Irish Roots »

  • Counting the gift horse’s teeth

    June 24, 2012 @ 12:18 pm | by John Grenham

    The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland opened its new premises in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast a little over a year ago, to gasps of awe and envy. But a recent visit left me feeling uneasy.

    The first issue is its location. The Titanic Quarter consists of a few giant, “landmark” buildings sitting in the levelled wasteland of what used to be Belfast Docks. PRONI’s move here was part of a colossal property development scheme that will now never be completed. The interior of the building reflects its origins. Property Developer chic dominates, with a giant faceless atrium more suited to an airport than an archives, hotel-style swipe-card access through every door, no expense spared and very little humanity anywhere.

    But the biggest problem is the disproportion in the readers’ facilities. Crammed into one end of the Search Room are twenty or so microfilm readers, almost all continuously in use for parish registers or newspapers, while the remainder of the space is occupied by a football field of 50 spanking new and completely unused PCs. The Reading Room, where actual documents are read, is huge. There is space for 80 readers, but it is never actually used by more than four or five at a time. The electronic document ordering system is as complex as air-traffic control, forcing users into convoluted processes whose main aim seems to be to cut out any human contact.

    The whole thing feels like a bureaucrat’s dream, the product of many, many planning-subcommittee meetings fuelled by vast amounts of public money. God knows it has its own problems, but with a quarter the space and one tenth the staff, the National Archives in Bishop Street is actually a much more pleasant space to do research in.

    And if you’re wondering why I’m so sour … No, I didn’t find the families I was looking for.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Surname maps

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:08 am | by John Grenham

    As anyone who has suffered through a bad Powerpoint presentation can testify, there is a world of difference between written information and visual information. Pictures trigger an immediate reflex response: seeing a shark-fin coming towards you means a lot more than reading the word “Shark”.

    I have recently discovered just how much more powerful pictures can be. The revamp in May of the Irish Ancestors site ( added a new service, individual surname maps. These maps are quite simple – they count every householder of a particular surname recorded in Griffith’s Valuation (1847 to 1864) and plot the numbers, parish by parish, onto a map of Ireland.

    None of the information is new – it has been widely available in one shape or another for more than thirty years. But the impact of seeing geographic patterns emerge on the maps is extraordinary. Here are the 900 or so Redmond households, spreading out from the Norman invasion site over 20 or more generations ( Here are the Harkins, with a thick ribbon of settlement running along the north Donegal coastline ( If there was ever any doubt that the surname McMahon originated in two distinct areas, Clare and Monaghan, just look at the Griffith’s household map (

    The problem is that it is almost impossible not to read elaborate stories into the images. Look, the Casserlys must have migrated east into Longford and Westmeath ( The Kilkenny Codys had just only begun to spread into East Cork by the 1850s ( The surname McNicholas must be relatively recent since it is so local (

    But is any of this true?. As ever in research, you have to keep your sceptical goggles on. Pictures like these can indeed reveal hidden patterns, but they can also make things obvious that aren’t really there.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • The very model of a modern Registrar-General

    June 10, 2012 @ 11:50 am | by John Grenham

    The split personality of the General Register Office continues to cause problems. On the one hand, it provides spectacularly efficient registration of births, death and marriages to the public, and a superb identity verification service to other parts of the public service. On the other, it offers ludicrously inefficient research arrangements for historic civil records.

    In the research room, researchers spend weeks struggling with Victorian printed indexes to carry out searches that the staff computer system behind the counter can do in minutes. The frustration of being repeatedly forced to play Blind Man’s Buff grows with every visit. It feels like a different planet to the contemporary service.

    There are of course genuine obstacles to more open access, not least the legal restrictions. But a line in one of the twice-yearly Social Welfare Acts could remove them instantly: “Section 61 of the 2004 Civil Registration Act is hereby amended…” Even a little willingness to change could make a huge difference. These records are a unique part of our inheritance, and keeping them locked up like this is just plain wrong.

    The official attitude is well summed up by a sign at the lift that takes visitors up to the GRO research room: “NOTICE. Due to an unprecedented increase in customers accessing the genealogy services it may be necessary to close the office at times. This is done in the best interest of heatlh [sic] and safety for all who use the facility.”

    It’s those pesky genealogists again. They’re everywhere. They just won’t go away. They want to buy so much of what we’re selling, it’s positively unheatlhy. Why won’t they just leave us alone?

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • What’s wrong with Cork?

    June 4, 2012 @ 9:56 am | by John Grenham
    For people who don’t do a lot of research it can be hard to understand just how important a complete set of records is. The reason is simple. Murphy’s Law of Irish genealogy states unequivocally that all ancestors shall inhabit the one page that hasn’t been transcribed. Researchers think of it this way: it doesn’t matter if your bucket is 99% intact. That 1% hole lets out 100% of the water.

    Which brings up the Catholic records of Cork city. 99% of the pre-1880 records of the diocese of Cork and Ross (covering west Cork and Cork city) are wonderfully transcribed with accompanying images Hurray. But one of the criteria for choosing which records to transcribe was that there should be no duplication of earlier efforts.  And Trojan work had already been done on the records of Cork city by the Cork Ancestral Project. A complete database transcript was made of the records of the single biggest city parish, St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s (North Parish), dating from 1748. However, the only public evidence of the work is a single hard copy, available in the County Library.

    The original plan was that the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, commendably thorough in their approach to the other parishes, would add these records .  But a year after making the 99% available, silence reigns. Except for the ancestors you can hear draining away through that small North Parish hole. The situation is especially peculiar because Cork city is usually a leader in supporting community projects with a wider social benefit, as befits the real capital. But Cork is now the only large population centre on the island without a complete set of online historic registers.

    More on the background is at Margaret Jordan’s blog,, complete with original reports on the city transcriptions from De Paper. On reflection, the present column may have appeared in De Wrong Paper.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

Search Irish Roots