Irish Roots »

  • The strange afterlife of the census microfilms

    March 2, 2016 @ 10:20 am | by John Grenham

    The method used by the National Archives of Ireland to digitise its genealogical records was sensible and straightforward. It took the existing microfilms (all created by the LDS Church) as the starting point and used digital images created from the microfilms as the basis of transcription and to provide an online copy of the original.

    So far so good.

    The first result is that the online collections include any flaws in the microfilms. For instance, the 1901 microfilms omitted the reverse of all Form As, which contain useful place-name identifiers, and so these are missing from the online image collection.

    The second result is that it is possible to use the online image collections as if they were microfilm, scrolling forward and back through them in sequence.

    How do you do this? In your browser address-bar, you’ll see something like “”. Just add 1 to that number to go forward a frame and subtract 1 to go back.

    But the real question is why in the name of all that’s holy would anyone want to treat these image collections as if they were microfilm? Haven’t we spent half our lives praying for an escape from microfilm?

    We don’t get away that easy. Just one example: the 1911 finding aid used to oversee the transcriptions included a category “Townland”. Many enumerators’ returns for small, single-street villages left the townland name blank and entered the name under “City, Urban District, Town or Village”. But where the finding aid left the townland blank, the transcribers presumed there were no returns and left it untranscribed. So around forty smallish villages are imaged online, but not findable by searching the 1911 database of transcripts.

    The only way to research them is by going to the initial image and scrolling through them by hand. Precisely as if you were at one of those blasted microfilm machines.

    So now you know why you couldn’t find Ballaghdereen and Moate and Kinvara in 1911.

    Below is a table of the omissions I know of, with a link to the initial file. Let me know if you come across more.

    Street-villages untranscribed in 1911, but imaged online

    County Start file    DED Name Comment
    CORK nai002025430    Myross
    CORK nai002026380    Crookhaven
    DONEGAL nai002096139    Moville
    DOWN nai002248323    Rosstrevor
    GALWAY nai002405276    Kinvarra Kinvara town
    GALWAY nai002456942    Headford Headford town
    GALWAY nai002441621    Portumna Portumna town
    GALWAY nai002370022    Sillerna
    GALWAY nai002423570    Killeroran Ballygar town
    GALWAY nai002423611    Killeroran Ballygar town
    GALWAY nai002426479    Mount Bellew Mount Bellew Demesne
    KERRY nai002499945    Tarbert
    KILDARE nai002561153    Graney Castledermot town
    KILDARE nai002562371    Donaghcumper Clonoghlis
    KILDARE nai002560339    Ballitore Ballitore Town
    KILDARE nai002570290    Rathangan Rathangan village
    KILDARE nai002561729    Celbridge Celbridge town, Tea Lane
    QUEEN’S CO. nai003161018    Vicarstown
    ROSCOMMON nai003185940    Ballaghadereen Ballaghadereen town
    ROSCOMMON nai003226133    Cloontuskert Lanesboro town
    ROSCOMMON nai003218186    Croghan Croghan village
    TIPPERARY nai003368519 Mullinahone Mullinahone town
    TIPPERARY nai003360703    Kilbarron Ballinderry town
    TIPPERARY nai003365169    Terryglass Terryglass town
    TIPPERARY nai003316315    Ballina
    TIPPERARY nai003381603    Killenaule Killenaule town
    TYRONE    nai003434634 Stewartstown Stewartstown village, West Street
    TYRONE nai003436854    Moy Moy village
    WATERFORD nai003957523    Kilwatermoy, West Janeville
    WATERFORD nai003479421    Courmaraglin
    WATERFORD nai003510696    Faithlegg Cheekpoint village
    WATERFORD nai003481043    Dromana Villierstown
    WATERFORD nai003511636    Killea Dunmore village
    WATERFORD nai003475372    Dungarvan No. 1 Urban Part of Mitchel Street
    WESTMEATH nai003525104    Moate Moate town
    WESTMEATH nai003525164    Moate Moate town
    WESTMEATH nai003525203    Moate Moate town
    WESTMEATH nai003525665    Moate Moate town
    WESTMEATH nai003554911    Kilbeggan Kilbeggan town
    WEXFORD nai003574228    Castle Talbot
    WICKLOW nai003641691    Glendalough All of Glendalough DED missing
  • Strong smart Irishwomen

    February 17, 2016 @ 10:00 am | by John Grenham

    Ireland in the 1950s had little use for strong, smart, independent-minded women. The cult of the Irish mammy may have elevated women to quasi-divine status, but it also ensured they were kept out of public life, pure but in purdah, heavily surveilled, intensely controlled. For those who wanted to retain their independence and use their minds, there were few options. An obscure niche, well out of sight of political, social and religious hierarchies, was one possibility. And the Genealogical Office (aka The Office of the Chief Herald) provided just such a niche.

    As the successor to the deeply Anglo-Irish Ulster Office of Arms, the GO remained a stubbornly square peg in a round republican hole. Although nominally a part of the National Library, it existed as a semi-detached limbo; piece-work employment, unheard of elsewhere in the Irish civil service, was the norm, and provided opportunities to intelligent, well-educated women available nowhere else. As a result, an extraordinary group coalesced around the GO between the 1950s and the 1980s.

    Myra Maguire (1928-2015) was a brilliant young watercolourist who became the GO’s first in-house heraldic artist. Her 240 paintings of arms in Edward MacLysaght’s seminal Irish Families: Their Names, Arms, and Origins (Irish Academic Press, 4th ed. 1991) have metastasised world-wide across tea-towels, maps, mugs, key-rings, golf-tees, plaques, place-mats … In later life professor of Calligraphy at NCAD, Myra was amused at her little paintings’ longevity and remained remarkably equable about the lack of any acknowledgment, or payment.

    Rosemary ffolliott (1935-2009) revolutionised professional genealogical research in Ireland from the very start of her work as a GO freelance. Her meticulous attention to evidence and passion for accuracy could be intimidating, but we all live in her shadow.

    Elish Ellis, née Clune, (1919-2009) was primarily a consummate historian, but never lost her passion for the individual family stories that make up genealogy. She was instrumental in founding the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (now AGI) in 1987, and served as its president for a decade.

    Frances-Jane Ffrench (1929-2002) frightened many people, including me. A more unlikely Republican Socialist has never existed. But there was never any doubt about her zeal for correcting the inaccuracies of Anglo-Irish genealogy.

    And the last survivor of these women, Eileen O’Byrne died last month at the age of 93. Her keen mind, enduring curiosity and gentle spirit made her a delight to all who knew her. Her death was the spur for this post.

    The work they did will live on. So too should their memory, and the memory of their times.

    John Grenham’s blog

  • The last ‘Irish Roots’

    February 8, 2016 @ 9:53 am | by John Grenham

    The “Irish Roots” column began on February 28th, 2009, almost exactly seven years ago. This is the last one.

    Looking back over that period, the blink of a gnat’s eye in genealogical terms, there is no doubt that a revolution in access to records has taken place, one that in Ireland is quite peculiar.

    Back then, genealogy in other English-speaking countries – Australia, the US, the UK – was already becoming web-centric, researchers having long realised what a marriage made in heaven existed between family history data and computers. In those places, genealogy was already commercial and quickly underwent the same process of globalising merger and acquisition that the internet seems to force on all businesses. Giant global oligopolies are the result: MyHeritage, FindMyPast, Ancestry.

    Here in Ireland we did things differently. The first attempt to harness genealogy for tourism was a complete organisational dog’s dinner, with heritage centres, county libraries, local community groups and many others yoked together in a project that was part-genealogy, part-community employment, part parish-pump political stroke. But it produced a result:, still the only essential Irish genealogy website.

    Ad-haughery [sic] like this became the main feature of most Irish online record projects. One individual or institution would take on a project and carry it over the finish line: the National Archives census site; the Library Council’s Griffith’s site; the National Library’s parish registers site; Arts, Tourism and the Gaeltacht’s church and civil records site.

    All (including rootsireland) were motivated by a straightforward desire to serve the Irish public, which in later years also came to mean all those worldwide who claimed Irish roots. The result is that Irish research is now less commercial, more open, a bit messier but, above all, much easier than in any of those places that started before us.

    It’s a very unIrish thing to say, but we’ve been lucky. And we’ll meet again down the road, with a little more luck.

  • Who makes a living from genealogy in Ireland?

    February 1, 2016 @ 8:43 am | by John Grenham

    Making a living from genealogy isn’t easy in Ireland. There is no career path, very few employers and lots of competition. But many people involved in family history want to do nothing else, meaning there are quite a few groups and individuals who do use it to try to earn a crust.

    Accredited Genealogists Ireland (, of which I am a member, is a standards body aiming to provide potential research clients with security about the quality of commissioned research, and some collegiality for individuals involved in the field.

    Eneclann ( is a long-established company providing high-quality research and archival services. It employs a small number of researchers.

    ProGenealgists ( is an American company affiliated with that provides research mainly to North Americans. They have recently taken on a small number of Irish genealogists in Dublin.

    Ancestor Network ( is a company based in south Dublin that uses a group of part-time researchers, most of them connected to the Genealogical Society of Ireland (

    There are many individuals offering themselves for research. The National Library keeps an unvetted list, which is the first step for most people trying to get into the field. See:

    As for courses that lead to qualifications, the field is thin.

    UCC runs a two-year part-time adult education course in Cork ( that leads to an NFQ level 7 qualification, the equivalent of an ordinary-level primary degree.

    The University of Limerick runs a masters in the history of the family – – which is as much sociology as family history, I think.

    Seán Murphy used to deliver a well-regarded three-year certificate course in UCD, but that has been discontinued. He is now running courses other than the Certificate:

    City Colleges in Dublin ( has a 10-week intensive course that aims to provide a detailed overview of sources and methods. I deliver these courses, and the next one starts on February 11th. Roll up, roll up.

  • The Revolution Papers is a work of genius

    January 25, 2016 @ 7:59 am | by John Grenham

    Anyone who has done research in newspapers knows that eventually you drift away from the research and just end up reading the paper. Whether it’s The Dublin Courier of 1761 or the Evening Press of 1961, there is a hypnotic fascination in the minutiae of day-to-day news seen through the wrong end of the telescope. “Little did they know what was just about to happen …” – hindsight provides irresistible dramatic irony. And perhaps we can sense how trivial or quaint our own worries will appear to future readers.

    So the idea of publishing facsimile copies of newspapers from periods of dramatic historical change is genius. The Revolution Papers ( hits the bulls-eye. It sensibly condenses the seven years of the Irish revolution, 1916 to 1923, into 52 weekly instalments, that build into a temptingly collectible home-made archive. The print quality is superb. The cover art is excellent. Each comes with an original, succinct scholarly article on a specific aspect of the period.

    My initial reaction was that the whole thing seemed suspiciously well done, a little un-I rish even. Where was the PR blitz from the usual suspects? The high-visibility launch with political ribbon-cutting? And how could they afford TV ads voiced by Pat Kenny, for God’s sake?

    A little research shows that the venture is resolutely private-sector, produced by Albertas, a London-based, Irish-run company that already has similar very successful projects under its belt. In France it publishes Les journeaux de guerre (1939-1945), and in Germany Zeitungszeugen (“Newspapers as witness” 1933-1945).

    The Irish version deserves to be a runaway success; it is the best piece of popular history publishing this country has seen for many years.

    The company’s hair-raising experiences in Germany are salutary. For daring to reproduce Nazi-era newspapers, they were (ludicrously) sued by the state of Bavaria for infringing Hitler’s copyright and (even more ludicrously) prosecuted for disseminating Nazi propaganda. Common sense has since prevailed.

  • Digging up death records

    January 18, 2016 @ 9:33 am | by John Grenham

    Researchers from places such as Australia and Scotland, where death registers can give wonderful multi-generational family information, are continually disappointed by the Irish equivalents. Until recently, a death record here supplied no family information. As a result, headstone transcripts and cemetery registers have become disproportionately important.

    The biggest single online collection of transcripts is at, a volunteer US site. The records of some cemeteries are frustratingly incomplete and some transcripts may not be completely accurate, but the site is free, well organised and includes Irish cemeteries in every county except Waterford and Monaghan. Another US site,, has a huge number of volunteer transcripts, including (it claims) some from 3401 Irish cemeteries. Most of these appear to consist of one of two transcripts, however.

    The largest Irish site is the venerable, which covers more than 800 Northern Ireland graveyards. The site is paying, but the index search is free and there are some interesting essays on topics such as child mortality and military service.

    Brian and Ian Cantwell’s extraordinary set of transcripts from Wicklow, Wexford and the Atlantic seaboard are at, also paying. Free Irish transcript sites include,,, and All cover slightly different areas, some include headstone images, most are not full.

    I try to keep track at, God help me.

    Cemetery records can be much more informative than gravestones, sometimes recording names, addresses and next of kin. Before local authorities acquired responsibility for graveyards in the 1890s, the only surviving registers are for urban areas. More than a million records of Goldenbridge and Glasnevin cemeteries in Dublin, dating from the 1820s, are searchable on the paying site, an essential resource for 19th-century Catholic Dubliners. The Church of Ireland equivalent, Mount Jerome, is not online, but a microfilm of their registers is available in Dublin City Library and Archive. A paying sub-site of has about 360,000 Belfast burials. Mount St Lawrence graveyard in Limerick city has records from 1855, freely searchable at

  • Why genealogy is seasonal

    January 11, 2016 @ 9:58 am | by John Grenham

    Strange as it may seem, genealogy is a seasonal affair. There are uncomplicated reasons why family history should be of interest to particular groups – older people, for example, or descendants, or emigrants cut off from the wider family. But why should a specific time of year bring out the desire to look up your ancestors?

    And if there is going to be to be a rise in awareness of Irish family roots at a definite period, you might imagine it would happen around St Patrick’s Day. But no, the biggest upsurge of interest in family history research and all things related begins as regular as clockwork every year at the end of December. Immediately after Christmas, traffic to genealogical websites spikes and for five or six weeks thereafter the number of research inquiries and of visitors to archives and libraries grows and grows.

    Why? What is it about Christmas that drives people to research their ancestors? It is not hard to imagine someone locked up with their family for three days emerging with the burning question, “How in the name of God am I related to these people?”

    But the reasons are probably simpler. For all the commercialisation, Christmas is really the only fixed point in our year when families are more or less obliged to gather. Inevitably family talk across generations will touch on the common past, an elderly aunt will intrigue someone with unknown names and places, and the spark of research will ignite.

    Before the internet, this post-Christmas rush to genealogy was less visible, simply because research used to take much longer. So we saw only a general increase in interest spread over early spring. But when traffic to a genealogy site quadruples over 48 hours, the same 48 hours year year-in year-out, it becomes crystal clear that Christmas is the spur.

  • Free-range, grass-fed Irish genealogy

    January 4, 2016 @ 10:03 am | by John Grenham

    Tourism authorities have long hoped to use genealogy as an incentive to attract more visitors to Ireland and have long complained of the fragmentation of online Irish records. “If only they were all on a single easy website – every Irish-American in Kansas would find their ancestors and come over to visit them.”

    No, sorry, wait. That was me, not just tourism bosses. One of the many bees in my bonnet used to be the plethora of Irish record sites, all with different search interfaces, many of them covering the same records: The General Register Office indexes on FindMyPast,, FamilySearch, IrishGenealogy; Griffith’s on Askaboutireland, FindMyPast, Rootsireland; Gravestones on, FindMyPast,,,; secular burial records on, kerrylaburials,,

    I could go on.

    Some put the surname search box first, others the forename box. Some use surname and forename variants, some have surname variants only, others have no variants at all. There are free ones, subscription-only ones, some pay-per-view, some mixing all three.

    No wonder the poor Kansans are confused. Just bring everything inside a single site, under a single organisation, make it all searchable by a five-year-old and bingo, tourism nirvana.

    But the revolution in Irish online research that has happened in the last five or six years just wouldn’t have worked under a single organisation. The Irish National Genealogical Management Enterprise – “INAGME”? I don’t think so. Ireland is just not a one-ring-to-rule-them-all kind of place. The revolution happened because particular organisations and individuals flung themselves at it, without any overall plan or risk/benefit decisions, with plenty of bitter rows and committee wars. It happened the Irish way, in other words.

    As for Joe Kowalski-Magrath in Kansas; well, the internet is falling over with guides to Irish research, because Irish research is now almost laughably simple. It’s called research because it involves some searching, Joe.

  • Hiding from Big History

    December 30, 2015 @ 10:13 am | by John Grenham

    We genealogists spend our time hiding from Big History, convinced in our hearts that small personal experiences are the real core of history. Because it’s always good therapy to stretch unused muscles, I’ve spent the past six months reading Brendan Simm’s whopping Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2013).

    It’s taken six months because it’s impossible to absorb more than a dozen pages at a time. The level of detail and the breadth of overview are jaw-dropping. But it is a very particular overview. This is a history of statecraft, the way Louis XIV understood his world, with the interlocking endless consequences of diplomacy, treaties and wars. Simms masters it all as if it were a single, endlessly fascinating Rubik cube.

    Two big ideas shape the book. First, states’ foreign policy decisions have deep unacknowledged impacts on what appear to be purely internal events: the American Revolution is analysed as a by-product of European big-power manoeuvring, for instance. And second, it’s all about Germany. Every significant event since 1453 has revolved around the question of German power, whether as the Holy Roman Empire, the “German Lands” or the modern German state.

    At times, the evidence is stretched a bit thin to fit these theses, but it’s still an extraordinary achievement and I’m exhausted.

    So what does Simms (an Irishman) have to say about Ireland?

    Not much. Like it or not, on his telling we’re well removed from almost every world-historical event, an island off an island off the mainland. All the great upheavals of European history have ended as gentle ripples on our shores: the last incident of world significance to happen here was in 1690, when the Dutch beat the French at the Battle of the Boyne.

    Patrick Kavanagh knew this when he wrote “Epic”, his lyric paean to parochialism, in which we “make our own importance”. Because if we don’t, nobody else will.

  • Begrudgery

    December 23, 2015 @ 9:36 am | by John Grenham

    The recent ructions about stratospheric salaries in the Irish Farmers’ Association had some commentators reaching for the B-word. So, as usual when in doubt, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, and there was “begrudgery”, missing. “Begrudge” and “begrudger” are certainly present (though “Now chiefly Irish English”), but not the place or state of simmering resentment described by the B-word.

    So I tried Google. Surprise: every single occurrence of “begrudgery” is in Ireland.

    So it is exclusively Irish, which clearly means something about the national psyche. But what? That it’s easy to begrudge once, but you have to be Irish to live the begrudging life? Is it yet another demonstration of what small-minded bosthoons we are?

    I don’t think so. Irish begrudgery is very particular. It is not the Japanese variety which demands that sticky-out nails get hammered down. What we have is a very specific kind of scepticism, more irreverence than envy. It is the reason behind Article 40.2.1 of the Constitution: “Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State”. Or in the more succinct words of Brendán Ó hEithir’s blacksmith: “We will in our arse have our own gentry”.

    Begrudgery, strangely, is the quality that allows Bono to walk up Grafton Street unmolested or a former Minister of Education to cycle his Dublin Bike the wrong way down Trinity Street (I saw him) without anyone batting an eyelid. It is peasant anger at inequality, egalitarianism in its raw, uncooked state, and worth more respect than it usually gets.

    In Ireland, you can be as different as you want, once you recognise you’re no better than the rest of us.

    If it’s any consolation to the IFA, I suspect the trait may be very deeply rooted. The Neolithic Irish trussed up their kings, slaughtered them and buried the bodies in the bog. We’re only in the halfpenny place today.

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