Irish Roots »

  • Surname maps: Ireland remains unique

    December 29, 2014 @ 1:51 pm | by John Grenham

    Those tea-towel maps that show the locations of Irish surnames have always seemed more than a bit absurd. Imagine giving directions based on them: “Take the first right after McDermott and go on past Burke till you get as far as O’Dowd. The post office is there on the right, just beside Keegan.”

    The supposed basis for such maps lies in the medieval territories of the great Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families. Those territories were anything but static, and barely geographical in the first place, built as they were out of shifting kinship and tribal allegiances. And the vast majority of Irish families have always been non-great anyway. So you should stick to the Sat-Nav.

    But Irish surname maps do remain strangely compulsive – there’s a reason the tea-towels are still on sale. Once you get down past the mind-boggling numbers of Sullivans and Kellys and McCarthys, lots of names are connected very tightly to particular locations. Most Irish people have an ear for this. Sugrue and McElligott sound like Kerry, Gibbons and Lavelle like Mayo, Harkin like Donegal.

    And at times, this can be a decent research aid. Using the Griffith’s-based surname maps at, I have recently been mapping the locations in the early 1850s of households bearing surnames that I was familiar with growing up in north Roscommon, but which I now know are relatively rare: Dockery, Morrisroe, Finan, Lavin. They are concentrated with extraordinary precision in the flat boggy plain south of Lough Gara and east of the small chain of loughs along the Mayo/Roscommon border. A fresh map of one for these surnames is appearing on the site every week.

    Nests of deeply local names such as these must exist all over the country. You can explore them for free on the site. Just beware of the pattern-seeker’s pitfall: stare at the wallpaper long enough and you’ll eventually see the history of the world.

  • A needle in a haystack of needles

    @ 1:45 pm | by John Grenham

    In Myles na gCopaleen’s wonderful parody of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Beál Bocht (The Poor Mouth), the narrator, Gaeilgeoir Bonaparte O’Coonassa, describes his first day at school.

    The teacher demands, in English: “Phwat is yer nam?” The response, in Irish, begins: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot…” Whereupon the teacher calls him to the front of the class, hits him over the head with an oar and screams: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”

    When he regains consciousness, Bonaparte discovers that every other child in the class is also officially Jams O’Donnell.

    In some parts of Ireland genealogical research involves distinguishing one Jams O’Donnell from another. For Byrnes in Wicklow, Sullivans in south Kerry, Dohertys in Donegal, or Bradys in Cavan, the problem is not finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.

    When people with ancestors like Jams O’Donnell ask a genealogist for advice, we rarely do the right thing and tell them to find a new hobby. Instead, they’ll hear a long description of the process of reconstructing and comparing families, getting the right children in the right birth order, painstakingly accumulating circumstantial evidence that just might identify the right people.

    I was recently hoist with my own petard, trying to find one particular Ryan family in south Tipperary with only the children’s names as a guide: John, Michael, Mary, Margaret, James and Catherine, God help me. From the National Library microfilm, I identified all 53 Ryan families in the parish of Caher baptising a child with at least one of these names between 1828 and 1838 and then used rootsireland to retrieve all other children baptised outside those years to the same couple. It was a long and painful process. And there was not a trace of the family I wanted. Serves me right.

  • Bleedin savages

    December 17, 2014 @ 10:15 am | by John Grenham

    How did Scandinavians go from being the most bloodthirsty warriors in European history to the very models of a well-behaved citizenry? Viking society contained very little in the way of humane prisons, flat-pack furniture or Lego. Drunkenness, extreme violence and hyper-masculinity is what got them their territory, power and wealth.

    A recent reading of Patrick O’Donnell’s hair-raising Irish Faction-Fighters of the 19th Century (Dublin 1975) brought that transformation to mind. Like the Scandinavians, we have plenty of violence in our own past, though, as O’Donnell tells it, we were rather less goal-directed than the Vikings.

    For about six decades after 1780, a craze for mass public fighting, usually at fairs or markets, swept across Munster and Leinster. In 1827 alone, 1001 “riots” were reported to Dublin Castle. Huge crowds could be involved, with opposing sides sometimes numbering several thousand, all armed with at least a good ash-plant or blackthorn stick, while some also carried guns and knives.

    The vast majority of the fights were pre-arranged, and aimed for nothing more than the sheer joy of combat. And they came replete with their own ritual and ceremony. The set-piece taunting was especially rich: “Rams’ horns, rams’ horns, there’s nothing crookeder than rams’ horns” would come from the leader of one side. To which the other would respond: “I know something’ll be crookeder by tonight. Your skull”. The violence was anything but ceremonial, though. At Ballyeagh on the Kerry coast on a single day in June 1834 more than twenty people died and hundreds were seriously wounded.

    From such casual ferocity to Ireland’s current doe-eyed docility is just as peculiar a change as the metamorphosis of Vikings into socially responsible feminists. It’s impossible to say precisely what caused these radical transformations, but I think at least two simple ingredients are involved: lots of time and more comfort. Given a few generations and decent central heating, everyone calms down.

    But we should never forget just how alien the past can be.

  • Weird foreign surnames. Like ‘Walsh’.

    December 8, 2014 @ 9:38 am | by John Grenham

    A striking number of venerable Irish surnames originated as Gaelic Irish designations of outsiders. The best known of these is “Walsh”, with its variants “Walshe” and “Welsh”. This last version precisely marks the bearers’ place of origin, which is even more obvious in the Irish-language version. Wales is “Breatan”, “Britain”, and Breathnach translates as “from Britain”. So the third most common Irish surname means simply “British”. Talk about your cultural diversity.

    It seems very unlikely that the Walshes chose the name themselves. More probably, it was given them by the locals by way of marking them out as blow-ins.

    Historical coincidence was one reason it happened. The original Walshes were part of the great wave of foot-soldiers, craftsmen and other army camp-followers who came after the Welsh-Norman invasion of the 11th century, just as the adoption of hereditary surnames in Ireland was just getting into its stride. Many of the names we still bear embody meanings frozen into position at that period. Those other camp-followers, the Flemings, for example, already knew very well that their forebears were from Flanders. It was the Gaels who turned the designation into a surname that singled them out as foreign

    Irish memories of blow-ins run deep, and finger-pointing did not start with the Normans. Many Irish names created centuries after the Viking defeat at Clontarf still identify their bearers as descended from Scandinavians. McLoughlin and O’Loughlin, meaning son and grandson of the Norseman (“Lochlann”) are the most obvious, but there are many: McDowell and Doyle, from the root Dubhgall, the dark foreigner or Dane; Sugrue, Ó Siocrú, from the Norse first name Siegfrid; McManus, based on Magnus, one of the most popular Scandinavian given names; McAuliff, son of Olaf; McCotter from Oittir.

    So on the evidence of surnames, as of so much else, Irishness is beautifully problematic. Give Ireland back to the Fir Bolg, as Paul McCartney should have sung.

  • Online Catholic parish registers from the National Library of Ireland

    December 1, 2014 @ 1:32 pm | by John Grenham

    A huge change is coming soon for everyone involved in Irish genealogy. By summer 2015, the National Library of Ireland will have a dedicated website making its collection of Catholic parish register microfilms freely available online. These records are – by a long way – the single most important source of historical Irish family information, one of the greatest legacies of the Catholic Church to Ireland.

    It is important to understand precisely what the website will do. The Library’s aim is to reproduce on the internet the service already available to the public in the microfilm reading room in Kildare Street in Dublin, where images of 98 per cent of parish registers before 1880 can already be viewed by anybody, without payment or membership or proof of identity.

    The new site will offer precisely the same (sometimes frustrating) opportunity to look at (sometimes blurred) photographic reproductions of the original records. But instead of having to travel to Dublin from Buncrana or Ballymena or Boston, you will now be able to view them online. With this service, the Library is simply taking at face value the word “National” in its own title.

    What are the implications? Clearly, once these images are as easily available in Salt Lake City and Bangalore as they are in Dublin, swarms of transcribers will descend. Ideally, the results will be free, though some transcripts may sit behind paywalls. On the other hand, there will be nothing to stop any local history society in the country from just putting a transcript of their own parishes online. The more the merrier.

    Some opposition can be expected. The existing transcription-only service at will protest loudly. But would they not be better advised to use the images to improve their own offering and increase their head-start on competitors?

    It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of what is about to happen. When the Irish public service gets things right, it can get them spectacularly, gloriously right.

  • Thom’s Directory online

    November 24, 2014 @ 9:36 am | by John Grenham

    The vast majority of records used for genealogy or local history are snapshots of a particular instant: a wedding, a single evening in April 1911, a newspaper announcement. In contrast, those few sources that give ongoing revisions over extended periods are like motion pictures, adding depth and nuance and offering something like a narrative.

    The single most important such source is certainly the Valuation Office’s vast collection of revisions to Griffith’s, impassively chronicling almost a century and a half of family and political upheaval through the records of the occupiers of every single property in Ireland (see But for Dublin and Belfast, the VO collection is rivalled by the urban street directories, Henderson’s for Belfast (online at and Thom’s for Dublin, up to now best accessed in hard copy at the Gilbert Library in Pearse St.

    For anyone whose family was involved in a trade or profession of any sort in Dublin, the annual alphabetical listings in Thom’s have long provided an invaluable decades-long trail into the past. Just as important is its street-by-street, house-by-house listing of residents, also revised annually. But these lists have never had an alphabetical key. So once a Dublin family moved house – and families in Dublin seem to have moved almost every other year – it was virtually impossible to find them again.

    No longer. A digitised run of Thom’s from 1844 to 1900, 58 full years, has recently been transferred from the old Irish Origins site to, searchable by name and year, and (praise be) browsable back and forth from page to page. The way it’s done doesn’t as yet fully realise the potential of the source – not being able to search by locality and subsection (as you can at PRONI) makes research a bit cumbersome. But that full name search spanning six decades is spectacular, an entire new frontier in Dublin local history and genealogy.

    Hearty congratulations to FindMyPast. Keep it up. And make it better.

  • Protestants and the Irish Society for Archives

    November 17, 2014 @ 9:50 am | by John Grenham

    I saw my first Protestant at the age of ten, when he joined fifth class in St. Paul’s National School in Castlerea. After ascertaining that he wasn’t trying to enslave me, steal my land or force me to speak a foreign language, I counted his all digits, orifices and appendages. Astonishingly, he had precisely the same number as me. His name was John Smith, but his father was the heroically exotic Houston Wells, the lead singer of our local Country-and-Irish showband, the Premier Aces.

    That deliriously confusing early lesson in cultural diversity came to mind at the recent launch of the 2014 edition of Irish Archives, the journal of the Irish Society for Archives, which is dedicated to the records of the Church of Ireland. The launch was held in the deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and performed by the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, the first person born into the Church ever to hold that post – another small but important victory for the Other Ireland.

    Unusually for such events, the Minister had actually read the publication. She spoke with great feeling about the distorting stereotypes of wealth and foreignness imposed on Church members in Ireland for much of the twentieth century (hence my memory of Houston Wells). She focused on Martin Maguire’s superb article on the micro-history of the Protestant working class and, unsurprisingly, Robbie Roulson’s account of the records of the tangled relationship between C of I educational establishments and the Irish state.

    These articles, like almost everything mentioned in the Journal, eventually lead back to the Representative Church Body Library ( ). Ray Refaussé’s lucid and amusing account of the RCBL’s history clarifies its glories and peculiarities, while Susan Hood’s thorough overview of its web activities shows just how broadly the institution conceives its mission.

    The Society ( is wonderful and so is its Journal. Both deserve to be much better known.

    (And if you’re wondering, I was a class ahead of John Waters in Castlerea. Still am.)

  • R.F. Foster and genealogy

    November 12, 2014 @ 9:45 am | by John Grenham

    Can genealogy constitute real history? When I started R.F. Foster’s new book Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, I thought the answer was going to be a rare, wonderful yes. The early chapters present the roots of the 1916 Rising as a conflict between generations and so Foster has to reconstruct networks of marriage and schools and business, the second cousins, the in-laws, the family rows – all the stuff of family history, in other words.

    He does a superb job. His earlier works on Yeats and Parnell steeped him in the minutiae of the period’s politics, culture and personalities, allowing him to range well beyond the usual plodding narrative that Irish history imposes: there can rarely have been such a perfect match of author and topic. With all his trademark suave authority, he sketches overlapping interconnections stretching through education, amateur drama, journalism, courtship and marriage, the Gaelic League, even Post Office employment, and teases out their slow flowering into a revolution that, he makes clear, was by no means inevitable.

    All sorts of unexpected insights emerge. James Joyce, for example, that least Catholic, nationalist or military of Irish revolutionaries, fits neatly into this generation. The grandiloquent ejaculation ending Joyce’s Portrait, as Stephen Dedalus goes to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” could have come from Terence McSwiney or Piarais Béaslaí or any one of half-a-dozen other diarists Foster uses. Stephen’s (and Joyce’s) “race” was unambiguously the Irish race.

    The book is not perfect – its focus on the educated, urban middle class surely skews the picture of pre-1916 Ireland away from the deep, inarticulate dissatisfactions of Catholic rural Ireland. And the repeat appearances of the cast of memoirists can sometimes seem like the same material being stretched thin.

    But it’s as near perfect as such a book could be, and it answers the question I started with. No. Genealogy can be an important tool in writing history, especially such a detailed social and cultural history as this, but only one tool among many.

  • 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.

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