Irish Roots »

  • 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.

  • 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

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