Irish Roots: Hidden ancestors

Why can’t you find your ancestors online?

Fri, Aug 8, 2014, 10:51

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

Maybe you’re just not cautious enough about surnames. Look closely and on one page, your granny’s a Breheny, on the next she’s a Judge. Here your family is O’Driscoll, there Cadogan. 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 Rootsireland.ie, 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 an online map can be seductive, but you need to be very wary of them. I know. I’ve drawn some dodgy ones in my time.

Or is there an unremarked gap in the records? An example: the wonderful National Archives genealogy site digitised their Tithe Books 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-expanded Dublin city electoral rolls 1908-1915 (dublinheritage.ie) record quite a few names that look suspiciously like aliases, including Mary Innocent and Timothy Guilty, Thomas History, Harry Mayo and (God help us) Olive O’Ireland.

irishroots@irishtimes.com irishtimes.com/ancestor