Irish Roots »

  • Hazy Admixtures

    February 24, 2014 @ 10:26 am | by John Grenham

    The journal Science ( recently published “A Genetic Atlas of Human Admixture History”, an attempt to use statistical analysis of the human genome to identify what the authors call “admixture events”. These are the relatively large-scale mixing of the genes of two distinct human groups due, for example, to invasion or migration.

    By comparing the lengths of unmixed stretches of the genome, it is possible to date the events at (relatively) precise points within the last four millennia, and to begin to map them. Accompanying the article, a mapping website ( invites the public to play with target populations, events and percentage admixtures.

    This kind of stuff is terrific fun, and there is no doubt that these techniques will eventually provide great evidence for migration history, perhaps even transforming it in the way aerial photography has transformed archaeology.

    However, when I went to look at the data underlying their big orange circle that connects Ireland to Greece, I got a bit of a shock. The sample consisted of just seven Irish individuals. Digging further, it turned out that the total number of individuals covered in the entire Atlas was 1490. And buried in the footnotes are astounding margins of error, plus or minus four centuries in some cases.

    I’m no statistician, but I know that generalizing from the genes of a sample group the size of Ballyhaunis to 4000 years of human history is just asking for trouble.

    So you might expect some caution, or even humility, from the researchers behind the project. Not a bit of it. One of them is quoted by The New York Times as saying,
    “In some sense we don’t want to talk to historians. There’s a great virtue in being objective: You put the data in and get the history out.”

    Unlike historians, who just make it all up.

  • New York records tackled at last

    February 18, 2014 @ 9:47 am | by John Grenham

    New York is not an Irish city in the way that Boston is. Too many great waves of migration have washed through it for any one group to claim dominance. But according to the U.S. federal census of 1890, in that year it held the largest Irish-born population of any city on the planet, making it a contender to be Ireland’s true capital at the end of the 19th century.

    The after-effects of that great surge of post-Famine migration have ensured that, dominant or not, Irish remains a very strong background flavour in the city. So you’d expect New York to be a thriving hub of Irish-American genealogy, but it isn’t.

    One reason is that the city is cursed with an abundance of records. A big difference between rural and urban life is that cities demand much greater interaction with officialdom, and thus produce much larger trails of records. And some of those records can be weirdly wonderful. My favourite is the New York Emigrant Savings Bank where, instead of a PIN number, customers had to supply details of marriage, siblings, Irish place of origin and more (see

    But the astonishing thing is that such a small proportion of New York’s vast collection of records is actually online. Almost everything is still sitting in Municipal Archives, the health departments, local courthouses and libraries and, above all, in the 396 Roman Catholic city parishes. Almost none of these parishes have records available anywhere other than in their own presbytery.

    Getting a comprehensive overview of New York records has long seemed impossible. Not any more. Joe Buggy, a recent Irish-born emigrant, has gone hand-to-hand with the many-headed hydra and has produced a book that is both a serious research guide and a highly detailed reference work. Finding your Irish Ancestors in New York City is published by GPC in Baltimore (

    It is a tremendous achievement.

  • The Poor Law is still with us

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:37 am | by John Grenham

    From Britain’s point of view, the 1800 Act of Union was primarily a defensive measure to secure its western flank against the French. But after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the London government found itself in charge of a country of which it was profoundly ignorant. So, with true industrial-age logic, it set about creating official machinery to quantify Ireland and make it governable. Almost all surviving Irish research sources in the first half of the 19th century emerged from this process: the Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 and much more.

    One of these administrative machines, the Poor Law, is still with us. In 1838, 135 Poor Law Unions were created, covering the entire island. Each Union had an urban workhouse at its centre, responsible for providing the most basic short-term relief to the utterly destitute and designed to be self-financing. Property-owners in the Union were taxed to pay for the workhouse and in return could elect representatives to the Union’s Board of Guardians to oversee spending.
    From the start, the Unions were geographically a hybrid of health service catchment area and electoral constituency. And, weirdly, that geographic hybrid exists even now.

    For elections, the Unions were subdivided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs), the areas used for the 1901 and 1911 censuses: those DEDs are still in use in contemporary elections, especially in rural areas. Then, when universal registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, the public health service took on the job. So the Unions were sub-divided into local registrar’s districts, and the Union was euphemised as a “Superintendent Registrar’s District”.

    The Department of Health is still in charge of civil registration today. And after almost 200 years, its Superintendent Registrar’s Districts are still the old Poor Law Unions.

    They haven’t gone away, you know.

    Peter Higginbotham’s wonderful will tell you more.

  • If you’re English-Irish, come into the parlour

    February 5, 2014 @ 10:41 am | by John Grenham

    We’ve broadened the range of our cultural identities hugely over the past decades. We have Polish-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Filipino-Irish, even – it still takes an effort – British-Irish, though only for Northerners who really really insist. But one frontier remains. The term “English-Irish” still sounds absurd to Irish ears, a self-contradiction like “black-white” or “thin-fat”.

    To some extent, this is a problem with the English. They just don’t blend well with Johnny Foreigner. Even now , such long-standing cultural mixes as Pakistani-English or Caribbean-English sound unnatural to an Anglophone. But it has to be said that the main problem is with us.

    For centuries, the English have been very useful to us, the very image of everything we’re not. Some very different groups of people have been helped to coalesce into a single Irish nation as a result. But the reality is that England and Ireland are so interbred, in our cultures, our economies, even our ancestors, that maintaining the illusion of such an absolute black-and-white division takes an increasing effort. It is becoming harder to keep the blinkers in place.

    What brings all this to mind is reading John Walsh’s wonderful account of growing up English-Irish in the 1960s and 1970s, The Falling Angels (Flamingo, 1999). The title refers to the story that some of the angels expelled after Lucifer’s rebellion got stuck in mid-air, half-way between heaven and hell. It encapsulates perfectly the lives of my English cousins. Their parents, who emigrated between the 1940s and the 1960s, clung to their Irishness and did their utmost to pass it on to the next generation, bringing them back for holidays year after year, passing on Irish songs and stories, teaching them bits of Irish. As a result, they were forever foreign in England and, whenever we heard their accents, they were purely English to us here.

    Walsh makes a point of calling himself English-Irish repeatedly during the book. By the end I was completely desensitised to the label. Good on him.

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