From the office: Why I love family history

By Jon Bauckham, 16 January 2014 - 3:40pm

As her placement with Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine draws to an end, journalism student Marése O’Sullivan shares her own family history discoveries

Thursday 16 January 2014

Marése O'Sullivan
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Marése’s great grandfather Thomas Dowling with his first wife, Ethel, on their wedding day in 1922

It’s now the second week of my work experience placement in the Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine office.

I've had the chance to report on The National Archives' digitisation of First World War diaries, a new archive centre opening, the publication of over one million probate records by Ancestry.co.uk and – of course – spend some time exploring the resources myself!

As an MA Journalism student from City University London and an avid reader of the magazine, it's been brilliant to see how it comes together first-hand, from choosing news stories to creating the email newsletter. The team works hard to make each issue a practical guide to help with your research, and I’ve really enjoyed playing a small role in that during my time here.

I’m a reasonably young genealogist at 22, but I’ve spent years tracing my family tree. I started my research because I didn’t know my great grandparents’ names. Now I’m delighted to have more than 3,000 relations documented, from my direct Irish ancestors (six generations back, in some cases) to distant cousins across the globe.

With many of my extended family still living, I’ve had the opportunity to hear and record stories that might otherwise have faded into oblivion. However, as Irish historians are all too aware, we aren’t very lucky with the amount of resources available to find those elusive ancestors – almost all 18th and 19th-century documents of genealogical use were destroyed.

On the other hand, I suppose it makes the experience all the more gratifying when I manage to find out some small detail or extend what I know of the facts.

As a writer, I love finding out more about the stories of individual forebears and I often focus on researching as much as I can about the entirety of one person’s life. Piecing together the events that shaped their existence really adds colour to those black-and-white photographs.

Marése’s great grandmother, Hannah McKenna

It’s particularly exciting to read the words of a recently discovered relative for the first time. On my mum’s side, I was looking for more about my great grandfather Thomas Dowling’s sister, Nora, who lived in New York. I was given the address of an apparent connection in New Jersey – and ended up discovering a whole new branch of the family descended from Thomas and Nora’s sister Johanna, who I hadn’t known much about.

I was delighted to receive a letter from Johanna’s daughter, Kathleen, and the chance to tell her all about her first cousin, my Nana Maura.

On my dad’s side, I hadn’t known much about my great grandmother Hannah McKenna because she died young (a photo of her that I don’t know much about is above - any reader advice appreciated!), but thanks to a lovely diary entry by her sister Ellen on her visit to Ireland from America, I understood how much she had meant to everyone.

“My youngest and most beautiful sister Hannah was missing – gone to heaven,” Ellen wrote. “The missing link was a blow to my joy. I long since knew that sorrow and joy are twin sisters, so I consoled myself with the thought that she was happy in heaven where she has many friends.”

She also mentioned that my grandmother Teresa was a “credit to her memory,” which I found very touching.

Hannah and Ellen’s parents (Marése’s great great grandparents) Mary and Daniel McKenna

I love to share my findings with my family and take them on this genealogical journey with me. Now that I have moved to England, the stories of these incredible people are more important to me than ever and I’m looking forward to reading the latest news and updates from Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine to make sure my ancestors’ lives are documented the way they deserve.

 

From the office: First World War research
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From the office: Appealing against conscription
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From the office: First World War research
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From the office: Appealing against conscription
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