Irish Roots »

  • St. Patrick’s real home

    December 30, 2012 @ 10:08 am | by John Grenham

    One aspect of the myth of St. Patrick that always seemed peculiar to me was his early kidnapping and enslavement. Not the fact of it – Patrick’s Confessio is absolutely authentic, the fifth-century Irish enjoyed rich pickings in decaying Roman Britain, and they were enthusiastic slavers. What’s odd is the conflict between the general acceptance that Patrick was a Romanised Welshman and the place where he ended up herding sheep. Mount Slemish is between Ballymena and Larne, a long, long way from Wales and a fairly unnatural place for a low-value boy-slave to end up.

    Norman Davies’ wonderfully batty Vanished Kingdoms, (Allen Lane, 2011), suggests an explanation. The book aims to draw attention to European states that have disappeared virtually without trace, including such places as Burgundia, the Visigothic kingdom in Spain known as Tolosa and (weirdly) “Éire”. The most interesting is the kingdom of Alt Clud, “The Rock”, centred at Dumbarton just outside Glasgow and taking in most of what are now Kilbride, Kilmarnock and northern Galloway. In Davies’ account, the kingdom lasted from roughly the fourth century to roughly the ninth, and was North British in the original cultural sense, with its people speaking Cumbric, a p-Celtic language closely related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Part of the evidence is the only surviving authentic writing of Patrick’s apart from the Confessio. His Letter to Coroticus is a severe dressing-down aimed at a ruler identified by Davies as Ceredig Gueldig, the earliest king of The Rock. Who better for a bishop to wag his finger at than his own leader?

    Interpreting records from the period is notoriously problematic, akin to picking one’s way through a vast swamp using a few tiny, unstable stepping stones, but Davies’ performance is virtuoso. It is hard to resist the picture of the young Patrick on Slemish looking out across the narrowest stretch of water on the Irish Sea to his home in Alt Clud.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • The Os and the Macs

    December 28, 2012 @ 10:41 am | by John Grenham

    An axiom of all research is that absolutely no reliance can be placed on the precise spelling of surnames. So the reason I’m blue in the face is not apnoea or an impending heart attack, it’s from telling people over and over and over that it makes no difference whether your Quin family have been insanely fussy about spelling their surname with one N for the past three centuries. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the person writing the name down was not a Quin, and couldn’t give a hoot.

    And then look at what Irish research throws up: A family in Leitrim whose surname appears in a parish register as “Breheny” (from Mac an Bhreithiún, son of the Brehon lawyer or judge) in the 1830s and “Judge” in the 1840s; O’Sullivans recorded in the Beara peninsula as Bunow, Caobach, Bawn, Barrule, … ; Cadogans who are O’Driscolls and Caniffes who are O’Mahonys. Is it any wonder that Irish researchers’ insistence on surname variation can seem a bit hysterical?

    But useful information does exist in patterns of surname spelling, only not at the scale of individual families. The best-known Irish variation is the treatment of “O” and “Mc/Mac” as optional in English-language records. In Griffith’s Valuation in the mid nineteenth century, some 16,000 households were recorded as O’, but more than 100,000 as Mc. Evidently, O was more easily ignored than Mc. Look more closely at where the names are recorded, and it emerges that almost 70% of the Mc households are recorded in the nine counties of Ulster, while the eight counties along the Atlantic seaboard account for almost 60% of the O names.

    This is hard historical evidence. But what does it show? That, in Ulster, the last stronghold of Gaelic culture, people retained their grasp on

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at] surnames? That Ulster’s Scots Gaelic cousins encouraged a popular retention of Gaelic surnames? Or that Ulster people were (are?) just more stubborn than the rest of us?

  • Chest-beating in order

    December 16, 2012 @ 2:35 pm | by John Grenham

    Trinity College is not an institution noted for its bashfulness. Any worthwhile TCD achievement tends to climb to the top of a tall building and loudly beat its own chest. All the more surprising, then, that the launch of Trinity Library’s Digital Collections ( has been so low-key.

    The only way to convey the extraordinary range of its contents is to pick out a few plums. They include: The full manuscript expedition journal of the 1924 British Everest expedition (the one on which Mallory and Irvine died) kept by the expedition doctor, Major R.M.G. Hingston; Thirty-one maps from 1812 of the estates of Sir Nicholas Conway Colthrust in Cork and Kerry, with tenants’ names; Two hundred and forty-six (beautifully-imaged) pages of Annales Ultonienses, the fifteenth-century Annals of Ulster; The pocket diaries and literary commonplace books of J.M. Synge between 1892 and 1907; The entire Robinson Collection of 2,074 eighteenth and early nineteenth century political caricatures; The Arthur Warren Samuels Collection of printed ephemera (especially pamphlets and posters) of the 1916 Rebellion, World War I, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

    From the point of view of genealogy, the most directly useful items are the eighteen manuscript volumes of Trinity’s own admission and matriculation registers from 1607 to 1907. Much of the information is already published, but it is always worthwhile to be able to examine the originals. They have also added the original term examination books for the second half of the eighteenth century. Good to know that Senior Freshman Kenny was cautioned for his performance at Greek in the term ending December 15 1750.

    Perhaps the Library’s long-standing and unswerving defence of its precious holdings against the grubby-fingered hordes has left it a little unsure of its welcome as it emerges, blinking, into the light. But the digital collections are astonishing. Chest-beating is most certainly in order.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Weirdos like me

    December 9, 2012 @ 5:10 pm | by John Grenham

    For more than a decade now (which is to say centuries in Internet time), individuals and companies have been making a living by scanning hard-to-find publications and putting them out on CD-ROM. The daddy of them all is Archive CD Books, with franchisees in the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and Ireland. The connections between the territories are fraternal but loose: local knowledge is absolutely vital to identify which titles might be of interest to researchers.

    In Ireland, the brand ( is run by Eneclann, a Trinity College spin-off company also well known for its research and archival work and its partnership with The Trinity connection is extremely useful, since TCD Library has had a right of legal deposit since the Act of Union in 1800. In theory, then, the Library could have a copy of everything published in Britain or Ireland since 1801. Reality, as ever, falls a bit short. But there are still many, many wonderful things – ephemeral local directories, rare printed genealogies, valuations, biographies, pamphlets, surveys … and Eneclann/Archive CD Books have dug up many treasures for researchers.

    Now, in an act of commendable pragmatism, Eneclann have begun to convert their CDs to downloadable PDFs, and dropped their prices to reflect the cheaper distribution costs. See for what they’ve converted so far.

    But as a business model, doesn’t the whole arrangement look a bit dated? Isn’t it all out there in The Cloud somewhere? Surely the problem with selling PDF versions of hard-to-find books is that very little is actually hard to find any more? Emphatically not true. Maybe eventually everything ever printed will be instantly available. In the meantime, there are still weirdos like me who actually want a full copy of all 800 pages of The Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon, 1832, and want it now. Our time is at hand.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Military census

    December 2, 2012 @ 12:12 pm | by John Grenham

    Getting information about soldiers who served in the Irish army can be a bit like trying to get directions from a Kerryman: “Why would you want to know that, now?” The glorious exception is the Military Archives in Cathal Brugha barracks in Dublin. At least for material up to the mid-1920s, it is a treasure trove, and its growing commitment to online access ( provides detailed information without a hint of a Kerryman’s qualm.

    The most recent addition is the Military census taken on November 12th 1922. Such a census was needed for a very simple reason. By Autumn 1922, the civil war was at its peak, but the Free State Army had only a rudimentary idea of how many troops it had and where they were, the most basic information needed for any military action. So it was decided to send detailed census forms to each General Officer Commanding, which he would in turn send on to every post or outpost under his command. There, a compiling officer would use the forms to list comprehensive information on every individual present, covering all ranks and including home address, next of kin and next of kin’s address.

    It is important to keep in mind those two words “post” and “outpost”. Free State soldiers were then stationed in all sorts of places – Foxford, Toomevara, Killybegs – where no military barracks had ever existed. And when the returns came in, they were assembled as they had been collected, place by place, and then bound into ten large volumes. These are the volumes now available on

    The project is not yet complete. It is possible (with a broadband connection) to view and download the returns for any post, but there is no facility as yet to search by name. The site promises these transcriptions will be complete “in the coming months”. Roll on the new year.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

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