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Getting Started on your genealogy

How far back can I trace my Ó Dochartaigh ancestry?

When I was a child, I dreamed of discovering my Ó Dochartaigh lineage back to the legendary progenitor of the clann, Dochartach, and on to the ancient Irish pedigrees. Unfortunately for many in the Ó Dochartaigh diaspora, the sparse amount of records existing from frontier areas, the low quality of data collected in early census records, and the loss of records from frequent historic courthouse fires, among other things, all too often make it hard to even find one's immigrant ancestor, much less his or her native townland in Ireland. Furthermore, due to the destruction of many Irish records, even if you are able trace your ancestor back to Ireland—or if your ancestors never left—it's often impossible for most families to trace their Irish ancestors beyond the 1800s.

How can we connect to the heritage of our ancestral Ó Dochartaighs?

Being that the Ó Dochartaigh family of yonder centuries was a tight knit community who worked and played, fought and prayed, and lived and died together for more than a millennium in the Donegal area of Ireland, understanding the social order of Gaelic Ireland and the history of the Ó Dochartaigh clann of these bygone eras, is truly an understanding of our own ancestors who were each an integral part of that proud group who were descended from the legendary princes and kings of Ireland. That is the concept of this Ó Dochartaigh Clann History site—to unite those of our clann and our name together in a deeper understanding and appreciation of our rich heritage.

Before you start...

It's so very easy and enticing for an aspiring genealogist to join one of the major genealogy subscription databases and copy the family trees that others have created—many times taking you back to the ancient times. I learned the hard way that many of the public member trees were incorrect and lost many hours I'll never get back researching people who were not even my ancestors. Over a period of time, I learned to research, analyze, and document my sources properly. Few public member trees have the proper chain of sources really needed to document that their family tree is correct; and if you can't document it, it's really no better than being made up. Sure, I'd like to hang a Ó Dochartaigh pedigree on my wall that traces my ancestry directly back for a hundred and fifty generations—but I'm not going to make it up and I'm not going to make a guess at who my family might have been. I want to know the truth. I have resolved myself that knowing and preserving the stories of the ancestors I do know, and the stories I'm able to extract by digging out historical documents that lay in dusty old courthouse basements—as well as understanding the historical and cultural context of my ancestor's life—is much more important and valuable than a long list of storyless names that I have no more than a guess that they might be my ancestors. I recommend everyone read the article Ancestors: What Constitutes Proof from Roberta Estes' blog DNAeXplained, as well as endeavor to use the Genealogical Proof Standard in their work.

Where to start?

The indexed records on the major genealogy subscription databases are really just the starting point. To be successful one should identify what records are available for the time period and region he or she is searching, then do an exhaustive search of them. This may involve searching unindexed digitized records, obtaining inter-library loans of old books, renting microfilm from the Family History Library, and searching records in Ireland by hiring a professional researcher or visiting Ireland yourself.

Our most valuable heritage is too often lost

In most instances, historical records are being continually preserved, digitized, and indexed, however, our most valuable connections to the past are being lost with every tick of the clock. Our most treasured history often goes unnoticed by the average person interested in genealogy: our stories, our photographs, and our DNA.



With each tick of the clock our minds grow older and the stories tucked away in our family's memories get a little further away. Sadly many of our family stories die by the grave. Few take the time to record and preserve these treasures. While there may be discrepancies or coloration in some family stories, there's often at least a root of truth. Some family stories hide hints that can help us uncover more of our history and point at where to look. Others make no sense at all, but with some later genealogical discovery all the pieces fall into place and it makes perfect sense. If for nothing else, it's at least a good story for telling around the campfire or at bedtime, just like we read fairy tales. That said, there's often tons of meaningful history that can be gathered. I started with a cassette recorder as a boy asking my grandpa stories, but now I use a cell phone voice recorder. It's best to make a list of family history interview questions (there are many online), but I don't let it run my interview. I ask open-ended questions that encourage memories to flow and then segue from one topic to another that I would've never thought to ask by asking related questions based on the story I just learned. Later on I transcribe them. I ask not only my ancestors, but also their siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and others that knew the family, friends, or ever neighbors.



Often, old photographs have no names written on the back and there may well be only one such photograph in existence. I carried a scanner and laptop and visited parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins, scanning the old photos of my ancestors and their families at high resolution. If they don't know who someone is, I print a copy and take it to family reunions to ask other family members if they recognize them. If I hadn't asked them and then scanned them, most of these photos would've been lost forever, as the people inheriting them would've never known who they were and thus the value and meaning behind them.



With each generation autosomal DNA is roughly halved. So instead of taking an autosomal DNA test to research my Dougherty ancestors, I had my Grandpa Dougherty take one, because he had around four times the amount of DNA from the Dougherty side more than I do. Y-DNA and mt-DNA are more stable, but it's still helpful to have DNA from the earliest generation possible, as mutations do randomly occur (my grandpa and I have a genetic distance of 1: i.e., there was a mutation between him and myself). Having his DNA was instrumental in discovering how close we actually were to the other lineages that existed just beyond our brick-wall ancestor.

An Example Research Project

We have posted an example research project in the Genealogy pages so you can read and analyse various methods of research (the Ancestry of Roswell Dougherty & Henry Dougherty). This particular project took a group of cousins seven years to crack and involved visiting many states and searching records, as well as strongly employing DNA evidence. Your project might not be so time consuming, but it should give you an idea of methods you can use to break your "brick-wall" and find your ancestor. Zack Daugherty, an Administrator of the Doherty Surname DNA Project at FamilyTreeDNA, said: “I really enjoyed reading this exhaustive work and love how DNA was heavily leveraged to prove/disprove certain hypotheses. I recommend that many Ó Dochartaigh project members read this write-up to foster ideas on what they can do in their own research. A model example.” Check it out and see what you think!

Genetic Genealogy

No modern genealogy research project is truly complete without the use of DNA. Y-DNA is great for the study of a male's paternal line while mtDNA is great for researching a maternal line. Autosomal DNA, on the other hand, may be inherited from any ancestor and can be useful, but only back 5 to 7 generations. It's not the ethic makeup that's really important when it comes to uncovering your ancestors—it's who you match that counts and identifying triangulation groups among them. The Ó Dochartaigh Y-DNA study conducted by the DNA committee of the Association of the Ó Dochartaighs is one of the most developed Y-DNA surname studies to date and is very helpful in breaking through brick walls in your paternal Ó Dochartaigh lineage.


Write Your Story

Write a narrative or story of what you discover so that your heritage is preserved and your family can appreciate your work. Be sure to document your sources in the footnotes, so that you or your family can pick up where you left off later on. Documenting your family history correctly, in a way which would be recognized by professionals in the field takes time and hard work, but it's very much worth it.


Don't get hung up on your current spelling of the name. Many records were created by people who didn't know how your ancestor spelled their name. Also, I've discovered many times our ancestors spelled their names differently in their own handwriting over the years (historically writing was often more about phonetics than spelling).

Most of all...Have fun!!!

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