What is Radical about Family History – Part 2

Part 2 Asking questions of the Family Tree

There are millions of family tree hobbyists and the vast majority are happy to simply trace their family tree as far back as they can. Many are content with tracing the male line, through their surname. Many others prefer to go further and trace both male and female lines back through every branch to create a massive picture of their ‘gene bank’. It is very often the case that those who cast their nets the widest are most likely to come upon issues and events in their family trees that stop them up short.

Some 30 years ago, long before I became involved, a work colleague started tracing his family tree. Until then he had always been a staunch supporter of everything politically conservative – the Empire, the Queen, the Tory Party, Margaret Thatcher. He discovered that he had predominantly Irish ancestry and that they had come to England to escape the ravages of the Great Famine of the 1840s. So he asked the questions and did the research into the Famine, what caused it, the behaviour of the British authorities and the overwhelmingly absentee Anglo-Irish landlords and the devastating impact on the lives of millions of ordinary Irish men and women. He discovered the bigotry against the Catholic religion, the appalling conditions in which Irish immigrants lived and the way they were treated as social pariahs. He saw what all immigrant populations have experienced and continue to do so. I cannot speak for how much this experience changed him, but it certainly altered his attitude to Irish nationalism (at a time when this was a difficult issue), to British Imperialism, and opened his eyes to social questions he had previously ignored.

There is no way of statistically analysing what proportion of those who engage in family history escape in this way beyond the confines of ancestor collecting. It may very well be the majority, to at least a small degree, though I doubt it. But I hope that most will have come across something in their family tree that has prompted a question or two.

There is nothing guaranteed about this. Among the negative criticisms of family history are that it can be unhealthily obsessive – the collecting takes over to an extent that many of us have witnessed in research centres in the form of boorish and selfish behaviour. It is said that there is little or no intellectual content – though while this can be true, the tens of thousands involved in Family History Societies are witness to an opposite argument by dint of the many projects in which they become involved opening up records, archives and lcoal studies centres. It has been argued that family history is no more than a passing generational fashion – though it shows no signs of abating as the generations pass on and gradually a rising generation of young academics are beginning to find something more in family history. It has also been argued that it is no more than compensation for the disintegration of community life and a search for some kind of surrogate identity, and it is true that for some this can be almost a form of therapy when their lives have become a mess – but that is even more likely to prompt the kind of questioning that needs to inform family history.

These are some of the negatives. What are the positives? See Part 3

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