Irish Roots »

  • Irish surnames as historical evidence

    October 5, 2015 @ 10:38 am | by John Grenham

    Over the years, Irish surnames have received a good deal of careful attention, from Fr Patrick Woulfe’s Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (1923) to Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) and most recently Seán de Bhulbh’s Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames (1997). Ulster names have been particularly well served. Robert Bell’s Book of Ulster Surnames (1997) and Brian Mitchell’s The Surnames of North West Ireland (2010) both dig deeper than an all-Ireland approach allows.

    All of them work to a similar format: summarise received wisdom about surname etymology and meaning; give rough geographic distributions; list well-known bearers of the name. They are essentially dictionaries focused on elucidating the surnames themselves, which makes them mainly of interest to bearers of the surnames and to local historians.

    But the study of surnames, in particular surname distributions, can provide much broader historical evidence, especially now that technology allows historic data to be mined and examined in novel ways. One example: it is now easy to map surname variety across Ireland in the mid-19th-century Griffith’s Valuation census substitute. Simply take the number of distinct surnames listed as householders in each county and divide by the area of the county. The result is an average number of different surnames per area. ( )

    Unsurprisingly, Dublin has the densest concentration of names, but the area with by far the next greatest variety is the ancient tuatha of Oriel, comprising Armagh, Louth and Monaghan. The western seaboard counties (with the exception of Sligo) have surname densities far below average, even though they were the most highly populated areas. The northeastern counties, with their mix of Scots-Irish and Gaelic-Irish, have surname variety well above average. The clear conclusion is that surname variety or density is a respectable proxy for cultural diversity.

    Plenty of onomastics like this can be found at the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland,

  • 10,000 Protestants

    September 28, 2015 @ 8:41 am | by John Grenham

    The Irish Genealogical Research Society ( have just come up with a humdinger of a record-set, the esoteric-sounding “Dublin Presbyterian Colporteur’s Notebook, 1875″.

    What, you might ask (I did), is a colporteur? Not, unfortunately, a composer of witty Broadway musicals, but someone employed by a church to distribute Bibles and other religious tracts. William Malone was paid by Ormond Quay Presbyterian congregation to seek out and visit “unconnected” Presbyterian and other Protestant families. The aim was to recruit new members.

    Between January and October 1875, Malone appears to have noted down details of every household he visited, sometime more than a dozen a day, six days a week, eventually ranging over the whole of central Dublin. Most of the households were poor or working-class and he recorded occupations, education, number of children and places of origin, covering up to 10,000 people, nearly a third of the Protestant population of the inner city at the time. By the look of the notebook, he simply went from house to house, tenement to tenement, like every door-to-door evangelist before and since.

    On the way he recorded plenty of local colour. One case needing “special attention” was Archibald Henry of 50 Marlboro Street “who holds infidel views & ridiculed the idea of a revelation from heaven. Was inebriated.” And he supplies some strong, by-the-way, sectarian commentary. He found one Catholic household “averse to Gospel truth & firmly attached to their own errors”. It ran both ways: “Was threatened with a poker by a Rom C. same afternoon”.

    The lack of nineteenth-century censuses for Dublin means that, as well as giving a vividly-flavoured sense of the period, the Notebook is also a seriously useful census substitute. The IGRS (in particular its indefatigable chairman Steven Smyrl) and the owners of the notebook, Clontarf and Scots Presbyterian Congregation, are to be congratulated on bringing it into the public domain. Members’ access is at

  • We have history

    September 21, 2015 @ 11:38 am | by John Grenham

    Two years ago, Cork historian Barry Keane came across a Home Office file in the UK National Archives, HO 317/78, “Activities of named paid informants against Irish secret societies”. It covered years between 1886 and 1910, but almost all of it had been redacted. When Mr Keane appealed to the home office for the missing information, the entire file was withdrawn. He requested a review under the Freedom of Information Act, was turned down, appealed to the Freedom of Information Tribunal and finally lost that appeal last month.

    His appeal was rejected on two grounds. The first was precisely the reason our own Central Statistics Office gave for not releasing the 1926 census: if people know they might be identified three generations into the future, they won’t co-operate now. This was laughable when put forward by the CSO, and even more so when a Metropolitan Police officer – behind a screen at the appeal hearing, no less – claimed that making the century-old informers file available would put the entire UK covert human intelligence system at risk. A very sensible minority dissent on the tribunal described this argument as “self-evidently absurd”.

    The other reason for refusal, that descendants of those named in the file might be in danger, or exposed to opprobrium, is less absurd. Maybe Cork is now all sweetness and light, but I’m not so sure about elsewhere in Ireland. After a talk I gave in Armagh a few years back, one of the audience questions was from a woman who wanted to know where the historic files naming “the touts” were stored. I don’t think she was researching her own ancestors.

    I’m with the tribunal majority on their decision. Some things just take longer to become history here.

    You can make up your own mind: the full official transcript of the hearing is at

  • Some deeply geeky genealogy

    September 14, 2015 @ 9:32 am | by John Grenham

    A recent research project took me to a headstone in Terryglass in north Tipperary ( It was erected by a Daniel Hogan in memory of his father John, who died in 1856, and it included mothers’ maiden name, siblings, ages at death – wonderful stuff that took the family well back into the 18th century.

    My focus was also Daniel Hogan, listed as occupying 40 acres in the townland of Cappanasmear in Terryglass in Griffith’s Valuation, published for this area in 1852. Could they be the same person?

    Circumstantial evidence is all that survives. How many households in Terryglass were headed by a Daniel Hogan between 1827 and 1857? The baptismal registers (roots show no fewer than 12 separate Hogan families headed by a Daniel. Not good news. But the Cappansmear Hogans were the most prosperous, so there was still hope.

    The Griffith’s manuscript notebooks for Terryglass from 1845 were next. Daniel was there, but the difference with the published record showed the effect of the Famine on the townland. In just seven years, three of his neighbours’ holdings had vanished.

    Because the Valuation was a tax record, it had to be updated regularly. The first revision, dated 1857, showed the ongoing catastrophic impact of the Famine. Of 21 houses listed in Cappanasmear in 1845, by 1857 only 11 remain. And Daniel is gone, his house demolished, his land absorbed into neighbours’ holdings. This doesn’t look like someone who was erecting a carefully-carved gravestone a year before.

    Where did the family go between 1852 and 1857? An 1855 state census shows three of them in upstate New York. And Daniel’s wife, Honora, records that she arrived in the US two years previously and has been a widow for a year. So my Daniel could not have been in Terryglass in 1856 and could not have put up that wonderful headstone.

    Negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones. But I still hope something disproves my disproof.

  • Were there Irish slaves in Barbados?

    September 7, 2015 @ 9:20 am | by John Grenham

    I recently had my knuckles rapped for a sentence about migration on the Irish Ancestors site ( “In the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, substantial numbers of the most destitute were shipped as slaves to Barbados”. The problem was the word “slaves”.

    There is no contesting the basic facts. The victorious Cromwellian Commonwealth practised vicious social hygiene, not just in Ireland, but throughout the three kingdoms. Vagrants, petty criminals, homeless orphans, and other victims of war were rounded up and shipped out against their wills to supply forced labour in the West Indies, Barbados in particular. The earliest historian of Barbados, Jill Sheppard, wrote: “by 1655 a total of 12,000 prisoners of war was alleged by the planters of Barbados to be employed by them, which would have represented nearly half the total white population”.

    Were they slaves? The labour they did was slave labour, and their circumstances were much worse than those of the indentured workers who travelled at the same time and later, not least because indentured work, though often harsh, was voluntary and time-limited. Refusing to call them slaves is quibbling.

    Does this make what happened to them the moral equivalent of the African slave trade? Absolutely not. African slaves taken across the Atlantic in their hundreds of thousands as pure chattels, unconditionally the property of their masters, with their children and children’s children also condemned secula seculorum. The noxious racism developed to justify the system puts the Puritans’ expedient sweeping of beaten opponents off the streets in the halfpenny place.

    My knuckles were rapped for apparently supplying ammunition to the most recent white supremacist perversion of history: The Irish were the first slaves. We got over it. Black America should get over it.

    This is so stupid it’s not worth arguing with. It’s certainly no reason to deny that a short, brutal episode of slave-export from these islands took place in the mid-17th century.

  • The late, unlamented Certificate of Irish Heritage

    August 31, 2015 @ 4:38 pm | by John Grenham

    When the recently-defunct Certificate of Irish Heritage ( was set up back in 2011, it attracted ill-informed begrudgery from many people, including me. The vision of a cash-strapped government flogging “Kiss me Officially, I’m Officially Irish” hats to gullible Yanks was irresistible. It was also grossly inaccurate.

    The origins of the scheme were purely laudable. When article 2 of the Constitution was revised in 1999 as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as dropping the territorial claim so offensive to unionists, the new article stated “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.

    This was a simple recognition of the uniqueness of the historic Irish diaspora and the enduring connection many still feel after multiple generations.

    After the economic collapse of 2008, the Farmleigh Economic Forum suggested the government should explore ways of recognising and cementing that connection. The certificate, which would offer official State recognition, was one such way.

    The idea was handed to the Department of Foreign Affairs, who appear to have held it between thumb and forefinger at arm’s length. I suspect they could see leprechauns on the horizon. Initially, the procedure to qualify was far too cumbersome, involving piles of official documents, notarised copies, affidavits sworn before a law officer . . . and a hefty fee. It was harder than getting a passport. The historic diaspora’s affection for Ireland is genuine but soft. No wonder take-up was tiny. By the time the requirements were relaxed, it was too late.

    But the most basic problem was the official Ireland offering them recognition has only a distant relationship to the Ireland their ancestors left.

    After all, the Republic is very young, represents only part of the island and only part of the Irish identity, and was selling, in effect, a bureaucratic box-tick. It’s a pity it wasn’t handled better. If only because any revival is likely to come from the National Leprechaun Museum.

  • Why we love Heritage Week

    August 24, 2015 @ 3:48 pm | by John Grenham

    It would be nice to think that the reason for the huge success of National Heritage Week in Ireland is our deeply-ingrained respect and love for everything our ancestors left us.

    But we really have very little sentiment about what we’ve inherited. Since the start of the 20th century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, three currencies, membership of a kingdom, an empire and a commonwealth and demolished more great houses than you can shake a shillelagh at. And since the start of the 21st century, we’ve reinvented ourselves over and over, as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, rock stars, gay reality-show celebs, and penitent capitalists.

    So what explains our enthusiasm for Heritage Week? Part of it must be the chance to get into so many buildings usually closed to us – all-consuming curiosity about the neighbours being a vital part of the Irish national psyche (and also a sadly unacknowledged motivator behind a lot of genealogy).

    But the real reason is, I think, more banal. We just love nothing more than a party, and what better excuse for revelry than a past we still disagree about?

    Of course we don’t actually need any excuse at all. In the early 1980s, I came back from living in sunny, civilised Italy to grimy, recession-hit, phlegm-hawking Dublin.

    And there was a permanent party going on. The pubs were full to bursting with red-faced drinkers laughing their heads off. It was a glimpse of how we might look to foreigners – on a good day.

    Heritage Week is a European initiative, so I tried to find out what Italians think of it, to compare to Ireland. A Google search for settimana del patrimonio nazionale found precisely one hit. On an Italian guide to Dublin.

    The Week runs until next Saturday, See for events. I’ll be doing my own turn for the cause in Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street on Wednesday at 5.30.

  • Post-traumatic weather amnesia

    August 17, 2015 @ 10:49 am | by John Grenham

    We Irish tend to feel, with some justification, that we’re more informed about the past than most other races. Many very old issues are unresolved here: we still have a lot of unfinished history. Knowing that history, and having opinions about it, is part of every Irish person’s base culture.

    But there is one area of the past for which we have a deep, wilful blind spot. We suffer from weather amnesia, in particular the virulent sub-variant, post-traumatic summer weather amnesia. On principle, we refuse to recognise that it rains here between May and September. Apart from the occasional hillwalker, no one in Ireland owns rain gear, and very few have waterproof clothing of any description. In a warm pub on a rainy July day, the most distinctive smell is of wet clothes drying.

    We loathe wet summers; we take them as a personal insult, and are deeply, bitterly disappointed when it rains in August. Even though it always rains in August. So we repress the memories of a lifetime of rainy summers and, come May, expect glorious baking sunshine.

    Because of this, being a weather forecaster here is a peculiarly sensitive job, and the profession has developed its own jargon, full of defensive euphemisms: “fresh and blustery”, “organised bands of showers”, “scattered outbreaks of drizzle” and, particularly common, “unsettled”. Irish weather is unsettled like the Black Death was an outbreak of acne.

    Comparing the Irish and English forecasts shows just how touchy we are about this. On the BBC, the forecaster will tell you exactly how much it’s going to rain and when, perhaps with a rueful shake of the head. On RTÉ, it will never be told straight. It is absolutely obligatory to start out with a glimmer of hope – “It might be dry on Thursday!” – before sheepishly revealing the approaching deluge.

    Maybe some things are better repressed. If we remembered accurately, we’d realise that every Irish summer is below average.

  • Online newsreels are a treasure trove

    August 10, 2015 @ 11:53 am | by John Grenham

    I usually begin my standard talk about online family history by declaring that there are no genealogical records on the internet and then pretending to walk offstage. The aim is to dramatise the fact that all we actually have online are transcripts, copies, images (if we’re lucky), but no originals.

    That’s less and less true. As time goes on, the internet itself is creating records that didn’t exist before – imagine the fun your great-grandchildren will have trawling through your Facebook posts – and allowing the creation of records that would just not have been possible a decade ago.

    My favourite among the latter is newsreel. Just over a year ago, British Pathé digitised its entire archive and made it available free at youtube/users/britishpathe. With more than 85,000 short films stretching from 1896 to 1976, it has attracted plenty of attention; its coverage of the revolution in Ireland between 1916 and 1923 is extraordinary. Now British Movietone and Associated Press have just done the same for their archives, at

    Movietone seems to have specialised in much softer news than Pathé – every Ireland-England rugby match since the 1920s is here – which makes its archive much more useful for local and family history.
    The out-of-the-way bits of the past are likelier to include ordinary people. Gems I’ve come across so far include “Pig Fair in Oldcastle”; “Glasnevin New Parish Church Consecrated” and, from 1932, the unease-inducing “Enniskerry tenants draw Lord Powerscourt’s heir and his bride up drive to ancestral home”.

    The one weakness is with YouTube. Its search is a ridiculously blunt instrument. A much better route of access is to use the home sites of Movietone and AP and Pathé. On these, you can narrow your target by location and decade and keyword. They’re still not perfect, and still in need of proper archival cataloguing that treats these films as the important historical sources they are.

    But they’re deadly nonetheless.

  • Localised 19th-century Irish surnames

    August 3, 2015 @ 1:56 pm | by John Grenham

    The recent mapping at of all General Register Office births between 1864 and 1913 (see brought us a massive influx of unfamiliar surnames and unfamiliar variant spellings, more than 11,000 in all, raising the tally of historic surnames on the site to almost 100,000.

    The job of integrating these newbies into the existing surname variant lists is painful drudgery, and still ongoing, but the work is throwing some very interesting sidelights on the way Irish surnames have evolved.

    First, it’s clear that we now live in a very stable surname environment compared with even the recent past. The sheer variety of 19th-century originals and alternative spellings is mind-boggling. More than a million variants are recorded, a lost ecology of names so rich in variety it is almost impossible to reimagine. But the most striking insight is just how local many surnames were. Again and again, strange and wonderful names turn out to be tightly bound to individual parishes and counties – Qua and Whan to Armagh and Down, Mungovan to Clare, McWeeny to Leitrim, Noud to Kildare. This localism is much more pronounced in the poorest, most densely populated counties along the western seaboard, though Antrim and Down come close.

    In the course of grinding through them, I’ve begun to list these localised surnames systematically (if only to keep myself awake) and the site now has listings for every county. See Limerick ( for example.

    My own county, Roscommon, is comprehensive enough, I think, and perhaps Mayo and Sligo as well. But the listings for everywhere else could be full of holes. Have a look at your own county and let me know how wrong I am.

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