Let the search commence

Over the next weeks a series of articles will appear prepared by Pat Nolan, local historian and director of Irish Origins Research Agency. In this first article the merits, benefits and pitfalls when discussing family history with living family members are considered.

Over the next weeks a series of articles will appear prepared by Pat Nolan, local historian and director of Irish Origins Research Agency. In this first article the merits, benefits and pitfalls when discussing family history with living family members are considered.

The articles are based on his very successful family history courses, organised by the Adult Education Section of Kilkenny VEC, give an insight into different aspects of researching your own family history. This year’s course begins on Tuesday 25th September 2012 and runs for a total of ten weeks, ending on the 27th November 2012. Additional information can be found about the course on the Irish Origins Website – www.irishorigins.ie

There is an old adage that suggests that one third or more of what you will ultimately uncover about your ancestor’s story, even after years of research, is currently available in the minds and memories of your living relatives. In business, marketeers speak of “word of mouth” as the most valuable form of advertising. So too in family research, extracting information from your living relatives - in effect their word of mouth - can often prove most valuable and informative. But garnering this information calls for a proper approach to the task.

Ensuring you extract the most – and the best – from interviews calls for some forethought, planning and preparation. Omission of these puts one in danger of falling into several traps that lie in wait for the ill-prepared. As many researchers have learnt to their cost, securing this information, checking it for accuracy and fitting it into the overall family story is not without its risks and dangers.

F.J.Wrottesley in his excellent book The Examination of Witnesses In Court makes the point that “it would be much exaggerated in talk….. the common people do not accurately adopt their words…. they do not mean to lie but taking no pains to be exact, they give you very false accounts.” Over the years I have come to the view that very many of us do not approach our own relatives, particularly our more elderly relatives, in a manner which helps us to retrieve all what they know in a manner which includes the necessary built in safeguards to confirm its veracity.

Was it Napoleon who remarked that “time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted?” Link that concept with the pithy expression ‘if you fail to plan, then plan to fail’. Let’s look then at what planning is appropriate before you approach a relative seeking family information. The first item is sure to remind yourself of the more obvious pitfalls.

Snob and 

Most of us are aware that people tend to exaggerate; ‘small farmers’ become ‘landowners’, ‘shop-keepers’ become ‘business men’, ‘book-keepers’ become ‘Chartered Accountants’, while a relative who was a winner in the local parish field day sports can become, within a decade or two, an all-Ireland National Running Champion. We are very alert to the snobbish embellishments that are often encountered.

However, we may be less alert to the opposite, the equally insidious, anti-snobbish habit among some. When they are speaking about their ancestor it is a better story to claim that he came into the town with no backside to his trousers and pulled himself up by his own bootlaces into a successful, self made man; better than the less exciting reality that his father was himself wealthy and the son’s achievement was no more that might have been expected as he carried on the family tradition.

So the snob/anti-snob may be the first trap of which we need to be aware.

There is one tendency so prevalent that I may suggest it amounts to a syndrome. It is the ‘CNDF’ Syndrome, meaning Cover-up-near-darken-far tendency. For example if my father had the misfortune to die as a sad alcoholic, clearly I would be sensitive to that fact and everyone would excuse me for being slow to reveal that part of my past and would at least understand if I were to seek to suppress that information. (He wasn’t by the way!) Conversely, if my great-great-great grandfather got the then equivalent of a parking ticket in Limerick in 1704, by the time his story is told he has been hung, drawn and quartered at Tilbury - at least twice!


For a whole variety of reasons, some people find it difficult to simply say they don’t know. Especially if they are lonely and do not receive many – or any – visitors from one end of the week to the next. It is a heady experience for them suddenly to be the centre of things, getting the respect that comes from your concentrated attention. This is a very rare and pleasant experience and certainly one they do not want to end. If they fear an admission of not knowing will end this session - and with it your visit, sometimes tales claimed to be about family members are in fact referring to a man “down the street”. A story is a story after all and not everyone is committed to the concept of historical accuracy, believing that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story - especially if it will prolong the session.

A more insidious and more difficult to spot trap is the entirely innocent trans-generational slippage, where ‘aunties’ become ‘cousins’ and ‘uncles’ become ‘brothers’. This is especially true where the same Christian or first name –William, Thomas or John - is repeated in succeeding generations.

The final per-visit preparation is to be clear in your own mind of what additional information you are hoping to secure from the visit. This might typically be the name of a grand-mother, aspects of their life story, their year of birth or death, the place of burial or some other facts which will lead you to a successful hunt in some written record.

Thus prepared, let us now look at the interview itself. Of course this word may seem to be far too formal for what is intended but it will serve to suggest the mind-set you should bring to the occasion. There are a number of suggestions about the actual structure of the conversation itself.

A useful rule of thumb is, as far as possible, try to interview each person individually. The number of potentially fruitful sessions which grind to a halt when the wife/husband/mother/father * (delete at necessary) butts in to say

“Rubbish! You have got it all wrong! It was Uncle Peter who married the Fewer woman and anyway, I don’t think her name was Mary.”

This challenging intervention usually leads to a row on the margins, which effectively scuppers your opportunity to progress. Best to talk to each alone and where there is some conflict of memory, sort it out afterwards.

In the same vein don’t you yourself interrupt the flow. Hear him out and again if there seems to be a conflict of evidence / memory this can be explored later in that session or on another occasion. Don’t be afraid of silence. Delay ‘jumping in’ with the next question; give him time to think and he may well add something to what he has said.

Need to record

Perhaps the most significant piece of advice is to always tape the conversation. Nowadays inexpensive, small and discrete tape recorders can be acquired for less than the price of a dinner in any moderate restaurant. In addition, even the least sophisticated mobile phone has a record facility. If using a Dictaphone do ensure, especially if your machine is new or borrowed, that you are familiar with the Pause Button. It is all too easy in the pressure or stress of the moment to overlook checking that the pause button is not pressed and thereby a wonderful conversation is lost to history. Like the fish that got away, recorded conversations are always better and more productive or would have been if only the pause button had not been engaged.

A tape recorder should ALWAYS be used for several reasons. One, you will have a permanent record, which will be an important part of your family archives in years to come. In this way the cold, sterile words on a page are avoided while the words and especially the tonal inflections, nuances and subtleties are captured forever. Another important reason for taping the conversation is that you can review at leisure what was said and bounce it against what you know then or indeed against facts that subsequently become available.

One other reason that makes it most beneficial to tape the conversation is what I sometimes refer to as the Skeaughvosteen Factor – Skeaughvosteen is a small settlement between Goresbridge and Graignamanagh. This is Murphy’s Law at its best. While you are frantically trying to work out how to spell Skeaughvosteen or some such place, your informant has continued with his story and will have mentioned gems of vital import, information which simply will not have registered with you at all because of your preoccupation with spelling. The irony is that almost certainly you will get the spelling wrong anyway! So tape the conversation and look up the spelling later.

By taping the conversation you will be able to give your total, undivided attention to what is being said and able to formulate the questions you want to ask during the next natural break in the chat.

During the meeting/interview (again I am conscious that these terms suggest an encounter more formal than is usually the reality) you benefit from being subtle and patient with people. For this reason alone it is valuable to have worked out in advance what information you feel they may be able to provide. People will wander off the narrow point; the conversation will go where it will. It may become necessary to bring the person gently back to the point at issue, that being said, there’s a skill involved in not “interrupting the flow” of conversation. Because while they are talking about some matter which may not be directly linked to the point at issue, they can provide additional information which may be worth-while in itself or can at least inform or suggest subsequent lines of enquiry.

Take it easy

Take time not to appear to hassle or hurry the informant. Let them give you the information at their own pace. Remember while you may have been thinking about these matters for some days or longer, they are only now beginning to focus on this element of their ancestors. Sometimes their memory needs time to catch up, or to seek out the information sought from the outer reaches of their own mental “hard-drive”.

Beware too of the leading question as it tends to generate an expected answer. Avoid the use of words which have an inbuilt implication rather than those that are value-neutral. Use the neutral term “stated” as in Uncle George stated he went to New York in 1928 rather than Uncle George claimed he went to New York in 1928 or even worse Uncle George admitted he went to New York in 1928. The first is a straight statement without any undertones whereas the other two are carrying a lot of baggage which, even if not intended, runs the risk of colouring and influencing your informant’s response.

When the interview is over and you have collected the information and when back in your own house review, analyse and write up the notes. One additional important duty remains. It is that paramount duty of all researchers - QUOTE YOUR SOURCES which is an essential prerequisite of good family research. Who told you? When? Where and in what circumstances? Clearly there is a world of difference between a comprehensive and planned discussion at eleven o’clock in the morning in someone’s office or home than a ‘informal’ chat at eleven o’clock at night in the local pub! You need to be able to assess and evaluate the quality of the information and that can only be done successfully by a rigorous referencing of who said it, when, where and in what circumstances.

Attention to these procedures and protocols will ensure that the outcome of your interview will stand the test of time and as far as possible accurately reflect the extent of their version of the truth.

Sometimes you will find that on reviewing the first interview internal inconsistencies emerge or other queries may arise. Alternatively you may wish to expand somewhat on a throwaway remark or other. The techniques of going back deserve attention and may require to be handled with some discretion. You will need to ensure that there is no suggestion, by word or inflection, that you are challenging or questioning their memory or version of events. Give some thought to how you phrase your second-round questions. There is a world of difference in the impression given - and the probable reaction - between “The last time we met you claimed that”….. as apposed to “Remind me again of the circumstances surrounding” …………. A little thought will alert you to the potential land mines to be avoided.

Sometimes of course it is necessary to make a realistic assessment as to the accuracy, or otherwise, for what ever reason - of what you have been told. There can of course be many reasons why “they do not mean to lie but taking no pains to be exact may give you very false accounts.” Many and varied are the reasons why someone would wish to add or suppress some item or person from the family story, as we have noted above. In this connection remember what is not deemed of any importance today may have loomed very large in the consciousness one or two generations ago. Individuals can take a view on what is “a family disgrace” entirely differently from the norms of today. Be alert to these. Sometimes it can be revealing to resort to asking a question of a semi-sensitive nature to which you already know the answer, without in any way revealing your knowledge to him. In this way based on the response to your ‘test’ question you can form a judgement as to the probable accuracy of the wider information you are receiving from this source. Remember, while everything you are told can rightly be described as ‘evidence’ you must never confuse evidence with proof.