Tuesday 9 April 2013

Clare Roots Conference 2013: Review

As I was unable to attend the Clare Roots Conference this year, Dublin-based genealogist Claire Bradley offered to write a report for Irish Genealogy News. This is her review:

The 2nd Clare Roots Conference took place at the Temple Gate Hotel in Ennis over the weekend. The theme was “Gathering the Scattering” and it featured a number of lectures on the theme of migration and population change, along with some more light-hearted topics. The conference was officially opened by the Mayor of Clare, Cllr Pat Daly. Many speakers made an effort to specifically relate their talk to Co. Clare, which was a nice touch.

The keynote speaker was Michael Gandy, editor of the Society of Genealogists' quarterly publication The Genealogists' Magazine. His first topic was The Irish & British in India on Friday evening. His talk began by stressing that the history of the Irish in India was the history of the British in India, as we had been the same country from 1800 to 1922. His talk covered the Crown army and the East India Company, both of which had large proportions of Irish men in their ranks. For me, his most useful point was that almost everyone in India prior to the advent of steamships was there in some official capacity, so it should be relatively easy to trace them.

Those records are mainly in the British Library and either on FamilySearch or available to order on microfilm via your local LDS Family History Centre. Of course, if your ancestor was in the British Army, his records will be at the National Archives in Kew. There are also cemetery records, and he highlighted the Families in British India Society as a good place to start.

On Saturday morning, the conference got off to an early start with an excellent talk from Fiona Fitzsimons of Eneclann on the availability of Records from 1691 to 1800. She mentioned that for most of this time the established Church of Ireland acted almost like a modern County Council and so had records relating to all religions. The Landed Estate Courts are also an important source, she said, because they detail leases for the life of a certain individual and nearly always go back into the 18th century, if not earlier; when used in conjunction with the Registry of Deeds, they can be very useful.

She also talked about the impact of the three successive conquests, starting with the Tudors, of the 120 years leading up to 1691.  In order to avoid subsequent legal dispute, each conquering group set out to destroy the records of the previous administration. As they were primarily concerned with security, land ownership and tenure, and conformity to the penal laws, records of who owned what became important. The Civil Survey of 1656 and the Down Survey of 1656 are particularly relevant here. Trinity College is digitising the former and the National Archives of Ireland has copies of the latter.

The second speaker of the day was Eileen Ó Dúill with a light-hearted but very useful talk on How to Trace American Cousins. She mentioned that we should start looking for clues in family correspondence, photos and memorial cards. The main entry points for the Irish were, of course, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but Irish emigrants also travelled through Charleston and Baltimore. She pointed us towards the immigration centres of Castle Garden and, from 1892 onwards, Ellis Island. She also highlighted Stephen Morse’s portal website, which has many useful search options.

Eileen is keen on the idea of quid pro quo genealogy and suggested that if you are searching for ancestors in America, it might be worthwhile joining an organisation like TIARA, where you might strike up a friendship with someone who’ll look up records for you in return for your help with Irish records. She also mentioned the usefulness of Ancestry with its many American databases. Eileen’s talk was by far the most entertaining of the day and she also gave a little after-dinner chat about misconceptions, at the end of the gala dinner that evening, which was really funny.

Peter Higginbotham’s talk on the Workhouse in Ireland could have made his lecture rather grim, but it was well worth the listen. He dealt with the history of workhouses on the island from their inception in 1703 to dissolution in 1922 (1948 for NI). They were funded by local ratepayers in each Poor Law Union and run by a Board of Guardians.

There were some fundamental differences between the set-up in Ireland and the one in England. For example, 'hand-outs' were not given to people in Ireland and there was no law of settlement, so our ancestors could move into an area and request help from the local workhouse (in England, the cost of that help would be billed back to your birth area).

I was interested, too, to hear that, in order to maintain secularity, members of the clergy were not allowed to serve on Boards of Guardians, although Sisters of Mercy were later allowed to nurse within the workhouses.

The main architect of workhouses was George Wilkinson. His various designs were based on the inmate population size; they were cheap, durable and without any unnecessary decoration – right down to having no plaster on the walls and no floorboards. In order to keep the workhouse as an unattractive option, the population was separated, both by gender and age. Inevitably, the workhouses became overcrowded during the Famine, and the authorities were allowed to lease extra buildings, which were often unsuitable for purpose.

Many workhouses went into debt trying to assist where they could; these debts were written off in the 1850s. In the following decade, workhouses began to function as hospitals, dealing with out-patients and dispensing medication and vaccinations, of which there are sometimes records. Peter remarked that with these innovations, Ireland had a better system of caring for the poor than that of the neighbouring island! Despite this, conditions were at best awful and the British Medical Journal’s 1896 survey of them makes for uncomfortable reading. Peter’s talk suffered only a tiny bit from some technical difficulties, but he managed it calmly, with aplomb.

After a lunch break, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at Dead Money, Steven and Kit Smyrl’s RTE television series about probate genealogy. Unfortunately, Kit wasn’t able to make the conference so Steven handled the talk on his own, beginning with an overview of what happens when a person dies intestate, and the basics of how Massey and King (their company) deals with a case. A good knowledge of inheritance laws, which differ depending on jurisdiction, is essential. Children born outside marriage are treated differently in some cases, for example. Adoption can also prove an unsurmountable brick wall, especially as records in Ireland were often falsified in the past to give both the mother and child ‘a fresh start'. Steven stressed that they do a lot of tracing forward to find the current descendants, something we often ignore in ancestral research.

Putting on his CIGO hat – Steven is Executive Liaison Officer for the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations – he mentioned that the much anticipated early release of the 1926 census may be further delayed due to issues with the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the requirement for amendments in legislation.

For many, Catriona Crowe of the National Archives of Ireland will have been the speaker they most wanted to hear, and she did not disappoint. Her task was to tell us what was coming soon and not so soon in terms of digitised records. Much of the actual detail has already been published on Irish Genealogy News (see here) but Catriona let us know that we can expect a rebuild of the census website to go live within a few weeks with most of the submitted corrections done!

She also addressed the 1926 census issue, and agreed that momentum had slowed down. She urged those present to write to Enda Kenny about the matter, as his department is in charge of the CSO.

Catriona outlined the NGI’s partnership with the LDS, who will now digitise all items previously microfilmed by them. She also talked about the National Archives of Ireland's partnership with Eneclann/Find My Past, and what records we will see soon. I was excited to hear that the 1858-1920 wills collection is due soon and several other items will be available by the end of the year. In their longer 5-year plan, school roll books are of particular interest.

Michael Gandy returned as the final speaker. The topic was ostensibly Records for Irish Family Research in the UK, but it was a good half an hour into his talk before he addressed these records. The first 30 minutes were spent illustrating (again) that Ireland had been part of Britain, and repeating how we are all the same people, with only ethnicity separating us. Drawing on the content of some of the previous lectures, he stated that we need to ‘get over our poor Ireland attitude’! He also said that, as a country, we needed to get over the Famine and our survivors’ guilt! Perhaps most surprisingly, he suggested that no one in Ireland emigrated in the 1850/1860s due to poverty, an argument I think most would strongly dispute.

Several delegates got up and left during this portion of his talk.

Those that headed for the door missed out on the genuinely useful information that he eventually decided to impart. The records of the army have been well-documented elsewhere but he stressed again the value of these records, where 33% of the army was usually from Ireland. Parliamentary records, reports on the state of Ireland, Royal Commissions, civil service records (including the Post Office) were all discussed.

I felt he didn’t stress enough that it can be difficult to access many of the House of Commons/House of Lords papers without an academic subscription. One very useful point made was that if you searched by place name, rather than your ancestor’s surname, you would throw up records that would relate to them, even if they weren’t specifically named. Placing your family within the context of what was happening to them at a particular time will bring them to life, he said.

Organiser Gerry Kennedy led the audience in some well-deserved thanks and applause for all the speakers and the organising committee. A smaller group stayed to participate in a gala dinner in the evening, which called time on another very successful Clare Roots conference. They plan to host another in 18 months' time. Watch out for it!

Claire Bradley