Irish Roots »

  • The Placenames Commision site: improved by abolition

    June 30, 2014 @ 9:48 am | by John Grenham

    After a recent column about placenames, a reader enquired why I’d left out the website of the Irish Placenames Commission, I responded that their records omitted some of the divisions needed for research in nineteenth-century records, such as Poor Law Unions. But the real reason was that I hadn’t looked at the site for ages.

    And when I did look, it turns out the Commission has been abolished. Its function, to provide official bodies with an authoritative Irish language version of every place-name, is now carried out by the Placenames Branch of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

    The main aim of the website had been to make available the 70 years of scholarship that lay behind the Commission’s attempts to peel away seven centuries of English veneer. So it was very useful indeed for local history, but a bit marginal for genealogy, with the wonderful exception of the superb collection of maps buried away under its “Toponymy resources” sub-menu.

    Abolition has suited the site very well, however. Taken over by Fiontar, DCU’s interdisciplinary Irish-language school, it has deepened and expanded beyond recognition. The search interface remains a bit limited for a researcher trying to disentangle names distorted by five or more generations of Chinese whispering, but the sheer range covered is extraordinary, ranging well beyond the usual townlands and streets. It includes rivers, bogs, valleys, mountains and some gloriously exotic non- and sub-townland categories: bogs, wells, tombs, fields, standing stones and “holes”. Anything out there with a name on it appears to be fair game.

    What’s more, Fiontar has knitted everything together very smoothly and integrated it all over a fully flexible Ordnance Survey map. You now pick a county or barony or civil parish and browse all its townlands (and bridges and souterrains and islands), poke into any research on the Irish names, zoom in, zoom out, and meander around till the cows come home. Happy days.

  • Accentuate the negative

    June 23, 2014 @ 8:30 am | by John Grenham

    I recently overheard a bar-room theology session end with a triumphant “But you can’t disprove that God exists!” Unfortunately, the old logical saw works both ways: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it’s not much good as evidence of presence either.

    Research in Irish records means constantly confronting such uncertainties: Irish genealogy’s motto should be “Absence of evidence”.

    Not long ago, I took on what looked like a very straightforward search for the baptism of a James Holohan, born to a Holohan/Molloy couple around 1850 in Kilkenny. The Catholic baptismal records of the county are good for the period and, in my experience, the Kilkenny transcripts at are very accurate. So there should have been no problem.

    But there was no matching baptism 1840 to 1860. No baptism for other children of the couple 1830 to 1870. No matching baptism with mother’s name missing. No parents’ marriage. No baptism outside Kilkenny. An absolute blank on every single front.

    This was more than annoying, it needed explanation. Even if one baptism was missing or mis-transcribed, siblings’ records or a parents’ marriage record should be providing enough bites of the cherry to identify at least a general area of origin.

    So I listed all parishes in Kilkenny with both Holohan and Molloy households in Griffith’s in 1849 and then checked the status of the Catholic records for these parishes (all on, of course). For the parish with the single largest number of households, Ballyragget, all of the parish registers between 1807 and 1855 were missing.
    Does this prove my James Holohan was from Ballyragget? Not at all. Without the records, it’s simply impossible to know. All I have is a possible explanation of why it’s impossible

    So Irish researchers just have to cultivate what Keats called “Negative Capability”, the capacity “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

  • Records for Bloomsday

    June 16, 2014 @ 8:52 am | by John Grenham

    Sometimes the biggest obstacle to getting the best out of a set of records is your own entrenched presumptions about what they really contain. For years I had a blind spot about electoral records, lazily assuming that, before the advent of universal suffrage in the 1920s, they covered only a tiny, propertied elite. Working on the Dublin City Library and Archives electoral lists from 1898 to 1916 ( has opened my eyes.

    The first thing to be said about these records is that the originals are unusable. In the printed volumes, each year has 140 subsections, adding up to about 2,000 pages, with most of these subsections cutting across the same streets and even the same households. And there are no indexes. So it is only when the lists are digitised and searchable by street and name that they become accessible.

    But then they are extraordinary. The right to vote in local elections was vastly expanded in 1898, with the creation of an entirely new class of voter, the “inhabitant householder”, who possessed no property, and so paid no property tax, merely having a stable address. This covered the vast standing army of Dublin’s manual workers, surviving precariously, most of them occupying multi-family tenements.

    And here they are in these lists, living in the great belt of city-centre slums that arced around from East Wall , Monto and Gardiner Street through North King Street, over to the Liberties and down through York Street to the Quays: household by household, room by room, year after year. Joyce’s Dublin emerges vividly, stinking, dingy and overcrowded to a degree that is impossible to imagine now. The genesis of Dubliners and Ulysses becomes much clearer when you grasp the terrible inescapable intimacy enforced by these teeming streets.

    Currently online are the years 1908, 1909 and 1910. In the autumn, 1911, 1912 and 1915 will go live. The project is part of Dublin City Council’s 1916 commemorations, so the full set will be available before April 2016.

  • Identifying an Irish place-name

    June 9, 2014 @ 9:43 am | by John Grenham

    The most basic building blocks of genealogical research are surnames and places of origin. And like Irish surnames, Irish place-names have suffered extraordinary violence, mutating and deforming as they were forced out of Irish into English, mangled in written records by half-asleep record-takers, distorted over generations in the folk-memories of migrants. A secure identification of a particular place-name can be a serious problem.

    The standard tool has long been the 1851 Townlands Index, so called because it was produced as a guide to the 1851 census. However, its alphabetical listing of 64,000 or so townlands is not actually taken from the 1851 returns; the listing comes instead from the original Ordnance Survey of the 1830s and 1840s, the first wholesale standardisation of the spelling (in English) of townland names. The injury inflicted on Irish culture was grievous, but this standard listing remains very valuable. In particular, it was used in the creation of Griffith’s Valuation. Identify a place in the 1851, and it will appear under identical spelling in the Valuation.

    The 1851 Index is free online in three separate locations, at, and The last is the most recent and the slickest, but suffers from over-simplification. Seanruad is the best known, but has quite a few omissions and can be inflexible to search. The version at allows wild-card searches, a researcher’s best friend, and also includes parish maps as well as street listings for Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

    These three have now been joined at by the 1901 Townlands Index, used for the 1901 census returns, and very helpfully including District Electoral Divisions, the areas used for census collection after 1861.

    Inevitable quibbles: the search interface does not allow wild-cards, and the presumption underlying the browse area that no two Irish DEDs or parishes share the same name is very wide of the mark. Try “Kilmore”. But the arrival of the 1901 is still unequivocally welcome. The Irish Genealogical Research Society deserve whole-hearted thanks and congratulations.

  • Attack of the killer apostrophes

    June 4, 2014 @ 9:39 am | by John Grenham

    People who have never done any computer programming tend to think of it as a mysterious art only to be performed by anointed priests of the great god Mathematics. It’s not. At its root, coding is just the simple giving of an order to a computer: sit up; beg; roll over.

    To be sure, the accumulation of tens of thousands of these orders can make things very complex and adding conditions to the orders magnifies that complexity: only sit up and beg if I scratch my nose twice. But complexity is not mystery. The kind of intelligence required to follow it is very narrow indeed, a long, long way from the wisdom of priesthood.

    This much said, coding can be genuine fun, at its best intensely absorbing in the way only a really good puzzle can be, part building clockwork toys, part deciphering dead languages.

    And for someone like myself who has struggled for years with the recalcitrant opacity of historical records, there is real personal satisfaction in helping to digitise those records and making them transparent.

    Why go into all of this? Last week, the part of the Irish Ancestors website that produces maps showing the locations of households of a particular surname in mid-nineteenth century Ireland (see for an example) began to do odd things. Brennan would display properly, but not Ferguson. O’Brien no, Walsh yes. Plenty of Corkerys, but not a McNamara in sight.

    After much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, I eventually discovered what the problem was: the apostrophe in “O’Briensbridge”.

    The moral is that software is deeply, deeply stupid, in the way only an insentient object can be stupid. Sometimes complicated, certainly, but complicated like a brick wall.

    If there’s any consolation, I now know how to defeat the coming takeover of the software robots. Just shower them with apostrophes.

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