The long way home

Margaret Ambrose meets a new breed of explorer sleuthing while on holiday.

Shirley Caulfield and her sisters Margaret and Jan were sitting in a small cafe in Roscommon when an elderly man approached their table. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, removing his hat, "but I was wondering if you would be Caulfield ladies? You would be looking just like them."

Considering the sisters, who live in Sydney and Melbourne, were on holiday and passing through the town in County Roscommon, such an encounter was a stroke of remarkable luck and profoundly moving. The sisters' ancestors were linked with the town and the old man had identified them as family. The purpose of their trip had been fulfilled.

Part relaxing and part sleuthing, the Caulfields were on a family history holiday.

According to family historians, an increasing number of Australians, mainly baby boomers, are combining an interest in family history with a love of travel. Research is done online at home or by trawling archives and then, armed with these details, the family-history traveller plans a holiday to the ancestral homeland.

"Family historians have always tended to be people from an older generation," says genealogist Jeremy Palmer, who runs anzestry.com. "Genealogy can be a time-consuming hobby and so, as the baby boomers retire, it's an ideal hobby."

For Shirley Caulfield, visiting Ireland and the home of her ancestors has been a long-held dream. "Part of my fascination with tracing my family tree was curiosity," she says. "But more than that, I felt an affinity with Ireland."

Kerry Farmer travelled to Poland three years ago for similar reasons. As a director of the National Institute for Genealogical Studies and a speaker with the genealogical society Unlock the Past, Farmer has seen many people embark on family-history holidays.

"It was an incredibly emotional experience for me to visit the cemetery where my ancestors lay and to learn much more about their lives and the national and international conflicts that affected them," she says. "There was a real sense of connection, whether standing in front of a grave or visiting a building that the Nazis had turned from a synagogue to a public swimming pool."

Palmer describes feeling a "tremendous sense of connection to the past". "Walking down the same streets as your ancestors transforms them from simply names and dates on a piece of paper into real people."

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He suggests beginning the process by extracting details, facts, names and places from family members. This is where Caulfield began her research, at a time when there was little by way of digital records or online availability. She trawled through photographs and memorabilia that had been passed through her family. The state registries of births, deaths and marriages will be the next port of call, Palmer says, and state archives hold a range of records such as church registers, wills, migration records and land records.

The National Archives of Australia holds records of Australian military servicemen and women, which are available online.

"Don't forget that there may be two or three places of the same name in the same country," Palmer says. "For example, Leeds in England is a large city in Yorkshire but there is also a small village of that name in Kent."

Farmer began her research at home then enlisted a Polish guide, who acted as a tour guide and translator during her trip. Farmer says her guide was indispensable in helping overcome obstacles posed by language, cultural differences and logistics.

"In preparation for our trip, our guide had researched some history of the village where my ancestors had lived," Farmer says. "Best of all, our guide had made contact with a local historian who had done his PhD thesis on that village. [The historian] visited us at our hotel and, through our guide, we were able to ask questions and also get copies of documents."

As Caulfield discovered, some historical aberrations pose real problems. "When we were in Ireland, we found records for plenty of Caulfields but they were all Protestant and our Caulfield forebear was Catholic," she says. "From 1691 until well into the 19th century the Penal Laws required that baptisms, marriages and funerals be registered in a Protestant church, with the result that many such events in Catholic families went unrecorded."

The Caulfield sisters called in a genealogist in Ireland, whom they had hired before they began the trip. He accompanied them to the Registry of Deeds in Dublin and conducted a search under his direction.

Travellers need to anticipate that places might have changed dramatically in look and purpose. "In some cases you may not be able to see many traces of the pretty village that [your ancestors] left - it could now be a large industrial town," Palmer says. "Some of the older buildings, like churches, will undoubtedly remain, though."

For Caulfield, the trip to Ireland was life-changing. "When I first arrived in Ireland, I was overcome with a feeling that I was home. No other place has made me feel that way."

Now, she says, Ireland is literally home. "I bought a small house in rural Ireland and divide my time between Australia, where my family and heart are, and Ireland, where my soul is."

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