By Cady Kuzmich
Clifton Park — On the first Thursday of every month, Lisa Dougherty offers her genealogical expertise to the community at the Clifton Park – Halfmoon Public Library free of charge.
Originally from Glens Falls, Dougherty now lives in Guilderland and volunteers her time at libraries in the area. Her fascination with genealogy began in her teenage years with her own family tree
“It started in high school. My father was very interested in finding out where our Irish ancestors came from. He did some research and I helped,” said Dougherty. However, when she left to study Art History in college Dougherty said she let her love of genealogical research fall to the wayside.
About 25 years ago, Dougherty found her father’s research and picked up from where he left off.
He had written letters that were published in Irish newspapers. Luckily for Dougherty, some of those letters garnered responses from potential Irish relatives with information on their shared ancestors. She later used her father’s letters and the letters he received in response on her own research.
She explained that before the age of the internet, people interested in genealogy often relied on letters or ads published in newspapers searching for information from people with certain last names. “Back in those days it was all letter writing so that’s what they did,” said Dougherty.
Since she started digging for information about her ancestors she’s been to Ireland five times. Dougherty and her husband have four Irish ancestors from four different counties: Clare, Galway, Wicklow and Laois. She’s had the opportunity to connect with relatives on her pilgrimages to the Emerald Isle.
Based on her experience in Ireland, Dougherty said she found the people in Ireland to be more friendly and more eager to talk than many Americans she knows. “They’re always interested in what you’re looking for,” she said. “They’re more outgoing and willing to share what they know,” she added.
Though she works in various areas, Dougherty specializes in Irish ancestry. While she focuses on Irish ancestry, she said if she could meet one of her ancestors she would most like to meet an ancestor on the non-Irish side. “My great great grandfather [fought for the Union] in the Civil War. I would love to be able to meet him. He was from Schoharie County,” she said. She’s been able to trace her non-Irish side of the family back to the 1600s.
Success in genealogical research often comes down to a person’s motivation, according to Doughterty. “Some people will give up on the first sight of a foreign language. Other people aren’t daunted,” she said. She is largely self taught and has gained a working knowledge of Latin and other languages in order to interpret various documents. “A lot of the church records in Ireland are in Latin. You learn enough to be able to read what you want to read,” she said.
Reading old script can come as a challenge as well. “It takes a lot of practice. The more you see it, the better you get at reading it,” she said. Keeping context in mind and reaching out to others with a fresh pair of eyes helps her get the information she’s looking for.
“There are definitely some roadblocks to information especially in places where things were destroyed in World War II,” said Dougherty. She added, “Records become increasingly difficult to find before the 19th century in Ireland. A lot of people have the same names and the names tend to be fairly unimaginative. There may be seven Daniel Lynch’s in one area. It can be hard to differentiate one from another.” Still, she said, “Not a lot is impossible. You can usually get to the information you want.”
Dougherty’s advice to anyone beginning to research their ancestry is to start a conversation with living family members. She also advises budding genealogists to look through old papers to see if there is anything relevant like death records or birth certificates. “It’s always best to start with talking with people in your own family,” she said. When Dougherty works with people in the community, she helps them know what questions to ask and where to find records.
When it comes to why certain people feel motivated to connect with their ancestors through genealogy, Dougherty said “I think it’s personal for a lot of people. Genealogy is the one hobby anyone can do. Not all of us can play tennis or knit, but everybody has a family.”
Sometimes people come to her searching for a family history of a particular medical condition while others are curious about where their roots lie. “It’s an obsession for people in this country [to know where their name came from because we’re all immigrants. We all come from somewhere else and we all want to know where that somewhere else is.”