Genealogy expo offers family-history insight

Cayla Williams reports on a recent exhibition on genealogy in Dublin.

Family-history enthusiasts gathered at the Back to Our Past exhibition as part of the 18th annual 50 Plus Expo at the Shelbourne Hall, RDS in Dublin. The event hosted 35 exhibitors, all of whom specialise in ancestry, genetic genealogy or Irish history and memorabilia.

Organised by the Senior Times, Back to Our Past aimed to offer local seniors the opportunity to explore their ancestry and the inspiration to pass their heritage on to future generations.

Speaking about the decision of Ancestry, the genealogy company, to sponsor the event, Principal Product Manager Mike Mulligan said: “This is the number-one family history event in Ireland, so we felt it was very important for us to support it.” When reflecting on the significance of tracing one’s genealogy, he said: “It’s very much about a sense of identity. As society has become more mobile, we have a stronger desire to be connected to somewhere and this allows people to make those connections again.”

Established in 1997, Ancestry offers DNA testing as well as archives of birth, death and census records. Mr Mulligan described the evolution of tracing genealogy, whereby the paper records that were originally collected in books were later transferred onto CDs and eventually uploaded to the Internet. The latest science in genealogy – DNA testing or “genetic genealogy” – now enables individuals to locate their DNA around the globe. Available for purchase at the expo, saliva kits collect enough DNA to place people within Ireland and become increasingly accurate as more people submit their DNA to the database.

“‘We all die twice: once when we die and once when we’re forgotten.’ This means that we’re passing on those memories and keeping them alive.”

When asked about his own passion for genealogy, Mr Mulligan said: “I’ve been working with Ancestry for about five years but I’ve been working on my own family history since I was about seven. So this has been a lifelong interest of mine and when I got the opportunity to work at Ancestry, I jumped at it.”

Also present at the expo were representatives of the Irish Genealogical Research Society (IGRS), an academic society and publisher of the annual journal, The Irish Genealogist. Steven Smyrl, society chairman since 1989, claimed that advances in the Internet and scientific DNA testing have challenged the survival of this and similar academic-genealogy organisations that rely exclusively on library archives and academic research.

Mr Smyrl said: “In the past 20 years, huge numbers of genealogy and family-history societies have disappeared. We find it difficult to compete with Ancestry and other organisations that do family-tree DNA. It’s a commercial thing, so whereas the IGRS used to be ‘the big cheese’ in Irish genealogy, we’re now really only ‘the big cheese’ among family-history organisations. Among the commercial organisations, we’re actually way behind Ancestry and Find My Past.”

While they maintain their physical library in London, the society has “taken cognizance of the Internet” and has begun transcribing and scanning documents in order to make them available on their website and accessible to people around the world. Mr Smyrl reckons that their effort to adapt to the changing times is the only reason the IGRS remains active today.

Browsing near the Family Tree DNA stall, local retiree Lucy Walsh became interested in genealogy after completing a course in family history at UCD post-retirement. Having attended Back to Our Past for the past four years, she decided to do a DNA test last year.

“I found a lot of surprises,” she said. “I knew a lot about my mother’s side because they had written a lot down and I also knew where they were all buried. But I knew very little about my father’s side, even though he probably talked more about his family. But we actually had no information and I found it harder because the registers in those particular areas where his family was from go back only to 1860, so I just couldn’t get back quite as far as I’d like.”

In addition to discovering that her great, great paternal grandfather was a shoemaker in Monaghan – one who often appeared in the courts either chasing unpaid boot bills or for evading his own debts – Ms Walsh was connected with a “huge number” of distant cousins via genetic testing. While originally a paper-records-based researcher herself, she was fascinated by the more complete picture of her family history that she was able to obtain through the recent advances in genealogical science and technology.

In spite of the varied approaches to tracing genealogy and uncovering lost or unrecorded snippets of history presented at the 2017 Back to Our Past expo, everyone shared a common goal: ensuring that family histories live on through future generations. Before returning to his post to greet the incoming guests, Mike Mulligan of Ancestry quoted the saying that drives his work: “‘We all die twice: once when we die and once when we’re forgotten.’ This means that we’re passing on those memories and keeping them alive.”

For more info on upcoming events see Back to Our Past.

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