The Catholic registers are rotting

Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for nineteenth-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival.

Why should this matter? Aren’t they’re all copied online anyway? Or in the National Library microfilm collection?

Here are some facts about the collections of copies. The National Library microfilm project, heroic as it was, has serious flaws, apart from the cut-off of 1880. A few parishes were missed entirely – Rathlin Island, for example – and some films are so out of focus as to be illegible, the main reason for the flaws in the transcripts done by Ancestry and FindMyPast.

Mitchelstown baptisms on microfilm. Not exactly a substitute for the original.

Comparing the years covered by the heritage centres’ transcriptions with the years held on Library microfilm also reveals that dozens of parishes have records earlier than those filmed by the Library: Aghada in east Cork, for example, has marriage records going back 40 years before the NLI microfilm. Roscommon and Sligo towns both have full early baptismal registers going back decades before the NLI copies.  And for Carrick-on-Shannon, NLI appears to have missed nearly all the records of one of the two chapels in the parish, Kiltoghart-Murhane, meaning only half the Catholic records are on microfilm.

The mismatch also works in the other direction. More than 100 parishes (many in Wexford) have earlier years on microfilm than in heritage centre transcript. Adamstown, Aghaderg, Ahoghill, Ballinascreen, Cappoquin … all have microfilm records earlier than the rootsireland transcripts. Were these earlier registers somehow lost or destroyed between the NLI microfilm in the 1970s and the transcription project in the 1990s? How many other registers have also since disappeared?

No copy can take the place of the original. The registers themselves are the property of the Catholic Church, and also the Church’s responsibility. If the Hierarchy wants to keep them private, by all means let them be locked away in acid-free boxes in diocesan archives for a century or more. But something has to be done to stop them from rotting away.

It’s a nae-brainer

The country in whose records we do most of our research was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It broke apart a century ago, and the two leftover bits may have cultivated wilful blindness towards each other since, but that can’t change the fact that the Irish Sea was effectively an inland lake, providing cheap and easy transport between the two islands. It was simpler and more comfortable to travel from Dublin to Liverpool than to Kilkenny.

What brings this to mind is a recent training trip to Glasgow, organised by my professional association, Accredited Genealogists Ireland.

Rab C. Click for more detail

The city itself is wonderful. I’m happy to report that the traditional Glasgow salutation is not, as I had believed, the headbutt (pace Rab C. Nesbitt). But the accent should be a Unesco World Heritage Artifact, with its swallowed consonants and vowels stretched over three syllables, all packed into in a singing lilt that hits stresses in exactly the wrong places. The quintessentially English “Keep calm and carry on” translates into Glaswegian as “Keep calm and ge’ oan wae i'”.

Just one page from the Poor Law application of Irishman Joseph Gore in 1915, supplying parents’ names, place of birth, place of marriage, siblings’ names, in-laws’ names …

The highlight of the visit was the Mitchell Library and in particular a talk (in unsubtitled Glaswegian) on Glasgow Poor Law records by Senior Archivist, Irene O’Brien. The first and most important point she made was that, despite the name, there was almost no similarity with the Irish or English Poor Law. What Glasgow had from 1845 was more akin to an all-encompassing welfare state than the begrudged misery doled out in Irish workhouses. A vast bureaucracy collected huge quantities of information on the families of applicants, who could be widows, unemployed, sick, orphans … And they’re all in the Mitchell.

For most of the nineteenth century, the gravitational pull of the city’s gigantic industrial employers drew in thousands upon thousands of migrants, from Russia, India, Poland, Italy and above all rural Ireland, rural Ulster especially. So these Poor Law Applications hold information on Irish families from well before the start of Irish civil registration or church registers. And not just names, also locations, in-laws, work histories, even little character assassinations: “an awful boozer”.

Accessing them in the Mitchell is simplicity itself. The entire fifth floor is given over to archives and family history, a database name-index pinpoints the original files, the record delivery is fast and efficient.

But … the only point of access is physically in Glasgow. There is no way to check online before visiting whether the files reference a particular family (though any family with connections in the city will almost certainly appear, even if only through a tangential branch).

I think this might have to do with the fact for Glaswegians, the city is the centre of the universe, a universe that looks very like Glasgow. It’s understandable, but a mistake. Having even the names index online would draw in many more researchers.

It’s a nae-brainer.


Be Evil

As anyone who has used my website knows, a lot of it depends on maps that visualise the historic locations of households and records in particular areas of Ireland. Users can then (mostly) click through to the actual records.

The original inspiration came from a book by Edward Kneafsey, Surnames of Ireland (2002, the author), which took the 200 most numerous surnames on the island and created an individual ‘dot-density’ maps for each, based on a count of surnames by phone-code areas.

Kneafsey’s map of Barretts

The results were striking, with clear visual connections between population density and traditional home areas. So I said to myself “Wouldn’t it be interesting to do the same online for the 20,000 or so surnames recorded between 1847 and 1864 in Griffith’s?”

It took months of weeping, wailing, teeth-gnashing and keyboard-headbutting to figure it out, but eventually I managed to use Google’s Geocharting javascript to do it. I was as pleased as punch when it all went live on the old Irish Times ‘Irish Ancestors’ site in 2012. It’s still at the heart of the main surname search page on this site.

There are limits to how interactive geocharting can be – it’s not possible to create links in the markers, for example – so I then started to investigate the main Google Maps javascript, where there is much more flexibility. Cue another two years of weeping, waling, gnashing … In 2015, I worked out how to map the birth indexes then appearing on onto Google Maps locations of registration districts and include on the map marker a link back to the records on IrishGenealogy. And then came the 1911 census. And the 1901. And the FindMyPast Catholic baptism transcripts …

All of this depended entirely on the enlightened self-interest of Google’s pricing of access to their maps. There  was a generous free allowance of 750,000 monthly map hits, way beyond what I would ever need. Even above that limit, the prices were painless.

Then last July, with a month’s notice, the monthly allowance shrank to 28,000, a drop of 96%. And the price for usage above the limit increased by more than 1,400%. Some MBA in Palo Alto, red in tooth and claw, had evidently decided there were enough fish in the barrel and it was time to start shooting.  The usual Google trade-off of information to sell advertsing in return for a free service was no longer enough.This is the baseball bat business model: “Nice maps you got here. Shame if anything happened them. Capeesh?”

Faced with the prospect of having to pay thousands a year for a previously free service, I’ve moved most of the maps to the open-source-based MapBox. There will still be payment, but at least not to Google.

For me this is a nuisance. For developers in parts of the world where Google has a monopoly of map data, it’s a business-destroyer, with a single flat US$ price regardless of circumstances or local going rates.

It has been a revelation. Don’t be evil.

Sausages, Genealogy TV and WTF?

The new Irish series of Who Do You Think You Are? kicked off last week and once again,  despite myself,  I enjoyed it immensely. The franchised format is restrictive and repetitive – a celebrity finds out their ancestry at the same time as the viewer, travels to distant record offices, discovers contrasting family branches and solves knotty research problems by looking in a big book in a picturesque church.

Picturesque church

But RTE (and their production company Animo) have grasped very well that the  genealogy is only a pretext for telling stories and they can make those stories resonate with their audience, humanising history by making it family history. Also getting a celeb to blub onscreen is good.

The bould Damien

I was especially riveted by the first show in the series, which dealt with singer Damien Dempsey, not just because the stories were excellent, but because I had been doing research for him for the past three years. So my jaw hit the floor as what appeared to be my research emerged from the mouths of a variety of historians and genealogists. I paused the list of credits to see if I had a mention, but nothing. Wtf? says I to myself.

So I emailed the friend responsible for organising the show’s research and asked her “Wtf?” She had never heard of my research. So nobody stole my work.  She had had to duplicate it because she didn’t know it existed. I then emailed the bould Damien and asked him “Wtf?” And he responded that he hadn’t told the production company about my research. Wtf?

He didn’t say why, but I presume part of the deal was that he had to be discovering things onscreen at the same time as the viewer and so had to be able to feign ignorance. He did a great job of feigning. I foresee many starring roles in the Gaiety panto in his future.

Damien’s future?

To cap it all, I’m appearing myself in a short segment of one of the next episodes, presenting a piece of research that I didn’t do. Ironic or what?

The moral (to paraphrase Bismarck) is that genealogy TV is like a sausage. Best not to see how it’s made.

Definitely half-full

One of the many mixed blessings to emerge from the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922 is the attention that we have been obliged to give to records that are fragmentary, or very local in scope, or just downright peculiar. After almost a century, however, it is hard not to feel that desperation has already forced us into every nook and cranny. There are just a few unexplored frontiers left, and estate papers are probably the most valuable of these.

National Library of Ireland Ms 12790

Between 1700 and 1850 the majority of the population lived as small tenant farmers on large estates owned by English or Anglo-Irish landlords. Inevitably, the administration of these estates produced mouth-watering quantities of paper: maps, tenants’ lists, rentals, account books, lease books and much more. But the records are not systematic, vary enormously in the areas and periods they cover and in their level of detail, and in many cases have simply not survived. Those that have survived are scattered across multiple archives and libraries. As well as Ireland, many of the larger landlords also had holdings in England and Wales, and many records of Irish estates have ended up in English and Welsh archives. Tracking down these surviving records has long been beyond the stamina of all but the most stubborn of researchers.

Gortnalamph townland in 1800 in the Earl of Leitrim estate papers (NLI Ms 12791)

The Landed Estates website (, a project of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, has been a precious beacon of light since 2008, bringing together precise location data, photographs, published material and information on the scope and location of surviving records for estates in Connacht and  Munster.  The level of detail is exemplary, providing an extrordinary insight into just how interlinked many of the landed families were. The integration with Google maps allows a visualisation of the relative positions of the estates, a good rough guide to an area you’re interested in.

Above all, the project should be providing a wonderful central storage point for all the information emerges in the future. However, nothing has been added for at least five years. What about all those juicy Headfort estate papers in Meath or the wonderful Ulster collection in PRONI?

Yes, the glass is nicely half-full. Please fill it.

Lord Leitrim’s place. Not Gortnalamph


Not a goldmine

IrishGenealogy, I love you

Many times I’ve sung the praises of the Irish public service’s role in the recent revolution in Irish genealogy.  What happened, mostly, is that individual civil servants stuck their necks out to do what they saw as the right thing, not just for their own institutions but for the country and for the descendants of those who were forced to leave. Wonderful things we now take for granted – the online civil registration records, the National Archives census site, the National Library parish register images – are there not because there was an overarching master-plan (God forbid) but because individuals just did it.

The problem is that such decisions can all too easily be reversed. A small but worrying recent example is Ordnance Survey Ireland.  When they initially digitised their map archive, it was available on an expensive subscription website, presumably because someone in the office said “We’re sitting on a goldmine here, lads!” When it turned out not to be a goldmine, they sensibly picked themselves up and moved on, making the entire set free at They made it possible to lay historic maps over contemporary aerial images, create direct links into the historic maps based on latitude and longitude, even customise layers on the historic maps to highlight graveyards or forges or asylums or turloughs – anything that was recorded on the original.

Glorious Oughterard in 1839

Ah, happy, bygone days.

First, in a fit of copyright cold feet, (“But what about copyright, lads?”) a crude intervening map was overlaid on the historic 25″ and 6″ maps, making it difficult to zoom out and get overviews.

And now is completely gone, replaced by Gone is the ability to link directly to locations. Gone are the layers of graveyards and forges. In their stead, is a new ‘improved’ system.

Definitely slicker

In defence of OSI, the old application was getting very old and insecure (“But what about security, lads?”). The main purpose of the organisation is to supply map services to other arms of the state, not to pander to a few heritage map nuts. And the maps are still there, still layerable and still free. They’re just not as searchable or accessible.

It’s a pity, not a tragedy. The real cause of the shiver up my spine is the evidence that wonderful decisions made ad-hoc can so easily be reversed.

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.