Techno-utopia or techno-dystopia?

Last week, RTÉ TV news ran a piece of techno-utopianism that really got my attention. A group based in Trinity College are going to create a digital 3-D model of the old Public Record Office that was destroyed in 1922.

Reconstruct this.

Fair enough. The centenary of that ignominious act is approaching and it certainly needs remembering.

Then the report went on to say that the group was also going to digitally reconstruct the records that had been destroyed, thus retrieving seven lost centuries of history and genealogy. Say again? They’re going to magic back into existence the ten million or so returns from the lost censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851? How? By closing their eyes and clicking their heels together three times?

The group’s website tells a more nuanced story. Yes, there will indeed be a shiny, walk-through digital model, but the approach to reconstructing records is modest enough.  It centres on using Herbert Wood’s A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin, 1919) to identify substitutes for what was destroyed, much as  the National Archives of Ireland has been doing since 1922 with, for example, its testamentary record substitutes. The difference is that copies of, or links to, the substitute material will be organised within the virtual model, thus recreating (kind of) the experience of using the old PRO.

It’s a good idea. Any opportunity to digitise and publicise surviving fragments and substitutes is very welcome. And it should also shine a light into a few areas that don’t get enough attention – the seven volumes of thirteenth to sixteenth-century excerpts from plea rolls, patent rolls and pipe rolls in the National Library Genealogical Office collection (GO 189-95), for one.

But I think that the end result is likely to be more dystopian than utopian. At last we’ll get to see, perfectly-rendered, the size and shape of the black hole at the heart of Irish history and genealogy.

The project site has a news page that links to all the attention they got last week. It wasn’t just RTE, nearly every other news outlet got the story wrong and reported the imminent return out of digital thin air of all the lost records. The team need to be a bit more careful about how they attract attention to what they’re doing.  Some of those news reports look distinctly fake.

Persistent and heavy falls of frogs

Irish whinging about the weather can get on your nerves. But my God the 2017-18  winter deserves all the whinging it gets. It’s toying with us, pretending to stop just long enough to get us to put away our thermal long johns, then whipping back into vicious life. Here’s how I comfort myself as I stand at a Dublin bus-stop with every piece of exposed flesh flayed by horizontal sleet.

Soft day, mind you.

First I remember how things were just a short generation ago, when central heating was a novelty in Ireland. For the four months of winter, life shrank down to the semi-circle around the fire. Many’s the seat of a pair of trousers I singed painfully in the quest for a biteen of heat. Ochón

Then I think back further. Imagine life in the Viking town around Wood Quay in Dublin, where the only heat would come from a fire without a chimney in the centre of a mud-and-wattle hut. Then just think what persistent Irish February rain could do to a mud-and-wattle hut.

“What didn’t kill them made them  stronger”? I’m sure Irish Februarys killed more Vikings than Brian Ború. So I feel thankful (and  hope that bloody bus comes soon).

rain locust blood boils footandmouth darkness.

My real heroes at this time of the year, though, are Irish Met Office forecasters.  Your heart has to go out to them. They have the most thankless task you could imagine, so they keep trying to soften the message:

“Scattered showers of locusts spreading from the West in the morning, turning to fiery hail by the afternoon and becoming persistent overnight. But it’ll be mostly dry on Friday!”

Weather in Dublin, February 1 -9, 2018

 

Resistance Genealogy

The current issue of The New Yorker has a lovely article about Jennifer Mendelsohn, an American genealogist who has taken to researching the immigrant ancestors of US politicians and pundits who make anti-immigration pronouncements. Time after time, she’s come up with ancestors who personify the supposed failings being denounced. I especially like her response to Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren who finger-wagged: “Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye”. Tomi’s great-great-grandfather was indicted for forging citizenship papers.

The indictment. Disappointingly, he was acquitted.

America is obviously ripe for this kind of thing – as she says herself, “Unless you’re Native American or you descend from slaves who were brought here against their will, you are an immigrant in this country, or you’re a descendant of an immigrant in this country.” On the other hand, I doubt what she’s doing will have much effect. Respect for the truth is not a conspicuous characteristic of those she’s challenging. I’m sure the massed ranks of Fox News commentators are laughing at her naivety as they tuck in to their breakfast of broiled baby immigrant.

Is there any equivalent in Ireland? The only example I can thing of is Catherine Corless wading through Tuam death records to bring to light the evidence of  Mother and Baby Home abuses.  I’d be very interested in suggestions.

Then, of course, there’s the Irish contribution to the current state of the US. Or, as an article on the History News Network has it, “ Why are all the conservative loudmouths Irish-American?

Healing the extended family

One of the strongest drivers of genealogical research is the satisfaction of retrieving people who have been forgotten or deliberately written out of official history. That sense of righting historic family wrongs is powerful and addictive.

Here are two stories to illustrate why.

THE BRITISH ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918  © IWM.

One famiy’s 1911 census return listed a 16-year-old son who had disappeared completely from family stories. It turned out he had enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915, and somehow survived Ypres, gas attacks and three solid years fighting in the British Army on the Western Front. But the Ireland he came back to in 1919 had changed completely. His family, now staunch Republicans, refused to have anything to do with him.  So he moved to England and broke off all contact. Three generations later, his English grandchildren were tracked down and reintroduced to the wider family.

In another family, the only surviving photograph of one set of great-grandparents had a bizarre flaw. Where the great-grandmother’s face should have been, there was only a blank disk. Someone had very deliberately cut her from the picture.

Welcome back, greatgrandma.

For years, the family wondered what it was she had done to deserve such obliteration. Then a genealogist sifting through a deceased second cousin’s attic came across a locket and realized the photo it contained was the missing face.

Far from trying to eradicate her memory, one of her children had taken the piece of the picture to remember her by. And now her face was restored to the photo and became visible for the first time to her descendants.

Those of us who give genealogical advice sometimes joke that the job is equal parts genealogy and psychotherapy. But the healing provided by family restorations like these is genuine.

New interactive maps of Catholic baptisms

I’ve just started a new service here on the site, interactive surname maps of all Irish Catholic baptisms. They’re nice to look at and certainly confirm just how localised (some) Irish surnames are. But how useful are they?

Localised Hessions

Like everything to do with Irish genealogy, the answer is that it depends. In cases where you need a quick grasp of how common or concentrated baptismal records for a particular family might be, the map is your only man.  Once again, a decent picture is worth a thousand words.

I also like having click-through lists of variant spellings and totals, making it clear where the pitfalls are and how big they are. The variants also show just how localised some spelling variations can be, a valuable potential clue to a place of origin.

And of course being able to click straight through to the FindMyPast transcripts and the National Library microfilm images is the ultimate lazy shortcut, always welcome.

Flaws? I know where most of the bodies are buried, and I’m not telling.

Mitchelstown baptisms 1833. What you can’t see, you can’t transcribe

Suffice to say that the transcriptions on which the maps are based can only be as good as the microfilms they’re based on. Which can be dreadful. And the variants are mine, not FindMyPast’s.

My heartfelt thanks to FindMyPast for sharing the data with me so generously. Unlike other large genealogy companies, they make a particular point of being collaborative, and this is spectacular collaboration. And particular thanks to Brian Donovan and Fiona Fitzsimons, the principals of Eneclann and the Irish faces of FindMyPast. Eneclann is now in its 20th year, a record for any commercial Irish genealogy company. It’s not an accident that they’ve lasted so long. Their commitment to high standards and sheer dogged hard work has earned them everything they have.

Leave something for the next generation to discover

Like most public online family trees, those at ancestry.com  include horrors that beggar belief: children born before their parents, the same individual on multiple lines, people married at the age of two. Looking through Ancestry’s FAQs for an answer to a question these trees frequently make me ask – “Why? Dear God, why oh why?” –  I came across a statement that gave me pause: “Many members have family trees that are not yet finished”.

Back to 1560, but still only scratching the surface

Mmm. Well, yes. Because what exactly would a finished family tree look like? The Mormons, in their sunny optimism, aim to unite the entire human race into a single tree going back to Adam and Eve but they still have a way to travel. For the less theologically inclined, such a tree would have to reach back at least 3.8 billion years to the organism that is the last universal common ancestor, our cenancestor. Even then, would it be “finished”? What about the origins of the elements making up that organism, and the origins of the sub-atomic particles making up the elements?

I always knew genealogy would eventually lead to theoretical particle physics and the eleven dimensions of the space-time continuum. Beam me up, Scotty.

And I’m sure some of my relatives immigrated from dimension seven.

Great grand uncle Aloyius on the far right

The point is that, like families, family histories don’t come to neat conclusions and never proceed in straight lines. Research is always episodic: a day’s exploration here, an evening online there, visits to out-of-the-way archives tacked on to weekends away . Genealogical research means forever starting again. Plan for that. Record whatever you search (not just whatever you find) in a way that will make it easy to remember when you pick it up two years later. Otherwise you’ll have to do the research again.

And don’t expect to finish, whatever ancestry.com says. Your tree will always be gloriously messy, its loose ends dangling all over the place, an eternal work in progress.

Think of it as leaving something for the next generation to discover.

Irish surname and placename standardisation

No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise.

Sir Richard Griffith in 1854

It took me three decades of staring at Griffith’s Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation), to realise that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. As anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings will know,  this can’t be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith’s share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.

The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that’s how the place name should appear in Griffith’s. That’s what made it possible to create a direct click-through from place name to Griffith’s on this site – see the places listed for Kilkeevin, for example.

So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith’s standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith’s is a tax survey.  A misspelt surname is an most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.

Keep on straight past Kelly and take the first right just before Egan

For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as “Curlie”, “Curly” or “Corly”, the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became “Curley”.

It has to be said that this is not a very useful research tool – the advice must continue to be simply “cast the net as wide as possible”. But for larger-scale population and surname studies, that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.

Have a look at all those Curleys, for example.

The Atlas of the Irish Revolution: the emperor’s wonderful new clothes

Like many Irish people with a taste for history, I woke up on Christmas morning to find my stocking stretched to bursting by the latest  production from Cork University Press, The Atlas of the Irish Revolution. 

The reaction to the book in Ireland has been amazing: the Bord Gais Irish Book of the Year, the Joe Duffy Liveline Listeners’ Choice, a collection of reviews that would make a saint blush, the first printing selling out within a few weeks. And the thing itself really is extraordinary.

Ten separate sections deal exhaustively with every conceivable aspect of the period between 1916 and 1923:  from the nineteenth-century roots of the conflict, through detailed local and national accounts of the War of Independence and the Civil War, and on to analyses of cultural depictions of the period in Ireland and abroad. No fewer than one hundred and five individual scholars contribute, a Who’s Who of Irish cultural and historical studies, making it as much encyclopedia as atlas. And the visual presentation is stunning, with many freshly discovered photographs and publications.

A small part of the contents. Click to see the full listing

But, but, but … I can’t help feeling something has gone too far. The paper is the heaviest and glossiest possible. The colour printing is the best money can buy. The scholarship is superb. The cartography is dazzling. The binding is superlative. But it’s not possible to actually read the thing.

The page size, 299 x 237mm, is standard coffee-table, good for graphics but hard to manage physically.  Nine hundred and eighty-four of those pages is just too much. But the main problem is the weight. On my bathroom scales, it comes in at 5.1 kilos (11 and a quarter pounds). I’ve tried reading it in bed, in an armchair and sitting at a table, and had to give up each time. What it needs is a lectern.

CUP has produced the most beautiful book-like object imaginable. But it fails the first test of being a book, that it can be read.

I feel a bit like the boy in the parable of the emperor’s new clothes, except in this case the new clothes truly are magnificent. The problem is that they blot out the emperor .

How the Os and the Macs came back

Received wisdom in Ireland has long been that the process of reclaiming and resuming the Gaelic patronymic prefixes “Mc” (mac, “son of”) and “Ó” (“grandson of”) paralleled the resurgence of interest in Gaelic culture in the second-half of the 19th century. In the words of Edward MacLysaght, “when the spirit of the nation revived”.

The process was never straightforward. Inevitably, some people mistakenly claimed the wrong prefix. The most notorious example is the Gaelic family Mac Gormáin – all are now either O’Gorman or plain Gorman. MacLysaght’s explanation of what happened still can’t be bettered:

A generic chevalier

“Probably the man chiefly responsible for the substitution of O for Mac in the name was the celebrated gigantic Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman (1725-1808), exiled vineyard owner in France who, after being ruined by the French Revolution, became a constructor of Irish pedigrees.”

Mistakes apart, the story told by MacLysaght and others about surname prefix resumption remains that of steady progress eventually flowering into independence.

The figures from birth registrations tell a different story.

The proportion of total births recording Mc (or Mac, or M’) was 10.14 per cent in 1865. In 1913, it was 10.48 per cent. So there was a slow increase, but certainly nothing dramatic (see the chart here). It is tempting to surmise the great flood of “Mc” resumption only took off when it became clear in the early 1920s how useful a Gaelic-looking surname would be in the new Ireland.

Interestingly, the story is different for surnames starting “O'”.

In 1865, 1.67 per cent of total births used “O'”. By 1913, it was 3.2 per cent, almost doubling in five decades ( here). Perhaps the difference is that “O” surnames were found predominantly in Munster (and Donegal), traditionally nationalist regions, whereas “Mc” surnames were concentrated in north and east Ulster, with a solid unionist majority.

“Mc” households. Click for comparison to “O”.

The devil remains where he always was, in the detail.

Science, your mammy and your runny nose

For decades, public health scientists assured us that the common cold was caused by our spending half the year indoors sneezing on each other. There’s no evidence, they told us, that Ireland’s long-standing position as the world’s leading producer of winter phlegm had anything to do with the cold or the wet. “Old wives’ tales” they said, when we pointed out that for 10,000 years our mammies have been telling us that we’ll catch our death if we go out dressed like that.

And then  came a complete change of tack. Scientists at Yale actually looked at the evidence and found – surprise – that rhinoviruses, the culprits behind most colds and chest infections, thrive in cooler temperatures.  And the lower the temperature, the lower our innate immune response to viruses. And what’s more, our noses are usually three to four degrees colder than the rest of the body.

The scientists’ advice for avoiding runny noses? “Always stay in warm tropical weather or try to prevent the nasal cavity experiencing very cold air.” Translated into Irish terms, that says “Emigrate south or dress the way your mother told  you”.

The first lesson is that the phrase “There is no evidence” is just a euphemism for “We don’t know”, even when uttered by a scientist.

The second is that not all evidence is cast-iron scientific evidence. Most research advice will tell you to treat your family traditions with deep scepticism and most professional researchers will say “Yeah, right” (under their breath) when you tell them you’re descended from kings and princes. But even though centuries of tradition may not constitute forensic proof, it remains genuine evidence. Discount it at your peril.

But the most important lesson is that, although your Mammy might not be absolutely right absolutely all the time, the odds in her favour are pretty good.

My mammy