Irish Roots »

  • ‘The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’

    October 28, 2012 @ 3:59 pm | by John Grenham

    The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork, August 2012) is the most recent in the magnificent series of atlases published by Cork University Press. Over the past six weeks, I’ve been slowly working my way through it, and am astonished again and again at every aspect of it. The sheer weight and heft of the thing is extraordinary, more than 700 pages of eight- by twelve-inch high-quality paper, weighing in at over ten pounds. No vanity is involved. The heavy paper is necessary because of the colour illustrations, and the astonishing detail and fine distinctions made in the illustrations are what render the book unique.

    The most vivid of these are the maps visualising and contrasting information from the censuses of 1841 and 1851, before and after the Famine. Again and again, they produce a transfixing, visceral understanding of the underlying dry numbers and tables: the intense concentration in 1841 of children under five in the poorest, most vulnerable areas of the western seaboard; the percentage population decrease between 1841 and 1851 mapped out parish by parish over the entire country; land values, again mapped parish by parish over the entire country, instantly demonstrating the connection between poverty and starvation.

    The written contributions show the same combination of meticulous detail and sweeping overview. At the heart of the book are the 300-odd pages devoted to detailed studies of areas in each of the four provinces. Among the stand-outs here are William Smyth’s month-by-month story of the Famine in the Tipperary parish of Shanrahan and Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s account of Clifden Workhouse. The only criticism to be made is that, as bedtime reading, this book is guaranteed to end any marriage.

    The Atlas was number seven in the Hodges Figgis in-store bestsellers list last week. There’s hope for us all yet.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • “Genealogy makes you a better person”

    October 21, 2012 @ 12:28 pm | by John Grenham

    In the middle of the History Ireland hedge-school panel discussion at the recent “Back to our Past” event in the RDS (a roaring success, by the way) I found myself saying “genealogy makes you a better person”. My fellow-panellists, and a fair number of the audience, looked at me as if they were counting how many heads I had, politely ignored the remark and moved on to saner topics.

    Nobody was more surprised by the comment than myself. It has depressing echoes of the hoary adolescent debate about the utility of art. Does reading and appreciating a great poem have any moral effect? A long time ago, after half a decade spent in the company of third-level teachers of literature, I came to the conclusion that the answer was “No”. If anything, spending your professional life immersed in great writing appears to have the opposite effect. Pettiness and spite seem to be pettier and more spiteful among specialists in English Literature than anywhere else.

    And, on the surface, genealogy is hardly much better. Cranks and shysters make up a disproportionate number of those involved. The committee wars are acrimonious and interminable, following the well-known axiom “the smaller the teacup, the bigger the storm”. The goal of research is not disinterested truth but more information about yourself and your family.

    And yet the very process of family history research, its sheer amateurishness, does have a strong positive effect, at least on some people. It teaches that we are all mongrels, providing a powerful antidote to snobbery and racism. It shows that history is not a simple competition between good guys and bad guys and, by extension, that neither is the present. It provides a powerful emotional antidote to social atomisation.

    Maybe some nuance is needed: the study of ancestors won’t make bad people good, but it can make decent people more decent.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Habemus blog

    October 14, 2012 @ 10:41 am | by John Grenham

    A long, long time ago, I worked on a project that shall remain nameless, save to say that it was Irish and genealogical. A senior person involved in running it once opined to me that there were two ways of going about things, one Protestant, the other Catholic. The Protestant method was carefully to define a goal, then identify and quantify the means needed to reach that goal, then weigh the costs against the likely benefits and then – only if the cost/benefit balance was positive – carefully plan each step in the journey to the goal. The Catholic method, of course, was just to (feckin) fling yourself at it and see what happened. This particular project was more Catholic than the Pope.

    The reason for remembering the comment is some recent encounters with A fortnight ago, the latest in a series of cryptic emails proudly informed me that the Roscommon centre had added 17,000 birth and death records. Hurray. But for where in Roscommon? It didn’t say, and as far as I can see, the list of places covered (at hasn’t changed. Does this mean that previously I was paying to search records that actually weren’t there? In a word, yes. Suddenly, there are loads more Grenhams in the records of St. Peter’s Athlone than there used to be.

    And the payment system seems to be developing into something from Alice in Wonderland. A sample explanation, verbatim: “For a limited time, when you purchase credits, you can view search results for FREE equal to the value of the number of credits that you have purchased.” What?

    There are at least two meta-currencies in operation, record-view credits and index-search credits. Somehow, I have 124 of one and 9 of the other, but they’re not convertible.

    The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith can only look on in envy.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • New Twist for Old Plots

    October 7, 2012 @ 1:39 pm | by John Grenham

    As regularly as clockwork, someone in Ireland wakes up with a giant light-bulb over their head and the words “Genealogy! Irish-America! Mega-bucks!” ringing in their ears. So veterans of family history in Ireland tend to view new ideas about research and the records with wary scepticism. At times, though, this can blind us to real advances.

    A new website with the slightly cheesy name appears to be just another gravestone transcription site, albeit more comprehensive than most, covering graveyards in the Magherafelt area. Looked at more closely, however, the site is something genuinely new. It is a commercial operation, but the target customer is not the hapless, ever-skint genealogist, but all bodies responsible for maintaining the graveyard. It offers a complete graveyard management system to local authorities and parishes, providing a full survey and map, with photographs of each headstone, radar detection of unmarked burials, design of any remaining free plots and the amalgamation of church burial records with headstone transcripts.

    The end result is a complete online set of interlinked transcripts, maps and photographs that can be added to as new burials take place. For a researcher, it is every bit as good as visiting the cemetery in person; for the parish or local authority, all those pesky genealogists are taken care of and a simple process allows easy management of future burials.

    Naturally it concentrates on Northern Ireland to start with. The home county of the developers, Derry, has a large majority of the 73 graveyards covered so far. Optimistically, perhaps, the site has space reserved for graveyards from all of Ireland. They have a decent chance of success in the North, I hope. In the South, any local authority that still has two halfpennies left to rub together is trying to hide them from Phil Hogan.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

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