The following is written by myself and my mother, Jacqi. Or, more correctly, this is a transcript of a verbal conversation we had, hence the somewhat stilted style and the brackets. I generally research bones, history, and the clash of cultures, while my mother generally focuses on genealogy. These are our top pointers about researching in Ireland. You can visit my mother’s blog at afamilytapestry.blogspot.com
1. Research Your Research Before You Go And Research (Know Before You Go)
J: There’s a surprising amount of information available online. Where there isn’t, that lack can be made up by asking people to fill in the blanks. For instance, in geneaology at least, there’s all sorts of online forums and facebook groups and other stuff, primarily facebook groups and online lists, that give you access to people familiar with local research material availability. You can find everything from hours of operation to local cautions about things like rush hours or best times to go or even when to avoid it! There’s all sorts of local suggestions on what to look for and what to avoid. These can sometimes help you select actual research facilities and help you avoid getting there after the doors close for a local holiday, avoid creating research faux pas–that’s probably your thing about when you can bring a pencil in vs when you can use a camera–all the local rules. Also, at least for genealogy, the forums were a great place to brainstorm research problems.
W: Yeah, there are a lot of little things that it is easy to get tripped up on. When I want to get anything out of the archives in Boole [my university library and my main research spot after the lab], I have to submit a list of what I am looking for ahead of time so they can pull it out of the stacks. They are fairly picky about what people bring in, too–in some areas you can only bring in photography equipment, but no pens or pencils, and in others they only want you to use a computer or something similar. Some places also do not have wifi and do not allow outside connections–so you have to have all of your stuff set beforehand, and that includes making sure you will have enough power if you need to transcribe something. For me, a lot of stuff is backtracking what resources other people have looked at and emailing or talking with people already established in the field and familiar with the resources.
2. Figure Out Where You Want To Go
W: For me, I did this a little bit backwards: I knew my preferred place was Ireland, but where I went in Ireland depended entirely on where the bone lab was. So for me, the want was whatever filled my need, and then if I needed something else, I would go elsewhere. I made more than a few trips to Dublin, but those were either when I had a very exact destination in mind or when I was traveling with a professor or another person who was very familiar with the resources. Or if they had told me where to go.
J: I knew about a year ahead of time that I was going to go [to Ireland], so that was about when I started getting ready for my research trip. I developed a strategy–so that I could complete each component of the preparation before I left (this included a lot of the things mentioned above, like figuring out what documents I needed and what facilities or collections would satisfy those requirements). Part of the reason I did this was because I was concerned I wasn’t going to get it all done before I left! There is nothing worse than the feeling of having a once-in-a-lifetime chance to research something, and then getting there and discovering your time is up before you found what you needed. Searching for information doesn’t lend itself well to limited time frames. You can read for pages and pages and pages and not find what you need, or you can read one page and find it right away. I wanted to locate information on eight specific families, so the first thing I did was assemble a generic list (well, actually, I wrote blog posts on it!) of everyone I wanted to find, then I tried to narrow down the location of where each of those families were located, and figure out who I needed to talk to when I got there. Some of this was on site stuff, not necessarily in archives. Then I had to figure out what I didn’t know about each of those places, and learn about it–like what local organizations might have stashes of information I would never have found otherwise. After that, I started networking and researching online to see what was available.
3. Establish A Timeline
J: Then I had to decide the itinerary, and how I was going to pull off the itinerary. At that point, I had to decide that I was not going to go to some of the places. For instance, one of my families was from county Mayo, but we were headquartering in county Cork, so in my time frame, it would not have worked out to get all the way up there and back again. Also, that was my weakest point research wise, so I had to let that one go. The other thing was, I had the opportunity to be part of a guided research tour in Dublin hosted by Donna Moughty (pronounced Moody), and I had to fit in her pre-established itineraries. The plus side of that was she was looking at everything from a national point of view and helped me navigate a lot of the national repositories.
W: I work better when I design my timeline backwards: basically, I need a deadline, and then I know when I need to have my researching done, and like that. Then I can set mini-deadlines for myself, and even though I know I’ll blow past them about half the time, it’s usually never more than a few sleepless nights will make up for. Or, more often, I’ve over-researched something and I just have to decide that is enough, and it is time for me to move on.
J: In the end, even if you micromanage yourself to the finest point, you have to give yourself permission to deviate from it, and not beat yourself up if you get off track when you actually hit the road. What you discover in your pre-research will inform a lot of what you do when you get there.
4. Figure Out What You Need (vs. What You Can Get)
J: Oh, you can talk about the “this was blown up” and all of that. Or when Bessie kicked over the lantern and the town burned down.
W: That was Chicago, mom.
J: Yes, I know, but I’m sure it happened other places, too.
W: Basically, one of the problems with researching in Ireland is that a lot of records are missing or have been purposefully destroyed–basically, the things that make it easy for people to research today were probably the same things that made it easy for the British to maintain control over the Irish. That and natural disasters can put quite a damper on finding some original records, and from there, it is generally needle-in-a-haystack work to find alternate resources that can take the place, or at least let you make a logical jump–to what the original records might have said. This is where pre-researching your research can help.
J: For instance, you may find a lot of the material you’re seeking in online collections that you can access [from home] which moves you a step forward when you get there, because you’ve already accessed it. [For example], I discovered some tax records [which] led me to a map of their actual property, this is the one in Tip [county Tipperary), and somebody–an acquaintance I met online–helped me juxtapose the old map with a new map, which allowed me to drive up to their actual property. If I hadn’t had that resource, we wouldn’t have been able to drive there–we wouldn’t have known where to go–because the map was from 1850!
W: Basically, even if official records, like, in this case, property records, are missing, there might be another work around, although that particular one was quite the coup.
5. Talk To Everyone
J: Well, this is where you kinda need to know your country, but there are some places where people will drop everything and help a stranger find their location. Some countries are more hospitable than others, but Ireland will take care of you [as long as you’re reasonably polite]. If at all possible, stay at bed and breakfast places, eat at local eateries, strike up conversations with people in the local tourist business. They will give you insights and sometimes they will go out of their way to take you there themselves. They’ll introduce you to friends who will talk to you for hours on end. You may find yourself sharing information with them, too! I remember one woman where I ended up sharing information with her–she was looking at the map and was looking for the same family as I was, and didn’t know where to go. Another man, who actually ran the local school, didn’t know where his family’s property was, and I was able to show it to him on the map! He had no idea where I had gotten it, but it was because of the woman from the bed and breakfast. He had all sorts of school records that no one knew about, and I was able to show him all the property records, which he had never seen and was highly fascinated by. I ended up getting him a copy.
W: The same thing applies in other areas. One of the projects I was working on (actually, that I would love to go back and expand upon) was looking at herbal medicine in the 1600s to the 1800s, and one of the problems was that different places would give the same name to different things, so you almost needed an interpreter to help you along. In that case, illustrations were very handy.
J: But really, don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go to plan. Plan extensively and exquisitely, but if things do go the way you planned when you get there, remember this is an amazing adventure and this can be your excuse to come back again.