In October 2018 Gillian Hunt and Fintan Mullan delivered the Irish stream of the British Institute in Salt Lake City for the first time. Organised by the International Society of British Genealogy and Family History (ISBGFH) this prestigious annual event enables family historians to participate in a week-long programme comprising taught classes plus hands on research in the Family History Library. On the same trip, they also delivered workshops at Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook IL and in Manchester NH for the New England Historic Genealogical Society in partnership with the New Hampshire Historical Society.

Tour report by Fintan Mullan

Anyone who has travelled in rural Ireland will know that the pub is central to life on this island. In isolated communities it doubles as shop, post office, meeting place, local community centre, watering hole and office: it is where business gets done. No surprise then that it was in an Irish bar in Philadelphia where we were first approached to participate in the British Institute hosted by the International Society for British Genealogy and Family History (ISBGFH).

It was March 2015 and we were delivering a programme for our friends, the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (GSP), in one of the most fun settings in which we have presented during the Foundation’s annual lecture tours – where better than an Irish pub in downtown ‘Philly’.

This inspired idea allowed participants to enjoy their preferred tipple while scribbling notes about Irish research. At the end of the evening ISBGFH President, Francis Southcott, asked if we would be interested and a few months later he confirmed that they would like us to present the Irish stream at the Institute in October 2018.

Salt Lake City is an attractive town, nestled in a bowl of mountains, its fine, wide boulevards (laid out as many American cities were, to be wide enough to turn a full team drawing a cart, in this case the design was stipulated by Brigham Young) run straight for miles, and the city has a positive, healthy-looking disposition (in the main – all large cities have their woes).

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As we arrived SLC, as one inevitably feels compelled to call it, was beginning to put on its winter coat with a light dusting atop the mountains surrounding us. Chilly at dawn and dusk, but warm in the glorious sunshine, it was a picturesque backdrop for an exciting and enjoyable week for Gillian Hunt and Fintan Mullan.

The format of the Institute is ingeniously devised: classes in the morning in the Salt Lake Plaza Hotel, a quick lunch, and then a stroll, literally around the corner, to the Family History Library. You could say it is extremely convenient having one of the most comprehensive and well-equipped genealogical research libraries in the world on your doorstep, but of course that is the point of holding the British Institute in SLC.

With complementary programmes also offered on Scottish, Welsh and English family history, we gathered Sunday evening for the meet and greet before the work started 8:00am, Monday morning. If you have not experienced a British Institute programme before, and you can, you should. Superbly well organised by the indefatigable Director, Kathleen Ackerman, supported by a very active board of trustees, they believe in being centrally involved. Interestingly, many members of the ISBGFH board attend the different streams in person. Thus they were on hand to assist, chat, encourage and commiserate (not all brick walls can be overcome, at least in one go), during the week.

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An intriguing aspect of the Institute programmes is their location in the heart of SLC. For the very few to whom this is not known, the city is the homeplace of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you were unaware of this fact beforehand, you could not possibly pass through the city centre without it becoming hugely and immediately apparent to you. Very soon you know you are at the headquarters of a global institution. In quick succession and just minutes from the Salt Lake Plaza we find: the Family History Library, Temple Square, the Assembly Hall, the Tabernacle building (of the Tabernacle Choir fame), the Temple, the Brigham Young Monument, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the Church Office Building, the Church Administration Building, the Lion House and the Beehive House (the latter two originally homes where Brigham Young lived).

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With so many related buildings in such a small vicinity, in an unusual way it is not unlike the feeling one has visiting the Vatican City. Of course so much is totally different: an entirely different continent, the local geography, the city architecture, the street patterns, the language, the people, the way the people look, the fact there are perhaps fewer panhandlers and street hawkers selling ‘selfie-sticks’. However if visiting aliens were making a recce of various world cities, their cog notes for the Vatican and SLC might identify some commonalities: the imposing buildings closely grouped together, the cluster of so many visitors and families milling around in reverent awe at all times of the day, the unrelenting activity of those directly involved. In the Vatican it might be nuns from the four corners of the earth scurrying across St Peter’s Square; in SLC more often than not it is young and old, more formally dressed than one would find in most western cities, sporting name badges declaring ‘Elder’, ‘Sister’, etc. Suffice to say it adds greatly to the spectacle and experience that is the British Institute, and we have not yet even discussed the research.

We were there of course to deliver a five-day programme exploring Irish and Scots-Irish family history, and to ensure that each participant had the opportunity to avail of a 20 minute one-to-one research consultation. As a welcome by-product we got to spend four afternoons exploring the Library’s hugely impressive Irish collection, and play a game that is an old favourite of the Foundation’s Research Officer – which UHF titles can she spot. By way of warm up for the Institute, we delivered a one-day programme for our pals, Tina and Debra, in Plainfield and Fountaindale Public Libraries, in Bolingbrook IL, a fabulous facility with exceptional staff. We were thrilled to meet a number of friends there, including Carol Schmidt, who contributed a piece on finding her ancestral home in County Fermanagh, in the 2017 Directory.

By way of warm down (and as it so happens warm up again – for the first date of the March 2019 lecture tour) the staff delivered another day-long programme with partners the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the New Hampshire Historical Society at the end of our October visit. Here with Ginevra Morse and the NEHGS team we explored Irish research in the context of the 1718 migration. Thus our last event in USA in 2018 was Manchester NH, whereas our first date in 2019 will be in Concord NH.

A great camaraderie develops at the British Institute courses, and not just within a specific stream, eg Welsh, Scottish, etc, but across the whole ‘class of ’18’. To facilitate and encourage this, the organisers stage a number of social events, including a welcome dinner on the top level of the Joseph Smith building, from which the views are mightily impressive, not least of the imposing Temple, dramatically lit at night.

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Thanks to the generosity of David Rencher and his team, the presenters had a second chance to enjoy the views of sunset over SLC from the top floor of the Joseph Smith building in each other’s company. Foundation staff had the chance to relax and chat with Else Churchill and Alec Tritton from the Society of Genealogists (old hands at the Institute who had participated several times before); Paul Milner (the Scottish instructor), an impressively-gifted and knowledgeable speaker, researcher and writer; and the delightful and self-effacing Beryl Evans (Tracing Your Welsh Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians), who like ourselves, was another Institute ‘newbie’.

Genealogists are generally a nice bunch of people. Exchanging information, sharing research tips and supporting those with less experience are common traits in what is often a very social and mutually enjoyable activity, and so it proved in the Irish stream. It helped that a number of our classmates were volunteers in the Library and therefore able to chip in nuggets of information about the Library’s holdings, or demonstrate resources directly to fellow students during the afternoon sessions.

Moreover, we were joined in the class by no less than three of the ISBGHF board including: Frank (Southcott) our principal host; Barbara Scanlon, who in her spare time is an Irish language enthusiast – in the caffeine-free environment, we yearned for an cupán tae (interestingly, we met Barbara in Omaha NE in March 2018); and David Rencher, well known to many genealogists, and the much-admired Director of the Family History Library in SLC. Having such accomplished genealogists in the class was a major asset.

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For example, David was able to appraise fellow classmates of resources held in the Library which had been mentioned in the presentations, and throughout the week there was an air of good-humoured positivity and mutual support; a wonderful experience (for us at least). The application of the knowledge shared in the morning sessions in practical research in the afternoon visits to the Library was a great boon, and the presenters enjoyed talking to each participant in turn, and we hope helped to overturn a few unturned stones in their research.

The buzz of the Institute was felt in the foyer, corridors and meeting rooms of the hotel, as speakers and students came and went for the classes. In addition, we would meet others there delivering unrelated programmes, or visitors meeting fellow genealogists, all in town to use the Library. It was thus no coincidence that we met our friends Stan Lindaas and his wife Raquel (our hosts for the programme in SLC on 14/15 March 2019) separately on different days, each doing their own genealogical thing.

Delightful too was it for us to be joined in SLC by our supporters and good friends ‘the Clares’. Professionals from the east coast, who have supported us consistently since 2000 and earlier, such is their knowledge of Irish research they could deliver the Irish programme themselves. To our horror they were not participating in the Irish stream, rather the Scottish and Welsh courses. Having recovered from this trauma, it was a delight to meet them at lunchtime and evenings to discuss the day’s events, victories and challenges. Interesting too was mulling over the advice offered in their course – research techniques having application in a broader British Isles context.

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One of the pleasures of the visit, in contrast to the frenetic energy of the March lecture tours, was being able to slow the pace and enjoy spending a week in one location. This was from the point of view of both delivering the course and relaxing at the end of the day. SLC is a quite liveable and easy-going city, if at times having a penchant for the unusual. In terms of dining an odd one was certain establishments’ insistence that as a ‘family’ restaurant dishes had to be ordered to share, i.e. a double portion or more, meaning individuality in menu choices was out. We put it down to the Mormon love of family, but it did lead to protracted negotiations over what dishes arrived at the table.

The British Institute is a well-organised, professionally-delivered, well-attended programme that draws on the expertise of many in a spirit of mutually-supportive and good-natured, collegiate industry. ISBGFH is a highly-competent institution, striving to deliver top-class programmes for the benefit of members and serious family historians. The roster of accomplished speakers changes year-on-year, but the core mechanics remains the same, and it works. Indeed, it is strongly recommended. For our part the staff of the Foundation found it a most rewarding and enjoyable experience.