Irish Roots »

  • The revolution in Irish newspaper research

    September 30, 2013 @ 9:08 am | by John Grenham

    For a long time, the advice to anyone who wanted to use newspapers for genealogical research was simple: don’t. Without a historically prominent ancestor, the likelihood of finding something useful was infinitesimal, but the investment of time was huge. Inevitably, whether you look at Faulkner’s Dublin Journal for 1740 or The Evening Press of 1940, you just end up reading the paper. Very enjoyable, but not the most productive use of research time.

    Digitisation completely changed that balance. If you can trawl 100 years of papers in five seconds, why not? An example: The Irish Times of January 5th, 1880, has a report of a court case in Ballinasloe at the height of the Land War. There, listed among the 27 small tenants charged with riot for assaulting a bailiff in the course of an attempted eviction, is my great-grandfather and what looks like his entire extended family. I had no idea there was anything like this in our past. It emerged only because the paper was now digitally searchable.

    The Irish Times was first online, with issues dating back to 1859, provided by subscription to the public but free to libraries and schools. Two other sites now exist, and The former started life as an outsourced, online archive for The Irish Independent (including its provincial titles and predecessor, The Freeman’s Journal) but now contains more, including The Irish Press from 1931 to 1995. FindMyPast gets its newspapers from, which is digitising the entire British Library pre-1900 copyright collection of newspapers. So far, it includes six Irish publications, all mainly 19th-century, including such rare gems as The Sligo Champion and The Cork Examiner. The collection will grow and will eventually become absolutely essential.

    None of the sites is perfect. Industrial-strength optical character recognition still sometimes spews out appalling gibberish. Still, better to trawl the entire ocean using a flawed net than to have to search it a spoonful at a time.

  • The Land Commission’s Dark Secrets

    September 23, 2013 @ 12:17 pm | by John Grenham

    Outside the National Archives, the largest single collection of Irish records covering the late 19th and early 20th centuries belongs to the Land Commission. The Commission was set up in 1881 under the Land Acts, to facilitate and eventually subsidise transfers of land ownership from large landlords to small tenants. After Independence, it continued in existence in the Republic, with expanded powers of compulsory purchase, and a huge loan from the British government. Its principal function became the breaking up of large estates, so-called “untenanted ranches”, and the redistribution of land, mainly to local smallholders.

    Its work obliged it to establish who had legal title to the properties, a hugely complex task. So it began to collect wills, correspondence, estate records, family trees, lease-books, tenants’ lists, maps, deeds, correspondence and much more. According to Terence Dooly’s excellent history of the post-1922 Commission, The Land for the People (UCD, 2004), it holds approximately 11 million separate items.

    But where are they? In a warehouse in a Portlaoise industrial estate. And how can you get access? Amazingly, you have to supply individual written permission from descendants of all those involved in the original transactions. The Department of Agriculture still vehemently fends off researchers, describing the records as private property. See for their 2012 thinking.

    However, the Department happily handed over pre-1923 Ulster records to The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and PRONI has made them public. Search for “Land commission” for a poignant whiff of what we’re missing.

    The real reason for the sealing of these records is undoubtedly fear of political skeletons. After 1922, the distribution of compulsorily-purchased land was deeply politicised and subject to an unspoken political understanding: “We won’t take back the farms ye gave yeer people, if ye leave what we give our people alone”.

    But the last compulsory purchase happened in 1983 and the Commission itself was abolished in 1992. How long can it possibly take to decontaminate this part of our history?

  • How Genealogy Should Work

    September 16, 2013 @ 9:42 am | by John Grenham

    Joe McSoap, a retiree in Arizona, got conflicting stories about his Irish grandfather from his family –names, places, dates that didn’t match – and wanted to sort out the truth, so he started research.

    One consistent part of the family story said his grandfather was born in Glasgow to an Irish couple, so he started, as he should have, with Scottish records. Using, and a well-loaded credit card, he began.

    He found his grandfather Jimmy’s birth, in 1876, showing parents’ names and, crucially, the date and place of their marriage, 1872 (€1.70). Their marriage record showed their parents’ names (both mother and father), occupations and whether living or deceased (€1.70). The 1881 census for Glasgow revealed that Jimmy’s father had died and that he had a five-year-old younger sister (€1.70). A check of death records 1876-81 uncovered the death entry, confirming the names of both parents (€1.70). The 1871 census recorded Jimmy’s father and mother the year before they married, living with their parents, all giving their place of birth as Ireland, and the mother’s family (very helpfully) specifying “Galway” (€1.70).

    On and on through the 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 census he went (many, many €1.70s), eventually establishing that Jimmy’s mother had a second family that Joe knew nothing about. And, using online family tree sites, he made contact with the family in Glasgow, even connecting with someone who remembered Jimmy as a young man and how he had emigrated to America.

    Meanwhile, on the Irish side, Joe only had Galway to go on. The only research option was, with its transcripts of Galway parish registers. But even with the parents’ names confirmed in Scotland, the best he could come up with was that Jimmy’s mother was probably born in Oughterard and his father in Rahoon. Maybe.

    So scotlandspeople made lots of €1.70s and Joe is on his way to Glasgow, not Galway, next year.

  • How Professional Genealogy Has Changed

    September 9, 2013 @ 3:40 pm | by John Grenham

    I started doing commissioned genealogical research back in 1982, God help me, working first for the old Genealogical Office and later for Hibernian Research. Both were loose arrangements, to put it mildly, where research was unsigned and secretarial staff provided a buffer between researchers and clients. And a buffer was essential.

    In the majority of cases, clients would know only the county of origin of their ancestors, if they knew that much, and we employed much ingenuity in trying to narrow the focus of research – cross-referencing surnames in property taxes, hunting down unusual forenames, picking out younger family members in General Register Office records (in the basement of the Custom House at that stage – “Feel free to light up”).

    But inevitably much of the research was unsuccessful. Hence the need for a buffer. And hence too, written reports that had to be scrupulous to the point of pain, listing, describing and justifying every source consulted.

    It was hard work, intensely frustrating and laborious. Character-building, perhaps, but only in retrospect.

    After a break of almost ten years, I dipped a toe back into the world of commissioned research a couple of years back, and I was astonished at the changes.

    First, and most important, the presence of so many records online makes it possible to scout up ahead, as it were, and give the client a much more accurate estimate of the likelihood of success. Much less groping in the dark, many fewer complete failures and no need for buffers.

    Second, what we ought to have known 30 years ago is now absolutely clear. No professional does a client’s research. All we do is help them with their own research.

    And finally, the ubiquitous curse of the Internet: power devolved into the hands of the individual. Power to make your own videos, do your own conveyancing, bankrupt yourself share-dealing. And do your own genealogical research.

  • The Irish DNA Atlas

    September 5, 2013 @ 1:25 pm | by John Grenham

    The way genetic genealogy is sold rightly causes large misgivings. Take one simple fact. Going back twelve generations, between three and four centuries, each of us has several thousand ancestors, even allowing for all those cousin marriages we don’t like to think about. Genealogical DNA testing can tell us about precisely two of them. Perhaps one shared the surname you bear, or is part of a clearly identifiable historic group. Big deal. Remember: two out of thousands.

    If this was all there was to it, fair enough. We can all claim to be descendants of Attila or the Queen of Sheba, as long as we know in our hearts that it’s about as scientific as a heraldic tea-towel.

    Unfortunately, however, some real science is being obscured. With a large enough sample from a carefully enough selected group, the study of genetics can reveal indisputable truths about population structure and migration, even in relatively recent times.

    The best Irish study is the Irish DNA Atlas. Started in 2011 as a collaboration between the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Genealogical Society of Ireland, the Atlas aims to identify genetic markers that arose in specific areas of Ireland in order to disentangle the wonderful mish-mash we are. In addition, the project will help population-based health research.

    The Atlas depends on volunteers coming forward for the tests, but not just any old volunteers. You must have eight Irish great-grandparents born within roughly 30 km of each other. Good progress is being made, but for some reason, no-one from Limerick or Westmeath has yet come forward. What have they got to hide?

    Participation is free for those who qualify, but your only reward is knowing that you’re contributing to a better understanding of how today’s Ireland came to be. Nobody is going to tell you you’re 18% Fir Bolg.

    If you’re interested, have a look at

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