BTOP Belfast may not have been the biggest BTOP ever but there were plenty of people around and I enjoyed it greatly. Working with my AGI colleagues and the NAI staff was enjoyable. Meeting people (some for the first time; some catching up from before) also made it worthwhile. But the highlight for me was spending time with my retired colleagues Hazel Ervine, Joan Petticrew and Marie Wilson again after such a long time.
On my early visits to Belfast (like 30+ years ago!) they were at the heart of the vibrant Reading Room of the old PRONI in Balmoral Avenue. They were part of the small band of professional genealogists who founded APGI (now AGI) in Belfast in 1986. In the early years our annual general meeting was held in Belfast in alternate years and Hazel, Joan and Marie, along with the late John McCabe and our newest Fellow, David McElroy, were always there to greet us.
On Friday afternoon at the close of BTOP we in AGI, joined by other genealogists, had a little ceremony honouring Hazel, Joan and Marie (see the AGI news item). It was a happy event at which David recalled memories from the three ladies’ careers. His words made me think about my visits to Belfast back in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether those visits were for the AGM or for research in PRONI, my northern colleagues were always about and they were always welcoming and helpful.
Genealogy can be an entirely solitary pursuit if you only sit in front of your computer to research: even if you engage with people to an extent through forums or social media, or even Skype. Meeting people face to face, in the flesh, is an entirely different experience. I met people over the weekend I had corresponded with online or had heard of. Events like BTOP are among the few opportunities we have now for meeting in the flesh. The experience of genealogical research has been altered entirely by online availability. Record repositories are victims of their own success in responding to the demand for remote access. Their reading rooms are devoid of the hustle and bustle they once had. Going into Dublin’s repositories now you might see a few familiar faces, but meeting colleagues on a daily basis is a thing of the past.
It’s sad really, and David’s words on Friday made me acutely aware of what we have lost in gaining easier and faster access to information. As I said, spending time with Hazel, Joan and Marie was the highlight of BTOP Belfast for me.
Shock and horror! Today is the fortieth anniversary of my first day of work in genealogy. Where has all that time gone?
I should add that I was a mere teenager then, albeit months away from not being one. It was a dream-come-true. A few days earlier I had my ‘interview’ with Gerard Slevin, the Chief Herald, and I tried to impress him with my meagre knowledge of the records. He already had made up his mind. The Genealogical Office had a backlog of pre-paid searches and not enough researchers. Unknown to me, my enthusiasm had been mysteriously recommended to him and he was prepared to give me a chance.
What was on offer was not a job. It was a place on the panel of freelance researchers for the GO. I would be guided in my initial steps and I would be paid for the searches I completed. Mr. Slevin’s advice has rung repeatedly in my ears over the forty years since: Get it out of your system and then get a real job (or words to that effect).
He was not denigrating the profession of genealogy, as it didn’t exactly exist in Ireland at that time. No one conducting genealogical research for a living. Third level students did it part-time as a source of income; mature married women did it to stimulate their brain; people of independent means did it for the enjoyment. I was going to do it because it was all I ever thought of as a career. Perhaps I should have thought harder!
Working in genealogy for forty years has been hugely rewarding to my soul; had it been equally rewarding in monetary terms I would be a billionaire now. I’m not a billionaire. I had no desire to be wealthy and I knew genealogy would never make me rich. That, at least, was an accurate prediction.
This day forty years ago was thrilling for me, as I stepped across the threshold of the GO as one of its freelance researchers. I experienced delight and terror in equal measure. I met with kindness and encouragement from staff members and freelance researchers alike. They gave me an excellent grounding in genealogical research on which to build over years and decades.
It was in February 1979 that I first met my fellow freelance researchers, Eileen O’Byrne and Eilish Ellis, both now gone to a better place. They were my seniors in age, education and experience but they never made this gormless eejit of a teenager feel like anything other than a colleague. How can that be all of forty years ago?
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!