Back in Hot Water

A few years back I got into hot water for saying that the defeated Irish (and English) transported to Barbados after the Cromwellian wars were slaves. The vehement online response was that they were indentured labourers. Involuntary indentured labourers. With no fixed term to the indenture.  At my nit-picking best, I said that forced labour without time limit sounded very like slavery to me.

How wrong I was.

Barbados ‘redlegs’

In my utter up-from-the-country innocence I had wandered onto a battlefield in the ongoing Culture Wars. The kind of people who like to get together after dark carrying flaming firebrands have made it one of their central (idiot) beliefs that slavery was colour-blind: us whites have got over it and so should you African-Americans. Saying there were seventeenth-century Irish “slaves” in Barbados was the equivalent of putting on a white hood and lighting a nice big torch.

What brought this back to mind was discovering University College London’s extraordinary ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ website. When Britain abolished slavery in 1834, it did so by buying out every single slave in the Empire, paying the mind-boggling sum of £20,000,000 to the former slave-owners. The process naturally involved recording in detail every single one of the 46,000 compensation payments. All the records, including payees, amounts and locations, are in The National Archives in Kew.

What UCL has done with those 46,000 payments is remarkable. They have extracted and mapped the personal information – names, addresses, occupations, numbers of enslaved people – onto zoomable maps of Britain and Ireland. At a glance it becomes clear where slavery-derived wealth collected, who owned it, how much they were compensated. (Ireland appears to have had relatively few slave-owners).

This much is very interesting in its own right – the sheer social and geographic breadth of British slave-ownership is astonishing. But the project goes much further. It links the owners to the specific plantations in Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica from which they drew their profits and maps the plantations too. It looks at what the payees did with their slave-compensation money, the industries it supported, the political careers it enabled, the cultural institutions it helped to found, the great houses it built. Later generations of slave-owning families are tracked through their careers in politics, imperial administration, the arts and education, with prominent individuals highlighted throughout – William Gladstone, the Prime Minister of Britain through much of the Victorian era, was the son of the recipient of the single largest compensation payment. John Gladstone owned no fewer than 2508 enslaved people in British Guyana and Jamaica in 1834.

What the project does is something very familiar to genealogists, the bringing of forgotten truth back out into the light, piece by painstaking piece. The forgotten truth here is that much of the apparent majesty of Britain’s industry and culture was founded on slave money, a fact quickly and conveniently buried by subsequent Imperial historians.

The site also makes clear what enslaved Afro-Caribbean people got in compensation for their generations of degradation. Nothing.

Dirty Little Secrets

Tight-fitting acronym

One of Irish genealogy’s dirty little secrets is that it’s all very simple. We do like to dress up in fancy complications – a valuator’s codebook here, a tithe defaulter there.  And if we’re genetic genealogists we really really love our tight-fitting hermetic acronyms and our spangly centi-morgans.

Really, though, the logic behind research is as elementary as an infant’s building blocks. Pile one record on top of another until you can’t go any further. And that’s it. Yes, there are little bits of lateral thinking that can sometimes get around an obstacle. But it’s not brain surgery. It’s not even rocket science.

Spangly centimorgans

Another little secret is the fact that many of the processes we use are deeply repetitive and, frankly, stupid. Identify a townland. Find the civil parish. Match the Catholic parish. Do it again. Do it again.

The impulse to automate this stuff before going mad with boredom is the main motivator behind the programming I do. It’s the motivation behind the latest addition to this site, an attempt to map the numbers of householders in the civil parishes of Griffith’s Valuation onto the matching Catholic parishes. Here’s Gilshennan, for example.

The aim was to provide quick-and-dirty access to information on the Catholic records covering areas where particular families were living around the 1850s. Quick maybe, dirty certainly. Catholic and civil parishes don’t correspond precisely, which has thrown up lots of oddities. For instance, if there were seven Grenham households recorded by Griffith in the civil parish of Kilmore, and the civil parish of Kilmore is divided between the Catholic parishes of Castlemore and Kilbeg, then the map displays seven Grenham households in each parish, seven in Castlemore and seven in Kilbeg. Talk about Reproductive.

I’ve plastered the thing in disclaimers, but I have doubts about its usefulness. At the very least it shows that even if Irish genealogy isn’t that complicated it can still get pretty weird.

The Bee’s Knees and The Cat’s Pyjamas

Over the course of the years, I’ve read many books on Irish genealogy. Some are useful but a little dull or cumbersome. Some are irritatingly cavalier. A few are downright infuriating.

The lovely Claire

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any names. So let me mention one: Claire Santry. Claire is the sole begetter of the Irish Genealogy News blog, the single most trusted source of updates on Irish record releases and events. She’s also a professional journalist. One reason the blog is so successful is that she brings hard-won professionalism to it. And she’s just brought that professionalism to her new book, The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Ancestors in Ireland (2017, Family Tree Books).

It is absolutely splendid: engaging, amusing and down-to-earth, perfectly lucid but without a hint of condescension or dumbing down. She tells the stories behind the sources with a wonderful light touch and a very strong sense of personality.

The 1841 and 1851 sesarch forms explained

And it educated me. Again and again, I found out things I didn’t know: precisely how the application system for searches in the 1841 and 1851 censuses worked; what exactly the RIC gazette Hue & Cry was and where you can get at it; that you can order a copy of anything in the PERSI index via the Allen County Library website; how the Catholic Church kept marriage registration at arms’ length until the 1880s; why US civil war pension applications are so useful. I could go on and on.

Boxouts to beat the band. Nice shamrock running header, too.

As if that wasn’t enough, the design is lovely, with plenty of eye-catching illustrations, side-bars and box-outs that break up the text and make it easy to dip in  and out.

Quibbles? Some of the stretching and bending needed to fit with the Family Tree format seems unnecessary, and the slant towards North American researchers is a bit too pronounced. Mentioning the Emerald Isle on the back cover is a sure way of deterring purchasers actually living on the emerald isle.

But all in all this is now my favourite book on Irish genealogy. The bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas rolled into one. It’ll come in very handy for the fifth edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.

Unfinished Republic, Truncated Kingdom

Irish genealogical researchers persistently ignore one aspect of almost all the records we use. Those records were created by a country that no longer exists, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. After three generations, a blind spot on both sides of the Irish sea is perfectly understandable, but that vanished country is the direct ancestor of both our unfinished Republic and their truncated Kingdom, and there are important consequences that researchers shouldn’t ignore.

Royal Munster Fusiliers

On the negative side, there are no official records of migration from Ireland to Britain, any more than there are official records of migration from Birmingham to London. Browse the 1911 Dublin census and you’ll see that the Irish Sea was then an internal trade route, not an international boundary.

But there are many records now in London that cover pre-1922 Ireland: post office workers, soldiers, the merchant marine, the coastguard … Everyone employed by the British state left traces in records now held in England.

Always room for another picture of the man himself.

And it works both ways. As anyone who has tried to read the Nighttown episode of Joyce’s Ulysses knows, there were large numbers of British soldiers stationed in Victorian and Edwardian Dublin – they were the main clients of the city’s huge red light district.

A more licit record of young men’s sexuality appears in the extraordinary number of soldiers’ marriages recorded in Dublin Church of Ireland records. The non-Catholic marriage records from 1845 are especially informative, giving the names of the fathers of bride and groom as well as their occupations. Because a large majority of these soldiers were from England, Scotland or Wales, it is very likely that many dead ends in UK family history might be resolved by looking at these Irish records.

I have a personal reason for going on about this. For the last few weeks I’ve been spending long, long lengths of time combing the post-1845 Dublin marriage records church by church. The sheer variety of surnames is continually astonishing – Calisendorf , D’Cloett, Flouterlin, Gammaly, Minchinfort – and so is the variety of spelling versions: Campell, Cambel, Camphil, Canpell, Cambhill …. For British soldiers, the main requirements for a posting to Dublin seem to have been a strong libido and the possession of an odd surname. And dyslexia was evidently epidemic among nineteenth-century Dublin Church of Ireland clergymen.

One final point about the overlap between Ireland and Britain: James Joyce, whom we now claim as completely one of our own, was born a United Kingdom citizen and held a United Kingdom passport all his life.

Develop your genealogical spidey-sense

I still remember vividly the first research report I ever worked on. My job was to find a David Fitzgerald in East Limerick in Griffith’s Valuation. At the time, back when genealogical dinosaurs roamed the earth, the only way to do this was to identify roughly which parishes had Fitzgerald households in Griffith’s using the old Index of Surnames, and then comb through them all one by one looking for Davids. So I hunkered down and resigned myself to hours of grinding through microfiche after microfiche. But then  – what luck! – the second parish I checked, Croom, produced a David Fitzgerald.

David Fitzgeralds

As I sat down to write the report, though, doubts started to niggle. Yes, David was a relatively unusual forename at the time, but just how unusual? So I went back and continued looking. And of course, it immediately began to rain David Fitzgeralds: in Ballingarry, Emlygrennan, Ballinlough, Knockainy …

The point of this is not (just) to show how green I was. Without some idea of how to measure the likelihood of what you’ve found, its place on the scale of probability, it’s very hard to interpret it. If you don’t know that half of the population of West Cork is called O’Driscoll, and that Cornelius was extremely common  in just area, you’re likely to fall on the first Cornelius [O’]Driscoll you find and install him as your ancestor. The appropriate metaphor is the hoary old one about blind men trying to describe an elephant, each one extrapolating from the particular part they happen to touch.

Cornelius O’Driscolls

This is especially important for Irish research before the 1850s. At that point most conclusions are balance-of-probability judgements, not cast-iron certainties.

So is there any systematic way to measure genealogical probability? The short answer is no. Doubt your presumptions and go off to count David Fitzgeralds.

The long answer, as usual, is that it depends. Now that so many records are searchable in flexible ways, you can get a sense from a quick search of just how common name combinations are. So there are 107 Cornelius [O’]Driscolls in the 1901 census, but only five Cornelius Maguires. It’s rough and ready, but do it often enough on different datasets and you’ll begin to develop a genealogical Spidey-sense.

Just don’t trust it all the time.

LDSier and LDSier

Why are so many wonderful record-images beginning to appear on FamilySearch? The answer requires a long run-up …

Family history is an essential part of the practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aimed at ensuring that everyone who has ever lived and who ever will live will ultimately be united in one great family tree. (Donald Akenson’s Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself is a good, if slightly snide, account).

Orrin Porter Rockwell
1813-1878. Not all Mormons were cuddly.

Because of this, the LDS have been collecting family history records since the 1890s and research in those records has been the main means of access to records for all family history researchers, Mormon and non-Mormon, for more than seventy years. Most Mormon temples have a Family History Centre that also opens to the public. Up to now, these Centres have depended on microfilm ordered via FamilySearch from the vast vaults of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City – their microfilms of the GRO registers are on open access in the Family History Centre in Dublin, for example.

The Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. Yes, that is its actual name.

Now that system is ending. From September 1st next, FamilySearch will discontinue its microfilm distribution services. The reason is simple: as microfilm declines in popularity the costs of storage and duplication have risen dramatically. In other words the internet killed it.

As a replacement FamilySearch promises that all its microfilm will be available as digital images. And that’s the reason for the tectonic shift we’ve been seeing recently in the availibility of Irish record images on the site: the Registry of Deeds, the GRO films, the Tithe survey, the National Archives testamentary collections and so much more. There is a simply a huge push on to get the films online before September.

Unfortunately, access permissions haven’t yet been sorted out for many of the records. Click on that tantalising little camera icon and more often than not you’ll be told: ” These images are viewable: 1. To signed-in members of supporting organizations. 2. When using the site at a family history center.”

Little camera icon.

I enquired if I could sign up to be a supporting organisation (“I’ll be ever so supporting, I promise”) only to be told that there is currently only one supporting organisation: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Personally, I’m delighted the microfilm is going. If they want someone to light the microfilm bonfire  and dance around it, count me in. Thirty years spent squinting down microfilm readers has left me loathing the stuff.

Experience suggests that those viewing barriers will eventually melt. And in the meantime, I live quite close to the Dublin Family History Centre.

Back door man

The Mormon FamilySearch is without doubt the most important family history site in the world. It can also be a royal pain. For years I’ve been going to its main record collections for Ireland, picking out the most important one ‘Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620-1881’ and then tearing my hair out trying to figure out what exactly I’m searching. Argh. ‘Index to selected Ireland births and baptisms. The year range represents most of the records. A few records may be earlier or later’. Argh.

It turns out I was making a basic mistake. Don’t go in the front door. Go around the house and sneak in through the back door, the catalogue. Try this for an experiment. Go to and just enter Ireland in the Place box. No fewer than two hundred and fifty-one separate categories pop up.

Howlin’ Wolf, the original back door man

You can explore at your leisure. For now, just add ‘Public Record Office’ into the ‘Author’ box. You’ll get 395 subsections for PRONI and forty-two for “Ireland: Public Record Office”. Go down to the “Ireland: Public Record Office” subsection ‘Testamentary documents in the Public Record Office, Dublin’ and click. You’ll see a list of 136 microfilms of which 69 have the wonderful little camera icon beside them, meaning they’ve been digitised. Click on one of those and you’re in Wonderland. More than half of the NAI ‘D’,’ T’ and ‘M’ manuscript series are there, freely viewable. If you come up with a reference to  one of these (from NAI’s own card index, from the version on FindMyPast, from, you don’t have to schlep all the way to Bishop St., Dublin 8 (or your nearest LDS centre) to look at the full document. There it is, the 1866 will of John Gilmore.

NAI’s wonderful, no-frills testamentary card index

And there’s more. The Betham notebook abstracting the family information from all Kildare diocesan wills up to 1828? No bother.  Eustace Street Dublin Presbyterian Registers? Certainly, sir.  Or what about the French Presentation NAI collection?

But of course my real reason for rummaging around like this is to find out exactly which Irish church records have been transcribed. Search on the church name and if a little microscope appears beside the film number, bingo, it’s been transcribed and you can go to the transcript by clicking on the microscope.

I’ve begun adding direct links to my own parish register listings – check out St. Peter’s, Athlone. Just click on the film number.

Mad cows and Dubedats

With genealogy blinkers on and up to your tonsils in luverly, luverly databases it can be hard to grasp the implications the records have for other areas of research. An obvious beneficiary is Joycean studies. Many of James Joyce’s characters are based on real individuals, often appearing under their own names. The period he writes about is slap in the middle of the 1901 and 1911 censuses, transparent and free online; Dublin parish registers are also online; and Dublin newspapers, and Dublin directories, and Dublin voters’ lists and maps and …

Joyce photographed by Constantine Curran in 1904. When asked what he was thinking, Joyce answered “I was wondering would he lend me ten bob”.

A few examples: Miss Douce “of the bronze hair”, immortalised in the Sirens episode of Ulysses, set in the Ormond Hotel, was actually Maggie Dowse, “manageress” of the Bailey in Duke St. in 1901 and a sister-in-law of the owner, William Hogan. No doubt “Douce” was a more suggestive variant.

The Dubedat family are celebrated in one of Ulysses’ many joyously puerile jokes – “May I tempt you … Miss Dubedat? Yes, do bedad. And she did, bedad.” And there they are in Dublin Church of Ireland registers, the Du Bedats, Du Bidats, Dubédats …

Irish Times Saturday 2 April 1904.

Like genealogy, collecting Joyce trivia can become compulsive, and can lead in unexpected directions. A four-word headline noted in passing in Stephen Hero, “Mad Cow at Cabra”, recalls the practice of driving cattle through the city streets from the markets in Prussia Street via Phibsborough down to the cattle boats at the North Wall. Sometimes, understandably, a cow would run amok. As so often in Joyce, even the tiniest details are made out of real incidents.  The  Irish Times of April 2 1904 has two tiny news-items side by side on page 6: “Cow Shot at Cabra Road” and “Supposed Mad Dog”. Maybe even Joyce sometimes got confused?

For more Joycean fun see

Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic

Joni: incurious and long-lived

As well as causing excess mortality in cats, idle curiosity is a great source of unlooked-for discoveries. Grazing the online 1911 census again recently, I tried searching the “infirmities” column under “More search options”. This is the section of the return where individuals were to be described as “Deaf and Dumb; Dumb only; Blind; Imbecile or Idiot; Or Lunatic”. The aim, one presumes, was to collect medical statistics, and the nature of the afflictions chosen implies interest in heredity. With hindsight, this looks like the beginnings of eugenics.

Inevitably, a large number of people filling out the form misunderstood its purpose, and saw this section as an invitation to tell the government about their health. All of these returns can be retrieved simply by choosing “Other” in the “Specified Illnesses” search box.

Just choose ‘Other’

In the midst of the cheerful lists of “All right” and “No infirmity”, and the rather less cheerful “Bad Corn” and “Cold in Chest” and “Want of Money”, one return stood out. As their infirmity, Ellen Barry of Churchill Terrace in Sandymount and her two daughters had entered “unenfranchised”. Further investigation showed a number of similar returns, including a Kathleen Shannon of Lower Leeson Street who entered the wonderfully tart “Not naturally [infirm], but legally classed with imbeciles on account of my sex”.

The description of census day on the National Archives website, part of the fascinating and underappreciated contextual material, points out that the suffragette movement throughout the United Kingdom had called for a boycott of the census. Evidently, some suffragettes decided to be visible to history (and the census enumerators) by protesting on the form, rather than simply refusing to fill it out. Further idle grazing even shows a number of women recording their religion as “Militant suffragette”.

This is history in wonderful personal detail, and it is only possible because the National Archives has positively insisted on idle curiosity by making every single aspect of the censuses searchable.

Proof, No Pudding

Genealogists tend to focus very closely on questions of evidence. The reason is very simple. Many apparently sound family trees are riddled with inconsistencies, leaps of illogic and undocumented assertions. It is all too easy to waste weeks researching non-existent ancestors before uncovering the flaws in such pedigrees.

Given the nature of much genealogical evidence, with garbled family stories, ludicrously repetitive naming traditions and half-obliterated parish registers, absolute certainty is often impossible. The best a researcher can aim for is a well-reasoned argument that takes account of any surviving records or traditions, and assesses probabilities as dispassionately as possible. Even then, the pattern-seeker’s trap awaits: if you stare at gibberish long enough, it will start to look intelligible.

Take the Irish ancestry of Ronald Reagan. The earliest documented ancestor is Michael Regan, who married in England in 1852 and recorded his father as Thomas. The English 1851 census (very fortunately) gave Tipperary as his place of origin and his age as 21. So far, so good. And the researchers who searched Tipperary parish registers did indeed find a Michael, son of Thomas Regan, baptised in Ballyporeen in 1829.

Michael of Thomas Regan and Margaret Murphy, Sepetmber 3 1839, Ballyporeen

But at least 20 of the 53 Catholic parishes of Tipperary have no records for the years around 1830. Both Michael and Thomas are unimaginably common forenames and there were more than 50 Regan households in the county at the time. Even for parishes that have records, five minutes on rootsireland (which only covers two-thirds of the county) will get you at least ten Thomas Regans baptising children over the period. So it is perfectly likely, probable in fact, that more than one Michael, son of Thomas, was baptised in the relevant period. A very slender basis on which to build the Ronald Reagan Visitor Centre.

Slim foundations never bothered a good step-dancer

However good the documentation, however impeccable the reasoning, humility and scepticism are always required. In the words of science writer Jonah Lehrer, just because something is true doesn’t mean it can be proved.

And just because it can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.