Irish Roots »

  • Recovering the Great War Dead

    August 18, 2014 @ 3:07 pm | by John Grenham

    My father used to tell me stories he got from the Great War veterans who drank in his father’s pub near Custume Barracks in Athlone during the 1930s. Safe among their own, the men could swap yarns about their experiences and my father, like any teenager, eavesdropped and absorbed everything. The stories have stayed with me: German prisoners of war taken behind the lines and killed; terrible mutilations; trench-foot and lice and rats and gangrene.

    Private spaces like my grandfather’s pub were the only place the War could then be remembered. The wilful blindness imposed by post-independence orthodoxy cut Ireland off from parts of its past and distorted its connections with what came to be called “the outside world”. Our recovery from that self-inflicted amnesia and isolation, at least where the Great War is concerned, has largely been fuelled by local historians and genealogists.

    Again and again, a rediscovered Army grandfather or grand-uncle or second cousin has spurred research that revives the lost memory of much broader groups of soldiers, especially those who died. The official 1929 commemorative publication Ireland’s Memorial Records (see included more than 49,000 names of Irish soldiers who were killed. But detailed, painstaking local research done over the last decade reveals that the true number was much higher, probably close to 100,000. County by county, their names are slowly being brought to light. Some of the publications listing them are at News of any omissions is welcome

    One fact should not be missed in the heat of commemoration. Those who died did not make a willing sacrifice. They were themselves the sacrifice, part of what Pope Benedict XV in 1915 called “the suicide of civilised Europe”. Their lives were cynically wasted by political and military leaders. Respect for their courage and their endurance should not blind us to that.

  • Free downloads from the (other) National Archives

    August 13, 2014 @ 9:51 am | by John Grenham

    The National Archives (the one at Kew in London) has a very irritating name. Which nation? It’s not Britain, since Scotland is excluded; it’s not the UK, since Northern Ireland is excluded; it’s not England, since Wales is included.

    Post-colonial nit-picking aside, TNA (even the acronym is annoying) is a wonderful and much under-appreciated resource for Irish research. Apart from British Army records, now largely available online on and, huge quantities of the records produced by imperial administrators in Ireland found their way back to London. For someone used to working with Irish records in Ireland, TNA’s vast, densely-populated archive series, many spanning multiple centuries, are simply stunning, like visiting a cathedral after a life spent in a cave.

    The biggest problem has always been that the Archives is in London. Improving access is a long-standing priority and over the past decade, the online catalogue ( has become an extraordinary research tool in its own right, summarising in miniature many of the originals. After using it for years, I only recently discovered another generous feature, the “digital microfilm” service. TNA has digitised thousands of microfilms and is making them downloadable for free.

    They are elephantine PDF files, slow to arrive and searchable only by hand, just like the microfilms themselves. But you don’t have to trek to Kew to see them. Among the records relevant to Ireland are Admiralty and Coast Guard records from 1816, the printed annual Army Lists, detailing every officer in the army from 1754, and the General Register Office Indexes to Foreign Returns of Births, Marriages and Deaths 1627-1917.

    It has to be said that the site (deliberately?) makes them awkward to get at. Start from the full list (see and just keep burrowing.

    Whatever its flaws, this is genuine public service. Irish institutions please copy.

  • Why can’t you find your Irish ancestors online?

    August 4, 2014 @ 1:59 pm | by John Grenham

    You know your ancestors are on the internet somewhere, the blasted things, but they’re just not showing up. Why?

    Maybe you’re not taking a cautious enough approach to surnames. Look closely and on one page, your granny’s a Breheny, on the next she’s a Judge. Here your family is Mahony, there Canniff. Sometimes you can almost see the priest flipping a coin at the baptism: heads the child is Phelan, tails Whelan.

    Alright, so you’re as sceptical as vinegar about surnames. But still you sometimes can’t help relying on websites’ built-in surname variant searches. Don’t. On, the single most important Irish genealogy site, searching for Whelan will get you Whaelen, Waylan, Phaelan, Ó Faolaín … But it won’t get you Phelan. Go figure.

    So you know in your bones that you can never, ever trust an Irish surname. But your ancestors still aren’t where they should be. “Where” can also be slippery. Parishes shrank, grew, split and renamed themselves, county borders wobbled and straightened, registration districts were slapped down so that they cut across every other boundary. Lines on a map can be very seductive, but you need to be very wary of them. I know. I’ve drawn some dodgy maps in my time.

    Or is there an unremarked gap in the records? An example: the (wonderful) National Archives genealogy site digitised their Tithe Books by using the existing microfilms, which were sorted alphabetically by parish name. But the digitisers missed one microfilm, with the result that 12 parishes, between “Drum” and “Dunc” are just not online.

    And then of course, there’s the possibility that your ancestors simply didn’t want to be found. The recently-released Dublin city electoral rolls 1908-1915 ( contains names that look suspiciously like bad aliases, including Mary Innocent and Timothy Guilty, Thomas History, Harry Mayo and the badly misjudged “Olive O’Ireland

  • The General Register Office and

    July 28, 2014 @ 10:22 am | by John Grenham

    In case you hadn’t heard, the General Register Office birth, marriage and death indexes launched on just three weeks ago have been (temporarily?) withdrawn after the Data Protection Commissioner threatened enforcement proceedings against the site. Much public wailing and gnashing and huffing and puffing has followed.

    What exactly was the problem? First, keep in mind that these are indexes, and most emphatically not the full records. Second, the public has a statutory right to see the printed indexes in the GRO Research Room in Dublin, and these contain most of the information that appeared on IrishGenealogy. And full transcripts of these printed indexes up to 1958 have been freely available online for more than five years, on, and

    My own birth index entry is still there on these sites, with my mother’s maiden name. The Commissioner’s index entry is still there, with his mother’s maiden name. The Registrar General’s entry is there … And the sky hasn’t fallen in.

    So why the fuss? Do people born after 1958 have a right to more privacy than those born before? Or perhaps IrishGenealogy is a nice home-grown target, with some easy scapegoats, whereas the others are global corporations? Perish the thought.

    There were certainly problems with the IrishGenealogy database, but these stemmed from what they were given. Rather than a digital version of the printed indexes, they got the GRO’s own internal finding aid, amounting to a substantial expansion on the indexes. I suspect the accompanying explanatory note read simply: “Here you are, little Princess. Take a nice big bite.”

    Of course someone should have spotted the difference, and a whole series of other flaws as well, but the civil servants involved are generalists, not specialists. They should have got advice. Next time, I imagine they will.

    In any case, even if the indexes never reappear, the loss will be painful, but not insurmountable. The real worry is that being bitten like this makes civil servants hyper-cautious about future record releases.

  • False friends and Boston

    July 21, 2014 @ 9:43 am | by John Grenham

    Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language is familiar with the idea of a “false friend”, a word that looks identical but has a completely distinct meaning in the other language. “Sensible” is not at all sensible in French. But there can also be false friends in different dialects of the same language. “To root” has a very different, deeply scatological meaning in Australian slang. Which throws, I think, a refreshing light on the name of this column.

    And the other part of the column title can also be a false friend. In Ireland, “Irish” is first of all a straightforward label of citizenship, but, like every other European national identifier, is freighted with all sorts of political baggage, as well as a shifting collection of ethnic, territorial and cultural presumptions. Irishness may not be precise, but we know it when we see it. So when Joe Kowalski from Peoria insists on shaking our hand and telling us he’s Irish too, most of us feel something is very wrong.

    We shouldn’t, though. Joe’s “Irish” is simply a false friend. The rich, sometimes toxic stew of connotations contained in European national labels is just missing in America, dissolved in two-and-a-half centuries of democracy. Though the words are identical, they all contain an unspoken qualifier: Irish(-American); Italian(-American); German(-American).

    Why all of this now? I need to think out loud about these things because, come the Autumn, I’ll be telling Bostonians all about their Irishness, God help me. “iFest Boston” ( is the mother of all Irish fests, scheduled for the end of September, with, among others, Paddy Moloney, Joan Bergin, Darina Allen, Belinda McKeon, and sponsored by Guinness, Aer Lingus, Bord Bia and many more.

    Genealogy is only a tiny part of one subsection of the event, and only a small part of what I’ll be doing myself. It’ll be nice to get out of the ghetto for a few days.

  • Resurrecting Church of Ireland records

    July 14, 2014 @ 11:16 am | by John Grenham

    The catastrophic destruction of records in the Public Record Office in 1922 obscured forever the history of everyone living on this island. But one group in particular had its history utterly devastated.

    The Church of Ireland was an arm of the state, the “established church”, and an integral part of the apparatus of administration in Ireland from the early seventeenth century. It had a hand in overseeing early censuses, wills, charities, tithes and much more. So it was hardly surprising that a disproportionate number of the records in the PRO had been created by the Church.

    When disestablishment happened on January 1 1871, all of the Church’s baptism, marriage and burial registers before that date were also declared property of the state, and local clergy were required to deposit them in the PRO. There were some loopholes – ironically, a parish that possessed a fireproof safe was magnanimously allow to retain the documents – but by 1922 around two-thirds of all pre-1871 records were in the PRO. And all were destroyed.

    However, as well as the parishes that held onto their registers, quite a few had made copies before depositing the originals – these were working records, after all – , many early registers had already been published and local historians and genealogists has made copious extracts and abstracts .

    As a result, locating Church of Ireland registers and their substitutes has always been ferociously difficult. Were the originals destroyed? If not, where are they? If so, is there a copy? Or an extract? And where exactly is that?

    The only near-comprehensive guide has long been a dog-eared binder in the National Archives, the successor to the PRO. The Church’s own archives, the Representative Church Body Library in Dublin. has now taken on the job of maintaining this list and keeping it public on their website at

    Clearly, the work was long, painstaking, and eye-wateringly detailed, but it is a godsend for all Irish researchers. Congratulations to the RCBL and hallelujahs all round.

  • The General Register Office indexes online

    July 9, 2014 @ 9:53 am | by John Grenham

    First the good news. The copy of the General Register Office’s birth, marriage and death indexes, live on the website since last Thursday, is simply astonishing.

    Coming right up to 2013, it is a researcher’s (and snooper’s) nirvana. The death indexes from 1966 record marital status as well as reported age at death, the marriage indexes from 1903 show both parties’ names, and the birth indexes from 1900 give the mother’s maiden name. By default, searches use variant surname spelling, but the site also allows tremendous flexibility. You can browse by period, registration district and event, reconstruct entire families and deduce possible legions of third and fourth cousins from the death indexes.

    In all there are more than 27 million records, meaning this subsection of the website is, on its own, probably the single largest online Irish genealogy resource.

    The less good news is that the way the records are presented will cause deep bewilderment to people unfamiliar with the registration system. The main problem is that most of these newly-available index records don’t supply the information needed to extract a full register entry or order a certificate, unlike the copies of the indexes up to 1958 already available on (and Ancestry and FindMyPast). Instead they give an internal GRO reference number. So in most cases no clear route exists from the online index entry to the full information in the register. I suspect a tsunami of puzzlement and frustration is about to break over the heads of the poor civil servants responsible for handling public feedback.

    But the best news only emerged at the website launch. Joan Burton, the minister with responsibility for the GRO, announced a “Civil Registration Amendment Bill 2014”, which will remove all legal obstacles to public access to the full records, not just the indexes.

    So here they come at last, full records of all Irish births over 100 years old, all marriages over 75 and all deaths over 50. Seventh heaven approaches.

  • The Placenames Commision site: improved by abolition

    June 30, 2014 @ 9:48 am | by John Grenham

    After a recent column about placenames, a reader enquired why I’d left out the website of the Irish Placenames Commission, I responded that their records omitted some of the divisions needed for research in nineteenth-century records, such as Poor Law Unions. But the real reason was that I hadn’t looked at the site for ages.

    And when I did look, it turns out the Commission has been abolished. Its function, to provide official bodies with an authoritative Irish language version of every place-name, is now carried out by the Placenames Branch of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

    The main aim of the website had been to make available the 70 years of scholarship that lay behind the Commission’s attempts to peel away seven centuries of English veneer. So it was very useful indeed for local history, but a bit marginal for genealogy, with the wonderful exception of the superb collection of maps buried away under its “Toponymy resources” sub-menu.

    Abolition has suited the site very well, however. Taken over by Fiontar, DCU’s interdisciplinary Irish-language school, it has deepened and expanded beyond recognition. The search interface remains a bit limited for a researcher trying to disentangle names distorted by five or more generations of Chinese whispering, but the sheer range covered is extraordinary, ranging well beyond the usual townlands and streets. It includes rivers, bogs, valleys, mountains and some gloriously exotic non- and sub-townland categories: bogs, wells, tombs, fields, standing stones and “holes”. Anything out there with a name on it appears to be fair game.

    What’s more, Fiontar has knitted everything together very smoothly and integrated it all over a fully flexible Ordnance Survey map. You now pick a county or barony or civil parish and browse all its townlands (and bridges and souterrains and islands), poke into any research on the Irish names, zoom in, zoom out, and meander around till the cows come home. Happy days.

  • Accentuate the negative

    June 23, 2014 @ 8:30 am | by John Grenham

    I recently overheard a bar-room theology session end with a triumphant “But you can’t disprove that God exists!” Unfortunately, the old logical saw works both ways: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it’s not much good as evidence of presence either.

    Research in Irish records means constantly confronting such uncertainties: Irish genealogy’s motto should be “Absence of evidence”.

    Not long ago, I took on what looked like a very straightforward search for the baptism of a James Holohan, born to a Holohan/Molloy couple around 1850 in Kilkenny. The Catholic baptismal records of the county are good for the period and, in my experience, the Kilkenny transcripts at are very accurate. So there should have been no problem.

    But there was no matching baptism 1840 to 1860. No baptism for other children of the couple 1830 to 1870. No matching baptism with mother’s name missing. No parents’ marriage. No baptism outside Kilkenny. An absolute blank on every single front.

    This was more than annoying, it needed explanation. Even if one baptism was missing or mis-transcribed, siblings’ records or a parents’ marriage record should be providing enough bites of the cherry to identify at least a general area of origin.

    So I listed all parishes in Kilkenny with both Holohan and Molloy households in Griffith’s in 1849 and then checked the status of the Catholic records for these parishes (all on, of course). For the parish with the single largest number of households, Ballyragget, all of the parish registers between 1807 and 1855 were missing.
    Does this prove my James Holohan was from Ballyragget? Not at all. Without the records, it’s simply impossible to know. All I have is a possible explanation of why it’s impossible

    So Irish researchers just have to cultivate what Keats called “Negative Capability”, the capacity “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

  • 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.

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