Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Somewhere In Time


     I've recently begun corresponding with a long-lost cousin and as usually happens when Irish genealogy is being discussed, bemoaning the fact that there is a dearth of records before the 1800's, and you just don't get back that far in time unless of course your ancestor was lord of the manor, who in my case was the fellow subjugating my ancestors.  I've sort of accepted it by this point, and in fact I feel fortunate to have gotten to the late 18th century in several lines, I'm told that is an accomplishment.  I still daydream however, that in a dusty forgotten corner of some obscure repository or attic a collection of the destroyed Irish censuses will someday be discovered.
     At the opposite end of the spectrum, I also have several lines that were in America at the time of the Revolutionary War; one of them, the Worden family, was actually on the second or third ship into Plymouth Harbor. Their lineage has been done and redone and traced to one of the barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.  I find this interesting and exciting on some level, but do I feel particularly close to these early ancestors?  Honestly--no.  It's difficult to feel a real connection to a knight running around Runnymede in 1215, though I did like that an ancestor of mine was sticking it to the king.

     I wonder, do other researchers feel this way? Through this prism of modern day sensibilities, I just cannot get inside their heads.  We are not only separated by different cultures and distance, but that most enigmatic of dimensions, time-- oceans of it.  In 1215 Genghis Khan was still rampaging and people were marching away on crusades, not things I can readily identify with.  I can try to imagine how they felt, but without much success.  Even later Irish history can be difficult, thankfully I will never know how it feels to watch my children starve, or board a filthy ship and sail across a terrifying sea for weeks and weeks; pondering between bouts of seasickness what lay in store for me at journey's end.

     I'm not sure we can ever fully understand long past events, however much we'd like to.  I'm still very interested in extending my tree further back, but for the most part I content myself with gathering every bit of data possible on the ancestors that are within my reach,  mostly mid-19th century to the present; reconstructing their lives down to the last detail or as close as I can.  I know their friends, cousins and neighbors.  I know in many cases how many acres of potatoes they grew and how many pounds of butter they churned.  I know their political views and their favorite pastimes.  Do I "know" them?  Of course not, but I feel I've come to at least partially understand their world view and in many cases what motivated them, and that's enough...for now.  Ever hear of wormholes???



  1. Ellie, you and I are on the same wave length just now. I've just returned from Ireland, frustrated at the fact that I'll likely never be able to push beyond the shards of Catholic baptismal records I was able to view at the National Library of Ireland last week. I feel like I'll have to settle for the sad reality of not knowing more about the next generations of these ancestors. On the other hand, as you mentioned, the ability to truly know their story is sharply limited, the farther back in time we research.

    It was an incomparable experience to walk the very lands where these ancestors once lived, thanks to maps extracted from Griffith's Valuation and other resources. I think we felt the most connection there.

    Your point about getting "inside their heads" I heartily agree with. Even now, my daughter--who is a college student in Ireland this semester--has discovered how different the American and Irish frames of reference are. We make assumptions that everyone's experience is just like ours, but even in the modern world, it is not always so. Best to have that head's up from the get-go, whether talking about this generation or generations long past.

    Having realized these things which you have so aptly laid out here in this post, I'm facing the uncomfortable realization that the dream of merrily pushing back through the generations--without any barriers to stop my progress--is just that: a dream. The reality is that we are only as free to do so as the available paper trail permits.

  2. Hi Jacqi, I must admit I'm envious of your long stay in Ireland. I understand exactly what you mean when you say walking their land was "incomparable". Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.