Irish Roots »

  • The General Register Office and

    July 28, 2014 @ 10:22 am | by John Grenham

    In case you hadn’t heard, the General Register Office birth, marriage and death indexes launched on just three weeks ago have been (temporarily?) withdrawn after the Data Protection Commissioner threatened enforcement proceedings against the site. Much public wailing and gnashing and huffing and puffing has followed.

    What exactly was the problem? First, keep in mind that these are indexes, and most emphatically not the full records. Second, the public has a statutory right to see the printed indexes in the GRO Research Room in Dublin, and these contain most of the information that appeared on IrishGenealogy. And full transcripts of these printed indexes up to 1958 have been freely available online for more than five years, on, and

    My own birth index entry is still there on these sites, with my mother’s maiden name. The Commissioner’s index entry is still there, with his mother’s maiden name. The Registrar General’s entry is there … And the sky hasn’t fallen in.

    So why the fuss? Do people born after 1958 have a right to more privacy than those born before? Or perhaps IrishGenealogy is a nice home-grown target, with some easy scapegoats, whereas the others are global corporations? Perish the thought.

    There were certainly problems with the IrishGenealogy database, but these stemmed from what they were given. Rather than a digital version of the printed indexes, they got the GRO’s own internal finding aid, amounting to a substantial expansion on the indexes. I suspect the accompanying explanatory note read simply: “Here you are, little Princess. Take a nice big bite.”

    Of course someone should have spotted the difference, and a whole series of other flaws as well, but the civil servants involved are generalists, not specialists. They should have got advice. Next time, I imagine they will.

    In any case, even if the indexes never reappear, the loss will be painful, but not insurmountable. The real worry is that being bitten like this makes civil servants hyper-cautious about future record releases.

  • False friends and Boston

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:43 am | by John Grenham

    Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language is familiar with the idea of a “false friend”, a word that looks identical but has a completely distinct meaning in the other language. “Sensible” is not at all sensible in French. But there can also be false friends in different dialects of the same language. “To root” has a very different, deeply scatological meaning in Australian slang. Which throws, I think, a refreshing light on the name of this column.

    And the other part of the column title can also be a false friend. In Ireland, “Irish” is first of all a straightforward label of citizenship, but, like every other European national identifier, is freighted with all sorts of political baggage, as well as a shifting collection of ethnic, territorial and cultural presumptions. Irishness may not be precise, but we know it when we see it. So when Joe Kowalski from Peoria insists on shaking our hand and telling us he’s Irish too, most of us feel something is very wrong.

    We shouldn’t, though. Joe’s “Irish” is simply a false friend. The rich, sometimes toxic stew of connotations contained in European national labels is just missing in America, dissolved in two-and-a-half centuries of democracy. Though the words are identical, they all contain an unspoken qualifier: Irish(-American); Italian(-American); German(-American).

    Why all of this now? I need to think out loud about these things because, come the Autumn, I’ll be telling Bostonians all about their Irishness, God help me. “iFest Boston” ( is the mother of all Irish fests, scheduled for the end of September, with, among others, Paddy Moloney, Joan Bergin, Darina Allen, Belinda McKeon, and sponsored by Guinness, Aer Lingus, Bord Bia and many more.

    Genealogy is only a tiny part of one subsection of the event, and only a small part of what I’ll be doing myself. It’ll be nice to get out of the ghetto for a few days.

  • Resurrecting Church of Ireland records

    July 14, 2014 @ 11:16 am | by John Grenham

    The catastrophic destruction of records in the Public Record Office in 1922 obscured forever the history of everyone living on this island. But one group in particular had its history utterly devastated.

    The Church of Ireland was an arm of the state, the “established church”, and an integral part of the apparatus of administration in Ireland from the early seventeenth century. It had a hand in overseeing early censuses, wills, charities, tithes and much more. So it was hardly surprising that a disproportionate number of the records in the PRO had been created by the Church.

    When disestablishment happened on January 1 1871, all of the Church’s baptism, marriage and burial registers before that date were also declared property of the state, and local clergy were required to deposit them in the PRO. There were some loopholes – ironically, a parish that possessed a fireproof safe was magnanimously allow to retain the documents – but by 1922 around two-thirds of all pre-1871 records were in the PRO. And all were destroyed.

    However, as well as the parishes that held onto their registers, quite a few had made copies before depositing the originals – these were working records, after all – , many early registers had already been published and local historians and genealogists has made copious extracts and abstracts .

    As a result, locating Church of Ireland registers and their substitutes has always been ferociously difficult. Were the originals destroyed? If not, where are they? If so, is there a copy? Or an extract? And where exactly is that?

    The only near-comprehensive guide has long been a dog-eared binder in the National Archives, the successor to the PRO. The Church’s own archives, the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin. has now taken on the job of maintaining this list and keeping it public on their website at

    Clearly, the work was long, painstaking, and eye-wateringly detailed, but it is a godsend for all Irish researchers. Congratulations to the RCBL and hallelujahs all round.

  • The General Register Office indexes online

    July 9, 2014 @ 9:53 am | by John Grenham

    First the good news. The copy of the General Register Office’s birth, marriage and death indexes, live on the website since last Thursday, is simply astonishing.

    Coming right up to 2013, it is a researcher’s (and snooper’s) nirvana. The death indexes from 1966 record marital status as well as reported age at death, the marriage indexes from 1903 show both parties’ names, and the birth indexes from 1900 give the mother’s maiden name. By default, searches use variant surname spelling, but the site also allows tremendous flexibility. You can browse by period, registration district and event, reconstruct entire families and deduce possible legions of third and fourth cousins from the death indexes.

    In all there are more than 27 million records, meaning this subsection of the website is, on its own, probably the single largest online Irish genealogy resource.

    The less good news is that the way the records are presented will cause deep bewilderment to people unfamiliar with the registration system. The main problem is that most of these newly-available index records don’t supply the information needed to extract a full register entry or order a certificate, unlike the copies of the indexes up to 1958 already available on (and Ancestry and FindMyPast). Instead they give an internal GRO reference number. So in most cases no clear route exists from the online index entry to the full information in the register. I suspect a tsunami of puzzlement and frustration is about to break over the heads of the poor civil servants responsible for handling public feedback.

    But the best news only emerged at the website launch. Joan Burton, the minister with responsibility for the GRO, announced a “Civil Registration Amendment Bill 2014”, which will remove all legal obstacles to public access to the full records, not just the indexes.

    So here they come at last, full records of all Irish births over 100 years old, all marriages over 75 and all deaths over 50. Seventh heaven approaches.