Irish Roots »

  • The Mayor of Boston’s family tree

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:33 am | by John Grenham

    I was recently involved in researching the family tree of Marty Walsh, the Mayor of Boston, as part of the mother of all Irish festivals, iFest Boston (, which takes place next weekend. Both his parents were born in Ireland, so the research was all on Irish records and was, on one level, straightforward. First the General Register Office, from there to the 1901 and 1911 censuses, then back to the GRO, then on to parish registers and property records, until we had the sixteen great-great-grandparents and the legions of fourth cousins.

    But in thirty years of doing research I’ve never seen an extended family quite like the Mayor’s. His father came from Carna and his mother from Rosmuc, deep in south Connemara. Both of them were native Irish speakers – Irish was the Mayor’s own first language – and both were steeped in the extraordinary high civility of that traditional Irish culture, full of elaborate courtesy and hospitality and revolving around shared songs and stories.

    And their parents were steeped in it too. And their parents’ parents. And their great-grandparents. One of the truisms of genealogy is that we’re all mongrels, that everyone’s ancestors came from some-place else. Not the Mayor’s. Every single one was from south Connemara.

    Rosmuc was where Patrick Pearse learnt his Irish, and the culture that he found there is the one adopted as the ideal of Irishness by official Ireland for most of the last century. The Mayor’s family is as close as it’s possible to get to that pure-bred fíor-gael ideal. It’s just a little scary.

    I suspect that the reason I’ve never done research on a family like this is that families like this don’t need research done. They already know more about their ancestors and their cousins than any documents could possibly show. I’m expecting indignation in Carna and Rosmuc about all the mistakes and omissions.

    Just have his people call my people.

  • Long live the Revolution!

    September 15, 2014 @ 11:44 am | by John Grenham

    When you live through big changes happening over years, it can be hard to grasp the full scale of what’s going on. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, while I was manning an information stand with some of my colleagues from the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland ( at a genealogy event in Glasgow.

    We fielded query after query (after query after query …) from hordes of descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who moved to Scotland as economic refugees in the nineteenth century. Time and again, they would start with “I know there are no Irish records, but …” And time and again, to their delight and amazement, we could demonstrate just how easy it was to find their ancestors using only what’s free online.

    Finally, one individual who had already done a good deal of Irish research said to me, “I know there are holes in the Irish records, but when they’re good, they’re very, very good.”

    That stopped me in my tracks. Irish records very good? It’s an outlandish thought for someone who has spent decades weeping and wailing about the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922.

    But there is truth in it. For genealogy at least, there has been a true revolution in access to Irish records over the past five years. (Nearly) all of the major sources are (nearly) all online, most free, most searchable with a flexibility and degree of fine detail that would have been unimaginable even in 2010. And things are still improving year by year. We should step back, take in the bigger picture and realise how well we’ve done.

    So thank you to the Scots for that small enlightenment. And just one piece of advice to them for the referendum: Come on in. The water’s lovely.

  • The Monica Roberts Collection

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:04 am | by John Grenham

    Sometimes the current bout of commemorating feels like the Borges parable about the map the same size as the country it depicts. Living through World War 1 was bad enough. Surely the point of reliving it is that you can skip some bits.

    Commemoration fatigue aside, the unprecedented scale of remembering is already producing wonderful micro-history, with intense detail evoking the vivid taste and feel of ordinary life a century ago.

    The Monica Roberts Collection, newly online at as part of Dublin City Council’s contribution to the commemoration, is full of that intense, evocative, mundane detail. Monica Roberts was a young, upper-class woman living in Stillorgan who set up a “Band of Helpers to the Soldiers” at the start of the war. With the same innocent idealism as the hundreds of thousands of men who volunteered to fight, the “Band” undertook the provision of moral support, writing to the troops, sending parcels of tobacco and sweets and woolly socks. The collection consists of 453 of the letters and postcards written back to her by those soldiers, all transcribed and imaged on the site, freely searchable and browseable by name, place and month.

    The careful, best-behaviour politeness of the soldiers is truly poignant, now that we know the horrors they were actually enduring. And the series peters out from the end of 1917 into 1918, as the reality of life at the front filtered into public consciousness and it became common knowledge that the soldiers had been led away to enormous, industrialised slaughter.

    The original letters were carefully preserved for many years by Monica’s daughter Mary Shackleton, who gave them to Tom Burke MBE, Chairman of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association. The RDFA in turn passed them on to Dublin City Archives, the creators of the website.

    So it is absolutely right that the micro-histories on the site are so personal and small- scale: this is the way real memories survive, handed on carefully from individual to individual, decade after decade.

  • There was no mass emigration from Ireland

    September 1, 2014 @ 9:54 am | by John Grenham

    Nobody ever left Ireland to go to America. Pat Naughton left Ballinasloe to go to his cousin John in Roxbury, Boston. James McCurdy went from Rathlin to Lubec, Maine, for a job promised by his mother’s uncle. Father Bud Sullivan brought rakes of other Sullivans out from Allihies to work for Marcus Daly in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

    There was no such thing as mass migration, only the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual and family decisions. Identifying and unravelling those decisions can bridge centuries and oceans and re-knit extended families. And the painstaking micro-study of migration clusters is the only way to do that.
    There are some excellent individual works – Peter Murphy’s Together in Exile (New Brunswick, 1990), a superb reconstruction of migration from Carlingford to St John’s, New Brunswick, is the founder of the genre and still a shining example. But, as far as I’m aware, no central guide exists to the clustering of Irish migrant origins and destinations. Genealogical anecdotes certainly abound, with dozens of unlikely pairings: Abbeydorney to Westbury; Kilskeery to Charlestown Mass.; Dungarvan to Yonkers. But there is nothing systematic. Perhaps Ireland reaching Out ( should be encouraging or hosting something like this?

    In any case, if you want to have a go for your own locality there are now some excellent online tools.

    The indefatigable Steve Morse ( allows precise reconstruction of Ellis Island origins and destinations – have a look at for the 2000 people from Athlone who passed through between 1892 and 1924.

    For the mid-19th century, the Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” ads ( supply even more circumstantial detail.

    And the Irish Emigration Database at is another excellent resource, even if heavily weighted towards Ulster and unfortunately filleted of its 4,500 passenger lists. They languish, unlisted and unloved, in the crude pay-per-view purdah of

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