I’ve spent most of the past few weeks snout down, tail in the air, happily rooting through the General Register Office indexes on IrishGenealogy.ie. They really are something else. By far their most important feature is that they are free and everything in them is visible, sometimes painfully so. It might seem unjust that the virtue of accessibility is the reason the indexes’ flaws are so obvious, but visible flaws are infinitely better than the invisible ones we’re forced to accept on commercial sites that limit access.
For example, it is now possible to make out different strata of error, like layers of habitation in an archaeological site. The deepest is where the copyists in the Superintendent Registrar’s office had trouble making out local registrars’ handwriting: “Coulon” transcribed instead of “Conlon”, for example, evidence of the still-common problem distinguishing cursive Ns and Us.
Then comes the next layer, where indexers in the 19th-century GRO had trouble deciphering the copy they got from the Superintendent Registrars: is that surname in the 1870 Clones births return “Breadbarron” or “Breadbarrow”?
They couldn’t decide, so both now appear in the all-Ireland index.
And on top of these comes the legion of modern errors created by shoddy machine reading of the printed indexes: “Hutohinson”, “Matihews”, “Sulliyan”, “McMahgn”, “Spillank” – I could go on.
A gold star for IrishGenealogy, then, and another round of hisses for the modern GRO.
Even with the site so accessible, eventually these vast lists of names make it hard to see the wood for the trees. So I decided to do something about it.
I took the six million births listed over the 50 years and mapped all the surnames against the 136 Superintendent Registrars’ Districts, to show the total births of every surname over the whole period, and then year by year. If you ever doubted that Durkan was a common name in and around Swineford, doubt no more: bit.ly/1Ek9nv5 .