The late author, Terry Pratchett, contended that a more appropriate name for our species than Homo Sapiens (wise man) was instead Pan Narrans (the storytelling chimpanzee). Which is quite fitting, right?!
This is especially true when it comes to genealogy! When we search for our ancestors, what is it we are searching for? At one point, we were simply content to just have a few more names to add to our family tree. But with all the advances in genealogical research, and the databases of sources expanding, we now expect a lot more…
Baptismal and marriage records can provide us with the names of extended family, and census records can help us narrow down dates of birth, marriage and death. Yet, with all this information we still want more!
We are not just looking for the names of our ancestors but what sort of lives they led. What did their job involve? What was their daily routine like? Were they really the people we imagined them to be?
Sometimes the information we seek isn’t written down in any official documents but contained in the memories of our relatives. Written sources can often neglect to document the full richness of their lives (which is a great shame!). Eyewitnesses to events contribute various viewpoints, and perspectives that fill in the gaps in documented history, sometimes correcting or even contradicting the written sources. Interviewers can ask questions left out of other records and gather the stories which have been untold or neglected. An interview may even serve as the only source of information available about a certain place, event, or person.
Carefully recorded and preserved, these memories carry the witness of the present into the future, where through creative programs and publications, they can inform, instruct, and inspire generations to come. But how do we go about gathering that information? Well, using oral histories can help us get to the heart of these questions! By collecting these stories, we can build an invaluable resource for our own research and for future generations. This is particularly true when researching those in specific trades or those from marginalised groups.
Oral history can tell us what sort of foods our ancestors ate, what sort of connections they built in their local communities and what rituals were part of their daily lives.
For the family history researcher, this is invaluable information. In my work as a genealogist and researcher with the Cork Folklore Project, I have seen just how important these stories are. Our collections have provided us with an insight into vanished or fast disappearing ways of life. The rules to childhood games which have been replaced with technology are now preserved in our interviews. These stories add to the richness of our understanding of who our ancestors were, so we can now see them as people with complex lives and not just as a collection of names and dates.
Oral history provides a fuller, more accurate picture of the past by building on the information provided by written records. Genealogists are more than just researchers, we are also the ones charged with the responsibility of telling the stories of those who came before us.
David will be giving his talk on Oral History for genealogy on Saturday 8 June.