What you will uncover about your family history depends on the quality of the surviving records for the area of origin, on the point from which you start and the most important ingredient of Irish research, luck. For the descendants of Catholic tenant-farmers, the limit is generally the starting date of the local Catholic parish records, which varies widely from place to place. However, it would be unusual for records of such a family to go back much earlier than the 1780s, and for most people the early 1800s is the more likely limit. In Gaelic culture genealogy was of crucial importance, but the collapse of that culture in the seventeenth century, and its subsequent impoverishment and oppression in the eighteenth century, have left a gulf that is almost unbridgeable. That said, exceptions immediately spring to mind. One Australian family, starting with only the name of their great-grandfather, his occupation and the date of his departure from Ireland, uncovered enough information through parish registers and State records of births, marriages and deaths to link him incontestably to the Garveys of Mayo, for whom an established pedigree is registered in the Genealogical Office stretching back to the twelfth century. An American family, knowing only a general location in Ireland and a marriage that took place before emigration, discovered that marriage in the pedigree of the McDermotts of Coolavin, which is factually verified as far back as the eleventh century. Discoveries like this are rare, however, and are much likelier for those of Anglo-Irish extraction than those of Gaelic or Scots Presbyterian extraction.
Whatever the outcome, genealogical research offers pleasures and insights that are unique. The desire that drives it is simple and undeniable: it is the curiosity of the child asking, 'Where did I come from?' All history starts from that primal question, and genealogy is the most basic form of history - tracing the continual cycle of family growth and demise, unravelling the individual strands of relationship and experience that are woven together in the great patterns of historical change. Reconstructing the details of your own family history is a way of understanding, immediately and personally, the connection of the present with the past - a way of understanding yourself.