Irish Roots »

  • Some deeply geeky genealogy

    September 14, 2015 @ 9:32 am | by John Grenham

    A recent research project took me to a headstone in Terryglass in north Tipperary ( It was erected by a Daniel Hogan in memory of his father John, who died in 1856, and it included mothers’ maiden name, siblings, ages at death – wonderful stuff that took the family well back into the 18th century.

    My focus was also Daniel Hogan, listed as occupying 40 acres in the townland of Cappanasmear in Terryglass in Griffith’s Valuation, published for this area in 1852. Could they be the same person?

    Circumstantial evidence is all that survives. How many households in Terryglass were headed by a Daniel Hogan between 1827 and 1857? The baptismal registers (roots show no fewer than 12 separate Hogan families headed by a Daniel. Not good news. But the Cappansmear Hogans were the most prosperous, so there was still hope.

    The Griffith’s manuscript notebooks for Terryglass from 1845 were next. Daniel was there, but the difference with the published record showed the effect of the Famine on the townland. In just seven years, three of his neighbours’ holdings had vanished.

    Because the Valuation was a tax record, it had to be updated regularly. The first revision, dated 1857, showed the ongoing catastrophic impact of the Famine. Of 21 houses listed in Cappanasmear in 1845, by 1857 only 11 remain. And Daniel is gone, his house demolished, his land absorbed into neighbours’ holdings. This doesn’t look like someone who was erecting a carefully-carved gravestone a year before.

    Where did the family go between 1852 and 1857? An 1855 state census shows three of them in upstate New York. And Daniel’s wife, Honora, records that she arrived in the US two years previously and has been a widow for a year. So my Daniel could not have been in Terryglass in 1856 and could not have put up that wonderful headstone.

    Negative outcomes can be just as important as positive ones. But I still hope something disproves my disproof.

  • Were there Irish slaves in Barbados?

    September 7, 2015 @ 9:20 am | by John Grenham

    I recently had my knuckles rapped for a sentence about migration on the Irish Ancestors site ( “In the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, substantial numbers of the most destitute were shipped as slaves to Barbados”. The problem was the word “slaves”.

    There is no contesting the basic facts. The victorious Cromwellian Commonwealth practised vicious social hygiene, not just in Ireland, but throughout the three kingdoms. Vagrants, petty criminals, homeless orphans, and other victims of war were rounded up and shipped out against their wills to supply forced labour in the West Indies, Barbados in particular. The earliest historian of Barbados, Jill Sheppard, wrote: “by 1655 a total of 12,000 prisoners of war was alleged by the planters of Barbados to be employed by them, which would have represented nearly half the total white population”.

    Were they slaves? The labour they did was slave labour, and their circumstances were much worse than those of the indentured workers who travelled at the same time and later, not least because indentured work, though often harsh, was voluntary and time-limited. Refusing to call them slaves is quibbling.

    Does this make what happened to them the moral equivalent of the African slave trade? Absolutely not. African slaves taken across the Atlantic in their hundreds of thousands as pure chattels, unconditionally the property of their masters, with their children and children’s children also condemned secula seculorum. The noxious racism developed to justify the system puts the Puritans’ expedient sweeping of beaten opponents off the streets in the halfpenny place.

    My knuckles were rapped for apparently supplying ammunition to the most recent white supremacist perversion of history: The Irish were the first slaves. We got over it. Black America should get over it.

    This is so stupid it’s not worth arguing with. It’s certainly no reason to deny that a short, brutal episode of slave-export from these islands took place in the mid-17th century.

  • The late, unlamented Certificate of Irish Heritage

    August 31, 2015 @ 4:38 pm | by John Grenham

    When the recently-defunct Certificate of Irish Heritage ( was set up back in 2011, it attracted ill-informed begrudgery from many people, including me. The vision of a cash-strapped government flogging “Kiss me Officially, I’m Officially Irish” hats to gullible Yanks was irresistible. It was also grossly inaccurate.

    The origins of the scheme were purely laudable. When article 2 of the Constitution was revised in 1999 as part of the Northern Ireland peace process, as well as dropping the territorial claim so offensive to unionists, the new article stated “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”.

    This was a simple recognition of the uniqueness of the historic Irish diaspora and the enduring connection many still feel after multiple generations.

    After the economic collapse of 2008, the Farmleigh Economic Forum suggested the government should explore ways of recognising and cementing that connection. The certificate, which would offer official State recognition, was one such way.

    The idea was handed to the Department of Foreign Affairs, who appear to have held it between thumb and forefinger at arm’s length. I suspect they could see leprechauns on the horizon. Initially, the procedure to qualify was far too cumbersome, involving piles of official documents, notarised copies, affidavits sworn before a law officer . . . and a hefty fee. It was harder than getting a passport. The historic diaspora’s affection for Ireland is genuine but soft. No wonder take-up was tiny. By the time the requirements were relaxed, it was too late.

    But the most basic problem was the official Ireland offering them recognition has only a distant relationship to the Ireland their ancestors left.

    After all, the Republic is very young, represents only part of the island and only part of the Irish identity, and was selling, in effect, a bureaucratic box-tick. It’s a pity it wasn’t handled better. If only because any revival is likely to come from the National Leprechaun Museum.

  • Why we love Heritage Week

    August 24, 2015 @ 3:48 pm | by John Grenham

    It would be nice to think that the reason for the huge success of National Heritage Week in Ireland is our deeply-ingrained respect and love for everything our ancestors left us.

    But we really have very little sentiment about what we’ve inherited. Since the start of the 20th century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, three currencies, membership of a kingdom, an empire and a commonwealth and demolished more great houses than you can shake a shillelagh at. And since the start of the 21st century, we’ve reinvented ourselves over and over, as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, rock stars, gay reality-show celebs, and penitent capitalists.

    So what explains our enthusiasm for Heritage Week? Part of it must be the chance to get into so many buildings usually closed to us – all-consuming curiosity about the neighbours being a vital part of the Irish national psyche (and also a sadly unacknowledged motivator behind a lot of genealogy).

    But the real reason is, I think, more banal. We just love nothing more than a party, and what better excuse for revelry than a past we still disagree about?

    Of course we don’t actually need any excuse at all. In the early 1980s, I came back from living in sunny, civilised Italy to grimy, recession-hit, phlegm-hawking Dublin.

    And there was a permanent party going on. The pubs were full to bursting with red-faced drinkers laughing their heads off. It was a glimpse of how we might look to foreigners – on a good day.

    Heritage Week is a European initiative, so I tried to find out what Italians think of it, to compare to Ireland. A Google search for settimana del patrimonio nazionale found precisely one hit. On an Italian guide to Dublin.

    The Week runs until next Saturday, See for events. I’ll be doing my own turn for the cause in Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse Street on Wednesday at 5.30.

  • Post-traumatic weather amnesia

    August 17, 2015 @ 10:49 am | by John Grenham

    We Irish tend to feel, with some justification, that we’re more informed about the past than most other races. Many very old issues are unresolved here: we still have a lot of unfinished history. Knowing that history, and having opinions about it, is part of every Irish person’s base culture.

    But there is one area of the past for which we have a deep, wilful blind spot. We suffer from weather amnesia, in particular the virulent sub-variant, post-traumatic summer weather amnesia. On principle, we refuse to recognise that it rains here between May and September. Apart from the occasional hillwalker, no one in Ireland owns rain gear, and very few have waterproof clothing of any description. In a warm pub on a rainy July day, the most distinctive smell is of wet clothes drying.

    We loathe wet summers; we take them as a personal insult, and are deeply, bitterly disappointed when it rains in August. Even though it always rains in August. So we repress the memories of a lifetime of rainy summers and, come May, expect glorious baking sunshine.

    Because of this, being a weather forecaster here is a peculiarly sensitive job, and the profession has developed its own jargon, full of defensive euphemisms: “fresh and blustery”, “organised bands of showers”, “scattered outbreaks of drizzle” and, particularly common, “unsettled”. Irish weather is unsettled like the Black Death was an outbreak of acne.

    Comparing the Irish and English forecasts shows just how touchy we are about this. On the BBC, the forecaster will tell you exactly how much it’s going to rain and when, perhaps with a rueful shake of the head. On RTÉ, it will never be told straight. It is absolutely obligatory to start out with a glimmer of hope – “It might be dry on Thursday!” – before sheepishly revealing the approaching deluge.

    Maybe some things are better repressed. If we remembered accurately, we’d realise that every Irish summer is below average.

  • Online newsreels are a treasure trove

    August 10, 2015 @ 11:53 am | by John Grenham

    I usually begin my standard talk about online family history by declaring that there are no genealogical records on the internet and then pretending to walk offstage. The aim is to dramatise the fact that all we actually have online are transcripts, copies, images (if we’re lucky), but no originals.

    That’s less and less true. As time goes on, the internet itself is creating records that didn’t exist before – imagine the fun your great-grandchildren will have trawling through your Facebook posts – and allowing the creation of records that would just not have been possible a decade ago.

    My favourite among the latter is newsreel. Just over a year ago, British Pathé digitised its entire archive and made it available free at youtube/users/britishpathe. With more than 85,000 short films stretching from 1896 to 1976, it has attracted plenty of attention; its coverage of the revolution in Ireland between 1916 and 1923 is extraordinary. Now British Movietone and Associated Press have just done the same for their archives, at

    Movietone seems to have specialised in much softer news than Pathé – every Ireland-England rugby match since the 1920s is here – which makes its archive much more useful for local and family history.
    The out-of-the-way bits of the past are likelier to include ordinary people. Gems I’ve come across so far include “Pig Fair in Oldcastle”; “Glasnevin New Parish Church Consecrated” and, from 1932, the unease-inducing “Enniskerry tenants draw Lord Powerscourt’s heir and his bride up drive to ancestral home”.

    The one weakness is with YouTube. Its search is a ridiculously blunt instrument. A much better route of access is to use the home sites of Movietone and AP and Pathé. On these, you can narrow your target by location and decade and keyword. They’re still not perfect, and still in need of proper archival cataloguing that treats these films as the important historical sources they are.

    But they’re deadly nonetheless.

  • Localised 19th-century Irish surnames

    August 3, 2015 @ 1:56 pm | by John Grenham

    The recent mapping at of all General Register Office births between 1864 and 1913 (see brought us a massive influx of unfamiliar surnames and unfamiliar variant spellings, more than 11,000 in all, raising the tally of historic surnames on the site to almost 100,000.

    The job of integrating these newbies into the existing surname variant lists is painful drudgery, and still ongoing, but the work is throwing some very interesting sidelights on the way Irish surnames have evolved.

    First, it’s clear that we now live in a very stable surname environment compared with even the recent past. The sheer variety of 19th-century originals and alternative spellings is mind-boggling. More than a million variants are recorded, a lost ecology of names so rich in variety it is almost impossible to reimagine. But the most striking insight is just how local many surnames were. Again and again, strange and wonderful names turn out to be tightly bound to individual parishes and counties – Qua and Whan to Armagh and Down, Mungovan to Clare, McWeeny to Leitrim, Noud to Kildare. This localism is much more pronounced in the poorest, most densely populated counties along the western seaboard, though Antrim and Down come close.

    In the course of grinding through them, I’ve begun to list these localised surnames systematically (if only to keep myself awake) and the site now has listings for every county. See Limerick ( for example.

    My own county, Roscommon, is comprehensive enough, I think, and perhaps Mayo and Sligo as well. But the listings for everywhere else could be full of holes. Have a look at your own county and let me know how wrong I am.

  • Reactions to the National Library’s parish registers site

    July 27, 2015 @ 11:57 am | by John Grenham

    Now that the dust has settled on the launch of the National Library’s Catholic parish registers site (, it’s worth reflecting on what just happened.

    First, reaction abroad is universally positive: “When Ireland gets something right in the genealogy world, it really gets it right.” ( “Many thanks to the National Library of Ireland and the government of Ireland for making these records accessible and free to all. ( “Tracing your Irish family tree just got easier” (@irishinbritain).

    The way people are approaching the records also seems to be changing. The perennial problems of crabbed handwriting and dog Latin and over-exposed microfilm are being crowd-solved. Just post a link to the offending image online (e.g. and ask for suggestions. For someone used to solitary squinting, it’s a revelation. And some extraordinarily vivid history is being picked up in the process. In Moycullen marriage registers, a curate writes in October 1845 about the state of the potato crop just before the Famine: “black spots appearing on the surface and the probability of its affecting the interior”. Knowing what we do of the Famine horror that was just about to unfold, the note is intensely poignant, all the more so for appearing in the middle of routine marriage records (

    Among the heritage centres, some fear and anger remain. I suspect much of this will turn out to be groundless: already, my own use of the centres’ transcription website ( has mushroomed, now that I can check back and forth between image and transcript. One corrects the other. In the medium term at least, the effect on rootsireland’s income can only be positive.

    In the longer term, though, they may be right to be nervous. and have probably already begun the process of transcribing the NLI images. Within a couple of years, a set of competing transcripts will almost certainly be online. The centres have a decent head start but they need to make full use of it to improve their offering. They’re in for a dogfight.

  • Irregular marriages from 19th-century Dublin

    July 20, 2015 @ 1:50 pm | by John Grenham

    One of the small pleasures of spending time rummaging through record systems is observing the ways in which they slowly deform under the weight of their own rules. Exceptions eventually begin to accumulate that even the most rational and well-designed guidelines can’t anticipate.

    With the General Register Office system, the exceptions began to accumulate very early on – late registrations, foreign births, army deaths abroad and my favourite, the Shultz marriage registers.

    The Rev JGF Shultz was minister of the German Lutheran church in Poolbeg Street in Dublin from about 1806 until his death in 1839, and for those three decades was the best-known “couple-beggar” in the city, specialising in quick, irregular marriages, no questions asked.

    From 1811, Shultz averaged more than one marriage every day, on some days managing as many as 15. He had a good stand. Poolbeg Street is conveniently situated on the quays: a fair number of these marriages were probably elopements.

    Inheritance at the time depended on legitimacy, which in turn depended on the validity of the parents’ marriage so, before long, Shultz’s work was challenged in court. The marriages were found to be valid and in 1870, the GRO purchased his registers.

    Along with the other exceptions, the so-called “minor registers”, they are held at the current GRO HQ in Roscommon, not the research room in Dublin, and researching them has not been straightforward. Until now.

    Henry McDowell, a stalwart of Irish genealogy for more than 50 years, uncovered a manuscript copy of the Shultz registers a few years back and has just published an edited (and indexed!) version – Irregular Marriages in Dublin Before 1837 (Dundalk, Dún Dealgan Press). Harry is launching the book at his splendid home, Celbridge Lodge, (entrance on Church Road, Celbridge, opposite the Grotto) between 5pm and 7.30pm on Saturday, July 25th.

    Everyone is welcome. I’ll certainly be there.

  • Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

    July 13, 2015 @ 9:04 am | by John Grenham

    Holding onto your sanity can be tricky when your occupational raw material consists of the legions of the dead. So genealogists have to develop techniques to try to retain that little spark of normality, or at least to try to pass for normal. It’s time to share a couple.

    First , keep things in proportion. At all costs, avoid ancestor worship. A single living person is worth every forebear you have – genealogy is not a matter of life or death, only the latter. Don’t place too much trust in history. The past is not a reliable guide to the future: you haven’t died so far, but that doesn’t mean you’re immortal.

    And never forget that, however absorbing it can be, there is something inherently ludicrous about pursuing traces of the long-gone through mountains of decaying paper. Here’s one way I use to keep that sense of genealogy’s absurdity alive.

    One of my jobs for the past 15 years has been to look after the main Irish Times Irish ancestors email address, This appears on hundreds of pages across the site and has, of course, been repeatedly harvested by spammers. In an effort to disguise their obnoxious shysterism, these people often take the first part of an email address, hoping that it is a personal name, and shoehorn it into the email subject line to try to personalise their pitch. In this case, the first part of the address being “ancestor”, some lovely incongruities result.

    I collect them, God help me. They make a small but a significant contribution to whatever sanity I have left. Some of my favourites:

    - Ancestor, reverse the signs of ageing.
    - Ancestor! Fix your garage door now!
    - Ancestor – let’s get together for lunch next week.
    - Your background check is now available online, ancestor!

    Not forgetting the evergreen:
    - Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

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