Irish Roots »

  • The history festival of Ireland

    May 28, 2012 @ 9:30 am | by John Grenham

    Irish history hasn’t exactly been a barrel of laughs. That might be the pinhead view, but perhaps it accounts for us having dozens and dozens of summer festivals to celebrate everything from aviators and saints to poets, pipers and soldiers, but nothing based around history itself.

    What exactly should a festival of history consist of, though? It’s hard not to imagine the extremes to be avoided. On the one hand, the Scylla of HibernoDisney, with parades of dancing milkmaids, monks and Vikings. On the other, the Charbydis of academia, endless tedium with only the occasional bloody skewering of a rival hypothesis for relief.

    Planning for the inaugural History Festival of Ireland, running from Saturday June 9th to Sunday 10th next, seems to have steered expertly between the twin hazards. The event is part of the Carlow Arts Festival, Éigse 2012, and as such aims to have fun and also stimulate a bit of thought. Two threads run simultaneously on both days, the one in the Marquee on the lawn consisting of stories, interviews, readings and discussions that positively demand audience participation, while the Library sessions provide some deeply sceptical examinations of Irish sacred cows.

    The topics covered range from the proposition that Irish military history has been all downhill since Brian Boru and Clontarf to the question of whether the Queen’s visit last year actually changed anything. In between come the Irish in the American Civil War and World War I, Eucharistic Congresses, Irish responsibility for creating the British Empire and much, much more.

    The founding curator of the festival is Turtle Bunbury and the event is being held at his ancestral pile, the Victorian Gothic Lisnavagh House in Co. Carlow. More information at

    You may consider your back scratched, Turtle.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • DNA. Y?

    May 20, 2012 @ 12:18 pm | by John Grenham

    Genetic genealogy produces much sales patter and much jargon. mixing royal lineages with “SNP”s, “STR”s, “haplogroups” and what have you. But the principle behind Y-chromosome genealogical DNA testing is simple and logical. The Y- chromosome is passed intact from father to son. Life being messy, a tiny random mutation will occur every so often. This is then incorporated into the chromosome of all the male descendants of the man in whom the mutation first arises. So if you test a large group of men for that particular mutated gene, everyone who tests positive must be descended from the original man in whom it cropped up. The test simply identifies the most recent common male ancestor.

    So far, so good. There are some very clear uses for such testing – investigating whether a surname is likely to derive from one man or more than one, combining multiple tests to reconstruct probable population histories, even identifying what geneticists delicately refer to as “non-paternal events”. But the accuracy of the tests can vary wildly. If the size of the group being tested is not large enough, or the mutations tested for are not actually unique, the supposed “most recent common ancestor” can be as illusory as Santa Claus.

    Much of the hoopla around Irish DNA testing was set off by the well-known TCD study that supposedly identified Niall of the Nine Hostages as the common ancestor of men bearing surnames traditionally regarded as being of Uí Néill origin, such as Gallagher, Bradley, Boyle and Doherty. It turns out that a grand total of fifty-nine men were tested, and that the constellation of mutations used to distinguish them also occurs in other Irish population groups that could not possibly be descended from Niall. (See

    Beware of scientists who expect rigorous scepticism to be applied to scientific research, but think of genealogy as a sub-branch of the jarveys-and-heraldic-teatowel industry.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Military Archives

    May 13, 2012 @ 3:59 pm | by John Grenham

    A recent visit to the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha barracks after a long absence was a reassuringly pleasant experience. As a lapsed hippy, I still have issues with authority, especially authority carrying guns. I believe the technical term is “The Man”. Going through the gates of the barracks set my facial tics a-twitching.

    But I needn’t have worried. The Archives are very welcoming and superbly organised. Working there on the Civil War internment collection was a salutary reminder that, for some records, it will always be essential to handle the actual paper and to see how things were organised by the original record-keepers. You can smell the damp of Mountjoy and The Curragh in the winter of 1922/3 coming off the documents. Immediacy like this is impossible online, but as with every good archives, a balance is being struck, with detailed finding aids and images online and excellent on-the-spot help for researchers. The one mouth-watering collection coming soon to the website ( is that of the Bureau of Military History covering 1913 to 1921, with all the original interviews, photographs and documents. It will be available before the end of this month. They’re going to need more bandwidth.

    One problem with having such a well-run institution is that it has become almost too popular: military historians tend to keep on digging long after civilians give up. I had to book a place in the reading-room a week in advance, and it was full for the entire time I was there, with everyone running at full steam.

    I should add that the staff in the Archives were extraordinarily courteous, and helpful to a fault. I was very polite myself. It’s hard not to be, when dealing with an archivist in full combat fatigues. I didn’t mutter “Make love, not war, man” under my breath. Honestly, not even once.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • The Fruits of Others’ Labour

    May 7, 2012 @ 9:58 am | by John Grenham, based in Provo, Utah, is by far the biggest commercial online genealogy company, with 1.8 million subscribers and a turnover in 2011 of $400 million. Over the past decade they have expanded steadily by buying up smaller rivals – last week the U.S.-only cost them a mere $100 million. Ancestry is steadily becoming the default option for most researchers, the Microsoft of online research

    One irritating little fly in Ancestry’s ointment over the years has been the lack of a significant collection of Irish records. In the past twelve months they’ve been going about removing the fly, in ways that have raised eyebrows and blood pressure here in Ireland. The digitising of the National Library’s microfilms of the registers of the Catholic diocese of Meath without asking either the Library or the diocese is only the most conspicuous example.

    Now they are adding what they term “Web records” to their searches. These are online records available elsewhere for free, which Ancestry now search via their own site, redirecting users to the original website if there are positive matches. So far, Kerry local authority burial records from and the parish burial registers on have been added. Anyone who searches via an Ancestry subscription is now also searching these. Many more sources will follow, I would imagine, again elevating Irish eyebrows and blood pressure.

    Let me make it very clear: Ancestry is not stealing anyone’s records. It is relatively simple for a website to have its “Web records” removed. And access to Ancestry’s database skills and variants collections can sometimes even improve the accessibility of outside records. On the other hand – and this may just be old age creeping up on me – something about using the work of others to attract subscribers smells bad. Welcome to globalization, governed by the laws of Utah.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Valiant deeds

    May 1, 2012 @ 6:41 pm | by John Grenham

    Most people will know of the Registry of Deeds as part of the current property registration system (see, but its records actually go back more than 300 years to 1707. The first century and a half of its existence produced a veritable goldmine of material for local and family historians.

    So why isn’t it more used? There are good reasons. It was originally founded to provide legal defence for the huge transfer of property from Gaelic to Anglo-Irish that took place in the seventeenth century, so its historic records deal almost exclusively with the Anglo-Irish. Very, very few Catholics or Dissenters are recorded. In addition, self-evidently, the records concern the propertied classes, so they cover only those Anglo-Irish who were relatively wealthy: a minority of a minority, in other words. And the records themselves are resolutely eighteenth-century, intensely convoluted, copied out on parchment by scribes standing at lecterns, then bound into back-breaking, tombstone-sized volumes and only indexed very roughly.

    But, but, but … If there is even the remotest chance of finding something in these records, research is a must. The actual process is a rare experience. The Registry’s historic records are located on the top floor of the King’s Inns, one of the great eighteenth-century public buildings of Dublin. The people recorded in the deeds built the rooms where you now search them. And the search itself requires much climbing up and down ladders carting giant volumes and inhaling 200-year old dust. All that’s missing is the powdered wig. This is research as it should be.

    Over the years at least four failed attempts have been made to digitise and abstract the records, because the Mormon Family History Library has a complete microfilm copy. The only current attempt is the Registry of Deeds Index Project, a valiant volunteer effort to abstract the family information and put it online ( Look at what remains to be done ( It is the work of many lifetimes.