Having accumulated a large quantity of information and documentation about my own and my wife’s families with a view to writing an account of their lives and achievements, it quickly became clear to me that the more traditional format of such books would not suffice. I was accustomed to seeing family histories with titles such as “History of the Rushe Family of Claddagh” or “The Descendants of John Ansbro and Rose Cunnane”. Such written records concentrate on one branch or line of the family tree – usually the male line after which the writer is named – to the exclusion of all other ancestors.
At an early stage of my research, it became clear to me that my mother expected me to research and record her family, the Ryans, as well as the Rushes. She articulated the view that both our parents contribute to what we are and should have their contributions acknowledged. I was also reading The Irish Roots Guide by Tony McCarthy which subscribed to the same opinion and also suggested that the traditional format of the family tree was unsuitable so that a “different type of diagrammatic representation” was required. He recommended the use of a Family Circle Chart which, although not as detailed as the traditional family tree, does ascribe equal importance to each one of our ancestors and is more pleasing to the eye.
If you trace your ancestry for only four generations (and most of us can achieve this without difficulty), you encounter sixteen great great grandparents, all of whom have different surnames and come from different families with their own histories. Going back another generation bring you face to face with thirty-two direct ancestors, without whose involvement you would not be here. Is it fair to ascribe special importance to one of those thirty-two people just because you share a surname with them?
This is all very well, of course, until the time comes to write down the results of the research. In my case, I was faced with recording some history about fourteen Irish families which had originated in Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim, Cavan, Fermanagh and Limerick while trying to structure the resultant book so that it might be readable and interesting. I had gathered information about my childrens’ earlier ancestors but much of this comprised of dates of birth or baptism, marriage and death. I was less interested in dates than in the day-to-day lives of the families and the impact which contemporary events had on them.
After giving much thought to the structure of the book, I realised that, because of their various backgrounds and geographical locations, the families had not always encountered the same difficulties. For example, fishermen and lumber merchants had differing lives and problems. A family of tenant farmers in rural Limerick may have suffered more than most during the Great Famine but families in other counties had to cope with emigration, oppression and terrorism. Some made new lives in England, America and Australia but had to cope with new problems, demands and tensions in their new locations.
I decided to start the book by introducing the families as they coped with the 1839 hurricane which impacted equally on all parts of the country and on all classes. Then, following a very basic outline of the origins of the Irish people, I follow the paths of the various identifiable ancestors as they live, marry and have families which are now dispersed around the world. I’ve tried to tell the story of each family in the context of their socio-economic circumstances. In the process, I’ve uncovered much fascinating information about the ancestry of my children but I’ve learned much more about the lives of ordinary people in Ireland and overseas during the last two hundred years and earlier.