Irish Roots


August 4, 2014

Why can't you find your Irish ancestors online?

John Grenham

You know your ancestors are on the internet somewhere, the blasted things, but they're just not showing up. Why?

Maybe you're not taking a cautious enough approach to surnames. Look closely and on one page, your granny's a Breheny, on the next she's a Judge. Here your family is Mahony, there Canniff. Sometimes you can almost see the priest flipping a coin at the baptism: heads the child is Phelan, tails Whelan.

Alright, so you're as sceptical as vinegar about surnames. But still you sometimes can't help relying on websites' built-in surname variant searches. Don't. On Rootsireland.ie, the single most important Irish genealogy site, searching for Whelan will get you Whaelen, Waylan, Phaelan, Ó Faolaín . But it won't get you Phelan. Go figure.

So you know in your bones that you can never, ever trust an Irish surname. But your ancestors still aren't where they should be. "Where" can also be slippery. Parishes shrank, grew, split and renamed themselves, county borders wobbled and straightened, registration districts were slapped down so that they cut across every other boundary. Lines on a map can be very seductive, but you need to be very wary of them. I know. I've drawn some dodgy maps in my time.

Or is there an unremarked gap in the records? An example: the (wonderful) National Archives genealogy site digitised their Tithe Books by using the existing microfilms, which were sorted alphabetically by parish name. But the digitisers missed one microfilm, with the result that 12 parishes, between "Drum" and "Dunc" are just not online.

And then of course, there's the possibility that your ancestors simply didn't want to be found. The recently-released Dublin city electoral rolls 1908-1915 (dublinheritage.ie) contains names that look suspiciously like bad aliases, including Mary Innocent and Timothy Guilty, Thomas History, Harry Mayo and the badly misjudged "Olive O'Ireland


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