Irish Roots »

  • The Cowboy and the Farmer should be friends

    August 26, 2013 @ 9:42 am | by John Grenham

    I recently had a very eminent historian hiss at me that she’d love to strangle every genealogist on the planet. Rather than argue, I just edged slowly towards the exit. Unlike academia, genealogy produces conflict-averse creatures at the bottom of the food chain.

    But if you’re in a similar situation, and less timid than me, there are arguments. The most important is that at the root of what historians and genealogists do is the same simple impulse, the urge to understand how the past has shaped the present. Granted, the genealogical present is more limited, largely confined to family, but one of the insights of genealogy is that “family” is a much baggier concept than we assume. Where the borders are drawn to define a tribe or a family or a nation is a cultural and political decision.

    A hard-bitten historian will just curl her lip at fluff like this, though. What is harder to deny is the effect genealogy is having on the availability of original sources.

    Actual documentary evidence is the lifeblood of history. It is a simple fact that almost none of the historical documents made transparent and universally available online over the past decades would be there without the demand from family historians.

    And what documents they are. The most recent are half a million dog licence register records ranging from 1866 to 1913 made available at, the first instalment from a total of more that 10 million.

    There, in the register from Boyle Petty Sessions on March 26th 1904, Earl Dudley of Rockingham House is recorded licensing two retrievers, a setter and a spaniel at 2/6 each, dutifully listed between the sheepdogs of a John Healy and a John McDermott.

    Fifty years before, such simple equality before the law would have been unthinkable. I can think of no more vivid demonstration of one of the most profound historical changes of the past two centuries. Q.E.D.

  • Where to study Genealogy

    August 19, 2013 @ 10:55 am | by John Grenham

    As other livelihoods vanish, more and more people in Ireland are trying to make a living from genealogy. The best way to train for it is, of course, to spend years researching your own family, but the growing demand to work in the area is at least partly responsible for the recent increase in the number of genealogy courses.

    The longest-established is the Certificate in Genealogy/ Family History, a modular series of evening courses that you can use just to get yourself started, or which can lead over three years to a level-seven diploma, the equivalent of an ordinary-level degree. The course is formidably thorough and is directed by the well- known genealogist and historian Seán Murphy through the University College Dublin Adult Education Centre (

    A newly established two- year part-time diploma course in University College Cork also promises a level-seven qualification. Although based in Cork, the course, called just Genealogy, is organised by the Irish Ancestry Research Centre, a University of Limerick campus company that also runs a Certificate in History of Family and Genealogical Methods at UL, as well as an MA in the History of Family (

    The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology offers a BA in Heritage that includes genealogy in a much wider context. It’s useful if your aim is a career in the area ( NUI Maynooth has a part-time evening BA and a full-time MA in Local History – genealogy’s more reputable sibling (

    There are also shorter courses that can be good jumping-off points. In Dún Laoghaire, John Hamrock of Ancestor Network runs regular weekend sessions (tinyurl. com/m576be7). In Dublin, a 12-week diploma course given in conjunction with the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland starts in early October at Independent Colleges (

    And, purely in the interests of thoroughness, I should add that I’m giving a 10-week course at City Colleges myself, also starting in October (

  • FamilySearch

    August 12, 2013 @ 9:35 am | by John Grenham

    The genealogical generosity of the Mormon Church is remarkable.

    Most researchers will know that its flagship website offers free access to transcripts of all of the Irish civil registration indexes up to 1958, as well as transcripts of the family information in civil birth registers up to 1881. And most will be aware of the relentless, decades-long microfilming of original sources that has formed the basis of most of the great online expansion of Irish records over the past five years – the 1901 and 1911 censuses, tithe books and will calendars at, the landed estate and prison records at

    And the free access the site gives to the records of many other countries is making it easier and easier to piece together families separated by migration.

    But they have even larger ambitions. The site is continuously (and sometimes irritatingly) under development. Now, on top of the free records, it offers free family tree software, a photo-sharing and searching section, searches of user-submitted family trees, a blog, a wiki and an online library.

    The library alone is extraordinary, with more than 100,000 pdf copies of books taken from almost a dozen specialised genealogical libraries across the US. A quick-and-dirty search for books with “Irish” in the title turns up 18,468. “Ireland” matches 29, 506. Almost every out-of-copyright book of genealogical interest is here, including all seven volumes of John Lodge’s fawning 1774 The Peerage of Ireland and a full run of the Burke family’s astute exploitation of growing snobbery in the nineteenth century: Landed Gentry, Commoners, Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies, and much more.

    Why so generous? The answer is simple: enlightened self-interest. One of the central aims of the Church is to reconstruct the family tree of the entire human race, right back to Adam and Eve, reuniting everyone who has ever lived. And the more people out there finding their ancestors, inside or outside the Church, the quicker it’ll happen.

  • The Genealogical Society of Ireland

    August 4, 2013 @ 12:11 pm | by John Grenham

    An entire career involved in genealogy can certainly affect your view of the world, but not always in a bad way. Years chasing ancestors up and down the social spectrum and back and forth across ethnic boundaries produces a very vivid sense of how flimsy tribal identities can be, and how quickly the wheel of fortune can turn.

    In my own case, one result is a deep distrust of inherited status of any description – wealth, social standing, racism, snobbery and more. I have an especially hard time with titles. For a long time, a genealogy website whose registration offered a drop-down list with too wide a range of titles had to address me as “The Rt. Hon.” A small pleasure, but mine own.

    The distrust has contaminated even non-heritable titles. In late 2010, the Genealogical Society of Ireland conferred a fellowship on me, entitling me to put FGSI after my name and, as a result, I haven’t written a word about the GSI in three years. It’s time to stop sulking.

    The first thing that has to be said about the Society is that it is extraordinarily active. It runs An Daonchartlann at the Carlisle Pier in Dún Laoghaire, an archive and research Centre open to the public. It produces an impressively wide range of publications, including an annual Journal, a monthly newsletter, and a series of books and CDs transcribing original sources. It hosts a year-round series of lectures at the Dún Laoghaire College of Further Education. It provides support and advice to the Irish DNA Atlas Project. And it campaigns vigorously on issues to do with access to genealogical and heraldic records.

    What’s really remarkable is that this is all done with volunteers. As usual, a few Individuals-Whom-It-Would-Be-Invidious-To-Name drive it all, and more power to them. You can find out more at the Society’s website,

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