Irish Roots »

  • Valuation Office records: how it should be

    December 30, 2013 @ 12:02 pm | by John Grenham

    When the United Kingdom suffered the serious amputation of 1922, some very practical issues faced public administrators in the statelets North and South of the new border. Tax, as ever, was top of the list.

    The “rates”, the local property tax based originally on Griffith’s Valuation, was the main source of income for county councils, and its workings depended on continual revisions of property values, carried out locally and recorded centrally by the Valuation Office in Dublin. So for local authorities in the fledgling Northern Ireland, their very existence depended on access to these Valuation Office records. And this access was duly provided by their Southern colleagues, by the simple method of handing over the entire collection of records relating to the six counties, going right back to the 1850s and 1860s.

    For those of us in the South trying to research areas now in Northern Ireland, this has long been a nuisance: Valuation Office records are one of a tiny number of invaluable sources that provide a record of long-term change rather than just a snapshot of an instant, and one of the best ways of connecting with living relatives.

    A nuisance no more. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has created high-quality images of every single page of the 3,900 revision books it holds, transcribed all the place names, recorded in them to a searchable database, and made the whole thing freely available on

    Unlike in the South, a complete re-valuation of the entire six counties took place in 1935, so the PRONI copies of Valuation Office revisions stop just before that year, making them a bit less useful in tracking living connections.

    But what they’ve done is still wonderful. We can only hope that, as with the General Register of Northern Ireland, the example of the North might shame us into action.

  • A polite Oireacthas committee

    December 23, 2013 @ 9:09 am | by John Grenham

    If you were watching Oireachtas TV on the afternoons of Tuesday and Thursday the week before last (and of course you were), you would have seen evidence being given to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

    The Committee was addressing the question of “Developing a Plan to Capture the Full Value of our Genealogical Heritage”, clearly a topic designed to capture as wide a range as possible of opinion. And submissions were indeed heard from every group in Ireland involved in family history: voluntary societies, professional associations, cultural institutions, government departments – all got a chance to represent their point of view and be grilled about it. The usual fault-lines were on display, but very politely. And I was there, representing no one but myself. Naturally, I made an impassioned plea for reason, compromise, parish records, justice, Mom and apple pie.

    It was a very interesting experience. Coming into direct contact with political authority like that allows you almost to smell decisions being made. The feeling of the engines of state power thrumming in the background was very heady. No wonder so many politicians seem to become addicted.

    The hearings will certainly have opened the eyes of many on the Committee (and the masses watching UPC channel 207) to the bewildering multi-dimensional geometry that faces anybody trying to improve or coordinate Irish genealogical services. But the real question is whether it can achieve more than consciousness-raising. True power in this area lies with the high-level civil servants of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and they were in conspicuously short supply at the hearings. Still, bringing the full range of interests, vested and unvested, out into the open can only be for the best and the Committee’s report will make interesting reading.

    The main mover behind the hearings was, I hear, Catherine Murphy, Independent T.D. for North Kildare. Full credit to her.

  • Standing-room only

    December 16, 2013 @ 9:16 am | by John Grenham

    The whole of Ireland now has a population about size of Rio de Janeiro. The number of people with Irish ancestors outside Ireland is more than of all the people in New York, London, Beijing, Mexico city, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Lagos, Cairo and Los Angeles combined. There are six and a half million of us in here. There are more than 80 million of them out there.

    The relationship between Ireland and the descendants of those who emigrated is utterly exceptional. Yes, there are 50 million German-Americans and “only” 40 million Irish-Americans. But 90 million people live in today’s Germany. Germans outnumber German-Americans almost two to one. Irish-Americans outnumber us almost six to one. Compare us with any other country on the planet that has experienced mass migration – Israel, China, Italy, Spain – and that situation of disproportion is unique.

    The reasons are nor far to seek. Like a vast exploding seed-pod, the great burst of Famine emigration scattered links all over the globe that, when they rooted, continued to draw rivers of cousins and in-laws and neighbours out of Ireland for almost a century and a half.

    The uniqueness of our diaspora has to mean that the 80 million deserve much more from us than they got in the past: in particular they deserve the right to be able to identify their ancestors as easily as possible. But our feelings have never been unmixed. There is simple survivor guilt, still echoing down the generations. Our ancestors could stay because theirs were forced to go. There is also common-or-garden guilt. Those few extra acres they left behind came in very handy and we don’t want them coming looking for them back, now do we?

    And of course if they all came back at once, there’d be nowhere to sit down.

  • Why use

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:17 pm | by John Grenham

    Genealogists are a frugal bunch. Or perhaps I just mean “perennially skint”. In any case, we go out of our way to avoid having to pay for access to records. The ingenuity invested in squeezing every last quantum of information from free index searches could have designed the Large Hadron Collider.

    Why, then, would anyone pay to search records on one website that are free on another? The subscription package at includes Griffith’s Valuation, free at and the
    General Register Office indexes of births, marriages and deaths, free at So why do I still use FindMyPast to search these?

    For Griffith’s, it’s simple. The free version does not cater for surname variants at all, makes no distinction between tenants and their landlords, and prevents searches for an individual in a particular townland. You can have a townland or a person, but not both. The FindMyPast version makes provision for all of these. And their record images are clear, undefaced by copyright watermarks and simple to download.

    For the GRO indexes, the case is less obvious. FamilySearch has a good surname variant search and the transcripts on both sites are identical. But FindMyPast have added some ingenuity. The “MarriageFinder” very elegantly uses the indexes to find potential marriage partners. Obviously, when two people marry each other, both names are recorded on the same page , so when the names are indexed, both index entries are identical. So for every entry in the marriage index, you can see the names of all the potential partners on that page. It may not be forensic, but it beats manual to-ing and fro-ing.

    And, of course, they also have lots of records not found elsewhere, 30 million added in the last twelve months alone. And they’re Irish. And they’re really quite good value, even for the perennially skint.

  • A Little Birdy Told Me

    December 2, 2013 @ 4:02 pm | by John Grenham

    Online record transcripts created by volunteers have long been treated with wary suspicion by experienced researchers. To our jaundiced eyes, the stereotypical such transcript is a list of some McIldoos extracted by Johnny McIldoo from a bigger list of McIldoos he “found on the internet”.

    Like it or not, though, all of us are coming to depend more and more on volunteer transcriptions, so it’s time to try to get a more nuanced view of just how good or bad individual projects are.

    Ranked top has to be the Mormon’s All of the billion or so records searchable on the site were created by volunteer transcribers, and the methods used are now second to none: every record is copied separately twice, compared automatically and any discrepancies flagged and adjudicated by a third party. It is as close to perfection as possible and, like perfection, remains theoretical. The problems with the Tithe Books transcripts ( are a case in point. And the double-copy method is relatively recent. Searching the extracts from Irish state birth records 1864-81 on FamilySearch can produce peculiar results. Three separate early transcripts of the same record, none of them full, many of them inaccurate, can pop up simultaneously. The attitude seems to be “Let God sort them out”.

    Less systematic methods can also produce worthwhile results, but the quality depends entirely on the individual. The best examples include the gravestone inscriptions at, the passenger lists at and, especially for Ireland, the county-by-county sources at, where dedicated individuals devote large amounts of time to making transcripts freely available. Their task is Sisyphean, but it is no longer so important that a transcript be complete. If it’s online, Google can find it.

    But do remember still that when you’re asked how you know your great-granny’s name, saying “I found it on the internet” is the precise equivalent of saying “a little birdy told me”.

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