Irish Roots »

  • Surname and placename standardisation

    February 23, 2015 @ 10:38 am | by John Grenham

    No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise. After decades of staring at Griffith’s Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see, I only recently realised that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. Anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings knows that this can’t be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith’s share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.

    The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that’s how the place name will appear in Griffith’s. That’s what made it possible to create the direct click-through from place name to Griffith’s on the Irish Ancestors site – see for example.

    So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith’s standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith’s is a tax survey and a misspelt surname is the most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.

    For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as “Curlie”, “Curly” or “Corly”, the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became “Curley”.

    This is not a terribly useful research tool – the advice must continue to be “cast the net as wide as possible”. But for larger-scale population and surname studies that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.

    Have a look at all those Curleys:

  • 1916 and all that

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:30 am | by John Grenham

    Benedict Anderson’s classic account of the history of nationalism, Imagined Communities (1982, rev. 1993) asks a simple question in its early pages: why is it so hard for us to imagine someone who possesses no nationality? After all, “nation” is hardly a precise concept. It is not a tribe, or an ethnicity, or even a language community. Nationality cuts across all of these.

    The book’s title gives the answer: nations are communities that have imagined themselves into existence and in the process have made it impossible for any member to conceive of existence outside a similar community. Though he says little about Ireland directly, many of Anderson’s insights throw brilliant flashes onto our own history.

    Take the Gaelic Revival and the wave of Irish nationalism that lead to 1916. The compelling story at the heart of the movement was of reawakening: an ancient people was rising from centuries-long slumber to reclaim self-government, language, culture, sport . . . The book shows that this image of the sleeping giant coming back to life is present in every single 19th-century European nationalist movement: it appears in Greece, Finland, Bohemia, Hungary, Germany. And these giants were fictional, idealised versions of a pure and distant past pressed into the service of modern political aims. So the Gaelic Revival should more accurately have been the Gaelic Reinvention.

    Restoring vernacular languages was a key aim of this nationalism-as-reawakening, and the most vital factor in securing its success in Europe, Anderson argues, was the pre-existence of vernacular newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, all the paraphernalia of what he calls “print-capitalism”. By this account, our Irish language revival failed not (just) because so many of us were shoneens, but because printed Irish never had the chance to become a medium of commercial culture in the eighteenth century.

    1916 was the most successful act of national re-imagining possible. It invented the nation which we still live inside. Anyone interested in the deep history that made the Rising possible should read Imagined Communities.

  • But what has FindMyPast done for us lately?

    February 10, 2015 @ 8:39 am | by John Grenham

    It has become too easy to take for granted. Okay, so they have all Irish prison registers before 1924 (covering 3.6 million individuals), all the local Petty Sessions court records pre 1922 (22m records), all 57 editions of Thom’s Directory between 1844 and 1900, and 33 other 19th-century local and occupational directories. So what?

    Oh alright. They’ve also got millions of dog licence records between 1866 and 1914, six million pages from 60 early Irish local and national newspapers, 4,384,519 records from the National Archives’ 1911 census now searchable by surname variant, more than 300,000 voters’ registration details from Clare between 1860 and 1910. But what have they given us lately?

    Only a complete online version of the UK National Archives’ Reproductive Loan Fund Records, that’s what.

    Loan funds were an early forerunner of credit unions, and flourished in the Ireland of the 1830s and 1840s. The Famine destroyed almost all of them and their records, like so many others, melted away.

    But the records of the largest, the London-based Reproductive Loan Fund (the loans, not the recipients, were to be reproductive) went back to London when it was wound up. In the 1850s, its backers wanted to know what had happened to their money, so local constables were sent to investigate everyone who had received a loan in the 1830s and 1840s. The results (known as “Returns to the Clerk of the Peace”) give an extraordinarily vivid before-and-after picture of the effects of the Great Famine. Again and again, those earlier borrowers are recorded as “died in 1847”, “gone to America”, “destitute”, “wandering the district a pauper”.

    There are also lists of defaulters and loan guarantors, minutes, correspondence, prosecutions and much more. For the 10 western counties covered, the records are a goldmine. Have a look at to get a sense of their sheer scale.

    And, as always with, the level of information provided about the records is a joy. The combination of deep corporate pockets and hard-won research expertise is hard to beat.

  • The top 100 genealogy websites?

    February 2, 2015 @ 10:01 am | by John Grenham

    A recently published list of the top 100 genealogy websites in the world (in the online Canadian magazine GenealogyInTime – see makes slightly depressing reading. Our inexorable slide towards corporate control continues apace – the three biggest companies, Ancestry, D.C. Thomson and MyHeritage now control 51 per cent of all genealogy traffic, with Ancestry the real behemoth at more than three times the size of its nearest rival. Inevitably, they all imitate each other’s services and search practices: diversity and precision take second place to commercial monoculture. Sorry, to “search engine optimisation”.

    Ancestry now has an effective monopoly on North American genealogy – there is no way to do online family history research in the US or Canada without using its records. It’s hard to see a similar situation arising here, but “hard to see” is just one synonym for “the future”.

    On the bright side, the top 100 continues to include a substantial number of free sites. One of genealogy’s most attractive features, its communitarian ethos, is still strong., the Mormon church’s free records site, has risen to second on the list, but there are also many more, from the vast links site to the UK’s self-explanatory

    Four Irish sites make it onto the list., and are all well established and essential for anyone researching Irish ancestors. The newcomer is Claire Santry’s, one of only six global blogs in the top 100. The recognition is well deserved. Claire has turned her site into the de facto primary source for Irish family history news.

    A surprising omission is the National Archive’s genealogy site,, incorporating 1901 and 1911 censuses, Tithe Books, Will Calendars and more. I suspect there may be a flaw in the measurement technique. It appears to count only visits to top-level domains. The numbers visiting “” is many orders of magnitude smaller than visits to the genealogy subsite. So, fun though it is, maybe the whole list needs a pinch of salt.

  • How not to run screaming from the microfilm room

    January 26, 2015 @ 10:08 am | by John Grenham

    The meat and potatoes of Irish genealogical research used to consist of hour after hour spent at a National Library microfilm reader slowly going through a Catholic parish register. The main qualification to be able to do this is a very high boredom threshold. Particularly useful is the ability to switch off all the brain except the one small part searching for a particular name. Eventually, with practice, it becomes possible to adjust that part to cover more than one name at a time.

    In other words, the main talent required is the ability not to run screaming from the microfilm room.

    I’ve spent years not running screaming from the microfilm room and here are the two lessons I’ve learnt: First, although not much of the brain is directly engaged, it’s not possible to do a lot with what’s left over. If you try, you run the very real risk of drifting into a daydream and having to start the register all over again.

    And having to start the register all over again is one of the prime causes of running screaming from the microfilm room. All you can really do in the bit of your mind spared by the research trance is note the angle of light falling on the page image, the changing quality of the ink, the deterioration in the priest’s signature over the years. And the names. Not specific names, rather the great unending river of names that flows past under your nose, and the fact that every single individual in it, without exception, is long dead. Genealogy teaches you the sheer scale of everyday mortality like nothing else.

    The second lesson is that microfilm is one of life’s great evils. We’re not completely done with the parish register films just yet, but we’re nearly there. And when the National Library has finished its digitisation and makes a great bonfire of them, I’ll dance around the flames.

  • Science, your mammy and the common cold

    January 19, 2015 @ 9:39 am | by John Grenham

    For decades, public health scientists have been assuring us that the common cold is caused by our spending half the year indoors sneezing on each other. There’s no evidence, they’ve told us, that Ireland’s long-standing position as the world’s leading producer of winter phlegm has anything to do with the cold or the wet. “Old wives’ tales” they said, when we pointed out that for 10,000 years our mammies have been telling us that we’ll catch our death if we go out dressed like that.

    And then last week came a complete change of heart. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported a recent study carried out by scientists at Yale (available via which shows that rhinoviruses, the culprits behind most colds and chest infections, thrive in cooler temperatures. And the lower the temperature, the lower our innate immune response to viruses. And what’s more, our noses are usually three to four degrees colder than the rest of the body.

    The scientists’ advice for avoiding runny noses? “Always stay in warm tropical weather or try to prevent the nasal cavity experiencing very cold air.” Translate that into Irish terms and it says “Either emigrate or dress the way your mother told you”.

    The moral is that not all evidence is full-blown scientific evidence.

    Most research advice will tell you to treat your family traditions with deep scepticism and most professional researchers will say “Yeah, right” (under their breath) when you tell them you’re descended from kings and princes. But even though centuries of tradition may not constitute cast-iron proof, it remains genuine evidence. Discount it at your peril.

    And the other moral is that your Mammy might not be right absolutely always, but the odds in her favour are pretty good.

  • Pure Irish Death

    January 12, 2015 @ 2:38 pm | by John Grenham

    In Ireland we tend to congratulate ourselves on the way we deal with death. Or, more precisely, with other people’s bereavements. There aren’t many places on the planet where the funeral of a cousin’s mother-in-law will demand instant attendance and take priority over work, family, health, weather and money.

    I remember how, three decades ago, my mother and her sisters scrambled across to England in full funeral-emergency mode within 24 hours of her brother Paddy’s death. And then sat around kicking their heels in East Anglia as the English side of the family took 10 days to ensure they got all the details right, all the while keeping everyone’s faces appropriately long. My poor mother thought she was on Mars.

    That profound difference in culture between the two islands certainly has partly to do with the reason my (other) Uncle Paddy gave for preferring funerals to weddings: you don’t need an invitation to a funeral, and the party can be even better. But the main underlying impulse is, I think, simple tribal solidarity. The bigger the crowd around the grave, the smaller the burden to be carried by the immediate family.

    Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, as an American psychotherapist (not mine) once told me, many Irish people have trouble grieving properly. Maybe all that solidarity makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the dead.

    In any case, our intense focus on obsequies has produced a uniquely Irish record source, the death notice. For more than 70 years, a published announcement of the time and place of removal and burial has been a compulsory part of every Irish funeral, and often also includes the names of surviving next-of-kin, place of death and cemetery. Checking “the deaths” remains a ubiquitous social necessity. And checking old death notices is an excellent way of tracking distant cousins and forgotten addresses and burial places.

    The best sources (it gives me no pleasure to admit) are in the Independent and the Press. Full runs of their 20th-century archives are at

  • The revolution will continue

    January 5, 2015 @ 9:36 am | by John Grenham

    The revolution in online record access continues. So what can we expect in 2015?

    The Big One is the arrival online of the National Library’s microfilm collection of Catholic parish registers. So far, this remains on track for early summer, despite outraged protests from some heritage centres and some Catholic bishops. The public response to the plan, both from Ireland and abroad, has been overwhelmingly positive. Let’s hope this helps the Library to resist any push-back.

    The Civil Registration (Amendment) Act 2014 passed into law in December. It is now, at last, legal for the State to allow access to full registration records. Hallelujah. As in Northern Ireland, this will be restricted to births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 and deaths over 50. Be patient. This is just the first step in the process, so we won’t get them this year.

    What we will get this year – on – is the return of the Civil Registration indexes. Expect uber-caution, and searches unnecessarily restricted to the same year- range as above. The site’s small print may also demand you pledge your first-born to the Data Protection Commission.

    For Dublin researchers, Dublin City Library and Archive is aiming to unify and expand the databases currently at making everything easily searchable from a single interface and expanding the voters’ list, cemetery and directory records already available.

    FindMyPast will continue its hyperactivity, with new records from the Kew National Archives as well as more Irish newspapers from the British Library, and even more collaboration with our own National Archives to go with the recently-completed dog licence and local court records. also has some interesting new acquisitions – specifically a big Northern Ireland deaths index due this month. More of the wonderful Catholic parish register images may be offered to them.

    We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.

  • Surname maps: Ireland remains unique

    December 29, 2014 @ 1:51 pm | by John Grenham

    Those tea-towel maps that show the locations of Irish surnames have always seemed more than a bit absurd. Imagine giving directions based on them: “Take the first right after McDermott and go on past Burke till you get as far as O’Dowd. The post office is there on the right, just beside Keegan.”

    The supposed basis for such maps lies in the medieval territories of the great Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families. Those territories were anything but static, and barely geographical in the first place, built as they were out of shifting kinship and tribal allegiances. And the vast majority of Irish families have always been non-great anyway. So you should stick to the Sat-Nav.

    But Irish surname maps do remain strangely compulsive – there’s a reason the tea-towels are still on sale. Once you get down past the mind-boggling numbers of Sullivans and Kellys and McCarthys, lots of names are connected very tightly to particular locations. Most Irish people have an ear for this. Sugrue and McElligott sound like Kerry, Gibbons and Lavelle like Mayo, Harkin like Donegal.

    And at times, this can be a decent research aid. Using the Griffith’s-based surname maps at, I have recently been mapping the locations in the early 1850s of households bearing surnames that I was familiar with growing up in north Roscommon, but which I now know are relatively rare: Dockery, Morrisroe, Finan, Lavin. They are concentrated with extraordinary precision in the flat boggy plain south of Lough Gara and east of the small chain of loughs along the Mayo/Roscommon border. A fresh map of one for these surnames is appearing on the site every week.

    Nests of deeply local names such as these must exist all over the country. You can explore them for free on the site. Just beware of the pattern-seeker’s pitfall: stare at the wallpaper long enough and you’ll eventually see the history of the world.

  • A needle in a haystack of needles

    @ 1:45 pm | by John Grenham

    In Myles na gCopaleen’s wonderful parody of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Beál Bocht (The Poor Mouth), the narrator, Gaeilgeoir Bonaparte O’Coonassa, describes his first day at school.

    The teacher demands, in English: “Phwat is yer nam?” The response, in Irish, begins: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot…” Whereupon the teacher calls him to the front of the class, hits him over the head with an oar and screams: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”

    When he regains consciousness, Bonaparte discovers that every other child in the class is also officially Jams O’Donnell.

    In some parts of Ireland genealogical research involves distinguishing one Jams O’Donnell from another. For Byrnes in Wicklow, Sullivans in south Kerry, Dohertys in Donegal, or Bradys in Cavan, the problem is not finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.

    When people with ancestors like Jams O’Donnell ask a genealogist for advice, we rarely do the right thing and tell them to find a new hobby. Instead, they’ll hear a long description of the process of reconstructing and comparing families, getting the right children in the right birth order, painstakingly accumulating circumstantial evidence that just might identify the right people.

    I was recently hoist with my own petard, trying to find one particular Ryan family in south Tipperary with only the children’s names as a guide: John, Michael, Mary, Margaret, James and Catherine, God help me. From the National Library microfilm, I identified all 53 Ryan families in the parish of Caher baptising a child with at least one of these names between 1828 and 1838 and then used rootsireland to retrieve all other children baptised outside those years to the same couple. It was a long and painful process. And there was not a trace of the family I wanted. Serves me right.

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