Irish or Gaelic? Or Erse?

I’ve just finished reading Charles Townshend’s recently-published The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 , which includes everything you could possibly want to know about the politics and violence that led to the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921. Like his masterwork Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, (Penguin 2015), it’s lucid, meticulous and dispassionate. At times, he goes into a bit more detail of conversations between the likes of Lord Birkenhead and Andrew Bonar Law and Hamar Greenwood than most people would want to know. But if you do want to know, this is where to look.

Birkenhead, Bonar Law and Greenwood. Not a barrel of laughs

Slightly scary is the extent to which the pre-1921 era he describes mirrors our situation today. We’re currently having the same dialogue of the deaf, with Northern Unionists hearing every mention of a united Ireland as a threat to slaughter them in their beds and Southern (though not Northern) Nationalists blithely ignoring the fact that Unionism will never negotiate to unify the island.

As ever with Townshend, though, some of the most interesting parts of the book are the throwaway details. One that particularly caught my eye was a few sentences about the politicisation of the phrase “the Irish language” in the early 1900s.

When speaking to non-Irish audiences about Irish surnames, I repeatedly have to make the point that most of them have non-English-language origins in “Irish”. This is the name for the language used by everyone in Ireland today. But after saying it, to allay the puzzlement, I then have to add “by which I mean Gaelic”.  For a long time, I’ve been mildly irritated by this: Would ye not bleddywell learn the difference between Ireland and Scotland and call the language by its proper name?

Irish spoken in 1871

Townshend puts a stop to my gallop. Describing the Gaelic League (still its name today, note, not “The Irish League”), set up in 1893 as a non-sectarian, non-political organisation to promote and defend the language, he writes “Early in the new century, Gaelicists began to talk of ‘the Irish language’ rather than Gaelic, automatically (and deliberately) rendering those who did not speak it as less Irish and those who did not even acknowledge its status as non-Irish”. This may be over-simple. The language had been called “Irish” as well as “Gaelic” for centuries. But he’s right about the exclusionary implication in the carefully-coined phrase “the Irish language”: this is the (only) language of anyone who’s Irish. The League had been captured by Irish Irelanders using the language as a marker of national purity.  That’s why “Irish” is now the standard term in Ireland (including Northern Ireland – I checked in the Belfast News Letter) and “Gaelic” has West Brit overtones.

Of course, if that vision of linguistic national purity had come about, I’d be writing this in Irish. And, to put it in Dublin English, I am in me Erse.

1913 Poster for Seachtain na Gaelige,  “Irish  [Language] Week”.

Sausages and heritage databases

I’ve just added another map service to the site, in time for Paddy’s Day. Once again Brian Donovan of Eneclann and FindMyPast has kindly let me use the Ancestry/FindMyPast Roman Catholic parish transcripts, this time to create dynamic maps showing the numbers of marriages in each parish. See Mungovan, for example. As with other maps, you start with a surname and then can then click through the map marker to go to the full transcripts on FindMyPast.ie, where they’re free to view after registration.

One difference with other maps is that you can now actually search for marriages between two families and then go to the full records. It’s also possible to browse the record listings for any of the parishes and then jump to marriage (or baptism) transcripts for the surname. I was surprised, yet again, at how much more intelligible the records appear with a visual overview.One reason is that it’s been a while since I’ve done a fresh map from scratch. I’d forgotten how queasy heritage databases can be. Otto Von Bismarck is reputed to have said that you should never examine too closely how laws and sausages are made.  The same holds true for looking at the entrails of heritage databases. Courtesy demands discretion, but just let’s say you shouldn’t expect to find too many surname matches for marriages in the Sligo parish of Emlefad and KIlmorgan.

Bismarck and sausages being made.

Bertie, you big eejit

I regularly berate my dog for rank stupidity (losing his ball/taking fright at the shape of a chimney-pot/barking at high-vis road signs …) But what I call him is an “eejit”. At first glance, this might seem like just a phonetic Irish-accent version of “idiot”, but it’s completely different. It’s much softer, more like an affectionate poke than an attack. Affectionately insulting people (and dogs) plays quite a large part in Irish life.

Also sometimes a little bollix

What does this have to do with genealogy? Many (Gaelic) Irish surnames incorporate what appear to be tongue-in-cheek jibes. The Irish (Gaelic) for “bald” is maol, and this appears in many common surnames: Mullany, Mullally, Mulcahy, Muldoon, Mulgrew, Mullholland  …  I could go on. The standard explanation is that maol was a way of describing the distinctive horse-shoe tonsure of medieval Irish monks, so Mulcahy comes from Ó Maolchathaigh, “grandson of the [monk] devotee of St Cathach”. I’m sure that’s true, but referring to your local monastic devotee as “Baldie” seems a tad irreverent. And quite familiar (Cf. Father Ted).

Baldie writes a book

Other examples include suffixes that subtly alter the flavour of a name. Brosnan in the original is Ó Brosnacháin, meaning “grandson of the man from Brosna (in Kerry)”. But the Irish for “the man from Brosna” is Brosnach.  Adding that –áin (pronounced “awn”), changes it to “grandson of your man, the big fella from Brosna”. Other suffixes include –ón (-own), –ún (-oon) and the one still most widely used in general speech –ìn (-een), meaning small. So Dineen (Ó Duinnín), is literally “grandson of the little brown squirt”,  and Glasheen (Ó Glaisín), is “grandson of the little green squirt”.

The suffixes have come into Hiberno-English more generally as part of the glorious insults “Amadawn” (Super eejit), “Loothermawn” (Gangly eejit), “Bostoon” (Rude eejit). And the most cutting of them all: “Maneen”, as in “Sure, isn’t he a fine little maneen up there in the Dáil?”

Bertie is a very smart dog. But he’s a dog, so he’s still an eejit. And a dote.

 

So, who’s rolling their eyes at the mention of genealogy now, eh?*

Hello all, my name is Eoin Grenham.

Before COVID-19, like many others, I had a completely different job. I was a gymnastics coach but, again like many others, had to go back and seek out a new job. I did and was lucky enough to be trained and helped along by my dad John. For many years I really didn’t like the idea of becoming a genealogist even though many people expected it. A family heritage business done by a family appeals to a lot of people.

Eoin then. Already a gymnast.
Eoin then. Already a gymnast.

But starting off I fell for it and realised what my dad had been going on about to me for nigh on 20 years. There is a lot of fun in just figuring things out, solving problems. This is what genealogy is, finding things  and solving big family puzzles. I dare say I would have gone for it before now if I had realised what it was about. When starting off though, I had problems and made mistakes. Mistakes and problems, I would say are not confined to just me. I thought I should share them with the world to let other people off the hook too.

Eoin now

First off, Irish names are annoying; I’m allowed to say this because I’m Irish. Vowels can be meaningless to us. Historically, starts and ends of names can shift for no reason. Even now, our accents will replace an ‘A’ with ‘I’ or ‘U’ with absolutely no pause and we look at people who call us crazy as if we have no idea what’s wrong with doing it. The saving grace of most Irish research sites now are the ‘wildcards’, ‘*’ and ‘?’. These can go in for * = any number of characters, ‘?’ = a single character. These are your best friends when you are starting off with family research. After the first 2 weeks of doing research, banging my head off the keyboard and screaming at the screen, I got the message. Using these can help. It did and I haven’t looked back since.

Along with this I am also doing the videos together with my dad as well as coding and SEO work for the site. Busy times ahead.

*Title and images added by the editor.

Ford Coppola Grenham

My only venture into film or TV was the RTÉ series “The Genealogy Roadshow”, which aired seven or eight years ago. For a while, some of the neighbours’ kids who had seen it looked at me as if I had two heads. They were mistaken. In fact, the effect of the show was only to give me a head twice the normal size. The attention monster got me.

Applause! Applause!

No fear of anything like that on the YouTube channel I’ve just launched. It’s all brass tacks, gnarly records and down to business. The aim is to add two short videos every week, mostly dealing with getting the best out of www.johngrenham.com. The first two have just gone public, one an overview outlining the entire site, the other going into more detail about how to wring as much information as possible out of the mid-nineteenth century surname maps. The channel is a family affair, with my son (“Ford Coppola” Grenham) in charge.

This time I don’t think the neighbours’ kids will notice. Unless we do dance versions on Tik-Tok.

[Update, Jan 6 – two more now live:
1901 and 1911 census maps
Is your surname Irish?]

Grenham’s Third Law of Irish Genealogy

No battle-plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. All administrative systems immediately begin to run into exceptions and peculiarities

So it was with the Irish civil registration system. When it came into full existence on April Fool’s Day 1864, the law dictated that births were to be registered within twenty-one days, on pain of a nasty fine. Which meant a prime aim of those registering a birth quickly became the avoidance of the fine. Compare nineteenth-century baptismal registers with the state records and you’ll find many miraculous Irish children baptised weeks or even months before they were officially born.

But the biggest hole in the birth registration system was a feature, not a bug. It was never compulsory to register a child’s forename.  This may have allowed quick registration before christening for parents, but the maternity (‘lying-in’) hospitals seized on it.  It became a loophole that would allow them to mass-register entire wards full of newborns with no forename. The practice seems to have lasted until around 1910, almost fifty solid years. These are most of the children who appear in the birth indexes with first name “Unknown”.

Just some of the Rotunda registrations from November 26 1864

How many are there? Search the IrishGenealogy birth indexes and you’ll find no fewer that 193,493 births 1864-1919 with no forename. There are significant numbers in every registration district, but the two largest urban areas stand out, with 21,000 no-namers in Belfast and more than 76,000 in Dublin. All the Dublin hospitals used the loophole, but by far the biggest culprit was the “Britain St Lying-In Hospital”, better known as “the Rotunda”, today the busiest maternity hospital in the world. It was busy back then as well, servicing the teeming slums of Dublin’s north city.

Donegall St Lying-In Hospital Belfast, 1890

Hospitals elsewhere in Ireland also used the loophole, as did midwives, block-registering no-name births at which they were present. And in Protestant-majority areas in the North-East – Armagh, Cookstown, Coleraine, Ballymena, Irvinestown, Dungannon  – many more parents than elsewhere registered their children without a first name, perhaps because of some Dissenters’ objections to infant baptism.

The Rotunda in the 1890s

The upshot is that there are many many invisible gaps in the birth records, especially in Dublin, but also elsewhere. Search with even more caution and scepticism.

Grenham’s Third Law of Irish Genealogy states “Your ancestor’s birth was registered without a forename.” Don’t even ask about Laws One and Two.

 

Here be slightly fewer dragons

Most of the terrain of Irish genealogy is well mapped by now, with its familiar outlines of censuses, vital records, valuations and parish records, as well as the great smoking hole that is the 1922 destruction of the Public Record Office. But one area of the map remains stubbornly blank.

The Irish Land Commission was founded in 1881, initially to establish fair rents and then to break up estates and subsidise tenant purchase. In the thirty-five years before 1920, it oversaw the transfer of more than 13,500,000 acres. In the Free State it was reconstituted in 1923 and went on to acquire and distribute an additional 800,000 acres before it ceased acquiring land in 1983. It was finally dissolved in 1999. In Northern Ireland the Commission ceased new operations in 1925 and was abolished as part of the local government reforms of 1935.

In the course of establishing title to the estates it was acquiring, the Commission collected an extraordinary cornucopia of material – wills, marriage settlements, title deeds, rentals, maps, pedigrees and more, often detailing families and their holdings back to the seventeenth century.

In Northern Ireland its records are all sensibly conserved and archived in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland – try searching the eCatalogue for the exact phrase “Land Commission” to get a sense of the sheer scale of what’s there.

And in the South?  Nothing. The entire collection, now the property of the Dept of Agriculture, sits in a warehouse in Portlaoise under lock and key, uncatalogued, unconserved and harder to get at than the third secret of Fatima. The only publicly available records come in a list of the judicial decisions on fair rents, useful, but very limited.

During 35 years research, I’ve only met two people who have actually got access to the title records and one of them (full disclosure: a neighbour of mine) has just published a book using what he found.

Martin O’Halloran’s The Lost Gaeltacht: the Land Commission Migration – Clonbur, County Galway to Allenstown, Count Meath (Homefarm Publishing, Dublin 2020) is a painstaking and loving account of the Commission’s transfer of 24 families from an Irish-speaking community in Clonbur on the Galway/Mayo border to Allenstown in Meath in 1940. It was one of many social engineering projects undertaken by the De Valera government in the 1930s and 1940s, in this case attempting to seed the Irish language outside its existing home areas: Allenstown was officially designated Gaeltacht colony No. 5.

Martin only got access because he had a direct legal link to the properties in the Commission records and even then he had a hard time. But he has managed to bring back an extraordinary haul: Maps, correspondence, disputes with Allenstown natives, with the Meath hunt, between the Commission and the Dept of Education. These are all woven carefully into a reconstruction of the community, its way of life and the great webs of extended kin-groups, in both Galway and Meath. This is the community Martin grew up in, and the whole story is tinged with poignancy. The Gaeltacht and its deep local culture were lost because of official neglect after the initial transplantation.

The book is essential reading not only for those with a connection to the locales covered, but for anyone with an interest in local history, the Land Commission, extended family history or indeed the possibilities of self-publication. Martin has produced a book the equal in quality of any of the multi-award-winning Cork University Press Atlases.

It’s available in-store in Hodges Figgis in Dublin, and online from Mayo Books.

 

Pud a bid of budder on the spuds

Among my many hobbyhorses is an abiding distrust of the way accents distort names. Kayhill and MahONy (that’s Cah-hill and MAhony to us in Ireland) are only two examples of how the broad Atlantic has preserved pronunciations among emigrants that died out back home. Both of the American pronunciations are closer to the original Gaelic Irish (Ó Cathmhaoil and Ó Mathúna) than our present Anglophone versions.

A nice cup of tay

There are lots of other examples. In standard Received Pronuciation “ea” now normally represents an “ee” sound. In Ireland, it has retained its old “ay”. So Tottenham Hotspur and England goal-ace Harry Kane is actually one of the Keanes of Letterfrack. (And so should be playing for Ireland). I’m sure he’s had many a  nice cup of tay at the relatives.  Other examples of the ea/ay shift are Keating (Kaiting), Deane (Dane), Kearney (Carney) and many many more.

Hins

In my own family, for years I couldn’t find my grandfather’s birth record. It turns out he was registered as “Grinham”, a pretty accurate phonetic version of the accent of South Roscommon, where eggs are laid by hins and babies use their fingers and toes to count from Wan to Tin.

Peculiarities like this and the slow changes that bring them about are usually so slow as to be invisible. But something is audibly happening at the moment to one of the most characteristic features of Irish pronunciation, the soft hissing “t” or “sibilant fricative” in phonetic terms: The cattt sattt on the matt.

At first I thought the changes I was hearing – Britain becoming “Briddin” and British “Briddish” – were individual newsreaders’ affectations but now I hear them everywhere on Irish radio and TV. And once changes like this start, they’re more contagious than Covid-19.

Alas. A very famous ad for Kerrygold involved an Irish guest-house owner inviting her French guest to “put a bit of butter on the spuds, André”, a seduction that depended entirely on her double-entendre sibilant fricatives. “Pud a bid of budder on the spuds” just won’t do it.

No sulks, no sniffles

I made some major changes to the site last week and nobody noticed. In case you think I’m over in the corner having a sulk and a sniffle, let me explain what the changes were and why it’s understandable nobody noticed.

They’re all double surname searches, like the long-standing Griffith’s double surname map search. That shows, for example, parishes in Griffith’s recording both Doocey and Colbert households. This had its origins back in the Jurassic era of Irish research. Under certain circumstances, you might have a documented connection between two Irish families, but no place of origin in Ireland. So you combed through the old Index of Surnames, which showed parishes where in Griffith’s households of a particular surname were located and how many, and extracted all parishes with both surnames. It was a well-honed, mind-numbing way of creating some clues to the place of origin.

Allosaurus genealogicus, c. 1982

So when I created an online version of the Griffith’s householder search, an obvious next step was to recreate the double surname technique.

Fast forward several years and similar mapped searches for the other major Irish sources became possible: nineteenth-century civil birth records, Catholic baptisms and the 1901/1911 censuses. It then took another four years for the penny to drop: I could also do double-surname searches for these. So last week, that’s what I did.

The reason nobody noticed is that, like the Griffith’s double search, you can only do one after you’ve already done a single search. So first Doocey, then Colbert+Doocey, for each of the four sources: nineteenth-century civil birth records, Catholic baptisms and the 1901/1911 censuses.  Things buried so deep are hard to publicise.

So it’s not that I’m hiding my light under a bushel. No fear. No, it’s just … complicated.

A few caveats: like the Griffith’s double, they all exclude variant spellings. The coding was complicated enough, like standing on your head to scratch your ear, without adding variants.  The equivalent of standing on your head, scratching your ear and juggling a dozen eggs.

Also, unlike the Griffith’s, I haven’t managed to get the composite totals onto a single map. Go figure.

And, of course, they’re only useful in very particular circumstances if the surnames aren’t that common. Don’t go sticking in Murphy and Kelly, please.

Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary

Historic Irish forenames have a reputation for being dull and repetitive to the point of madness. Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary …

It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a John Sullivan in Kenmare in 1840 with fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called John Sullivan who thought it might be a good idea to name his son … John Sullivan. But he did. And  his fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents also called their sons John.

Bartholomew Ahern became Bertie because Dublin ears couldn’t cope with such a richly Corkonian first name.

Look more closely and the picture gets more nuanced. There are  strong local associations between some forenames and specific localities. You’ll almost never find a Cornelius or a Jeremiah or a Bartholomew or a Hanorah outside Munster.  Sabina (or Sally) is heavily associated with Galway and Connacht. A Philip is most likely from the Cavan/Monaghan/Fermanagh area. (But most Phillip McCabes had fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called Phillip McCabe). Gobnait is almost excusive to the Caherciveen area. Festus or Festy is only found in west Galway, around Clifden.

Knowing there were bound to be instances like this that I’d missed, I set off to mine the civil birth records 1864 to 1913. And ended up mapping them all.

As always, a visualisation makes some things jump out. Kieran is almost exclusively a Westmeath/Offaly name. But spelt ‘Kyran’, it’s almost exclusively Kilkenny.

Kierans: Birr, Athlone, Ballinalsoe
Kyrans: Kilkenny

 

Abigail

Abigail is common only in two distant areas, around Belfast and in south-west Cork. Roger appears almost only in Connacht and Munster.

The main insight, especially from browsing the names, is that mis-spellings and mistranscriptions are depressingly common. And that some names are so numerous your computer will explode if it tries to map them all, so I left them out.  A full list, with the mind-boggling numbers of registrations, is below.

You can play with all of these for free yourself in the Names section of the site. Enjoy.

The most common Irish forenames 1864 to 1913


Note “Unknown” at No. 10 with almost 200,000 registrations. Many Lying-in Hospitals in urban areas block-registered newborns with surnames only. Be warned.

Rank Name Number
1 Mary 622,622
2 John 462,084
3 James 303,156
4 Patrick 290,455
5 Margaret 263,951
6 Thomas 241,965
7 William 239,271
8 Michael 215,226
9 Bridget 207,127
10 Unknown 187,657
11 Catherine 181,431
12 Ellen 156,439
13 Elizabeth 117,622
14 Anne 111,725
15 Sarah 95,600
16 Joseph 86,304
17 Robert 82,974
18 Edward 63,956
19 Jane 55,845
20 Daniel 55,790
21 Eliza 54,221
22 Annie 51,903
23 Peter 49,537
24 Kate 48,902
25 Francis 47,216
26 George 46,505
27 Samuel 42,136
28 Julia 39,788
29 Martin 39,499
30 Charles 39,429
31 Johanna 37,966
32 Hugh 36,411
33 David 36,134
34 Richard 35,456
35 Henry 35,170
36 Denis 33,688
37 Agnes 33,297