Irish Roots »

  • Is professional genealogy dead?

    June 15, 2015 @ 10:09 am | by John Grenham

    Is it still possible to be an independent, professional genealogist? It was always a precarious livelihood, dependent on finding intelligent, trusting clients in an unregulated market not short of sharks. The internet has been good for the shark population, and has also put the raw materials of research at the everyone’s fingertips. Why pay someone you’re not sure you can trust to do something you can do yourself?

    Because it will take you a month to find something that a competent professional can find in half-an-hour. Vast jungles of genealogical half-truth and supposition have spread online, and the need for experienced guides has grown, not diminished. To some extent, this is a self-evident truth about expertise in general: it is perfectly possible to extract your own tooth, but the job is better left to an expert.

    The difference with genealogy is that some of what we used to do was gate-keeping, allowing access to offline records because we happened to be where those records were. That part of the job is now mostly dead. These days, we have to be more like research escorts to a client, clearing a lucid chain of evidence with our trusty machetes of scepticism. More like Indiana Jones, I like to think.

    Which brings me to the recent name-change of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (apgi.ie), of which I am a member . We are now Accredited Genealogists Ireland. The reason is internet-driven globalisation. A much larger US-based group called the Association of Professional Genealogists (apgen.org), an excellent organisation that acts as a support group for anyone involved in the family history business, is now much more prominent world-wide. They don’t offer accreditation, with its implicit guarantee of competence to potential clients, and we do. So we are getting out of their way.

    Like many other things the internet was going to sweep into the dustbin of history, professional genealogy lives on.

  • Glory be to the Ordnance Survey

    June 9, 2015 @ 8:43 am | by John Grenham

    A few weeks back, the Ordnance Survey Ireland maps website (maps.osi.ie) was taken offline and the worldwide Fraternity of Historic Map Nuts held its breath. For the past five years, the OSI site has provided free, world-class access to current and historic Irish Ordnance Survey maps, layering one over the other, so that users can peel back the present with a simple movement of a slider bar, and watch wonderful, 200-year-old detail slowly come to the surface.

    The quality of the site was perfectly in keeping with OSI’s history. Set up in 1824 as part of the great process of measuring Ireland that followed the Act of Union, the vast mapping survey was unprecedented anywhere in the world. It was done in the teeth of controversies about scale, contouring, field boundaries, and in spite of government penny-pinching, spectacular bureaucratic infighting and the usual Irish personality clashes (for a blow-by-blow account see JH Andrews’ A Paper Landscape, repr. Four Courts Press, 2006).

    What resulted were the best maps in the world. Their quality was largely due to the tenacity and integrity of the two English officers who drove the organisation, Colonel Thomas Colby and his subordinate, Captain Thomas Larcom. With several thousand surveyors in the field, and hundreds of cartographers and engravers at headquarters in Mountjoy in the Phoenix Park (still OSI’s head office), Larcom created a unique map-making factory. He was punctilious about the smallest details – Oliver Goldsmith’s house and tree, Dean Swift’s Glebe – and demanded precise measurement of every townland. He also wanted the maps to be beautiful, and they are.

    So when the website came back online two weeks ago, and the historic layers were missing, a horrible sense of dread gripped the Fraternity. But then, last week, they were restored, with even more historic layers, even faster response times and even better magnification. The hosannas were audible from Addis Ababa to Ulan Bator.

  • Bloomier and Bloomier: Alfred Henry Hunter

    June 1, 2015 @ 2:51 pm | by John Grenham

    Alfred Henry Hunter is the Dubliner long known to be the model for the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. In 1904, after rescuing Joyce from a drunken fight, Hunter took him home and showed him a paternal sympathy that resonated deeply with Joyce, who originally planned Ulysses as a short story dealing with the episode. It expanded enormously between 1914 and 1922, and the figure at its centre changed from the kindly Hunter to the Everyman Bloom.

    The James Joyce Centre’s website (jamesjoyce.ie) still refers to Hunter as “an elusive figure”. Not a bit of it. With all the records now online, his life is an open book.

    Here he is in Mount Street in 1901, with his wife Marion Bruére Hunter (née Quin). He gives his occupation as “Gentleman”, and then crosses it out, but Marion remains a “Lady”. Very Bloom-like.

    In 1911 they’re in Great Charles Street, less than five minutes from Bloom’s Eccles Street address. Hunter is now an advertising agent, as Bloom was. His marriage to Marion took place in London in 1899: see freebmd.org.uk. He was born in Ballymacarret in 1866. His parents, William Hunter and Maria Lockhart, were married in Maghera in 1856. His death in 1926 was from “cardiac asthenia”, congestive heart failure. And Marion was registered in the voters lists for Rutland Street in Dublin’s north city centre up to 1942.

    In 1890, Hunter even registered a patent of an invention “for facilitating the unlacing of boots and shoes and corsets and such like articles of wearing apparel”, as reported in The Weekly Irish Times of November 14 1890. Bloomier and Bloomier.

    Given Joyce’s penchant for using identifiable individuals, an intriguing question is why Hunter had to be re-imagined as Jewish. Perhaps Everyman as a Northern Protestant was a step too far, even for Joyce.

    And perhaps, just for this year, Bloomsday should be Alfred Henry Hunter Day.

    (Full links, and more evidence of Hunter online, at irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column/june1_15.htm)

  • Beware: you’re not the customer. You’re the raw material.

    May 25, 2015 @ 4:02 pm | by John Grenham

    Back in 2011, Dick Eastman (blog.eogn.com), the doyen of North American genealogy commentators and a very straight talker, described mocavo.com as “the future of genealogy”. Naturally, I investigated. I had to upload information to explore the site, but its privacy policy promised all my data would be private unless I agreed otherwise and could be deleted at any point. Fair enough. I then uploaded a chunk of my own family tree, played around with it, decided the “user-generated content” approach wasn’t for me, deleted my tree and logged out.

    In 2014, a Google search turned up a link to a distant cousin on Mocavo that came from what I had uploaded: “The key to your family history may lie in John Grenham’s genealogy”. I logged in again and looked very closely at the profile settings in my account. Tucked away discreetly at the bottom was a default option: “Allow legacy searches”. How could they could be “legacy” searching a tree I’d deleted? But I just unticked the box and forgot about it.

    Then last week another Google search uncovered someone else in my family. A systematic check unearthed dozens of links to the original information I had supposedly deleted. So I contacted the company and asked them to stop using my private tree to sell their service.

    First, they said they got the data from somewhere else. When I pointed out information that was unique to my tree, they said the pages weren’t publicly available. When I sent them screenshots showing the pages, they told me I had to prove my identity to have them taken down. When I sent a scan of my passport, they took down some of the information, but not all. They then denied the remaining bits were there. Eventually, after much bluster, everything came down. I think.

    The experience was truly Kafkaesque, and the moral is clear: Beware.

    You’re not the customer. You’re the raw material.

  • IrishGenealogy.ie revisited

    May 18, 2015 @ 9:27 am | by John Grenham

    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 .

    Enjoy.

  • Lovely, Gnarly Nitty-Gritty Dublin Records

    May 11, 2015 @ 10:58 am | by John Grenham

    For anyone interested in researching Dublin ancestors, Dublin City Library and Archive has long been a logical starting-point. Their digital version of the city voters’ lists between 1938 and 1964, four million imaged, searchable and browseable records, has been a staple of research since it was first unveiled in the Pearse St Reading Room in 2006. One of the very few truly sequential Irish sources, it allows researchers to follow any family year- by-year through the streets of the capital over three decades – especially useful for adoptees trying to trace birth families.

    Since 2006, a series of smaller (but still very useful) digitised material has also appeared in the Reading Room and on dublinheritage.ie: a directory of Dublin graveyards, 14,000 transcripts of commemorative plaques around the city, ancient freemen and early municipal electors.

    All of these, including the giant collection of 20th-century electoral records, have now been brought together and made searchable online from a single starting point, databases.dublincity.ie. (Full disclosure: I was involved in coding the new site.)

    Apart from the existing material, there is plenty new: complete burial registers for three Dublin City Council cemeteries, Clontarf, Drimnagh and Finglas; a composite directory of the city between 1647 and 1706, put together from four separate sources; and a now-complete run of municipal electoral lists between 1908 and 1915, adding almost 150,000 new records.

    The addition of the electors’ lists covering 1913 and 1914 is especially welcome. DCLA doesn’t have these years, and the National Archives very generously gave them copies to fill the gap, a wonderful example of joined-up, public service collaboration. They are the working records used by the courts for voter registration, and are very different to the official lists already online, full of scribbled crossings-out, marginalia, objections – lovely, gnarly nitty-gritty stuff.

    My only complaint is that DCLA hasn’t made enough fuss about the new site. There should be marching bands, fire-eaters, dancing in the streets.

  • 90 per cent squint-free!

    May 4, 2015 @ 9:07 am | by John Grenham

    I recently had a hands-on trial of the prototype of the promised National Library of Ireland Roman Catholic parish register microfilm website. It was extraordinary.

    The Library’s official line sensibly underplays expectations, presenting the project as a form of outreach that merely expands access to the NLI microfilm room onto the web. And it certainly does that. Page-images from the microfilms leap to the screen at the click of a button (at least with a decent broadband connection), all instantly scrollable, zoomable, printable, adjustable.

    But the site has the potential to be much more than the sum of these parts. The navigation by map and parish-name is utterly intuitive, permitting Ireland-wide overviews, easy movement between adjoining parishes and a comprehensive search of variant parish names. And the way the microfilms have been imaged allows you to skip directly to a particular month in any register. If you want to start looking at Kilfenora baptisms for 1840, you can go straight to the page image where January 1840 begins: 90 per cent squint-free.

    Opposition to the project still exists, with some heritage centres lobbying local TDs to jog the Minister’s elbow. Understandable, up to a point. There is no doubt that the project will have an impact on the centres’ income from their transcript-only site rootsireland.ie, or that some centres are storehouses of invaluable local knowledge which it would be a shame to lose. But the new site will also be a wonderful opportunity for them. One of the first things I did was to find a transcript on rootsireland and go to the corresponding microfilm page. It was a revelation: seeing the actual entry had an immediate punch, a vivid immediacy that was much greater than the transcript. But finding the entry in the first place was only possible with the transcript.

    Marry the two – it’s not rocket science – and the centres would have a world-beater.

  • Catherine Murphy for Taoiseach

    April 27, 2015 @ 10:43 am | by John Grenham

    Just before Christmas 2013, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht held a series of public hearings on maximising our cultural and genealogical heritage. Its report was finally published at the start of this month (bit.ly/1aYzrEQ ).

    Catherine Murphy TD, prime mover behind the hearings and the author of the report, was only given authority to act on behalf of the committee (as “rapporteur”) in January of this year. Hence the delay. But it was well worth waiting for. Anyone with even the remotest interest in Irish genealogy should read it.

    The original hearings canvassed the widest possible range of views and for its summary of these alone the report is essential reading, giving a superb bird’s-eye snapshot of the multitude of competing agendas in play. The overview of record-sources is also an eye-opener, shedding light on areas I was hazy about myself, in particular Land Registry records.

    But at the heart of the report are its 37 recommendations and these will rightly be the focus of most attention. If they have a flaw, it is that some try too hard to accommodate the conflicting approaches the committee heard. It is difficult, for example, to see how No 2, the recommendation to establish “a national diaspora and genealogy centre which acts as a central information point” squares with No 8, which urges the maintenance and improvement of local research facilities.

    This is hairsplitting, however. The overall goal urged in the report is no less than the establishment of Ireland as a European centre of genealogical excellence, and its recommendations are models of clarity and sanity in the service of that aim: “ The majority of our genealogical records are public goods and public access is the desired goal”; “ It is vital that the General Register Office accepts that one of its core functions is the facilitation of genealogical research”; “The system must be designed with the end user in mind.”

    The real question, of course, is whether any of the recommendations will be implemented.

    Catherine Murphy for Taoiseach?

  • Return of the Civil Registration Kid

    April 20, 2015 @ 9:13 am | by John Grenham

    IrishGenealogy.ie has recently re-launched new versions of the civil registration indexes removed with unseemly haste 10 months ago: birth indexes now up to 1913, marriages to 1938 and deaths to 1963.

    The good news is that access remains completely free, everything is easily browsable, and entries after 1900 contain significantly more information than the copies already available from the Mormons on FamilySearch.org (and FindMyPast and Ancestry). Birth index entries from 1900 now record the mother’s maiden name, making it possible to reconstruct families with some degree of probability, as is already the case on FamilySearch from 1928. And the marriage indexes supply the spouse’s name and exact dates starting in 1903, removing uncertainty from existing index searches between 1903 and 1938. Two hurrahs, so far.

    However, my initial searches immediately turned up gaps, entries listed in the FamilySearch index that simply don’t come up on IrishGenealogy.

    Counting gift horses’ teeth heads my list of hobbies, so I set about cross-checking record numbers in the two versions.

    Looking at the record-counts for all three events in three well-separated registration districts every year between 1880 and 1913 made a number of patterns very clear. First, only 27 out of the 306 counts were identical. Remember, these are supposed to be transcripts of the same records: less than 10 per cent of the tallies actually match. In the vast majority of cases, the Mormon transcript includes more than IrishGenealogy. For births, this came to more than 2000 records, almost 4 per cent of the total over these 34 years. Some of this may be due to flaws in the FamilySearch version – the Mormons regularly transcribe things more than once (they seem to have particularly relished some of the 1880s death indexes, which they transcribed twice, in toto).

    But many of these discrepancies are transcription omissions. Which is why having two copies is so important – it’s extremely unlikely both sets commit the same errors. And having two sets is what also makes it possible to see the flaws in each. A salutary exercise, if a little hair-raising.

    I’ll be sweating both sets for all they’re worth, but only in full-body sceptic’s armour and supping with a long spoon.

    [The data used for this piece is at http://johngrenham.com/temporary/GRO%20IrishG.xls. It would be great to see the whole record-set properly mapped like this.]

  • The Other Clare Roots

    April 15, 2015 @ 9:55 am | by John Grenham

    Local societies are the lifeblood of genealogy. The missionary (and occasionally messianic) zeal with which they transcribe, organise, publish, and educate helped to create the public demand that has driven many improvements in access to Irish records over recent years. They are also one of the strongest bastions of volunteering, doggedly non-commercial and steeped in the ethos of mutual self-help. In other words, very nice people, only some of whom are ex-hippies.

    The single most active local society in Ireland is probably Clare Roots (clareroots.org), based in Ennis. Just nine years old, it has a superb track record in organising conferences, digitising records and publishing – among its publications are already gravestone transcripts, mortuary cards, parish records, and (in collaboration with the hyper-energetic online local history section of Clare County Library – see clarelibrary.ie) a complete index to biographical notices in the Clare Champion 1935-1985.

    A good example of their sheer industry is the “’My People, My Place & My Heritage” project. This takes individual areas of Ennis town and brings together in a single book every conceivable record for the area: property records, school photographs, oral history, Urban District Council minutes, newspaper reports and much more. The end result restores and preserves entire lost dimensions of these places. So far, the project has published individual books on Summerhill, Abbey St, O’Connell Street, Steele’s Terrace and Cusack Road. The detail, and ambition, is astonishing.

    On a recent visit, the society asked me to help publicise their latest venture, a continuation of the Clare Champion transcription project over the earlier 33 years from 1903 to 1935. They need volunteers – see bit.ly/1NBFMmj – and I couldn’t say no. Their chairman awed me into compliance by mentioning in passing that he now had more than 80,000 individuals in his family tree. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him about my own piddling 600.

    Note: the society shares a name, but little else, with the Corofin commercial genealogy centre. Yin and yang, so to speak.

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