Irish Roots »

  • Cats and Ancestors

    August 26, 2012 @ 12:30 pm | by John Grenham

    My cat has no need of genealogy. She has a sense of the past, for sure. Every time she sits on my lap, purrs and kneads my thigh I’m uncomfortably reminded of the explanation for her behaviour that I read a few years ago (and which now, despite trying, I can’t forget). Apparently, the kneading derives from her memories of massaging her mother’s teats to express milk when she was a kitten. However queasy the thought, it points to some dim connection between past security and present comfort hard-wired into her tiny brain.

    I think a similar hard-wired sense of the past is widespread in nature, or at least in mammals – it’s hard to imagine a shark feeling homesick. That instinctive use of memory to shape the present is the impulse that lies at the root of our own need for history. In pre-literate societies, the intricate stories that were passed on and elaborated from generation to generation provided explanations of ancestry and made the present more intelligible by colouring it with the glow of the past. The durability and sophistication of these stories already took us a long way from instinct.

    Language is the medium that made possible that accretion of social memory spanning multiple generations. And written language is what allows social memory to become truly accumulative, with each new generation standing on the shoulders of its predecessor, learning from its failures, expanding its discoveries.

    Yet another reason to know our ancestors better, and yet another reason to ensure that their records are well-preserved and widely available. And one more reason why the cat is on my lap and not vice versa.

    She seems perfectly content to do without accumulating social memories. Her memory of her past may be dim and purely instinctual, but she seems to get a lot of comfort from it.

    Or perhaps she’s just tenderising a large prospective dinner.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Heritage Week and Genealogy

    August 19, 2012 @ 11:10 am | by John Grenham

    The idea for Heritage Week, which runs until Sunday the 26th, originally came from Europe. In 1985, the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, proposed a series of European Heritage Days, in his words “an annual invitation to people to come and look behind the doors and windows of monuments, harnessing curiosity to discover history and heritage. Nothing stuffy or official.”

    The idea was backed by the Council of Europe and the first Heritage Days took place in 1991, with Ireland one of the nine countries involved. Since 1999 the event has been a joint initiative of the Council and the European Commission, the number of countries involved has grown to 49 and in Ireland the Days have stretched to a Week.

    At the outset, the focus was very much on architecture, as Lang’s reference to “monuments” implies, and a large number of Irish events still involve providing enhanced access to the built environment. But since the Heritage Council took over running the Week in 2005, the “heritage” label has ballooned magnificently, and now covers a wonderful array of delights, from Archaeology and Archives to Walled Towns, Wildlife and Woodlands.

    And, of course, genealogy. A decade ago, family history and its acolytes were on the outer fringes of “heritage”. Now, the “What’s on” section of the Heritage Week website ( lists no fewer than 38 separate genealogy events around the country this week. They include exhibitions of research sources and completed family trees, guided graveyard tours, master-classes, lectures and the very lively-sounding East Kerry Roots Festival. At last Sliabh Luachra is getting the attention it deserves.

    The most ambitious has to be the Tipperary Genealogy Marathon, with Cecile Mulcahy spending a day in each of seven different towns in Tipperary offering research advice to all comers. My own mini-marathon takes in only the local libraries of Fingal. It’s still going to be a long week.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Swimmers or spellers?

    August 12, 2012 @ 12:40 pm | by John Grenham

    The marketing of genetic genealogy means that it needs to be approached with deep scepticism. It is far too easy to pay $200, have yourself pronounced 38% Viking, and get a (free!) plastic Viking helmet. Only one kind of test is unambiguously useful: a yDNA test of any group of men can establish with a high degree of precision when their most recent common ancestor lived. The most obvious use for this is in surname studies: a group of unrelated men with the same surname, particularly an unusual surname, can find out if they are all descended from a common ancestor, or whether their surname arose independently in different areas.

    Wait a second. Grenham is a rare enough surname. In Ireland it is restricted to a very precise area in south Roscommon. And it also exists as a surname in the south-east of England – there’s even a “Grenham Bay” in Kent. So are we descended from a stray English soldier who went native in eighteenth-century Athlone? (We’re quite native, you know.) Or, did the family come from across the river in Offaly, started by a Grennan who was a good swimmer but a poor speller?

    For a long time I’ve liked the uncertainty. It’s a good representative of the deep ambiguity that lies at the root of many surnames in Ireland. But a yDNA project can completely remove that uncertainty. Comparing yDNA from Grenham males with roots in Roscommon and those from Kent can objectively identify when our most recent common ancestor lived. If it was some time in the last four centuries, we probably need to start searching early British military records. Otherwise, we should embrace our trans-Shannon cousins.

    The problem, as always, is that someone has to take responsibility for such a project. I think I just nominated myself.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • The Ombudsman and the GRO

    August 7, 2012 @ 9:10 am | by John Grenham

    Last week the Ombudsman published ‘Hidden History? – The Law, The Archives and the General Register Office’ (available in full at, an investigation into problems with access to historic GRO records. It was prompted by a complaint from a local historian. He had been painstakingly working his way through the copies of the nineteenth-century death registers held by his local Superintendent Registrar, noting the occupation recorded in each record. The aim was to reconstruct the history of employment in his area in the finest detail possible, an impressive and very valuable project. Then, in 2007, he was informed that he could no longer see the registers. Under the 2004 Civil Registration Act, his statutory right of access had been revoked and now he could only use the records via the indexes in the Research Room in Dublin. In effect, what had previously been free would now cost thousands, be much less precise, and take years rather than months.

    Not surprisingly, the report fully upholds his complaint, but it also goes much further, finding that historic GRO registers are covered by the 1986 National Archives Act and that there is thus an obligation to make them available for public inspection. The entire report, from its dissection of the public administration issues to the minutiae of the legal situation, is a masterpiece of clarity, sound reasoning and common sense, and the Office is to be congratulated, as are those who made the submissions used in its preparation, in particular the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland.

    So, will the GRO implement the report’s recommendations? The response of the Registrar-General to the Ombudsman’s findings, reproduced in full in Appendix 4, provides a strong clue. It is a minor masterpiece of Sir Humprhyology. A succession of carefully-crafted paragraphs lead to the unfortunate but inevitable conclusion. Which is, of course, that nothing can be done.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]