That second name of yours. It follows you everywhere; on forms at the post office, on plane tickets and on your wedding invitations. It’s a little mystery tacked onto your moniker that holds a world of history, people and stories. And if you want to unlock the mystery and dip your feet into Ireland’s genealogy gene-pool then we happen to know the man to call. Meet the prince of genealogy in Ireland and ancestry detective, Turtle Bunbury.
In 1986, The Bee Gees and Eric Clapton recorded a charity single called ‘We’re the Bunburys’ about a bunch of rabbits that played cricket. The song crashed out of the charts pretty quickly. But it continued to be a hit in our house for many years. ‘Everybody wants to be a Bunbury, don’t delay, don’t delay’ was the uplifting chorus.
I grew up in a big dusty house at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains called Lisnavagh. It lies close to the village of Co. Carlow, in a landscape bound by overgrown ringforts, a defiant dolmen and the last crumbling traces of an Augustinian abbey.
The flagstone corridors of our house were lined with gilded portraits of poker-faced men sporting snow white wigs and sullen women in sombre shawls. As a youngster, those portraits petrified me. Their penetrating eyes chased me all the way to the safety of the kitchen.
I’ve always been obsessed by the past. That’s the legacy of having a good history teacher. If your teacher just drenched you with dates, the chances are you grew up thinking history was the dullest subject ever invented.
I struck lucky and had several good teachers. But it was family history that caught my attention most and, well, specifically my family.
Who were all those people in the portraits?
In 1988, aged sixteen, I was idly rummaging through the attic at Lisnavagh when I plucked out an old scroll. It turned out to be a family tree, tracing the Bunburys back to 1066 when a Norman described as ‘a younger brother of the Baron de St. Pierre’ arrived in England and was granted the lordship of ‘Boniface’s Borough’ in Cheshire.
As my finger trawled through the generations, I noted that the family had adopted the name ‘de Boneberi’ and, by the 14th century, the family head was a guy called Roger de Bunbury who was marshalling English troops against the French during the Hundred Years War.
In the 17th century, the tree split into the English branch and the Irish branch. It told me the Irish descended from Benjamin Bunbury who arrived in Ireland in the 1660s.
The tree stopped in about 1830 although someone had tried to pencil in a few subsequent generations. My father was about to turn 50. So I thought ‘Geronimo! I’ll give him an updated family tree for the occasion’.
And that’s the moment I became hooked on genealogy. It is the greatest jigsaw ever made. It’s deeply indulgent and utterly fascinating and it gets bigger, and juicier, every time you find a new piece.
Working out what actually happened to anyone in the distant past is a hugely speculative business. All you have to start with is a person’s name, sex and maybe his or her date of birth or death. So what do you do from there? It can be a daunting prospect.
In Ireland, we’ve evolved our genealogical research skills enormously over the past decade. There are many extremely talented genealogists operating in this country, solving family puzzles for Irish people and people of Irish origin all over the world.
The online 1901 and 1911 census have also done much to enable people to work out the townland or street in Ireland where their forebears lived 100 years ago. Such resources as Griffith’s Valuations, the Tithe reports, the Latter Day Saints archives, the Irish news archive and the specific church records are also very helpful. Add in the wonders of Google, and the possibilities for researching one’s family history are expanding at an extraordinary rate.
I specialize in producing upmarket family history books, illustrated and leather bound, profiling each generation in turn. It’s all about keeping the history flowing and well-informed, and peppering it with detail about the main events, places, professions and people that shaped their lives.
Ideally, I get as many family members involved as possible as you never know which cousin has the vital clues and images pasted into a scrapbook or a family bible or framed upon their kitchen wall.
I had an advantage over other families because much of our history was written on our walls. Most of the portraits were named on the back, so I was able to work out who those people were and what they did with their lives. Now when I look at the portraits, I know them nearly all by name and they no longer scare me at all.
About the author:
Turtle Bunbury is a best-selling author, historian and TV presenter based in Ireland.
His books include the Vanishing Ireland series, Sporting Legends of Ireland, The Irish Pub and Living in Sri Lanka. On the weekend of 9-10 June 2012, he will host the inaugural History Festival of Ireland at Lisnavagh House, Rathvilly, Co. Carlow.