Irish Roots »

  • Pre-1901 census fragments now available

    April 28, 2014 @ 9:15 am | by John Grenham

    After the National Archives first came out with its superb 1901 and 1911 census website (, a few innocent souls asked me when all the other Irish censuses from the 19th century would be going online. They’ll have their answer today.

    This evening at 5.30pm, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht will be launching all of the Archives’ pre-1901 census holdings on the website. Before you swoon in ecstasy, let me clarify.

    True censuses were taken in Ireland every 10 years from 1821, a full two decades before anywhere else in what was then the United Kingdom.

    By the time the 1911 census had been completed, there were full sets of no fewer than eight censuses in existence, the earliest four transferred to the Public Record Office, the others still held by the Office of the Registrar-General, the body responsible for census-taking after 1851.

    Then things started to go horribly wrong. First, at some point during the first World War, the Registrar-General ordered the 1881 and 1891 returns to be pulped, for reasons that are still murky. (The 1861 and 1871 returns had already been destroyed, shortly after the censuses were taken, again for reasons that remain unclear.)

    And then, of course, in June 1922 the Public Record Office was destroyed and every single item held in its Strong Room, including the four earliest censuses, was obliterated without trace.

    All that survived of them were the few bits and pieces that happened to be in use in the reading room or out for conservation: 29 parishes in Galway, Offaly and Meath (1821); 42 parishes in Derry (1831); part of Killeshandra (1841); parts of 14 parishes in Antrim (1851).

    And that’s it. Let’s not be churlish: it is wonderful to have these on-line, along with the rag-tag-and-bobtail fragments and transcripts.

    But it is also hard not to dream of what might have been.

  • Irish genealogy: a classic example of hyper-competitive post-modern capitalism?

    April 23, 2014 @ 9:44 am | by John Grenham

    When I signed up for genealogy, I was expecting a quiet life. After all, the main field of operation comprises the dead, and it doesn’t come much quieter than that. But no. Over the past ten years the internet has transformed Irish family history research. The peaceful, under-populated backwater it once was now sometimes seems like a classic example of hyper-competitive post-modern capitalism.

    Like Dublin taxis, those trying to make a living from it appear to outnumber their potential customers. Giant multi-national corporations do battle to gain access to record collections that no-one had heard of a decade ago. Existing online record collections are continuously being expanded. More and more volunteers are transcribing, scanning, recording, and publishing on-line.

    The most oddly disheartening part of this transformation is the impossibility of keeping track of everything that might be relevant. I do this full-time, and even I can’t keep up. One example: Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold’s Cross in Dublin, Glasnevin’s Protestant south-side twin, has been undertaking its own digitisation project, similar to Glasnevin’s and covering over a quarter of a million burials. But nothing of it is on-line as yet, so the cemetery went into the “pending” pigeon-hole as a potential source. Then last week I came across Yvonne Russell’s extraordinary collection of Mount Jerome headstone transcripts and photos (, almost 12,000 individual records and images. Yvonne has been doggedly doing this since 2008 and she just won’t stop. It’s an astonishing achievement.

    And I had never heard of it. It’s enough to make a grown genealogist weep.

    But it is better to light even one very small candle than to curse the darkness. So I have put together a page that attempts to summarise what parts of the major Irish record sources are online and where. It’s at

    Tell me what’s missing.

  • The original Catholic registers are rotting

    April 14, 2014 @ 9:57 am | by John Grenham

    Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for nineteenth-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival.

    Why should this matter? Aren’t they’re all copied online anyway? Or on microfilm in the National Library?

    Here are some facts about the collections of copies. The National Library microfilm project, heroic as it was, has serious flaws. A few parishes were missed entirely – Rathlin Island, for example – and some films are so out of focus as to be illegible. Comparing the years covered by the heritage centres’ transcriptions with the years held on Library microfilm reveals that at least 200 parishes have records earlier than those filmed by the Library. Aghada in east Cork, for example, has records going back 40 years before the NLI microfilm.

    The mismatch also works in the other direction. More than 100 parishes have earlier years on microfilm than in heritage centre transcript. Newtowncashel in Longford has a full register containing 35 years of baptisms on NLI film, which is missing from Longford Heritage Centre records. The likelihood is that this earlier register was somehow lost or destroyed between the NLI microfilm in the 1970s and the transcription project in the 1990s. How many other registers have also since disappeared?

    No copy can take the place of the original. The registers themselves are the property of the Catholic Church, and also the Church’s responsibility. If the Hierarchy wants to keep them private, by all means let them be locked away in diocesan archives for a century or more. But something has to be done to stop these priceless records from rotting away.

  • There should be conga lines of Northern Irish civil servants dancing through the streets of Belfast

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:05 am | by John Grenham

    The first attempt to make a large body of very desirable records searchable online, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was back in 2001, with the 1901 census for England and Wales. It was a fiasco. The website crumbled under the onslaught of users, was down for months and the English civil service had to take vitriolic abuse that went on for what must have seemed an eternity.

    The horror seems to have stayed in the herd memory of UK public servants. At least that’s the only explanation I can see for the very low-key arrival of Northern Ireland General Register Office records online ( Included are all Six-County births, marriages and deaths up to 1914, 1939 and 1974 respectively. The birth records search incorporates the mother’s maiden name, making it simple to reconstruct entire families. Marriage search results include the spouse’s surname, meaning you can zero in on just the relevant record. For deaths (and births) you can narrow the search area right down to local registrar’s district, a godsend where a surname is particularly common. And you can do all this without paying a cent – it only becomes necessary to pay when you have identified the right record, and even then you have a choice of fees, all very reasonable.

    There should be conga lines of dancing civil servants celebrating this achievement all over Belfast. But no. One second the thing wasn’t there, the next it was. Under-promising and over-performing with a vengeance.

    Let me slip in the few required quibbles. The surname variants option doesn’t seem to be working: “McAlindon” and “McAlinden” get different results. The few historic registrars’ districts (parts of Castlefin and Inishowen, for example) that now lie across the Border seem to have been excised, which is a pity. The unit-based payment system is a classic horse-designed-by-committee.

    But these are tiny details. I just hope our own GRO is examining the site and turning green.

Search Irish Roots