Beyond the Internet: Week 51 Oral History

Beyond the Internet

Beyond the Internet

This week we’re up to Week 51 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week’s topic is Oral History.

Oral History can be an invaluable asset in our suite of offline research resources. Again and again we read others say that they wish they’d listened to their parents/grandparents/great-grandparents. I too wonder how I could know so little about my grandparents when they lived next door for up to 21 years of my life. However I think we also need to “forgive” ourselves: it’s far more common than not, for us to be self-preoccupied in our teenaged years, caught up with study, work and later our own families.

ORAL FAMILY HISTORY

oral historyIt’s only as time goes along that we start reflecting on missed opportunities, almost always too late. It also assumes that each and all of our immediate ancestors would have willingly bared their souls to us, yet we also know we reserve secrets and private moments in our own hearts. So respect and acceptance are required on this journey into oral history. It was only as I started to write my Kunkel family history that I was able to tease some information from my father before his death, contrary to his decades as a human information-clam.

If we’re lucky some of our parents may be alive and we can start to ask them questions with interest and respect. Even if our parents are not alive there are other opportunities to capture some of their stories: what about close family friends who sometimes know more than we assume, or perhaps there’s an aunt or great aunt to tell the stories?

As you interview your family’s friends and relatives, there are many guidelines to follow so that you tease out answers without prejudicing what you’re told. You also need to weigh up past slights, family feuds etc to get a feel for whether you’re being told the “truth” which of course varies with almost every individual.

If you’re planning to do a series of oral history interviews you might be able to find out if your local library, archive or family history centre offers seminars of how best to go about them.

family memoriesIn Australia, a good starting point is the Oral History Association of Australia (OHAA). They also have useful publications for sale.  Your local archive may even have recording equipment that you can borrow: the OHAA would probably be able to advise you. I know that our reference library here in Darwin offered a training session a couple of years ago which was excellent, and there is now a wonderful resource on the NT Library webpage of Territory Stories.

A book I’ve found really helpful is Family Memories, A Guide to Reminiscing by Bob Price, available through the State Library of NSW Shop. It provides a helpful framework in which to consider the questions you want to ask your family. Quick readers can pick up a copy on eBay at present for a very good price (assuming it’s still available when this post goes up). Or you can get it on inter-library loan through the National Library of Australia.

 ORAL LOCAL HISTORY

local historySo far it’s been implicit that we’ve been focusing on our family’s specific history, but if that’s not possible, there is a way around this apparent “brick wall”. Don’t forget there are other families who’ve lived in the area for many years and experienced many of the same crop failures, weather problems, wars, socials and weddings. You may find that you can learn a great deal about your family’s life indirectly in this way to add richness and texture to your story.

One of the most valuable contacts I made was with the man who was the Murphy’s Creek (Qld) local history experts. Not only did he share a great deal of information with me but also provided me with copies of a recording of my grandfather’s younger cousin, Ann. I had met her a couple of years before her death and we had several discussions about the Kunkel family and as documentary facts proved her stories, it was apparent she was a “reliable witness”. I’ve mentioned this experience previously, and its importance to my own research here.

.However, what was especially interesting was the difference in content between Cameron’s recording and mine. In the local history version the stories were of playing tennis socially and competitively, social outings and people she knew including some relating to the Dorfprozelten descendants though it’s obvious she had no idea of this prior link. My tape of our conversations is about family connections and stories. Both are valuable and offer quite different dimensions to family and life in rural Queensland in the early years of the 1900s.

diaryORAL PERSONAL HISTORY

I think it’s important that we don’t leave our own life stories as a blank page for our families. We know how much we’d love to have heard or seen our ancestors or to have something they’d written. It’s up to us to ensure that we leave a suitable legacy for our own descendants.

 SUMMARY

 Have you had any successes in recording and documenting your family’s history orally? Do you find it easy to do or challenging? I know I find it quite difficult and don’t think it’s one of my strengths.

Finding Irish ancestors: Part 1 – In the new land

Oh for a leprechaun to tell you where your Irish ancestors originated.

Now anyone who’s researched Irish ancestors will know just how unpredictable this process can be. So much depends on serendipity in the form of timelines –when your family was born or died, where they lived, how much money they had (or more likely didn’t have), when they emigrated, etc. You then need to mix serendipity with a large dollop of lateral thinking to see how many side paths you can travel to tease out the information.

So this is my (incomplete) guide to starting on your Irish family. I’m more than happy for other Irish researchers to add their “two bob’s worth” as each path provides different challenges opportunities.

Locating their place

Most importantly, you can’t just go find your Irish rellies without having a clue where they lived in Ireland, and unfortunately the name of the county is unlikely to serve either, unless you’ve got an exceptionally rare name. What you ideally need is the parish, village or townland. You also need to be able to translate what you see on paper to an Irish accent, as so many of our ancestors from the mid-19th century were illiterate and relied on an independent person to spell what they were telling them. For much the same reason you can’t assume that the spelling will always be consistent. It does tend to get a bit “chicken-and-egg” but you need that place.

So where to start?

IN THE NEW LAND

Certificates

Extract of death certificate for Ellen Gavin, my 2xgreat grandmother. Colony of Qld certificate 90520 purchased 14 November 1986.

One of the pluses, if your ancestors made the long voyage to Australia, is that you’ll likely be blessed with far more information than if they’d married or died anywhere else. How much is recorded depends on the knowledge of their immediate family but you may find: their place of birth, parents’ names, how long they’ve been in the colony/state, where they died, where they were buried, and a full list of children (useful to check out naming patterns).

So you’re looking for marriage certificates (for parent’s names and the person’s place of birth) and death certificates (ditto). If all they provide is “County XXXX” then you may have to search more widely:  try their children’s birth certificates as they too should tell you the parents’ place of marriage and age at marriage, and place of birth.

Of course all these strategies may not pay off if your ancestor constantly states only the county, but you’ll have a much better sense of whether they’re a reliable “witness” as you’ll be able to test for consistency of their other data. Many of mine were extremely consistent, but another of my Irish ancestors was all over the place when it came to ages but more informative about places.

Still stymied? If you know they had siblings who also emigrated, you may want to purchase the sibling’s certificate(s) as these may give you more information. This was the case with my Mary O’Brien Kunkel –it was her sister’s death certificate from New South Wales (over 1200kms away) that gave me their place of origin as Broadford, Co Clare.

Church registers

In my experience church records such as baptisms or marriages may give you an entirely different set of information from the official records (or at least more detail). This may be the very clue you’re looking for. Certainly in the case of my George Kunkel, it was the only place he mentioned his home town rather than just “Bavaria”. Why the Irish priest didn’t complete anything at all for George’s wife, Mary O’Brien, is anybody’s guess.

Johannah Wall from Rortlaw, Co Waterford, buried Roma, Qld

Don’t forget that if you are writing to the relevant church or archive, to send a donation along with your request.

Gravestones

If all else fails, or do it anyway, it is worth your while to look at your ancestor’s gravestones. I’ve seen occasions where the memorial inscriptions are the only place that a specific place of birth is mentioned. You can see some examples here.

Immigration records

Depending on where you live and when your ancestors migrated, you may find that your ancestor specifically mentioned their home parish, townland or village when interviewed on arrival. Alternatively they may say whether their parents are alive and where they are living. Any of these clues will help in your quest.  Once again you need to remember that the spelling may be the recorder’s interpretation of what was said. You might need to practice your Irish accents <grin>.

Oral History

Don’t discount the enormous potential value of oral history. With luck you may learn your ancestor’s home place but you may also learn the names of siblings in the new land and the old. My ancestors’ granddaughter was invaluable in terms of providing details of siblings’ married names (invaluable when you’re looking for O’Briens!). She also remembered that the place Mary O’Brien came from was Longford or something like that. Mary’s sister’s death certificate gave me their actual place –Broadford: hence the significance of checking out sibling’s certificates and oral history.

This wide variety of information will help you triangulate your ancestral details in the old country. Even having a batch of siblings’ names, will be of help to you in confirming the ancestral family once you’re back in Ireland.

Hospital and Benevolent Asylum registers

Sadly none of my ancestors’ cards name their place of birth so I thought I’d share this family one.

This may seem like a strange source, but if you think your ancestor had been in hospital or was in care at the end of their lives, this provides yet another possibility for learning their place of origin.

Memoriam Cards

Firstly thanks to Chris whose comment on the Clare facebook page reminded me of these.  Do you remember seeing those little black-edged cards with a holy picture and prayer on them? If so check them carefully as you never know what clues they offer including that those named may be relatives.

Other researchers should weigh in with their thoughts of what I’ve missed and/or what’s been successful for them. All comments are much appreciated.

Part 2 coming soon: Finding your Irish family in Ireland

Shamrock in the Bush 2011: a grand event to be sure!

 

Arriving at St Clements for Shamrock in the Bush 2009

Shamrock in the Bush 2011 has once again come and gone. This was the 19th Shamrock but while I have only been to three, the entire weekend has been as exciting and stimulating as in other years.

One of the things I like most about Shamrock is the atmosphere of collegiality among all the participants and speakers. As a residential weekend we spend so much time together and learn about each other’s interests and very quickly strangers become friends.

The other highlight of the weekend is always the diversity of the topics. I’ve learned that even when the topic doesn’t have any direct relevance or interest to you, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the speakers quickly engages you and stimulates your interest.

I think this year’s Keynote Speaker, Claire Dunne, would almost certainly be on everyone’s list of favourite presentations. For about an hour she held the whole room in thrall, fully engaged with her story. And what a story it was! She has led an amazing life which is only superficially covered in a recitation of her curriculum vitae. Every listener will have taken away their own special points from it with perhaps the sheer emotion of the emigrant’s sense of loss of home and place being perhaps the common point we’d all list. Claire’s emotive and emotional telling of her return to Ireland and engagement with the land had a very indigenous overtone which was incredibly powerful. Not surprising then, that she had experienced such identification with Australia’s own Indigenous people. Coming from the Northern Territory I found that aspect of her talk very fascinating.

Ned Ryan's slice of Tipperary in Australia: Galong, NSW

Her own unplanned, evolutionary path through life, shows the power of the mysterious and requires responding to spirit…as well as a surfeit of courage. She talked of the need for spiritual sustenance for her life which she found in her return visits to Ireland where she drew from engagement with the land. These periods represented to me a form of spiritual “retreat” though she nevertheless connected with many people during these times. What they did was feed her spirit and give her strength. Without them she said she would be like a tree whose leaves and branches look in fine condition but whose roots are slowly dying. Very powerful stuff!

Her path was also sometimes revolutionary, as with establishing ethnic radio broadcasting. She told the emotional story of a Turkish man driving down Parramatta Road in Sydney in 1965 who suddenly stopped in the middle of the traffic, got out and started to dance. ‘That’s my language, that’s my music,’ he shouted.

The overall theme of the conference presentations linked to the Not Just Ned exhibition and provided a background depth to the objects and images on display. The skill and commitment shown by the conservators who worked behind the scenes to present the objects in optimal condition became very clear from the talk given by David Hallam who focused on the story behind getting the anchor from the Nashwauk, shipwrecked with Irish female immigrants on board, and the Kelly armour exhibition-ready. David’s talk was absolutely riveting including the complex science involved in confirming the armour was consistent with being made from plough-shares, and rough-made over a bush fire and not prepared by an expert blacksmith over a forge. The bullet mark in the centre of one of the suits was not, as might be thought, from the siege at Glenrowan but a 20th century addition! The restoration of the Nashwauk’s anchor after 160 years of depredation by salt water and salt air was equally impressive.

Bridget Kilfoyle's gravestone in the Galong cemetery. This Clare emigrant's husband was related closely to the Duracks.

Perry McIntyre’s talk on the early male students at St John’s College, University of Sydney left me brainstorming potential research strategies. Perry’s book  Free Passage: The Reunion of Irish Convicts and Their Families in Australia, 1788-1852 was also available for sale & I’m looking forward to an in-depth reading of it.

Dr Richard Reid’s book Farewell my Children: Irish Assisted Emigration to Australia 1848-1870 was also available. This book is heavily based on Richard’s thesis and will provide wonderful background for anyone with Irish ancestors. I have a particular interest in it because of my research with East Clare immigrants/emigrants but there’s also a wonderful chapter on the Donegal Relief Fund and those immigrants. If buying a copy for your personal library is not possible, then you can always request it on inter-library loan from the (NLA) National Library of Australia (assuming you’re in Oz).

Two other talks I especially enjoyed were those by the National Library’s Oral History staff. Rob Willis spoke about childhood taunts of Catholic vs Protestant pre-1970 which brought back a number of personal memories. The Unit’s Curator, Kevin Bradley, highlighted the value of the NLA’s oral history collection with a sample of Irish music recordings as well as interviews with a range of Irish Australians. Some of their collection is online now so it’s well worth a look. A few years ago I found bush poetry, bush ballads and political satire by Tom and Michael Widdup, descendants of my great- great-grandmother’s sister. The highlight of Kevin’s talk was listening to Mary Durack talking of her father’s emotional reaction to seeing emigrants leaving from Sligo and farewelled by family and friends. It was clear to Mary Durack that her father’s reaction came from the brief time-distance of 46 years which separated the Durack family’s departure from Ireland and these strangers’ emigration from Sligo. The Duracks came from the far north-east of Clare they are part of my East Clare database and of particular interest to me for this reason.

This view of St Clements shows a little of Ned Ryan's turreted castle.

A feature I particularly enjoy about Shamrock is that each talk is introduced by a poem, reading or song, often by Shamrock minstrel John Dengate. It adds a richness to this event that’s just not found with other conferences.  On top of the talks we also had a trip to Canberra to visit the Not Just Ned exhibition and the Irish Embassy….how much fun was all that!

Combine all this with a wonderful Shamrock Christmas-in-July dinner in Ned Ryan’s little slice of Tipperary (Galong House), throw in great camaraderie and enthusiastic conference attendees and it was a recipe for another superb weekend. Thanks to the organisers, speakers, and the volunteers who provide us all with such a great time.

But don’t let these sunny photos from an earlier Shamrock fool you….Sunday at Galong this year was FREEZING especially for a Top Ender.