Irish Roots »

  • Rootsireland must evolve

    March 31, 2014 @ 2:16 pm | by John Grenham

    Like it or not, is the single most important Irish records website. Almost everyone researching their ancestors in nineteenth-century Ireland will have to use the site’s database of record transcripts –parish and local civil registration transcripts in particular. It can be expensive, certainly (I have personally paid at least two kings’ ransoms), but there is no doubt that the site has opened up Irish research to many for whom it used to be a closed book.

    But it is also cumbersome, customer-unfriendly to the point of brutality and embarrassingly old-fashioned.

    All these problems stem from the peculiar nature of the organisation behind it, the Irish Family History Foundation. The IFHF was set up to provide an umbrella body for the centres carrying out the transcriptions. These centres are extremely diverse, their only common feature a fierce independence. So the IFHF has become a very, very loose federation.

    As a result, the website design revolves around the centres’ need for independence, in particular the need to pay each centre for every view of a transcript from that centre. The needs of researchers come a very, very distant second.

    There are no fore-name variants – if you search for a “Patrick” and the record was transcribed as “Patt”, tough luck. Details of the records transcribed, vital in understanding search results, are sometimes pure gibberish: the listing for Co. Down marriages includes ” Belfast (hm) 1906-1900″. What?

    Above all, though, the entire site still consists entirely of transcripts. Being content with a transcript alone really means accepting someone else’s word on trust: “Honest Gov., this is what I saw in the register. Give us a fiver”.

    Rootsireland can survive the coming onslaught of competition from the likes of Ancestry, and I hope it does. But it has to modernise, to add record images – why not the National Library’s ready-made microfilm images? –and above all it has to stop being a gatekeeper, and become an access-provider.

  •’s impending monopoly

    March 24, 2014 @ 10:47 am | by John Grenham

    Three years ago, added transcripts of almost half-a-million pre-1880 Roman Catholic parish register entries to their collection of online records. They covered 47 parishes, mainly in the diocese of Meath, and were done from copies of National Library of Ireland microfilms. Neither the Diocese nor the Library was consulted, so eyebrows and blood pressure were raised. But the transcripts weren’t great and there were no record images, so we all just went back to our cosy little squabble about making the Library’s images of parish register microfilms available online.

    Two weeks ago, Ancestry changed the game forever. It added 750,000 transcripts from 71 parishes, and accompanied them with high-quality, fully browseable images of every page. These are new, full- colour scans, at mouth-watering levels of detail. In most cases they go well past 1900, and the registers covered come from all over the country.

    Included are the records of four parishes from the long-embargoed diocese of Cashel and Emly, from most of Killala, from Galway, Wicklow, Dublin, Carlow – available nowhere else online – Donegal, Tyrone …

    The transcriptions are flawed and some of the listing detail is deeply peculiar: “Aughrim” is actually Aughrim Street in Dublin; “Golden and Kilpack” is a misreading of Golden and Kilfeacle; two unnamed registers are actually from Bantry. But the sheer, glorious quality of the images makes up for everything.

    Where did Ancestry get them? The source given is “Digitized images, Dublin, Ireland: E-Celtic, Limited”. This part-Irish, part-Indian company produces parish record management software and presumably obtained rights to the images as part of their work with local parishes. Good on them.

    Ancestry is the unchallenged colossus of online genealogy. They already have a de facto monopoly of North American records. And if they continue what they’ve just done with Irish Catholic registers, there is no doubt they will reach the same position here.

  • Help me find my roots, Toots

    March 17, 2014 @ 1:45 pm | by John Grenham

    I’ve always had a bit of a problem saying that I’m proud to be Irish. It’s not much of an achievement, after all. I merely picked the right ancestors.

    Facetiousness aside, the whole idea of national pride just feels slightly suspect, tainted by connections with bullying, racism and ethnic cleansing.

    What about the achievements of the Irish as a people, though? Surely we have plenty to take pride in? Only with careful picking and choosing. To take a nice remote example, Irish monasticism in the Middle Ages did indeed achieve extraordinary things. But that Ireland was very unsavoury in other ways. The Island of Saints, Scholars, Slavers and Head-hunters?

    What we have to celebrate is the assortment of good and bad that makes us up. Otherwise, we risk donning again blinkers like those that allowed three generations of us to accept the twin sectarian statelets, Northern and Southern, that blighted 20th-century Ireland. For every swing, there must be a roundabout, for every Carolan, a Big Tom.

    The ultimate litmus test of Irish self-acceptance is now, of course, the St Patrick’s Day Parade. It has plenty of diversity in its history – the New York parade began the tradition in 1762, and was at first largely peopled by British soldiers of Irish origin. Its import into Ireland in the 1930s was a submission to the strength of Irish-America. And, in a demonstration of the unstoppable evolution of difference, while the New York parade is still riddled with sodalities, Dublin is now overrun by Catalan street theatre.

    Irish-America and its paddywhackery still remain the ultimate test of our acceptance of the variousness of being Irish. But it’s hard not to respect the brass American neck of M-and-Ms’ advertising come-on for their Ms Green: “Help me find my roots, Toots”.

    To be clear: the problem is misplaced pride, not joy. I’m delighted to be Irish and I hope you are too. Happy St Patrick’s Day.

  • Our history: a minor branch of the leisure industry?

    March 10, 2014 @ 8:24 am | by John Grenham

    The director of a well-known national library (oh all right, The National Library) once told me of meeting an international banker at a fundraising do. When he heard what her job was, he responded “Oh, I see. You’re a line manager in a minor branch of the leisure industry.”

    It was just the flashy facetiousness that passes for intelligence among the overpaid, but it has stayed with me. The rhetoric of economic managerialism is now compulsory, ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of public life. “Business cases” have to be made for the simplest decision taken by the lowliest functionary. We are no longer citizens, just customers looking to get what we’ve paid for.

    What brings this to mind is the recent announcement by the Minister for Sport and Tourism, Leo Varadkar, about a National Diaspora Centre. In his words, such a Centre would “tell the story of the Irish diaspora overseas . . . the story of how Irish people view the world,” and could be “a major tourism draw”.

    The problem is that the business case shows that the centre could cover running costs, but not initial set-up costs, and the country doesn’t have the money to fund the set-up. The Minister’s solution is to ask for “expressions of interest from potential partners to develop and operate” the centre.

    The full press release ( ) goes into elaborate, nervous detail about how these expressions of interest will ultimately be assessed. The nervousness is easy to understand, because something about this is deeply odd.

    Is the Minister offering to franchise out Irish history to the highest bidder? Perhaps to sell naming rights to Ireland’s century-and-a-half long failure to provide a living and a home for millions of its people?

    Maybe it might be better to wait until we can afford to do ourselves, and then do it for the right reasons.

  • An out-sourced cultural institution?

    March 3, 2014 @ 9:26 am | by John Grenham

    One hoary aspiration that resurfaces regularly is the notion of a dedicated genealogical research centre, centrally situated for visitors, providing onsite access to all the major research sources and advice from experienced researchers. For a few years after the banking collapse, this mutated into persistent suggestions that the state should simply take the old Irish Parliament buildings in College Green from the Bank of Ireland and use them for such a centre. It was the least we were due, after all.

    Such a scenario always seemed very improbable to me. The creation of what would be, in effect, a new national cultural institution was never likely to get past the financial Cerberus that is Brendan Howlin. And Irish banks have never been noted for contrition, humility or a lax approach to their own property rights.

    Then a press release last week announced a new partnership between the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Bank of Ireland to create a new cultural and heritage centre at Parliament Buildings. Under the deal, the Bank will cover refurbishment and running costs and grant a 10-year licence to the Department, which will manage daily operations. Details of those operations remain understandably hazy at this stage, but the “10-year licence” coincides neatly with the so-called “decade of centenaries”, and the language of the announcement suggests that the Centre’s main focus will be on exhibitions dealing with the events from 1913 to 1923. (The full press release is at

    The plan is a small masterpiece: an out-sourced, term-limited cultural institution for the politicians and public servants, some sorely-needed good PR for a bank and finally a chance for the public to get a good look at the inside of one of the most historic and beautiful buildings on the island.

    One thing is certain, though. It won’t be a national genealogical centre. Will there be any role at all in it for genealogy?

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