Irish Roots »

  • The original Catholic registers are rotting

    April 14, 2014 @ 9:57 am | by John Grenham

    Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for nineteenth-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival.

    Why should this matter? Aren’t they’re all copied online anyway? Or on microfilm in the National Library?

    Here are some facts about the collections of copies. The National Library microfilm project, heroic as it was, has serious flaws. A few parishes were missed entirely – Rathlin Island, for example – and some films are so out of focus as to be illegible. Comparing the years covered by the heritage centres’ transcriptions with the years held on Library microfilm reveals that at least 200 parishes have records earlier than those filmed by the Library. Aghada in east Cork, for example, has records going back 40 years before the NLI microfilm.

    The mismatch also works in the other direction. More than 100 parishes have earlier years on microfilm than in heritage centre transcript. Newtowncashel in Longford has a full register containing 35 years of baptisms on NLI film, which is missing from Longford Heritage Centre records. The likelihood is that this earlier register was somehow lost or destroyed between the NLI microfilm in the 1970s and the transcription project in the 1990s. How many other registers have also since disappeared?

    No copy can take the place of the original. The registers themselves are the property of the Catholic Church, and also the Church’s responsibility. If the Hierarchy wants to keep them private, by all means let them be locked away in diocesan archives for a century or more. But something has to be done to stop these priceless records from rotting away.

  • There should be conga lines of Northern Irish civil servants dancing through the streets of Belfast

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:05 am | by John Grenham

    The first attempt to make a large body of very desirable records searchable online, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was back in 2001, with the 1901 census for England and Wales. It was a fiasco. The website crumbled under the onslaught of users, was down for months and the English civil service had to take vitriolic abuse that went on for what must have seemed an eternity.

    The horror seems to have stayed in the herd memory of UK public servants. At least that’s the only explanation I can see for the very low-key arrival of Northern Ireland General Register Office records online ( Included are all Six-County births, marriages and deaths up to 1914, 1939 and 1974 respectively. The birth records search incorporates the mother’s maiden name, making it simple to reconstruct entire families. Marriage search results include the spouse’s surname, meaning you can zero in on just the relevant record. For deaths (and births) you can narrow the search area right down to local registrar’s district, a godsend where a surname is particularly common. And you can do all this without paying a cent – it only becomes necessary to pay when you have identified the right record, and even then you have a choice of fees, all very reasonable.

    There should be conga lines of dancing civil servants celebrating this achievement all over Belfast. But no. One second the thing wasn’t there, the next it was. Under-promising and over-performing with a vengeance.

    Let me slip in the few required quibbles. The surname variants option doesn’t seem to be working: “McAlindon” and “McAlinden” get different results. The few historic registrars’ districts (parts of Castlefin and Inishowen, for example) that now lie across the Border seem to have been excised, which is a pity. The unit-based payment system is a classic horse-designed-by-committee.

    But these are tiny details. I just hope our own GRO is examining the site and turning green.

  • Rootsireland must evolve

    March 31, 2014 @ 2:16 pm | by John Grenham

    Like it or not, is the single most important Irish records website. Almost everyone researching their ancestors in nineteenth-century Ireland will have to use the site’s database of record transcripts –parish and local civil registration transcripts in particular. It can be expensive, certainly (I have personally paid at least two kings’ ransoms), but there is no doubt that the site has opened up Irish research to many for whom it used to be a closed book.

    But it is also cumbersome, customer-unfriendly to the point of brutality and embarrassingly old-fashioned.

    All these problems stem from the peculiar nature of the organisation behind it, the Irish Family History Foundation. The IFHF was set up to provide an umbrella body for the centres carrying out the transcriptions. These centres are extremely diverse, their only common feature a fierce independence. So the IFHF has become a very, very loose federation.

    As a result, the website design revolves around the centres’ need for independence, in particular the need to pay each centre for every view of a transcript from that centre. The needs of researchers come a very, very distant second.

    There are no fore-name variants – if you search for a “Patrick” and the record was transcribed as “Patt”, tough luck. Details of the records transcribed, vital in understanding search results, are sometimes pure gibberish: the listing for Co. Down marriages includes ” Belfast (hm) 1906-1900″. What?

    Above all, though, the entire site still consists entirely of transcripts. Being content with a transcript alone really means accepting someone else’s word on trust: “Honest Gov., this is what I saw in the register. Give us a fiver”.

    Rootsireland can survive the coming onslaught of competition from the likes of Ancestry, and I hope it does. But it has to modernise, to add record images – why not the National Library’s ready-made microfilm images? –and above all it has to stop being a gatekeeper, and become an access-provider.

  •’s impending monopoly

    March 24, 2014 @ 10:47 am | by John Grenham

    Three years ago, added transcripts of almost half-a-million pre-1880 Roman Catholic parish register entries to their collection of online records. They covered 47 parishes, mainly in the diocese of Meath, and were done from copies of National Library of Ireland microfilms. Neither the Diocese nor the Library was consulted, so eyebrows and blood pressure were raised. But the transcripts weren’t great and there were no record images, so we all just went back to our cosy little squabble about making the Library’s images of parish register microfilms available online.

    Two weeks ago, Ancestry changed the game forever. It added 750,000 transcripts from 71 parishes, and accompanied them with high-quality, fully browseable images of every page. These are new, full- colour scans, at mouth-watering levels of detail. In most cases they go well past 1900, and the registers covered come from all over the country.

    Included are the records of four parishes from the long-embargoed diocese of Cashel and Emly, from most of Killala, from Galway, Wicklow, Dublin, Carlow – available nowhere else online – Donegal, Tyrone …

    The transcriptions are flawed and some of the listing detail is deeply peculiar: “Aughrim” is actually Aughrim Street in Dublin; “Golden and Kilpack” is a misreading of Golden and Kilfeacle; two unnamed registers are actually from Bantry. But the sheer, glorious quality of the images makes up for everything.

    Where did Ancestry get them? The source given is “Digitized images, Dublin, Ireland: E-Celtic, Limited”. This part-Irish, part-Indian company produces parish record management software and presumably obtained rights to the images as part of their work with local parishes. Good on them.

    Ancestry is the unchallenged colossus of online genealogy. They already have a de facto monopoly of North American records. And if they continue what they’ve just done with Irish Catholic registers, there is no doubt they will reach the same position here.

  • Help me find my roots, Toots

    March 17, 2014 @ 1:45 pm | by John Grenham

    I’ve always had a bit of a problem saying that I’m proud to be Irish. It’s not much of an achievement, after all. I merely picked the right ancestors.

    Facetiousness aside, the whole idea of national pride just feels slightly suspect, tainted by connections with bullying, racism and ethnic cleansing.

    What about the achievements of the Irish as a people, though? Surely we have plenty to take pride in? Only with careful picking and choosing. To take a nice remote example, Irish monasticism in the Middle Ages did indeed achieve extraordinary things. But that Ireland was very unsavoury in other ways. The Island of Saints, Scholars, Slavers and Head-hunters?

    What we have to celebrate is the assortment of good and bad that makes us up. Otherwise, we risk donning again blinkers like those that allowed three generations of us to accept the twin sectarian statelets, Northern and Southern, that blighted 20th-century Ireland. For every swing, there must be a roundabout, for every Carolan, a Big Tom.

    The ultimate litmus test of Irish self-acceptance is now, of course, the St Patrick’s Day Parade. It has plenty of diversity in its history – the New York parade began the tradition in 1762, and was at first largely peopled by British soldiers of Irish origin. Its import into Ireland in the 1930s was a submission to the strength of Irish-America. And, in a demonstration of the unstoppable evolution of difference, while the New York parade is still riddled with sodalities, Dublin is now overrun by Catalan street theatre.

    Irish-America and its paddywhackery still remain the ultimate test of our acceptance of the variousness of being Irish. But it’s hard not to respect the brass American neck of M-and-Ms’ advertising come-on for their Ms Green: “Help me find my roots, Toots”.

    To be clear: the problem is misplaced pride, not joy. I’m delighted to be Irish and I hope you are too. Happy St Patrick’s Day.

  • Our history: a minor branch of the leisure industry?

    March 10, 2014 @ 8:24 am | by John Grenham

    The director of a well-known national library (oh all right, The National Library) once told me of meeting an international banker at a fundraising do. When he heard what her job was, he responded “Oh, I see. You’re a line manager in a minor branch of the leisure industry.”

    It was just the flashy facetiousness that passes for intelligence among the overpaid, but it has stayed with me. The rhetoric of economic managerialism is now compulsory, ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of public life. “Business cases” have to be made for the simplest decision taken by the lowliest functionary. We are no longer citizens, just customers looking to get what we’ve paid for.

    What brings this to mind is the recent announcement by the Minister for Sport and Tourism, Leo Varadkar, about a National Diaspora Centre. In his words, such a Centre would “tell the story of the Irish diaspora overseas . . . the story of how Irish people view the world,” and could be “a major tourism draw”.

    The problem is that the business case shows that the centre could cover running costs, but not initial set-up costs, and the country doesn’t have the money to fund the set-up. The Minister’s solution is to ask for “expressions of interest from potential partners to develop and operate” the centre.

    The full press release ( ) goes into elaborate, nervous detail about how these expressions of interest will ultimately be assessed. The nervousness is easy to understand, because something about this is deeply odd.

    Is the Minister offering to franchise out Irish history to the highest bidder? Perhaps to sell naming rights to Ireland’s century-and-a-half long failure to provide a living and a home for millions of its people?

    Maybe it might be better to wait until we can afford to do ourselves, and then do it for the right reasons.

  • An out-sourced cultural institution?

    March 3, 2014 @ 9:26 am | by John Grenham

    One hoary aspiration that resurfaces regularly is the notion of a dedicated genealogical research centre, centrally situated for visitors, providing onsite access to all the major research sources and advice from experienced researchers. For a few years after the banking collapse, this mutated into persistent suggestions that the state should simply take the old Irish Parliament buildings in College Green from the Bank of Ireland and use them for such a centre. It was the least we were due, after all.

    Such a scenario always seemed very improbable to me. The creation of what would be, in effect, a new national cultural institution was never likely to get past the financial Cerberus that is Brendan Howlin. And Irish banks have never been noted for contrition, humility or a lax approach to their own property rights.

    Then a press release last week announced a new partnership between the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Bank of Ireland to create a new cultural and heritage centre at Parliament Buildings. Under the deal, the Bank will cover refurbishment and running costs and grant a 10-year licence to the Department, which will manage daily operations. Details of those operations remain understandably hazy at this stage, but the “10-year licence” coincides neatly with the so-called “decade of centenaries”, and the language of the announcement suggests that the Centre’s main focus will be on exhibitions dealing with the events from 1913 to 1923. (The full press release is at

    The plan is a small masterpiece: an out-sourced, term-limited cultural institution for the politicians and public servants, some sorely-needed good PR for a bank and finally a chance for the public to get a good look at the inside of one of the most historic and beautiful buildings on the island.

    One thing is certain, though. It won’t be a national genealogical centre. Will there be any role at all in it for genealogy?

  • Hazy Admixtures

    February 24, 2014 @ 10:26 am | by John Grenham

    The journal Science ( recently published “A Genetic Atlas of Human Admixture History”, an attempt to use statistical analysis of the human genome to identify what the authors call “admixture events”. These are the relatively large-scale mixing of the genes of two distinct human groups due, for example, to invasion or migration.

    By comparing the lengths of unmixed stretches of the genome, it is possible to date the events at (relatively) precise points within the last four millennia, and to begin to map them. Accompanying the article, a mapping website ( invites the public to play with target populations, events and percentage admixtures.

    This kind of stuff is terrific fun, and there is no doubt that these techniques will eventually provide great evidence for migration history, perhaps even transforming it in the way aerial photography has transformed archaeology.

    However, when I went to look at the data underlying their big orange circle that connects Ireland to Greece, I got a bit of a shock. The sample consisted of just seven Irish individuals. Digging further, it turned out that the total number of individuals covered in the entire Atlas was 1490. And buried in the footnotes are astounding margins of error, plus or minus four centuries in some cases.

    I’m no statistician, but I know that generalizing from the genes of a sample group the size of Ballyhaunis to 4000 years of human history is just asking for trouble.

    So you might expect some caution, or even humility, from the researchers behind the project. Not a bit of it. One of them is quoted by The New York Times as saying,
    “In some sense we don’t want to talk to historians. There’s a great virtue in being objective: You put the data in and get the history out.”

    Unlike historians, who just make it all up.

  • New York records tackled at last

    February 18, 2014 @ 9:47 am | by 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

    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 (

    It is a tremendous achievement.

  • The Poor Law is still with us

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:37 am | by John Grenham

    From Britain’s point of view, the 1800 Act of Union was primarily a defensive measure to secure its western flank against the French. But after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the London government found itself in charge of a country of which it was profoundly ignorant. So, with true industrial-age logic, it set about creating official machinery to quantify Ireland and make it governable. Almost all surviving Irish research sources in the first half of the 19th century emerged from this process: the Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 and much more.

    One of these administrative machines, the Poor Law, is still with us. In 1838, 135 Poor Law Unions were created, covering the entire island. Each Union had an urban workhouse at its centre, responsible for providing the most basic short-term relief to the utterly destitute and designed to be self-financing. Property-owners in the Union were taxed to pay for the workhouse and in return could elect representatives to the Union’s Board of Guardians to oversee spending.
    From the start, the Unions were geographically a hybrid of health service catchment area and electoral constituency. And, weirdly, that geographic hybrid exists even now.

    For elections, the Unions were subdivided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs), the areas used for the 1901 and 1911 censuses: those DEDs are still in use in contemporary elections, especially in rural areas. Then, when universal registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, the public health service took on the job. So the Unions were sub-divided into local registrar’s districts, and the Union was euphemised as a “Superintendent Registrar’s District”.

    The Department of Health is still in charge of civil registration today. And after almost 200 years, its Superintendent Registrar’s Districts are still the old Poor Law Unions.

    They haven’t gone away, you know.

    Peter Higginbotham’s wonderful will tell you more.

Next Page »

Search Irish Roots