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The Luck of the Irish

By Daniel Hubbard | March 20, 2011

Another St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone. My kids are quite aware of being Swedish. They were born in Sweden after all. They’ve also been told more than once that their ancestry is more German than anything else. This time of year though, I get to remind them that they are part Irish as well. We ate corned beef, cabbage and potatoes for dinner and listened to some Irish music. I also told them a bit about the Irish that are scattered haphazardly throughout the family tree.

Those Irish ancestors got me thinking about luck—the “luck of the Irish.” I admit I’ve never really understood that phrase, the history of Ireland doesn’t give one the feeling that good fortune is what was going on. Some contend that “the luck of the Irish” is one of those phrases that has lost its original meaning. The irony has gone out of it and bad luck has been linguistically transformed to good. Others say that it originated with a few Irish who got lucky in the California gold fields. I tend to believe the first explanation.

An 1849 vision of the Potato Famine

My first Irish ancestor arrived in the 1660s. She was an indentured servant sold to a Chesapeake planter. Servitude on a tobacco plantation was probably never a part of life’s good fortune. She bore a few illegitimate children and received the punishment that was due to any servant who became pregnant and thus deprived her master of her labor. Eventually, the father of her children was forced to marry her. When she married and left her master’s service she was sued for leaving too early. Then her husband ran off, never to be seen again and leaving her with four children. Luck?

My next Irish ancestors went to Canada as cheap labor for canal construction. Perhaps they were lucky. They left before the famine of the 1840s.

My last Irish immigrant family was not quite so lucky. They were in Ireland when the famine arrived. On the other hand, they did make it to America during the famine years. They didn’t starve or succumb to disease on the voyage. Perhaps in a way they were lucky.

Genealogical Luck

One of the aunts who got me started in family history when I was a kid accused me of having the luck of the Irish (in the modern, positive sense) when we went researching together.  I think it had more to do with the fact that she was working on a very difficult problem and I was just starting out. I had a very good mentor in her and had many things to find that were not particularly well hidden.

Of course, luck does play a roll. Anyone can be lucky with a big find but to be lucky continuously requires something more. One saying, attributed to Louis Pasteur, “luck favors the prepared mind,” gets to the heart of the matter. It sounds like the seed of some good advice.

So, what is a prepared genealogical mind? Gathering together the information you have about a problem is a good start. Having your information organized and at your finger tips or better yet, clear in your mind, is a great enhancer of luck. You have a much better chance of being lucky if you have the information to guide you to the most likely places to find important data. It is much easier to be “lucky” looking through the most likely places to find clues than it is when looking at things that miss the mark.

If you have the problem and your data and a good deal of background information in your head, you have a much better chance of that one vital but obscure clue leaping out at you. A tangential reference to Jefferson County that you remember in your data might turn a reference to Jefferson County in a new source from something meaningless to something that suddenly leads you in a new direction. Your mind was prepared and you got “lucky.”

A mind prepared with an understanding of the problem is also a mind that has a much easier time thinking creatively. On of the problems of genealogy is keeping on the correct side of the line between creativity and gullibility. Knowing the constraints and how likely they are to be correct helps to keep people on the creative side of that line. Creativity without any constraints has little chance of succeeding. With a prepared mind you just might be “lucky” enough to have the creativity to notice and take advantage of the information that you were just “lucky” enough to come across.

What it all boils down to is that most luck in research isn’t really luck at all. It is a mixture of selectivity, insight and creativity that come with a prepared mind.


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Topics: Creativity, Genealogy, Methods | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “The Luck of the Irish”

  1. Nancy Says:
    March 20th, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks for the insights you’ve offered in this post. I believe you’re right – even if names, places, and events are only in the back of our minds, they can pop forward when the right “hint” comes along.

    As I was preparing a St. Patrick’s Day post for my blog I searched Irish idioms. “Luck of the Irish” caught my eye. The author (whose site I didn’t save) stated that it was a derogatory term: the only way an Irishman could possibly succeed at anything was by luck. I had not known before reading it that the Irish were looked upon so negatively.

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    April 2nd, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks Nancy. I hadn’t run across that interpretation of the luck of the Irish but I can imagine it is possible. It might even be connected to the gold field explanation.