Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday's Tips: Is someone playing 'Telephone' with your Irish family history?

Courtesy of The Graphics Fairy
In her comment on an earlier post on this blog, Kathy Reed of Family Matters made reference to the childhood game of 'telephone'. Kathy's comment made me think about just how much a family story can change as it is passed down, much like the story in the game of telephone. On the WDYTYA episode which featured Edie Falco's family history, Ms. Falco also mentioned the game. In the case of Edie Falco, family stories had created a connection to Wales which did not exist. In fact, the person in question was born in Wisconsin, not Wales.

Perhaps when you were a child you played the telephone game, also called the gossip game, or the whisper game, and probably lots of other names too. With a group of your friends you would sit in a circle. One member of the group would begin by whispering a story to the person beside them, who would then whisper it to a second person, who would then whisper it to a third person, and so on, all around the circle until you reached the last person. He/she then had to recount the story he/she had been told. I remember howling with laughter over this game when I played it at an eighth grade sleepover party. The story which emerged from the final player was often very different from the one first told. It seemed the larger the group, the more cockeyed the story became.


Is someone playing 'Telephone' with your Irish family history?

There are lots of clues out there which can show us why the story of an ancestor may not quite fit; however, that does not mean there isn't some truth to the story. Just as in the telephone game, the story may simply have become somewhat skewed along the way as it was passed down. There are a number of elements, such as timeline, geography, and extant evidence, which we can look at to help us uncover the truth of the matter. Each of the stories I have included here was passed on as actual family history.

1. Timeline:

Story: A man says his uncle joined the Irish Volunteers in the fall of 1921, and fought in the Easter Rising.

Problem: The 1916 Easter Rising was in, well 1916. If his uncle was a member of the Irish Volunteers, but did not join them until 1921, then he would not have taken part in the Rising, at least not officially.

Solution: If he joined the Irish Volunteers in the fall of 1921, that was after the Truce of July 1921, so chances are he may have been involved in the Irish Civil War, either as a Volunteer with the Anti-Treaty forces (Eamon de Valera's men), or a Free State soldier (Michael Collins' men). Contacting the Irish government, via the Military Pensions Office (see 'Granny was in the IRA': Turning a story into a history), to find out if there are extant records may help him uncover the whole story.

Also, create a timeline for persons on your family tree. Notice which historical events mesh with the dates on your timeline. Are there possible connections to the 1798 Rebellion, the 1803 Rebellion, An Gorta Mór: the Great Famine of 1845-52, The 1916 Easter Rising, and a whole host of other events relevant to Irish History?

2. Geography:

Story: A woman searching for Mayo ancestors says her Westport born great-grandfather was imprisoned for preventing the local Mayo fishermen from fishing in the Irish sea.

Problem: Mayo is on the west coast of Ireland; the Irish sea is on the east coast of Ireland. Mayo fisherman fished in the Atlantic ocean, not the Irish sea.

Solution: Her great-grandfather may have been imprisoned, but not for the reason stated. Look at Irish Prison Registers and Petty Sessions Order Books from the area in which he lived, on the paid site FindMyPast.ie, to see if you can find him in the records, and discover the real reason for his internment.

3. Evidence exists which counters a claim:

Story: A man researching his family's connection to the Irish War of Independence claims two distant cousins were shot and killed on Bloody Sunday in the summer of 1920.

Problem: Two problems with this story. First of all this particular Bloody Sunday occurred 21 November 1920, not in the summer of that year. Also, a comprehensive list of those wounded and killed on that day is extant, and his cousins are not on the list.

Solutions: Use this as an opportunity to learn more about Irish history by reading about the Irish War of Independence, and incidents such as Bloody Sunday. Although family members may not have been killed or wounded in these events, just learning about the conflict gives you an understanding of what life may have been like in the period. (see Going to the bookshelf to find family history)

Also, finding the exact date of death and acquiring copies of their death certificates, which will state the cause of death, will perhaps help to clear up the details of the story.

4. Some elements of the story simply cannot be true:

Story: A woman was told her great-grandmother was in Cumann na mBan, and in order to help the cause she melted down her gold Irish dancing medals and donated the gold to the IRA.

Problem: Irish dance medals were not awarded until the 1930s, and they were never made of solid gold which could be melted down.

Solution: Although the medals part of the story cannot be true, this great-grandmother may have been a member of Cumann na mBan. Again in this case, contacting the Irish government, via the Military Pensions Office, to find out if there are extant records of her membership in Cumann na mBan, may help in uncovering the whole story. (See 'Granny was in the IRA': Turning a story into a history)

5. Attaching someone famous to the family tree:

Story: A woman with the surname Pearse claims that her family looks forward to commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising every year because Padráig Pearse was her grandfather.

Problem: The HUGE problem with this claim is that at the time of his death, Padráig Pearse was unmarried and had no children (either real, alleged, or imagined), so it would not be possible for him to have grandchildren.

Padráig Pearse is the man most readily associated with the Easter Rising. He was a teacher, orator, and founder of St. Enda's School. Also, he was the man chosen to read the 'Proclamation of the Irish Republic', on the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, at the start of the 1916 Easter Rising on Monday 24 April 1916. He was executed by firing squad 3 May 1916 in the stone breakers' yard at Kilmainham Gaol Dublin.

Solution: Although Padráig Pearse is not this woman's grandfather, it is possible she might be connected to his family in some other way. Pearse's brother William, who was also executed, was like his brother, unmarried and without children, so she would not be connected to him. However, Padráig and William did have two sisters, so it is possible this woman's family is in some way connected to one of  them. Also, going further back she could be connected to a sibling of Pearse's father or mother; however, any claim of a connection would require actual proof, so looking at primary source documents would be essential.

In conclusion:

As is the case with the telephone game, the story which emerged when these family stories were passed down may have some element of truth to it, but it may have gotten a little mixed up along the way. By consulting the large number of resources out there to help us, we can get to the bottom of the story, and turn it into an actual history.


Thanks to The Graphics Fairy for the image of the girl on the telephone.


  1. Fascinating post, well done, love the format.

    1. Hi Carol,

      Thanks for your comments; as always, they are much appreciated.


  2. Okay, yes someone has been playing telephone with my family tree. My older sister. Great post. I like the format too.

    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate receiving them. If your sister wants to drop me an email, I'd be happy to try and help.


  3. It was fun to try to catch up on posts in my google reader and see my name and blog referenced. Made me smile. Along a similar vein, I was reading today about researchers finding inconsistencies in Death Certificates that are just now being proven correct or incorrect with the release of the 1940 Census. I'm reminded that some "lies" are not a matter of misunderstanding, but intentional. I love how you used evidence to prove that some of the claims made above cannot be right. Love your research.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for your comments; they are always much appreciated. I love reading your blog, and am glad to have made you smile.

      What you've mentioned about the death certificates and the 1940 census is really interesting. I think it shows that if we really want to uncover the truth the evidence is out there, it may just require a more concerted effort to find the evidence. I've always had trouble understanding why someone would intentionally lie with their research, but as you say some simply do it. It has to make us wonder what really is the point of their research.


  4. Wonderful post. We have a family legend that says that Sean McDonnell, my 3x gr. grandfather was bayoneted by a British soldier on his way home and died of peritonitis two weeks later in approximately 1840. Help me sort out what could be the problems with this? He lived in near Grenagh,County Cork. Were there British soldiers there at that time? I don't know the timetable for peritonitis but could look it up. I have not found any death information for a Sean (John) McDonnell for that time period. Probably was embellished but . . . I haven't added it as a fact in the family tree, but definitely have retold it as family legend.

    1. Hi Margel,

      Civil registrations of deaths did not start until 1864, so there would have been no death certificate issued with that cause of death on it, so where did peritonitis as a cause of death come from? The first thing you may wish to do is to check the source for the cause of death.

      Ireland was still part of Britain in this period, and the occupying troops which one might assume were still there were replaced in 1814 by the Royal Irish Constabulary, (RIC), controlled by Dublin Castle. If there was a local incident it would have been handled by the RIC. Your 3x great-grandfather may have had a run in with them, but the idea that he was "bayoneted by a British soldier on his way home" in this period is unlikely.

      As I mentioned above, there were various uprisings throughout the country during the early 19th century; however, you have given a date of 1840. There were clashes between the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Young Irelanders in County Tipperary in 1848, but none in the historical record in Cork. I hope these details help you.


    2. Hi Margel,

      In my reply I neglected to mention that you may want to look at the newspaper archives to see if you can find a reference to the story. The archive has the Cork Examiner only from 1841, but it has The Freeman's Journal, which was a National newspaper, for 1840. Also check the British Newspaper Archive to see if you can find reference to it. Both links are on my research resources page.



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