This Q&A with Genealogist Deborah Large Fox was previously posted in our weekly newsletter but we feel is well worth posting this very popular genealogy blogger's interview, in it's entirety, for those who have not signed up for our free newsletter...enjoy!
A member of the popular Geneabloggers Group on Blogger.com, Deborah Large Fox's Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors! blog was voted as one of Family Tree Magazine's Top 40 Genealogy Blogs 2011. One of Deborah's many goals is to help researchers navigate through the quagmire of Irish genealogy.
In the 1990s, Deborah left the practice of law and became a researcher for a local historical organization, while giving classes and lectures on genealogy in the Philadelphia area, which she continues to do. She has recently moved to Toronto with her husband, and is excited to be joining the Canadian genealogy world. Some of her Irish ancestors immigrated to Canada in 1844. Deborah also founded the Irish American Family History Society .
When Deborah was 14 years old, her grandmother gave her a letter written in 1847 by her third great grandmother in County Tyrone, Ireland, to her children in America. The letter spoke of the crop failures. On news broadcasts that evening were stories of the violence of ‘The Troubles.’ Deborah’s grandmother pointed at the televised riot scenes and told her that the letter came “from right there.” Deborah was hooked.
Fox recently fielded questions from TheWildGeese.com’s Family History Producer, Alannah Ryane.
TheWildGeese.com: One of your passions is ‘injecting’ the human and historical element into the data stream of genealogy. How can we fellow genealogists accomplish that?
Deborah Large Fox: Sure, getting hits from an online database will fill some blanks on a chart. So many researchers stop at that point. But, that data can also help us to “flesh out” our ancestors and bring them to life. For example, what does it signify to find your ancestor on a Freeholder’s List in County Kilkenny? We must avoid the trap of noting simply the year and location. Instead, ask yourself: What were the political, economic, and perhaps religious ramifications of your ancestor’s being on that list? When you add the “why” to the “when and where,” you are on your way to watching your ancestor evolve from a name, to a stick figure, to a person with a unique story. That story is part of yourself!
WG: What do you cover in your talks on Irish genealogy?
Fox: My most requested talks cover the basics of Irish records and of Irish history and culture. I find that even experienced family history researchers are often in the dark regarding many of the basics of Irish research because so many Irish records are local in nature. Also, too many researchers today concentrate on plugging names into search engines and noting the results. They don’t understand the records they are finding. Irish family history research is a constant learning process. In my blog and talks, I ask my audience to learn along with me. I don’t regard myself as an expert by any means. I learn as much from my audiences as they do from me.
WG: What tricks or shortcuts have you found to finding the elusive data of Irish Family History?
Fox: No real shortcuts, but some tricks. One is to pay attention to family stories. The Irish tradition is an oral one, dating back to the ancient Celtic bards. Yet, time after time, professional genealogists say that family stories are mostly false. I have heard scores of family stories from my audiences over the years, and each story, if not entirely true, still held a kernel of truth. Maybe our ancestors embroidered their family tales a bit, but those tales hold important clues for finding that elusive data.
WG: What do you think it is about the Irish that makes them so resilient in overcoming the devastating challenges they have faced through centuries?
Fox: There is an old saying, I don’t know if it is an Irish one (if it is not, it should be), “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” From what I have learned of Irish history, the challenges served to strengthen the ties that held the Irish together as a people. One of these ties is the family. As I wrote recently, sticks alone can be broken, but bound together with string, they are strong. Family is that string for the Irish.
WG: We have noticed that the Irish Diaspora has a more emotional tie to Ireland than the recent young people who have left. They seem to reflect the attitude of the early immigrants who wanted to put it all behind them leaving us with little or no information about their origins, which has made it difficult to find actual locations. Can you comment?
Fox: I have noticed the same, and I think that what you say has probably been true throughout the history of immigration. I think it is just natural to want to put everything behind you when you are leaving a place. Don’t forget, the person who is emigrating probably has an adventurous and forward-looking nature. The less baggage—physical or emotional—the better. I would think many of our ancestors simply could not bear the pain of talking about the homes and families they left behind. Others didn’t see much sense in talking about the past when they were building a future.
WG: I have discovered through my own research that we carry the memories of our ancestors in our DNA, and it seems to me that Irish descendants have a stronger desire for that connection to their past than most. Have you found any indications of this?
Fox: I have surely noticed that the Irish descendants seem to have a stronger desire than most other researchers to connect to their pasts. I have often wondered about this, myself. The connection seems to be such a passionate and visceral one that I believe that there is a genetic component at work. What is interesting to me is that this desire to connect is not dependent on whether the person grew up in a family that preserved the Irish culture. It seems to come from within the person.
WG: TheWildGeese.com promotes the continuation of Irish culture through the Diaspora. You have written on the subject, can you explain how we can discover even small indications that our family carried on some of these traditions?
Fox: Oh my, you have hit on one of my very favorites topics! I give a presentation called “Beyond ‘Just Because’” that explores the myriad ways in which our families carry on traditions, often without knowing it. Food is a huge cultural conduit. Family recipes often have roots that stretch back to Ireland. Holiday traditions are another. Favorite sayings and peculiar pronunciations of words are also clues. Again, the key to discovering these traditions in our own families is the word “Why?” … “Why do we do it this way?” And don’t be satisfied with the answer, “Just because, we always have done it this way.”
WG: The driving force behind the creation of my webisode series “By Her Roots” was to, as you say in your post “Genealogical Soil,” find myself "standing on the ancestral dirt.” I believe Ireland would benefit greatly by putting more energy behind genealogy travel and allowing more free access to the records. Could you comment on this?
Fox: Free access is key. I know many researchers who balk at paying for records for various reasons. My own budget for my genealogy research has risen astronomically through the years. I do understand the costs involved in creating access to records, and I tend not to grumble about paying my share. But I think that the benefits to Ireland would soon outweigh the costs. Not only do the descendants today have a passion to find their ancestors, they seem to have a strong need to stand on the land of their ancestors. And, after they stand on that land, they want to go into town and have a pint or two, and then bring home as many Irish goods as they can stuff into their suitcases!
TheWildGeese.com’s Alannah Ryane has extensive experience in media production, including interviewing for print, radio and television. Alannah was awarded a grant from genealogist and author Megan Smolenyak to assist in the production of the Family History Series “By Her Roots,” which Alannah produced for RootsTelevision.com.