Irish Roots »

  • Why Irish administrative areas are so peculiar

    May 26, 2014 @ 8:43 am | by John Grenham

    One of the biggest problems facing newcomers to Irish research is the baffling, interconnected geographical system used both for registration of births, marriages and deaths, and for the 1901 and 1911 censuses. It has its origins in the workings of the Poor Law.

    Any user of the “Browse” element of the National Archives census website has seen each county subdivided into peculiar areas called “District Electoral Divisions”. These were created on the introduction of the Irish Poor Law in 1838; local property-holders paid a tax to cover its cost and Victorian scruples dictated that the taxpayers should have representatives to decide how to spend that tax. God be with the days.

    So DEDs were the miniature constituencies sub-divided out of each Poor Law Union area. The over-riding function of each DED was to represent a similar total property value, the reason for some of the weirdly unnatural areas they cover.

    The story doesn’t end there. The Poor Law later became part of the rudimentary public health system, and in 1851 every Union was divided into Dispensary Districts, each comprising several DEDs and under the care of a local doctor. With the introduction of civil registration in 1864, these Dispensary Districts were then pressed into service as local Registrar’s districts.

    The Registrar (generally the same local doctor) recorded all births, deaths and marriages in his area and passed them to his superior, the Superintendent Registrar, who was in charge of all the districts in his Poor Law Union. He made copies and passed them up to his own superior, the Registrar General in Dublin. Dublin then indexed them for the entire island, showing which Poor Law Union they came from. And these are the indexes still available in the GRO Research Room, transcribed on and soon to be available on .

    Why go into all of this? On the Irish Ancestors website, we have just finished assembling listings of all of the place-names within each local Registrar’s district, the first time this has ever been done online. Have a look: .

  • Reverse genealogy

    May 19, 2014 @ 9:47 am | by John Grenham

    The descendants of emigrants often long to heal the generations-long breach in their family by researching forward to find living relatives. But it is one of the most difficult tasks possible, going right against the grain of time. So:

    Chronicles of extended periods are the basics of such research, and the single best source is the Valuation Office collection of Revision books, which detail all changes affecting those liable for local property tax. In the Republic, they cover the entire period of about 120 years between the original Griffith’s and the abolition of the rates in 1977. The twenty-six-county books are all still only available at the Office itself (see for details). For Northern Ireland, the books are online at, but only come up to the 1930s, when a full re-valuation took place.

    The other main chronicles are annual urban street directories, useful mainly for Dublin and Belfast, the latter online at PRONI, the former best accessed at the Gilbert Library in Pearse St. Electoral lists, in theory revised every year by the relevant local authority, can also stand as proxy directories. The best collection is for Dublin, at and again in the Gilbert.

    Reconstructing entire families is the first step in following indirect lines of descent, and being able to search birth records by mother’s maiden name is an essential tool. The state birth indexes from 1903, (soon to be online at, the Northern online registers at and the transcript databases at are the main sources.

    Records associated with deaths are also useful, particularly secular burial records that give next of kin or multiple interments in a single grave. Examples are Glasnevin in Dublin ( and local authority records (

    And don’t forget newspaper death announcements, a staple of every Irish funeral since the 1940s, which often have long lists of grieving relatives. The richest sources (it grieves me to say) are The Irish Independent and The Irish Press, both online at

  • Gorgeous funerals

    May 14, 2014 @ 10:13 am | by John Grenham

    A couple of weeks back, the National Library released another 10,000 digital images online. I glanced at the press release, lazily presumed these were old photographs along the lines of the Lawrence Collection, interesting in themselves, but peripheral to genealogy, and resumed my nap.

    Then something niggled. Something about the Genealogical Office, one of my old stamping grounds. The Library catalogue ( did indeed have some nice old photos of the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle, home of the GO up to the 1980s. But a search in the catalogue for “genealogical” digitised items also threw up wonderful, unsuspected riches, no fewer than 132 fully-imaged manuscripts from the GO’s collection.

    Over the four centuries when it was the Office of Ulster King of Arms, from 1553 to 1943, the GO was the most intensely Anglo of all Anglo-Irish institutions, exclusively concerned with the heraldic rights of the wealthiest and most powerful. Distasteful as the ethnic politics may be now, some of the records created during those 390 years are extraordinary, and the Library catalogue now provides full direct access to a large sample of them.

    My favourites are the seventeenth-century funeral entries, on-the-spot records of burial rites and families, usually accompanied by full-colour paintings of the arms displayed at the funeral. Have a look at . They are both astonishingly vivid research tools and superb works of art, and make up just a small portion of the pre-1943 records now online

    With commendable even-handedness, the catalogue also makes available a good selection of post-1943 grants of arms, including those to the Dublin Stock Exchange in 1945, to Muintir Mhathghamhna, the O’Mahony clan, in 1980 and to the Diocese of Clogher in 2006.

    My only quibble is the absence of the original GO manuscript numbers in the catalogue reference – all the published guides and indexes use these numbers.

    Otherwise, three whole-hearted cheers. More please.

  • The Genealogy Roadshow and the No. 16 bus

    May 5, 2014 @ 5:27 pm | by John Grenham

    Working as a television presenter can seriously loosen your grip on reality. That much was clear from the moment I started work on The Genealogy Roadshow three years ago, when crew would refer to me as “the talent”, tell me how wonderful I was and treat me like a piece of the scenery. But it wasn’t clear then just how long the effect would last.

    The flashbacks have been happening for more than two years now. Every so often, people will look at me and then look harder, or startle away as if I’m electrified. Eventually I realised that these incidents always coincided with the many, many repeats of the Roadshow on RTE1. No-one expects to see the man off the telly on the number 16 bus.

    My grip on reality is about to become even looser. The second series finally starts next Sunday, May 11th, at 7 pm. Along with fellow-presenters Turtle Bunbury and Susan Chadwick (both admirably grounded in reality) and ably jollied along by the indefatigable Derek Mooney, we will once again be helping ordinary people disentangle their family histories at roadshows held in extraordinary venues: Powerscourt House, UCC and Corpus Christi College in Derry.

    The main difference with the last series is the way we all mastered what we were doing and became a single team, not just talent and crew. It helps to be at ease if you have just ten minutes to grasp and straighten out a complicated family story.

    One good thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the way the programme reflects the reality of research, successes, failures and everything in between. That, and the abundance of non-celebrities. More information is at

    And, like my fellow-commuters on the No 16, I still find it weird that I’m on telly. I’ll be behind the couch again.

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