Meet the Bunbury Clan: Nobs, Naval Heroes, Sopranos, Planters. and Me; Historian and Author Turtle Bunbury Toured Ireland This Summer as Part of the Team from RTE1's the Genealogy Roadshow. through Exhaustive Research, He Helped to Uncover Extraordinary Stories about the Ancestry of Ordinary Irish People. Here, He Delves into His Own Past to See What Secrets Can Be Shaken from the Bunbury Family Tree

Article excerpt

Byline: Turtle Bunbury

WE'VE all had some decidedly unpleasant photographs hanging in our homes down the years. Whether it's the sullen child on Communion day or the sunburnt adult in that cheesy holiday snap, they give a home character. But in the big dusty house of my childhood, there was little charm in the pictures that adorned the walls.

I grew up at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains in a house called Lisnavagh. It lies close to the village of Rathvilly, Co. Carlow, in a landscape bound by overgrown ringforts, a defiant dolmen and the last crumbling traces of an Augustinian abbey.

The corridors of our big old house were lined with oil 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.

Then, in 1988, I was a bored 16-year-old 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' apparently arrived in England and was granted the lordship of 'Boniface's Borough' in Cheshire.

As a child who was always obsessed by the past, you can imagine what a treasure trove this was. I know that many think of history as the dullest subject ever invented, and can't wait to finish studying it. But I struck lucky and had several good teachers who instilled in me a love of bygone days.

It was family history that caught my attention most. Finally I could find out who all those people in the portraits were. My father was also about to turn 50 so I thought an updated family tree would be an ideal gift for the occasion.

As I sat in the dusty attic and 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, which was descended from Benjamin Bunbury, who arrived here in the 1660s.

The tree stopped at about 1830 although someone had tried to pencil in a few later generations.

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.

There's tourism money in it too. If you can tell an American or an Australian which townland in Ireland their ancestors hailed from, there's a very good chance they will come and visit it. And if they enjoyed the visit, they will bring their family next time.

The 1901 and 1911 censuses have done much to enable people to work out which street their forebears were resident in 100 years ago. Resources like Griffith's Valuations, the Tithe reports and specific church records can also be helpful. Add in the wonders of Google, and the possibilities for researching one's family history are expanding at an extraordinary rate.

I specialise in producing family history books, profiling each generation in turn. It's all about keeping the history flowing, peppering it with detail about the main events, countries, professions and people that shaped their lives. …