Irish Roots »

  • Nazi Genealogy

    October 27, 2013 @ 9:57 am | by John Grenham

    Deborah Hertz’s How Jews Became Germans (Yale University Press, 2009) makes shocking reading for a genealogist.

    Well before gaining power, the Nazis were fascinated by genealogy. From its foundation, admission to the Party required the submission of a three-generation family tree demonstrating Aryan race purity back as far as grandparents. For advancement up the Party hierarchy, ever more generations had to be uncovered.

    Three months after they came to power in 1933, the Nazi government passed new laws obliging all German citizens to do the same: documenting racial descent became compulsory. Eventually this would result in the so-called “Aryan Pass”, a sort of genealogical identity card carried by the entire population. But its first effect was to create a huge demand for genealogical information.

    Parish registers, then as now, there as here, were the primary sources. Thousands of Verkartunstruppen, “carding troops”, began to transcribe millions of baptisms, marriages and burials to index cards. A huge genealogical bureaucracy of archivists, researchers and transcribers, the Reichsippenamt, the Kinship Research Office, was created to centralise all family history records. Among other projects, it organised the microfilming of all surviving German parish registers. About 350,000 volumes were covered, containing somewhere in the order of 800 million records.

    The reasoning behind all of this was simple and consistent and led directly to Auschwitz. The clear borders drawn around ethnicity by genealogical research would make it possible to excise the contagion of Jewishness and re-purify the German race.

    Of course, the Nazis were simply wrong. What research showed (and still shows) is that all races melt into and overlap with each other. But the echoes with the processes of collection and transcription of genealogical information in Ireland over the past two decades are still uncanny and unsettling.

    I advanced the notion a while back that genealogy can make you a better person. Maybe not.

  • Why can’t you find your ancestors?

    October 21, 2013 @ 9:21 am | by John Grenham

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Which is to say that trying to explain why you can’t find an ancestor is akin to collecting water in a sieve. But here are a few possibilities anyway:

    At the precise moment the National Library was microfilming the parish register page with your ancestor on it, a tiny wink of light crept through the blackout curtains and fell on just the last few letters of the surname, creating a small overexposure and making the name eternally illegible. This has actually happened to me. How do I know, (asks the smart boy at the back), if the name was illegible? Because a heritage centre had made a separate transcript from the same register. Hurrah for duplication of effort.

    That heritage centre had excellent parish register transcriptions, with a rate of error as good as possible, less than 2%. Guess who falls into that 2%? That’s right, your other line of ancestors. Back to grinding through the microfilm.

    But why can’t you find your family in the 1901 and 1911 censuses at like everyone else? Perhaps because the transcribers used the existing paper finding aid as a guide to place-names. Some smallish towns were inside neither a townland nor a proper urban area, and fell between two stools. For paper this didn’t matter – the exceptions were just stuck in manually. But computers don’t do exceptions very well. Parts of at least 20 small towns – among them Moate, Ballygar, Lanesboro, Castledermot and Mullinahone – were simply never transcribed.

    And of course you have to consider the possibility that you have no ancestors. There are a small number of cases where individuals simply pop out of the universal quantum foam without forebears, already fully formed and usually wearing a suit. Most of them seem to be in political parties.

  • The new General Register Office research room is a disgrace

    October 14, 2013 @ 12:43 pm | by John Grenham


    The old Werburgh Street Labour Exchange was always a brute of a building, a pre-cast concrete warehouse better suited to hanging carcases than dealing with the public. For those who went there to collect their pittance of a dole in the 1980s (I was one), it always felt deliberately designed to humiliate.

    And now the only Irish genealogical research facility that has no online or offline alternative, the only walk-in location in the country that requires payment, has been picked up and dumped into the middle of this ersatz slaughterhouse.

    Tables taken from the old Irish Life Centre room, enough to accommodate about 40 people, have been installed in a space carved out of the old warehouse using only a few flimsy screens. Two-meter-high one-way mirrors are all that separate office space from the public. There are precisely two electric power points in the entire research area, making the use of laptops impossible, never mind the promised research terminals. A single toilet has to serve everyone. It is situated right beside the main index volumes, but its door is of course helpfully labelled with a schematic man, and a woman, and a wheelchair. All the boxes ticked there.

    The space is uninsulated, with no internal walls and no ceilings. If you’re coming here in February, wear your thermals. The slightly nausea-inducing mauve and khaki colour scheme will be the warmest thing in the building. For the moment, the GRO staff remain as cheerful and helpful as ever, but they must be dreading the winter.

    No doubt the OPW saved a bit by not renewing the lease on the Irish Life location, but at a terrible cost. The flagship genealogical research location in the country is a disgrace. I will be ashamed to have to take research visitors to such a place. What it says about us is unambiguous:

    “Welcome to Shabbyland, home of the Couldn’t-Be-Bothered.”

  • Back To Our Past

    October 7, 2013 @ 11:12 am | by John Grenham

    The Senior Times is an Irish publication aimed at people old enough not to get annoyed at such euphemisms as “third age” and “golden years”. It is very successful. The publishers behind it also run the Irish franchise for the “Over 50s Show”, a consumer event staged at different venues around the country over the course of the year, and also very successful.

    This year’s Dublin show, running from Friday 18 October to Sunday 20 October at the RDS is its fourteenth in a row, and likely to be the biggest yet, topping 25,000 attendees.

    A large reason for the success of the Dublin event is the way the organisers mix in smaller shows that appeal to sub-groups of its main audience. The Coin and Stamp Fair is one. But the biggest is “Back To Our Past”, a genealogy event started four years ago that has now grown to be the main public face of Irish family history. It hosts professionals, publishers, websites, software and hardware providers, libraries and institutions, and provides a unique opportunity to engage face-to-face with everyone in Ireland involved in the area.

    It also runs an extraordinary series of presentations, no fewer than 31 separate lectures and seminars over the three days, covering topics ranging from “Irishmen in the Korean and Vietnam Wars” to “How to Draw a Family Tree (without going through four rolls of wallpaper)”.

    In addition, this year the organisers are also playing host to “Genetic Genealogy Ireland”, a three-day series of another nineteen lectures on the uses of DNA in researching Irish ancestors, surnames and population migration.

    So much is packed into the three days that it will be physically impossible to get to even half of the good stuff. Serious advance planning is needed. Start at

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