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.

Carp, carp, carp, Mr. Grenham

I’ve just spent the last ten days revising and updating my listing of the Catholic registers online at rootsireland and it’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy: hour after hour of grinding through mismatched parish names and record dates, testing the ones that look dodgy, amending, adding, correcting … argh.

Nice logo. I had it designed for them back in 1994

Still, it was long overdue – rootsireland is by a mile the most useful site for early Irish church records. I’ve been doing piecemeal updates to the listing for the past twenty years, as new records were covered or came online, but never a full-scale run-through. And it was worth the pain, because I learnt a lot.

First, it’s clear that a lot of fresh transcription work is going on in the heritage centres, Or at least some of the heritage centres. For some areas the transcriptions are now well into the first quarter of the twentieth century, and for others nothing has changed in twenty years.

‘Twas ever thus. The good centres have always been very very good and the bad ones horrid. It’s just that some of the horrid are now good and vice versa. (No names, just for now).

A surprising number of recent transcripts end in 1880. This is the cut-off of the National Library microfilms and the implication is clear: those transcripts are from the (sometimes godawful) films. Which means that rootsireland’s advantage over the transcripts  – copying directly from the originals – doesn’t exist for those transcripts.

South Tipperary, Waterford diocese – all ending in 1880

Fortunately, these are only a small minority. More often, rootsireland actually has registers missed by NLI – Sligo, Roscommon, Carrick-on-Shannon … And one of the central axioms of Irish genealogy is thus confirmed: no generalisation about Irish records is true, including this one.

The rootsireland listings themselves can be deeply peculiar. In some parts of the country, records that used to be online seem to have vanished. In other parts, centres seem to be keeping a wary eye on the Church’s recently-enunciated ban on making public any records less than 100 years old. In most cases, centres with online records later than the offending date have simply amended the public listing to conform, but left the actual records searchable. Waterford, in particular, has solved the difficulty of having some records going up to the 1950s by just hiding all its finish dates. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.

And there are many other idiosyncrasies.  Wicklow has a fine collection of burial records, both Catholic and C of  I. Not a one is online. And many centres have mis-listed their own records, with the wrong dates listed or entire parishes missing.

Antrim RC registers on rootsireland. Not.

Strangely, because the Ulster Historical Foundation is a seriously scholarly outfit, by far the least reliable listings are for Antrim and Down. Whatever the UHF listing might say, there are no Catholic  baptismal registers anywhere on the planet for Aghagallon before 1828, or Ballymoney before 1853 or Ballyclare before 1869. I suspect a longstanding oversight, but it needs some serious attention.

I ran into Bernadette Marks,the doyenne of the Swords Heritage Centre recently and she reminded me of how unkind I’d been about the centres in the past. I reminded her of how I’d changed my tune. But really it’s still carp carp carp, Mr Grenham.

Carp, carp, carp

So be on your guard about what it is you’re actually searching on the site. Or just look at the (Updated! Free!) listings.

And if you see any mistakes, please let me know. All carps gladly received.

More mortuary magic

Most researchers are familiar with two types of record associated with cemeteries, headstone transcripts and church burial registers. But headstones were a luxury and burial registers, where they exist, are usually very uncommunicative about the family of the deceased.

Lovely generic illegible headstone

However, a third class of cemetery record also exists, much less well known and much more informative. These are the local authority interment records.

What are they and why were they created?

The Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878  created public authority sanitary districts under the control of the Poor Law Boards of Guardians, and gave them responsibility for sewage, drains, water supply and … cemeteries.  When county councils came into existence in 1898 they inherited this mortuary responsibility and, it would appear, took it more seriously than their predecessors. At any rate, they began to keep records of every burial in the graveyards they controlled.

And what records they were! Most included the plot, the address, the date of death, the age at death, the cause of death, marital status, occupation, date of burial, next of kin …

Tralee burials in 1902. Poor Kate McQuinn died of a cold.

They were never intended to be public records, their relatively late start made them less obvious as genealogical sources and many have not survived, but over the past few years, some local authorities have begun to open them up for research. As guides to extended families, and clues for possible living relatives, they are wonderful. And sometimes, in the level of personal detail, just a little hair-raising.

Here’s a list of any I know are available, either online or in local archives. If you know of any others, please tell me and I’ll add them.

Cork Five cemeteries online at Cork Archives, another 15 onsite
Dublin (Fingal) Just launched online, a superb collection covering 33 graveyards in north Dublin and including more than 65,000 entries.
Dublin city Online transcript of the registers for Bluebell, Clontarf and Finglas. More please.
Kerry  The mother of all online interment register collections. More than 140 cemeteries with records coming right up to 2010.
Kildare A full collection onsite at Kildare Archives
Laois Registers of 27 graveyards, in the local studies section of Laois County Library.
Limerick Mount St Lawrence, complete from 1855
Mayo Full list of the registers held by the council.
Offaly Scanned copies of all available at the county library.
Waterford Six cemeteries online
Wexford Thirteen sets of graveyard registers on microfilm at the county archives.

Mapping the 1901 census

I got bored last Wednesday and decided to map the 1901 census. By Saturday, it was done.

Having already mapped the District Electoral Divisions for the 1911 census, it was clear that there would be less work for 1901, but I was surprised (to put it mildly) at how little was involved. Most of the effort went into tracking down DEDs which the National Archives had recorded under different spellings for 1901 and 1911.  Grumble, grumble.

McMahon/McMahon in 1901

It’s all too easy to trip over so many maps, so I also introduced a new, maps-only navigation box (e.g. Sugrue). Because it’s now simple to skip from 1850s to 1901 and 1911, one of the unexpected things that’s emerging is how persistent some variant spellings can be in the same area over multiple generations. Have a look at McGrory versus McCrory, for example. Prima facie evidence that, though the Gaelic original of both surnames may have been Mac Ruaidhrí, there were (at least) two distinct family lines by the mid-nineteenth century.

A slight McMahon drift towards Dublin by 1911

(But wait, I hear you say. Don’t you beat everyone around the head about how unreliable Irish surnames are as indicators of lineage? Aren’t you contradicting yourself?

To which the response is that, as well as the slipperiness of surnames, one of my other axioms is that every generalisation you make about Irish genealogy can be contradicted. Even this one.)

Anyway. The 1901 map has all the flaws of the 1911. There’s still the long grind of adding large numbers of long-incidence surnames to my surnames variants tables. My summer holidays.

The site now has maps of Pender’s survey of 1659, Griffith’s (1847-64), the GRO birth indexes 1864-1913 and the 1901 and 1911 censuses.

That’s a long two-century gulf before Griffith’s.  Any suggestions for a good country-wide 18th-century data-set?

A network of new Irish record-holding institutions

The Local Government Act of 2001 provided that every local authority in Ireland had to make arrangements for the proper management, custody, care and conservation of local records and local archives. Before then (with the noble exceptions of Cork, Dublin and Limerick), local record-keeping in Ireland was piecemeal at best.

The imposition of this new role did not have an immediate or uniform effect. Some councils just added the new job to the in-tray of their long-suffering county library. Others went about setting up an archives, but only for the council’s own records. But many, painfully, with prodding and funding assistance from central government, eventually set up dedicated archives with a broad remit, to serve as a focal point for local studies, and to preserve and make available local records.

The Irish Archives Resource provides an online home for many local collections

The fruits of the policy are only now becoming apparent, at least to me. An entire network of new Irish record-holding institutions is coming into existence. As ever in Ireland, when they’re good, they’re very very good. And when they’re bad … we’ll just move on in silence.

More recently, the best have begun to make collections available online, free, naturally. Here are some I’ve come across:

Even where records are not searchable online, most of the new archives have excellent online lists of their records, many of which are only now coming to light: the estate records in Wexford, Waterford and Donegal, the Grand Jury records of Louth and Clare, the historic photographs and maps popping up everywhere.

To find the archive (if there is one) for the area you’re interested in, just google “[county] archives”.

God bless you, Section 80 of the Local Government Act, 2001.

Don’t condescend to your ancestors

There’s a lot of good sense to be had in a lot of reggae lyrics, but not in Junior Murvin’s ‘Solomon’ :

‘Solomon was the wisest man,
But he didn’t know the secrets that I know now.
I am wiser than Solomon …’

Every time I listen to it – frequently – I can’t resist quibbling: Yes, Junior, we now know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, that Beijing is in China and that potatoes taste good with butter and salt, and poor old Solomon didn’t know any of those things. But that doesn’t mean we’re any wiser than he was.

The late, great Junior Murvin

It’s all too easy to condescend to your ancestors, even if you’re a good Rastafarian. Time and distance naturally simplify things, and there is no doubt that our lives are very different to lives lived even 100 years ago. It is hard not think of people who lived in previous centuries as somehow less complicated than us.

Genealogy is a good cure for such thinking. The more you find out about your ancestors, the more complicated and individual they become. You can’t think of them as quaint, fixed to the one spot, sepia-toned. They moved and worried and loved and lied, and they were just as uncertain about their futures as we are about ours.

The biggest contrast between their lives and ours is comfort: we have central heating and anaesthetics. That doesn’t make us more complex, or smarter, or wiser.

And the most substantial thing that they didn’t know, and that we know now, is what was going to happen to them. There is irony in this, and some sadness, but no basis for disrespect.

The only real difference between us and our ancestors is that they’re dead and we’re not. And that’s not going to last.

We have grave concerns …

I was once told by an American psychotherapist that the Irish have serious problems with bereavement. Apparently we find it very hard to let go. Maybe that’s the reason we have such a thing about graveyards. Because we certainly do have a thing about graveyards.

Last week I checked the site and discovered the number of places covered had more than quadrupled in three years. It took two whole days just to add them into the listings (check out Limerick just to get a sense of the scale).

Richard Welsh with skull & cross-bones

Historicgraves depends on volunteer community projects and often records much more than the inscriptions, going into the detail of the heritage of each graveyard. It currently has transcripts for 484 cemeteries, mostly in Cork, Limerick and Tipperary, though there are also significant numbers elsewhere.

There are also two other Irish groups wholly dedicated to transcription and free publication of inscriptions, and Both are private companies supplying cemetery management services, with online transcript collections as a kind of by-product. Discovereverafter is based in Derry, with most of its transcripts from counties Derry, Tyrone and Armagh (118 graveyards currently). Irishgraveyards is based in Castlebar, and covers mainly Mayo, Galway and Donegal (74 graveyards).

All three adhere to the current gold standard: transcript, headstone photo and map. Despite their current regional focus, all three also appear to have country-wide ambitions.

This is not to mention the transcriptions being carried out by heritage groups supported by local authorities or libraries: in Galway, West Cork, Kildare and Meath, Clare, Wexford … Where have I missed?

And then there’s the IGP archives, volunteer-supported and growing rapidly – their transcripts for Mount Jerome in Dublin (to mention just one) are superb.  Not to forget Dr. Jane Lyons’ massive collection of more than 70,000 records on her site .

Not Irish, but a favourite.

Many non-Irish sites have also picked up the bug. There are plenty of Irish transcripts on the venerable and, and many Irish headstone photos on

The work of previous generations of transcribers hasn’t gone away either. For Northern Ireland by the Ulster Historical Foundation has a huge transcript-only collection for Ulster at Other IFHF members are putting their collections on, with Derry, East Galway, South MayoNorth Tipperary and Westmeath leading the pack.

And of course more than a century’s-worth of published transcripts are also out there.

  • The Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead ran from 1888 to 1934, recording tens of thousands of inscriptions, many now gone – the journals up to 1909 are now online at
  • Brian Cantwell’s life’s work, Memorials of the Dead, comprising c. 24,500 inscriptions, covering all of Wicklow, Wexford and part of Dublin, is widely available in major libraries and is online at FindMyPast. Seaboard Mayo and Galway sites were transcribed by his son Ian, whose site includes indexes, as well as an interesting history of memorial transcripton and methodological analysis.
  • Albert Casey’s gargantuan 17-volume O’Kief, Cosh Mang, Slieve Lougher, and Upper Blackwater in Ireland covers 42 graveyards in Cork and 36 in Kerry.

I could go on …

One of the strange upshots is that more and more cemeteries have multiple transcripts. Current leaders (as far as I know) St. James’  (Mervue) in Galway and Agher in Meath, each transcribed no fewer than four separate times.

Mairtín Ó Cadhain’s  Irish-language masterpiece  Cré na Cille takes place in a graveyard, with the dead giving out to each other, making scurrilous jokes and complaining about the living.  I suspect a sequel might have them pleading with transcribers to leave them alone for a while.

How to identify Irish places

Identifying an Irish place-name can be maddeningly frustrating. You’ve found that all-important birth record and it supplies a precise address. Now you can unlock all those records of property, tax, inheritance, tenancy … Except that the place-name appears nowhere else. There is no Ballygowanowadat recorded anywhere except this one blasted birth record. Argh.

So here are a few tips to help crack tough place-names.

First, keep in mind that the standardisation of place-names by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s covers only the OS maps themselves and Griffith’s Valuation. In every other record, record-keepers wrote down what they thought they heard. That could be a “sub-denominational” name omitted by the OS or (more likely) a phonetic form of a heavily accented local version of the name.

Accents live in vowels, so if you’re searching a database that allows wild-card searches, replace the vowels with wild-cards.

Second, remember that family lore about places of origin is the product of a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. What has arrived to you is encrusted with layers of your forebears’ mishearings. There are many castles in Kerry, but nowhere called “Kerry Castle”. But there is a village called Carracastle at the other end of the country, in Mayo.

1851: Look at the bottom name

We are now blessed with multiple online resources to identify placenames, so let me list them:

The 1851 Townlands Index:

Published in 1861, this uses the Ordnance Survey standard versions of place-names as assembled for the 1851 census. Because a facsimile reprint was published by The Genealogical Publishing Company in the 1970s, database transcripts are widely available.

  • On this site. Expanded to include Registrar’s Districts as well as Dublin, Belfast and Cork street names. Wildcards possible.
  • Shane Wilson’s site allows wild cards and browsing by sub-division
  • is a slick, easy-to-use version of the 1851, though not as useful as some others.
  • Seanruad is a venerable and very thorough version,  without wild-cards

The 1901 Townlands Index

This is the master-list used for the 1901 census. More extensive than 1851, – it includes District Electoral Divisions –  but less widely available, simply because it has not been reprinted. The only online version is at the Irish Genealogical Research Society’s site. The search interface is a bit clunky, but actually allows you to pull up some unique data, for example all place-names on a particular OS sheet. And it has wild-cards.

Logainm is the Irish (Gaelic) for “place-name”.  The site was originally set up by the now-defunct Irish Placenames Commission, whose mission was to identify the “original” Irish-language versions of anglicised names for official use.  A large part of the site’s work still involves supplying these official versions, but it also provides public access and is more comprehensive than the Townlands Indexes, including geographic features and sub-denominational names omitted from these. It also has some wonderful historic maps in its “Toponymy resources” section.  But no wild-cards. is an open-source, collaborative project to map the world and make the results available free. is the Irish end and is becoming more and more useful. Its main limitations are its focus on the present-day rather than the historic, and the need to use exact spelling. No wild-cards.


Google maps can be useful, though they seem to have embedded place-names that don’t show up on the map. More useful is just a blanket search for someplace that’s not turning up elsewhere. It may be via a match report for the under-eights football team or a local estate agent, but if the name exists and is in use, you’ll find it.

Irish place-names are much more than simple geographical indicators of location. They can embody family information (“Toomevara”, the tomb of the O’Mearas), folklore (The Paps of Anu) or even politics: in my own family’s home parish of Moore in south Roscommon are two townlands “Liberty” and “America”. The names must have come into existence in the late 1700s, local statements of solidarity with the American and French Revolutions.

Liberty, Co. Roscommon