Irish Roots »

  • Records for Bloomsday

    June 16, 2014 @ 8:52 am | by John Grenham

    Sometimes the biggest obstacle to getting the best out of a set of records is your own entrenched presumptions about what they really contain. For years I had a blind spot about electoral records, lazily assuming that, before the advent of universal suffrage in the 1920s, they covered only a tiny, propertied elite. Working on the Dublin City Library and Archives electoral lists from 1898 to 1916 ( has opened my eyes.

    The first thing to be said about these records is that the originals are unusable. In the printed volumes, each year has 140 subsections, adding up to about 2,000 pages, with most of these subsections cutting across the same streets and even the same households. And there are no indexes. So it is only when the lists are digitised and searchable by street and name that they become accessible.

    But then they are extraordinary. The right to vote in local elections was vastly expanded in 1898, with the creation of an entirely new class of voter, the “inhabitant householder”, who possessed no property, and so paid no property tax, merely having a stable address. This covered the vast standing army of Dublin’s manual workers, surviving precariously, most of them occupying multi-family tenements.

    And here they are in these lists, living in the great belt of city-centre slums that arced around from East Wall , Monto and Gardiner Street through North King Street, over to the Liberties and down through York Street to the Quays: household by household, room by room, year after year. Joyce’s Dublin emerges vividly, stinking, dingy and overcrowded to a degree that is impossible to imagine now. The genesis of Dubliners and Ulysses becomes much clearer when you grasp the terrible inescapable intimacy enforced by these teeming streets.

    Currently online are the years 1908, 1909 and 1910. In the autumn, 1911, 1912 and 1915 will go live. The project is part of Dublin City Council’s 1916 commemorations, so the full set will be available before April 2016.

  • Identifying an Irish place-name

    June 9, 2014 @ 9:43 am | by John Grenham

    The most basic building blocks of genealogical research are surnames and places of origin. And like Irish surnames, Irish place-names have suffered extraordinary violence, mutating and deforming as they were forced out of Irish into English, mangled in written records by half-asleep record-takers, distorted over generations in the folk-memories of migrants. A secure identification of a particular place-name can be a serious problem.

    The standard tool has long been the 1851 Townlands Index, so called because it was produced as a guide to the 1851 census. However, its alphabetical listing of 64,000 or so townlands is not actually taken from the 1851 returns; the listing comes instead from the original Ordnance Survey of the 1830s and 1840s, the first wholesale standardisation of the spelling (in English) of townland names. The injury inflicted on Irish culture was grievous, but this standard listing remains very valuable. In particular, it was used in the creation of Griffith’s Valuation. Identify a place in the 1851, and it will appear under identical spelling in the Valuation.

    The 1851 Index is free online in three separate locations, at, and The last is the most recent and the slickest, but suffers from over-simplification. Seanruad is the best known, but has quite a few omissions and can be inflexible to search. The version at allows wild-card searches, a researcher’s best friend, and also includes parish maps as well as street listings for Dublin, Belfast and Cork.

    These three have now been joined at by the 1901 Townlands Index, used for the 1901 census returns, and very helpfully including District Electoral Divisions, the areas used for census collection after 1861.

    Inevitable quibbles: the search interface does not allow wild-cards, and the presumption underlying the browse area that no two Irish DEDs or parishes share the same name is very wide of the mark. Try “Kilmore”. But the arrival of the 1901 is still unequivocally welcome. The Irish Genealogical Research Society deserve whole-hearted thanks and congratulations.

  • 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 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 and soon to be available on .

    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: .

  • 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 for details). For Northern Ireland, the books are online at, 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 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, the Northern online registers at and the transcript databases at 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 ( and local authority records (

    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

  • 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 ( 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 . 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

    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 (, 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 (, 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

    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.

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