Dublin's Georgian archways frame a cherished but gap-toothed records system. The Irish Republic, mindful that its enormous 19th-century diaspora fuels a vast tourist economy of descendants, staffs the National Library with two capable genealogical guides. Supplicants walk into the marbled hall, hang their coats, state their business to the security guard, and are directed into the care of these advisers, whose workdays careen from boring to bust-out depending on the tourist load.
We were lucky, in late February, to hit a slow day. Our first guide, Helen, spent almost half an hour with us, winnowing a sheaf of papers my sister Mimi had brought from the United States.
''You must strip away everything but the documents," Helen said, dismissing a speculative list of Kilkeel householders' names compiled for us by an Internet chatter.
Helen told us where to search for birth, death, and marriage certificates and for property listings that might nail down the details of a narrative that had been authored by our late mother . That memoir, written when she was in her 70s and full of her voice and humor as well as her remarkable level of recall, had been the primary source of our information about the origins of her family and our late father's as well.
The standard advice to all comers: Start by picking the brains of older relatives for every detail they can recall. Get names of people and towns and streets and dates of births, deaths, marriages, and moves. Such data are the skeleton of any genealogical survey. If no one from the previous generation is available, one must mine family Bibles, wills, diaries, and photos.
Despite its treasured status in our family regard, Mother's memoir would have been, in Helen's view, mere hearsay without paper to back it up. Over the course of about five years hunting in the United States, however, and sending off small fees to various professional research services, Mimi had scored some official documentation, and it pointed to the possibility of finding more.
Many of Northern Ireland's vital records are maintained at Dublin's National Library, National Archives, and General Register Office, as well as the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast. However, the dates of record keeping, and of disasters political and natural that befell the island, leave some research quests doomed.
National records of births and deaths, for example, were not kept before 1864. Until then, Ireland's churches generally kept track of vital events such as baptisms and funerals. Many of those churches, of various denominations, kept detailed listings that are indexed and maintained. Many others, especially the rural and less sanctified ''chapels of convenience," and their graveyards where such critical facts were etched in stone, have vanished over the decades, or their records have been lost to fire or negligence.
Property and census records can help fill some gaps. Even small-plot tenants were surveyed regularly for tax purposes during the latter half of the 19th century. Also, remnants of a few census records from the early part of the century survive in the National Archives.
So the records search, while doable, can be bewildering, complex, dry, and ultimately frustrating. On that an entire Irish industry is built. Professional genealogists and their accreditations occupy megabytes of cyberspace and several pages in every Irish telephone directory. Their fees vary widely, but the top genealogical associations, listed below, can conduct an overview assessment for $25-$100. Such a survey, based on data the family has in hand, estimates what a detailed record search is likely to uncover and what its final cost may be.
For those who would prefer to spend their Ireland vacation scanning the scenery than scanning microfilm, it may be just the thing.
Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland
Contact the honorary secretary
30 Harlech Crescent
Conskeagh, Dublin 14
The Association of Ulster Genealogists and Record Agents
Glen Cottage, Glenmachan Road
Belfast Bt4 2NP
Banbridge Genealogy ServicesTourist Information Centre
200 Newry Road
Banbridge BT32 3NB