Irish Roots »

  • Guinness in the Blood

    October 1, 2014 @ 9:52 am | by John Grenham

    Unless you’re from Kerry or Donegal, last week’s All-Ireland football final was as dull as porridge. The half-time ads beat it hands-down. Proctor and Gamble, Aldi, McDonalds, AIB and SuperValu all competed to show just how Irish they really are, every one of their commercials smothered in a lovely, buttery Oirish voiceover.

    But the Guinness ad was genuinely something special. The film began with the actual process of brewing Guinness, while Cillian Murphy’s voice-over supplied only the bare minimum of PR guff. It then moved on to those behind the brewing, from barley farmers to coopers, telling us the number of generations each family had been involved. And to drive home the depth of their tradition, the tag-line hit a bull’s-eye: “We’re only 255 years into a 9,000 year lease. We have a lot of beer left to brew”.

    Apart from the fact that I like the stuff (my lifetime supply can be forwarded care of The Irish Times), what struck me was that the ad was actually true. Anyone who has done research on a family with Guinness connections knows just how seriously the company takes its archives, in particular the records of its workers. At, they have a freely searchable database of more than 20,000 employee files, complete with (accurate!) birth-dates, spouse’s names, dates of joining and dates of death. And of course many of the jobs were passed down from father to son, so the site covers multiple generations.

    The online information is only the start. Full personnel files, many dating from the 1850s and 1860s, often hold much more information, with the company’s extraordinary paternalism extending to medical, financial and other details. These files are available to personal visitors once the employee number is identified from the website.

    The ad was obviously made, or commissioned, by someone with an understanding of the unique position of Guinness in Dublin.

    Very more-ish.

  • The Mayor of Boston’s family tree

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:33 am | by John Grenham

    I was recently involved in researching the family tree of Marty Walsh, the Mayor of Boston, as part of the mother of all Irish festivals, iFest Boston (, which takes place next weekend. Both his parents were born in Ireland, so the research was all on Irish records and was, on one level, straightforward. First the General Register Office, from there to the 1901 and 1911 censuses, then back to the GRO, then on to parish registers and property records, until we had the sixteen great-great-grandparents and the legions of fourth cousins.

    But in thirty years of doing research I’ve never seen an extended family quite like the Mayor’s. His father came from Carna and his mother from Rosmuc, deep in south Connemara. Both of them were native Irish speakers – Irish was the Mayor’s own first language – and both were steeped in the extraordinary high civility of that traditional Irish culture, full of elaborate courtesy and hospitality and revolving around shared songs and stories.

    And their parents were steeped in it too. And their parents’ parents. And their great-grandparents. One of the truisms of genealogy is that we’re all mongrels, that everyone’s ancestors came from some-place else. Not the Mayor’s. Every single one was from south Connemara.

    Rosmuc was where Patrick Pearse learnt his Irish, and the culture that he found there is the one adopted as the ideal of Irishness by official Ireland for most of the last century. The Mayor’s family is as close as it’s possible to get to that pure-bred fíor-gael ideal. It’s just a little scary.

    I suspect that the reason I’ve never done research on a family like this is that families like this don’t need research done. They already know more about their ancestors and their cousins than any documents could possibly show. I’m expecting indignation in Carna and Rosmuc about all the mistakes and omissions.

    Just have his people call my people.

  • Long live the Revolution!

    September 15, 2014 @ 11:44 am | by John Grenham

    When you live through big changes happening over years, it can be hard to grasp the full scale of what’s going on. This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago, while I was manning an information stand with some of my colleagues from the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland ( at a genealogy event in Glasgow.

    We fielded query after query (after query after query …) from hordes of descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who moved to Scotland as economic refugees in the nineteenth century. Time and again, they would start with “I know there are no Irish records, but …” And time and again, to their delight and amazement, we could demonstrate just how easy it was to find their ancestors using only what’s free online.

    Finally, one individual who had already done a good deal of Irish research said to me, “I know there are holes in the Irish records, but when they’re good, they’re very, very good.”

    That stopped me in my tracks. Irish records very good? It’s an outlandish thought for someone who has spent decades weeping and wailing about the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922.

    But there is truth in it. For genealogy at least, there has been a true revolution in access to Irish records over the past five years. (Nearly) all of the major sources are (nearly) all online, most free, most searchable with a flexibility and degree of fine detail that would have been unimaginable even in 2010. And things are still improving year by year. We should step back, take in the bigger picture and realise how well we’ve done.

    So thank you to the Scots for that small enlightenment. And just one piece of advice to them for the referendum: Come on in. The water’s lovely.

  • The Monica Roberts Collection

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:04 am | by John Grenham

    Sometimes the current bout of commemorating feels like the Borges parable about the map the same size as the country it depicts. Living through World War 1 was bad enough. Surely the point of reliving it is that you can skip some bits.

    Commemoration fatigue aside, the unprecedented scale of remembering is already producing wonderful micro-history, with intense detail evoking the vivid taste and feel of ordinary life a century ago.

    The Monica Roberts Collection, newly online at as part of Dublin City Council’s contribution to the commemoration, is full of that intense, evocative, mundane detail. Monica Roberts was a young, upper-class woman living in Stillorgan who set up a “Band of Helpers to the Soldiers” at the start of the war. With the same innocent idealism as the hundreds of thousands of men who volunteered to fight, the “Band” undertook the provision of moral support, writing to the troops, sending parcels of tobacco and sweets and woolly socks. The collection consists of 453 of the letters and postcards written back to her by those soldiers, all transcribed and imaged on the site, freely searchable and browseable by name, place and month.

    The careful, best-behaviour politeness of the soldiers is truly poignant, now that we know the horrors they were actually enduring. And the series peters out from the end of 1917 into 1918, as the reality of life at the front filtered into public consciousness and it became common knowledge that the soldiers had been led away to enormous, industrialised slaughter.

    The original letters were carefully preserved for many years by Monica’s daughter Mary Shackleton, who gave them to Tom Burke MBE, Chairman of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association. The RDFA in turn passed them on to Dublin City Archives, the creators of the website.

    So it is absolutely right that the micro-histories on the site are so personal and small- scale: this is the way real memories survive, handed on carefully from individual to individual, decade after decade.

  • There was no mass emigration from Ireland

    September 1, 2014 @ 9:54 am | by John Grenham

    Nobody ever left Ireland to go to America. Pat Naughton left Ballinasloe to go to his cousin John in Roxbury, Boston. James McCurdy went from Rathlin to Lubec, Maine, for a job promised by his mother’s uncle. Father Bud Sullivan brought rakes of other Sullivans out from Allihies to work for Marcus Daly in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

    There was no such thing as mass migration, only the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual and family decisions. Identifying and unravelling those decisions can bridge centuries and oceans and re-knit extended families. And the painstaking micro-study of migration clusters is the only way to do that.
    There are some excellent individual works – Peter Murphy’s Together in Exile (New Brunswick, 1990), a superb reconstruction of migration from Carlingford to St John’s, New Brunswick, is the founder of the genre and still a shining example. But, as far as I’m aware, no central guide exists to the clustering of Irish migrant origins and destinations. Genealogical anecdotes certainly abound, with dozens of unlikely pairings: Abbeydorney to Westbury; Kilskeery to Charlestown Mass.; Dungarvan to Yonkers. But there is nothing systematic. Perhaps Ireland reaching Out ( should be encouraging or hosting something like this?

    In any case, if you want to have a go for your own locality there are now some excellent online tools.

    The indefatigable Steve Morse ( allows precise reconstruction of Ellis Island origins and destinations – have a look at for the 2000 people from Athlone who passed through between 1892 and 1924.

    For the mid-19th century, the Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” ads ( supply even more circumstantial detail.

    And the Irish Emigration Database at is another excellent resource, even if heavily weighted towards Ulster and unfortunately filleted of its 4,500 passenger lists. They languish, unlisted and unloved, in the crude pay-per-view purdah of

  • Genealogy addiction: the symptoms

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:08 am | by John Grenham

    Here are some signs that you’re doing too much genealogy.

    You see names. So many many names. As a result, in order to stay sane, you have trained yourself to give every name you encounter a half-life of just ten minutes. In other words, after ten minutes they all vanish. This can create personal problems. There are times you find yourself sitting across the breakfast table from someone you know is your spouse, but whose name has just evaporated.

    Years of dealing with dodgy transcripts and half-baked, unwarranted assumptions mean that you have difficulty believing anything, a scepticism that can make small talk difficult. Your response to “That’s a nice day there” is likely to be “Prove it.”

    The devil lives down there in the detail, and you live down there with him. Your focus has narrowed to the point where you spend a year investigating the history of a stone wall along the north east corner of one field in west Mayo. And then button-hole complete strangers to tell them all about it.

    You regularly decide to check just one thing online before you go to bed, and then find yourself emerging from a research trance five hours later. When you finally make it to bed, bleary-eyed, with a throbbing head, your spouse (what’s her name again?) most unreasonably threatens divorce.

    Or you emerge from an online session furious at a database. How could they possibly not know that Mulderg is a variant of Redington? And they’ve left out all the commas! One symptom of a more advanced stage is bruising to the forehead, caused by repeated banging of the head against a computer monitor.

    And then there’s the worst sign of all. You’ve read right to the end of the ‘Irish Roots’ column. There’s no hope. It’s terminal.

  • 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.

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