Identity crisis

  • 11 March 2005
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Sara Keating is as much impressed with her American past than her Irish heritage, as disclosed by one of many websites aimed at tracing your ancestors. But is it worth the fee?

In Ireland, on the other hand, St Patrick's Day appears to bring out the American in the Irish, the associated festivities providing serious marketing opportunities. Who then has deeper connections to their Irish heritage?, an American-run website, devotes itself to all things Irish: myths, proverbs and Irish recipes, with marketable names like Lucky Leprechaun Salad that would be perfect for a themed restaurant (which I'm sure someone has capitalised on). Alongside the witticisms however, is a genealogical search engine, which advises the browser on tracing their Irish roots and provides a number of useful links to do so.

There are lines of exploration for a dendrocronologist tracing his family tree. The National Archives and National Library of Ireland, we are told, hold Irish censuses since 1901, everything else being destroyed during the Civil War. Then there are the Mormons in Finglas who purchased parish records countrywide, believing that once they had your name they had your soul. They may not really have your soul but they just might have the key to unlocking your ancestry. Or, if all roads, as the Irish road of history does, lead to England, a website called, which has an impressive list of combined resources in Ireland and England, is highly recommended. Or you could leave it up to the experts at the Irish Genealogy Centre. It sounds like a lot of hard work., however, gives the browser a little more to work with. The curious does not have to become the serious scholar and I, who have no doubts as to my heritage, though little knowledge of it, decide to see what a random search can tell me about my own history. I type in my surname in the search engine and find that there are 35,659 Keatings looking for each other all over the world. Overwhelmed, I'm allowed to refine my search to documents, a selection of which are available to me, including the passenger lists for boats from Ireland arriving in America between 1851 and 1891. 1,749 entries under Keating exist, but we must have been a fragile people because, according to a nationwide census, by 1890 only 292 of us were left (although the 35,658 others looking for their history with me suggests we managed to populate ourselves again).

I decide to refine my search more, less in the spirit of historical curiosity than narcissism, and type in my full details – forename, middle name, surname. The system stalls, not for very long, and then informs me that I have died at least four times in the last century, and once in the previous, married as many times, have lived variously in Massachusetts, Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin – in fact in nearly every one of the southern states – and graduated with merit on the high school honours roll in Akron, Ohio on 13 June, 1919. It even told me that a namesake (fore and middle name inclusive) of the exact same age, who lives in Louisiana, got carried away by her own curiosity/narcissism exactly three months before I did on this very same website. Uncanny.

The censuses, the marriage certificates, the high school diplomas were all available for me to look at, but this being America, each one had its price. For $39 a document, I could see the signatures of all the 'me's' I'd never known about or know the causes of my many deaths. But curiosity killed my cat before, and I care for my wallet a lot more. I'm sure our shared names are nothing more than coincidence, but if de Valera could invent the past for an innumerate nation that extended far beyond her map-lines, I'm sure no one's going to care if I embellish my personal history a little. I suppose it doesn't matter because I feel as close to them now as I do to the 70 million Irish scattered around the world. Ironic that my own exploration of my Irish family heritage ended up being a discovery of my American past. I suppose it proves that you are only ever as Irish as you feel.