Genealogy is a wonderful way to introduce older adults returning to education to the study of history. Senior citizens, having brought up their own children and now enjoying being grandparents, quite often develop an interest in their particular family origins. This has certainly been my experience teaching adults. As part of our Family History course we have taken small groups of students to the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street to introduce them to the available resources that are not already online. Each time that we do this we have a great response from the students. It is a thrill to see long-gone family members in the parish records of Ireland stretching all the way back into the darker days of the Great Famine. Seeing that people ‘belonging to us’ lived through these times brings the details – even the minutia – of history to life in a way that books never can. Yesterday one student was looking for her mother. Elizabeth Denning was born in 1908 and appears on the 1911 census as a nurse child with a foster mother in Finglas. What my student wanted to know was where Elizabeth had come from, who her real mother and father were, and why she had ended up living with another family. This was real needle-in-a-haystack territory.
After hours of painstaking research, looking through baptismal records, marriage certificates, and institutional archives we discovered a newborn baby girl in December 1908. She was in the poorhouse – the South Dublin Union Workhouse (now Saint James’s Hospital) – suffering from bronchitis. Like hundreds of other poor children at the beginning of the twentieth century she was a foundling; a child whose own mother or family lacked the means to care for them. What did stand out was that she was known by her family name, and this will be the greatest clue to uncovering the identity of her mother – and there are a number of candidates in the city at this time. We know that by 1911 she was being cared for by another woman in the village of Finglas, and we also found records from the workhouse, dated 1913, that she was adopted by the same woman for the sum of eight pounds. In 1913 eight pounds was no mean amount of money. We still have more work to do finding out more about this baby girl’s history, but we do know that no matter the sad circumstances of the poorhouse she was a child who was loved and cared for. People have always been amazing.