Leave something for the next generation to discover

Like most public online family trees, those at ancestry.com  include horrors that beggar belief: children born before their parents, the same individual on multiple lines, people married at the age of two. Looking through Ancestry’s FAQs for an answer to a question these trees frequently make me ask – “Why? Dear God, why oh why?” –  I came across a statement that gave me pause: “Many members have family trees that are not yet finished”.

Back to 1560, but still only scratching the surface

Mmm. Well, yes. Because what exactly would a finished family tree look like? The Mormons, in their sunny optimism, aim to unite the entire human race into a single tree going back to Adam and Eve but they still have a way to travel. For the less theologically inclined, such a tree would have to reach back at least 3.8 billion years to the organism that is the last universal common ancestor, our cenancestor. Even then, would it be “finished”? What about the origins of the elements making up that organism, and the origins of the sub-atomic particles making up the elements?

I always knew genealogy would eventually lead to theoretical particle physics and the eleven dimensions of the space-time continuum. Beam me up, Scotty.

And I’m sure some of my relatives immigrated from dimension seven.

Great grand uncle Aloyius on the far right

The point is that, like families, family histories don’t come to neat conclusions and never proceed in straight lines. Research is always episodic: a day’s exploration here, an evening online there, visits to out-of-the-way archives tacked on to weekends away . Genealogical research means forever starting again. Plan for that. Record whatever you search (not just whatever you find) in a way that will make it easy to remember when you pick it up two years later. Otherwise you’ll have to do the research again.

And don’t expect to finish, whatever ancestry.com says. Your tree will always be gloriously messy, its loose ends dangling all over the place, an eternal work in progress.

Think of it as leaving something for the next generation to discover.

Irish surname and placename standardisation

No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise.

Sir Richard Griffith in 1854

It took me three decades of staring at Griffith’s Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation), to realise that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. As anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings will know,  this can’t be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith’s share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.

The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that’s how the place name should appear in Griffith’s. That’s what made it possible to create a direct click-through from place name to Griffith’s on this site – see the places listed for Kilkeevin, for example.

So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith’s standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith’s is a tax survey.  A misspelt surname is an most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.

Keep on straight past Kelly and take the first right just before Egan

For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as “Curlie”, “Curly” or “Corly”, the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became “Curley”.

It has to be said that this is not a very useful research tool – the advice must continue to be simply “cast the net as wide as possible”. But for larger-scale population and surname studies, that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.

Have a look at all those Curleys, for example.

The Atlas of the Irish Revolution: the emperor’s wonderful new clothes

Like many Irish people with a taste for history, I woke up on Christmas morning to find my stocking stretched to bursting by the latest  production from Cork University Press, The Atlas of the Irish Revolution. 

The reaction to the book in Ireland has been amazing: the Bord Gais Irish Book of the Year, the Joe Duffy Liveline Listeners’ Choice, a collection of reviews that would make a saint blush, the first printing selling out within a few weeks. And the thing itself really is extraordinary.

Ten separate sections deal exhaustively with every conceivable aspect of the period between 1916 and 1923:  from the nineteenth-century roots of the conflict, through detailed local and national accounts of the War of Independence and the Civil War, and on to analyses of cultural depictions of the period in Ireland and abroad. No fewer than one hundred and five individual scholars contribute, a Who’s Who of Irish cultural and historical studies, making it as much encyclopedia as atlas. And the visual presentation is stunning, with many freshly discovered photographs and publications.

A small part of the contents. Click to see the full listing

But, but, but … I can’t help feeling something has gone too far. The paper is the heaviest and glossiest possible. The colour printing is the best money can buy. The scholarship is superb. The cartography is dazzling. The binding is superlative. But it’s not possible to actually read the thing.

The page size, 299 x 237mm, is standard coffee-table, good for graphics but hard to manage physically.  Nine hundred and eighty-four of those pages is just too much. But the main problem is the weight. On my bathroom scales, it comes in at 5.1 kilos (11 and a quarter pounds). I’ve tried reading it in bed, in an armchair and sitting at a table, and had to give up each time. What it needs is a lectern.

CUP has produced the most beautiful book-like object imaginable. But it fails the first test of being a book, that it can be read.

I feel a bit like the boy in the parable of the emperor’s new clothes, except in this case the new clothes truly are magnificent. The problem is that they blot out the emperor .

How the Os and the Macs came back

Received wisdom in Ireland has long been that the process of reclaiming and resuming the Gaelic patronymic prefixes “Mc” (mac, “son of”) and “Ó” (“grandson of”) paralleled the resurgence of interest in Gaelic culture in the second-half of the 19th century. In the words of Edward MacLysaght, “when the spirit of the nation revived”.

The process was never straightforward. Inevitably, some people mistakenly claimed the wrong prefix. The most notorious example is the Gaelic family Mac Gormáin – all are now either O’Gorman or plain Gorman. MacLysaght’s explanation of what happened still can’t be bettered:

A generic chevalier

“Probably the man chiefly responsible for the substitution of O for Mac in the name was the celebrated gigantic Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman (1725-1808), exiled vineyard owner in France who, after being ruined by the French Revolution, became a constructor of Irish pedigrees.”

Mistakes apart, the story told by MacLysaght and others about surname prefix resumption remains that of steady progress eventually flowering into independence.

The figures from birth registrations tell a different story.

The proportion of total births recording Mc (or Mac, or M’) was 10.14 per cent in 1865. In 1913, it was 10.48 per cent. So there was a slow increase, but certainly nothing dramatic (see the chart here). It is tempting to surmise the great flood of “Mc” resumption only took off when it became clear in the early 1920s how useful a Gaelic-looking surname would be in the new Ireland.

Interestingly, the story is different for surnames starting “O'”.

In 1865, 1.67 per cent of total births used “O'”. By 1913, it was 3.2 per cent, almost doubling in five decades ( here). Perhaps the difference is that “O” surnames were found predominantly in Munster (and Donegal), traditionally nationalist regions, whereas “Mc” surnames were concentrated in north and east Ulster, with a solid unionist majority.

“Mc” households. Click for comparison to “O”.

The devil remains where he always was, in the detail.

Science, your mammy and your runny nose

For decades, public health scientists assured us that the common cold was caused by our spending half the year indoors sneezing on each other. There’s no evidence, they told us, that Ireland’s long-standing position as the world’s leading producer of winter phlegm had anything to do with the cold or the wet. “Old wives’ tales” they said, when we pointed out that for 10,000 years our mammies have been telling us that we’ll catch our death if we go out dressed like that.

And then  came a complete change of tack. Scientists at Yale actually looked at the evidence and found – surprise – that rhinoviruses, the culprits behind most colds and chest infections, thrive in cooler temperatures.  And the lower the temperature, the lower our innate immune response to viruses. And what’s more, our noses are usually three to four degrees colder than the rest of the body.

The scientists’ advice for avoiding runny noses? “Always stay in warm tropical weather or try to prevent the nasal cavity experiencing very cold air.” Translated into Irish terms, that says “Emigrate south or dress the way your mother told  you”.

The first lesson is that the phrase “There is no evidence” is just a euphemism for “We don’t know”, even when uttered by a scientist.

The second is that not all evidence is cast-iron scientific evidence. Most research advice will tell you to treat your family traditions with deep scepticism and most professional researchers will say “Yeah, right” (under their breath) when you tell them you’re descended from kings and princes. But even though centuries of tradition may not constitute forensic proof, it remains genuine evidence. Discount it at your peril.

But the most important lesson is that, although your Mammy might not be absolutely right absolutely all the time, the odds in her favour are pretty good.

My mammy

Ridiculously bitty little scraps of half-records

The burning of the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922 is the sole reason why we spend so much research time on ridiculously bitty little scraps of half-records. We’re like archaeologists trying to reconstruct branches of humanity from a piece of fossilised jawbone. Except that we also want to know who the jawbone’s parents were, who it married  and the names of all its children.

The PRO before 1922
The PRO in June 1922

The 1841 and 1851 census search forms are some of the most peculiar of these fragments. They came into existence because of the introduction of the Old Age Pension in early 1909. To qualify for the princely sum of five shillings a weeks, applicants had to be “of good character”, have an annual income of less than £31-10s and demonstrate that they were seventy or more.

But the state only began to register Irish births in 1864, more than twenty years after the relevant period. So a system evolved to get the PRO to use the 1841 and 1851 census returns for proof of age. Based on an address and parents’ names supplied by the applicant, either directly to the PRO or through an official of the Pensions Board based locally (Customs and Excise men in an unusually popular role), the Office would search the returns and confirm the necessary age.

After we went and blew up all the originals (thank you, Ernie O’Malley), only the PRO search forms survive for most areas. They are useful primarily for the information submitted by the applicants, but sometimes the search results include scribbled summaries of the others recorded on the form. In the sample 1841 image, John Murphy of Castlegar, Ballynakill Co. Galway has his parents confirmed as Thomas and Mary, but the “particulars found” include the fact that they married in 1833 and others in the household were Elenor (5), Patt (4) and Biddy (2). In the 1851 search, however, only “John aged 20” is noted.

John Murphy 1841
John Murphy 1851








At their best, then,  they can come close to the full original. But how many exist? There are 32,472 forms in total for the Republic and 3,568 for areas now in Northern Ireland. This represents less than 1% of the households covered in 1841 and 1851 As with so much of Irish genealogy, luck is an essential ingredient.

The forms for the Republic are online at The National Archives of Ireland. The search interfaces at ancestry.com and FindMyPast.ie are better, with FindMyPast especially useful in the way it allows the easy retrieval of all forms from a particular parish. FindMyPast is also completely free. The FamilySearch version won’t let you look at the images outside a Family History Centre, for reasons only the LDS know.

The Northern Irish forms are on microfilm in PRONI and published by Josephine Masterson as Ireland 1841/1851 Census Abstracts (Northern Ireland) (Baltimore, MD: GPC., Inc., 1999), transcribed on ancestry.com. 


The first batch of 1901 and 1911 census corrections, all 15,962 of them, went live on census.nationalarchives.ie on Thursday last and great sighs of relief were breathed all round. Well, by me anyway.

For the past two months I’ve been working my way back through the user-submitted emails, checking them against the images and separating them into saints and sinners. At the same time, along with NAI’s IT staff and developers, I was working on getting the validated corrections live, a more complex operation than you’d imagine. Because the census data is static, it makes perfect sense to have the live version as a set of indexes rather than a transactional database – no moving parts, so much more stable, as well as faster to search.

Moving parts

That means, in order to add or change anything, the indexes have to be rebuilt from scratch. Not impossibly complex to do (he said, not having done it himself) but not something you’d want to be doing every day either. In the tables of personal information alone, there are approximately 10 million records, each with twenty items of data. Turning all of those into a static index produces almost 200 million index entries.  So carefully does it.

Those 15,962 represent all emails received between October 25 2016 and September 11 this year, the date I started. If you submitted between those dates, your correction should now be live, provided I agreed that it was accurate. If you don’t see it, have another go and make me look again. And of course I’ve made my own mistakes , slated for correction the next time round. The aim now is to have a regular monthly batch update.

In the course of working eyeball-to-eyeball with the emails it’s hard not feel I’m getting to know the submitters. Some people seem to be swept away by the urge to correct. Having found a mistake in their own family, they just can’t stop: suddenly it’s four in the morning and they’ve sent off a hundred emails. Others, by the look of their email addresses, are spending most of their work day actually correcting the census. Tut tut. And I feel for the poor soul who discovered that his ancestors had recorded their religion as Baptist and retrospectively converted them to Presbyterianism.

East Galway. Where they send the same email more than once

One enterprising crowd in east Galway seem to have got together with the aim of completely correcting every single entry for the area. Good for them. Except that part of their agreed procedure appears to have been to send each correction at least three times. Just to be sure. Thereby ensuring it takes at least three times as long for the corrections to be validated. Grrr.

Another group I can’t help empathising with are the transcribers. What a strange and wonderful place early twentieth-century Ireland must have seemed to them, a land where people had jobs as coco drivers, boot owners, professors of surging, pork rangers, where children could be sixty years older than their parents and gender-roles were so fluid you would commonly find mothers-in-law who were male labourers aged 30. It feels a shame to be erasing that parallel Ireland.

Eoin MacNeill. Garlic would have improved his disposition.

Wouldn’t we all live in a much more interesting place if Eoin MacNeill really had been the secretary of The Garlic League?

Does genealogy make you a better person?

In the middle of a recent panel discussion,  the words “genealogy makes you a better person” emerged from my mouth. My fellow-panellists, and a fair number of the audience, looked at me as if I had just announced that the moon was made of cheddar, politely ignored the remark and moved on to saner topics.

He got the halo by finding his granny. Click for more detail.

Nobody was more surprised by the remark than myself. It has depressing echoes of the hoary adolescent debate about the utility of art. Does reading and appreciating a great poem have any moral effect? A long time ago, after half a decade spent in the company of third-level teachers of literature, I came to the conclusion that the answer was No. If anything, spending your professional life immersed in great writing appears to have the opposite effect. Pettiness and spite seem to be pettier and more spiteful among specialists in literature than anywhere else.


A common effect of genealogical research

And, on the surface, genealogy is hardly much better. Cranks and shysters make up a disproportionate number of us. Our committee wars are acrimonious and interminable, following the axiom “the smaller the teacup, the bigger the storm”. The goal of our research is not disinterested truth but more information about ourselves and our families.

And yet the very process of family history research, its sheer amateurishness, does have a strong positive effect, at least on some people. It teaches that we are all mongrels, providing a powerful antidote to snobbery and racism. It shows that history is not a simple competition between good guys and bad guys and, by extension, that neither is the present. It provides a powerful emotional antidote to social atomisation.

Maybe some nuance is needed: the study of ancestors won’t make bad people good.  But it can make decent people more decent.

Sir William Betham

Sir William Betham

One of my record-keeper heroes has long been Sir William Betham (1779 -1853). He arrived in Dublin for a brief visit in 1805 and by chance found himself wading through the chaotic collections of records held in Dublin Castle. As a result, he went about acquiring authority over the Bermingham Tower records, by getting an appointment as Deputy Ulster King of Arms.

Ulster’s Office was the heraldic authority for the island of Ireland, responsible for providing confirmation of their social status to the Anglo-Irish elite: the right to bear arms was (and is) purely hereditary and thus an indicator of supposed good breeding. So as well as putting order on the Office’s existing records, Betham set about creating a new reference collection covering the propertied Anglo-Irish, the Office’s clientele.

By far the richest source of family information on the propertied Anglo-Irish was the collection of prerogative wills held at the Prerogative Office in Henrietta Street. A prerogative will was one with property worth more than £5 in two probate districts ( Church of Ireland dioceses), meaning they tended to cover the top end of the social scale, the Office’s main market.

In 1807, Betham began to transcribe all the family information recorded in these wills, coming from 1536 right up to 1800. The project took him a full twenty-one years to complete, by which time he had become Ulster King of Arms himself. With the information from the wills, he then created a series of volumes  of sketch pedigrees that provided ready-made pigeon-holes for any subsequent information that turned up. These volumes, more than forty in all, are in the Genealogical Office, the successor to Ulster’s Office, now part of the National Library of Ireland and are being digitised superbly through NLI’s online catalogue.

The Stearne sketch tree, Vol. 26, St.-Sw
Vol 62 S 1721-1747. The Stearne family will used to create part of the sketch

The original notebooks Betham used for the transcriptions were purchased by the National Archives of Ireland in the 1930s and microfilmed by the LDS in 1969. And as part of their program of enhancing online access, those microfilms are now freely available online to signed-in users.

Vicars, showing the Ste[a]erne entries
One of Betham’s successors, Sir Arthur Vicars, published an index to Irish prerogative wills in 1897, which is now also freely available online. It matches Betham’s work perfectly. Any pre-1800 entry recorded by Vicars will have a full transcript of all its family information in the notebooks, and a possible expanded version in the GO manuscript volumes.

The transcripts are a magnificent source for eighteenth-century Irish ancestors, not only because we blew up all the originals in 1922, but also because the social range covered by the wills is much broader than Betham’s original intentions implied. Shoemakers, ironmongers and small tradesmen of every description are also included.  If  you lived near a diocesan boundary, it was very easy to have £5-worth of property in more than one diocese.

On the back of the LDS release, FindMyPast have come up with a transcript which I have to say I find a little puzzling. It gives no indication of where the originals are, that the images come from LDS microfilm or that the notebooks are part of a wider set of records. And then lumps the will transcripts in with Marriage Licence Bonds extracts.

But (with a bit of ingenuity) it is possible to use the index to zero in on particular entries in the notebooks, cutting out some of the to-and-froing  necessary on FamilySearch. Small mercies.


Holding on to the Dead

One of my party pieces remains a performance of this, complete with lederhosen-slapping.

IN the 1980s I lived in northern Italy, up near the border between the provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige, the latter known to most of its German-speaking inhabitants as Sud Tirol. There was a point on the road about 10k from my house north of which gnocchi turned into dumplings, lederhosen hung on the washing lines and speaking Italian in a shop or café would get you no service, just a glare.

I was teaching English in a language school where the majority of other teachers were from the UK and (like many Irish in Europe in those pre-Riverdance days) we Irish regularly had to fend off the irritating presumption than we were British. Gradually, though, we were forced to look at just how much Irish and British culture overlapped:

Tiroler Speckknoedel!

language, food, sense of humour, currency, television, shops … Compared with the chasm between German and Italian civilizations just 10k north, the Irish and the Brits were practically joined at the hip.

But there was one area that was then and still is utterly distinctive, and that’s the attitude to death and the rituals of death. Very little survives in Ireland of the pagan Celtic culture that created Samhain, the festival of the dead that underlies Halloween  – here it’s now an just Anglo-American holiday, mixing cartoon ghouls with Guy Fawkes fireworks. But the dead are still a much more important part of everyday life in Ireland.

First, there is an absolute obligation to be physically present at the moment of death of a family member, almost as if the death has to be caught and preserved. Then, funeral attendance trumps every other social duty, even for remote acquaintances. With funerals held extraordinarily close to death, within three or four days at most, that means dropping everything at very short notice. And a good time tends to be had by all – my uncle Paddy used to prefer funerals to weddings, because you didn’t need an invitation to a funeral.

And then there’s the removal, the lying-in, the wake (now more usual after the funeral), the death notice, the memorial announcements, the mass cards, the month’s mind … While many other Irish customs and traditions have withered, those surrounding death are as tenacious as ever.

Just a snippet from the Irish Independent deaths section Jan 4 1979

Which is good news for those of us who track the Irish dead (aka genealogists). Because getting to funerals is so important, the Irish newspaper death notice is absolutely essential and at its most florid can give a picture of entire extended families and social circles as well as home addresses and burial places. From about 1940, it’s a very rare funeral that didn’t have a death notice, and they’re now all searchable online at the subscription site www.irishnewsarchive.com (25% off with the discount code JGDISC25). They can provide superb evidence of living relatives. And for the past 10 years, www.rip.ie provides a free online version. There is, needless to say, no such thing as www.rip.co.uk or www.rip.com.

One other feature of Irish funeral rituals is that we’re very proud of them. I once boasted about them to an American psychotherapist and genealogist and she responded “Yes, I’ve noticed that the Irish have problems letting go.”

Food for thought. Perhaps eventually ceasing to grieve for the dead is not a betrayal, just an acceptance that they’re gone.