Every year thousands of people flock to the Irish Life Centre in Dublin – not for banking or shopping, but in search of their family history.
The centre is home to the General Register Office’s (GRO) research facility which allows the public to trace their ancestry through birth, death and marriage records.
For years it's been a valuable resource for genealogists and people researching their family trees. Eileen Ó Duill, a genealogist who's been working in Ireland for 25 years, says many of the Irish diaspora who have flocked home for the Gathering 2013 were eager to learn about their family heritage.
“During the year I’ve provided talks throughout the country about how to research your family history,” she says. “Almost all genealogists have – it’s been our contribution”.
Steven Smyrl, president of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI), agrees and says that during the summer there’s usually an increase in interest but this year it has been greater than normal.
“Certainly I think the Gathering has made a big impact to bring people to Ireland who want to research their history themselves or through an accredited genealogist,” he said.
However, Smyrl and other genealogists are concerned about plans to relocate the GRO to a former dole office on Werburgh Street in the south-inner city in September, after the Irish Life Centre lease expires.
“From a personal point of view it’s pretty inconvenient for anybody coming from outside of Dublin ... to be going to a somewhat decrepit old building,” says Helen Keddy, for whom genealogy is a hobby she’s been pursuing for the past six years.
"I sort of wonder what it says about the Government's interest in genealogy in general ... visually it's a dreadful spot".
Ó Duill agrees the new location is “awful” and “very depressing”.
“We should deliver on a reasonable location for people to conduct their research,” she says. “We need to have a place where people can come and connect with their roots. It should be important enough that they find space in a historically important building.”
Smyrl believes there should be scope to renegotiate the rent after the current lease expires because the building’s ground floor is almost empty. “Virtually every other shop is closed ... there has to be an ability to renegotiate the rent.”
Even if a move is inevitable, he suggests the “underused” Dublin Tourism Centre on St Andrew’s Street or much of the unused office space in the city centre as ideal locations.
Currently, the database of birth, death and marriage records which date back to 1845 are kept in hard-copy format only. Smyrl says this makes for laborious and unnecessarily time-consuming work for family historians and other genealogists.
“If you do a 10-year search it takes 40 individual searches in hardcopy indexes...for the vast majority of [the time],” he says, and adds that because of this the location of the facility is very important.
“Me or some of my staff would be there every day. They have a digital version of the documents but they have not yet made it available. Year after year goes by but ... they haven’t gotten around to it yet. Each new desk [in the Irish Life Centre] was to have a computer terminal so you could search the records and print out.”
He said the GRO in Belfast provides computerised records which will also be accessible on the internet by the end of the year. “Members of the public whether it’s in Outer Mongolia or North Carolina will be able to access them,” he said.
The GRO's current Irish Life Centre location is close to Connolly Station, the Luas and the Dart. Smyrl adds: "It's also next to the Valuations Office, where information about ancestors' land holdings can be traced back to the 1850s".
The Office of Public Works, which is responsible for the research facility’s premises, said it was being relocated because the lease on the property expires at the end of next month.
It said: “As part of the OPW’s rationalisation programme, the GRO is be relocated to State-owned property at Werburgh Street, adjacent to Dublin Castle. This will result in annual savings to the exchequer of €1.5 million in rents and service charges.
“Several alternative locations were examined but the Werburgh Street premises was deemed the most suitable. This is seen as a temporary move until more suitable accommodation is identified in the long term.
“The digitising of records is a matter entirely for the GRO.”