Irish Roots »

  • State records in unexpected places

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:05 am | by John Grenham

    The transcripts of state records of births, marriages and deaths on are seriously underappreciated. They are not identical to the records so horribly familiar to anyone forced to play Blind Man’s Buff in the General Register Office Research Room. Until less than a decade ago, the registration system actually produced two copies of the paper registers, one held locally and the other sent to Dublin for indexing. The heritage centres behind rootsireland got the local copies from individual Superintendent Registrars, created database transcripts from them, and these are what is now searchable on rootsireland.

    Or at least some of them are. Old Nick is down there in the nitty-gritty yet again. Burrow down into the site’s “sources list for each centre” and extraordinary anomalies emerge. Clare, Donegal, west Galway (but not east Galway), Mayo, Roscommon, and Tipperary have full transcripts, some to 1900, some to 1921. But not all of them are actually online. Armagh, Derry, Kilkenny, Limerick and Waterford have almost full transcripts. But they don’t cover all events and again not all are online.

    For the years and areas covered, though, the site is very useful indeed – every single item in each record is transcribed. If they were freely searchable, they could be extraordinary. Just imagine being able to pick out every birth in a townland over twenty years, or every marriage recording a particular father’s name, or every death from consumption on one street over decades. Ah well, at least rootsireland’s blindfold is semi-transparent.

    And of course, this is all completely illegal. The 2004 law governing civil registration explicitly specifies that the only way these records can be made publicly searchable is via the knit-while-wearing-boxing-gloves system in the GRO Research Room. Tell that to rootsireland, to the Mormons, to the volunteer transcribers, to, to Waterford County Library

    As so often in Ireland, the law is for hiding behind, not enforcing.

  • A way with a will

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:12 am | by John Grenham

    The entire collection of Irish wills held by the Public Record Office, some going back as far at the 16th century, was completely destroyed in 1922. This much is widely known, and lamented. Less well-known is the change in the administration of probate in 1858 that created an annual, published calendar of all grants. This means that, although its original may have been destroyed, every will or intestacy since 1858 has at least a detailed calendar entry, recording at a minimum the date of death, the address, the executor and the value of the estate. Earlier entries are much more expansive, often representing a near-full abstract of the will. The Calendars are annual and fully alphabetical, and simplicity itself to search in the Reading Room of the National Archives.

    The Archives has recently begun the process of making the Calendars available through its website . Volumes from 1935 to 1949 are fully transcribed and searchable through the site’s “Search the Archives” page, though it has to be said that the search options offered are ridiculously unfriendly, more obstacle than aid. As so often when confronted by impenetrable database-ese, it’s more useful to trawl with the biggest net possible, just a name, and then sort through the catch individually. My own great-grandfather turned up in just such a search.

    The site now also has PDF copies of all the Calendars from 1923 to 1982, though finding them is like searching for an invisible needle in an invisible haystack. The best guide is not on NAI’s own site, but comes from the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, Enough said.

    What about the real bonanza for researchers, 1858-1922? A collaboration between NAI and the LDS church, the Mormons, will see a full transcript, with linked record images, on the NAI website within the next few months. Roll on the day.

  • Oh no. Not again.

    April 8, 2012 @ 1:43 pm | by John Grenham

    About three weeks ago, the biggest Irish record website, the Irish Family History Foundation’s, changed its payment system. Previously, users could perform an unlimited number of index searches to try to identify relevant records, before then paying €5 per record to see full transcripts. The setup could be painfully expensive, especially for common surnames, but the trade-off between what was free and what was paying made the pain just about bearable. Apparently a little too bearable for the IFHF. The new arrangement demands payment for the index searches as well as the transcripts.

    When I first saw the changes, I had to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while. Better to wait a little before writing about it, to let the blood pressure drop, to be sure that it was a hallucination. Sorry, that it wasn’t a hallucination.

    It isn’t. The balance of limited free access with payment, familiar from almost every other commercial research site, really has gone. The online response from users has been extraordinary, a unanimous howl of outrage. The gist of most of these comments is that the site already forced researchers to work hobbled and blinkered, and to pay for the hobbles and blinkers. Now they want to handcuff us as well. And have us pay for the handcuffs.

    The sane response is of course to look for a way to outwit the restrictions. And sure enough, with a little care it is still possible to do free index searches. I would encourage experimentation. The arms race between the site and its users continues.

    The IFHF frequently complain that nobody loves them. When their customer service appears to come straight from the Kim Jong Un handbook of public relations, they really shouldn’t be surprised.

  • Twenty-year stocktaking

    April 2, 2012 @ 9:55 am | by John Grenham

    The fourth edition of my Tracing Your Irish Ancestors is published this week, providing a chance to stand back and take stock.

    The book was first published twenty years ago, at a time when genealogy in Ireland was barely respectable, and the world was a much bigger place. The changes have been extraordinary. Family history now figures on the agendas of Government departments in a way that was scarcely imaginable then. All Irish record-holding institutions—local and national archives, libraries and private institutions—have now recognised that genealogists are one of their largest constituencies, and they are providing dedicated research rooms, personalised consultations, expanded finding aids and, above all, digitised records. Such websites as the National Archives census site, the Library Council’s Griffith’s Valuation site, the church records sites rootsireland and irishgenealogy, and the newspaper archives at, and are slowly but surely broadening the everyday relationship that people in Ireland, and people of Irish heritage outside the island, have with their family’s past, and with their country’s past. This can only be a good thing.

    The first edition reflected the Ireland of its time. It was painfully parochial, heavily focused on Dublin libraries and archives, and blithely ignored records of the Irish held in overseas locations. Even Belfast was seriously under-represented. The extent of the opening of Ireland to the world since then is breathtaking, and the transformation includes genealogy. It is now simply unthinkable to research an Irish family without taking into account its inevitable connections with Britain, Europe, and North America.

    The reason for the transformation is clear. Even in the last four years, profound changes have taken place in the link between Irish research and the internet. Before then, any online transcripts of records were piecemeal and amateur—very welcome, but afterthoughts to the main business of hands-on research in Irish repositories. Now the internet is at the heart of any Irish family history.

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