Irish Roots

Novermber 16th, 2009

John Grenham


When researching in a record of any age, it is often useful to try to see it from the point of view of the individuals who created it and who are entered in it.

The obvious example is surname spelling variation. It can be very hard to convince someone who has spent a lifetime insisting that their surname is Brehony, not Breheny, that their ancestors may appear as Abraham, or Brehanny or Judge or any of 18 other variants. (The original is Mac an Bhreithiķn, son of the judge). In fact, I have seen successive members of the same family recorded as Abraham, then Breheny, then Judge, by the same priest in the same baptismal register. The main reason for such variation is straightforward. Until late in the nineteenth century, literacy was the exception in Ireland, not the norm, Irish was the main spoken language, and the principal concern of the vast majority of people was basic survival. In those circumstances, the precise spelling of a version of your name in a foreign language you canít read just doesnít matter.

Even in Dublin, purely English-speaking for seven centuries at least, record-keepers could treat each new occurrence of a surname as a fresh phonetic challenge, at least up to the mid-nineteenth century. Iíve seen records giving the same individual as Hempenstell, Hempenstall, Heptinstall and Hepenstel. Especially for digitised records that donít allow wild-card or variant searches, this can be a real problem.

It really is worth making the effort to effort to keep as open a mind as possible about possible variant spellings. If you donít, you may very well end up having to go back and research the same records more than once. I know. I was that researcher.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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