Who Do You Belong To?

The question ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ might be more aptly posed in Ireland as ‘Who Do You Belong To?’ A curious query for those unaccustomed to native norms but this is a common refrain in many local communities, where you are known as much by your lineage as by your own fame (or infamy). In our Gaeltacht communities a person’s pedigree is retained in their very names in fact, which can thread a line back three or four generations. The earls may have flown in 1607 but the clannish nature of Irish families remains deeply rooted. Family as a bedrock of identity is a cultural staple the world over, and a theme that has grown in prominence with the genealogical revolution of recent decades.

Family from the Great Blasket Island

A family from the Great Blasket Island, Co. Kerry. Photograph by Thomas Waddicor, 1932

Family history researchers are now amongst the most frequent visitors to archives and local libraries in Europe and North America. Not to mention those who visit our virtual spaces online through our digital collections. Their objectives are as much about finding meaning as they are about finding facts. As one archivist has noted

there is a need to find a few fixed points in a world of constant change.’

Names, dates, and places may begin the search, but these soon merge to become stories and narratives about real lives once lived.

With this genealogical revolution in mind, the collections housed by the National Folklore Collection UCD offer a unique resource for family historians. During the lifetime of its predecessor, the Irish Folklore Commission, it is thought that some 30,000 individuals contributed materials, be it a narrative, a song, a piece of local history, a description of calendar custom, or an overview of local traditions and practices. These individuals did not exist in a vacuum however. They would have had husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and grandchildren. And they too in turn may have had husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. And so on. All of a sudden our original figure of 30,000 has grown exponentially, presenting us with the possibility that each of us might potentially find a familiar face within the folklore archive. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon if you like, but without the Hollywood heartthrob at the end. Alas!

So how would one go about finding a relative in the archive? The exacting methodologies of the early Irish Folklore Commission means that we have an exhaustive list of informants in our Informants’ Index, all listed alphabetically by surname. So you can search for Kevin Bacon or Caoimhin Ó Bagún quickly and easily. Elsewhere, in our Family History category, we have a host of listed family surnames waiting to reveal their history and lore. Why is it that the Ryans of Tipperary are all rogues? And what chance did Jack McCabe of Cavan take, to secure future fame in the local vernacular?

Research literature on the information-seeking behaviour of genealogists and family historians illustrates that they often proceed from the specific to the general, and that the context of the time in which their ancestors lived carries an equal appeal. Once you’ve found Kevin Bacon then, and learnt of his previous career as a shoemaker, you might like to learn more about the life of a shoemaker during that period in Ireland. Perhaps he worked for Noonans of Balscadden, in Dublin. Or you could also learn more about the lore and history of the parish in which he practiced his craft. This too is easily achievable by reference to our Geographic Index, (where you can search by province, county, barony, and parish), or our Subject Index (where you can search but such themes as trades and occupations for example). And of course, our ever popular Schools’ Collection offers the researcher the chance to find a relative’s copybook amongst the many thousands housed in the archive from this innovative 1937 folklore collection scheme carried out in the 26 counties of the Irish Republic. Similarly, our sound archive offers up the potential of discovering a relative amongst the many voices recorded by the Commission and its successors.

The richly diverse collections of the National Folklore Collection present you with a delicious opportunity. Family and the anchor it offers us in life is no less felt as time passes; if anything the pull only becomes stronger. We see it on a weekly basis when researchers visit us, particularly with those who bring family members along. Whether you see your father in the shape of your son’s face, or find a familiar dimple in a newborn, we might all from time to time look for that comfort of continuity. Alongside other national repositories and the valuable collections they preserve, the National Folklore Collection might be one worth mentioning to your own family historian. Who knows what, or who, they might find? But Kevin Bacon lives here. We’ve grown quite attached.

There he is….

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.

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