Irish Roots »

  • A Little Birdy Told Me

    December 2, 2013 @ 4:02 pm | by John Grenham

    Online record transcripts created by volunteers have long been treated with wary suspicion by experienced researchers. To our jaundiced eyes, the stereotypical such transcript is a list of some McIldoos extracted by Johnny McIldoo from a bigger list of McIldoos he “found on the internet”.

    Like it or not, though, all of us are coming to depend more and more on volunteer transcriptions, so it’s time to try to get a more nuanced view of just how good or bad individual projects are.

    Ranked top has to be the Mormon’s All of the billion or so records searchable on the site were created by volunteer transcribers, and the methods used are now second to none: every record is copied separately twice, compared automatically and any discrepancies flagged and adjudicated by a third party. It is as close to perfection as possible and, like perfection, remains theoretical. The problems with the Tithe Books transcripts ( are a case in point. And the double-copy method is relatively recent. Searching the extracts from Irish state birth records 1864-81 on FamilySearch can produce peculiar results. Three separate early transcripts of the same record, none of them full, many of them inaccurate, can pop up simultaneously. The attitude seems to be “Let God sort them out”.

    Less systematic methods can also produce worthwhile results, but the quality depends entirely on the individual. The best examples include the gravestone inscriptions at, the passenger lists at and, especially for Ireland, the county-by-county sources at, where dedicated individuals devote large amounts of time to making transcripts freely available. Their task is Sisyphean, but it is no longer so important that a transcript be complete. If it’s online, Google can find it.

    But do remember still that when you’re asked how you know your great-granny’s name, saying “I found it on the internet” is the precise equivalent of saying “a little birdy told me”.

  • Reaching out

    November 27, 2013 @ 9:34 am | by John Grenham

    Words that behave differently in US English have long been a source of trouble for us: do not, under any circumstances, tell an American who’s feeling down in the dumps to keep his pecker up. So when a US researcher recently gave me his business card and asked me to “reach out to” him, I was flummoxed. Was he offering some kind of therapy? Or asking for an emotional lifeline?

    Neither, it turns out. He was just saying “contact me”. Apparently AT&T ran ads in the US in the 1980s urging people to use their phones to “reach out and touch someone” and the phrase has been seeping steadily into everyday speech since then as a synonym for “get in touch”.

    Which is why the Ireland Reaching Out project is so cleverly named. North American ears hear something like “Ireland Making Contact”, while to us it has strong emotional overtones of solace, help, homecoming.

    The project itself (see is also both clever and worthwhile. It consists of a network of country-wide volunteers, grouped around local parishes, who provide orientation for visitors descended from those who emigrated from their area. They also actively seek out those descendants. As those involved have found out in recent years, such reverse genealogy can be very hard, not least because it moves against the grain of history – you can find out lots about your great-great-grandparents, but not about your great-great-grandchildren.

    Despite this problem, it has flourished. For one thing, it indulges our genuine pleasure in being hospitable. It also strengthens local community bonds. And it offers authentic day-to-day recognition of the unique moral and economic relationship that Ireland has with the descendants of those who had to leave.

    So it’s not just for the Gathering. Though it may have tourism spin-offs, the project is worth a lot more than a few extra bed-nights.

  • Flyleaf Press

    November 18, 2013 @ 9:23 am | by John Grenham

    Flyleaf Press ( is the only publishing house in Ireland that concentrates exclusively on genealogical material. They specialise in high-quality county-by-county guides to sources, and have so far covered 11 counties, with some of the volumes now in their second or third revisions. In addition they also publish works giving a broader overviews – the best-known example is Irish Church Records (2nd ed., 2001), containing chapters by specialists on each of the eight major Irish churches.

    The driving force behind the Press, the man who has kept it going since 1987, is Dr Jim Ryan, who edits and co-writes many of Flyleaf’s productions. He is the author of the seminal Irish Records: Sources for Family and Local History (Ancestry, 2nd ed., 1999). He is also one of the few of us to have a day job, being a distinguished biotechnologist and former director of BioResearch Ireland.

    Last August, as part of the research for a forthcoming volume on Wexford, Jim was going through National Library manuscripts and came across a short account book giving details of payments for work on the Symes family estate at Wingfield near Gorey. It dated from 1856, contained only 21 names and was therefore too small to be referenced individually in the Wexford book. What to do? Jim sidestepped the problem. He copied the list – only 21 names, after all – and added it to his blog. If anyone is interested in workers on the Symes estate, Google’s busy little robots will take them to the list.

    That seems to have been a Eureka moment. Since then his collection of “Small Sources” has grown to nine, ranging from 29 schoolchildren in Tarbert in 1809 to the latest, a list of 21 Carlow tenants of the Knight of Kerry in 1856.

    The lessons are simple: there is always more to be found out, and the tenacity and generosity of genealogists is never-ending.

  • Some deep genealogy

    November 13, 2013 @ 9:24 am | by John Grenham

    There is only one thing certain about absolutely every ancestor you have: all of them had at least one child. This is obvious – otherwise you wouldn’t exist.

    Does this mean that we’re all the winners of some sort of evolutionary competition to reproduce? With a world population of 7 billion, humanity can seem spectacularly successful, but self-congratulation is a bit premature. Before we all start clapping each other on the back and thinking of ourselves as champions bred of the loins of champions, it’s worth examining some details.

    First, the genes of even the most fecund of our ancestors eventually cease to exist. A child receives exactly half of their genetic makeup from each parent, meaning that the original genome is diluted further and further with each generation. So it doesn’t matter if Niall of the Nine Hostages was your 35 times great-grandfather. There’s none of him left in you.

    And what about all those who have no living descendants? Were they all spinster aunts and bachelor uncles? Not at all. Entire multiple-generation dynasties of the rich and powerful, spawning dozens of rich and powerful children who had dozens of children in their turn, have simply vanished from the face of the earth. Burke’s Extinct Peerages provides plenty of object lessons (and is always good for a little schadenfreude).

    In fact, the iron laws of statistics show that there was a point, somewhere between 5 and 15 millennia ago, where each individual then alive was either the ancestor of every individual alive today, or has no living descendants at all. Genetic genealogy calls it the “Identical ancestors point”, because, logically, earlier than this point everyone now alive shares precisely the same set of ancestors.

    Like a lot of genealogical musing, this stuff can seem very trivial or very profound, but it’s hard to stop thinking about it once you start. And yes, I do suffer from insomnia.

  • What’s on the horizon?

    November 4, 2013 @ 10:54 am | by John Grenham

    The Irish Genealogical Research Society ( has just brought out a very handy “Research Update” bringing together all the promises of future online records made at the recent “Back To Our Past” event. So …

    The National Archives’ collaboration with FamilySearch will shortly produce transcripts and online images of NAI’s surviving fragments of the 1821-1851 censuses, and early next year all of their 19th-century testamentary records and Valuation Office records. Rootsireland will (finally) be adding to its transcripts of Wexford parish registers.  And PRONI aim to add all the Valuation Office revision books for areas now in the North.

    But by far the most significant change is the upgrade planned for the Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s site,  Before the end of this year, we’re told, it will publish the full General Register Office database of its indexes of births, marriages and deaths.  Even if this were only a separate copy of the years transcribed already at, it would be significant –having a second bite of the cherry doubles your chances of avoiding transcription mistakes. But it will provide much more than a cross-check for FamilySearch. The database includes the GRO’s own indexes of 25 years of birth records with the mothers’ maiden surnames added, from 1903 to 1927. These were never microfilmed by the Mormons and so have not been available before now outside the GRO Research Room. At a stroke, it will be possible to reconstruct entire families over an extra quarter of a century. And what’s more, the word is that the indexes will continue well past the 1958 cut-off point of the FamilySearch records.

    Of course, every gift horse must have its teeth counted:  we still have to trudge up to Werburgh St. (with a heavy heart and a full set of thermals) in order to get at all the details in each record. Ah well.

  • Nazi Genealogy

    October 27, 2013 @ 9:57 am | by John Grenham

    Deborah Hertz’s How Jews Became Germans (Yale University Press, 2009) makes shocking reading for a genealogist.

    Well before gaining power, the Nazis were fascinated by genealogy. From its foundation, admission to the Party required the submission of a three-generation family tree demonstrating Aryan race purity back as far as grandparents. For advancement up the Party hierarchy, ever more generations had to be uncovered.

    Three months after they came to power in 1933, the Nazi government passed new laws obliging all German citizens to do the same: documenting racial descent became compulsory. Eventually this would result in the so-called “Aryan Pass”, a sort of genealogical identity card carried by the entire population. But its first effect was to create a huge demand for genealogical information.

    Parish registers, then as now, there as here, were the primary sources. Thousands of Verkartunstruppen, “carding troops”, began to transcribe millions of baptisms, marriages and burials to index cards. A huge genealogical bureaucracy of archivists, researchers and transcribers, the Reichsippenamt, the Kinship Research Office, was created to centralise all family history records. Among other projects, it organised the microfilming of all surviving German parish registers. About 350,000 volumes were covered, containing somewhere in the order of 800 million records.

    The reasoning behind all of this was simple and consistent and led directly to Auschwitz. The clear borders drawn around ethnicity by genealogical research would make it possible to excise the contagion of Jewishness and re-purify the German race.

    Of course, the Nazis were simply wrong. What research showed (and still shows) is that all races melt into and overlap with each other. But the echoes with the processes of collection and transcription of genealogical information in Ireland over the past two decades are still uncanny and unsettling.

    I advanced the notion a while back that genealogy can make you a better person. Maybe not.

  • Why can’t you find your ancestors?

    October 21, 2013 @ 9:21 am | by John Grenham

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Which is to say that trying to explain why you can’t find an ancestor is akin to collecting water in a sieve. But here are a few possibilities anyway:

    At the precise moment the National Library was microfilming the parish register page with your ancestor on it, a tiny wink of light crept through the blackout curtains and fell on just the last few letters of the surname, creating a small overexposure and making the name eternally illegible. This has actually happened to me. How do I know, (asks the smart boy at the back), if the name was illegible? Because a heritage centre had made a separate transcript from the same register. Hurrah for duplication of effort.

    That heritage centre had excellent parish register transcriptions, with a rate of error as good as possible, less than 2%. Guess who falls into that 2%? That’s right, your other line of ancestors. Back to grinding through the microfilm.

    But why can’t you find your family in the 1901 and 1911 censuses at like everyone else? Perhaps because the transcribers used the existing paper finding aid as a guide to place-names. Some smallish towns were inside neither a townland nor a proper urban area, and fell between two stools. For paper this didn’t matter – the exceptions were just stuck in manually. But computers don’t do exceptions very well. Parts of at least 20 small towns – among them Moate, Ballygar, Lanesboro, Castledermot and Mullinahone – were simply never transcribed.

    And of course you have to consider the possibility that you have no ancestors. There are a small number of cases where individuals simply pop out of the universal quantum foam without forebears, already fully formed and usually wearing a suit. Most of them seem to be in political parties.

  • The new General Register Office research room is a disgrace

    October 14, 2013 @ 12:43 pm | by John Grenham


    The old Werburgh Street Labour Exchange was always a brute of a building, a pre-cast concrete warehouse better suited to hanging carcases than dealing with the public. For those who went there to collect their pittance of a dole in the 1980s (I was one), it always felt deliberately designed to humiliate.

    And now the only Irish genealogical research facility that has no online or offline alternative, the only walk-in location in the country that requires payment, has been picked up and dumped into the middle of this ersatz slaughterhouse.

    Tables taken from the old Irish Life Centre room, enough to accommodate about 40 people, have been installed in a space carved out of the old warehouse using only a few flimsy screens. Two-meter-high one-way mirrors are all that separate office space from the public. There are precisely two electric power points in the entire research area, making the use of laptops impossible, never mind the promised research terminals. A single toilet has to serve everyone. It is situated right beside the main index volumes, but its door is of course helpfully labelled with a schematic man, and a woman, and a wheelchair. All the boxes ticked there.

    The space is uninsulated, with no internal walls and no ceilings. If you’re coming here in February, wear your thermals. The slightly nausea-inducing mauve and khaki colour scheme will be the warmest thing in the building. For the moment, the GRO staff remain as cheerful and helpful as ever, but they must be dreading the winter.

    No doubt the OPW saved a bit by not renewing the lease on the Irish Life location, but at a terrible cost. The flagship genealogical research location in the country is a disgrace. I will be ashamed to have to take research visitors to such a place. What it says about us is unambiguous:

    “Welcome to Shabbyland, home of the Couldn’t-Be-Bothered.”

  • Back To Our Past

    October 7, 2013 @ 11:12 am | by John Grenham

    The Senior Times is an Irish publication aimed at people old enough not to get annoyed at such euphemisms as “third age” and “golden years”. It is very successful. The publishers behind it also run the Irish franchise for the “Over 50s Show”, a consumer event staged at different venues around the country over the course of the year, and also very successful.

    This year’s Dublin show, running from Friday 18 October to Sunday 20 October at the RDS is its fourteenth in a row, and likely to be the biggest yet, topping 25,000 attendees.

    A large reason for the success of the Dublin event is the way the organisers mix in smaller shows that appeal to sub-groups of its main audience. The Coin and Stamp Fair is one. But the biggest is “Back To Our Past”, a genealogy event started four years ago that has now grown to be the main public face of Irish family history. It hosts professionals, publishers, websites, software and hardware providers, libraries and institutions, and provides a unique opportunity to engage face-to-face with everyone in Ireland involved in the area.

    It also runs an extraordinary series of presentations, no fewer than 31 separate lectures and seminars over the three days, covering topics ranging from “Irishmen in the Korean and Vietnam Wars” to “How to Draw a Family Tree (without going through four rolls of wallpaper)”.

    In addition, this year the organisers are also playing host to “Genetic Genealogy Ireland”, a three-day series of another nineteen lectures on the uses of DNA in researching Irish ancestors, surnames and population migration.

    So much is packed into the three days that it will be physically impossible to get to even half of the good stuff. Serious advance planning is needed. Start at

  • The revolution in Irish newspaper research

    September 30, 2013 @ 9:08 am | by John Grenham

    For a long time, the advice to anyone who wanted to use newspapers for genealogical research was simple: don’t. Without a historically prominent ancestor, the likelihood of finding something useful was infinitesimal, but the investment of time was huge. Inevitably, whether you look at Faulkner’s Dublin Journal for 1740 or The Evening Press of 1940, you just end up reading the paper. Very enjoyable, but not the most productive use of research time.

    Digitisation completely changed that balance. If you can trawl 100 years of papers in five seconds, why not? An example: The Irish Times of January 5th, 1880, has a report of a court case in Ballinasloe at the height of the Land War. There, listed among the 27 small tenants charged with riot for assaulting a bailiff in the course of an attempted eviction, is my great-grandfather and what looks like his entire extended family. I had no idea there was anything like this in our past. It emerged only because the paper was now digitally searchable.

    The Irish Times was first online, with issues dating back to 1859, provided by subscription to the public but free to libraries and schools. Two other sites now exist, and The former started life as an outsourced, online archive for The Irish Independent (including its provincial titles and predecessor, The Freeman’s Journal) but now contains more, including The Irish Press from 1931 to 1995. FindMyPast gets its newspapers from, which is digitising the entire British Library pre-1900 copyright collection of newspapers. So far, it includes six Irish publications, all mainly 19th-century, including such rare gems as The Sligo Champion and The Cork Examiner. The collection will grow and will eventually become absolutely essential.

    None of the sites is perfect. Industrial-strength optical character recognition still sometimes spews out appalling gibberish. Still, better to trawl the entire ocean using a flawed net than to have to search it a spoonful at a time.

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