Irish Roots »

  • Pushing Irish heritage Jello up that Europeana hill

    November 5, 2014 @ 12:17 pm | by John Grenham

    I got my first internet connection 20 years ago, a state-of-the-art 14.4 kb dial-up modem complete with a command-line text interface that could magically put me in direct touch with every one of the 893 Irish people then online. It took anything between half-an-hour and a month to download a picture, but my first thought was still “This thing needs a portal” Even at that stage, the sheer amount of indiscriminate stuff to be waded through was just bewildering.

    The same bright idea has gone on occurring to internet administrators for the past two decades. After all, is it not self-evident that the poor, puzzled masses need guidance and hand-holding? Apparently not. Thousands of attempts to organise and broker online information have withered and died. The puzzled masses seem to prefer trying to find their own answers.

    One institution that valiantly refuses to accept the wrong-headed preferences of the puzzled masses (aka “democracy”) is the European Union. And the EU’s cultural portal is an extraordinary example of what top-down, we-know-best internet design can produce. Its aim is no less than “to make Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage available”. Life, the universe and everything, in other words. Norwegian daguerreotypes, Serbian newspapers, Basque music, Romanian coats of arms – they’re all here. It is an extraordinary smorgasbord of … indiscriminate stuff to be waded through.

    The organising partner in Ireland is the Irish Manuscripts Commission and they’re doing a manful job of pushing our Irish jello up that hill. Search for them under “Providers” and have your mind boggled. Audio of Tipperary spoken Irish from the 1920s; the silent film The Colleen Bawn from 1910; 1,888 pieces of traditional music; 3-D models of Glendalough and the Hill of Tara. And much, much more.

    Though I can’t see a use for it, the site is fascinating. And just a bit horrifying.

  • What do we lose when records are digitised?

    October 27, 2014 @ 10:11 am | by John Grenham

    The gains from digitisation are obvious: vastly widened accessibility; flexible and precise search tools; in some cases, transparency where before there was only opacity. And of course the welcome chance to stay at home in your dressing gown and not go blind.

    But even where records are free to search in the monetary sense, there is a cost. And as in the real world, the buyer needs to know exactly what the price is. The first law of Fish-In-A-Barrel economics states that unspecified prices can only rise.

    So picture this: a giant set of Irish administrative records is created, with thousands of people involved. There are plenty of unavoidable human omissions and mistakes. This record-set is then transferred to an archives. Inevitably, a few of the originals fall down the back of a chair. The surviving records are then microfilmed. Well, most of them are microfilmed. A finding aid is then created to the microfilms. Nearly all of the microfilms.

    Years later, these microfilms are digitised, but only the ones covered by the incomplete finding aid. The images are then transcribed – with just a few missed – by people who have never heard of Ireland or Irish surnames and don’t speak English. Then the transcripts are turned into a searchable database by techies who know nothing about administrative records and couldn’t give a hoot abut history.

    The wonder is that anything useful could emerge from such a process. But this is a description of the creation of the single most important Irish genealogy website, the one that sparked off the revolution that we’re still going through,

    The explosion of online access to records is unambiguously wonderful, but it comes at a cost. Every human intervention adds another layer of error, with incremental losses to accuracy and completeness. It is almost always a price well worth paying. But we should never forget that we are paying it.

  • Surprisingly synchronised cycles

    October 20, 2014 @ 2:10 pm | by John Grenham

    One piece of popular science that lingers in the public imagination is the notion of menstrual synchrony, the way in which the monthly cycles of women living together gradually come into sync. Neither I nor Turtle Bunbury is a women, I’m well past the menopause and we’ve spent a grand total of five hours in each other’s company over the course of two series of The Genealogy Roadshow. And yet somehow our cycles are coinciding.

    Turtle is bringing out The Glorious Madness – Tales of the Irish & the Great War (Gill & Macmillan) on Tuesday October 20th, and my own The Atlantic Coast of Ireland (Francis Lincoln) is launched two days later on Thursday October 23rd.

    They are very different books. Turtle continues the wonderful listening and yarn-spinning he has honed in the Vanishing Ireland series, applying it to veterans of World War 1. The stories he recreates are by turns poignant, whimsical and bleakly funny, bringing back into the light the lives of people who found themselves on the wrong side of history after the struggle for Irish independence. This is my favourite kind of history.

    My own book is not really my own. It is a collection of eyewateringly vivid landscape photographs taken by my friend Jonathan Hession, to which I have added a series of short essays. I grabbed the opportunity to get out of the genealogy ghetto and unburden myself about ecology, geology, myth, Irish accents, the Gaeltacht, religion, what’s wrong with Kerry and whatever you’re having yourself. Complete editorial freedom went straight to my head.

    Turtle’s launch is in the Hibernian Club on Stephen’s Green at 6.30 on Tuesday. Jonathan’s and mine is just around the corner at the Dubray Bookshop on Grafton Street at 6.30 on Thursday.

    We each have high hopes for our offspring and have made a date to spawn again at the same time next year.

  • Back To Our Past 2014

    @ 2:07 pm | by John Grenham

    Genealogists are shy creatures, prone to looking fragile and dazed if exposed to daylight or lots of (living) people at the same time. Tell me you’ve seen a bunch of genealogists singing a come-all-ye and I’ll ask you what hallucinogen you are using.

    All the more remarkable then, that Back to our Past, the annual genealogists’ jamboree, is now five years old and growing every year. We’re clearly getting better at going outdoors.

    The organisers originally offset some of the risk of the venture by cleverly piggybacking on the much broader appeal of the Over 50s Show, and the two events still take place in tandem. But BTOP has now become a phenomenon in its own right, an indispensable showcase for libraries, archives, websites, professionals, publishers and societies.

    As well as offering a market for anyone involved in the supply side of genealogy, the show provides some excellent free services to attract the public. This year there are two separate strands of free lectures, spanning the full gamut from the sublime –David Butler’s “Irish Landlords and the Merchant Classes during the Great Irish Famine” – to the other extreme, my own “What We lose when Records are Digitised”.

    A simultaneous series of free talks sponsored by Family Tree DNA and ISOGG (the International Society of Genetic Genealogists) make up the Genetic Genealogy Ireland 2014 conference and will give a firm grounding in the genealogical uses of DNA, as well as unveiling some of the most recent discoveries.

    And for the fourth year in a row, the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland is providing a free advisory service on all three days – you can book a slot at The show takes place in the RDS Industries Hall in Dublin over next weekend, October 17th to 19th.

    More detail is at

  • LinkedIn Hell

    October 15, 2014 @ 10:30 am | by John Grenham

    Many spots in the lower circles of Hell are reserved for gargantuan American software companies. But an especially warm place is waiting for LinkedIn.

    If you haven’t heard of it, lucky you. Based on the simple observation that most work flows though networks of personal acquaintance – if you know someone personally you’re likelier to trust them – LinkedIn attempts to reproduce these networks online. Harry recommends Sally who trusts Dick who studied with Mary, and so on.

    The problem is one of scale. An informal set of 50 or 100 personal contacts like this can genuinely help to get things done, even if it does run the risk of creating insider cliques or group-think. Inflate that to several hundred million and you have a different beast.

    LinkedIn now looks like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, replete with orgies of public back-scratching and CV-stuffing, governed by theologically refined hierarchies of recommendation and peopled with hordes of otherwise perfectly-decent people trying to sell their friends cheaply. Underlying it all is the lurking fear that if you’re not a member, you might be left on the outside, ignored and overlooked.

    I’m a member.

    What brings this on is a recent visit to America, “the cradle of the best and of the worst” in the words of Leonard Cohen. Good software is just a series of clever, precise machines and America makes the cleverest, most precise machines on the planet.

    Because of this, it sometimes seems that American software companies (with LinkedIn as a prime culprit) see people as purely mechanical, just a clockwork set of complex interlocking behaviours and preferences.

    Software is essential to family history. It is what makes modern genealogy possible, dismantling the haystack and finding the needle. But one of the most important lessons of genealogy is that individuals and individual families do not amount to the sum of what software can model. At the smallest, most important level, we do not obey the laws of history, or mechanics, or statistics.

    We’re better than LinkedIn.

  • Guinness in the Blood

    October 1, 2014 @ 9:52 am | by John Grenham

    Unless you’re from Kerry or Donegal, last week’s All-Ireland football final was as dull as porridge. The half-time ads beat it hands-down. Proctor and Gamble, Aldi, McDonalds, AIB and SuperValu all competed to show just how Irish they really are, every one of their commercials smothered in a lovely, buttery Oirish voiceover.

    But the Guinness ad was genuinely something special. The film began with the actual process of brewing Guinness, while Cillian Murphy’s voice-over supplied only the bare minimum of PR guff. It then moved on to those behind the brewing, from barley farmers to coopers, telling us the number of generations each family had been involved. And to drive home the depth of their tradition, the tag-line hit a bull’s-eye: “We’re only 255 years into a 9,000 year lease. We have a lot of beer left to brew”.

    Apart from the fact that I like the stuff (my lifetime supply can be forwarded care of The Irish Times), what struck me was that the ad was actually true. Anyone who has done research on a family with Guinness connections knows just how seriously the company takes its archives, in particular the records of its workers. At, they have a freely searchable database of more than 20,000 employee files, complete with (accurate!) birth-dates, spouse’s names, dates of joining and dates of death. And of course many of the jobs were passed down from father to son, so the site covers multiple generations.

    The online information is only the start. Full personnel files, many dating from the 1850s and 1860s, often hold much more information, with the company’s extraordinary paternalism extending to medical, financial and other details. These files are available to personal visitors once the employee number is identified from the website.

    The ad was obviously made, or commissioned, by someone with an understanding of the unique position of Guinness in Dublin.

    Very more-ish.

  • 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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