Irish Roots


February 17th 2014

New York records tackled at last

John Grenham

New York is not an Irish city in the way that Boston is. Too many great waves of migration have washed through it for any one group to claim dominance. But according to the U.S. federal census of 1890, in that year it held the largest Irish-born population of any city on the planet, making it a contender to be Ireland's true capital at the end of the 19th century.

The after-effects of that great surge of post-Famine migration have ensured that, dominant or not, Irish remains a very strong background flavour in the city. So you'd expect New York to be a thriving hub of Irish-American genealogy, but it isn't.

One reason is that the city is cursed with an abundance of records. A big difference between rural and urban life is that cities demand much greater interaction with officialdom, and thus produce much larger trails of records. And some of those records can be weirdly wonderful. My favourite is the New York Emigrant Savings Bank where, instead of a PIN number, customers had to supply details of marriage, siblings, Irish place of origin and more (see ancestry.com).

But the astonishing thing is that such a small proportion of New York's vast collection of records is actually online. Almost everything is still sitting in Municipal Archives, the health departments, local courthouses and libraries and, above all, in the 396 Roman Catholic city parishes. Almost none of these parishes have records available anywhere other than in their own presbytery.

Getting a comprehensive overview of New York records has long seemed impossible. Not any more. Joe Buggy, a recent Irish-born emigrant, has gone hand-to-hand with the many-headed hydra and has produced a book that is both a serious research guide and a highly detailed reference work. Finding your Irish Ancestors in New York City is published by GPC in Baltimore (genealogical.com).

It is a tremendous achievement.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishroots(at)irishtimes.com.

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