Irish Roots »

  • Post-traumatic weather amnesia

    August 17, 2015 @ 10:49 am | by John Grenham

    We Irish tend to feel, with some justification, that we’re more informed about the past than most other races. Many very old issues are unresolved here: we still have a lot of unfinished history. Knowing that history, and having opinions about it, is part of every Irish person’s base culture.

    But there is one area of the past for which we have a deep, wilful blind spot. We suffer from weather amnesia, in particular the virulent sub-variant, post-traumatic summer weather amnesia. On principle, we refuse to recognise that it rains here between May and September. Apart from the occasional hillwalker, no one in Ireland owns rain gear, and very few have waterproof clothing of any description. In a warm pub on a rainy July day, the most distinctive smell is of wet clothes drying.

    We loathe wet summers; we take them as a personal insult, and are deeply, bitterly disappointed when it rains in August. Even though it always rains in August. So we repress the memories of a lifetime of rainy summers and, come May, expect glorious baking sunshine.

    Because of this, being a weather forecaster here is a peculiarly sensitive job, and the profession has developed its own jargon, full of defensive euphemisms: “fresh and blustery”, “organised bands of showers”, “scattered outbreaks of drizzle” and, particularly common, “unsettled”. Irish weather is unsettled like the Black Death was an outbreak of acne.

    Comparing the Irish and English forecasts shows just how touchy we are about this. On the BBC, the forecaster will tell you exactly how much it’s going to rain and when, perhaps with a rueful shake of the head. On RTÉ, it will never be told straight. It is absolutely obligatory to start out with a glimmer of hope – “It might be dry on Thursday!” – before sheepishly revealing the approaching deluge.

    Maybe some things are better repressed. If we remembered accurately, we’d realise that every Irish summer is below average.

  • Online newsreels are a treasure trove

    August 10, 2015 @ 11:53 am | by John Grenham

    I usually begin my standard talk about online family history by declaring that there are no genealogical records on the internet and then pretending to walk offstage. The aim is to dramatise the fact that all we actually have online are transcripts, copies, images (if we’re lucky), but no originals.

    That’s less and less true. As time goes on, the internet itself is creating records that didn’t exist before – imagine the fun your great-grandchildren will have trawling through your Facebook posts – and allowing the creation of records that would just not have been possible a decade ago.

    My favourite among the latter is newsreel. Just over a year ago, British Pathé digitised its entire archive and made it available free at youtube/users/britishpathe. With more than 85,000 short films stretching from 1896 to 1976, it has attracted plenty of attention; its coverage of the revolution in Ireland between 1916 and 1923 is extraordinary. Now British Movietone and Associated Press have just done the same for their archives, at

    Movietone seems to have specialised in much softer news than Pathé – every Ireland-England rugby match since the 1920s is here – which makes its archive much more useful for local and family history.
    The out-of-the-way bits of the past are likelier to include ordinary people. Gems I’ve come across so far include “Pig Fair in Oldcastle”; “Glasnevin New Parish Church Consecrated” and, from 1932, the unease-inducing “Enniskerry tenants draw Lord Powerscourt’s heir and his bride up drive to ancestral home”.

    The one weakness is with YouTube. Its search is a ridiculously blunt instrument. A much better route of access is to use the home sites of Movietone and AP and Pathé. On these, you can narrow your target by location and decade and keyword. They’re still not perfect, and still in need of proper archival cataloguing that treats these films as the important historical sources they are.

    But they’re deadly nonetheless.

  • Localised 19th-century Irish surnames

    August 3, 2015 @ 1:56 pm | by John Grenham

    The recent mapping at of all General Register Office births between 1864 and 1913 (see brought us a massive influx of unfamiliar surnames and unfamiliar variant spellings, more than 11,000 in all, raising the tally of historic surnames on the site to almost 100,000.

    The job of integrating these newbies into the existing surname variant lists is painful drudgery, and still ongoing, but the work is throwing some very interesting sidelights on the way Irish surnames have evolved.

    First, it’s clear that we now live in a very stable surname environment compared with even the recent past. The sheer variety of 19th-century originals and alternative spellings is mind-boggling. More than a million variants are recorded, a lost ecology of names so rich in variety it is almost impossible to reimagine. But the most striking insight is just how local many surnames were. Again and again, strange and wonderful names turn out to be tightly bound to individual parishes and counties – Qua and Whan to Armagh and Down, Mungovan to Clare, McWeeny to Leitrim, Noud to Kildare. This localism is much more pronounced in the poorest, most densely populated counties along the western seaboard, though Antrim and Down come close.

    In the course of grinding through them, I’ve begun to list these localised surnames systematically (if only to keep myself awake) and the site now has listings for every county. See Limerick ( for example.

    My own county, Roscommon, is comprehensive enough, I think, and perhaps Mayo and Sligo as well. But the listings for everywhere else could be full of holes. Have a look at your own county and let me know how wrong I am.

  • 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.

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