Irish Roots »

  • Events explosion

    April 29, 2013 @ 11:46 am | by John Grenham

    The very late spring has produced explosions of green growth everywhere. And the events season – conferences, meetings, commemorations – has also arrived with a bang.

    Among the most recent additions to the calendar is the National Famine Commemoration. First held only four years ago, it is staged on a Sunday in May in each province in rotation – this year’s is to be held in Kilrush on May 12th next. The event is not just a single ceremony, however. For a full ten days starting from May 3rd, an extraordinary series of talks, concerts, films, guided walks and re-enactments bears witness to the devastating impact of the Famine in south-west Clare. Details are at One of the organisers, Paddy Waldron, has put together an excellent online guide to relevant genealogical and local history records at

    Another recently-born, equally remarkable event is the 5th Summer Conference of the Sligo Field Club, “A Celebration of Sligo Families”, being held in Sligo on from May 10th to 12th. What’s so remarkable? The line-up of speakers positively glows: Jim Mallory, Ken Nicholls, Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Gerard Moran, Tom Bartlett, Catríona Crowe … Awaiting you is weekend of rare, detailed (and witty) talk on Sligo families, particularly from the seventeenth century. See

    If neither of these suit you, take a meander through The Gathering website, For next weekend alone, it lists more than 100 events. The variety is bewildering, ranging from the Dún Laoghaire festival of flags and emblems through the Maguire history weekend in Enniskillen to the Lorteo class of ’78 reunion in Mullingar.

    If you extend your range to a month, the number of events grows into thousands and the diversity gets positively surreal: The Ballinacoola Murphy Clan, PJ’s 70th Birthday Bash and, my favourite, “Come Back Morgan” self-described as ” one big fat excuse for you to come back to visit us this Summer!” Front up, Morgan.

    We may be broke, but at least we’re not staying at home brooding about it.

  • Graveyards worth whistling past

    April 21, 2013 @ 3:13 pm | by John Grenham

    Genealogy deals with the dead, so it’s not surprising that graveyards loom large in researchers’ minds, and have done for 150 years.

    Since the mid-2000s, however, technology has brought about a sea-change in the kind of access we have to graveyards and headstones. No fewer than three Irish companies are offering graveyard survey services, recording the precise position of each grave using GPS, transcribing inscriptions, taking digital photographs, producing cemetery maps and making the whole lot freely available online.

    The oldest is Irish Graveyard Surveyors, at Set up in 2007 by Michael Durkan, the son of a Mayo undertaker, it aims to preserve the kind of detailed knowledge of local graveyards that his father had. So far, almost 200 cemeteries are covered, mainly in the West, with the majority in Mayo, Galway, Sligo, Donegal and Clare. For each location the cemetery owner gets maps, along with transcripts and photographs for every headstone, from the most recent to the oldest. And so do we, on their free website.

    The most direct competitor is, based in Northern Ireland, but also starting to operate in the South, and online only since 2012. The site doesn’t have a large-scale map showing the locations covered, making it a little awkward to work out precisely what they’ve done, but there appear to be around 100 graveyards included, mostly in Northern Ireland and heavily concentrated in Co. Derry. Again, the survey results – photos, transcripts and maps – are all freely searchable online.

    The third of the trio,, is not a business in the same way as the other two. It relies on volunteer-led local groups, provides them with technical and archaeological know-how and publishes the results online. Not all surveyed graveyards include a full set of transcriptions, but the quality of what is there is very good and, again, free. The main focus of work is in the south and south-west, Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford and Cork in particular.

  • Tom Cruise’s Glorious Otherness

    April 14, 2013 @ 12:42 pm | by John Grenham

    Thirty years ago, I travelled in India for a while. Among my most vivid memories is something that happened in the middle of the indescribable chaos of a railway ticket office. A small boy aged about ten, filthy and dressed in rags, started staring at me through the crowd. When I began to stare back, he didn’t drop his gaze, didn’t change his utterly blank expression. Shivers started to run down the back of my neck. It felt as if he didn’t recognize me as a fellow human being, as if the very notion of common humanity didn’t exist for him. At the other end of the Indian social scale, a journey on an air-conditioned sleeper provided a less eerie version of the same experience. The middle-class Indians sharing their compartment with a couple of rancid, heat-stunned Irish blithely ignored us. There was no question of hostility, just absolute indifference. It took a while, but eventually I came to see that what was happening in both cases was true tolerance, unreserved acceptance of difference, without any need to make it familiar, or even welcome.

    Ireland certainly inhabits the other end of the spectrum. We’re not nearly as intolerant as some anti-racism campaigners would have us believe, but accepting otherness is not something we do easily. Watch Irish people meeting for the first time abroad and you’ll see long, tortuous explorations of how precisely they have to be connected. Absence of connection is not an option. Our brand of tolerance to foreigners is similar, the kind of hospitality that invites the outsider to become one of us.

    And the most extreme version of this goes: “Now you just make yourself comfortable there, while I get the genealogist to fit you into the family.”

    Personally, I would prefer just to be able to tolerate Tom Cruise, in all his glorious otherness.

  • You and me and Kim Jong-Un

    April 6, 2013 @ 12:20 pm | by John Grenham

    Most people have very limited horizons when they think about their ancestors. It is hard to feel a direct personal connection with anyone more remote than a great-grandparent. Eyes glaze over when you try to tell people of earlier generations, and one good reason is that the numbers inflate so rapidly, to the point of disbelief. How can you possibly have almost 33,000 direct ancestors just five centuries back? (The answer, of course, is that you can’t: think cousin marriage. Then think of something else.)

    But when you lift your eyes to the geological timescale things start to get really peculiar. A simple, striking, scientific fact is that every single life-form so far examined shares the same ancestor. You, me, Kim Jong-Un, bacteria, jellyfish, dinosaurs, mushrooms, slime mould and grass all descend from a single, original, living being. It has even acquired its own acronym: LUCA, short for Last Universal Common Ancestor. Current theory posits it as a small, single-cell organism, estimated to have lived some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

    One of the implications is that the beginning of life on earth seems to have been a unique event in the 4.2 billion-year history of the planet. Understandably, this makes many scientists squeamish – such an event is so vanishingly unlikely it begins to look like evidence for some kind of outside intervention, and legions of microbiologists are busy positing alternatives – unfound alien lines, multiple lines that were outcompeted by ours, cross-species sharing of genetic material. But the strongest evidence is still for a single, unique origin, as Darwin put it in The Origin of Species, “some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed”.

    Hence my favourite of the many excuses for unsuccessful genealogical research: we’re all brothers anyway, man. Or at least 500th cousins.

  • A New Portal

    April 1, 2013 @ 1:42 pm | by John Grenham

    For years tourism authorities in this country have been tearing their hair out over the problems of using genealogy as a marketing tool. What’s needed is blindingly obvious: make it as easy as possible for descendants of emigrants to find records of their ancestors. A significant proportion will have their holiday choices at least influenced by easy success. QED.

    The main obstacle is no longer the lack of online records (although there remain some shameful exceptions – General Register Office, I’m looking at you). The obstacle is now fragmentation. One site has some of the church records, but won’t link to that other site with the rest of them and that other site won’t link to the site with the census records and yet another site … and around and around we go.

    Some common sense has finally prevailed. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has revamped their site,, and turned it into a portal that creates simple-to-follow, ready-made searches for all the relevant free sites at the click of a single button. It is perfect for someone with just a casual interest in their Irish past – they get an instant uncomplicated overview of almost everything they might need to search.

    For the sake of transparency, I should add that I provided some of the text and ran some of the testing. So I have to bite the hand. The site is by no means perfect. Its usefulness as a portal for beginners and casual users depends on it being complete, but there are no ready-made searches for any commercial sites, or indeed, and these are essential. But I’m sure they will come.

    The best way to see the revamp is as a start: the portal provides the outline of a great reception area. So tourist bosses can begin to leave their hair in place, but they need to start herding visitors into that area.

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