Tracing Their Roots, Tourists Trek to Ireland

By Lucie Godeau

Agence France-Presse

DUBLIN ~ Ireland has long been a magnet for tourists eager to discover the country’s rolling green hills, vibrant Celtic culture and the charm of its traditional pubs.

But now visitors from around the world are coming to the Emerald Isle to plough through the archives and track down their ancestors.

After centuries of emigration, an estimated 70 million people worldwide claim an Irish connection.

The majority are in the United States, Canada and Britain, but ancestor hunters are also heading to Ireland from continental Europe, India and increasingly from South America.

Kevin Whitton, from Melbourne in Australia, was making his first trip to Ireland, mixing a visit with researching his family tree.

“There are eight or nine Irish ancestors on my mother’s side,” he told AFP.

“They were mostly convicts, transported to Tasmania.

“I’m now searching for newspaper references, parish registers – references that I can’t get in Australia. I’ve been traveling to provincial areas for the last three weeks.

“It’s very interesting to walk around and see buildings they would have seen, and where they would have been tried.”

Whether armed with dossiers or simply hopping off a tourist bus, the first port of call for the descendants of Irish emigrants is the national library.

“Some people come here with little or no information; you try to point them in the right direction,” said Francis Carrol, the senior library assistant.

“Some people come with a lot of information and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle: you’re trying piece the jigsaw together.”

Paul Gorry, a genealogist who tracks down ancestors in parish registers, censuses and financial documents, said there were six main centers in Dublin holding most of the country’s records.

“Most people are able to get back to the 1850s, just after the great famine, and the 1820s, depending on their family’s background,” he said.

The 1845-1851 potato famine alone saw 1.5 million flee Ireland and until the 1990s prosperity of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, it was still a country of net emigration.

Historians estimate that more than six million people left in the century between 1848 and 1950.

“For sentimental reasons, a lot of Americans would like Irish citizenship,” Gorry said.

“It’s quite advantageous to have a European Union passport for internal traffic in the EU. But to have Irish citizenship you need to have a grandparent born in Ireland.

“Once, an American client asked me to do one side of his family. I went back two or three generations and found there was a published source tracing the person.

“I got back to Edward II, one of the Plantagenet kings of England. So without any further research, I was able to go back to William the Conqueror. I would have been ecstatic if it would have been my ancestors.”

Maureen Conley, a retired teacher from Yorkshire in northern England, has had trouble tracing her family members due to the use of Latin and documents written in indecipherable handwriting.

“My father had three Irish grandparents and I’m tracing their ancestry. It’s very sad,” she said.

“One family came to Liverpool (northwest England), but half of them perished in the workhouse. The rest I’m trying to trace in England, with some success.

“I’ve been working on genealogy for 10 years. It’s an instinct of curiosity: the more you do, the more you want to know.”

Paul Allen, the head of strategy and insight at government agency Tourism Ireland, said that one in four visitors had Irish heritage.

Many of them are among the one million American tourists out of the 7.7 million annual visitors to Ireland.

“We use genealogy to attract people in a proactive way,” Allen said.

“The interest for Irish culture and history extends to a wider public than those who claim Irish roots.”

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