Irish Roots »

  • The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population?

    April 7, 2015 @ 9:31 am | by John Grenham

    A recent study in Nature maps very fine regional variations in genetic make-up in the UK by applying more powerful statistical methods to whole-genome data originally acquired as part of a large-scale medical study (see for the full article).

    The results are very interesting indeed. Seventeen distinct groups emerged, each with an unambiguous regional connection. There is no single “Celtic” group. Rather, distinct clusters of common descent are clear across Cornwall and Devon, Western Scotland and (Northern) Ireland with, intriguingly, two very different groups appearing to populate North and South Wales. It’s even possible to make out a genetic reflection of the traditional link between the Fermanagh/ Tyrone area and the borders of England and Scotland.

    The statistical methods used are highly sophisticated and persuasive. Most persuasive of all is the fact that these geographical groupings emerged from a blind analysis, with no pre-sorting into the areas where the samples were taken. There is no doubt that studies like this will be highly important evidence for pre-historic migrations, though the caveat remains that any DNA study is a snapshot of the present. Inferences about past migrations can only ever be extrapolation, and the present is rarely an accurate guide to the past.

    Another reason for caution in this particular case is the size of the data. These consist of samples taken from just 2,039 individuals in the UK, statistically modelled against 6,209 individuals from across mainland Europe. However sophisticated the analysis, this sample population is so small that even a handful of genealogical outliers could well be skewing the results.

    And some place called “Eire” is excluded from the study, on the basis that that initial analysis provided too much evidence of shared Irish ancestry with the UK, because “Eire acts as a source and a sink for ancestry from the UK”, perhaps reflecting millennia of two-way migration. Or shared ancestral populations. Or maybe both: “Which severely complicates interpretation of estimated ancestry profiles.”

    Well, yes. Welcome to the severely complicated real world.

  • Healing the extended family

    March 30, 2015 @ 1:25 pm | by John Grenham

    One of the strongest drivers of genealogical research is the feeling of bringing back into the light individuals who have been forgotten or deliberately written out of official history. That sense of righting historic family wrongs is powerful and addictive.

    Here are two stories that will illustrate why.

    In one family, the 1911 census listed a 16-year-old son of the family who appeared nowhere in family stories. It turned out he had enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915, and somehow survived Ypres, gas attacks and three solid years on the Western Front. But the Ireland he came back to in 1919 had changed completely. His family, now staunch Republicans, refused to have anything to do with him and he moved to England, breaking off all contact. Three generations later, his English grandchildren were tracked down and reintroduced to the wider family.

    In another family, the only surviving photograph of one set of great-grandparents had a bizarre flaw. Where the great-grandmother’s face should have been, there was only a blank disk. Someone had very deliberately cut her from the picture. For years, the family wondered what it was she had done to deserve such obliteration. Then a genealogist sifting through a deceased second cousin’s attic for records of family history came across a locket and realized the photo it contained was the missing face.

    Far from trying to eradicate her memory, one of her children had taken the piece of the picture to remember her by. And now her face was restored to the photo and became visible for the first time to her descendants.

    Those of us who give genealogical advice sometimes joke that the job is equal parts genealogy and psychotherapy. But the healing provided by family restorations like these is genuine and serious.

  • Godzilla next door

    March 23, 2015 @ 10:44 am | by John Grenham

    When Godzilla moves in next door, some nervousness is understandable. So the recent news that is looking to employ professional genealogists in Dublin has caused some very reasonable twitchiness among Irish professionals. American big business has a long history of competing independent Mom-and-Pop outfits into the ground, assimilating them and replacing them with corporate replicants. Is that what’s going to happen to Irish genealogy?

    Having looked at the ads, and at the very high quality of the genealogists already employed by Ancestry, I don’t think so. Dublin is Ancestry’s international HQ, in charge of operations outside the US. So these Dublin-based researchers may well be in charge of German or Swedish or (how delicious) English research projects. It can only be a good thing if we have to lift our noses out of our own parish registers and see how genealogy works elsewhere. Though I can’t say I know many Irish genealogists with fluent Swedish.

    One other thing this news makes clear is that, like every other area of employment, professional genealogy is now undergoing dramatic change under the twin pressures of technology and the international marketplace. For years, genealogy seemed impossible to industrialise: once past the very early stages of any research project, the sheer bewildering variety of each family’s history made mass production unthinkable. And, it has to be said, many of us believed a nice little cottage industry in a quiet backwater was just the ticket.

    No longer. Any decent computer can now process those bewildering varieties of family history in the blink of an eye. And, as more and more amateur genealogists get their own access to digitised records, they feel (wrongly, but that’s a different issue) less need for professional assistance. High-quality, paid-for research is becoming a luxury, viable only with the kind of international marketing muscle a company like Ancestry can muster.

    If you’re interested, the closing date is next Friday. See

  • Why Irish online genealogy is so peculiar

    March 16, 2015 @ 9:38 pm | by John Grenham

    Researchers accustomed to the way online genealogy works elsewhere in the English-speaking world find the Irish situation strange. Elsewhere, records have usually been digitised by commercial concerns whose aim, naturally enough, is maximum profit for minimum investment. In the US, this has meant being trapped inside the monopoly, with records piled high and transcribed cheap. In Britain, the effective Ancestry/ duopoly provides a choice between two similar corrals.

    What makes Irish online genealogy so distinctive? Compared to the safe walled gardens of our overseas cousins, our records – what we have left – are all over the place: the National Archives, IrishGenealogy,, The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and many more.

    Faced with this situation, I’ve seen foreign (and Irish) researchers roll their eyes and mutter about Irish disorganisation and the inevitable civil war that besets every attempt at collective action in Ireland.
    But one other factor is common to most online Irish records: access is free and provided by public service institutions. Contemporary Ireland is a paragon of liberal capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Why should genealogy be such an exception?

    I think a large part of the reason lies in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The referendum that followed removed from the constitution the Republic’s territorial claim over Northern Ireland. Part of the text that replaced the claim was the declaration that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. Some people in the Irish public service actually took that seriously and, as the digital revolution dawned over the following decade, saw a very practical way to express that special affinity, by providing free and flexible online access to genealogical records.

    And they’re still doing it. The recent publication of an official diaspora policy ( explicitly embraces the upcoming digitisation of National Library Catholic parish microfilms: Three wholehearted cheers for officialdom.

    And a Happy Paddy’s Day to you, however special your affinity is.

  • Digging the line between them and us

    @ 9:34 pm | by John Grenham

    Digging for Britain is a greatest-hits archaeology compilation on BBC Two and the wonderful BBC Four. Each hour-long programme picks a selection of the most interesting excavations to take place over the past 12 months in each of four regions, three points of the compass over on the neighbouring island, and Northern Ireland. For the NI episode, the show is tactfully retitled Digging for Ireland.

    The first thing to be said is that looking in from the outside would make you weep. The sheer abundance of UK institutional and academic attention paid to archaeology is mind-blowing. The quality of the programmes and the long-term planning they have demanded is mind-blowing. The money devoted to both the archaeology and the programmes is mind-blowing. And the presenter, Prof Alice Roberts, is also . . . very good.

    But watching the last episodes, I noticed some strange pigeon-holing of the people whose remains were being dug up. The builders of the extraordinary 5,000-year- old ritual sites on Orkney, were “our ancestors”. Anglo-Saxon warrior graves hold “our forebears”. Queen Boudicca, though undoubtedly as Celtic as the Scottish Premiership , was somehow “one of us”.

    On the other hand, every mention of Romans, Vikings and Picts was preceded by “the”, casting them as outsiders or invaders who showed up for a few centuries and then buzzed off. This is very strange. Romans or Vikings are orders of magnitude more likely to have contributed genes to Prof Alice than 5,000-year-old Orcadians and there are plenty of non-Boudicaa Celts who are very unwelcome in the British national family tree.

    Where the line runs between “them” and “us” is always a political and cultural choice, but it is rarely as visible as in popular British archaeology. There is plenty of excellent Irish archaeology – have a look at or It would be nice if it got enough popular attention to allow us the luxury of seeing that line so clearly here.

  • Endless family trees

    March 8, 2015 @ 1:23 pm | by John Grenham, like most commercial genealogy sites, provides an online family tree service allowing subscribers to visualise and share their research and conclusions. Browsing through the “Frequently Asked Questions” on that service recently, I came across something that gave me pause: “Many members have family trees that are not yet finished”.

    Well, yes. Because what exactly would a “finished” family tree look like? The Mormons, God bless their sunny optimism, aim to unite the entire human race into a single tree going back to Adam and Eve, but they still have a ways to travel. For the less theologically inclined, such a tree would have to reach back at least 3.8 billion years to the last common universal ancestor, the Methuselah microbe. Even then, would it be “finished”? What about the origins of the elements making up the microbe, and the origins of the sub-atomic particles making up the elements?

    I always knew genealogy would eventually lead to theoretical particle physics and the eleven dimensions of the space-time continuum. Some of my distant relatives come from dimension seven.

    The point is that, like families, family histories don’t come to neat conclusions and never proceed in straight lines. Research is always episodic: a day’s exploration here, an evening online there, visits to out-of-the-way archives tacked on to weekends away … If you start doing genealogical research, you will forever be picking it up and putting it down. Plan for that. Record whatever you search (not just whatever you find) in a way that will make it easy to remember when you pick it up two years later. Otherwise you’ll have to do the research again.

    And don’t expect to finish, whatever says. Your tree will always be gloriously messy, its loose ends dangling all over the place, an eternal work in progress.

    Think of it as leaving something for the next generation to discover.

  • Surname and placename standardisation

    February 23, 2015 @ 10:38 am | by John Grenham

    No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise. After decades of staring at Griffith’s Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see, I only recently realised that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. Anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings knows that this can’t be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith’s share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.

    The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that’s how the place name will appear in Griffith’s. That’s what made it possible to create the direct click-through from place name to Griffith’s on the Irish Ancestors site – see for example.

    So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith’s standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith’s is a tax survey and a misspelt surname is the most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.

    For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as “Curlie”, “Curly” or “Corly”, the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became “Curley”.

    This is not a terribly useful research tool – the advice must continue to be “cast the net as wide as possible”. But for larger-scale population and surname studies that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.

    Have a look at all those Curleys:

  • 1916 and all that

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:30 am | by John Grenham

    Benedict Anderson’s classic account of the history of nationalism, Imagined Communities (1982, rev. 1993) asks a simple question in its early pages: why is it so hard for us to imagine someone who possesses no nationality? After all, “nation” is hardly a precise concept. It is not a tribe, or an ethnicity, or even a language community. Nationality cuts across all of these.

    The book’s title gives the answer: nations are communities that have imagined themselves into existence and in the process have made it impossible for any member to conceive of existence outside a similar community. Though he says little about Ireland directly, many of Anderson’s insights throw brilliant flashes onto our own history.

    Take the Gaelic Revival and the wave of Irish nationalism that lead to 1916. The compelling story at the heart of the movement was of reawakening: an ancient people was rising from centuries-long slumber to reclaim self-government, language, culture, sport . . . The book shows that this image of the sleeping giant coming back to life is present in every single 19th-century European nationalist movement: it appears in Greece, Finland, Bohemia, Hungary, Germany. And these giants were fictional, idealised versions of a pure and distant past pressed into the service of modern political aims. So the Gaelic Revival should more accurately have been the Gaelic Reinvention.

    Restoring vernacular languages was a key aim of this nationalism-as-reawakening, and the most vital factor in securing its success in Europe, Anderson argues, was the pre-existence of vernacular newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, all the paraphernalia of what he calls “print-capitalism”. By this account, our Irish language revival failed not (just) because so many of us were shoneens, but because printed Irish never had the chance to become a medium of commercial culture in the eighteenth century.

    1916 was the most successful act of national re-imagining possible. It invented the nation which we still live inside. Anyone interested in the deep history that made the Rising possible should read Imagined Communities.

  • But what has FindMyPast done for us lately?

    February 10, 2015 @ 8:39 am | by John Grenham

    It has become too easy to take for granted. Okay, so they have all Irish prison registers before 1924 (covering 3.6 million individuals), all the local Petty Sessions court records pre 1922 (22m records), all 57 editions of Thom’s Directory between 1844 and 1900, and 33 other 19th-century local and occupational directories. So what?

    Oh alright. They’ve also got millions of dog licence records between 1866 and 1914, six million pages from 60 early Irish local and national newspapers, 4,384,519 records from the National Archives’ 1911 census now searchable by surname variant, more than 300,000 voters’ registration details from Clare between 1860 and 1910. But what have they given us lately?

    Only a complete online version of the UK National Archives’ Reproductive Loan Fund Records, that’s what.

    Loan funds were an early forerunner of credit unions, and flourished in the Ireland of the 1830s and 1840s. The Famine destroyed almost all of them and their records, like so many others, melted away.

    But the records of the largest, the London-based Reproductive Loan Fund (the loans, not the recipients, were to be reproductive) went back to London when it was wound up. In the 1850s, its backers wanted to know what had happened to their money, so local constables were sent to investigate everyone who had received a loan in the 1830s and 1840s. The results (known as “Returns to the Clerk of the Peace”) give an extraordinarily vivid before-and-after picture of the effects of the Great Famine. Again and again, those earlier borrowers are recorded as “died in 1847”, “gone to America”, “destitute”, “wandering the district a pauper”.

    There are also lists of defaulters and loan guarantors, minutes, correspondence, prosecutions and much more. For the 10 western counties covered, the records are a goldmine. Have a look at to get a sense of their sheer scale.

    And, as always with, the level of information provided about the records is a joy. The combination of deep corporate pockets and hard-won research expertise is hard to beat.

  • The top 100 genealogy websites?

    February 2, 2015 @ 10:01 am | by John Grenham

    A recently published list of the top 100 genealogy websites in the world (in the online Canadian magazine GenealogyInTime – see makes slightly depressing reading. Our inexorable slide towards corporate control continues apace – the three biggest companies, Ancestry, D.C. Thomson and MyHeritage now control 51 per cent of all genealogy traffic, with Ancestry the real behemoth at more than three times the size of its nearest rival. Inevitably, they all imitate each other’s services and search practices: diversity and precision take second place to commercial monoculture. Sorry, to “search engine optimisation”.

    Ancestry now has an effective monopoly on North American genealogy – there is no way to do online family history research in the US or Canada without using its records. It’s hard to see a similar situation arising here, but “hard to see” is just one synonym for “the future”.

    On the bright side, the top 100 continues to include a substantial number of free sites. One of genealogy’s most attractive features, its communitarian ethos, is still strong., the Mormon church’s free records site, has risen to second on the list, but there are also many more, from the vast links site to the UK’s self-explanatory

    Four Irish sites make it onto the list., and are all well established and essential for anyone researching Irish ancestors. The newcomer is Claire Santry’s, one of only six global blogs in the top 100. The recognition is well deserved. Claire has turned her site into the de facto primary source for Irish family history news.

    A surprising omission is the National Archive’s genealogy site,, incorporating 1901 and 1911 censuses, Tithe Books, Will Calendars and more. I suspect there may be a flaw in the measurement technique. It appears to count only visits to top-level domains. The numbers visiting “” is many orders of magnitude smaller than visits to the genealogy subsite. So, fun though it is, maybe the whole list needs a pinch of salt.

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