Irish Roots


September 30th 2013

The revolution in Irish newspaper research

John Grenham

For a long time, the advice to anyone who wanted to use newspapers for genealogical research was simple: don't. Without a historically prominent ancestor, the likelihood of finding something useful was infinitesimal, but the investment of time was huge. Inevitably, whether you look at Faulkner's Dublin Journal for 1740 or The Evening Herald of 1940, you just end up reading the paper. Very enjoyable, but not the most productive use of research time.

Digitisation completely changed that balance. If you can trawl 100 years of papers in five seconds, why not? An example: The Irish Times of January 5th, 1880, has a report of a court case in Ballinasloe at the height of the Land War. There, listed among the 27 small tenants charged with riot for assaulting a bailiff in the course of an attempted eviction, is my great-grandfather and what looks like his entire extended family. I had no idea there was anything like this in our past. It emerged only because the paper was now digitally searchable.

The Irish Times was first online, with issues dating back to 1859, provided by subscription to the public but free to libraries and schools. Two other sites now exist, irishnewsarchive.com and FindMyPast.ie. The former started life as an outsourced, online archive for The Irish Independent (including its provincial titles and predecessor, The Freeman's Journal) but now contains more, including The Irish Press from 1931 to 1995. FindMyPast gets its newspapers from britishnewspaperarchives.co.uk, which is digitising the entire British Library pre-1900 copyright collection of newspapers. So far, it includes six Irish publications, all mainly 19th-century, including such rare gems as The Sligo Champion and The Cork Examiner. The collection will grow and will eventually become absolutely essential.

None of the sites is perfect. Industrial-strength optical character recognition still sometimes spews out appalling gibberish. Still, better to trawl the entire ocean using a flawed net than to have to search it a spoonful at a time.


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

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