Irish Roots »

  • Reaching out

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:34 am | by John Grenham

    Words that behave differently in US English have long been a source of trouble for us: do not, under any circumstances, tell an American who’s feeling down in the dumps to keep his pecker up. So when a US researcher recently gave me his business card and asked me to “reach out to” him, I was flummoxed. Was he offering some kind of therapy? Or asking for an emotional lifeline?

    Neither, it turns out. He was just saying “contact me”. Apparently AT&T ran ads in the US in the 1980s urging people to use their phones to “reach out and touch someone” and the phrase has been seeping steadily into everyday speech since then as a synonym for “get in touch”.

    Which is why the Ireland Reaching Out project is so cleverly named. North American ears hear something like “Ireland Making Contact”, while to us it has strong emotional overtones of solace, help, homecoming.

    The project itself (see is also both clever and worthwhile. It consists of a network of country-wide volunteers, grouped around local parishes, who provide orientation for visitors descended from those who emigrated from their area. They also actively seek out those descendants. As those involved have found out in recent years, such reverse genealogy can be very hard, not least because it moves against the grain of history – you can find out lots about your great-great-grandparents, but not about your great-great-grandchildren.

    Despite this problem, it has flourished. For one thing, it indulges our genuine pleasure in being hospitable. It also strengthens local community bonds. And it offers authentic day-to-day recognition of the unique moral and economic relationship that Ireland has with the descendants of those who had to leave.

    So it’s not just for the Gathering. Though it may have tourism spin-offs, the project is worth a lot more than a few extra bed-nights.

  • Flyleaf Press

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:23 am | by John Grenham

    Flyleaf Press ( is the only publishing house in Ireland that concentrates exclusively on genealogical material. They specialise in high-quality county-by-county guides to sources, and have so far covered 11 counties, with some of the volumes now in their second or third revisions. In addition they also publish works giving a broader overviews – the best-known example is Irish Church Records (2nd ed., 2001), containing chapters by specialists on each of the eight major Irish churches.

    The driving force behind the Press, the man who has kept it going since 1987, is Dr Jim Ryan, who edits and co-writes many of Flyleaf’s productions. He is the author of the seminal Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History (Ancestry, 2nd ed., 1999). He is also one of the few of us to have a day job, being a distinguished biotechnologist and former director of BioResearch Ireland.

    Last August, as part of the research for a forthcoming volume on Wexford, Jim was going through National Library manuscripts and came across a short account book giving details of payments for work on the Symes family estate at Wingfield near Gorey. It dated from 1856, contained only 21 names and was therefore too small to be referenced individually in the Wexford book. What to do? Jim sidestepped the problem. He copied the list – only 21 names, after all – and added it to his blog. If anyone is interested in workers on the Symes estate, Google’s busy little robots will take them to the list.

    That seems to have been a Eureka moment. Since then his collection of “Small Sources” has grown to nine, ranging from 29 schoolchildren in Tarbert in 1809 to the latest, a list of 21 Carlow tenants of the Knight of Kerry in 1856.

    The lessons are simple: there is always more to be found out, and the tenacity and generosity of genealogists is never-ending.

  • Some deep genealogy

    November 13, 2013 @ 9:24 am | by John Grenham

    There is only one thing certain about absolutely every ancestor you have: all of them had at least one child. This is obvious – otherwise you wouldn’t exist.

    Does this mean that we’re all the winners of some sort of evolutionary competition to reproduce? With a world population of 7 billion, humanity can seem spectacularly successful, but self-congratulation is a bit premature. Before we all start clapping each other on the back and thinking of ourselves as champions bred of the loins of champions, it’s worth examining some details.

    First, the genes of even the most fecund of our ancestors eventually cease to exist. A child receives exactly half of their genetic makeup from each parent, meaning that the original genome is diluted further and further with each generation. So it doesn’t matter if Niall of the Nine Hostages was your 35 times great-grandfather. There’s none of him left in you.

    And what about all those who have no living descendants? Were they all spinster aunts and bachelor uncles? Not at all. Entire multiple-generation dynasties of the rich and powerful, spawning dozens of rich and powerful children who had dozens of children in their turn, have simply vanished from the face of the earth. Burke’s Extinct Peerages provides plenty of object lessons (and is always good for a little schadenfreude).

    In fact, the iron laws of statistics show that there was a point, somewhere between 5 and 15 millennia ago, where each individual then alive was either the ancestor of every individual alive today, or has no living descendants at all. Genetic genealogy calls it the “Identical ancestors point”, because, logically, earlier than this point everyone now alive shares precisely the same set of ancestors.

    Like a lot of genealogical musing, this stuff can seem very trivial or very profound, but it’s hard to stop thinking about it once you start. And yes, I do suffer from insomnia.

  • What’s on the horizon?

    November 4, 2013 @ 10:54 am | by John Grenham

    The Irish Genealogical Research Society ( has just brought out a very handy “Research Update” bringing together all the promises of future online records made at the recent “Back To Our Past” event. So …

    The National Archives’ collaboration with FamilySearch will shortly produce transcripts and online images of NAI’s surviving fragments of the 1821-1851 censuses, and early next year all of their 19th-century testamentary records and Valuation Office records. Rootsireland will (finally) be adding to its transcripts of Wexford parish registers.  And PRONI aim to add all the Valuation Office revision books for areas now in the North.

    But by far the most significant change is the upgrade planned for the Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s site,  Before the end of this year, we’re told, it will publish the full General Register Office database of its indexes of births, marriages and deaths.  Even if this were only a separate copy of the years transcribed already at, it would be significant –having a second bite of the cherry doubles your chances of avoiding transcription mistakes. But it will provide much more than a cross-check for FamilySearch. The database includes the GRO’s own indexes of 25 years of birth records with the mothers’ maiden surnames added, from 1903 to 1927. These were never microfilmed by the Mormons and so have not been available before now outside the GRO Research Room. At a stroke, it will be possible to reconstruct entire families over an extra quarter of a century. And what’s more, the word is that the indexes will continue well past the 1958 cut-off point of the FamilySearch records.

    Of course, every gift horse must have its teeth counted:  we still have to trudge up to Werburgh St. (with a heavy heart and a full set of thermals) in order to get at all the details in each record. Ah well.

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