Irish Roots »

  • The National Library has bolted

    September 30, 2012 @ 11:40 am | by John Grenham

    Just over a year ago the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht organised a great genealogical jamboree in the National Library, bringing together everyone involved in Irish family history in an effort to thrash out a common approach. A policy document prompted by the meeting is apparently still ripening slowly inside the Department. In the meantime, however, the Library itself has bolted. It has just issued an extraordinary request for tender (see, seeking a partner to digitise not just genealogical records – primarily parish registers, commercial directories and electoral registers– but also its huge collections of journals, newspapers and photographs.

    On the face of it, this is rational and familiar. In the UK the British Library and National Archives have teamed up with and the private companies bear the entire cost of digitising original records held by the institutions, in return for which the companies have an exclusive but time-limited licence to make the digital versions available online as part of their commercial services. Everyone wins. For researchers, the pain of payment is more than balanced by the accessibility and transparency that digitisation provides. The original records are better conserved because they are no longer being handled.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Library’s treasures were available, not just to those who can visit Kildare Street, but to everyone on the planet? Unfortunately this is Ireland, where nothing ever does exactly what it says on the tin. The tender positively stamps on the toes of a whole host of special interests, political, clerical, local government, bureaucratic …

    The Library must have known just how much opposition it would provoke. So why issue the tender? Is it an effort to forestall Department policy? An attempt to cut the Gordian knot of petty politicking? A cry for help? Or can they really think it’s possible to do something sensible and honest in Ireland in the common interest?

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • The Scale of the Problem

    September 25, 2012 @ 8:25 am | by John Grenham

    I still remember vividly the first research report I worked on. My job was to find a David Fitzgerald in East Limerick in Griffith’s Valuation, the 1852 property tax survey. At the time, the only way to do this was to identify roughly which parishes had Fitzgerald households (!), then comb them all by hand looking for Davids. So I wearily resigned myself to grinding through microfiche after microfiche. But then Croom, the second parish I searched, produced a David Fitzgerald. What luck!

    As I sat down to write the report, though, doubts started to niggle. Yes, David was an unusual forename at the time, but just how unusual? So I went back and continued looking. And of course, it immediately began to rain David Fitzgeralds: in Ballingarry, Emlygrennan, Ballinlough, Knockainy …

    The point of this is not (just) to show how green I was. The fact is that without some idea of the scale of what you’re searching, it’s impossible to interpret what you find. If you don’t know that half of the population of West Cork is called O’Driscoll, you’re likely to fall on the first Patrick O’Driscoll you find and install him as your ancestor. The appropriate metaphor is the hoary old one about the blind man trying to describe an elephant, depending on touch alone.

    The same problem of scale applies to time-periods. One of the imaginative leaps genealogy asks is to try to see the world through our forebears’ eyes. But trying to grasp how our ancestors saw their own past can be very hard. What did the world look like to someone for whom the Famine had not happened, was inconceivable, for whom The Battle of the Boyne was as recent as the Great War is to us? Distance always foreshortens perspective, chronologically, geographically, genealogically.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Theory and Practice

    September 16, 2012 @ 6:19 pm | by John Grenham

    A confession: the last time I had any formal training in history was for something called the “Inter Cert”, back when giant elk roamed the country. Despite thirty years of trying to catch up, like every autodidact I still have some peculiar gaps in my knowledge. Napoleon? Who?

    Most trained historians take for granted a theoretical framework for what they do. In the day-to-day grind of chasing family events and land records and parish registers, the absence of such a framework doesn’t usually matter, but a dim sense persists that what’s going on is a form of practical history, albeit one far removed from the stately procession of rebellions and heroes and wars that I was forced to memorise so long ago. That’s one reason why Anne Patterson Rodda’s new book Trespassers in Time: Genealogists and Microhistorians (Rodda, 2012) is so welcome.

    The writer is both a working genealogist and a historian, and her book attempts to place the practice of genealogy in the context of the study of history. She approaches the question methodically and thoroughly, starting with a wide survey of the ways history is practised – political, economic, social, cultural, local, micro – and then producing step-by-step examples of genealogical research that show how perfectly family history fits the microhistorical school. Her case histories themselves are intensely interesting, all Irish, and ranging from a group of small Catholic tenant farmers in the tiny parish of Kilbannon in north-west Galway to Protestant nationalist associates of Daniel O’Connell and William Smith O’Brien. The book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the connections between local and family history and the broader disciplines of which they are a part.

    Like Molière’s M. Joudain, who found he had been speaking prose for forty years without knowing it, I was delighted to discover that I’m a microhistorian. The book is available from amazon.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Cork leads and Cork follows

    September 10, 2012 @ 9:55 am | by John Grenham

    In many areas, Cork sets the example for Dublin, but not always for the best. Take the destruction of its records. At the height of the War of Independence, on the night of 10-11 December 1920, a series of fires set by rogue Auxiliaries destroyed much of the centre of Cork city. Among the buildings completely obliterated was the City Hall, which held all the surviving municipal records. An earlier fire, in 1891, had already destroyed the City Treasury and Sheriff’s Office. The gaping hole in local records that resulted prefigured uncannily what was to happen to the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922.

    And since then, as with the national situation, every scrap of paper and every crumb of information that escaped the inferno is doubly precious. At the centre of the effort to preserve everything that survived and make it publicly available is Cork City and County Archives ( Drawing funding very sensibly from a range of bodies, including Cork City and County Councils, and UCC, they have been in existence for more than four decades, and the range of their collections is extraordinary. It ranges from the 199 boxes of records from solicitors Flynn Exham, dating back to the 16th century, to the City Council Rate Collection books, to the records of the Cork Shakespearian Society.

    Over the past few years, the online side of the collection has expanded wonderfully and, as well as online exhibitions covering, for example, Clonakilty landed estates and the history of retailing in Cork city, which make use of digitised documents, more and more full digitisations of original records are appearing on the site.

    The most recent are the excellent local authority graveyard records, with Cobh, Dunbulloge, Kilcully and Rathcooney covered so far.

    In this case, though, they are following the example rather than setting it. Whose example? Kerry’s, of course.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh

    September 3, 2012 @ 8:54 am | by John Grenham

    Last week Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle of NUIG gave a talk in the National Library on pre-eighteenth-century Gaelic genealogy. Dr. Ó Muraíle is renowned in scholarly circles for his editing of Leabhar Mór na nGenealach, the Great Book of Genealogies, a huge compendium of the pedigrees of Gaelic, pre-Gaelic, Scottish, Viking and Old English families in Ireland, compiled in Galway in the mid-seventeenth century by Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh. Ó Muraíle’s edition, published in 2004 by Éamonn de Búrca Books, runs to 3,100 pages in five volumes, including two volumes of indexes, a full English translation and a complete scholarly apparatus. The only appropriate response is awe.

    The talk was fascinating, an eagle’s-eye view of the topic from someone in perfect control of the detail. It left no doubt just how deeply engrained genealogy was in the old Gaelic order: the worst insult a learned Gael could throw at the influx of newcomers in the seventeenth century was that “they had no genealogy” – in other words, they didn’t know who they were. And the sheer quantity of surviving medieval genealogies is unique to Ireland, orders of magnitude greater than anything similar elsewhere in Europe.

    He also made clear just how sceptically these pedigrees have to be treated. Having the right descent was vitally important for the Gaelic aristocracy and the genealogies were created at their behest. As with modern-day consultants producing reports for lobby-groups, the correct conclusions were often obvious in advance. In any case, for someone doing genealogical research now, these genealogies have to remain tantalisingly out of reach, rendered forever inaccessible by the collapse of Gaelic culture and the documentary black hole of the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922.

    The lecture was one of the series of highly successful brief lunchtime family history talks organised over the month of August by the National Library, in association with Eneclann and Ancestor Network. Let’s hope they become a regular fixture.

    And the pronunciation is “DOOaltach MacIrvishy”. Which was anglicised, incredibly, as “Dudley Forbes”.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

Search Irish Roots