Irish Roots »

  • Reactions to the National Library’s parish registers site

    July 27, 2015 @ 11:57 am | by John Grenham

    Now that the dust has settled on the launch of the National Library’s Catholic parish registers site (, it’s worth reflecting on what just happened.

    First, reaction abroad is universally positive: “When Ireland gets something right in the genealogy world, it really gets it right.” ( “Many thanks to the National Library of Ireland and the government of Ireland for making these records accessible and free to all. ( “Tracing your Irish family tree just got easier” (@irishinbritain).

    The way people are approaching the records also seems to be changing. The perennial problems of crabbed handwriting and dog Latin and over-exposed microfilm are being crowd-solved. Just post a link to the offending image online (e.g. and ask for suggestions. For someone used to solitary squinting, it’s a revelation. And some extraordinarily vivid history is being picked up in the process. In Moycullen marriage registers, a curate writes in October 1845 about the state of the potato crop just before the Famine: “black spots appearing on the surface and the probability of its affecting the interior”. Knowing what we do of the Famine horror that was just about to unfold, the note is intensely poignant, all the more so for appearing in the middle of routine marriage records (

    Among the heritage centres, some fear and anger remain. I suspect much of this will turn out to be groundless: already, my own use of the centres’ transcription website ( has mushroomed, now that I can check back and forth between image and transcript. One corrects the other. In the medium term at least, the effect on rootsireland’s income can only be positive.

    In the longer term, though, they may be right to be nervous. and have probably already begun the process of transcribing the NLI images. Within a couple of years, a set of competing transcripts will almost certainly be online. The centres have a decent head start but they need to make full use of it to improve their offering. They’re in for a dogfight.

  • Irregular marriages from 19th-century Dublin

    July 20, 2015 @ 1:50 pm | by John Grenham

    One of the small pleasures of spending time rummaging through record systems is observing the ways in which they slowly deform under the weight of their own rules. Exceptions eventually begin to accumulate that even the most rational and well-designed guidelines can’t anticipate.

    With the General Register Office system, the exceptions began to accumulate very early on – late registrations, foreign births, army deaths abroad and my favourite, the Shultz marriage registers.

    The Rev JGF Shultz was minister of the German Lutheran church in Poolbeg Street in Dublin from about 1806 until his death in 1839, and for those three decades was the best-known “couple-beggar” in the city, specialising in quick, irregular marriages, no questions asked.

    From 1811, Shultz averaged more than one marriage every day, on some days managing as many as 15. He had a good stand. Poolbeg Street is conveniently situated on the quays: a fair number of these marriages were probably elopements.

    Inheritance at the time depended on legitimacy, which in turn depended on the validity of the parents’ marriage so, before long, Shultz’s work was challenged in court. The marriages were found to be valid and in 1870, the GRO purchased his registers.

    Along with the other exceptions, the so-called “minor registers”, they are held at the current GRO HQ in Roscommon, not the research room in Dublin, and researching them has not been straightforward. Until now.

    Henry McDowell, a stalwart of Irish genealogy for more than 50 years, uncovered a manuscript copy of the Shultz registers a few years back and has just published an edited (and indexed!) version – Irregular Marriages in Dublin Before 1837 (Dundalk, Dún Dealgan Press). Harry is launching the book at his splendid home, Celbridge Lodge, (entrance on Church Road, Celbridge, opposite the Grotto) between 5pm and 7.30pm on Saturday, July 25th.

    Everyone is welcome. I’ll certainly be there.

  • Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

    July 13, 2015 @ 9:04 am | by John Grenham

    Holding onto your sanity can be tricky when your occupational raw material consists of the legions of the dead. So genealogists have to develop techniques to try to retain that little spark of normality, or at least to try to pass for normal. It’s time to share a couple.

    First , keep things in proportion. At all costs, avoid ancestor worship. A single living person is worth every forebear you have – genealogy is not a matter of life or death, only the latter. Don’t place too much trust in history. The past is not a reliable guide to the future: you haven’t died so far, but that doesn’t mean you’re immortal.

    And never forget that, however absorbing it can be, there is something inherently ludicrous about pursuing traces of the long-gone through mountains of decaying paper. Here’s one way I use to keep that sense of genealogy’s absurdity alive.

    One of my jobs for the past 15 years has been to look after the main Irish Times Irish ancestors email address, This appears on hundreds of pages across the site and has, of course, been repeatedly harvested by spammers. In an effort to disguise their obnoxious shysterism, these people often take the first part of an email address, hoping that it is a personal name, and shoehorn it into the email subject line to try to personalise their pitch. In this case, the first part of the address being “ancestor”, some lovely incongruities result.

    I collect them, God help me. They make a small but a significant contribution to whatever sanity I have left. Some of my favourites:

    - Ancestor, reverse the signs of ageing.
    - Ancestor! Fix your garage door now!
    - Ancestor – let’s get together for lunch next week.
    - Your background check is now available online, ancestor!

    Not forgetting the evergreen:
    - Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

  • The un-Irish achievements of the Digital Repository of Ireland

    July 6, 2015 @ 10:36 am | by John Grenham

    The sheer quantity of information produced since the digital age began some two decades ago is astounding. In bulk at least, it dwarfs everything that went before. And for future historians and contemporary archivists, this presents a terrible problem.

    The tsunami of ephemera that swamps us every day might seem trivial, but if it vanishes completely no true history of the world we now live in will ever be possible.

    The Digital Repository of Ireland ( is, in part, an attempt to face this problem. On one level, it is a third-level research institution, dedicated to designing ways to preserve at least some of the fleeting online world. Rather than just doing this itself, the DRI also aims to spur other bodies into taking part in the worldwide efforts to cope with the gargantuan historical raw material we are now producing. As far as this layman can tell, it is succeeding admirably, producing world-class research.

    A more public part of DRI’s remit is to partner with archiving organisations in making digital collections more publicly accessible and intelligible, in effect demonstrating what is possible. This has already produced spectacular results. Launched just 10 days ago, showcases records, film, audio recordings and photographs from more than 20 Irish organisations, bringing into the light material that would hitherto only have been available to a few specialists. One of my favourites is the complete collection of the Harry Clarke stained-glass studio records, from TCD.

    Not the least of DRI’s achievements is the success of its collaborative approach. Irish institutions can be aggressively territorial and the level of cooperation – by funding bodies, record-holders, government departments, universities – is nothing short of extraordinary. What a different place this country would be if more of it operated like this.

    DRI’s founding director Dr Sandra Collins begins work as head of the National Library next month. I can’t wait to see what she does.

  • Can you change your ancestors?

    June 30, 2015 @ 5:52 pm | by John Grenham

    In the course of the controversy a few weeks ago over Rachel Dolezal, the American woman born white who adopted an African-American identity, her mother said something that jumped out at me: “You can’t change your ancestors.”

    This looks incontrovertible. Facts are facts, you can’t change the past. But of course we change the past all the time. The prevailing view of 1916 in Ireland today is very different to the prevailing view fifty years ago. History is constantly being contested and rewritten.

    And people have regularly changed their ancestors. In early Ireland, after an upstart had defeated the legitimate ruler, his most urgent task was the assembly of a pedigree proving him to be – surprise – actually a distant relative of the legitimate ruler, and thus no longer an upstart. One traditional branch of genealogy (the “black hats”) has long specialised in plausible blue blood, no questions asked: How many generations would Sir like?

    So can ethnicity, with its implication of common ancestors, be purely a cultural construct? In the West at least, we now accept trans-gender identity, that people physically of one gender can in fact be of another. Is there not a good case for trans-ethnic identity, that people like Rachel Dolezal, physically of one ethnicity, can in fact belong to another?

    It’s quite a seductive idea. Race and nation are obviously rooted in political and cultural allegiances. More often than not, we draw the border between “us” and “them” based on nothing more than accents, cooking styles and invented history.

    But there is more than culture to the differences between us. Like it or not, races or nations do have their own characteristics, their own flaws and talents, and large parts of these stem from inheritance. To recognise this is not racist, any more than ignoring it is egalitarian.

    So we’re stuck with our ancestors. But they are only the raw material of who we can be, a starting point, not a destiny.

  • Molly Bloom: curiouser and curiouser

    June 24, 2015 @ 10:53 am | by John Grenham

    A while back I wrote about Alfred Henry Hunter, the reputed real-life original of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, to demonstrate just how much information is now accessible on-line. It turns out that Alfred’s wife is even more accessible, and more interesting.

    First, like Bloom’s Molly, she was christened Marion. The baptism took place in the Church of Ireland Mariners’ Church in Dún Laoghaire on May 19 1864, with her full name given as Marion Bruére Quin. She was the daughter of Francis Quin, a professor of music, and Menella (née Wilcox). Molly’s musical bent, so important to Ulysses, clearly has a background in Marion’s family.

    Her mother’s side are even more intriguing. The Wilcoxes, from just outside Sunderland, were cousins of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. As an adult Dodgson regularly visited – he composed “Jabberwocky” while staying with them – and corresponded frequently with Marion’s mother, Menella. He also took an interest in Menella’s daughters, encouraging Marion’s elder sister Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin in her acting career, for which she used the stage-name “Norah O’Neill”.

    Marion herself also knew Dodgson very well. In 1897, he gave her a hand-written manuscript of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, the original of what was to become Alice in Wonderland, inscribed “Marion Quin, with the Author’s Love”.

    In later life, after the death of Alfred in 1926, she appears to have fallen on hard times. She sold the manuscript at auction in London in 1938, and lived her final years in a North Dublin tenement, sharing 14 Upper Rutland Street (now Seán O’Casey Avenue) with at least six other households.

    There is no doubt that the original from which Joyce drew most of Molly’s character was his wife, Nora Barnacle. But he borrowed from everything and everybody in the Dublin he knew. And he clearly knew (or knew of) Marion Bruére Hunter.

    [Full links at the Irish Roots archive.]

  • 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 (, 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 (, 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 ( 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 ( 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 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

  • 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 (, the doyen of North American genealogy commentators and a very straight talker, described 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.

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