Irish Roots »

  • Seán Murphy

    March 25, 2013 @ 9:31 am | by John Grenham

    Seán Murphy is one of the unsung heroes of Irish genealogy. An academic historian by training, he has worked as a professional genealogist for more than thirty years and has published widely in journals and magazines. Among his longer publications are The Twilight of the Chiefs: The MacCarthy Mor Hoax (Academica, 2001) and his annual Directory of Irish Genealogy (available free online at

    He is best known for the courses he gives as part of the Adult Education Programme of University College Dublin (see At their simplest, these provide introductory classes to people who want to research their own family. However, Seán has also expanded and developed them to the point where it is possible to take a three-year course leading to a Certificate in Genealogy/Family History, an NUI qualification graded at NFQ level 7, the equivalent of an ordinary level Bachelor degree. The standards and principles inculcated in his students are high and enduring. Graduates of the course stay in contact, through a “Certificate Genealogists’ Alumni Group” (

    There are reasons why Sean is unsung: suffering fools gladly does not figure among his talents. The scepticism and academic rigour he applies relentlessly in his work can sometimes make it seem that he is actively searching for toes to tread on, and he has few friends in Irish genealogical circles (or cliques, as he might see them). But he has done deep and valuable service to research standards in this country.

    At 11 am on Saturday April 27th next, you can see Seán in action giving a talk on “Recent Developments in Irish Genealogy” at the National Library of Ireland. The event is free but voluntary contributions will be requested to the Cystic Fibrosis Hopesource Foundation. Registration is recommended: contact

  • Dublin city voters, 1908

    March 20, 2013 @ 11:34 am | by John Grenham

    The laws of Irish decorum dictate that one apologise for blowing one’s own trumpet. But, frankly, my own trumpet is one of my very favourite instruments. My long-suffering neighbours can testify to the loud, self-satisfied tootling that often keeps them awake long into the night.

    Today’s tune concerns the new database on Dublin City Library and Archive’s site, covering Dublin voters in 1908. It has its origins in the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, which transformed the laws governing local elections in Ireland, and massively widened the franchise. Whereas before only freemen and the propertied could vote in local elections, after 1898 “occupiers, inhabitants and lodgers” were also included, as well as women over the age of 30. To give some idea of the scale of change, in 1908 96% of voters listed were from these new categories. They cover almost the entire social spectrum, from Robert Beresford Smyth, a large freeholder in D’Olier St., recorded as “travelling abroad” in 1908, to Edward Kane, a lodger paying 4s a week for two unfurnished rooms on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. This is Joyce’s Dublin, top to bottom. The number of voters recorded is 46,065. The population of the city in 1901 was 290,638. Given the age qualifications – 21 for men, 30 for women – the records probably cover a large majority of households in the city.

    The annual original volumes are giant backbreakers, divided by electoral ward, in turn sub-divided by voter category, then listing electors house by house. In other words, searching for an individual meant having to comb the entire volume. If you could lift it. Creating a database transcript with record images utterly transforms the records’ usefulness.

    To be honest, however satisfying the end result, my role was as just one of a team made up of DCLA staff, in particular Dr. Mary Clark, the City Archivist. Full credit to them and just a little tootle for me.

  • Family History Year

    March 10, 2013 @ 12:00 pm | by John Grenham

    In the build-up to St. Patrick’s Day, Tourism Ireland recently christened 2013 “Family History Year”. To the grizzled veterans among us, for whom every year is another (bloody) Family History Year, this might seem less than startling. But some interesting things are emerging. The first act of the Year was to set up a dedicated Facebook page in mid-February,, with an aim of reaching 50,000 followers by the end of 2013. After a month they’ve already reached 10,000.

    Keeping an eye on the page as it updates is fascinating, if a little scary. Wave after wave of people announce their irishnesss and give a few details of their ancestry. As a professional, I feel a bit like a mother bird watching a nest fill with thousands of little chicks screeching to be fed. The first impulse is just to run away.

    But the site’s success demonstrates more powerfully than any market survey ever could just how tenacious identification with Ireland remains among the 80 million. Making it as easy as possible for them to find the records of their ancestors should be one of the main concerns of our public administration, and not just because they might give us a few bob, but because we owe it to them, and to their and our ancestors. Even if a sizeable proportion will remain poor lost souls, no matter how much help they get: “My grandfather’s name was Ryan. He came from Tipperary.” Well, yes.

    A valiant attempt to unlose some of them takes place at The St Patrick’s Festival Irish Family History Centre in the Discover Ireland centre in the old St. Andrew’s church in Suffolk St. in Dublin from March 14th to 18th next. Run by Eneclann and FindMyPast, and with six other groups participating, the Centre is designed unapologetically for beginners, with a rolling programme of talks every day and free on-site access to FindMyPast’s records. More information is at

    The Centre also offers personal advice from experts who won’t run away.

  • The Origins of the Irish

    March 3, 2013 @ 4:40 pm | by John Grenham

    In his introduction to the work of the same name that he has just published (Thames and Hudson, €25.15), J.P. Mallory writes “an entire book devoted to The Origins of the Irish is just asking for trouble”. And then dives right in.

    The book provides a comprehensive overview of all the current evidence for the origins of the people(s) who inhabited Ireland in the 5th century A.D., around the time of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Mallory covers cosmology, physics, geology, plate tectonics, climate change, archaeology, Irish origin stories, medical genetics, DNA studies, and the history of the Irish language.

    Such breadth is only possible because of his genius for synthesis and summary, lightened with a touch of sharp wit. One example: in looking at the constituent elements of a human body, he works out that it would take the uranium contained in 80 million bodies to produce an atom bomb. And then points out that 70 million people claim Irish descent. The implication is that UN weapons inspectors should be on the lookout, in case we reach critical mass.

    His own academic expertise is in archaeology and Indo-European linguistics (he is Emeritus Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at QUB) and these are the parts in which the evidence is most closely argued. But every single section is scrupulous about evidence and logic.

    Nonetheless, the book remains joyously non-academic, while still managing to retain some of the best elements of a textbook. Each of the 10 chapters ends with a bullet-point summary of the conclusions reached or uncertainties still remaining. Wickedly, and tellingly, the end of the chapter on genetic evidence provides two mutually contradictory sets of conclusions.

    With unmatched clarity and humour, the book challenges every single received notion of ‘Irishness’. It is a masterpiece and I’ll be going back to it again and again.

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