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14. Alternative Views about Identity

Understanding Identity Through Genealogy 

Although the ‘Orinoco Expedition’ (articles #11 and #12 GKIS) changed the course of his investigation into the nature of identity, Raymond Keoghauthor of Shelter and Shadows—continued to encounter difficulties.[1]

FACES and Identity

“Theatre” by Agnes Conway Cabinteely Park County Dublin

He came to the conclusion that in order to understand identity through genealogy it is necessary to examine the full range of cultural forces emanating from all sides of a family. We must include all factors that contribute to our makeup andat the same timeacknowledge all divisions and cultural contradictions. But, what then? How do we join our disparate parts in one harmonious whole, particularly where these parts are in conflict?

Incorporating Ancestors on all Sides

The logical conclusion was to widen the searchbeyond parental surnamesto include an exploration of ancestors on all sides without limits. Indeed this approach accords with the highest aspiration of the family historian, which is to collect information about the totality of our ancestors. But the exercise inevitably ends up with tattered edges as we run out of leads.


Genealogical Tree of Maria Justina und Johann Maximilian zum Jungen

Nonetheless, having become convinced that his enquiry was too narrow, Raymond decided to expand it as far as he could to accommodate all his known surnames.

The scope of his investigation had to be limited to four generations because, beyond his great-grand-parents, some family names were uncertain or missing and would give rise to a lopsided analysis. He boasted eight surnames over four generations. Six of these would be recognised as Gaelic Irish, two would be deemed foreign, or at least non-Gaelic.

The result of this exercise was: On the basis of surnames alone, he was not a pure Gael. He could claim to be 75% native Irish, assuming of course, no contamination from non-Irish sources in his Gaelic surnames. The remaining names were British and maybe Jewish in origin. However, in contemporary terms these are Irish, though not Gaelic.

The term Irish, therefore, embraces a wide spectrum of possibilities. He became dissatisfied with this outcome because it included all-comers based on long-term residency in Ireland and this appeared to diminish distinctiveness. He concluded that it was difficult, if not impossible, to create a unique identity based on surnames alone.

Numbers of Ancestors

Source Keogh Photography

Identity & numbers

Another approach when determining identity through genealogy is to consider ancestral numbers. Each of us has a mother and father; each of them, in turn, had a mother and father. In other words, the numbers involved in the reproductive process doubles from generation to generation. As we widen our search to include the entirety of our ancestors, the numbers of reproductive events and their geographic spread increase accordingly. But the further back in time we go the fewer people there were on the face of the earth.

If we take the process to about nineteen generations, the mathematical numbers surpass the total possible population of Ireland at the time. How are the two sets of numbers—the reproductive events and the total population—reconciled? The apparent contradiction underlines the fact that a particular conception is often shared by many descendants and shows that the population of a certain geographic area is highly inter-related. It does not necessarily mean that our ancestors were evenly distributed across a particular geographic territory like the island of Ireland; it is more likely that they came from clusters of people.

Defining identity in this manner, therefore, means being able to identify these ancestral clusters and understand their dynamics through time. Given the lack of information about Gaelic culture in Ireland, cluster analysis of this type is well into the future.

Serious Limitations 

Several other approaches were explored. However, Raymond recognised that he was floundering in a river of theories, concepts and ideas but had to admit that his attempts at determining identity through surnames or cluster analysis of social groups were severely limited. Perhaps the genealogical or family history approach to identity is erroneous.

One final hope: If genealogy is unable to offer a satisfactory solution, what about the humanities? Is philosophy not the most appropriate disciplines to provide an answer to the question: What exactly is identity? The discussion now looks at contemporary views held by the humanities … with a surprising outcome.


[1] Keogh, R. M. Shelter and Shadows. (To be published in September 2016 as part of The Gerald Keogh Identity Series).

GKIS Gerald Keogh Identity Series


Contemporary Views of Identity here