Irish Roots »

  • New York records tackled at last

    February 18, 2014 @ 9:47 am | by John Grenham

    New York is not an Irish city in the way that Boston is. Too many great waves of migration have washed through it for any one group to claim dominance. But according to the U.S. federal census of 1890, in that year it held the largest Irish-born population of any city on the planet, making it a contender to be Ireland’s true capital at the end of the 19th century.

    The after-effects of that great surge of post-Famine migration have ensured that, dominant or not, Irish remains a very strong background flavour in the city. So you’d expect New York to be a thriving hub of Irish-American genealogy, but it isn’t.

    One reason is that the city is cursed with an abundance of records. A big difference between rural and urban life is that cities demand much greater interaction with officialdom, and thus produce much larger trails of records. And some of those records can be weirdly wonderful. My favourite is the New York Emigrant Savings Bank where, instead of a PIN number, customers had to supply details of marriage, siblings, Irish place of origin and more (see

    But the astonishing thing is that such a small proportion of New York’s vast collection of records is actually online. Almost everything is still sitting in Municipal Archives, the health departments, local courthouses and libraries and, above all, in the 396 Roman Catholic city parishes. Almost none of these parishes have records available anywhere other than in their own presbytery.

    Getting a comprehensive overview of New York records has long seemed impossible. Not any more. Joe Buggy, a recent Irish-born emigrant, has gone hand-to-hand with the many-headed hydra and has produced a book that is both a serious research guide and a highly detailed reference work. Finding your Irish Ancestors in New York City is published by GPC in Baltimore (

    It is a tremendous achievement.

  • The Poor Law is still with us

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:37 am | by John Grenham

    From Britain’s point of view, the 1800 Act of Union was primarily a defensive measure to secure its western flank against the French. But after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the London government found itself in charge of a country of which it was profoundly ignorant. So, with true industrial-age logic, it set about creating official machinery to quantify Ireland and make it governable. Almost all surviving Irish research sources in the first half of the 19th century emerged from this process: the Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 and much more.

    One of these administrative machines, the Poor Law, is still with us. In 1838, 135 Poor Law Unions were created, covering the entire island. Each Union had an urban workhouse at its centre, responsible for providing the most basic short-term relief to the utterly destitute and designed to be self-financing. Property-owners in the Union were taxed to pay for the workhouse and in return could elect representatives to the Union’s Board of Guardians to oversee spending.
    From the start, the Unions were geographically a hybrid of health service catchment area and electoral constituency. And, weirdly, that geographic hybrid exists even now.

    For elections, the Unions were subdivided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs), the areas used for the 1901 and 1911 censuses: those DEDs are still in use in contemporary elections, especially in rural areas. Then, when universal registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, the public health service took on the job. So the Unions were sub-divided into local registrar’s districts, and the Union was euphemised as a “Superintendent Registrar’s District”.

    The Department of Health is still in charge of civil registration today. And after almost 200 years, its Superintendent Registrar’s Districts are still the old Poor Law Unions.

    They haven’t gone away, you know.

    Peter Higginbotham’s wonderful will tell you more.

  • If you’re English-Irish, come into the parlour

    February 5, 2014 @ 10:41 am | by John Grenham

    We’ve broadened the range of our cultural identities hugely over the past decades. We have Polish-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Filipino-Irish, even – it still takes an effort – British-Irish, though only for Northerners who really really insist. But one frontier remains. The term “English-Irish” still sounds absurd to Irish ears, a self-contradiction like “black-white” or “thin-fat”.

    To some extent, this is a problem with the English. They just don’t blend well with Johnny Foreigner. Even now , such long-standing cultural mixes as Pakistani-English or Caribbean-English sound unnatural to an Anglophone. But it has to be said that the main problem is with us.

    For centuries, the English have been very useful to us, the very image of everything we’re not. Some very different groups of people have been helped to coalesce into a single Irish nation as a result. But the reality is that England and Ireland are so interbred, in our cultures, our economies, even our ancestors, that maintaining the illusion of such an absolute black-and-white division takes an increasing effort. It is becoming harder to keep the blinkers in place.

    What brings all this to mind is reading John Walsh’s wonderful account of growing up English-Irish in the 1960s and 1970s, The Falling Angels (Flamingo, 1999). The title refers to the story that some of the angels expelled after Lucifer’s rebellion got stuck in mid-air, half-way between heaven and hell. It encapsulates perfectly the lives of my English cousins. Their parents, who emigrated between the 1940s and the 1960s, clung to their Irishness and did their utmost to pass it on to the next generation, bringing them back for holidays year after year, passing on Irish songs and stories, teaching them bits of Irish. As a result, they were forever foreign in England and, whenever we heard their accents, they were purely English to us here.

    Walsh makes a point of calling himself English-Irish repeatedly during the book. By the end I was completely desensitised to the label. Good on him.

  • War memorials are not timeless

    January 22, 2014 @ 10:03 am | by John Grenham

    We tend to think of war memorials, mausoleums and gardens of remembrance as somehow timeless. In fact, they are almost all the product of one specific conflict, World War 1. In the Napoleonic wars of a hundred years before, the dead were shovelled unceremoniously into mass pits, sprinkled with quicklime, buried and forgotten. But from 1914, the very start of the Great War, military cemeteries were being planned and war dead gathered for reburial in them. In Britain, the Graves Registration Commission, now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (, began the task of creating burial grounds and recording in detail those buried in them: by 1918 they had identified 587,000 graves and a further 559,000 casualties who had no known grave.

    The real outpouring of commemoration only began in the 1920s, however, when the sheer enormity of the slaughter seeped into popular understanding. In the UK and Ireland, around 54,000 individual memorials were built, some as simple as a plaque, some as elaborate as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

    In Dublin alone, there are today still nearly 650 individual memorials, ranging from the simplicity of the Milltown Golf Club “Roll of Honour” to the eight hectares of the Luytens-designed Memorial Gardens in Inchicore (see For genealogy, the most significant part of this wave of commemoration was the publication in 1923 of the eight volumes of Ireland’s Memorial Records, listing 49,000 of the Irish dead in the War. These are the lists recently published online with so much fanfare on the Belgian site

    Welcome (and beautiful) as these lists are, any researcher of the Irish in the Great War knows that they are very incomplete. The work of exhuming all the names goes on, often under the care of local historians. Noel French’s The Meath War Dead (The History Press, 2011) shows just how much remains to be done.

  • Pensions coming

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:05 am | by John Grenham

    It now seems certain that the 1926 census will not be open for research in time for the 1916 centenary, or indeed any time before 2026, despite the commitment to the contrary in the Programme for Government. Perhaps to atone for this, next Friday, the 17th, will see the early launch of an online version of what are known as the “Old IRA” pension records.

    They are, in fact, the records produced by the Military Service Pensions Act of 1924. The Act was an attempt by the fledgling Free State government to reward (or perhaps pacify) the men and women who had fought at any time from the 1916 Rising up to 1923. It retrospectively conferred formal Army status on the guerrillas of the War of Independence and those on the Pro-Treaty side in the Civil War. A formidable bureaucratic machine was established to asses applications, with elaborate formulae valuing service over different periods at wildly varying rates. Service for 1916/17, for example, was worth ten times service in 1918/19. The records produced by the process provide absolutely invaluable first-hand accounts of the events that founded this state.

    It should also be added that in the Ireland of the time a state pension of any description could mean the difference between penury and relative comfort, so there was plenty of motivation for people to chance their arm. That cynical old joke about the 10,000 men who claimed to have been in the GPO during Easter Week is about to be tested. When you add in the fact that the pensions were so politicised, and that more than 60,000 people applied, you have the makings of a very juicy set of records indeed.

    I hope have beefed up their bandwidth, because half of the country will be poised over their keyboards. Snooping on your neighbours’ grandparents (and your neighbours’ grandparents’ pensions) is one of the underappreciated pleasures of genealogy.

  • Irish townlands are a puzzle and a joy. We shouldn’t throw them away.

    January 6, 2014 @ 8:37 am | by John Grenham

    To foreigners, and direct marketers, Irish townlands can seem like something from Alice in Wonderland. Where in rural Ireland do people live? In a townland. What’s a townland? It’s a place where people in rural Ireland live. The recurrent complaint is that only the local postman understands the local place names. But why exactly should that be a problem?

    A townland can be an acre or a thousand acres, it can be named after geographical features, or individual families or legends or just flights of fancy – my favourite examples of the latter are “America” and “Liberty”, two townlands in south Roscommon. The only thing that’s certain is that a townland is a rural area, and that it is, or used to be, inhabited.

    Some good news if you’re trying to find a particular townland is that their ambiguity and imprecision annoyed the English administrators of Ireland in the 1830s so much that the Ordnance Survey set about nailing down the darn things once and for all. They measured, mangled, distorted and damaged the traditions they were dealing with but, like the good Victorians they were, did it systematically. The first published version of their work, the 1851 Townlands Index, is free online at . If you can identify a place here, it will appear under the same spelling in most later state records. It’s certainly true for Griffith’s Valuation, the most contemporary of the major sources. An inevitable amount of drift crept in over the following century.

    The current move to introduce post codes could learn from the experience up North. The UK local government reforms of the 1970s simply abolished townlands. Instead of living in Drumballyhugh, you now lived in a numbered house on the Drumballyhugh Road. With blessed stubbornness, the people of the North just refused to accept it. On a recent trip through Tyrone, I noticed small townland boundary markers have started to appear on the roadsides. People are taking back their own addresses.

  • Valuation Office records: how it should be

    December 30, 2013 @ 12:02 pm | by John Grenham

    When the United Kingdom suffered the serious amputation of 1922, some very practical issues faced public administrators in the statelets North and South of the new border. Tax, as ever, was top of the list.

    The “rates”, the local property tax based originally on Griffith’s Valuation, was the main source of income for county councils, and its workings depended on continual revisions of property values, carried out locally and recorded centrally by the Valuation Office in Dublin. So for local authorities in the fledgling Northern Ireland, their very existence depended on access to these Valuation Office records. And this access was duly provided by their Southern colleagues, by the simple method of handing over the entire collection of records relating to the six counties, going right back to the 1850s and 1860s.

    For those of us in the South trying to research areas now in Northern Ireland, this has long been a nuisance: Valuation Office records are one of a tiny number of invaluable sources that provide a record of long-term change rather than just a snapshot of an instant, and one of the best ways of connecting with living relatives.

    A nuisance no more. The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has created high-quality images of every single page of the 3,900 revision books it holds, transcribed all the place names, recorded in them to a searchable database, and made the whole thing freely available on

    Unlike in the South, a complete re-valuation of the entire six counties took place in 1935, so the PRONI copies of Valuation Office revisions stop just before that year, making them a bit less useful in tracking living connections.

    But what they’ve done is still wonderful. We can only hope that, as with the General Register of Northern Ireland, the example of the North might shame us into action.

  • A polite Oireacthas committee

    December 23, 2013 @ 9:09 am | by John Grenham

    If you were watching Oireachtas TV on the afternoons of Tuesday and Thursday the week before last (and of course you were), you would have seen evidence being given to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

    The Committee was addressing the question of “Developing a Plan to Capture the Full Value of our Genealogical Heritage”, clearly a topic designed to capture as wide a range as possible of opinion. And submissions were indeed heard from every group in Ireland involved in family history: voluntary societies, professional associations, cultural institutions, government departments – all got a chance to represent their point of view and be grilled about it. The usual fault-lines were on display, but very politely. And I was there, representing no one but myself. Naturally, I made an impassioned plea for reason, compromise, parish records, justice, Mom and apple pie.

    It was a very interesting experience. Coming into direct contact with political authority like that allows you almost to smell decisions being made. The feeling of the engines of state power thrumming in the background was very heady. No wonder so many politicians seem to become addicted.

    The hearings will certainly have opened the eyes of many on the Committee (and the masses watching UPC channel 207) to the bewildering multi-dimensional geometry that faces anybody trying to improve or coordinate Irish genealogical services. But the real question is whether it can achieve more than consciousness-raising. True power in this area lies with the high-level civil servants of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and they were in conspicuously short supply at the hearings. Still, bringing the full range of interests, vested and unvested, out into the open can only be for the best and the Committee’s report will make interesting reading.

    The main mover behind the hearings was, I hear, Catherine Murphy, Independent T.D. for North Kildare. Full credit to her.

  • Standing-room only

    December 16, 2013 @ 9:16 am | by John Grenham

    The whole of Ireland now has a population about size of Rio de Janeiro. The number of people with Irish ancestors outside Ireland is more than of all the people in New York, London, Beijing, Mexico city, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Bangkok, Lagos, Cairo and Los Angeles combined. There are six and a half million of us in here. There are more than 80 million of them out there.

    The relationship between Ireland and the descendants of those who emigrated is utterly exceptional. Yes, there are 50 million German-Americans and “only” 40 million Irish-Americans. But 90 million people live in today’s Germany. Germans outnumber German-Americans almost two to one. Irish-Americans outnumber us almost six to one. Compare us with any other country on the planet that has experienced mass migration – Israel, China, Italy, Spain – and that situation of disproportion is unique.

    The reasons are nor far to seek. Like a vast exploding seed-pod, the great burst of Famine emigration scattered links all over the globe that, when they rooted, continued to draw rivers of cousins and in-laws and neighbours out of Ireland for almost a century and a half.

    The uniqueness of our diaspora has to mean that the 80 million deserve much more from us than they got in the past: in particular they deserve the right to be able to identify their ancestors as easily as possible. But our feelings have never been unmixed. There is simple survivor guilt, still echoing down the generations. Our ancestors could stay because theirs were forced to go. There is also common-or-garden guilt. Those few extra acres they left behind came in very handy and we don’t want them coming looking for them back, now do we?

    And of course if they all came back at once, there’d be nowhere to sit down.

  • Why use

    December 11, 2013 @ 1:17 pm | by John Grenham

    Genealogists are a frugal bunch. Or perhaps I just mean “perennially skint”. In any case, we go out of our way to avoid having to pay for access to records. The ingenuity invested in squeezing every last quantum of information from free index searches could have designed the Large Hadron Collider.

    Why, then, would anyone pay to search records on one website that are free on another? The subscription package at includes Griffith’s Valuation, free at and the
    General Register Office indexes of births, marriages and deaths, free at So why do I still use FindMyPast to search these?

    For Griffith’s, it’s simple. The free version does not cater for surname variants at all, makes no distinction between tenants and their landlords, and prevents searches for an individual in a particular townland. You can have a townland or a person, but not both. The FindMyPast version makes provision for all of these. And their record images are clear, undefaced by copyright watermarks and simple to download.

    For the GRO indexes, the case is less obvious. FamilySearch has a good surname variant search and the transcripts on both sites are identical. But FindMyPast have added some ingenuity. The “MarriageFinder” very elegantly uses the indexes to find potential marriage partners. Obviously, when two people marry each other, both names are recorded on the same page , so when the names are indexed, both index entries are identical. So for every entry in the marriage index, you can see the names of all the potential partners on that page. It may not be forensic, but it beats manual to-ing and fro-ing.

    And, of course, they also have lots of records not found elsewhere, 30 million added in the last twelve months alone. And they’re Irish. And they’re really quite good value, even for the perennially skint.

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