Irish Roots »

  • Can you change your ancestors?

    June 30, 2015 @ 5:52 pm | by John Grenham

    In the course of the controversy a few weeks ago over Rachel Dolezal, the American woman born white who adopted an African-American identity, her mother said something that jumped out at me: “You can’t change your ancestors.”

    This looks incontrovertible. Facts are facts, you can’t change the past. But of course we change the past all the time. The prevailing view of 1916 in Ireland today is very different to the prevailing view fifty years ago. History is constantly being contested and rewritten.

    And people have regularly changed their ancestors. In early Ireland, after an upstart had defeated the legitimate ruler, his most urgent task was the assembly of a pedigree proving him to be – surprise – actually a distant relative of the legitimate ruler, and thus no longer an upstart. One traditional branch of genealogy (the “black hats”) has long specialised in plausible blue blood, no questions asked: How many generations would Sir like?

    So can ethnicity, with its implication of common ancestors, be purely a cultural construct? In the West at least, we now accept trans-gender identity, that people physically of one gender can in fact be of another. Is there not a good case for trans-ethnic identity, that people like Rachel Dolezal, physically of one ethnicity, can in fact belong to another?

    It’s quite a seductive idea. Race and nation are obviously rooted in political and cultural allegiances. More often than not, we draw the border between “us” and “them” based on nothing more than accents, cooking styles and invented history.

    But there is more than culture to the differences between us. Like it or not, races or nations do have their own characteristics, their own flaws and talents, and large parts of these stem from inheritance. To recognise this is not racist, any more than ignoring it is egalitarian.

    So we’re stuck with our ancestors. But they are only the raw material of who we can be, a starting point, not a destiny.

  • Molly Bloom: curiouser and curiouser

    June 24, 2015 @ 10:53 am | by John Grenham

    A while back I wrote about Alfred Henry Hunter, the reputed real-life original of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, to demonstrate just how much information is now accessible on-line. It turns out that Alfred’s wife is even more accessible, and more interesting.

    First, like Bloom’s Molly, she was christened Marion. The baptism took place in the Church of Ireland Mariners’ Church in Dún Laoghaire on May 19 1864, with her full name given as Marion Bruére Quin. She was the daughter of Francis Quin, a professor of music, and Menella (née Wilcox). Molly’s musical bent, so important to Ulysses, clearly has a background in Marion’s family.

    Her mother’s side are even more intriguing. The Wilcoxes, from just outside Sunderland, were cousins of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. As an adult Dodgson regularly visited – he composed “Jabberwocky” while staying with them – and corresponded frequently with Marion’s mother, Menella. He also took an interest in Menella’s daughters, encouraging Marion’s elder sister Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin in her acting career, for which she used the stage-name “Norah O’Neill”.

    Marion herself also knew Dodgson very well. In 1897, he gave her a hand-written manuscript of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, the original of what was to become Alice in Wonderland, inscribed “Marion Quin, with the Author’s Love”.

    In later life, after the death of Alfred in 1926, she appears to have fallen on hard times. She sold the manuscript at auction in London in 1938, and lived her final years in a North Dublin tenement, sharing 14 Upper Rutland Street (now Seán O’Casey Avenue) with at least six other households.

    There is no doubt that the original from which Joyce drew most of Molly’s character was his wife, Nora Barnacle. But he borrowed from everything and everybody in the Dublin he knew. And he clearly knew (or knew of) Marion Bruére Hunter.

    [Full links at the Irish Roots archive.]

  • Is professional genealogy dead?

    June 15, 2015 @ 10:09 am | by John Grenham

    Is it still possible to be an independent, professional genealogist? It was always a precarious livelihood, dependent on finding intelligent, trusting clients in an unregulated market not short of sharks. The internet has been good for the shark population, and has also put the raw materials of research at the everyone’s fingertips. Why pay someone you’re not sure you can trust to do something you can do yourself?

    Because it will take you a month to find something that a competent professional can find in half-an-hour. Vast jungles of genealogical half-truth and supposition have spread online, and the need for experienced guides has grown, not diminished. To some extent, this is a self-evident truth about expertise in general: it is perfectly possible to extract your own tooth, but the job is better left to an expert.

    The difference with genealogy is that some of what we used to do was gate-keeping, allowing access to offline records because we happened to be where those records were. That part of the job is now mostly dead. These days, we have to be more like research escorts to a client, clearing a lucid chain of evidence with our trusty machetes of scepticism. More like Indiana Jones, I like to think.

    Which brings me to the recent name-change of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (, of which I am a member . We are now Accredited Genealogists Ireland. The reason is internet-driven globalisation. A much larger US-based group called the Association of Professional Genealogists (, an excellent organisation that acts as a support group for anyone involved in the family history business, is now much more prominent world-wide. They don’t offer accreditation, with its implicit guarantee of competence to potential clients, and we do. So we are getting out of their way.

    Like many other things the internet was going to sweep into the dustbin of history, professional genealogy lives on.

  • Glory be to the Ordnance Survey

    June 9, 2015 @ 8:43 am | by John Grenham

    A few weeks back, the Ordnance Survey Ireland maps website ( was taken offline and the worldwide Fraternity of Historic Map Nuts held its breath. For the past five years, the OSI site has provided free, world-class access to current and historic Irish Ordnance Survey maps, layering one over the other, so that users can peel back the present with a simple movement of a slider bar, and watch wonderful, 200-year-old detail slowly come to the surface.

    The quality of the site was perfectly in keeping with OSI’s history. Set up in 1824 as part of the great process of measuring Ireland that followed the Act of Union, the vast mapping survey was unprecedented anywhere in the world. It was done in the teeth of controversies about scale, contouring, field boundaries, and in spite of government penny-pinching, spectacular bureaucratic infighting and the usual Irish personality clashes (for a blow-by-blow account see JH Andrews’ A Paper Landscape, repr. Four Courts Press, 2006).

    What resulted were the best maps in the world. Their quality was largely due to the tenacity and integrity of the two English officers who drove the organisation, Colonel Thomas Colby and his subordinate, Captain Thomas Larcom. With several thousand surveyors in the field, and hundreds of cartographers and engravers at headquarters in Mountjoy in the Phoenix Park (still OSI’s head office), Larcom created a unique map-making factory. He was punctilious about the smallest details – Oliver Goldsmith’s house and tree, Dean Swift’s Glebe – and demanded precise measurement of every townland. He also wanted the maps to be beautiful, and they are.

    So when the website came back online two weeks ago, and the historic layers were missing, a horrible sense of dread gripped the Fraternity. But then, last week, they were restored, with even more historic layers, even faster response times and even better magnification. The hosannas were audible from Addis Ababa to Ulan Bator.

  • Bloomier and Bloomier: Alfred Henry Hunter

    June 1, 2015 @ 2:51 pm | by John Grenham

    Alfred Henry Hunter is the Dubliner long known to be the model for the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. In 1904, after rescuing Joyce from a drunken fight, Hunter took him home and showed him a paternal sympathy that resonated deeply with Joyce, who originally planned Ulysses as a short story dealing with the episode. It expanded enormously between 1914 and 1922, and the figure at its centre changed from the kindly Hunter to the Everyman Bloom.

    The James Joyce Centre’s website ( still refers to Hunter as “an elusive figure”. Not a bit of it. With all the records now online, his life is an open book.

    Here he is in Mount Street in 1901, with his wife Marion Bruére Hunter (née Quin). He gives his occupation as “Gentleman”, and then crosses it out, but Marion remains a “Lady”. Very Bloom-like.

    In 1911 they’re in Great Charles Street, less than five minutes from Bloom’s Eccles Street address. Hunter is now an advertising agent, as Bloom was. His marriage to Marion took place in London in 1899: see He was born in Ballymacarret in 1866. His parents, William Hunter and Maria Lockhart, were married in Maghera in 1856. His death in 1926 was from “cardiac asthenia”, congestive heart failure. And Marion was registered in the voters lists for Rutland Street in Dublin’s north city centre up to 1942.

    In 1890, Hunter even registered a patent of an invention “for facilitating the unlacing of boots and shoes and corsets and such like articles of wearing apparel”, as reported in The Weekly Irish Times of November 14 1890. Bloomier and Bloomier.

    Given Joyce’s penchant for using identifiable individuals, an intriguing question is why Hunter had to be re-imagined as Jewish. Perhaps Everyman as a Northern Protestant was a step too far, even for Joyce.

    And perhaps, just for this year, Bloomsday should be Alfred Henry Hunter Day.

    (Full links, and more evidence of Hunter online, at

  • Beware: you’re not the customer. You’re the raw material.

    May 25, 2015 @ 4:02 pm | by John Grenham

    Back in 2011, Dick Eastman (, the doyen of North American genealogy commentators and a very straight talker, described as “the future of genealogy”. Naturally, I investigated. I had to upload information to explore the site, but its privacy policy promised all my data would be private unless I agreed otherwise and could be deleted at any point. Fair enough. I then uploaded a chunk of my own family tree, played around with it, decided the “user-generated content” approach wasn’t for me, deleted my tree and logged out.

    In 2014, a Google search turned up a link to a distant cousin on Mocavo that came from what I had uploaded: “The key to your family history may lie in John Grenham’s genealogy”. I logged in again and looked very closely at the profile settings in my account. Tucked away discreetly at the bottom was a default option: “Allow legacy searches”. How could they could be “legacy” searching a tree I’d deleted? But I just unticked the box and forgot about it.

    Then last week another Google search uncovered someone else in my family. A systematic check unearthed dozens of links to the original information I had supposedly deleted. So I contacted the company and asked them to stop using my private tree to sell their service.

    First, they said they got the data from somewhere else. When I pointed out information that was unique to my tree, they said the pages weren’t publicly available. When I sent them screenshots showing the pages, they told me I had to prove my identity to have them taken down. When I sent a scan of my passport, they took down some of the information, but not all. They then denied the remaining bits were there. Eventually, after much bluster, everything came down. I think.

    The experience was truly Kafkaesque, and the moral is clear: Beware.

    You’re not the customer. You’re the raw material.

  • revisited

    May 18, 2015 @ 9:27 am | by John Grenham

    I’ve spent most of the past few weeks snout down, tail in the air, happily rooting through the General Register Office indexes on They really are something else. By far their most important feature is that they are free and everything in them is visible, sometimes painfully so. It might seem unjust that the virtue of accessibility is the reason the indexes’ flaws are so obvious, but visible flaws are infinitely better than the invisible ones we’re forced to accept on commercial sites that limit access.

    For example, it is now possible to make out different strata of error, like layers of habitation in an archaeological site. The deepest is where the copyists in the Superintendent Registrar’s office had trouble making out local registrars’ handwriting: “Coulon” transcribed instead of “Conlon”, for example, evidence of the still-common problem distinguishing cursive Ns and Us.

    Then comes the next layer, where indexers in the 19th-century GRO had trouble deciphering the copy they got from the Superintendent Registrars: is that surname in the 1870 Clones births return “Breadbarron” or “Breadbarrow”?

    They couldn’t decide, so both now appear in the all-Ireland index.

    And on top of these comes the legion of modern errors created by shoddy machine reading of the printed indexes: “Hutohinson”, “Matihews”, “Sulliyan”, “McMahgn”, “Spillank” – I could go on.

    A gold star for IrishGenealogy, then, and another round of hisses for the modern GRO.

    Even with the site so accessible, eventually these vast lists of names make it hard to see the wood for the trees. So I decided to do something about it.

    I took the six million births listed over the 50 years and mapped all the surnames against the 136 Superintendent Registrars’ Districts, to show the total births of every surname over the whole period, and then year by year. If you ever doubted that Durkan was a common name in and around Swineford, doubt no more: .


  • Lovely, Gnarly Nitty-Gritty Dublin Records

    May 11, 2015 @ 10:58 am | by John Grenham

    For anyone interested in researching Dublin ancestors, Dublin City Library and Archive has long been a logical starting-point. Their digital version of the city voters’ lists between 1938 and 1964, four million imaged, searchable and browseable records, has been a staple of research since it was first unveiled in the Pearse St Reading Room in 2006. One of the very few truly sequential Irish sources, it allows researchers to follow any family year- by-year through the streets of the capital over three decades – especially useful for adoptees trying to trace birth families.

    Since 2006, a series of smaller (but still very useful) digitised material has also appeared in the Reading Room and on a directory of Dublin graveyards, 14,000 transcripts of commemorative plaques around the city, ancient freemen and early municipal electors.

    All of these, including the giant collection of 20th-century electoral records, have now been brought together and made searchable online from a single starting point, (Full disclosure: I was involved in coding the new site.)

    Apart from the existing material, there is plenty new: complete burial registers for three Dublin City Council cemeteries, Clontarf, Drimnagh and Finglas; a composite directory of the city between 1647 and 1706, put together from four separate sources; and a now-complete run of municipal electoral lists between 1908 and 1915, adding almost 150,000 new records.

    The addition of the electors’ lists covering 1913 and 1914 is especially welcome. DCLA doesn’t have these years, and the National Archives very generously gave them copies to fill the gap, a wonderful example of joined-up, public service collaboration. They are the working records used by the courts for voter registration, and are very different to the official lists already online, full of scribbled crossings-out, marginalia, objections – lovely, gnarly nitty-gritty stuff.

    My only complaint is that DCLA hasn’t made enough fuss about the new site. There should be marching bands, fire-eaters, dancing in the streets.

  • 90 per cent squint-free!

    May 4, 2015 @ 9:07 am | by John Grenham

    I recently had a hands-on trial of the prototype of the promised National Library of Ireland Roman Catholic parish register microfilm website. It was extraordinary.

    The Library’s official line sensibly underplays expectations, presenting the project as a form of outreach that merely expands access to the NLI microfilm room onto the web. And it certainly does that. Page-images from the microfilms leap to the screen at the click of a button (at least with a decent broadband connection), all instantly scrollable, zoomable, printable, adjustable.

    But the site has the potential to be much more than the sum of these parts. The navigation by map and parish-name is utterly intuitive, permitting Ireland-wide overviews, easy movement between adjoining parishes and a comprehensive search of variant parish names. And the way the microfilms have been imaged allows you to skip directly to a particular month in any register. If you want to start looking at Kilfenora baptisms for 1840, you can go straight to the page image where January 1840 begins: 90 per cent squint-free.

    Opposition to the project still exists, with some heritage centres lobbying local TDs to jog the Minister’s elbow. Understandable, up to a point. There is no doubt that the project will have an impact on the centres’ income from their transcript-only site, or that some centres are storehouses of invaluable local knowledge which it would be a shame to lose. But the new site will also be a wonderful opportunity for them. One of the first things I did was to find a transcript on rootsireland and go to the corresponding microfilm page. It was a revelation: seeing the actual entry had an immediate punch, a vivid immediacy that was much greater than the transcript. But finding the entry in the first place was only possible with the transcript.

    Marry the two – it’s not rocket science – and the centres would have a world-beater.

  • Catherine Murphy for Taoiseach

    April 27, 2015 @ 10:43 am | by John Grenham

    Just before Christmas 2013, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht held a series of public hearings on maximising our cultural and genealogical heritage. Its report was finally published at the start of this month ( ).

    Catherine Murphy TD, prime mover behind the hearings and the author of the report, was only given authority to act on behalf of the committee (as “rapporteur”) in January of this year. Hence the delay. But it was well worth waiting for. Anyone with even the remotest interest in Irish genealogy should read it.

    The original hearings canvassed the widest possible range of views and for its summary of these alone the report is essential reading, giving a superb bird’s-eye snapshot of the multitude of competing agendas in play. The overview of record-sources is also an eye-opener, shedding light on areas I was hazy about myself, in particular Land Registry records.

    But at the heart of the report are its 37 recommendations and these will rightly be the focus of most attention. If they have a flaw, it is that some try too hard to accommodate the conflicting approaches the committee heard. It is difficult, for example, to see how No 2, the recommendation to establish “a national diaspora and genealogy centre which acts as a central information point” squares with No 8, which urges the maintenance and improvement of local research facilities.

    This is hairsplitting, however. The overall goal urged in the report is no less than the establishment of Ireland as a European centre of genealogical excellence, and its recommendations are models of clarity and sanity in the service of that aim: “ The majority of our genealogical records are public goods and public access is the desired goal”; “ It is vital that the General Register Office accepts that one of its core functions is the facilitation of genealogical research”; “The system must be designed with the end user in mind.”

    The real question, of course, is whether any of the recommendations will be implemented.

    Catherine Murphy for Taoiseach?

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