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 FindMyPast.co.uk and ancestry.co.uk, 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 (discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk) 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 census.nationalarchives.ie, 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 workhouses.org.uk 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.

‘WHO SELLS NO OTHER BROWN STOUT IN BOTTLE’

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.

 

FindMyPast’s unmarked elephant traps

Last March I wrote about the fresh transcripts of historic General Register Office birth and marriage records that had appeared on FindMyPast and issued my usual cheery “Come on in and thrash around, sure aren’t there mistakes in everything?” Now that I’ve been using them for a while, it’s time to advise a little more caution.

Apart from the peculiar transcription errors pointed out by Claire Santry, there also seem to be great gaping holes in the records. For the births, there appear to be no transcripts at all from the following Superintendent Registrars’ Districts:

Clogher, Clones, Clonmel, Coleraine, Cookstown, Cootehill, Croom, Dungannon, Dunshaughlin, Edenderry, Ennis, Enniscorthy, Ennistymon, Fermoy, Glin, Kildysart, Killala, Kilmallock, Kilrush, Limavady, Lisburn, Londonderry, Macroom, Magherafelt, Mallow, Manorhamilton, Middleton, Mitchelstown, Mohill, Mountmellick, Newcastle West, Omagh, Oughterard, Portumna, Rathdown, Rathdrum, Rathkeale, Scarriff, Schull, Skibbereen, Sligo, Tralee.

That’s 43 out of a total of 163, a whopping 26%. I haven’t actually checked every image on IrishGenealogy.ie against the transcripts – hey, I have to take the dog out for a walk occasionally – but none of these SRDs appear in the FindMyPast filters and any record from these areas that I’ve checked on IrishGenealogy is missing in the fresh transcript.

The marriages seem to be relatively less flawed, missing only the SRDs of Dublin North, Ennistymon, Gortin and Strokestown. Relatively less flawed. Dublin North alone has 54,297 images on IrishGenealogy not transcribed here.

Every set of transcripts has its flaws and there’s nothing wrong with putting up partial datasets. But there is something very wrong about putting up partial datasets without any indication of what’s missing. It’s the equivalent of blindfolding users and having them cross a landscape riddled with giant unmarked traps.

What’s all the more peculiar is that one of FindMyPast’s signal virtues has long been the detailed information it supplies about its sources. It’s possible that the mistake is with the site’s coding, not the transcription, I just don’t know. But as things stand some serious background detail (and a health warning) are needed.

 

John O’Donovan’s glorious letters

There aren’t many Irish sources that can give you a from-the-horse’s-mouth account of the country between 1830 and 1850. And there really really aren’t many such sources that are poorly known about, underused and free online. Two parts of the Ordnance Survey Ireland archive are just that.

The Ordnance Survey Name Books and the O’Donovan topographical letters are both by-products of the massive attempt between 1828 and 1848 to record and standardise Ireland as a prelude to taxing it. The Name Books are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey six-inch maps in the 1830s. The entries include much technical detail linking them to the maps, but also some worm’s-eye-view descriptions of rents, landlords and tenants, adduced as evidence for the names.

John O’Donovan (1806-1861)

The O’Donovan letters are of broader interest. They consist of formal correspondence to or from the man in charge of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, the antiquarian John O’Donovan, and often provide superb summaries of local place-name lore, even down to the most minute detail: the entry for Darver in Co Louth includes a description and drawing of “a silver ring which Mr Duffy found near his house”. For anyone interested in local history in rural Ireland they are a boundless treasure trove. And they give the lie to the notion that the OS process of standardisation and anglicisation was brutal, Anglo-Saxon and stupid. See the full OSI archive listing at the Royal Irish Academy.

The page from O’Donovan’s letter about Tara in Meath

Both Name Books and O’Donovan Letters are available for free on askaboutireland.ie, where the versions used are typescript copies of the originals made in the 1920s. Most users become aware of them as links on the OS maps that accompany Griffith’s search results, and it has to be said that there are serious drawbacks to this approach. But they are also browsable page by page, revealing all their gnarled glory, with folk-tales, principal families, ruined churches, annal entries, saint’s biographies and more. Many county library websites (e.g. Clare, Galway and others) also have copies of the Letter books online.

The voice of O’Donovan himself is also there, and strangely modern. At the conclusion of the second volume of Galway letters, he writes: “I have now done with the territories in the county of Galway and though it has cost me many an hour of severe application to lay down their boundaries I fear no one will have the patience to grope their way through my lucubrations.”

He shouldn’t have worried.

Viking surnames

There is no such thing as a Viking surname.

A helmet-type never ever worn by a Viking

True hereditary surnames were only introduced in Scandinavia in the late 18th century, more than 700 years after the heyday of Viking expansion. Hereditary surnames still don’t exist in that most Viking of countries, Iceland, where personal names continue to last only a single generation. In Iceland, my son Herbert would be Herbert Johnson and his son John would be John Herbertson.

So why does Sean de Bhulbh’s magisterial Sloinnte na héireann: Irish Surnames list no fewer than 97 Irish names that have Norse or Viking roots? All the stranger when you consider that surnames only began to be widely adopted in Ireland from the 11th century, well after Viking power in Ireland was broken.

Highly cultured looters and pillagers

But there is no doubt about the origins of these names: McAuliff, son of Olaf; Groarke, Mag Ruairc, son of Hrothkekr; McBirney, son of Bjorn; Reynolds, Mac Raghnall, from the Norse first name Ragnall. Some might have originated with Gaels imitating their neighbours, but the simplest explanation is that Viking settlers adopted Gaelic naming practices, dropping their own single-generation names.

Other Norse-origin names provide evidence of the importance of those naming practices. Doyle is Ó Dubhghaill, from dubh, “dark”, and gall, “foreigner”, a descriptive formula first used to describe the invading Vikings, and in particular to distinguish darker-haired Danes from fair-haired Norwegians. O’Loughlin and Higgins both stem directly from words meaning literally “Viking”, Lochlann in Irish and Uigínn, an Irish version of the Norse Vikinger. These names were public badges of otherness, the equivalent of arriving in England with a passport saying “Johnny Foreigner”. But families were perfectly prepared to adopt and endure them, a measure of just how intense was the need to have a hereditary and patronymic surname in medieval Ireland.

We adopted them early and we adopted them with gusto. Extended family networks were the very essence of Gaelic society: what better way of flagging your network than embodying it in your name?

Which is why there are no Viking surnames except for Irish Viking surnames

Norman surnames

The Norman arrival in Ireland in 1169 was just one end-point of their extraordinary expansion out of Flanders and northern France between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries.

Superior military technology, deployed with ruthless brutality, allowed them to conquer and settle a vast swathe of the medieval world, from Byzantium in the east through parts of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, as far west as the Canary Islands.

Strongbow marries Aoife, thereby causing the Northern Troubles

When they got to Ireland, they were not yet using true hereditary surnames. The eldest-son-takes-all practice of feudal primogeniture meant younger sons had to go off and fend for themselves, one of the factors that drove their expansion. Perhaps that fracturing of Norman elite families weakened the need for hereditary names to signal wider family and tribal connections.

But the Gaelic Ireland they overran was in the middle of an explosion of hereditary surname-creation, with great networks of extended family names budding and sub-budding off central stems as families grew or waned in importance. The grandchildren of Brian Ború, High King of Ireland and victor at the Battle of Clontarf,  understandably wanted to flag up their connection, and adopted Ó Briain. But the sons of one of those grandchildren, Mathghamha Ua Briain, picked their own father as an origin point and became (in modern Irish) Mac Mathúna, McMahon, son of Mahon. Four generations later, Constantine (Consaidín) O’Brien, bishop of Killaloe, was the source of the Mac Consaidín line, the Considines. A great multi-generational flowering of names was taking place.

As they did wherever they settled, the Normans eventually integrated. They out-Irished the Irish when it came to fissiparous surname adoption. Just a single family, the de Burgos of Connacht, spun off dozens of familiar modern names: Davey, Davitt, Doak, Galwey, Gibbons, McNicholas (Mc)Philbin, Gillick, Jennings, McRedmond.  All stemmed from the forenames of prominent de Burgos, and all followed precisely the Gaelic Irish O and Mac tradition.

Davitt
Gillick
Jennings

 

 

 

 

The upshot is that almost all so-called Norman surnames were created and adopted only in Ireland. “Hiberno-Norman” is little grudging. They are Irish surnames.

The best popular account of Norman surnames in Ireland that I know of is by my colleague in Accredited Genealogists Ireland, Dr Paul McCotter MAGI, available online at goo.gl/YMdDBg