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Finding ancestors while traveling to their home countries

By Geoff Griffin

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

A graveyard outside Modeligo Parish in County Waterford, Ireland.

Kathleen Curry

Those who spend hours online or at the Family History Library poring over files and microfilms get a well-deserved sense of accomplishment, pride and even excitement when they discover a new ancestor. Where do you go from there to top an already great experience? Try traveling to trace your family roots to touch the landscape of where past generations lived.

Ireland is a prime ancestral destination for Americans and Canadians. More than 34 million people in America and more than 4 million people in Canada claim Irish ancestry. Interest in tracing family history back to the Emerald Isle is so strong, Tourism Ireland (www.discoverireland.com) has developed a handbook and website devoted to helping genealogists trace their roots on the Emerald Isle.

One key to having a successful adventure is deciding what treasure you want to find at the end, according to David Rencher, the chief genealogical officer for the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“You have to ask, what is that one thing you need to come back from your trip with so that you say to yourself, ‘It was money well spent and it was a great experience’?” Rencher said.

It can be tough to focus on just one genealogical travel goal when there are so many to choose from. Rencher has identified several areas that could be the goal of a trip back to the old country. One goal could be to visit local archives in the ancestral country for research that will extend the family line beyond what is available in the U.S. Another could be to expand the family search beyond the direct line. Another common desire is to find the town your family once called home, or better yet, to stand on the piece of property where your ancestors once lived.

Every country has different available records, which can help in narrowing down the one goal of the trip. In Ireland, one good option is to search out the exact dwelling where ancestors once lived. This is because, while Ireland’s records rarely go back beyond 1800, the nation also has the “Griffith’s Valuation,” which keeps track of who was living where from the mid-19th century up through the 1970s. The records are so exact that they name every member of a family who was living in one particular house at a certain point.

While a great deal of information can be found online, there are also two excellent sources outside the digital realm that can be a tremendous help in directing your travels: the LDS Family History Library and professional genealogists in the country you are visiting.

Even if you’ve already found ancestors online at a website such as FamilySearch.org, Rencher notes, “We’re starting to acquire everything digitally, but it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.”

That iceberg is the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm from nations across the world at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The LDS Church also operates smaller branches of the library throughout the world, and you can go to FamilySearch.org to find locations.

The collection in downtown Salt Lake City is so extensive, Rencher reports, that people will sometimes come from faraway nations to find records for the very nation they came from. More importantly, there are many volunteers on staff who can assist visitors with research questions and help them understand the strengths and limitations of the records available.

The second valuable tool is to get in touch with a professional genealogist in Ireland. There are many fine professional genealogists in the states and many companies that do a good job with organizing genealogy-related tours. However, our family experience has been that nothing beats a genealogist who lives in the area you are visiting and knows all of the ins and outs that are not always apparent to outsiders. A local professional can help you navigate local records offices, teach you how the history of the country has dictated what information is available, help you interpret the information you’ve found to create a coherent narrative and, most importantly, let you know the appropriate way to approach the locals when you go back to the “townland” your ancestors once called home.

There is, of course, some cost to this, but that relatively small amount of money compared to what you are spending on the entire trip can be the difference between creating a vacation you’ll never forget vs. skimming the surface.

On our trip to Ireland, we were able to meet with an Irish genealogist at the Shelbourne Hotel Dublin (www.shelbournehoteldublin.com), which employs Helen Kelly in a a position called the “Genealogy Butler” (www.helenkelly.com). She relates that it is her job to “empower people.” Her advice and help while we were in Ireland were invaluable, particularly when it came to things like finding places that are no longer listed on a map, knowing what to ask for at records offices and interpreting what those records meant.

While Kelly gave us a great deal of practical and technical advice, perhaps the best advice she gave us was about the transforming experiences that can occur when walking the same roads traveled by forefathers.

“There’s something that happens when you find your way into the landscape that cradled your ancestors,” she said. “It seems familiar. It feels like you’re coming home.”

The resources of the Family History Library and a local genealogist can make the history you’ve compiled in pages of research come alive as you walk through the places you’ve been reading about.

Contact Geoff Griffin at curry.griffin.travel@gmail.com or on Facebook at Curry Griffin Travel Writers or follow him on Twitter at @currgrifftravel.

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