More than Family

No matter where in the world your ancestors came from, genealogy eventually shades off into local history. Because of the destruction of so many records in 1922, in Ireland we reach that point much sooner than most other places. I recently reached it myself.

More Lohans and Crehans than you can shake a stick at

The problem was to interpret records from an early baptismal register from Killian parish in east Galway. Over the first three decades of the 19th century, dozens of families of the same name were recording baptisms, using and reusing a tiny number of forenames. To cap it all, many of the placenames were not listed in any reference sources.

On examining property records and maps, it emerged that there were actually multiple small rundale villages spread over three townlands. Rundale was a tradition of land sharing very close to medieval European practices, which lasted in Ireland up to the mid 19th century and beyond. Small strips of land were co-operatively managed by extended groups of up to 20 or so households, and periodically redistributed. It was deeply uneconomic and loathed by landlords, but the people involved led an intensely rich communal life, with a wealth of traditions, musical, verbal, folkloric, culinary.

Ballynacorra 1838

Looking at the 1830s map of these mini-villages, some things became clearer. At last I understood the extended family’s weird long-standing attachment to an apparently nondescript patch of East Galway.

It also became clear that I was never going to be able to sort out one family from another with baptismal records, or indeed ever. My idea of what makes up a family just didn’t apply. Looking at the villages on the map, with their tight nets of in-facing houses, vegetable gardens and outlying fields, I could see these people working, dancing, telling stories, intermarrying generation after generation, with intermingling lives that did not have the boundaries that I take for granted.

Even by the 187os the field patterns are almost identical

I’m pretty sure I’ll never uncover the names of the direct generations before 1800.  But there’s plenty of compensation in the vivid sense how they lived.

An austere and lofty bunch

Archivists are an austere and lofty bunch, forever struggling with the contradiction between preserving their beloved records and having to make them available to the grubby-fingered public. And utter impartiality is required  – that collection of 1930s postcards has to be just as important as a set of medieval royal charters.

So it is a rare and wonderful day, the archival equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, when an archivist is captured by a set of records and devotes herself to understanding and making them intelligible. That seems to have happened to Frances McGee, former director of the National Archives of Ireland, and the result is her extraordinary The archives of the valuation of Ireland, 1830–65 (Four Courts Press, 2018).

More than any other set of Irish records, the manuscript maps and notebooks that predate the publication of the Primary Valuation are difficult to grasp in their entirety. Partly, this is because they can be very technical, concerned with producing a uniform property-tax base across the entire island under difficult and changing physical and legal conditions. Partly, it is down to the records having been held by different institutions. For researchers, there can seem to be a bewildering plethora of overlapping record-types.

As in the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant by touch, we have until now only been able to understand parts of the collection. Frances McGee shows us the full magnificent beast.

Parts of her book are painful but necessary, a systematic analysis of each of the class of notebooks produced at each stage of the different valuing processes. But the pain is well worth it. Finally it is possible to see how and why they all relate to each other.

The section on Valuation maps is a revelation. The notebooks were only one part of the valuing process – the field and office maps were absolutely central. Once NAI completes the conservation and digitization of its more than 12,000 valuation maps, there is no doubt they will revolutionise Irish local and family history before 1865.

The book comes to life when the author allows her enthusiasm for the documents’ worms-eye view of pre-Famine Ireland to shine through, quoting numerous examples: one valuator’s description of the state of a building in Ballina, Co. Mayo in 1841:

“This was used as a cholera hospital and in consequence could not since be let as a dwelling. Is now let to the hunting club for the huntsman and the offices as kennels”;

Muff, Donegal in 1834:

“a place of no trade and only two fairs in the year”.

The townland of Ballyrune in Limerick in 1849:

“All the tenants in this townland were ejected on 1 April 1849.; There is no part of the land at present occupied.”

My main criticism of the book is that it treats only the 30,000 items currently held by NAI, saying very little about records held elswhere. It also works on the unspoken assumption that all of these records are currently available to the public, which is far from the case. The treatment of the collection online at, the only current access for the grubby-fingered public, is a little too austere and lofty: “Some documents are searchable online for free …[at]“.  Well, yes. Which ones?

If you’d like more, I’ll be speaking about the full Valuation Office archive (and channelling Frances McGee’s book) on Friday next at the Celtic Connections conference in Boston.

We have history

A few years ago, Cork historian Barry Keane came across a Home Office file in the UK National Archives, HO 317/78, “Activities of named paid informants against Irish secret societies”. (The wonderfully bland online catalogue entry is here.) It covered various years between 1886 and 1910, but almost all of it had been redacted. When Mr Keane appealed to the Home Office for the missing information, the entire file was withdrawn. He requested a review under the Freedom of Information Act, was turned down, appealed to the Freedom of Information Tribunal and finally lost that appeal after a two year wait.

Nobody will talk to them if we find out who spilled the beans in 1898

His appeal was rejected on two grounds. The first was precisely the reason our own Central Statistics Office gave for not releasing the 1926 census: if people know they might be identified three generations into the future, they won’t co-operate now. This was laughable when put forward by the CSO, and even more so when a Metropolitan Police officer – behind a screen at the appeal hearing, no less – claimed that making the century-old informers file available would put the entire UK covert human intelligence system at risk. A very sensible minority dissent on the tribunal described this argument as “self-evidently absurd”.

The other reason for refusal, that descendants of those named in the file might be in danger, or exposed to opprobrium, is less absurd. Maybe Cork is now all forgiveness and sweetness and light, but I’m not so sure about elsewhere in Ireland. After a talk I gave in Armagh a few years back, one of the audience questions was from a woman who wanted to know where the historic files naming “the touts” were stored. I don’t think she was researching her own ancestors.

I’m with the tribunal majority on their decision. In Ireland, some things just take longer to become history.

You can make up your own mind: the full official transcript of the hearing is on the tribunal website.

How Gaelic surnames were Englished

Hereditary patronymic surnames, Ó (“grandson of”) and Mac (“son of”), were a central part of Gaelic Irish culture from at least the 11th century, testament to a deep need for public markers of family membership.

But this was not the product of some mystical Celtic yearning for blood connection. Far from it.

Not why the Gaels adopted surnames.

For almost 1,000 years, the main unit of Gaelic society was not the nuclear family as we conceive it, but a very particular version of the extended family, the derbhfhine, all the descendants of a common great-grandfather.

Among other things, property ownership rested with the derbhfhine, not the individual. So what you could own – cattle in particular –  depended on who your kin were. No wonder genealogy loomed so large and surnames that signalled kinship were so important.

Why the Gaels adopted surnames

The name you bore was transparent to those around you, not just, as today, a convenient marker, but instead laden with resonance: stories, possessions, reputations, feuds, homeplaces . . . Gaelic surnames were deeply ingrained in everyday social interactions, as vital and ordinary as language or weather or food.

Imagine, then, the reactions of the Gaels when the first English arrived. John Bird? George Winterbottom? William Featherstone? The initial response must have been simple hilarity. How could there be people with such ludicrous names, telling nothing of parentage and kin?

The laughing can’t have lasted long. Over the course of the long, catastrophic 17th century, the old Gaelic institutions crumbled under the weight of the English conquest and took with them the centrality of Gaelic surnames.

And after only a few generations, those whose grandparents had laughed at the opaque stupidity of English names were having their own names mangled into opacity by English-speaking administrators: Harrington, Waters, Rabbit, Kidney, Boner . . . all names deriving from perfectly traditional and transparent O and Mac patronymics were stripped of all their old significance to force them into English.

Have Irish surnames stopped changing?

After Independence, official Ireland understandably set about undoing the grievous distortions wrought on Gaelic surnames by English-speaking administrators. Every surname now had to have an official Irish-language school version, on the basis that we were all Gaels and had had our original names stolen from us.

For the purposes of officialdom, my father became Mac Grenacháin; when I went to school, I became O’Grianáin; my son was later dubbed Ó Gréacháin.

Never mind the tunnel view of history and the hair-raising presumption that Ireland was racially pure, the implicit understanding of surnames was simply nonsensical.

Because the most important fact about all surnames is that they are words. They don’t have DNA, go to any particular church, salute flags, vote or fight. They simply swim in the ever-changing sea of language, evolving as all languages do under the pressure of accents, education, fashion, politics, economics.

Martin (“The General”) Kayhill

For example, the American pronunciation of the surnames Cahill (“KAY-hill”) and Mahony (Ma-OWN-ey) often has Irish people sniggering up their sleeves. But these pronunciations are much closer to the original Irish-language versions of the names (Ó CATHmhaoil, Mac MaTHÚNa). The fork in culture between Irish-America and Ireland preserved something over there that we over here have anglicised more thoroughly.

Whether American or British, the language Irish surnames have swum in for almost two centuries is English. Seen in this light, the 20th-century Gaelicisation of surnames, the great wave of adoptions of O’s and Mc’s, was not the reclamation of something lost but a further evolution, a flawed reinvention of an imagined past – ask Theodore O’Kechuckwu, living at 1 Washington Street in Dublin in 1949.

Theodore is registered to vote at No. 1, between the Foleys and the Hogans

The evolution of surnames has not stopped, though it has slowed, not just in Ireland but throughout the developed world. Mass literacy and computer technology have make it more difficult for change to occur – simply seeing your name in print on a computer screen every day lends it apparent permanence.

Apparent only: I have no doubt that in a few centuries people will look back in amusement at our qnt srnm spllngs.


Free downloads from the (other) National Archives

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.

T other NA

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.

One pew in the catherdral

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 began to mine 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 the digitised films very awkward to get at. Start from the full list, read the accompanying step-by-step instructions very carefully,  and then just keep burrowing.

Whatever its flaws, this is genuine public service. Irish institutions please copy.

Thank you for your concern about my sanity

The clearance of the National Archives census correction emails backlog is approaching the half-way point, making it a good time to draw breath and take an overview.

I’ll have processed around 50,000 of the 100,000 emails by the end of June. Most of them cover multiple records, so they include about a quarter of a million suggested changes in all. So far, half are turning out to be accurate, a third are duplicates (corrections suggested more than once), and only 15% are downright inaccurate.

Over there with ye, accurate ones

The accurate are going live in monthly batches on, around 60,000 so far. Keep in mind that these corrections are exclusive to the NAI site – you won’t find them in the copies of the 1901 and 1911 censuses licensed by the commercial sites, Ancestry, FindMyPast and MyHeritage.

Most of the inaccurate suggestions are people trying to correct their ancestors’ mistakes, a self-evidently fruitless task. There are one or two along the lines of: “Forename: Dick; Surname: Head; Occupation: Nazi”, but a lot fewer than I expected. The vast majority of people take the accuracy of their ancestors’ records very seriously indeed. In some cases, so seriously that they go back every six months and enter the corrections again, hence the many duplicates. Patience, please.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not ploughing through every single email by hand. Extracting the suggested corrections into a database has made it possible to identify (some) duplicates programmatically, to pick out common errors, to weed out spam, to concentrate on corrected occupations only … In the end, though, it does come down to comparing the image with the suggestion. So really all I’m doing is varying the angle of attack in order to preserve my sanity. My dog has his doubts about how successful the effort has been.

Bertie, perhaps not the best judge of sanity

Sanity is also the pretext for my growing collections of gems. They’re not all transcription errors, though some of those are wonderful. I’m really hoping for a revival of the fine old Edwardian occupation of “penis tuner”,   and there’s no doubt a Trekkie fan of Mr. Sulu transcribed all those nuns as “Members of the Mr Suline Order”.

But some of the returns themselves give a nice flavour of the people they record. Hugh Holmes, the Lord Justice of Appeal in 1901, has four unmarried daughters in their twenties. He evidently feels the burden: under “Occupation” for all of them he enters “They toil not neither do they spin“. Edward Small, aged two in 1901, seems to have been teething. His father enters his occupation as “A Bawler“. And Bridget Cronin, the spoilt only child of John and Nora in Crohane in Kerry, is recorded as a “Bold Pet“.

The Poor Law is still with us.

From Britain’s point of view, the 1800 Act of Union was primarily a defensive measure to secure its western flank against the French. But after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the London government found itself in charge of a country of which it was profoundly ignorant. So, with true industrial-age logic, it set about creating official machinery to quantify Ireland and make it governable. Almost all surviving early 19th-century research sources emerged from this process: the Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 and much more.

Birr (Parsonstown) Workhouse

One part of that administrative machinery, the Poor Law, is still with us. In 1838, 135 Poor Law Unions were created, covering the entire island. Each Union had an urban workhouse at its centre, responsible for providing the most basic and grudging short-term relief to the utterly destitute.  The Unions were designed to be self-financing. The obligation to be pay for themselves overrode all others, and that is why they ignore county and parish boundaries – the area each one covered had to produce a similar amount of tax.

Property-owners in each Union paid the tax and in return could elect representatives to the Union’s Board of Guardians to oversee spending. So from the start, the Unions were geographically a hybrid of health service catchment area and electoral constituency. And, weirdly, that geographic hybrid exists even now.

For elections, the Unions were subdivided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs), the areas used for the 1901 and 1911 censuses: those DEDs are still unchanged and in use in contemporary elections in rural areas.

Then, when universal registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, the public health service took on the job. So subgroups of the DEDs were gathered into local registrar’s districts or “dispensary districts”, with anywhere from five to ten DEDs in each one. The Union was euphemised as a “Superintendent Registrar’s District”.

Poor Law Unions in 1898

The Department of Health is still in charge of civil registration today. And after almost 200 years, its Superintendent Registrar’s Districts still largely cover the areas laid down by the old Poor Law Unions.  They haven’t gone away, you know.

Peter Higginbotham’s wonderful will tell you more.

I went on the Guinness

You may have noticed the absence of a post last week. I’d like to be able to say that I was deep in my vast library thinking profound thoughts about the future of Irish genealogy. But no, the sun came out so I took the dog to the beach.

I wasn’t completely idle, though. I went on the Guinness.

At a professional development presentation organised by my accrediting association, Accredited Genealogists Ireland, and delivered by Guinness archivists Alex Marcus and Fergus Brady. It was a revelation.

Like most researchers, I’ve long been aware of the archive’s online catalogue (also available on Ancestry) and have found it interesting but a bit scanty. With 8,697 entries, it is obviously not a listing of all employees, and each result leads only to a very bare-bones record.

The archive itself is something else entirely. It holds more than 20,000 personnel files relating to deceased employees. For the majority of these, tradesmen or labourers, the files can include dates of birth, addresses, references, education, accident reports, changes of job, pension forms, medical information, physical descriptions, widows and orphans allowances, details of wives and children, even birth and baptism certificates.  For the expanded family history of anyone who worked in Guinness’s in Dublin after the 1870s, these records are a goldmine.

A week after the Easter Rising, this discreetly-redacted 46-year-old drayman dropped a barrel on his foot and bruised his big toe.

One of the most interesting parts of the presentation was the explanation of the reasons behind the lack of online detail. Guinness was a spectacularly benevolent cradle-to-grave employer. Once a family got a foothold, they tended to bring in other members, with children, grandchildren, great-grand nephews following each other into the firm (see the remarkably guff-free Cillian-Murphy-narrated ad on this). So even the files of those who died a century ago might hold sensitive information relating to living people.

But there are no Germanic GDPR-style prohibitions. The archivists just check the files you’re interested in and apply good old-fashioned common sense. They’ll do this by email, but there’s no substitute for handling the files onsite yourself, and they welcome visitors (by appointment).

Apart from the files, the archive also holds a spectacular digitised set of the in-house publications, in particular The Guinness Harp Magazine, which documents the extraordinary range of extracurricular activities sponsored by the company, from choirs to chess clubs to tug-of-war teams, complete with professional-quality journalism and photography.

Brewery People from The Harp magazine

And there’s also a lovely collection of the customisable labels used to reassure drinkers that the pub-bottled stout they were drinking was genuine Guinness.


My lifetime supply can be parked just outside the house, please.

Genealogy and the Golden State serial killer

Most people will have heard about the recent arrest of the so-called Golden State serial killer, responsible for 50 rapes and 12 murders committed across California in the 1970s and 80s. He was identified by matching his DNA with samples taken from the crime scene, as in many other cases. What really caught my attention was the role genealogy played.

Police uploaded the crime-scene DNA to GEDmatch, the open-source genealogical DNA website, and compared it with the three-quarters of a million samples already on the site. This identified what looked like some third- and fourth-cousin matches. They then followed the accompanying family history information on the site and used it to build out more than twenty-five multigenerational family trees, using the research techniques any genealogist would.

Unlike a genealogist, though, they were aiming to winnow the family trees down to men living in the right areas at the times the crimes were committed. This is what ultimately led them to Joseph James DeAngelo in Sacramento. A covertly-taken sample of his DNA matched that from the crime-scene.

Joseph James DeAngelo

By all accounts the crimes were horrific, and if DeAngelo committed them, it’s wonderful he has been caught, and equally wonderful that genealogy helped do it.

But one of the problems that bedevils familial DNA matching is the number of false positives. My own test results are up on GEDmatch and I regularly get approached by people who see a distant match but have absolutely no discernible connection to my family. And that happened in this case. Before finding DeAngelo, at least one and almost certainly more than one suspect was compulsorily tested and ruled out. In the United Kingdom, a 2014 study found that just 17 percent of familial DNA searches resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender. Which means four innocent suspects for every guilty one.

And that’s not the most troubling part of the story. By putting my sample into a publicly available database like GEDmatch, I have made the DNA of hundreds of related people also available for searching. I consented, they didn’t. The same is true for the tens of millions connected to the other GEDmatch profiles.

Finding a serial killer is a wonderful, exceptional case. But what about a health insurance company using these records to weed out the potentially ill across extended families? What about being flagged as a suspect for a crime you have no connection with, because someone very distantly related has uploaded their DNA? What about employers screening for the “right” kind of family background?

As evidence in the most serious crimes, familial DNA should certainly continue to be available to police, with safeguards. But the kind of no-rules access to DNA samples provided by GEDmatch looks increasingly unwise.

I don’t know whether to leave my sample there or not. I suspect that cat is long out of the bag.