Review of Back to Our Past

Back to our Past (BTOP) has existed in a physical format for several years now. It usually comprises of an exhibition area with stands from various repositories, commercial entities and family history societies, and runs a strand of lectures on traditional genealogical research. In recent years, these lectures have been largely focused on records offered by sponsors of the event. Alongside these, Genetic Genealogy Ireland presents a lively selection of topics in that field. These are organised by Maurice Gleeson. The event usually takes place in the RDS in Dublin in mid-October.

Obviously Covid means that holding a physical event wasn’t a good idea this year, not least because the age profile of your typical person interested in family history may well mean they’re more vulnerable. The organisers of BTOP are Sports & Leisure Promotions and they’re not known for their stellar organisation skills. Initially, the online event was announced for a full week, and then later reduced to a more realistic 3 days. Tickets cost a very reasonable €10.

Virtual BTOP didn’t get off to a great start. Ticket holders were bombarded with reminders (some reporting as many as 5 per day) in the week leading up to the event. We were advised a link with a password would be sent to all talks on Thursday evening, but it took until noon on Friday to get that link, now without a password. I phoned them mid-morning to ask what was going on. “Technical hitches” was the answer but no one had thought to put this out on social media, which has remained silent all weekend.

I finally got a look at the first set of talks around noon. Initially some of the links all went to the same lecture but this was fixed later in the day. I also sent them an email about that but it was unacknowledged. How many people would have bothered to go back and see if a particular link was fixed though? Even at time of writing on Sunday, some other links are not working.

The talks are very much focused on the basics of genealogical research in Ireland. While this is great for new people, I’m not sure how many new people will have heard about the event, as advertising seems to have been limited. The speakers come from various fields: academia, ISOGG, the National Archives, AGI (the small professional body for genealogists in Ireland), EPIC Ireland and the commercial entities. The IGRS (of which I am part) seems to be the only family history society participating. Surprisingly, the National Library seems not to have been involved.

Particularly good talks were Maurice Casey’s talk on emigration, Brian Donnelly on the workhouse records and Tom Quinlan on convict records (both from the National Archives), though the latter made me wish more of their records were online. Thomas Murphy’s talk on British Army records will be of great use to those of us with military ancestors or someone who participated in the Great War. I also liked Eamon Healy’s talk on combining traditional research with genetic genealogy, but as he works for Ancestry, it naturally only focuses on their offerings.

Some of the presentations were more polished than others but there was no doubting the quality of the content. I think it would have looked smarter if all presentations used the same slide template…but maybe I’m being too picky. Similarly, while I’m sure all of the speakers were very knowledgeable, several of them are not practiced at public speaking.
The biggest problem I have with this event is the lack of a way to engage with the speakers and ask questions. All the talks were pre-recorded. There’s no forum, no social media Q&A, and this is a huge failing. Another nice inclusion might have been a general overview about what’s not online – and what might be digitised in the future.

The talks are available for 3 months after the event (though it’s not clear if you can buy a ticket after today). This is really great because you’d be hard pressed to get through them all quickly – there’s more than 30. The varying length is also good because you might have time for a half hour talk but not an hour at different times. There’s a lot to take in, especially if it’s new to you! Claire Santry has a full list of the talks here.

If you are looking for somewhere to chat about some of the content or ask questions, I recommend the Genealogy forum, which is free to use once you register on the site.