Irish Genealogy – Finding Your Roots in The Wake of Loss

The death of a loved one can be an utterly transformative experience. Losing someone dear can send a person reeling and leave their world in disarray. Priorities change, values shift and a person’s perspective on their life and what is important to them can be irrevocably altered. What you once knew about the world is no longer necessarily true and what you once thought about life is no longer a certainty.

Death can feel like an explosion that tears mercilessly and suddenly through your life, shattering everything to pieces. The closer you were to the one who died, the closer you stood to that explosion and the greater the impact it had. As you attempt to piece your world back together in the wake of loss, you may find yourself wondering how your life came to be shaped this particular way in the first place. How did all the different pieces of who you are fall into place?

For these reasons, the grieving process is often a very reflective and pensive time. It can usher in prolonged periods of profound contemplation and introspection. You may find yourself ruminating who you are and where you fit in a world that now feels very different in the abrupt absence of your loved one. As you ponder these big questions, the search for answers may lead you to the past. Facing a future that has been made uncertain and strange by loss is frightening and there is sometimes comfort and wisdom to be found in looking back into your history. This is where genealogy can play a significant and meaningful role.

Culture, Connection and Identity

A person’s identity can be left shaken greatly by grief. Experiencing a loss may leave you feeling isolated and untethered; lost, alone and set adrift in the anguish of mourning. Genealogy can be extraordinarily reassuring for a person’s identity and strengthen their sense of place and purpose in the world. The more knowledge you have regarding your heritage and cultural background, the more authentic and singular your identity and life will feel. It can also help ground and centre you during a very confusing and painful time in your life. Knowing where you came from can help you decide where you might go next, the course of your ancestral past giving direction to your personal future.

Tracing your roots and learning about the history of your family tree can help you feel closer to your family, even if they are no longer alive. Understanding your ancestry in minute detail and embracing your own distinctive culture and traditions will help you feel more connected to a long line of varied and diverse people, no two of whom lived the same life. No matter how long ago they may have lived, each and every one of your ancestors played a consequential hand in moulding the shape of the life you now lead. The echo of their lives, whether it be from a hundred years ago or a thousand, continues to resonate in yours today.

Tracing the roots of your family tree is the main goal of genealogy.
Tracing the roots of your family tree can strengthen your sense of identity

As you explore your family history and heritage, you may even uncover ways of mourning a loss or honouring a death that are unique to your culture. For instance, one Irish tradition concerning the death of a loved is the Irish Wake. Many people in Ireland still practise this age-old custom today, congregating at the home of the deceased to show their respect and raise a toast to their memory. Learning how your ancestors confronted death and responded to the passing of a loved one could bring you some solace or clarity as you process your own grief.

Genealogy has the power of boosting your self-worth by making you understand just how truly individual you and your family history are. It can make you feel a part of something much bigger than yourself and give you a sense of belonging. It can give you a reinvigorated sense of motivation and autonomy in life by framing the complete story of your ancestors in your head accurately and meticulously. You are part of a story that is still unfolding, a story in which you play a pivotal role and determine the course of the next chapter.

A New Perspective

Genealogy can also give you a fresh perspective on life and a renewed appreciation for living when and where you do. Life is rarely easy for any of us, but life many years ago would have been even more challenging and unforgiving. Your ancestors almost undoubtedly faced seemingly insurmountable hardships and adversity, the world they inhabited vastly different from the one we inhabit now. You can acquire a wider and deeper knowledge of the social and political landscape of the world down through the centuries and use this to paint the most vivid picture possible of the environment your ancestors were immersed in.

Your ancestors may have endured and overcome rampant prejudice, blatant discrimination and inequality or cruelly uncompromising and deeply oppressive social mores and customs. They may have suffered dire poverty or succumbed to the ruthless ravages of old diseases and maladies which have long since been cured and eradicated. All of this can serve to make you more resilient and dauntless in the face of your own challenges.

People who avail of genealogy services often describe it as an eye-opening experience which provides them with a more positive and discerning outlook on life. Learning the intimate details of your ancestors’ past can imbue you with a new vigour for the present and embolden you to live life to the fullest and seize the day while you can. Discovering the endless multitude of ways that a person can experience life and spend their time on this earth can make you a more kind, thoughtful and empathetic person.

Gratitude and compassion are often the emotional outcomes after learning of life outside of your own lived experience. This can be particularly true when that life is so close to your own in one way yet so far removed in another. The sheer scope and infinite number of possible lifetimes lived through time and space can be dizzying, humbling and life-affirming.

How to Get Started

Thankfully, tracing your family history has never been easier. In the last ten years, Irish genealogical records – both online and offline – have become more accessible than ever before. There are a number of publicly funded websites which provide the tools necessary to unearth your family history. This rapid development in genealogy has been propelled by Ireland’s long history with emigration and diaspora. A large number of people all around the world have expressed everything from a mild curiosity to a burning passion for learning their Irish ancestors’ exact experiences in life. Consequentially, the now wide availability of records and transcripts means most people with Irish roots should be able to trace their family history back to at least the mid-to-early 1800s quickly, easily and, most probably, for free.

Irish Genealogy - Irish Emigrants
The Irish have a long history of emigration and spreading their roots all over the world

But before you start perusing and poring over countless records, registries and databases, the best first step would be to talk to the oldest living members of your family. Whether it be a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle or even your own parents, asking your family for as much details as possible concerning your family history can be the best place to begin, pointing you in the right direction and saving you a great deal of time.

Tangible records and documents are all too easily destroyed or lost, and often have been down through the years in fires, floods, explosions and other cataclysms. That is why it is of paramount importance to accumulate the oral history of your family from your eldest relatives while you still can. Otherwise, all of that precious, irretrievable information could die with them and be lost forever.

Once you have all this verbal knowledge gathered, you can then embark on the task of unravelling the plethora of invaluable sources. This includes censuses, tax surveys, civil records and church registers, all of which can be found online. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht operate a fantastic free site at irishgenealogy.ie that features complete images of the civil records of births, marriages and deaths ranging from 1864 to 1966.

Additionally, superlative advice on how to conduct the best genealogical practices and news of new historical records being released can be found on the Irish Genealogy Toolkit. This site can serve as wonderful and insightful starting point on your genealogy journey, telling you what records are available and where.

Another website which offers a range of professional Irish genealogy research services is Timeline, who are the Irish researchers for Who Do You Think You Are? UK and USA and many other radio and television shows. They have also conducted research for governments, public and private institutions and thousands of people across the globe wishing to discover their Irish origins. If you want to look further, here is a list of other free Irish genealogy resources of which you can easily avail.

Irish Coat of Arm Parchments

If you wish to possess a physical representation of your Irish family’s history and heritage, Gifts of Ireland are providing a truly unique and remarkable service. The written and illustrated story of 180 traditional Irish surnames can be found here, replete with distinctively Irish designs, symbols and markers such as the Book of Kells or the Claddagh. Beautiful, intricate parchments featuring historical coat of arms for numerous Irish family names have been exquisitely realised using Celtic calligraphy and art, lavishly elaborating their rich history.

Irish Genealogy - Irish Coat of Arms Parchment
Example of an Irish Coat of Arms Parchment

Created by Irish artist Edmond McGrath and just recently rediscovered after over forty years, the ornate documents are now available to the public for the first time. This superbly rendered illustration and lovingly crafted expression of your Irish identity can be proudly hung on your wall to always remind you of where you and your family first began their sprawling saga. Click here to see if your surname is a part of this resplendent collection of Irish Coat of Arms Parchments.

Past, Present and Future Collide

Genealogy is a fascinating, unpredictable and deeply rewarding undertaking. It is a journey which transcends time and space, connecting you to the past, present and future. It enables you to forge a stronger and deeper emotional connection with your family’s past and enriches your present with a greater knowledge and understanding of who you are and where you came from. It will also motivate you to seriously consider the future generations of your family and the possible course or trajectory of their lives.

In doing so, you may decide to record and preserve the details of your own life for posterity. Any number of descendants could inherit your inquisitive nature and prove to be as curious about their family history as you are now. You have the power to make their genealogical endeavours even easier and more accessible than your own by documenting your days. After all, before long, your present will become their past.

Article written by Nicholas Collender.

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