The Search for Identity

History has shaped our existence, as people and as individuals, and it always will. We have inherited lineages that span thousands upon thousands of years. Tracing your roots to understand where you came from is a natural expression of the simple search for identity: to explore, establish and define your link to the past. At the heart of genealogy is having that true sense of belonging; to discover an undeniable and biological connection to your ancestors – the real, human people who helped to form your genetic make-up, your quirks, and every aspect of who you are.

Sometimes, in the midst of stress, panic or despair, it’s hard to remember why we should battle on. Our ancestors, too, were challenged. They faced horrific trials in the brief time they spent on Earth, such as the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52, the traumatic memories of which have been engraved in the history books forever. It must have been excruciatingly difficult to retain faith in the little joys of humanity as they wondered how they would put food on the table, or watched their child die before their eyes.

Placing the past of our ancestors in a socio-historic context like this reveals just how determined and strong they must have been to carry on through the tough times, when it felt like all was lost, when all hope had been extinguished. Crippling poverty ravished the countryside, death tolls rose higher every day and wars between neighbouring countries took young men away from their families. Reading through the records that remain shows us how the past has shaped not only our own families, but the country they called home.

Workhouse during the Great Famine

Their ability to overcome the obstacles that they faced to ensure future generations of their family would flourish can only serve to inspire us, their descendants, on the journey of genealogical discovery. Seeing the names of relatives on historical documents such as birth certificates, censuses, ship passenger lists, marriage certificates and death certificates gives a wonderful insight into the lives our ancestors led, the choices they made and the split-second decisions which changed the course of their future.

Modern inventions and technology, particularly the Internet, have greatly aided researchers with the exploration of the past. Manually digging out letters, diaries, old photographs, and gathering recollections and reminiscences from family members, however, brings so much delight when you slowly piece together the extraordinary past of the people you are descended from. These primary and secondary sources are invaluable when you construct a family tree, known as a ‘pedigree’, to map out a factual database of your ancestors and their history. Tracing and documenting your family’s past to preserve it for the generations to come can forge a deeper bond with your living family members. There’s nothing like asking a relative about a name from the information you have accumulated, and seeing the genetic connection light up the room as a relative smiles, laughs and sheds a tear about the family member, recalling the stories of their childhood and old memories that would otherwise have been forgotten.

It is important to remember who, where and what we came from, but it is just as essential that we know there is a future in which our descendants will live. Blood lines will evolve and continue throughout time, family connections will be scattered worldwide and people will die and be born. But our identity, both as a unique individual and as a small part of a massive pedigree, will connect us all.

Tudor Family Tree

La France

For the next year, I will be crashing a country where they are renowned for chomping on snails, where they have multiple forms of saying “you” and where they invented the guillotine.

Nervous, me?

While I certainly will be adjusting to a lifestyle quite unlike the Irish one I am so accustomed to, France will be a welcome change. It is undoubtedly a country with a past. Centuries of bloodstained history define my future home: tales of beheaded Kings and battles to the death, tested rivalries and colossal challenges to the defence of the country’s borders from seemingly unconquerable foreign armies echo throughout the ages.

Battle of Castiglione, 1796

France would not be the country it is today without the horrors it has witnessed and the wounds it has attained from bygone eras. The French have a strength, a distinctive toughness, that is evident in their everyday life.

We all feel that our past has marked us somehow – maybe not in an obvious way – but the scars are there, unseen to the human eye. The French, as a people, are a remarkable embodiment of the struggles and pain that their country has endured. Their solemn pride in the rich and magnificent landscape of France, the graceful beauty of the countryside and the shining brilliance of the cities transcends any language or cultural barrier.

Brittany, France

Akin to the Irish, when young and old French soldiers alike were heading into battle, ready to lay down their lives in wars that extended far beyond themselves as individuals, they had to fight to the bitter end for a cause they believed in. They fought for their families, they fought for their freedom, and most of all they fought for their wonderful country that they called their home.

I have realised that the similarities between Ireland and France are more important than their differences. Going to a new country does not mean rejecting the established ways, accepted practices and traditional approaches there. It is about respect: an endeavor to embrace the diversity of a culture more alike your own than not.

That does not mean, however, that I will be trying any snails.

Marése O’Sullivan