Irish Roots


February 23 2015

Surname and placename standardisation

John Grenham

No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise. After decades of staring at Griffith's Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation), I only recently realised that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. Anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings knows that this can't be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith's share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.

The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that's how the place name will appear in Griffith's. That's what made it possible to create the direct click-through from place name to Griffith's on the Irish Ancestors site - see tinyurl.com/npxqfm7 for example.

So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith's standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith's is a tax survey and a misspelt surname is the most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.

For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as "Curlie", "Curly" or "Corly", the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became "Curley".

This is not a terribly useful research tool - the advice must continue to be "cast the net as wide as possible". But for larger-scale population and surname studies that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.

Have a look at all those Curleys: tinyurl.com/qccu24x.

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