Irish Roots »

  • Free-range, grass-fed Irish genealogy

    January 4, 2016 @ 10:03 am | by John Grenham

    Tourism authorities have long hoped to use genealogy as an incentive to attract more visitors to Ireland and have long complained of the fragmentation of online Irish records. “If only they were all on a single easy website – every Irish-American in Kansas would find their ancestors and come over to visit them.”

    No, sorry, wait. That was me, not just tourism bosses. One of the many bees in my bonnet used to be the plethora of Irish record sites, all with different search interfaces, many of them covering the same records: The General Register Office indexes on FindMyPast,, FamilySearch, IrishGenealogy; Griffith’s on Askaboutireland, FindMyPast, Rootsireland; Gravestones on, FindMyPast,,,; secular burial records on, kerrylaburials,,

    I could go on.

    Some put the surname search box first, others the forename box. Some use surname and forename variants, some have surname variants only, others have no variants at all. There are free ones, subscription-only ones, some pay-per-view, some mixing all three.

    No wonder the poor Kansans are confused. Just bring everything inside a single site, under a single organisation, make it all searchable by a five-year-old and bingo, tourism nirvana.

    But the revolution in Irish online research that has happened in the last five or six years just wouldn’t have worked under a single organisation. The Irish National Genealogical Management Enterprise – “INAGME”? I don’t think so. Ireland is just not a one-ring-to-rule-them-all kind of place. The revolution happened because particular organisations and individuals flung themselves at it, without any overall plan or risk/benefit decisions, with plenty of bitter rows and committee wars. It happened the Irish way, in other words.

    As for Joe Kowalski-Magrath in Kansas; well, the internet is falling over with guides to Irish research, because Irish research is now almost laughably simple. It’s called research because it involves some searching, Joe.

  • Hiding from Big History

    December 30, 2015 @ 10:13 am | by John Grenham

    We genealogists spend our time hiding from Big History, convinced in our hearts that small personal experiences are the real core of history. Because it’s always good therapy to stretch unused muscles, I’ve spent the past six months reading Brendan Simm’s whopping Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2013).

    It’s taken six months because it’s impossible to absorb more than a dozen pages at a time. The level of detail and the breadth of overview are jaw-dropping. But it is a very particular overview. This is a history of statecraft, the way Louis XIV understood his world, with the interlocking endless consequences of diplomacy, treaties and wars. Simms masters it all as if it were a single, endlessly fascinating Rubik cube.

    Two big ideas shape the book. First, states’ foreign policy decisions have deep unacknowledged impacts on what appear to be purely internal events: the American Revolution is analysed as a by-product of European big-power manoeuvring, for instance. And second, it’s all about Germany. Every significant event since 1453 has revolved around the question of German power, whether as the Holy Roman Empire, the “German Lands” or the modern German state.

    At times, the evidence is stretched a bit thin to fit these theses, but it’s still an extraordinary achievement and I’m exhausted.

    So what does Simms (an Irishman) have to say about Ireland?

    Not much. Like it or not, on his telling we’re well removed from almost every world-historical event, an island off an island off the mainland. All the great upheavals of European history have ended as gentle ripples on our shores: the last incident of world significance to happen here was in 1690, when the Dutch beat the French at the Battle of the Boyne.

    Patrick Kavanagh knew this when he wrote “Epic”, his lyric paean to parochialism, in which we “make our own importance”. Because if we don’t, nobody else will.

  • Begrudgery

    December 23, 2015 @ 9:36 am | by John Grenham

    The recent ructions about stratospheric salaries in the Irish Farmers’ Association had some commentators reaching for the B-word. So, as usual when in doubt, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, and there was “begrudgery”, missing. “Begrudge” and “begrudger” are certainly present (though “Now chiefly Irish English”), but not the place or state of simmering resentment described by the B-word.

    So I tried Google. Surprise: every single occurrence of “begrudgery” is in Ireland.

    So it is exclusively Irish, which clearly means something about the national psyche. But what? That it’s easy to begrudge once, but you have to be Irish to live the begrudging life? Is it yet another demonstration of what small-minded bosthoons we are?

    I don’t think so. Irish begrudgery is very particular. It is not the Japanese variety which demands that sticky-out nails get hammered down. What we have is a very specific kind of scepticism, more irreverence than envy. It is the reason behind Article 40.2.1 of the Constitution: “Titles of nobility shall not be conferred by the State”. Or in the more succinct words of Brendán Ó hEithir’s blacksmith: “We will in our arse have our own gentry”.

    Begrudgery, strangely, is the quality that allows Bono to walk up Grafton Street unmolested or a former Minister of Education to cycle his Dublin Bike the wrong way down Trinity Street (I saw him) without anyone batting an eyelid. It is peasant anger at inequality, egalitarianism in its raw, uncooked state, and worth more respect than it usually gets.

    In Ireland, you can be as different as you want, once you recognise you’re no better than the rest of us.

    If it’s any consolation to the IFA, I suspect the trait may be very deeply rooted. The Neolithic Irish trussed up their kings, slaughtered them and buried the bodies in the bog. We’re only in the halfpenny place today.

  • The centre of the Irish family history universe

    December 14, 2015 @ 6:32 pm | by John Grenham

    There’s only one Irish genealogy website that I visit every day, and that’s It was started by Claire Santry in 2010 and since then has become the centre of the universe – the compact but perfectly-formed universe of Irish family history, that is.

    If you’re interested in new online record releases, public talks, new publications, special offers from subscription sites, changes to repository opening time – in fact anything at all that connects to Irish genealogy anywhere in the world – Claire’s site is indispensable.

    How did it get to this position? The most important factor, I think, is that Claire is a professional journalist by training. The site presents facts clearly and coherently, without frills, paddywhackery or opinions, its easily readable text laid out around interesting illustrations that bristle with useful links.

    She is, it goes without saying, a genealogy nut, but runs the site as a full-time job, sometimes posting five items a day, all hard fact. On several occasions she has scooped me on the launch of sites I developed, an illustration of just how hard she works and what a nose she has for a story.

    And the site has no agenda, an extraordinary quality in a field buzzing with the unmistakable sound of axes being ground.

    Which doesn’t mean it has no power. A rumbling spat between various people involved in Irish genealogy – thumbscrews wouldn’t get names out of me – was threatening to turn nasty earlier this year. Claire wagged one elegant finger at the participants and peace broke out at once.

    She has received recognition of sorts: she came first in the Irish section of the tongue-in-cheek “Rockstar Genealogist” awards this year. But for an income the site depends on the ads peppered discreetly here and there. So turn off that ad-blocker now.

  • John O’Donovan’s glorious letters

    December 7, 2015 @ 9:30 am | by John Grenham

    The same upgrade that put the Valuation Office revision maps on the site (see last week’s column) also added the Ordnance Survey Field Name Books and the O’Donovan topographical letters. The former are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey six-inch maps in the 1830s. The entries include much technical detail linking them to the maps, but also some worm’s-eye-view descriptions of rents, landlords and tenants.

    The O’Donovan letters are of broader interest. They consist of formal correspondence addressed to, or from, the man in charge of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, the antiquarian John O’Donovan, and often provide superb summaries of local place-name lore, even down to the minutest detail: the entry for Darver in Co Louth includes a description and drawing of “a silver ring which Mr Duffy found near his house”. For anyone interested in local history in rural Ireland they are a magnificent treasure trove. And they give the lie to the notion that the OS process of standardisation and anglicisation was brutal, Anglo-Saxon and stupid.

    The versions on the site are typescript copies of the originals made in the 1920s. I’m not sure (nor, I think, is that all of them are here. Certainly, the six counties of Northern Ireland are missing. And it has to be said that there are drawbacks to having them broken up and plotted as links on the maps.

    But they are also browsable page by page, revealing all their gnarled glory, with folk-tales, principal families, ruined churches, annal entries, saint’s biographies and more.

    The voice of O’Donovan himself is also there, and strangely modern. At the conclusion of the second volume of Galway letters, he writes: “I have now done with the territories in the county of Galway and though it has cost me many an hour of severe application to lay down their boundaries I fear no one will have the patience to grope their way through my lucubrations.”

    He needn’t have worried.

  • Floundering with valuation maps

    November 30, 2015 @ 9:46 am | by John Grenham

    Like everyone involved in Irish genealogy and local history, I spend a lot of time looking at Griffith’s Valuation on Griffith’s is the only Ireland-wide census substitute for the mid-19th century and the site is wonderful, not least because it is free.

    One feature, though, has caused much grief to users over the years, the mismatch between the printed records and the maps that accompany them. The maps first used on the site date from several decades after the publication of the valuation, and so can differ puzzlingly from the printed original.

    The reason is that Griffith’s was a property tax survey. For a century and a half the Valuation Office had to record changes in occupier, holding size, lessor – anything that could affect the value of a holding and thus the tax to be paid on it. Handwritten, copybook-style versions of the original were used to list the changes, which were then hand-marked on the office’s own copies of the six-inch Ordnance Survey maps.

    The maps used by askaboutireland consisted of one full baseline set of these map revisions, undated, but probably from the 1870s or 1880s.

    Several months back, askaboutireland, now supported by the Department of the Environment, responded to the problems with these undated maps – by adding mountains of more undated maps. Every single working revision map from the office now appears to be there, layered one over the other, with up to eight separate maps for some areas, and no way of telling which follows which.

    For the moment. When the full handwritten revision books eventually become available online, it will be possible to date the maps by comparing them with the written records. The result will be a superb, visual, decade-by-decade archive, showing in minute detail the process of change in every street and field on the island over almost 150 years.

    In the meantime, be reassured: it’s not just you. Everyone is floundering.

  • Have Irish surnames stopped changing?

    November 23, 2015 @ 10:19 am | by John Grenham

    After independence, official Ireland understandably set about undoing the grievous distortions wrought on Gaelic surnames by English-speaking administrators. Every surname now had to have an official Irish-language school version, on the basis that we were all Gaels and had had our original names stolen from us.

    Never mind the tunnel view of history and the hair-raising presumption that Ireland was racially pure, the implicit understanding of surnames was simply nonsensical.

    Because the most important fact about all surnames is that they are words. They don’t go to any particular church, salute flags, vote or fight. They simply swim in the ever-changing sea of language, evolving as all languages do under the pressure of accents, education, fashion, politics, economics.

    For example, the American pronunciation of the surnames Cahill (“KAY-hil”) and Mahony (Ma-OWN-ey) often has Irish people sniggering up their sleeves. But these pronunciations are much closer to the original Irish-language versions of the names. The fork in culture between Irish-America and Ireland preserved something over there that we over here have anglicised more thoroughly.

    Whether American or British, the language Irish surnames have swum in for almost two centuries is English. Seen in this light, the 20th-century Gaelicisation of surnames, the great wave of adoptions of Os and Mcs, was not the reclamation of something lost but a further evolution, the flawed reinvention of an imagined past – ask Theodore O’Kechuckwu, living at 1 Washington Street in Dublin in 1949:

    The evolution of surnames has not stopped, though it has slowed, not just in Ireland but throughout the developed world. Mass literacy and computer technology have make it more difficult for change to occur – simply seeing your name in print on a computer screen every day lends it apparent permanence.

    Apparent only: I have no doubt that in a few centuries people will look back in amusement at our quaint surname spellings.

    The series on surnames over the past weeks was a reaction to finishing, finally, the integration of surname variants from the civil registration birth registers into the Irish Ancestors website. We now have over more than a million variants. Data mined from them is at

  • How the Os and the Macs came back

    November 16, 2015 @ 9:50 am | by John Grenham

    Received wisdom in Ireland has long been that the process of reclaiming and resuming the Gaelic patronymic prefixes “Mc” (mac, “son of”) and “Ó” (“grandson of”) paralleled the resurgence of interest in Gaelic culture in the second-half of the 19th century. In the words of Edward MacLysaght, “when the spirit of the nation revived”.

    The process was never straightforward. Inevitably, some people mistakenly claimed the wrong prefix. The most notorious example is the Gaelic family Mac Gormáin – all are now either O’Gorman or plain Gorman. MacLysaght’s explanation of what happened still can’t be bettered: “Probably the man chiefly responsible for the substitution of O for Mac in the name was the celebrated gigantic Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman (1725-1808), exile vineyard owner in France who, after being ruined by the French Revolution, became a constructor of Irish pedigrees.”

    Mistakes apart, the story told by MacLysaght and others about surname prefix resumption remains that of steady progress eventually flowering into independence.

    The figures from birth registrations tell a different story.

    The proportion of total births recording Mc (or Mac, or M’) was 10.14 per cent in 1865. In 1913, it was 10.48 per cent. So there was a slow increase, but certainly nothing dramatic (see ). It is tempting to surmise the great flood of “Mc” resumption only took off when it became clear in the early 1920s where power would lie in the new Ireland.

    Interestingly, the story is different for surnames starting “O’”.

    In 1865, 1.67 per cent of total births used “O’”. By 1913, it was 3.2 per cent, almost doubling in five decades ( Perhaps the difference is that “O” surnames were found predominantly in Munster (and Donegal), traditionally nationalist regions, whereas “Mc” surnames were concentrated in north and east Ulster, with a solid unionist majority.

    The devil remains where he always is, in the detail.

  • Dragging the old Gaelic surnames into English

    November 9, 2015 @ 10:54 am | by John Grenham

    The process of dragging the old Gaelic surnames into English was messy and surprisingly long drawn out. As late as the 19th century, some parish registers still provide a time-lapse record of the changes happening.

    In west Cork, children baptised as “Fowlow” (Ó Foghlú, from foghlaí , “a robber”) in the 1820s become “Fowly” in the 1830s and finally “Foley” in the 1840s. In Leitrim, members of the same family are first “Breheny” (from Mac an Bhreitheamhan, “son of the judge”), then “Judge” and finally, God help us, “Abraham”, mangled out of “McAbrahan”.

    These two examples illustrate the most common ways surnames were anglicised, phonetic transcription and translation, both almost always treating the O or Mc prefix as irrelevant. The results could be rough and ready, approximate versions of what a record-keeper thought he heard or imagined he understood.

    The stretch from Ó Murchú (“grandson of the sea-hound”) to “Murphy” has always seemed a phoneme too far to me. Because any Anglophone record-keepers who knew Irish had only a smattering, mistranslation was the rule, not the exception. Mac Conraoi (west Galway), Mac Fhearadhaigh (Oriel), Ó Maol Conaire (Roscommon), and Ó Conraoi (east Galway) all ended up as “King” in English, simply because they contain elements that to an untutored ear sound like , “king”.

    But the ultimate insult to the old surnames was transposition. A lazy or exasperated record-keeper would give up any pretence of translation or phonetic transcription and just pick an English surname that bore some resemblance to the Irish original. The resemblance was often remote: “Bradley” for Ó Brolacháin; “Harrington” for Ó hIongardáil; “Holland” for Ó Maol Challann; “Davenport” for Ó Donnuartaigh.

    The three centuries before independence saw a great influx of English and Scottish families, among them, no doubt, plenty of actual Bradleys, Harringtons, Hollands and Davenports.

    As guides to ethnic origins, surnames in Ireland can be very treacherous indeed.

  • How Gaelic surnames were Englished

    November 2, 2015 @ 11:00 am | by John Grenham

    Hereditary patronymic surnames, O (“grandson of”) and Mac (“son of”), were a central part of Gaelic Irish culture from at least the 11th century, testament to the deep need for public markers of family membership.

    This was not the product of some mystical Celtic yearning for blood connection. Far from it.

    For almost 1,000 years, the main unit of Gaelic society was not the nuclear family as we conceive it, but a very particular version of the extended family, the derbhfhine, all the descendants of a common great-grandfather.

    Among other things, property ownership rested with the derbhfhine, not the individual. So what you could own depended on who your kin were.
    No wonder genealogy loomed so large and surnames that signalled kinship were so important.

    The name you bore was transparent to those around you, not just, as today, a convenient marker, but instead laden with resonance: stories, possessions, reputations, feuds, homeplaces . . . Gaelic surnames were deeply ingrained in everyday social interactions, as vital and ordinary as language or weather or food.

    Imagine, then, the reactions of the Gaels when the first English arrived. John Bird? George Winterbottom? William Featherstone? The initial response must have been simple hilarity.
    How could there be people with such ludicrously opaque names, telling nothing of parentage and kin?

    The laughing can’t have lasted long. Over the course of the long, catastrophic 17th century, the old Gaelic institutions crumbled under the weight of the English conquest and took with them the centrality of Gaelic surnames.

    And after only a few generations, those whose grandparents had laughed at the opaque stupidity of English names were having their own names mangled into opacity by English-speaking administrators: Harrington, Waters, Rabbit, Kidney, Boner . . . all names deriving from perfectly traditional and transparent O and Mac patronymics and all stripped of meaning to force them into English.

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