Irish Roots

April 5th, 2010

John Grenham

One of the most demoralising experiences in Irish family history research is a long session staring into a National Library microfilm reader at 19th-century parish registers. The combination of boredom and intense concentration is excruciating, compounded by the fear that a few minutes daydreaming can condemn you to having to go back and do it all again. In a large urban parish even a single year of baptisms can take a few hours to search. No wonder databases are so beloved by genealogists.

Having recently spent a long spell back with the microfilms again, this is all very vivid to me. But I was also struck again by some other aspects of looking at the original registers. First, and strongest, is the vertiginous realisation that everyone whose name youíre seeing is long dead, all the children, parents, godparents, priests, everyone. Then there is the almost physical connection with history, watching the total baptisms grow year by year, decade by decade through the 1820s and 1830s, until the second half of the 1840s when the numbers suddenly thin, the curatesí handwriting becomes shakier and itís impossible not to imagine whatís happening outside the church.

And the originals also have entire life stories compressed into a priestís outraged comment Ė ďan adulteress now gone to Crookhaven!Ē Ė as well as corrections, insertions, marginalia, blots, the occasional doodle: the complete messy texture of day-to-day life, in other words.

Database transcripts are wonderful, but they canít be substitutes for the original records. Thatís why the archival standard for digitising records is now a transcript linked to images of the originals, and itís one of the reasons why the National Archives census project has been such a success. May there be many more like it.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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