Irish Roots »

  • The Weird and Wacky World of Civil Registration

    January 27, 2013 @ 11:09 am | by John Grenham

    More news from the weird and wacky world of civil registration. In a move rumoured to be masterminded by anti-Gathering supremo Gabriel Byrne, the HSE website has just increased the cost of purchasing a birth, death or marriage certificate by 125%, to a whopping €20 (plus postage). A source close to Mr Byrne said, “Just feck off and leave us alone”.

    Meanwhile, bizarrely, public availability of the General Register Office birth, marriage and death indexes continues to grow. These indexes are the paper volumes which it is still necessary to pay to search as part of the GRO’s only official research access, the Search Room in the Irish Life Centre in Dublin. Forty years ago, the Mormon Church microfilmed all of them up to 1958. Six years ago they digitised the full set and made it free to search on their site They licensed this digital transcript to two years ago and have now also licensed it to The two commercial sites charge for subscriptions, but have seriously improved access, in particular allowing reverse marriage index searches. And FindMyPast has also provided a great set of research supports and finding aids.

    But the GRO continues to insist officially that the only legal route of access to its records is via the Irish Life Centre facility. So what has been its response to such outrageous, flagrant illegality? As ever, complete silence. This is the approach familiar from the Ostrich School of Public Administration: if you don’t admit it exists, it can’t be a problem, can it?

    Step through the looking-glass into Northern Ireland, and an uncanny normality prevails. Their GRO ( has just received the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations‘ 2012 award of excellence for the completion of the digitisation of all records for the six counties. The plan to make them all searchable online by 2014 is on schedule and under budget. How strangely sane.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • O’Connell Street, Ennis

    January 20, 2013 @ 12:32 pm | by John Grenham

    I was recently sent a book called O’Connell Street, Ennis, written by Larry Brennan and published late last year. (Sending me books is always a good way of getting my attention, by the way). It contains some of the usual features you would expect– a chronology of the town, accounts of some of its most famous events, a collection of 19th-century photographs. But by far the biggest section is an extraordinary house-by-house account of the street itself.

    The author has painstakingly reconstructed the life story of every single building on O’Connell Street, using a wonderful range of sources. He takes a description of the current physical structure, apparently from the local council planning department, matches the present O’Connell Street address to the pre-1911 Jail Street address, adds any mention of the building from historic local newspapers, lists all the inhabitants, working from the register of electors in the year 2000 back 180 years though census records, commercial directories, and valuation revisions, and then tops the entry for each building with a vintage photograph. It is obviously a labour of true love and stands as a model of genealogical and local history. For anyone who knows the present street, an entire new dimension must be made visible.

    The co-publisher, the ever-energetic Clare Roots Society, is also running a conference the week after Easter, nicely titled “Gathering the Scattering”, with a stellar line-up of speakers including Catriona Crowe, Steven Smyrl, Fiona Fitzsimons, Michael Gandy and Peter Higginbotham. Peter is the man who knows more about the history of workhouses than anyone on the planet (see and his talk on its own would make it worth attending. And if my experience of last year’s conference is anything to go on, the social side of things will be also be a big attraction. The conference brochure is at

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • The Industry Standard

    January 13, 2013 @ 11:21 am | by John Grenham

    During the first dot-com bubble, about 14 years ago, an American magazine called The Industry Standard (“The Internet bible”) did a feature on online genealogy. They decided to cover The Irish TimesIrish Ancestors‘ website, because it was one of the first commercial family history sites. The article involved flying over an American journalist and photographer and deploying a large expense account. I remember little apart from having to drape myself seductively over monumental sculptures in Mount Jerome cemetery for the photographs.

    From the interview I can only recall a single question and answer: “Surely when all the records are online, a site like yours that offers detailed guides, but no original records, will be completely redundant?” My response, invented on the spot, was that Irish records were special: the fragmentation of sources would mean there was always a role for a broker to direct people to relevant records and help interpret results. What I actually thought was “You’re probably right.” But in the dot-com crash a few months later, the journalist and photographer (and, sadly, the expense account) were the ones made redundant. The magazine closed. Fourteen years on, the Irish Ancestors site is still going.

    The reason for telling the story is not schadenfreude. It turns out I was right, by accident. Week after week, constant piecemeal digitisation of Irish records is taking place. In just the last ten days, I’ve heard of the arrival of a single year, 1855, of the Dublin Evening Mail, a collection of Church of Ireland parish records for parts of Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow and a large compilation of gravestone transcriptions for the Arklow area. It is just not possible to keep track of what’s becoming available without the systematic pigeon-holes that the Irish Ancestors site provides.

    Unless, of course, your ancestors were Delgany Anglicans ( who published their entire family history in the Dublin Evening Mail of 1855 ( and then went off to be buried in Barraniskey (

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Tyrone House

    January 6, 2013 @ 11:07 am | by John Grenham

    Anyone who comes across Tyrone House outside Kilcolgan in east Galway will not easily forget the sight. A magnificent Palladian granite pile, built in 1779 to impress the gentry and intimidate the tenantry, it now sits gaunt, roofless and windowless, utterly out of scale in a tiny stone-walled field that is the last pitiful scrap of the huge estate that paid for it.

    The evidence of the eye alone tells you that these landlords were not well-loved. They were the St. Georges, seventeenth-century arrivals from Cambridgeshire who did very well for themselves. The Tyrone House family are now best known as the models for the Prendevilles in Edith Somerville’s The Big House of Inver (1925):
    “Five successive generations of mainly half-bred and wholly profligate Prendevilles lived out their short lives in the Big House, living with country women, fighting, drinking, gambling.” Somerville’s attitude to their Irish acquisitions is neatly summed up in the family motto she invents for them, Je prends, “I take”.

    In literary terms, the book is most valuable for its extraordinary portrait of the central character, “Shibby Pindy” (Isabella Prendeville), the illegitimate daughter of the last great landlord, Captain Jas, and her obsessive attempts to re-unite the Big House with its lost demesne. Somerville uses her to dramatise the ongoing decay of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, its slow absorption into the culture that surrounded it and which it despised.

    But the first four chapters, giving the historical background to the main story, are a masterpiece of family and local history. Somerville was thoroughly Anglo-Irish, but also an outsider. In these chapters she is utterly in command of her raw material, the intricate genealogies of the landed gentry of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland, and she treats them with superb high irony and masterful storytelling. This is the complexity of Irish history as it occurred, told by a woman who knows her opinions are part of that complexity. And she never hid her opinions. When de Valera came to power in 1933, she wrote “the powers of Darkness have triumphed”.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

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