Irish Roots »

  • Make sure they don’t die

    February 24, 2013 @ 12:17 pm | by John Grenham

    When I was a boy, my father would often tell me stories of his own boyhood in Athlone in the 1930s. As I got older, the repetitions grated, and became one of our many I-know-it-all conflicts. Now that my own son is mocking me for telling him the same five stories over and over, I can understand my father’s motivation (and irritation) a bit better. At a certain point in life, when mortality ceases to be an abstraction, the urge to pass on memories, to make sure they don’t die, becomes well-nigh irresistible.

    This is the same urge that lies at the root of much family history. But how long does it last? How many generations does it take for extended family connections to be peacefully forgotten? I think it can last a very long time indeed.

    An example: Father Bartholomew Donovan of Melbourne wrote to me recently. His great-great-grandfather, also Bartholomew, was a house carpenter born in Cork city who emigrated to New South Wales in 1838 and became a successful builder. Fr. Donovan recently traced the family to St. Finbarr’s parish, identified Bartholemew’s parents as Anthony Donovan (also a carpenter) and Mary née Daly, and found records of no fewer than five siblings (Sarah 1798; Mary Ann, 1800; John, 1804; Simon, 1806; Ann, 1815). Three of them, his direct ancestor and sisters Sarah and Ann, emigrated along with two of their spouses, while the parents and three of their remaining children stayed in Cork.

    Fr. Donovan now wants to know if any descendants of the Anthony and Mary who stayed behind are still alive, and still in Cork. He is coming for a visit in April to meet any possible relatives. Even at fully five generations distance and over 200 years later, the urge to keep those connections alive is enduring.

    If you think you’re related, let me know and I’ll pass on the message.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Cast the net wide

    February 17, 2013 @ 12:27 pm | by John Grenham

    The most common mistake made when starting research online is surprisingly counter-intuitive. It is to be too precise. The fact is, the more detail you include when you query a genealogical database, the less likely you are to find anything useful.

    Just think. Your John Brennan was born on March 17th 1868 (March 17th being a surprisingly common birthday for the nineteenth-century Irish), married Mary Murphy on September 14th 1890, had children John (1891), Mary (1893), Michael (1896) and Delia (1898), and lived all his life in the townland of Ballymore, Co. Mayo. Enter all of this simultaneously into a query, and the possibility of getting a match is zero.

    All it takes is a single missing item in the originals, (the page recording Michael’s birth was used to light a fire in 1898), a single missing item in the database transcripts (the transcriber had a late night and dozed off over the marriage record) or a single item misreported by the family (John was actually born in 1890) and the response from the database will be the same: no match.

    Don’t get me wrong. Knowing these details will eventually help unlock the truth. But to start off, you need to cast the net as wide as possible. How many Brennan births are registered in and around Ballymore between, say, 1864 and 1870? How many Johns? Can you identify the precise marriage registration, using only the names, not the reported date? What are the ages given in the 1901 and 1911 censuses? Do they match each other, or the ages you think you know? (Unlikely.) Are there other Brennan households in and around Ballymore in 1901 and 1911? Any with heads of household of an age to be siblings of John?

    The biggest sites –,, – all know that funnelling research like this, starting off broad and ending narrow, is by far the most productive way to use their records and have set up their search interfaces to encourage it. They know what they’re doing.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Irish Lives Remembered

    February 11, 2013 @ 9:16 am | by John Grenham

    A perennial problem for genealogy publications or websites is the narrow range of naming options. Ancestors, ancestry, family history, or roots, and that’s it. (“Roots”, incidentally, would not be nearly as popular if more people were familiar with Australian slang. “To root” is an Aussie synonym for the more familiar four-letter Anglo-Saxon f-word. Which casts a whole new light on “Irish Roots”.)

    There have been a few valiant attempts to escape the naming monotony, with FindMyPast the most conspicuous. But the best I’ve come across is the title of an online genealogy magazine founded just a few months ago, Irish Lives Remembered ( The title manages to capture one of the main drivers of research, people’s need to ensure their ancestors are not forgotten.

    The contents of the magazine, published monthly, are also quite special. Eileen Munnelly, the publisher, has long years of media and publishing experience in Ireland and Australia, and it shows. The quality of layout and design is superb, with every page more eye-catching than the last. Each issue has a full 70 pages, allowing room for a very well balanced mix – articles on county research, on individual families and family artefacts, stories of migration, reviews, events listings and more.

    But the most extraordinary thing about the magazine is that it’s completely free. The fact that it appears purely online most emphatically does not mean it costs nothing to produce. The design is carefully tailored for mobile or tablet devices such as the iPad and that will make it attractive to advertisers. But hardly attractive enough to make a profit, at least not under current conditions. As far as I can make out, the only commercial element is an online service hosting memorials dedicated to the memory of people with Irish heritage around the world. If there is any justice, the quality of the product alone should guarantee success. I can only wish them the very best of luck.

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

  • Evidence, evidence, evidence

    February 3, 2013 @ 10:46 am | by John Grenham

    Dick Eastman writes the genealogy world’s longest-established and most authoritative family history blog, at So when he started a recent post with “John Murphy lived to be 219 years old”, I sat up and paid attention. The story was from last week’s Limerick Leader and described how a local man had come across a headstone in Knockainey recording the death of a John Murphy in 1784 and giving his age as 219. Dick was sceptical, to say the least, but a link from his post took me back to the Leader article, complete with a photographic close-up of the age, “219″, apparently carved on the gravestone.

    People in 1784 were no more stupid than we are. Someone claiming to be 219 in 1784 would have been born in 1564 or so, around the same year as Shakespeare, and would have been widely celebrated and just as widely disbelieved. A monumental mason will not carve something self-evidently ludicrous without a very good reason. It all seemed a bit Irish, in the Healy-Rae sense of the word. So what was going on?

    Then I remembered that Knockainey is one of the areas covered by the Historic Graves project. And yes, there is the inscription in St, John’s Knockainey. But in full it reads ” John Murphy died the 11th day of October 1784 aged 29 yrs.(sic.) May the Lord have mercy on his soul”. Most importantly there is also a high-quality photograph of the stone, showing the “2″ and the “9″ widely spaced, but with nothing between them. John Murphy was born in 1755, not 1564.

    The moral is, of course, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.” Or in a blog, not even this one: always check the evidence. The Limerick Leader story is at The image and transcript are at

    ['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at]

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