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The Yes Woman: Irish family trees are particularly hard to climb

It seems that my paternal great-grandmother was a fearsome lady. I like her immediately

My great-grandmother, aged 18 and standing tall

We define ourselves largely in relation to our family, even – or perhaps especially – when that family isn’t one we feel part of. Whether you adore or loathe your family, it is responsible for much of your sense of self. We obsessively compare children to their parents, making bizarre statements about freshly arrived babies, still mush-faced and unfolding before us like clean laundry. “Ah, he has the Henderson chin.” Or “Oh, sure that’s a head of O’Neill hair.” We claim the baby as belonging to “our” side of the family. Despite the fact that this tribal sense of belonging is periodically forgotten – particularly at Christmas when you remember that you do in fact hate everyone you’re related to – it pulls at us strongly.

People are fascinated by the idea of looking into their family history. Irish families are always riddled with interesting characters, tragic stories and migrants. Unfortunately, you’ll have some trouble digging up facts. There are too many things that “people just didn’t talk about in those days”.

To complicate matters, our census records are rather dodgy. The years 1901 and 1911 are available to search online, and are extensive. No census was taken in 1921 due to the War of Independence. In 1926, the first census was taken of the population of the Irish Free State, but those records will not be available to public access until 2027. The 1861 and 1871 censuses were destroyed soon after they were taken, and the 1881 and 1891 censuses were pulped during the first World War. Then, of course, there was the famous fire at the Public Records Office in 1922, which destroyed almost all of the census records between 1821 and 1851. Overall, much like the average Irish family, our records are a bit of a mess and not terribly forthcoming.


Where to begin

In my search for answers, I email Eneclann and ask them where to start. They direct me to their free Genealogy Advisory Service at the National Library of Ireland, and to Carmel Gilbride, who advises me on where to begin.

My curiosity had started with a photograph of a woman. As I examined the photo, captivated, my aunt explained that the woman was my paternal great-grandmother. The family story goes that she ran a shop on Ellen Street in Limerick, and was quite a fearsome lady. In the photograph, she stands tall with dark hair and a defiant facial expression, aged 18, her corseted waist revealing not a whisper of the 10 children who would go on to ruin it. It is said among the family that she daily left the children in the care of another woman, because she preferred to run the shop.

I like her at once and endeavour to learn more about her.

Gilbride directs me to, where I buy a month’s membership for less than €10, which allows me to search online indexes before 1958 for a record of my grandparents’ marriages. Given the fog of Catholic shame that set in around my grandparents’ era, even that much is difficult and takes a while. Conversations with several family members indicate different years and places. I use the website to make a family tree, working back on both my mother’s and father’s sides to see how far it will take me.


An old friend

The results are fascinating. When I happen upon my maternal great-grandfather (it takes many cups of tea and awkward phone calls with family members) on the 1911 census, it feels like seeing the face of an old friend in a crowd. He is working as an undertaker, the census says, and he was born in Australia in the 1870s. The 1901 census tells me that by age 28, he is back in Tipperary and is head of the family.

At the thought of such a long and arduous voyage, my mind takes possession of him.

Yes, he is one of us, whoever we are. It is that sense of recognition and belonging, of investment in things that happened so long ago that makes genealogical research rewarding.

Next stop, the General Register Office on Dublin’s Werburgh Street for marriage records. And then? Backwards of course, as far as I can go.

  • Yes to . . . belonging. No to . . . a ninth cup of tea