoothie, the sound of the mixing machine sent the sound equipment into crackling mode!

Hope they solve that problem for the remaining two days, both for those attending the lectures, and the long-suffering NAI team.