Irish Roots »

  • Attack of the killer apostrophes

    June 4, 2014 @ 9:39 am | by John Grenham

    People who have never done any computer programming tend to think of it as a mysterious art only to be performed by anointed priests of the great god Mathematics. It’s not. At its root, coding is just the simple giving of an order to a computer: sit up; beg; roll over.

    To be sure, the accumulation of tens of thousands of these orders can make things very complex and adding conditions to the orders magnifies that complexity: only sit up and beg if I scratch my nose twice. But complexity is not mystery. The kind of intelligence required to follow it is very narrow indeed, a long, long way from the wisdom of priesthood.

    This much said, coding can be genuine fun, at its best intensely absorbing in the way only a really good puzzle can be, part building clockwork toys, part deciphering dead languages.

    And for someone like myself who has struggled for years with the recalcitrant opacity of historical records, there is real personal satisfaction in helping to digitise those records and making them transparent.

    Why go into all of this? Last week, the part of the Irish Ancestors website that produces maps showing the locations of households of a particular surname in mid-nineteenth century Ireland (see http://bit.ly/1jwKP7E for an example) began to do odd things. Brennan would display properly, but not Ferguson. O’Brien no, Walsh yes. Plenty of Corkerys, but not a McNamara in sight.

    After much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, I eventually discovered what the problem was: the apostrophe in “O’Briensbridge”.

    The moral is that software is deeply, deeply stupid, in the way only an insentient object can be stupid. Sometimes complicated, certainly, but complicated like a brick wall.

    If there’s any consolation, I now know how to defeat the coming takeover of the software robots. Just shower them with apostrophes.

  • Why Irish administrative areas are so peculiar

    May 26, 2014 @ 8:43 am | by John Grenham

    One of the biggest problems facing newcomers to Irish research is the baffling, interconnected geographical system used both for registration of births, marriages and deaths, and for the 1901 and 1911 censuses. It has its origins in the workings of the Poor Law.

    Any user of the “Browse” element of the National Archives census website has seen each county subdivided into peculiar areas called “District Electoral Divisions”. These were created on the introduction of the Irish Poor Law in 1838; local property-holders paid a tax to cover its cost and Victorian scruples dictated that the taxpayers should have representatives to decide how to spend that tax. God be with the days.

    So DEDs were the miniature constituencies sub-divided out of each Poor Law Union area. The over-riding function of each DED was to represent a similar total property value, the reason for some of the weirdly unnatural areas they cover.

    The story doesn’t end there. The Poor Law later became part of the rudimentary public health system, and in 1851 every Union was divided into Dispensary Districts, each comprising several DEDs and under the care of a local doctor. With the introduction of civil registration in 1864, these Dispensary Districts were then pressed into service as local Registrar’s districts.

    The Registrar (generally the same local doctor) recorded all births, deaths and marriages in his area and passed them to his superior, the Superintendent Registrar, who was in charge of all the districts in his Poor Law Union. He made copies and passed them up to his own superior, the Registrar General in Dublin. Dublin then indexed them for the entire island, showing which Poor Law Union they came from. And these are the indexes still available in the GRO Research Room, transcribed on FamilySearch.org and soon to be available on irishgenealogy.ie .

    Why go into all of this? On the Irish Ancestors website, we have just finished assembling listings of all of the place-names within each local Registrar’s district, the first time this has ever been done online. Have a look: bit.ly/1tnEP8W .

  • Reverse genealogy

    May 19, 2014 @ 9:47 am | by John Grenham

    The descendants of emigrants often long to heal the generations-long breach in their family by researching forward to find living relatives. But it is one of the most difficult tasks possible, going right against the grain of time. So:

    Chronicles of extended periods are the basics of such research, and the single best source is the Valuation Office collection of Revision books, which detail all changes affecting those liable for local property tax. In the Republic, they cover the entire period of about 120 years between the original Griffith’s and the abolition of the rates in 1977. The twenty-six-county books are all still only available at the Office itself (see valoff.ie for details). For Northern Ireland, the books are online at proni.gov.uk, but only come up to the 1930s, when a full re-valuation took place.

    The other main chronicles are annual urban street directories, useful mainly for Dublin and Belfast, the latter online at PRONI, the former best accessed at the Gilbert Library in Pearse St. Electoral lists, in theory revised every year by the relevant local authority, can also stand as proxy directories. The best collection is for Dublin, at dublinheritage.ie and again in the Gilbert.

    Reconstructing entire families is the first step in following indirect lines of descent, and being able to search birth records by mother’s maiden name is an essential tool. The state birth indexes from 1903, (soon to be online at irishgenealogy.ie), the Northern online registers at https://geni.nidirect.gov.uk and the transcript databases at rootsireland.ie are the main sources.

    Records associated with deaths are also useful, particularly secular burial records that give next of kin or multiple interments in a single grave. Examples are Glasnevin in Dublin (glasnevintrust.ie) and local authority records (kerrylaburials.ie).

    And don’t forget newspaper death announcements, a staple of every Irish funeral since the 1940s, which often have long lists of grieving relatives. The richest sources (it grieves me to say) are The Irish Independent and The Irish Press, both online at irishnewsarchive.com.

  • Gorgeous funerals

    May 14, 2014 @ 10:13 am | by John Grenham

    A couple of weeks back, the National Library released another 10,000 digital images online. I glanced at the press release, lazily presumed these were old photographs along the lines of the Lawrence Collection, interesting in themselves, but peripheral to genealogy, and resumed my nap.

    Then something niggled. Something about the Genealogical Office, one of my old stamping grounds. The Library catalogue (catalogue.nli.ie) did indeed have some nice old photos of the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle, home of the GO up to the 1980s. But a search in the catalogue for “genealogical” digitised items also threw up wonderful, unsuspected riches, no fewer than 132 fully-imaged manuscripts from the GO’s collection.

    Over the four centuries when it was the Office of Ulster King of Arms, from 1553 to 1943, the GO was the most intensely Anglo of all Anglo-Irish institutions, exclusively concerned with the heraldic rights of the wealthiest and most powerful. Distasteful as the ethnic politics may be now, some of the records created during those 390 years are extraordinary, and the Library catalogue now provides full direct access to a large sample of them.

    My favourites are the seventeenth-century funeral entries, on-the-spot records of burial rites and families, usually accompanied by full-colour paintings of the arms displayed at the funeral. Have a look at bit.ly/1sp3OZ0 . They are both astonishingly vivid research tools and superb works of art, and make up just a small portion of the pre-1943 records now online

    With commendable even-handedness, the catalogue also makes available a good selection of post-1943 grants of arms, including those to the Dublin Stock Exchange in 1945, to Muintir Mhathghamhna, the O’Mahony clan, in 1980 and to the Diocese of Clogher in 2006.

    My only quibble is the absence of the original GO manuscript numbers in the catalogue reference – all the published guides and indexes use these numbers.

    Otherwise, three whole-hearted cheers. More please.

  • The Genealogy Roadshow and the No. 16 bus

    May 5, 2014 @ 5:27 pm | by John Grenham

    Working as a television presenter can seriously loosen your grip on reality. That much was clear from the moment I started work on The Genealogy Roadshow three years ago, when crew would refer to me as “the talent”, tell me how wonderful I was and treat me like a piece of the scenery. But it wasn’t clear then just how long the effect would last.

    The flashbacks have been happening for more than two years now. Every so often, people will look at me and then look harder, or startle away as if I’m electrified. Eventually I realised that these incidents always coincided with the many, many repeats of the Roadshow on RTE1. No-one expects to see the man off the telly on the number 16 bus.

    My grip on reality is about to become even looser. The second series finally starts next Sunday, May 11th, at 7 pm. Along with fellow-presenters Turtle Bunbury and Susan Chadwick (both admirably grounded in reality) and ably jollied along by the indefatigable Derek Mooney, we will once again be helping ordinary people disentangle their family histories at roadshows held in extraordinary venues: Powerscourt House, UCC and Corpus Christi College in Derry.

    The main difference with the last series is the way we all mastered what we were doing and became a single team, not just talent and crew. It helps to be at ease if you have just ten minutes to grasp and straighten out a complicated family story.

    One good thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the way the programme reflects the reality of research, successes, failures and everything in between. That, and the abundance of non-celebrities. More information is at rte.ie/tv/genealogyroadshow.

    And, like my fellow-commuters on the No 16, I still find it weird that I’m on telly. I’ll be behind the couch again.

  • Pre-1901 census fragments now available

    April 28, 2014 @ 9:15 am | by John Grenham

    After the National Archives first came out with its superb 1901 and 1911 census website (genealogy.nationalarchives.ie), a few innocent souls asked me when all the other Irish censuses from the 19th century would be going online. They’ll have their answer today.

    This evening at 5.30pm, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht will be launching all of the Archives’ pre-1901 census holdings on the website. Before you swoon in ecstasy, let me clarify.

    True censuses were taken in Ireland every 10 years from 1821, a full two decades before anywhere else in what was then the United Kingdom.

    By the time the 1911 census had been completed, there were full sets of no fewer than eight censuses in existence, the earliest four transferred to the Public Record Office, the others still held by the Office of the Registrar-General, the body responsible for census-taking after 1851.

    Then things started to go horribly wrong. First, at some point during the first World War, the Registrar-General ordered the 1881 and 1891 returns to be pulped, for reasons that are still murky. (The 1861 and 1871 returns had already been destroyed, shortly after the censuses were taken, again for reasons that remain unclear.)

    And then, of course, in June 1922 the Public Record Office was destroyed and every single item held in its Strong Room, including the four earliest censuses, was obliterated without trace.

    All that survived of them were the few bits and pieces that happened to be in use in the reading room or out for conservation: 29 parishes in Galway, Offaly and Meath (1821); 42 parishes in Derry (1831); part of Killeshandra (1841); parts of 14 parishes in Antrim (1851).

    And that’s it. Let’s not be churlish: it is wonderful to have these on-line, along with the rag-tag-and-bobtail fragments and transcripts.

    But it is also hard not to dream of what might have been.

  • Irish genealogy: a classic example of hyper-competitive post-modern capitalism?

    April 23, 2014 @ 9:44 am | by John Grenham

    When I signed up for genealogy, I was expecting a quiet life. After all, the main field of operation comprises the dead, and it doesn’t come much quieter than that. But no. Over the past ten years the internet has transformed Irish family history research. The peaceful, under-populated backwater it once was now sometimes seems like a classic example of hyper-competitive post-modern capitalism.

    Like Dublin taxis, those trying to make a living from it appear to outnumber their potential customers. Giant multi-national corporations do battle to gain access to record collections that no-one had heard of a decade ago. Existing online record collections are continuously being expanded. More and more volunteers are transcribing, scanning, recording, and publishing on-line.

    The most oddly disheartening part of this transformation is the impossibility of keeping track of everything that might be relevant. I do this full-time, and even I can’t keep up. One example: Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold’s Cross in Dublin, Glasnevin’s Protestant south-side twin, has been undertaking its own digitisation project, similar to Glasnevin’s and covering over a quarter of a million burials. But nothing of it is on-line as yet, so the cemetery went into the “pending” pigeon-hole as a potential source. Then last week I came across Yvonne Russell’s extraordinary collection of Mount Jerome headstone transcripts and photos (bit.ly/1nbHKkm), almost 12,000 individual records and images. Yvonne has been doggedly doing this since 2008 and she just won’t stop. It’s an astonishing achievement.

    And I had never heard of it. It’s enough to make a grown genealogist weep.

    But it is better to light even one very small candle than to curse the darkness. So I have put together a page that attempts to summarise what parts of the major Irish record sources are online and where. It’s at irishtimes.com/ancestor/browse/online.htm.

    Tell me what’s missing.

  • The original Catholic registers are rotting

    April 14, 2014 @ 9:57 am | by John Grenham

    Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for nineteenth-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival.

    Why should this matter? Aren’t they’re all copied online anyway? Or on microfilm in the National Library?

    Here are some facts about the collections of copies. The National Library microfilm project, heroic as it was, has serious flaws. A few parishes were missed entirely – Rathlin Island, for example – and some films are so out of focus as to be illegible. Comparing the years covered by the heritage centres’ transcriptions with the years held on Library microfilm reveals that at least 200 parishes have records earlier than those filmed by the Library. Aghada in east Cork, for example, has records going back 40 years before the NLI microfilm.

    The mismatch also works in the other direction. More than 100 parishes have earlier years on microfilm than in heritage centre transcript. Newtowncashel in Longford has a full register containing 35 years of baptisms on NLI film, which is missing from Longford Heritage Centre records. The likelihood is that this earlier register was somehow lost or destroyed between the NLI microfilm in the 1970s and the transcription project in the 1990s. How many other registers have also since disappeared?

    No copy can take the place of the original. The registers themselves are the property of the Catholic Church, and also the Church’s responsibility. If the Hierarchy wants to keep them private, by all means let them be locked away in diocesan archives for a century or more. But something has to be done to stop these priceless records from rotting away.

  • There should be conga lines of Northern Irish civil servants dancing through the streets of Belfast

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:05 am | by John Grenham

    The first attempt to make a large body of very desirable records searchable online, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was back in 2001, with the 1901 census for England and Wales. It was a fiasco. The website crumbled under the onslaught of users, was down for months and the English civil service had to take vitriolic abuse that went on for what must have seemed an eternity.

    The horror seems to have stayed in the herd memory of UK public servants. At least that’s the only explanation I can see for the very low-key arrival of Northern Ireland General Register Office records online (bit.ly/PiWMqm). Included are all Six-County births, marriages and deaths up to 1914, 1939 and 1974 respectively. The birth records search incorporates the mother’s maiden name, making it simple to reconstruct entire families. Marriage search results include the spouse’s surname, meaning you can zero in on just the relevant record. For deaths (and births) you can narrow the search area right down to local registrar’s district, a godsend where a surname is particularly common. And you can do all this without paying a cent – it only becomes necessary to pay when you have identified the right record, and even then you have a choice of fees, all very reasonable.

    There should be conga lines of dancing civil servants celebrating this achievement all over Belfast. But no. One second the thing wasn’t there, the next it was. Under-promising and over-performing with a vengeance.

    Let me slip in the few required quibbles. The surname variants option doesn’t seem to be working: “McAlindon” and “McAlinden” get different results. The few historic registrars’ districts (parts of Castlefin and Inishowen, for example) that now lie across the Border seem to have been excised, which is a pity. The unit-based payment system is a classic horse-designed-by-committee.

    But these are tiny details. I just hope our own GRO is examining the site and turning green.

  • Rootsireland must evolve

    March 31, 2014 @ 2:16 pm | by John Grenham

    Like it or not, Rootsireland.ie is the single most important Irish records website. Almost everyone researching their ancestors in nineteenth-century Ireland will have to use the site’s database of record transcripts –parish and local civil registration transcripts in particular. It can be expensive, certainly (I have personally paid at least two kings’ ransoms), but there is no doubt that the site has opened up Irish research to many for whom it used to be a closed book.

    But it is also cumbersome, customer-unfriendly to the point of brutality and embarrassingly old-fashioned.

    All these problems stem from the peculiar nature of the organisation behind it, the Irish Family History Foundation. The IFHF was set up to provide an umbrella body for the centres carrying out the transcriptions. These centres are extremely diverse, their only common feature a fierce independence. So the IFHF has become a very, very loose federation.

    As a result, the website design revolves around the centres’ need for independence, in particular the need to pay each centre for every view of a transcript from that centre. The needs of researchers come a very, very distant second.

    There are no fore-name variants – if you search for a “Patrick” and the record was transcribed as “Patt”, tough luck. Details of the records transcribed, vital in understanding search results, are sometimes pure gibberish: the listing for Co. Down marriages includes ” Belfast (hm) 1906-1900″. What?

    Above all, though, the entire site still consists entirely of transcripts. Being content with a transcript alone really means accepting someone else’s word on trust: “Honest Gov., this is what I saw in the register. Give us a fiver”.

    Rootsireland can survive the coming onslaught of competition from the likes of Ancestry, and I hope it does. But it has to modernise, to add record images – why not the National Library’s ready-made microfilm images? –and above all it has to stop being a gatekeeper, and become an access-provider.

    irishroots@irishtimes.com
    irishtimes.com/ancestor

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