Irish Roots »

  • War memorials are not timeless

    January 22, 2014 @ 10:03 am | by John Grenham

    We tend to think of war memorials, mausoleums and gardens of remembrance as somehow timeless. In fact, they are almost all the product of one specific conflict, World War 1. In the Napoleonic wars of a hundred years before, the dead were shovelled unceremoniously into mass pits, sprinkled with quicklime, buried and forgotten. But from 1914, the very start of the Great War, military cemeteries were being planned and war dead gathered for reburial in them. In Britain, the Graves Registration Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (, began the task of creating burial grounds and recording in detail those buried in them: by 1918 they had identified 587,000 graves and a further 559,000 casualties who had no known grave.

    The real outpouring of commemoration only began in the 1920s, however, when the sheer enormity of the slaughter seeped into popular understanding. In the UK and Ireland, around 54,000 individual memorials were built, some as simple as a plaque, some as elaborate as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

    In Dublin alone, there are today still nearly 650 individual memorials, ranging from the simplicity of the Milltown Golf Club “Roll of Honour” to the eight hectares of the Luytens-designed Memorial Gardens in Inchicore (see For genealogy, the most significant part of this wave of commemoration was the publication in 1923 of the eight volumes of Ireland’s Memorial Records, listing 49,000 of the Irish dead in the War. These are the lists recently published online with so much fanfare on the Belgian site

    Welcome (and beautiful) as these lists are, any researcher of the Irish in the Great War knows that they are very incomplete. The work of exhuming all the names goes on, often under the care of local historians. Noel French’s The Meath War Dead (The History Press, 2011) shows just how much remains to be done.

  • Pensions coming

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:05 am | by John Grenham

    It now seems certain that the 1926 census will not be open for research in time for the 1916 centenary, or indeed any time before 2026, despite the commitment to the contrary in the Programme for Government. Perhaps to atone for this, next Friday, the 17th, will see the early launch of an online version of what are known as the “Old IRA” pension records.

    They are, in fact, the records produced by the Military Service Pensions Act of 1924. The Act was an attempt by the fledgling Free State government to reward (or perhaps pacify) the men and women who had fought at any time from the 1916 Rising up to 1923. It retrospectively conferred formal Army status on the guerrillas of the War of Independence and those on the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War. A formidable bureaucratic machine was established to asses applications, with elaborate formulae valuing service over different periods at wildly varying rates. Service for 1916/17, for example, was worth ten times service in 1918/19. The records produced by the process provide absolutely invaluable first-hand accounts of the events that founded this state.

    It should also be added that in the Ireland of the time a state pension of any description could mean the difference between penury and relative comfort, so there was plenty of motivation for people to chance their arm. That cynical old joke about the 10,000 men who claimed to have been in the GPO during Easter Week is about to be tested. When you add in the fact that the pensions were so politicised, and that more than 60,000 people applied, you have the makings of a very juicy set of records indeed.

    I hope have beefed up their bandwidth, because half of the country will be poised over their keyboards. Snooping on your neighbours’ grandparents (and your neighbours’ grandparents’ pensions) is one of the underappreciated pleasures of genealogy.

  • Irish townlands are a puzzle and a joy. We shouldn’t throw them away.

    January 6, 2014 @ 8:37 am | by John Grenham

    To foreigners, and direct marketers, Irish townlands can seem like something from Alice in Wonderland. Where in rural Ireland do people live? In a townland. What’s a townland? It’s a place where people in rural Ireland live. The recurrent complaint is that only the local postman understands the local place names. But why exactly should that be a problem?

    A townland can be an acre or a thousand acres, it can be named after geographical features, or individual families or legends or just flights of fancy – my favourite examples of the latter are “America” and “Liberty”, two townlands in south Roscommon. The only thing that’s certain is that a townland is a rural area, and that it is, or used to be, inhabited.

    Some good news if you’re trying to find a particular townland is that their ambiguity and imprecision annoyed the English administrators of Ireland in the 1830s so much that the Ordnance Survey set about nailing down the darn things once and for all. They measured, mangled, distorted and damaged the traditions they were dealing with but, like the good Victorians they were, did it systematically. The first published version of their work, the 1851 Townlands Index, is free online at . If you can identify a place here, it will appear under the same spelling in most later state records. It’s certainly true for Griffith’s Valuation, the most contemporary of the major sources. An inevitable amount of drift crept in over the following century.

    The current move to introduce post codes could learn from the experience up North. The UK local government reforms of the 1970s simply abolished townlands. Instead of living in Drumballyhugh, you now lived in a numbered house on the Drumballyhugh Road. With blessed stubbornness, the people of the North just refused to accept it. On a recent trip through Tyrone, I noticed small townland boundary markers have started to appear on the roadsides. People are taking back their own addresses.

Search Irish Roots