Wonderful Albert-Casey-itis

After my last post about mistrusting databases, Dermot Balson commented with a discreet little link to a chart of his that deserves to be brought out and displayed proudly to the wider world. Here it is:

It charts the number of people recorded at each age in the 1901 and 1911 censuses and confirms beautifully what most researchers in the censuses have long suspected. The rounded years (30, 40, 50, 60 and so on) are wildly over-represented – most people born before 1870 simply didn’t know their age. Not surprising, given that they never saw a calendar or celebrated a birthday.

Look at the chart longer and other things become clear. The drop in total population between 1901 and 1911.  The bumps around the mid-decade ages (35, 45, 55 …), indicating that many of these were also just guesstimates. And my favourite, that improbable leap in numbers aged between 70 and 80 in 1911. The Old Age Pension was introduced in 1908 for people over 70, immediately making it very important to be at least that age. By the look of it, at least 30,000 individuals promptly suffered accelerated aging.

I contacted Dermot to ask his permission to use the chart and also if he had more. Look at a sample of what he came back with:

Causes of death, Mourne, 1864-1921
Age distribution of deaths, 1864-1921
Literacy 1861-1921
Pregnancy timing by occupation 1864-1921 (a proxy for seeing when different occupations were busiest)


The latest YouTube video talks through all of these.

Dermot suffers from an advanced case of Albert-Casey-itis, where a researcher (usually descended from an Irish emigrant) runs out of ancestors but can’t stop.  So he moves on to his ancestors’ neighbours, then to his ancestors’ neighbours’ neighbours, then to the entire locality … A truism of Irish research is that the border between genealogy and local history is very flimsy.

Like Casey, Dermot concentrates his record-collecting on the area his ancestors came from, the Kilkeel area in South Down. But as you can see, what he does is vastly superior to the Casey  pile-em-high approach. A retired actuary, his spreadsheet skills are awesome. As he explained to me, he collects “transcriptions of all record sources in a single spreadsheet (with over 40 sheets), standardizing names so you can actually find records when you search, and linking births, deaths, marriages and censuses together, so that given a name, I can immediately find their marriage, a list of their children, their census records, any family deaths, newspaper references, and parent information where available, each of those with direct links to online scans.”

The end result will be the ultimate local and family history resource for the area. As a sample, Dermot has sent me a screenshot of part of his Excel file:

Master spreadsheet

He’s anxious to spread the gospel far and wide and to share his data- here’s an extraordinary downloadable PDF of his analysis of Mourne death records.

There is at least one doctorate here for someone collaborating with him. Any Irish third-level institutions interested?

Beware Mr Smarty-Pants Database

The most common mistake made when starting research online is surprisingly counter-intuitive: too much precision. The fact is, the more detail you include when you query a genealogical database, the less likely you are to find anything useful.

Just think. You know your Michael Barrett was born on March 17th 1868 (March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, being the most common birthday for the nineteenth-century Irish), married Mary Murphy on September 14th 1890, had children John (1891), Mary (1893), Michael (1896) and Delia (1898), and lived all his life in the townland of Ballybeg, Co. Mayo. Carefully enter all of this  into a search form and you are guaranteed to find nothing.

All it takes is a single non-matching item: in the originals, (the page recording Michael’s birth was used to light a fire in 1898); in the database transcripts (the transcriber had a late night and dozed off over the marriage record); a single item misreported by the family (John was actually born in 1890 and there are four  Ballybegs in Mayo). The response from Mr Smarty-Pants Database will be the same for all: No Match.

Nothing like some birth records to get a good fire going

Don’t get me wrong. Knowing these details may eventually provide evidence to unlock the truth. But to start off, you need to cast the net as wide as possible. How many Barrett births are registered in and around all of those Ballybegs between, say, 1864 and 1870? How many Michaels? Can you identify the precise marriage registration, using only the names, not the reported date? What are the ages given in the 1901 and 1911 censuses? Do they match each other, or the ages you think you know? (Unlikely.) Are there other Barrett households in and around Ballybeg in 1901 and 1911? Any with heads of household of an age to be siblings of Michael ?

The biggest sites – ancestry.co.uk, FindMyPast.ie, irishgenealogy.ie – all funnel their users like this, starting off broad and ending narrow, because it’s by far the most productive way to use their records. Their search interfaces force you into it. They know what they’re doing. They know their databases are stupid.

If you’d like an even more ranting version of this, I’ve gone on (and on) over at YouTube.

Say hello to cousin Boris

Emigration has long been a sore spot for the Irish. A favourite lame excuse was the one the late Brian Lenihan came up with in the 1980s: “Sure isn’t it a small island? We can’t all live on it.”

My own moment of shame from that era happened when I was returning from Italy to Ireland for Christmas 1980. I had to pass through London and on the Underground between Gatwick and Euston a grizzled, freckled, oul’ fella with a nearly empty bottle of whiskey came up to me:

“Yer Irish, arnchya? Have a dhrink.”
“No, no, no.  You’re mistaken. I’m not Irish at all.”

Peter denying Christ can’t have felt guiltier. Though maybe responding:
“Yes, yes, I am Irish but I don’t want any of your whiskey. That bottle looks dirty” might not have been sensible.

Since then we’ve got much more comfortable with our emigrants and their descendants, celebrating our cousins the Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, Irish-Argentinians, even British-Irish. But there’s one step we still can’t take, any more than I could on that Tube train in 1980.

England’s green and pleasant land

“English-Irish” still sounds impossible, a logical contradiction, like describing a colour as “Black-White”, even though over the past four centuries more Irish have migrated to England than to any other destination.

A major reason is that we’re far closer than we like to admit, and not just geographically. For more than 1000 years, we’ve been marrying them and fighting them and fighting for them and writing masterpieces in their language. In return, they’ve been marrying us, stealing our land and, above all, misunderstanding us.

Wave to cousin Boris, children

But they are our cousins. One thing that 1980s teaching stint in Italy showed me was the extraordinary cultural overlap between the English and the Irish. We understood their sense of humour, their politics, their accents, their class problems (though they still didn’t understand us, which we kind of liked). They were (are) almost us.

What sparked these thoughts was my growing realisation of the importance of English records for Irish research. Now that those records are easily searchable online, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that they hold  solutions to many of the gaps created by the gaping holes left by the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922. Quite simply our extended families were there and are listed.

Finding them in English records is another thing. I’ve just put up a video that dips a toe in their censuses. Enjoy.


Black Prods, Beige Prods and little Papes

I grew up in Castlerea in north Roscommon in the 1950s and 1960s. It was mono-culturally Irish Catholic to an extant almost impossible to imagine now.

Fourth class. St Paul’s boys National School, Castlerea, 1963. Chilblains.

We were very tolerant of Protestants, though, because there weren’t any. In their absence we had to dream them up. As I recall, in the Irish Catholic mind of that era there were basically two templates, the harmless ones, usually on horseback, and Black Prods, generally found Up North. Only the Black ones were liable to bite.

What brought this all to mind is a book I’ve just finished, Reformation: Europe‘s House Divided 1490-1700 (Penguin 2004), by Diarmud McCulloch. It’s an astonishing work, a detailed region-by-region, controversy-by-controversy account of how Europe (and Castlerea) divided into Papists, Beige Prods and Black Prods. The depth of my ignorance about the Reformation was jaw-dropping. I suspect that was one of the aims of a traditional Irish Catholic education.

As McCulloch tells it, Martin Luther’s original rebellion had as much to do with local German politics and questions of political authority as with theology. Lutheranism became rooted in German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia, in states where local kings or prince-bishops supported it and made the clergy state employees. It retained much of the liturgical tradition of the pre-Reformation Church.

John Calvin

The “Reformed” Church was very different. Following such leaders as John Calvin, it broke much more completely with the existing Church. In particular it stressed predestination, the idea that redemption is purely the gift of God and He (always a “He”) has chosen from the beginning of time those who will be saved. The “elect” can only contaminate themselves by contact with the pre-damned majority, a notion that sits uneasily with the injunction to love thy neighbour, unless of course you redefine “neighbour” to mean only other members of the elect. To put it another way, the Black ones were liable to bite.

In England, the split from Rome was originally entirely about political authority. Under the Tudors and the Stuarts, the Church of England (and Ireland) evolved into a hybrid state church, retaining some aspects of Rome, bishops in particular. Hence “Episcopalianism”, from episcopus, a bishop. Ultimate power derived from the monarch, though. To the Reformed, such a mash-up was anathema: Cromwell and the wars of the 1640s were the outcome. The ultimate victory of the hybrid Anglican state church in the 1690s (after William of Orange invaded England) was defeat for the Reformed, whatever the marching bands in Larne on July 12th might proclaim.

Like all great books, Reformation casts light in all sorts of unexpected areas. Negotiating with Northern Irish Unionists, mostly Reformed Presbyterians, is bound to be difficult. How can they compromise with the infectious damned? The same tradition of the elect closing themselves off with other like-minded elect might explain some at least of Trump’s appeal to US evangelical Christians, as well as their impermeability to political argument. Salvation trumps Democracy.

Anyway. A more mundane reason for bringing all this up is to point you to a video on my YouTube channel outlining ways of accessing historic Irish Presbyterian records. As you might expect, difficult and awkward. But no biting.

A new tool for searching institutions in the 1911 census

One of the delights of the National Archives of Ireland census site is the wonderful flexibility of its search interface. Within the modestly-labelled “more search options” section, you can search on any of the pieces of information collected by the census or any combination of them. So if all you know about your Mary Ryan born 1871-1881 is that by 1911 she had had five children and four were still alive, you can immediately reduce your possible candidates from more than 600 right down to 10. Of course it also provides superb scope for endless idle snooping.

A price was paid for this flexibility, though. Returns for non-standard households, in particular institutions, had to be treated as slightly second-class, unavailable to search in the same detail. As a result they all (Barracks, College and Boarding-Schools, Hospitals, Prisons, Lunatic Asylums, Workhouses and the rare and exotic “Return of the sick at their own homes”) became harder to find, even when using the Browse section. A few years ago, in order to find the returns for a hospital in North Dublin, I had to track down the name of the Director in Thom’s Directory for 1911, find him and his family in the census and then browse the returns around the area where they lived.

So there’s always been a little itch there to improve access to the institutional returns and I’ve just scratched it. I attended an event a few weeks back put on by the Sensible Code Company, a Belfast outfit whose flagship product “Cantabular” specialises in handling the online publication of data that requires detailed care about confidentiality. Recent censuses are the obvious example.

Cantabular showing Irish-only speakers by DED in 1911

They picked the Irish 1911 census to demonstrate publicly just how minutely their software can slice and dice a census and present it in all sorts of revealing maps and tables. Statistician’s heaven. You’ll find a detailed blog post on the process here and a recording of the full event at https://cantabular.com/blog/event-1911-irish-census-and-technology/

A by-product of their hands-on demo was a technique for extracting details on all the non-standard returns, Forms C, D, E, F, G, H I and K. So I mapped them all and the map is now free here on this site,  and via the maps navigation in the Browse section.

Barracks returns in 1911

A few things have become clear. A large majority of the institutions covered are barracks. The map makes it clear just how heavily policed Ireland was in 1911. The same return was used for police and army barracks, making it hard to see from the returns just where the British Army was concentrated. The map now gives a clear idea of the numbers in each barrack, showing where big army centres were located. Although the instructions specified that only initials should be given, quite a few military barracks give full names, Tipperary town and Victoria Barracks in Cork city to give just two examples. The fact that it’s possible to root through the returns more easily will throw up more insights, I’m sure.

And there were a mere four Returns of the sick at their own homes.

A cautionary tale

Here’s a horror story from the front line.

The Irish Times ran a story a couple of days ago about the unveiling at the Chicago Irish consulate of a painting of Mother Jones, the firebrand union activist who was called “the most dangerous woman in America”. She was co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, an indefatigable strike organiser, all-round nuisance to big business and (no surprise) a Corkwoman.  Born c. 1837, she emigrated to Canada and then moved south to the US in the 1850s. After the loss of her husband and children and the subsequent destruction of her dressmaking business in the Great Fire of Chicago, she threw herself into union work and remade herself as the little Irish Mammy from Hell.

The little Irish Mammy from Hell

I’d never realised she was Irish, so started idly looking her up. Wikipedia records her as baptised Margaret in Cork in 1837 to parents Richard Harris and Ellen Cotter. So straight onto the transcription sites to have a look. No Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter entries in rootsireland.ie. On IrishGenealogy, there’s one Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter entry for the baptism of a Richard in Iveleary in 1835, a marriage for the couple also in Iveleary in 1834, but nothing else.  No Margaret.

On to FindMyPast, on the familiar basis that their mistrancriptions will be different to the others.  A Mary to Richard Harris/Ellen Cotter in 1846 in St Mary’s, North Cathedral, but no Margaret. The family had obviously moved into Cork city by then, but why did the earlier two searches miss this particular baptism? Because it’s in the wrong diocese for Rootsireland, Cork & Ross not Cloyne, and IrishGenealogy skipped it because they were told there’s already a transcript done locally. Which indeed there is, but not online. So the only online transcript is the one from the NLI microfilms done by Ancestry and FindMyPast.

So far, so convolutedly typical. But why no Margaret? Back to FindMyPast to search for baptisms confined to North Cathedral with a Richard and Ellen as parents between 1835 and 1846. And there’s a “Mary Hayes” in 1837 with a Richard as father and Ellen Cotter as mother. When you look at the original image of course it’s the bould Mother Jones herself, Margaret Harris, mistranscribed.

Mother Jones (easy to mistranscribe)

Lest you think I’m just beating up on FindMyPast for the fun of it, exactly the opposite happened the day after. I went looking for a Thomas Healy, son of Thomas and Mary Cavanagh born in Dublin in the 1850s on IrishGenealogy. No dice. Siblings aplenty, but no Thomas. Back to FindMyPast and there he is in St Michan’s in 1856, clear as day.

Thomas, son of Thomas Healy and Mary Cavanagh

Why nothing on IrishGenealogy? When I looked, the entry was transcribed twice and in reverse:

Thomas, son of Thomas Healy Healy and Cavanagh Mary


The records may be convoluted but the moral is simple. If you don’t find something in a transcript, never take that as the last word.

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.