The Irish way of death

In Ireland we like to congratulate ourselves on the way we deal with death. Or, more precisely, with other people’s bereavements. There aren’t many places on the planet where the funeral of a cousin’s mother-in-law, taking place two days after she dies, will demand instant attendance, take priority over work, family, health, weather and money and necessitate a hell of a party.

A wake

I remember how, three decades ago, my mother and her sisters scrambled across to England in full funeral-emergency mode within twenty-four hours of her brother Paddy’s death. They then kicked their heels in East Anglia for ten days as the English side sat around with long faces talking to the undertakers. And not a party in sight. My poor mother thought she was on Mars.

That profound difference in funeral culture between the two islands can sometimes have more serious effects. One of the reasons English police were convinced of the guilt of the Birmingham Six was that five of the men were hightailing it to the funeral of a Belfast neighbour, who just happened to be an IRA man. They were only following the advice of my (other) Uncle Paddy: funerals are better than weddings because you don’t have to be invited.

Apart from the party, the main impulse underlying Irish funerals is, I think, simple tribal solidarity. The bigger the crowd around the grave, the smaller the burden to be carried by the immediate family.

Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, as an American psychotherapist (not my own, I hasten to add) once told me, many Irish people have trouble grieving properly. Maybe all that solidarity makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the dead.

In any case, our intense focus on obsequies has produced a uniquely Irish record source, the death notice. Since about 1940, a public announcement of the time and place of removal and burial has been a compulsory part of every Irish funeral, and often also includes the names of surviving next-of-kin, place of death and cemetery. Checking “the deaths” remains a ubiquitous social necessity. And checking old death notices is an excellent way of tracking distant cousins and forgotten addresses and burial places.

The original and still largest sources are newspapers, The Irish Press and The Irish Independent in particular, with local newspapers also very good. The single best collection of twentieth-century Irish newspapers is at, a subscription site.

More recently, has become a standard part of funeral announcements, free and fully searchable from 2006. It should also be a standard part of the toolkit of every Irish private eye genealogist.



Six habits of the highly effective researcher

1. Lose the blinkers. You need to keep trimming away your own presumptions, because otherwise they’ll just grow back. No, not all Cholmondeleys were Protestant. Yes, some nineteenth-century families moved back to Ireland from the US. No, we’re not all descended from Milesius.

2. Gnaw. If you can’t find what should be there, don’t give up. Look at records for adjoining areas, look at earlier and later records, try different spellings, different forenames, different families in the same area.
You are a dog and this is your bone. Grrrr.

3. Know where the devil is. In the detail, of course. For example, that the date of your great-grandfather’s arrest for public drunkenness was the day after your grandmother’s birth. He was out celebrating.

4. Turn off the computer and go down to the library or archive. What’s online may be wonderful, but it’s still only a small fraction of what survives.

5. Stare at records. There is nearly always something more to be learned from a record, no matter how well you think you know it. Recently, I noticed on my grandfather’s familiar 1901 census return that the head of the household in the shop where he was an assistant had recorded him as a “cusion”. Tracing her family showed he was in fact her second cousin, and revealed a plethora of related lines. Welcome to the extended family, all you Flynns, Shines, McManuses and Seerys.

6. Think sideways. Your family were all small tenant farmers, with no property and hence no reason to leave a will. But what about their uncle the priest? Maybe he left one? And every testamentary record after 1858 is an open book at

If the genealogist implied by all this is a sceptical, hard-bitten picker of nits …  Oh well.

Bleedin savages

How did Scandinavians go from being the most bloodthirsty warriors in European history to the very models of a well-behaved citizenry?

No flatpacks, still happy

Viking society contained very little in the way of humane prisons, flat-pack furniture or Lego. Drunkenness, extreme violence and hyper-masculinity is what got them their territory, power and wealth.

A recent reading of Patrick O’Donnell’s hair-raising Irish Faction-Fighters of the 19th Century (Dublin 1975) brought that transformation to mind. Like the Scandinavians, we have plenty of violence in our own past, though, as O’Donnell tells it, we were less goal-directed than the Vikings.

For about six decades after 1780, a craze for mass public fighting, usually at fairs or markets, swept across Munster and Leinster. In 1827 alone, 1001 “riots” were reported to Dublin Castle. Huge crowds could be involved, with opposing sides sometimes numbering several thousand, all armed with at least a good ash-plant or blackthorn stick, while some also carried guns and knives.

The vast majority of the fights were pre-arranged, and aimed for nothing more than the sheer joy of combat. And they came replete with their own ritual and ceremony. The set-piece taunting was especially rich: “Rams’ horns, rams’ horns, there’s nothing crookeder than rams’ horns” would come from the leader of one side. To which the other would respond: “I know something’ll be crookeder by tonight. Your skull”. The violence was anything but ceremonial, though. At Ballyeagh on the Kerry coast on a single day in June 1834 more than twenty people died and hundreds were seriously wounded.

From such casual ferocity to Ireland’s current doe-eyed docility is just as peculiar a change as the metamorphosis of Vikings into socially responsible feminists. It’s impossible to say precisely what caused these radical transformations, but I think at least two simple ingredients are involved: lots of time and more comfort. Given a few generations and decent central heating, everyone calms down.

But we should never forget just how alien the past can be.

They did in their sh_te

Hard-bitten data wranglers know full well that the price you pay for corralling research data into a database is a certain amount of wastage. The grinding boredom of record transcription creates tempting opportunities to doze off, take shortcuts or just make things up. Believe me, I know.

Data wrangling

So when we started work on the database transcripts of Irish General Register Office marriage and death indexes supplied to us by FamilySearch, the website of the Latter-Day-Saints, we were prepared for a certain amount of mistranscription. And we certainly got it. For all its size, FamilySearch essentially depends on volunteers, so allowances need to be made.

More interesting than the gory details of omission and commission (for some of which see below) is what happened to the transcripts when they were licensed to the fully commercial sites Ancestry and FindMyPast. Surely they checked the data before putting it live? They did in their sh*te.

Some examples: A FamilySearch volunteer used the “Copy down” function in Excel as a shortcut in the 1880s and 1890s, meaning that they copied their mis-transcriptions  and then spread them around. Here are six non-existent “O’Flaberty deaths” from FamilySearch in sequence in 1888, on Ancestry and on FindMyPast. Here are the eight non-existent “M’Cood” deaths from 1892. On Ancestry and FindMyPast, and as they should be on IrishGenealogy. Here are the Earins who should be Eakins, the Gamas who should be Garas, the Hehies who should be Hehirs …

Maybe I’m being harsh about individual mistakes, but there are larger issues as well. The whole of 1886 is in the death index (and on FamilySearch and Ancestry and FindMyPast) twice. There are huge numbers of duplicate death records in 1882. Extra copies are a nuisance, to be sure, but not fatal in terms of findability. Much more serious are the gaping holes. Three index volumes for 1897 marriages are just omitted completely, almost 65% of the total.  Quarter 1 of 1900 marriages is listed under 1899, making those 15,000 marriages unfindable. The same for Quarter 1 of 1900 deaths. And don’t look for a death in Quarter 3 of 1898 or Quarter 2 of 1903.

This goes well beyond normal error rates. There seems to have been a breakdown in quality control for at least some portion of the FamilySearch digitisation process. Maybe, given the nature of FamilySearch, this could be forgiven.

What’s not forgivable is that no attempt was made by Ancestry and FindMyPast to check the data they got. The contempt for researchers is palpable.

Stiffs ‘R Us

Back in 1998 when we were casting around for a title for the soon-to-be-launched Irish Times ancestry sub-site, one of the suggestions was “Stiffs ‘R Us”. Needless to say, it was vetoed. But it’s always stayed in the back of my mind, awaiting the right moment. And that moment has come.

‘R not us

We’ve just launched surname maps of all Irish death records 1864-1922. Have a look at Buggy, or Mungovan,  or Scahill. All precisely where they should be.

These maps are a little different from the others on the site. The data that underlies them comes from the old printed General Register Office indexes, specifically from the transcripts of those indexes made by the website of the Mormon Church. They very kindly shared a copy with us, the only quid pro quo being free access to our site in LDS Family History Centres.

In all the other maps, the links on the map will take you back to the original records they’re based on. Linking back to images of the printed indexes would be pointless, though. So these death entries point back to the full death records on IrishGenealogy. But … the IG records use a fresh set of indexes, not the old printed volumes.  So there are discrepancies – 70 Scahill entries in the old index, 72 in IG, 127 Finns in Boyle as opposed to 129 and so on. As ever, there are mistakes in both indexes, but they’re not the same mistakes.

Once again, I got a real kick from seeing these things work and from the way visualising the information brings it to life. So to speak. More and more, though, I feel the most important aspect is the list of surname variants that also appear in the original records. Forty years doing this stuff and I’m still astonished at the new ways record keepers torture names out of shape. And looking at the Grenham variants, I found the long-missing death of my own great-great-grandmother tucked away under an obscure misspelling.

So roll on up. Enough deaths for everyone in the audience.

And a video at

The rabbit-holes outnumber the rabbits

The hundredth anniversary of our destruction of the Record Treasury of the Public Record Office of Ireland fell a week ago and the dust has now settled on the launch of, our response to that catastrophe. For the past few years, the project was trailed (“”) as a reconstruction of the collections burnt in 1922. The PR-fueled headlines on Irish media were that “technology” (whatever that is) was going to restore everything lost a century ago: just don your immersive headset and swim off through the 1821 census, mar dhea. Anyone with a titter of wit (a group that apparently doesn’t include many Irish news editors) could see this was just smoke-blowing.

The original Treasury
The VR version

So now that it’s live, what’s the verdict? On the Virtual Reality side, the first thing to be said is that the reconstruction of the Treasury building is superb. To be able to wander through the magnificent galleries and empty spaces that held all those records is awe-inspiring and not a little sad. The second thing is that the “Treasury View”, a VR doll’s-house view of the locations of records inside the building before 1922, is just silly.  This is the part of the site closest to that blown PR smoke. For anyone trying to access records it’s useless,  an online exhibition maybe, certainly not a restoration or reconstruction.

Vacant Treasury Bay

The real meat is buried away in the emphatically non-VR Browse section. Not “Browse All”, which is a dutiful and impressive listing of partner institutions and their records, the other one, “Browse PROI Catalogue”. This makes it clear that the heart of the project is to take Herbert Wood’s massive 1919 published listing of PROI holdings (helpfully included at the bottom of the page) and use it as a vast series of pigeonholes for substitutes, copies and abstracts of those destroyed holdings. The sheer chutzpah required even to attempt this is just jaw-dropping. Hats off: there are several lifetimes’ work here.

This approach creates its own problems, though. The main one is the huge warren of sub-sub-categories inside sub-categories, a large majority of which ultimately lead to a bald “Destroyed”.  The rabbit-holes vastly outnumber the rabbits. Another is that Wood’s record hierarchy is deeply unintuitive for researchers a century later. “Extinct Jurisdictions” gets a top-level listing, while the giant 19th-century census holdings are stuffed away down in sub-section 9 of “Miscellaneous documents”. The priorities of Edwardian gentlemen record-keepers are emphatically not ours.

Still, there are gems all over the place: Digital copies of the National Archives of Ireland’s Church of Ireland registers (some of them, at least);  The best account I’ve read of the 1766 census, with surviving transcripts all in the one place; links to the details of individual tenants under the Land Acts;  A transcript of the 1831 census for Inishtioge in Kilkenny; The minute book of the Corporation of Brewers and Maltsters of Dublin; Herbert Wood’s wonderful  account of Certain Registers of Irregular Marriages Celebrated by Unlicensed Clergymen, Known as Couple-Beggars.

But trying to get at the gems can be excruciating. A little less software engineering and a little more focus on the research experience would help. By which I mean a simple, regularly-updated plain text listing of all the transcripts and images on the site. Please?

More at

A needle in a haystack of needles

In Myles na gCopaleen’s wonderful parody of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Beál Bocht (The Poor Mouth), the narrator, Gaeilgeoir Bonaparte O’Coonassa, describes his first day at school.

The teacher demands, in English: “Phwat is yer nam?” The response, in Irish, begins: “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas’s Sarah, grand-daughter of John’s Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot.” Whereupon the teacher calls him to the front of the class, hits him over the head with an oar and screams: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”

An oar

When he regains consciousness, Bonaparte discovers that every other child in the class is also officially Jams O’Donnell.

In some parts of Ireland genealogical research involves distinguishing one Jams O’Donnell from another. For Byrnes in Wicklow, Sullivans in south Kerry, Dohertys in Donegal, or Bradys in Cavan, the problem is not finding a needle in a haystack. It’s finding the right needle in a haystack of needles.

A plethora of Bradies in Cavan

When people with ancestors like Jams O’Donnell ask a genealogist for advice, we rarely do the honest thing and tell them to find a new hobby. Instead, they’ll hear a long description of the process of reconstructing and comparing families, getting the right children in the right birth order, painstakingly accumulating circumstantial evidence that just might, eventually, with luck, identify the right people.

I was recently hoist with my own petard, trying to find one particular Ryan family in Caher parish in south Tipperary with only the children’s names as a guide: John, Michael, Mary, Margaret, James and Catherine, God help me.  I identified all 53 Ryan families in the parish baptising a child with at least one of these names between 1828 and 1838, then retrieved all other children baptised outside those years to the same couple and then reconstructed all the families. It was a long and painful process. And there was not a trace of the family I wanted. Serves me right.

I had myself a bawl

I’ve often been publicly sceptical about some of the claims of genetic genealogy. “Ethnicity estimates”, in particular, seem to me about as scientific as the old apartheid test that marked a child as “nie blanke”. Does a pencil fall through their (straight European) hair or catch in their (kinky non-European) hair? University College London’s Department of Bio-sciences calls this stuff “Genetic Astrology“.

So I settled down to watch the BBC’s “DNA Family Secrets” with beady eye and curled lip at the ready. And ended up in floods of tears.

There’s nothing innovative about the format or the production: each show takes three individuals or families who want to use DNA testing to answer a particular question, usually to clarify a missing family member. The questions are teased out, the telegenic scientist tells them how hard it’s going to be, they come back to find out the results and have their big reveal. Very little technical detail is included, but occasional glimpses do emerge of the vast amount of research done.

For example, one Liverpool man with no idea of his father’s identity discovers he’s alive, in Ireland, with a fleet of children all delighted to discover the link.

The telegenic scientist, Dr. Turi King

But confirming that link needed a huge amount of work: first identifying a fourth cousin in the US via DNA; then locating the common ancestral family in nineteenth-century Ireland through documentary research; then working forward to uncover a range of possible living descendants/relatives; then persuading some of them to take their own DNA tests. The research work probably took more than a year, but only the end results are shown, taking about five minutes airtime. The BBC have deep pockets, and they use them well.

With the mystery solved and the new family revealed, though, the effect is extraordinary, and wonderfully touching. On every table between presenter and individual sits a large and necessary box of tissues. Deep pockets, used well.

Two general points in the end, I think.

First, DNA research can be astonishingly powerful. With work and care, it can fill in seemingly impossible gaps in family knowledge.  But the same power can also throw up unexpected (non-televised) results that might easily damage existing families. So use with caution.

And second, the emotional impact of seeing fractured families heal is enormous, and makes terrific TV. Either that or I’m a big crybaby.

Online estate maps

A few weeks back, someone (Hi Donna) contacted me to tell me about some wonderful estate maps they’d found online. Here they are, and if your ancestors were from Kildrumsherdan in Cavan, congratulations.

And then I started thinking about where online the records are. The National Library of Ireland web catalogue has always been more than just an online finding aid for NLI holdings. It includes almost 70,000 historic Irish photographs, lots of weird and wonderful eye-candy and of course my pets, the Betham prerogative will abstracts.

Weird and wonderful eye-candy

But I’d always thought of the digital parts of the catalogue as fautes-de-mieux, visually interesting bits and pieces shoehorned online via the catalogue for want of a better alternative. No no no.

It’s now  a major route for NLI digitisation, with a huge selection of manuscripts and images, as well as a  plethora of criteria to play with. You can slice and dice by era, topic, format, author, region … And suddenly  it’s 5 am.

Still weird, less wonderful

The real question, at least for genealogists,  is how items are chosen for digitisation (and why more estate rent rolls and tenants’ lists aren’t there). NLI’s need to  play its part in historic commemorations is one clear criterion. For the decade of the revolution that created the Irish state, there is a magnificent online manuscript collection,  a trove of letters, trial records, posters, handbills, even an envelope containing “One of the bullets that killed one of the leaders in the Sinn Fein Rebellion, Ireland 1916”.

The envelope, and the bullet

As far as I can make out (by educated guesswork), the main other criterion for digitisation and inclusion in the catalogue is that an item is in need of conservation. This is how the Betham collection got online, and why only the half that needed conservation is there.

Maps are the single class of manuscript most liable to damage by handling, thus earmarked for conserving, thus finding their way online. So a digital search for “estate” in the catalogue returns almost 60% maps.  And what maps.  Tenants with acreages, boundaries, records of disputes, rents due … Add a county name to the search and see what pops up. There are wonderful records here, for periods when nothing else survives.

And some oddities:

Near this lies buried one of the Kings of Leinster who was killed by the son of Bryan Boru King of Munster (Parish of Castletownarra).

It’s hard to argue that the most vulnerable manuscripts shouldn’t be first in the queue for digitising. But the few rentals that have made it online (by being bound with maps) give a tantalising glimpse of what could be. What will be.

A hands-on video of me playing with the catalogue and happy as a pig in the proverbial is here.



The Bould Thady Quill

My father’s party piece used to be a lusty tongue-in-cheek rendition of “The Bould Thady Quill”. For those who don’t know it, the song is a wonderful mock-heroic come-all-ye that depicts the ultimate Cork superhero:

” For rambling, for roving, for football or courtin’
For drinking black porter as fast as you’d fill
In all your days rovin’ you’d find none so jovial
As the Muskerry sportsman the bould Thady Quill”

I went off to check the lyrics recently (my own version is rusty, not lusty) and immediately found myself down several rabbit holes. First, Wikipedia told me that he was a real person, a landless farm labourer employed by a local Muskerry farmer, Johnny Tom Gleeson, who was also a balladeer, and who paid for Thady’s services with the song instead of his wages, “which pleased Thady no end”.  The picture painted is of a bashful man – “he died a bachelor” – tickled pink to be painted in a ballad as a Corkonian Popeye.

A Corkonian Popeye

And there he was in the 1901 census, a live-in labourer in an O’Sullivan household.  But not in the 1911. Hmmm. Why not? A question that set a hundred threads a-pulling.

An image-search turned up a picture of his gravestone.  It revealed his given name as Timothy, gave an address and a date of death. Three fine threads there. With the address, I got his baptism in Aghinagh parish in 1860, to parents Patrick Quill and Catherine Kelliher in Carrigiulla townland.



A check of 1932 death records in Macroom district uncovered a Timothy the right age and occupation:

But he was a widower. Maybe the real Thady wasn’t so bashful after all.  Away with me to the marriage records. There, in 1906, is the marriage of a Timothy Quill to a Julia McCarthy.

His father is Patrick, his occupation is correct and his address is Kilmartin, one of the areas of Cork omitted from the online 1911. Aha! says I.

On to the newspapers, to flesh things out. The Southern Star of 1932 has a piece:

This was written on November 5, a few days after the burial. But my Timothy’s death was recorded in January 1932. Not possible. Back to the death records. And there, registered in January 1933, and so listed in the index under 1933, is the real bould Thady:

A bachelor after all. But maybe not the retiring flower Wikipedia implies. The Dictionary of Irish Biography has him requesting the ballad be written, not being fobbed off with it. And his prison records suggest someone in no need of assertiveness training:

Cork prison 1884
Cork prison 1884 No. 2
Cork prison 1903

The moral of the story? It’s almost impossible not to construct stories that connect partial records. Beware of them.