Monday 5 March 2012

Dead Money: full of genealogical life

You may have heard about a new programme launching tomorrow evening on RTÉ1: Dead Money.

It's a six-episode series following brothers Steven and Kit Smyrl, two of Ireland's foremost legal genealogical researchers, as they track missing beneficiaries to unclaimed estates. I caught up with them last week, between filming for the final two programmes, to get the low-down.

"The stories which unfold in Dead Money are typical of the case loads we deal with each year," says Steven. "And most of the beneficiaries we find are as thrilled to learn about their family history as they are to inherit a few bob."

The first episode reveals Steven and Kit's efforts to find the relative of a Dublin woman, Maura Byrne. The tale they uncover takes in the squalor of the inner-city tenements in the early decades of the 20th century, and the sad abandonment of a young boy in an industrial school.

Later episodes find the brothers in America, London and France and reveal the steps taken by their Dublin-based genealogy firm, Massey and King, to follow the trails of unsuspecting heirs. Never mind the human interest in watching long-lost relatives react to news of their inheritances, Irish genealogy researchers are going to be engrossed by the steps taken by Steven and Kit as they set about their quests.

Steven is the researcher par excellence. He trawls old bound volumes, dusty documents and online databases for the vital clues that move each case forward. Meanwhile, Kit hits the streets to do hands-on research: talking to friends and neighbours of the deceased, as well as experts and specialists – in fact anyone who can guide him along the trail that leads to the living relatives who are entitled to the estate.

Steven told me that he'll never cease to be amazed by the conundrums left by people who die without making a will.

"Some cases have been like reconstructing a jigsaw with a high proportion of missing pieces, but we've never been completely foxed. The biggest estate we ever dealt with was for €13million, left by a man born to an unmarried mother who fled to America and then died in the flu epidemic.

"The deceased's civil birth record said she was called plain Nellie McDermott and we thought we'd never solve the case. But by chance we later discovered her real name was Penelope!"

Kit, too, enjoys the thrill of the chase and remembers one case where the nephew of the deceased insisted all his siblings were dead. "I had a feeling this wasn't true," he says. "It took me six months but I proved that each of his six brothers and sisters were still alive and well! It's incredible what some people will do to get their hands on some cash!"

As the new programme will demonstrate, the Smyrl brothers work on cases that take them around the globe, but one of the greatest challenges they experience is the lack of source material in Ireland.

"The loss of Ireland's 19th-century census records has echoed down the decades since 1922," says Steven.

"But in a more immediate context, Ireland needs to get its act together and follow Scotland's lead to place its 'historic' civic records on the Internet.

"Northern Ireland expects to do this by 2014. The rewards are easy to quantify."

The first episode will be broadcast tomorrow night (7pm, RTÉ1), you can view a trailer here.