"If it was a moose you’d be dead"

In May 2005 while driving towards the small town of Cranbrook, British Columbia, in a GMC minivan, my colleague, Dr Brian Trainor and I, had what Ambrose Bierce might call an ‘occurrence’.

Less than an hour through the US-Canadian border we were travelling with haste, on account of knowingly being behind schedule, through a heavily wooded area on a three lane highway (one of those layouts with one lane either side and a passing strip in between for those who are brave enough to play chicken with oncoming traffic) when we were hit by a rather large animal.

The impact was bang on the rump for him and direct in the face – our front grill and radiator – for us. It was probably a deer we concluded, later confirmed in the post-match analysis with our tow-truck guy, who assured us, in response to my query ‘was it a deer or a moose?’, that ‘if it was a moose you’d be dead’.

Car crash

The beast had wrecked our car. Almost immediately after the impact every light on the dashboard lit up and we were forced to pull over. Luckily a highway maintenance team, all wearing high visibility tabards were working nearby, and spotting the round-eyed alarm of two individuals who had not been in before, what Canadians’ euphemistically refer to as ‘a high impact zone’, called a tow truck to take us to town.

So began one of those experiences which occasionally arise on a road trip: where what seems to be the very worst day in your life, turns out to be one of the best. Forced to take time out from a schedule that one hour ago seemed unmovable, it was an occasion to reflect how decent people can be. And it taught us a lot.

First, that women who work in a blue collar world can not only be as tough as diamond, but the very definition of practicality and kindness. The sole task of the woman at the counter of the wrecker’s yard (from the company’s point of view) was to take the $150 which we owed them for towing our wreck to the depot.

But she did not stop there: she harangued, badgered and cajoled car rental offices on both sides of the border to ensure a new vehicle was delivered to us before the end of that day. She also fixed us up with a room at a nearby motel.

Second, as was pointed out by a gentleman standing behind me in the queue in the tow-truck office, when he asked what had happened to us, for insurance purposes, it is important to indicate that the deer hit you, and not you the deer.

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Third, a relaxing afternoon in the Lazy Bear Lodge, and an interesting meal from a husband and wife team in a restaurant with a novel blend of fusion cuisine – Austrian and Pacific, with a soupçon of western Canadian – can force one in to a contemplative mood, as you re-evaluate what you do and why you do it. Why was it that we were marooned in Cranbrook in rural British Columbia?

You see we were on our way to a family history workshop in Calgary, Alberta, which obviously had to be cancelled that evening, but, in what is not the least impressive aspect of the story, did go ahead the following evening, with almost a full complement of attendees. The only people unable to attend were a squad of ladies who had come down from Edmonton and who had to return home the following day, thus missing the rescheduled event.

The return journey to Spokane WA, two days later, was less fraught but still resulted in us being almost paralysed with fear when a group of four tiny deer ambled on to the road and would not budge.

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And Banff National Park had the last laugh by introducing us to every cloven-hoofed, horned creature it could magic up – small antelope, curly-horned sheep, goats with spiral horns, conical horns and weird critters which sat in clear view from the roadside verge taunting us that at any minute they would dart out on to the road, necessitating another stay at the Lazy Bear Lodge.

Luckily we made it and this experience became a motif for future tours. Ulster Historical Foundation is one of the only organisations in the British Isles to undertake regular lecture tours in North America (and willingly Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain if invited): the staff are the intrepid travellers of Irish genealogy. The Foundation will go anywhere to speak to interested parties about family history research. So why do we do it?

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In these enterprises it is important to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Brian Trainor, former Deputy Keeper and CEO of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), Director of Ulster Historical Foundation and emeritus Research Director of the Foundation.

Early in his tenure Brian recognised the value and utility of family and local history to archives and made concerted efforts during his career and since ‘retirement’ from the post of Deputy Keeper to promote PRONI, the Foundation and genealogy to non-specialist users.

The road miles covered by Brian Trainor in promoting Irish records (he also served as Chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission, April 1976 to April 1977 and then again from April 1987 to April 1998) locally since the 1960s and overseas since the late 1970s must be acknowledged as a contributing factor in the improvement of services for family historians and in drawing researchers to these shores.

Brian was still involved in the lecture tours in North America until 2013 (at the tender age of 85). Subsequently our Research Officer, Gillian Hunt, joined the lecture tour team. Since Brian initiated the North American lecture tours in the late 1970s the staff of the Foundation have spoken in 45 of the 50 states, and many of those states on numerous occasions.

In addition, representatives of the Foundation have visited Australia and New Zealand several times in the past 20 years, and regularly take part in events in Ireland and the UK: a clear demonstration that the staff are willing to travel to any location to speak to people interest in Ulster and Irish ancestral research.

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