Irish Genealogy: My family trees

This is not my family tree, although I do want one that looks like it.

I have two family trees just now, and will likely end up with three. There is the family tree of my adoptive family, which I started work on when I was in my 20s, left alone for a long time, and have recently revisited. There is the family tree of my biological family, which was created by one of my biological ancestors and seems to have been worked on by several family members over a period of decades.

At the moment, this contains only the family on my biological mother’s side. When I find out who my biological father is, I will add him in, and here is where the third family tree begins.

He was reportedly adopted as well. So he will have an adoptive family as well as a biological family, and this starts to get a bit overwhelming to think about.

Fortunately, genealogy has gotten a lot easier, at least when you first start out. I have a membership at ancestry.com, which is owned by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, and, because Mormons are encouraged to create as comprehensive family trees as they can, the site does everything possible to expedite the process. You build your family tree online, and, as you add new facts about family members, it compares these facts against a massive database of 12.7 billion records, and then offers suggestions. It’s easy to find your family tree growing exponentially — especially when you find somebody with a common ancestor who has posted their family tree to Ancestry.com. Last year, a computational biologist named Yaniv Erlich at the American Society of Human Genetics managed to use a computer program to trawl online genealogy databases and managed to put together a mega-family tree of 13 million people dating back to the fifteenth century.

You and I could probably do the same, although it would take a lot longer. In fact, I started out doing exactly what Erlich did — I just started linking family trees together. It’s a fast and dirty approach to genealogy that acts as a sort of rough draft, but isn’t likely to produce a tremendously accurate tree. I’m relying on other people’s work here, and other people may not be all that good at deciphering the past. Self-reported family trees are notoriously buggy — according to “The Family Tree Problem Solver” by Marsha Hoffman Rising, online family trees tend to be 30 to 40 percent inaccurate and omit 10 to 20 percent of family members.

Additionally, it is easy to scoop up somebody from the past who shares the name of a relative and many basic details — date of birth, residence, spouse’s name — only to discover they aren’t your relative at all. And by then you have added an entire branch to your family tree that you must go erase. I’ve done this a few times, and it’s maddening.

Of course, a decade or so ago, I might have made the same mistake, and at that time the mistake would have involved writing letters to historical societies, paying for photocopies and research, and so my mistake would have been more than maddening — it would have been expensive and time-consuming. So at least I can console myself that I make mistakes sooner and cheaper nowadays.

But I have, for the most part, reached the end of the fast-and-dirty part of genealogy. Ancestry.com no longer has suggestions to offer, and won’t until I can independently find additional information about family members.

The family tree is incomplete in a million ways. It goes back a good distance — six generations. It encompasses nearly a thousand people. But so much is missing: dates of birth, locations of birth, even full names of family members. And much of it is woefully undocumented, and anything undocumented may be wrong.

This becomes the work of genealogy. I have chased down parish records from Bohola, a tiny Irish hamlet in County Mayo that a brand of my family hails from. But everybody had the same half-dozen names, and they all seemed to be married to each other at the same time. It’s a brain-twister of a puzzle, and it’s a puzzle that will only fill in a few details.

Ancestry.com is a useful tool, as are a variety of online genealogy sites. But they are a rough tool, and I have reached the moment of fine detail. Now is when I must go through and see what has been documented and what needs to be documented. Who is present and who is missing. It means finding records that are not yet part of this genealogy site, and finding records that are not online at all. Particularly when looking at Irish ancestors, this is an especially daunting task, as so little was documented, and so many documents were lost.

It’s easy to see why DNA testing has been such a boon to genealogy. I am still waiting for results from my Ancestry.com DNA test, but, from what I have read, suddenly you learn of hundreds or thousands of previously unknown cousins, all of whom have been hard at work on their own family trees, and by linking the trees together you can close long-existing, long-maddening, gaps in the family tree.

Although it is useful to remember that they probably got their family tree as wrong as you got yours. Perhaps wronger. If their family tree pushes all the way back in time, eventually locating a god, its worthwhile to make sure they have got the documentation.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.