Irish Roots »

  • Breaking up

    July 29, 2013 @ 8:49 am | by John Grenham

    Dear General Register Office,

    I can’t deny that we’ve had our problems in the past. I know there are many, many unresolved issues that, one day, we may have to face head-on. (If you’re ready now, I know a good counsellor, a Mr. Deenihan. )

    But GRO, GRO (you don’t mind if I call you that, do you?) I’ve been down to Werburgh Street. I’ve seen where you’re going to put us in a month’s time. It’s surrounded by high walls topped with razor-wire. It’s obvious where the watch-towers will be built. There’s plenty of space for the dog-handlers and the punishment cells.

    The message to us is clear: leave. And you have your rights, you can tell us to go. But, GRO, what about the tourists? For God’s sake, think of the tourists.

    I know your boss has said the move is only “until a long-term solution is found” . But he, and every other civil servant, is now under absolute compulsion to pretend to be an economist. And every economist knows that in the long term we’re all dead. Again, the message is clear.

    If you want a permanent break, so be it. We’ll agree to any terms you like. The only sticking point is custody of the historic records. You keep pretending not to know, but they’re deeply loved by their extended family and there are many relatives who would make them comfortable and value them as they should be valued – the National Library, the National Archives, and many more.

    I know you just want to be free. I know we can be annoying, clingy little nuisances. You can easily be rid of us – just make the historic records available. We’ll leave, perhaps reluctantly, or perhaps a little relieved that’s it’s finally over.

    Yours in sorrow

    Irish Genealogy

  • Kerry Genealogy Roadshow

    July 22, 2013 @ 11:03 am | by John Grenham

    Are you off to Kerry for your holidays any time over the next few months? Don’t get a fright if you come around a bend on the Ring and see your ancestors hurtling towards you. The Kerry Genealogy Roadshow is on the move.

    The Roadshow is a completely refitted and remodelled bus that will be travelling all over the Kingdom between now and the start of October. Every single tourist event in the calendar can expect a visit, from the Brosnan Clan gathering in Castleisland to Puck Fair in Killorglin to the Kenmare Lace Festival. A full timetable can be found at the Kerry Roadshow Facebook page and it is extraordinary to behold.

    The bus is equipped with computers and WiFi access, free subscriptions to the major family history websites, a small research library, free documentation on how to go about research and, best of all, actual genealogists whose brains you can pick. The aim is first of all to provide guidance and an initial research leg-up to tourists who might have some Irish connections but have never delved into them – an incentive to keep them coming back. But of course it’s also open to one and all: locals, Irish tourists, Germans curious about Irish research, back-packers looking for a bit of shade and little children with big ice-cream cones.

    Supported by Kerry County Council, South Kerry Development and East Kerry Development under the EU Leader Rural Development Fund, the venture is the brainchild of John Hamrock, whose Ancestry Network is staffing the bus. Full marks for ingenuity to them and their funders. I just hope they don’t think this is their summer holiday.

    And if you are going to Kerry, did you really think you could get away from family history on the beach? There’s no escape. We’re everywhere.

  • Six tactics of the successful researcher:

    July 15, 2013 @ 10:59 am | by John Grenham

    1. Lose the blinkers. You need to keep trimming away your own presumptions, because otherwise they’ll just grow back. No, not all Cholmondeleys were Protestant. Yes, some nineteenth-century families moved back to Ireland from the US. No, we’re not all descended from Milesius.

    2. Burrow. If you can’t find what should be there, don’t give up. Look at records for adjoining areas, look at earlier and later records, try different spellings, different forenames, different families in the same area … You are a dog and this is your bone.

    3. Know where the devil is. In the detail, of course. For example, that the date of the offence in your great-grandfather’s conviction for public drunkenness was the day after your grandmother’s birth. He was celebrating!

    4. Turn off the computer and go down to the library or archive. What’s online may be wonderful, but it’s still only a small fraction of what survives.

    5. Stare at records. There is nearly always something more to be learned from a record, no matter now well you think you know it. Last month I noticed on my grandfather’s familiar 1901 return that the head of the household in the shop where he was an assistant had recorded him as a “cuzin”. Tracing her family showed he was in fact her second cousin, and revealed a plethora of related lines. Welcome to the extended family, all you Flynns, Shines, McManuses and Seerys.

    6. Think sideways. Your family were all small tenant farmers, with no property and hence no reason to leave a will. But what about their uncle, the priest? Maybe he left one. And every testamentary record after 1858 is an open book at

    It begins to occur to me that the portrait of the implied genealogist shows a sceptical, stubborn picker of nits. Well, if the hat fits …

  • Trees

    July 8, 2013 @ 10:37 am | by John Grenham

    When someone tries to describe their family history to me (a distressingly frequent occurrence) the first thing I ask is whether they have a tree: looking at even the most complex of extended families laid out in the classic lines and boxes of a family tree instantly makes sense of distant relationships.

    Hand-drawn trees are by far the most intelligible, but they have some serious drawbacks. First, they are fixed and, once complete, almost impossible to change. If you later discover a great-aunt Nelly and 40 third cousins, tough luck. Second, and more important, they can be extremely difficult to create, requiring a rare combination of research and graphic design skills. In fact I know of only one commercial family-tree artist in the country, Tony Hennessy of

    The indefinitely revisable, computer-drawn tree usually suffices and, for better or worse, that now means online family trees. The three giants of commercial global genealogy, Ancestry, FindMyPast and MyHeritage now all offer well-designed trees that are potentially infinite. In the last two months the free Mormon site FamilySearch has also expanded and redesigned its service.

    MyHeritage was originally a family-tree only site, free up to a certain number of ancestors, subscription thereafter, and now has the largest numbers worldwide. Ancestry’s de facto monopoly on North American research makes its online trees ubiquitous. But all use the same selling point. Invite great-aunt Nelly to examine your tree (for free) and she’ll correct all your mistakes about her family.

    Just keep in mind the familiar warning about free internet services: if you’re not paying for it, someone else is paying to watch you.

    What do I use myself? A twelve-year-old copy of FamilyTreeMaker, gloriously uncool and ugly and, most importantly, completely offline. My only online tree is locked up behind passwords and multiple administrator hierarchies on the paying-only Though I’m sure the NSA and the CIA know all about it.

  • No evidence of genocide

    July 3, 2013 @ 10:02 am | by John Grenham

    A few weeks back, a story appeared in the science section of this paper with the title “Is distinctive DNA marker proof of ancient genocide?” ( The theory was proposed by a spokesman for IrelandsDNA, a commercial DNA testing company that also trades as ScotlandsDNA and BritainsDNA. He speculated that copper-mining Bronze-Age warriors had invaded Ireland some 2,500 years ago and all but exterminated the farmers already living here.

    The evidence adduced was the prevalence of a particular Y-chromosome DNA marker among men in Ireland today, along with several pieces of archaeology in south Munster, where it is proposed the copper-miners might have arrived, along with that medieval compendium of hoary Irish origin stories, the Lebor Gebala or Book of Invasions.

    The story also included balancing comments from Prof Dan Bradley from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, which were commendably clear and, perhaps, restrained. He described the “genocide” claim as “based on a very strong interpretation of a small piece of a genetic pattern” with “no real scientific evidence” to back it.

    Public attention is the life-blood of any commercial company and IrelandsDNA is no different. Technically speaking, it is one of the most advanced genealogical DNA-testing outfits in Europe, and shouldn’t need to attract customers by associating itself with such theories.

    The public may gloss over the balancing comments and the reporter’s diligent interrogation of the claims. It was frustrating to see that after a few days the story was still hovering in the “Most Read” section and had clocked up almost 1,000 Facebook recommendations. There is a deep willingness among some Irish people to believe the worst of ourselves, and this story of genocide in our origins is by now well on its way to becoming part of received wisdom about the Irish past.

    It is a shame.

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