Monday, September 10, 2007

I Found Her Crying

It happens to individuals of all religious, cultural and intellectual persuasions. Almost all long-time genealogists have experienced it in one form or another. It can be as simple as a thought or feeling. Many times it is manifest as extraordinary luck or fortuitous coincidence. Genealogists have experienced guidance as simple as facts popping into their heads or as dramatically as post-mortal visitations. Explanations are as varied as those that experience the events, but their prevalence testifies of their reality.

Serendipity in Genealogy

Canon Stephen Neill Stephen Neill is an Anglican priest in Ireland in the diocese of Limerick & Killaloe. Requests for genealogy lookups are common and Canon Neill can only help as his schedule allows. His parochial ministry covers 4 churches, which keeps him plenty busy despite help from four parish secretaries and a parish treasurer.

It's a long way to Tipperary, particularly for a couple from half a world away who showed up unannounced at Neill's door after half a lifetime searching for a genealogical record. Neill was quite busy and would typically have directed the couple to make an appointment to come back later.

Through a string of coincidences, however, that is not what happened this day.

One reason Neill may have been overly busy was the recent death of his trusted parish treasurer. One of the parish treasures is the Templeharry Rectory records which extend back to 1799.

"We are lucky in this respect," says Neill, "as many parishes have lost earlier records and a huge amount of data was lost in the Four Courts fire of 1922."

Presidential candidate Barack Obama

Another reason Neill may have been busy was a genealogy lookup request from an researcher in America looking into the progenitors of presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama. You'll recall Ancestry's announcement of Obama's Irish roots back in March. Continued interest led Ancestry to Moneygall in Neill's parish.

"I have to confess that I get a lot of these requests," says Neill, "and it was only after the nature of the possible link with Senator Obama was revealed that I fully engaged with the search."

This brings us to the point where these many separate threads started to weave together. Because of Ancestry's request and because it was for someone famous and because of the death of the parish treasurer, Neill had to retrieve the records.

Image from Templeharry Rectory records
A page from the Templeharry Rectory records
containing a record of Obama's ancestry.

"As if all this were not strange enough, on the day I collected the records in question from my late treasurer’s son I had an unannounced visit from a charming couple from Tasmania who were—you guessed it—looking for their roots!" Neill says, "there was something about this couple that made me want to help them and despite the fact I was a bit pressed I invited them in and gave them access to the very registers that I had just collected." Then he left them and returned to his office.

"After a while I returned to see how my visitors were getting on, only to find the lady in tears of joy having found a record she had been trying to trace for 30 years! WOW!"

When Neill recounted the story later, the Ancestry researcher explained that "such ‘SERENDIPITY’ was remarkably common in genealogy research." After experiencing it himself, Neill responds, "I can see how people get hooked on this. I think I may be a late convert!"

(Source: Stephen Neill, "All Politics is Local.....Barack Obama for Moneygall!", PaddyAnglican [Internet Blog], 3-May-2007, accessed 5-Sep-2007, <>)

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