Irish Roots

November 28th, 2011

John Grenham


My first serious experience of the unreliability of database transcripts came with the FamilyTreeMaker CD-ROM index to Griffith's Valuation published in 1998. Compared to the blunt instruments previously in use as finding aids, it was a wonderful tool. You could juggle with place-names and wildcards, confine searches to particular parishes, even search on first names. But after a while I came across something odd. No one listed in the parish of St. Patricksrock in Tipperary had a surname starting before the letter "M". Evolution may sometimes work in startling ways, but it doesn't do alphabetical order. No Dwyers in Cashel in 1851? So I started to check adjoining parishes. It turned out that precisely the same problem was there in around 30 other parishes, all in the barony of Middlethird in south Tipperary. Then I noticed that most of Limerick city was missing. Then stories started to emerge from local history and genealogy groups of entire townlands missing or truncated. And soon it was very clear that there were serious problems with the whole thing.

You would expect that once the news of these problems had spread, the index would just be thrown out the nearest window. But that didn't happen. It was simply too useful to give up on completely. Instead, if a researcher didn't find what they were looking for, they simply fell back on the earlier finding aids. The CD provided a great new shortcut, but using it meant learning to negotiate your way around its large holes.

The index has now been superceded by the full(ish) transcript online at www.askaboutireland.ie, which has its own flaws but is at least accompanied by images of the originals. Doubting Thomases are catered for.

If you distrust the story of the CD-ROM index (and if I've got my point across, you do) you can try the original for yourself at www.failteromhat.com.

Corrections, comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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