The Irish Diaspora

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A coming of age


For more than 1,000 years in medieval Ireland, genealogy was hugely important. As late as the 16th and 17th centuries, the Gaelic elite were commissioning genealogical tracts from scholars and historians. Descent was significant as it could legitimise power by, for example, uncovering royal antecedents in the lineage of political newcomers.

In a world where property ownership and power was vested in extended kin groups rather than individuals, the need to know with whom you shared ancestors was immediate and practical. Genealogy was a tool for the present, not for acquiring knowledge of the past.

Vestiges of this cultural attitude have survived into modern Ireland. My mother could reconstruct legions of first and second cousins, all their in-laws and the in-laws of their in-laws, but had no interest whatsoever in her great-grandparents.

“What do you want to know about them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?” she would say.

Kinship v Decent

For most of the 20th century in Ireland, kinship mattered, not descent. Genealogy was even more peculiar in most people’s eyes because it seemed to have a different meaning on the other side of the Atlantic.

Most Irish people have run into a Joe Koslowski from Illinois and been discomfited at his claim that he is Irish too.

Any resulting disrespect is based on a simple misunderstanding of how “Irish” can have different meanings for the Irish and for the Americans. For us, it is a flag of political, mono-ethnic, tribal allegiance while for the Americans; it designates a deeply-cherished cultural orientation, among other things.

The same disrespect for the topic used to permeate many Irish libraries and archives. Genealogy was a low-grade distraction from the serious pursuit of history, carried out by the ignorant or those preying on the ignorant.

How things have changed

This began with the then President Mary Robinson’s gesture of placing a candle in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin to show the Irish Diaspora they were not forgotten, continued with the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Famine, the Good Friday agreement and even the Celtic Tiger influx of “new Irish”.

At last, we have begun to appreciate the range of differences that can be accommodated under the label “Irish”.

The change is visible in research too. In the past 15 years, record-keepers have recognised that genealogists are their single largest constituency and now provide dedicated research rooms, personalised consultations, expanded finding aids and digitised records.

Computer Records

We have been very slow to grasp the fact that computerising records does not just improve speed and remove drudgery; it can alter the kinds of information that become available and increase by orders of magnitude the number of people it is available to.

Such websites as the National Archives census site the Library Council’s Griffith’s Valuation site and the church records sites ( and irish, are changing the relationship people in Ireland, and those of Irish heritage, have with their family’s past and, by extension, with their country’s past.

There is also a new respect for those who practise the craft. For years, Irish people’s response to being told that one worked as a genealogist ranged from incomprehension to contempt. Now the reaction is more likely to involve a long description of research problems. The respect at least is welcome.

Change of attitude

Why has there been such a change in attitude? There are standard answers: increased urbanisation creates more rootlessness and social atomisation, which in turn results in a growth of interest in family history as people seek substitutes for a lost sense of belonging.

Globalisation has produced a more acute awareness of interconnectedness and an understanding that Irish-America’s claim of kinship is not a threat or an embarrassment. Their active interest in family history has made it more respectable for us.

Computers and the internet have made research far easier and more accessible, so it seems less peculiar.

And the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? certainly has contributed.

All have played a part. But I would like to think that the most basic factor is Ireland’s growing maturity and deepening cultural confidence. No people can be truly themselves without respect for and knowledge of their forebears.


John Grenham is a genealogist, author of five books including Tracing your Irish Ancestors, and creator of the Ancestors site.

This page was added by Averil Staunton on 29/04/2011.