Irish Roots »

  • 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.

  • 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.

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