Irish Roots »

  • The Certificate of Irish Heritage

    February 26, 2012 @ 5:08 pm | by John Grenham

    When the Certificate of Irish Heritage was first proposed back in 2009, the response from the standing army of Irish genealogists was sceptical, to put it mildly. Some of the gentler contributions from the sideline included the words “Leprechaun” and “Begorrah”. In the Irish Independent, Martina Devlin got very annoyed indeed, calling the whole scheme “tawdry, tricksy and really kind of icky … a demeaning device to hoodwink the descendants of emigrants.” Even the practical obstacles seemed huge. How exactly would “Irish Heritage” be measured? Would anyone who ever did an Irish dancing class qualify? The begrudgers were unanimous. It could be little more than a state-sponsored “Kiss me I’m Irish” hat.

    The scheme has now been in operation for five months and it is time for some of us cynics to eat a few words. Fexco, the Kerry company chosen to run the programme, looked at the image problems and the practical problems as openly as possible, and tackled them head-on. The result, visible at, is utterly genuine. The Certificate is simply an acknowledgment by the Government of an individual’s historic link with Ireland, based on demonstrable evidence and with text consisting mainly of a quote from Article 2 of the Constitution: “The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with those of Irish ancestry living abroad”.

    Anyone who has researched the ancestors of Irish emigrants knows that it can be nearly impossible to make a documentary link to the precise Irish place of origin, especially for those who flooded off the island during the Famine and its aftermath. That doesn’t make them any less Irish, or their descendants’ connection with Ireland any less real. At the very least, contemporary Ireland owes them recognition of that connection. The Certificate provides just that, straightforwardly and honestly. With not a shamrock or a shillelagh in sight.

  • The Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers online

    February 20, 2012 @ 11:23 am | by John Grenham

    “CSORP” looks like the name of an Eastern European secret police force. In fact, it is the acronym for one of the most under-appreciated Irish historical sources, the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers. The Chief Secretary, based in Dublin Castle, became the effective head of government in Ireland in the decades after the Act of Union in 1800. The registered papers are the records of all incoming correspondence to his Office, and cover the years 1818 to 1924. They comprise an extraordinary collection of documents: complaints, petitions, memoranda, accounts and reports on virtually every aspect of the administration of Ireland. And they have survived intact in the National Archives.

    Until now, the only access routes to their contents have been via a partial card index in the Reading Room and the original annual CSO registers. The only widely known records were the many local petitions addressed to the Office, any one of which can list hundreds of names. Now a new website,, aims to catalogue and calendar every single document in the collection between 1818 and 1852.  For the moment only the first five years, 1818 to 1822, are complete, but already the vivid weirdness of 19th century Ireland is springing to life. One example: in 1821, a Dublin merchant, George Ness, proposed allowing the admission of Catholics to the Freedom of the City. As a result, he received an anonymous letter, which he forwarded to the Chief Secretary’s Office. The letter threatens that, ‘…if I hear another word out of your head about Papists to be made freemen of any our corporations I will have you dragged from limb to limb and your head hung on the rapper of your halldoor..’. The letter is signed ‘a fellow that wd shoot a papist, as soon sir as you wd a mad dog’.

    Living history, indeed.

  • “Landscape is history in slow motion”

    February 12, 2012 @ 11:32 am | by John Grenham

    The introduction to the new edition of the wonderful Atlas of the Rural Irish Landscape coins a nice epigram,  ”Landscape is history in slow motion”, which neatly sums up the constant circle of interaction between physical environment, geography, and the human activities that depend on it, overlay it, change it, and are changed by it. The most important point is that these processes are slow, almost imperceptible. Shifts in climate and terrain, geological constraints such as rivers or mountains, the slow drift of wealth in agriculture and architecture, all channel the evolution of societies, but over deep time, rather than individual lives.

    Take an outline map of Ireland. It is almost impossible not to see Irish history as a natural outcome of the shape of the island. The West coast is fractured and ragged, shattered into inlets and cliffs by war between the Atlantic and the mountains. The East coast is unindented, facing the relative calm of the Irish Sea. The contrasts flow naturally:  West versus East; rough versus smooth; natural versus artificial; wild versus calm; margin versus centre. History certainly provides some basis for these oppositions – the poorest areas along the Atlantic coast seem to have been settled later than the South and East. They are certainly the least well-documented. All the major population and trade centres have evolved in the East, making Ireland extraordinarily lopsided. But extending that series of contrasts shows just how tainted such a reading of geography can become.  Poor versus rich? Irish versus English? Savage versus civilised?

    Such a notion of history as the “natural” outcome of geography is acutely political, an unanswerable argument for an inevitable status quo. What the Atlas shows again and again is just how false this notion is, by disentangling the countless human choices that have accumulated in our landscapes, century after century, millennium after millennium.

  • The new National Archives website

    February 6, 2012 @ 10:58 am | by John Grenham

    The National Archives have just given their website,, a welcome facelift. The new design is a model of clarity: easier to read, more intuitive to navigate, and with expanded guides to collections, digital resources and genealogy.

    However, the real meat and potatoes of any archival website is the online catalogue. Even where entries consist only of record descriptions and titles, rather than actual records, a database catalogue gives users the power to search much more widely and more precisely. Here too, the new version is orders of magnitude more powerful than the old one. It is now possible to do a full-text search for any word in the catalogue record and to juggle by virtually any criterion.

    The introduction to the catalogue points out that the majority  of the records covered relate to 20th century Government departments and  warns sternly that the contents “are not especially relevant for genealogical research”. A serious underestimate of just how  omnivorous family historians can be. My first query in the catalogue was, of course, the word “Grenham”. And there was a file on my grandfather’s application to the fledging Dept of Finance in 1923 for compensation for a car confiscated during the Civil War. The moral is:  ignore stern warnings, search everything.

    The old catalogue search included one anomaly, a copy of the Ireland-Australia transportation database created from the Archives’ records in 1988 as part of the Australian Bicentennial. To make it fit the archival records format, a great deal of shoehorning had to happen, with the result that it was very peculiar indeed to search. This time, the Archives have very sensibly not even tried to incorporate it directly. Instead, the entire database is now downloadable as a single 7 MB file, at .

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