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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 4, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    Why can’t you find your Irish ancestors online?

    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 Rootsireland.ie, 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 (dublinheritage.ie) 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

    • David Babington says:

      Always like your columns, that I mostly see via Facebook via Irish Roots or the like. Read the column in the hard copy of the Irish Times when I was in Dublin in early July. Enjoyed attending a Babington third cousin’s wedding in Dublin and a Co. Cavan family history road trip with another third cousin from Wicklow Town. Still working on getting my Magheracloone (civil parish), Co. Monaghan Babingtons back to before 1786. Have some Babington related kin in the North that because of a lack of records have not been able to determine how they are related to me. My late Dad Jack’s genealogy challenge to me was finding who was the first of our Babington’s in Ireland from England. Fat chance on that one me thinks

    • Janet Oswald says:

      How true ,have been researching family tree for some years. Found my grt grandparents in Crossmolina County Mayo . I was given his name as William Ryan married to Rose Fergus June 11 1854 , then four baptisms of their children in that same church, all to William Ryan ( born Wexford 1819 ) and Rose Ryan born Mayo 1833. Recently I managed to view the marriage ledger myself , only to find in a June 11 1854 marriage Williams ‘ name appears to be O ‘Ryan or Brogan in fact someone has pencilled Reagan in the border. Now I realise perhaps this is why I can found no record of them prior to that date.
      I know this is the right marriage as all down the years after this date they were William Ryan and Rose Fergus with the same dates of birth given.
      I will stumble on and hope for more discoveries.
      Kind regards, Janet Oswald.

    • Peter says:

      Jaysus John give it a rest! I could find just as many errors in your book which, I used to notify you about but, gave up as you stopped saying thank you. I hope you had the courtesy of informing rootsireland of their oversight – it’s nice to be nice.


    • Coll says:

      Hi John,

      I have a marriage record for my g-g-g grandfather’s (Denis Drake – Dublin) second marriage where his parents are listed as John Drake and Margaret. I cannot find any record of his first marriage (to Margaret Whelan) or any trace of his parents, John and Margaret. Can you give me any tips? It would be much appreciated.

    • M.C. Moran says:

      The problems may begin, but do not necessarily end, in Ireland. The variant surname spellings of Irish emigrant ancestors can also be quite tricky to trace.

      For Irish emigrants to Canada, there might be an anglicisation of an Irish surname, of course, but there might be a French language factor too. In a tiny village in the province of Quebec, for example, one of my emigrant ancestors was buried as Anne Hohanlon (for Hanlon or O’Hanlon) — an honest attempt, no doubt, by a French-Canadian priest to render a faithful (phonetic) spelling of the name just as he had heard it.

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