Irish Roots »

  • Genealogy addiction: the symptoms

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:08 am | by John Grenham

    Here are some signs that you’re doing too much genealogy.

    You see names. So many many names. As a result, in order to stay sane, you have trained yourself to give every name you encounter a half-life of just ten minutes. In other words, after ten minutes they all vanish. This can create personal problems. There are times you find yourself sitting across the breakfast table from someone you know is your spouse, but whose name has just evaporated.

    Years of dealing with dodgy transcripts and half-baked, unwarranted assumptions mean that you have difficulty believing anything, a scepticism that can make small talk difficult. Your response to “That’s a nice day there” is likely to be “Prove it.”

    The devil lives down there in the detail, and you live down there with him. Your focus has narrowed to the point where you spend a year investigating the history of a stone wall along the north east corner of one field in west Mayo. And then button-hole complete strangers to tell them all about it.

    You regularly decide to check just one thing online before you go to bed, and then find yourself emerging from a research trance five hours later. When you finally make it to bed, bleary-eyed, with a throbbing head, your spouse (what’s her name again?) most unreasonably threatens divorce.

    Or you emerge from an online session furious at a database. How could they possibly not know that Mulderg is a variant of Redington? And they’ve left out all the commas! One symptom of a more advanced stage is bruising to the forehead, caused by repeated banging of the head against a computer monitor.

    And then there’s the worst sign of all. You’ve read right to the end of the ‘Irish Roots’ column. There’s no hope. It’s terminal.

  • Recovering the Great War Dead

    August 18, 2014 @ 3:07 pm | by John Grenham

    My father used to tell me stories he got from the Great War veterans who drank in his father’s pub near Custume Barracks in Athlone during the 1930s. Safe among their own, the men could swap yarns about their experiences and my father, like any teenager, eavesdropped and absorbed everything. The stories have stayed with me: German prisoners of war taken behind the lines and killed; terrible mutilations; trench-foot and lice and rats and gangrene.

    Private spaces like my grandfather’s pub were the only place the War could then be remembered. The wilful blindness imposed by post-independence orthodoxy cut Ireland off from parts of its past and distorted its connections with what came to be called “the outside world”. Our recovery from that self-inflicted amnesia and isolation, at least where the Great War is concerned, has largely been fuelled by local historians and genealogists.

    Again and again, a rediscovered Army grandfather or grand-uncle or second cousin has spurred research that revives the lost memory of much broader groups of soldiers, especially those who died. The official 1929 commemorative publication Ireland’s Memorial Records (see included more than 49,000 names of Irish soldiers who were killed. But detailed, painstaking local research done over the last decade reveals that the true number was much higher, probably close to 100,000. County by county, their names are slowly being brought to light. Some of the publications listing them are at News of any omissions is welcome

    One fact should not be missed in the heat of commemoration. Those who died did not make a willing sacrifice. They were themselves the sacrifice, part of what Pope Benedict XV in 1915 called “the suicide of civilised Europe”. Their lives were cynically wasted by political and military leaders. Respect for their courage and their endurance should not blind us to that.

  • Free downloads from the (other) National Archives

    August 13, 2014 @ 9:51 am | by John Grenham

    The National Archives (the one at Kew in London) has a very irritating name. Which nation? It’s not Britain, since Scotland is excluded; it’s not the UK, since Northern Ireland is excluded; it’s not England, since Wales is included.

    Post-colonial nit-picking aside, TNA (even the acronym is annoying) is a wonderful and much under-appreciated resource for Irish research. Apart from British Army records, now largely available online on and, huge quantities of the records produced by imperial administrators in Ireland found their way back to London. For someone used to working with Irish records in Ireland, TNA’s vast, densely-populated archive series, many spanning multiple centuries, are simply stunning, like visiting a cathedral after a life spent in a cave.

    The biggest problem has always been that the Archives is in London. Improving access is a long-standing priority and over the past decade, the online catalogue ( has become an extraordinary research tool in its own right, summarising in miniature many of the originals. After using it for years, I only recently discovered another generous feature, the “digital microfilm” service. TNA has digitised thousands of microfilms and is making them downloadable for free.

    They are elephantine PDF files, slow to arrive and searchable only by hand, just like the microfilms themselves. But you don’t have to trek to Kew to see them. Among the records relevant to Ireland are Admiralty and Coast Guard records from 1816, the printed annual Army Lists, detailing every officer in the army from 1754, and the General Register Office Indexes to Foreign Returns of Births, Marriages and Deaths 1627-1917.

    It has to be said that the site (deliberately?) makes them awkward to get at. Start from the full list (see and just keep burrowing.

    Whatever its flaws, this is genuine public service. Irish institutions please copy.

  • Why can’t you find your Irish ancestors online?

    August 4, 2014 @ 1:59 pm | by John Grenham

    You know your ancestors are on the internet somewhere, the blasted things, but they’re just not showing up. Why?

    Maybe you’re not taking a cautious enough approach to surnames. Look closely and on one page, your granny’s a Breheny, on the next she’s a Judge. Here your family is Mahony, there Canniff. Sometimes you can almost see the priest flipping a coin at the baptism: heads the child is Phelan, tails Whelan.

    Alright, so you’re as sceptical as vinegar about surnames. But still you sometimes can’t help relying on websites’ built-in surname variant searches. Don’t. On, the single most important Irish genealogy site, searching for Whelan will get you Whaelen, Waylan, Phaelan, Ó Faolaín … But it won’t get you Phelan. Go figure.

    So you know in your bones that you can never, ever trust an Irish surname. But your ancestors still aren’t where they should be. “Where” can also be slippery. Parishes shrank, grew, split and renamed themselves, county borders wobbled and straightened, registration districts were slapped down so that they cut across every other boundary. Lines on a map can be very seductive, but you need to be very wary of them. I know. I’ve drawn some dodgy maps in my time.

    Or is there an unremarked gap in the records? An example: the (wonderful) National Archives genealogy site digitised their Tithe Books by using the existing microfilms, which were sorted alphabetically by parish name. But the digitisers missed one microfilm, with the result that 12 parishes, between “Drum” and “Dunc” are just not online.

    And then of course, there’s the possibility that your ancestors simply didn’t want to be found. The recently-released Dublin city electoral rolls 1908-1915 ( contains names that look suspiciously like bad aliases, including Mary Innocent and Timothy Guilty, Thomas History, Harry Mayo and the badly misjudged “Olive O’Ireland