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An easy way to begin your ancestral search is by listening to older members of the family tell stories about their past _ tape-recording these provides mental pictures for later listeners. Use these memories, when possible, to begin keeping records of names, dates and places. Similarly, check for these details in old letters, diaries and family Bibles.

When you get serious about genealogy, select a key ancestor and trace birth date, marriage date, county and town of residence, parish church, occupation and date of emigration. Look for church registers, census returns, militia and yeomanry muster rolls, marriage bonds and hearth-money rolls.

Whether you intend to actually visit the country of your heritage or search from North America, start by writing to the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This agency has the largest collection of genealogical information in the world. Family history centers are scattered all over the country; volunteers will show you how to access information by using their computers, microfilm and microfiche.

We had previously traced our heritage and had visited ancestral territory in Wales and Sweden, but there was a gap: Ireland.

After checking stateside resources, we sent letters of inquiry to Ireland _ the parish church, a genealogical office, foundations, libraries and the Public Record Office in Belfast, as well as the Genealogical Office in Dublin. (These addresses are given here.)

It is a courtesy to send international reply coupons (obtainable from the post office here) for a response. If you choose to use a professional genealogist, be sure to find out the fees required.

The potato famine of the 19th Century sent waves of emigrants from this country. Now they also return, seeking ancestors. There are institutions and individuals geared up to help, and there are many records to peruse. Be sure to plan ahead, so that you know opening times of offices and can make appointments as necessary. But be prepared for a chance encounter that will lead to discovery: Part of the fun is finding someone who can add one more piece to your puzzle.

The problem for our quest was that our missing ancestor had left so long ago, in 1750. We knew the line from the time he arrived to settle in Virginia, but the years preceding it in Ireland were quite fuzzy, except for place names. Ultimately, we were to succumb to the fascination of reconstructing a small segment of the past.

John Carr was born June 16, 1684, in Scotland. The "Killing Time" there lasted from 1080 to 1688, and many Scots fled from religious persecution. In 1688 John Carr, 4, moved to Parish Aghnamullen, County Monaghan, Ireland, with his father, John, mother, Margaret, and brother, Peter, age 8. His maternal grandfather was Peter Kerr of Aghnamullen; paternal grandfather was Mark Karr (also spelled Ker and Kerr) of Yair, Scotland.

So, we had this much hard data to begin with as we reached Aghnamullen. Luckily, as we were trying to navigate our way through tiny country lanes without signs, we met a man who directed us to a garage owner. He knew everything and everybody in the nearby town of Ballybay.

He gave us a list of clergy in various churches as well as the name of a local historian. Irish luck was with us as the friendly historian dug out information, copied some records, and then drove to two sites with us. We found the family home on Mount Carmel and also the church with a Kerr burial vault.

Apparently the family moved at some point to the nearby town of Newbliss and so we drove there, only to find the church gate locked. We noticed a young couple, who lived in the adjoining gatehouse for the old Ker estate, in their garden. They invited us in and told us that there were 11 Kers buried in a vault under the church. We could, they said, drive up on the hill to see the one remaining section of the Ker house, a front entrance that now framed a pasture full of cows. Apparently, the townspeople had used the back road we drove up, while the Ker family alone used the path directly from the house to the church.

The next chapter tn the detective tale was based on a fact we had seen on a computer screen in the Mormon Center: John Carr had married Sarah Peake on Jan. 26, 1721, in Downpatrick Parish Church in County Down. By prearrangement we met Canon Marvin Dixon at Downpatrick Parish Church. He gave us a reference number for the marriage book, which was also recorded on microfilm in the Public Record Office in Belfast.

The church was built of gray stone, with a tower on one end; the original church dates from 1560 and the tower is from this time, while the rest of the church dates from 1735. We didn't see what happened to his first wife, but John Carr married Susan Kerr in the same church on April 17, 1732.

She was the daughter of David Kerr of Montalto in County Down, and that led us into another stage of the search.

Deirdre Armstrong, librarian in South Eastern Education Headquarters in Ballynahinch, had prepared a packet of material for us. She had copied Griffiths Valuation of 1863 and highlighted David Ker, a major landholder. Miss Armstrong noted that Ker's home, Montalto, "was recorded on Petty's Map of the Parish of Magheradroll. It is sketched as a single-story house with one door, two windows and a high chimney and is described as "a Thatcht House in Ballymaglagh Itra.' The sketch may merely have been a symbol. This house was probably first established as a hunting lodge."

By the end of the 18th century the estate, known as Montalto, was described in some detail by J. M. Johnston ... "the house has a plain appearance on the outside, but upon entering it, one is agreeably surprised to see a most magnificent library, finished in the most elegant manner, containing thirty thousand volumes, and many good paintings and curiosities ... "

Through an introduction from those helping us and the hospitality of the current owner, we saw that interior, now altered but still elegant. Our success ratio was running pretty high.

Next we met Dr. Roger Strong at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast. He gave us an orientation on his office, which holds records dating to the 14th century, deposited by government departments, law officials, local authorities, private individuals, churches, businesses and institutions. We had allowed only one day for research here _ our first big mistake. It was like discovering a gold mine without any time to dig out the ore.

Visitors must fill out a reader's application form, then watch the 8-minute video that explains office procedures. The Public Search Room is lined with books and card files; you can look up personal and place names in card indexes, then turn to the reference in catalogs. You fill in a request for each document you wish to see. You can also get a list of genealogical researchers who will pursue searches for a fee.

Our final stop was the State Heraldic Museum and Genealogical Office in Dublin. The Heraldic Museum displays a collection of specimens from Ireland and Europe through many centuries, and the Genealogical Office offers a consultancy service on ancestry tracing. A personal consultation costs 20 Irish pounds (about $33.50) in person, or 25 (about $42) by mail.

An Ancestry Tracing Research Pack includes principal sources, with information on civil records, parish records, census records, land/property records, wills and the registry of deeds. Also, the county source list, parish maps, and a map of Dublin with locations and opening times of record repositories and libraries are included. A list of professional researchers is available from the office.

At this point our time had run out. We had tracked John Carr with amazing success in both the north and south of Ireland and had seen many of the places in which he and his family had lived.

But there was one missing piece; although it has been surmised that he probably lived on a farm in County Down from 1732 until 1741, we do not know where. We'll have to return to County Down.

Patricia and Robert Foulke have toured the world together for more than 40 years and have written a number of guidebooks, most recently, Colonial America, A Traveler's Guide.