Ireland and global genealogy

The standard story of globalisation is that economies of scale, accumulation of ‘talent’ and creative use of international tax law permit giant transnational corporations to reach extraordinary levels of profitability, which are then used to out-compete smaller local players and either crush them or absorb them.

How does this apply in genealogy? In Ireland, on first sight at least, the standard story seems to be in action. and FindMyPast, the Cokeℱ and Pepsiℱ of global genealogy, are indeed using their technical know-how, deep pockets and extraordinary marketing muscle to carve out territory and stamp their brands on Irish records.

For bread-and-butter research, there’s no doubt it’s working. I now use both services almost every day, in a way that I would have found inconceivable even two years ago. The range and depth of digitised records they offer is beyond the capacity of even the most dedicated Irish public or private institution and there is no doubt that they are swimming with the tide of economic history.

So should we all just accept our fate? They’re certainly not going away any time soon. But I think there are flaws in the way they can work that actually feed the ecosystem in which local record providers can thrive.

Standardised (Procrustean) bed, non-standardised feet

First, the sheer, cussed, devil-in-the-detail gnarliness of genealogy means that the more the service is standardised, the less it actually meets the needs of researchers, and standardisation is the be-all and end-all of globalised corporations.  Believe me, there is no frustration  like the frustration of knowing a source, knowing the information it might hold, and being forced to fish through a keyhole for it by a one-size-fits-all search interface (FindMyPast, I’m looking at you).

Second, the drift towards monopoly that seems to be an inevitable feature of globalised tech corporations means that intelligent usability is often an afterthought. The people making crucial management decisions are managers and marketers, with their attention on stockholders and the competition, not on the genealogists who are their customers. The business model seems to consist simply of hoovering up as many record-sets as possible, with no concern for making them intelligible (Ancestry, step forward).

To put it bluntly, the more databases they add, the stupider they get.

Contrast this with the (belated but very welcome) agility of a small, purely Irish commercial service like rootsireland. In the last year, it has dropped prices, allowed precision research using surname only, introduced a place-names search in church registers and added swathes of new civil and church records. The service is unrecognisable from the one that existed two years ago, largely, I think, because of the impact of the global genealogy giants.

On the public service side too, gorgeously non-standardised searches proliferate, allowing the slicing and dicing of information from censuses, directories, church and civil records in ways simply not available in the global giants’ services.

So by all means use Ancestry or FindMyPast to plug gaps – surname variants on the Archives census site or Askaboutireland, missing parishes for rootsireland, Irish Quaker records – but if you need to know the name of every deaf blacksmith in Ireland in 1911, there’s still only one place to go.



Alfred Henry Hunter and wife: Bloomier and Bloomier

Alfred Henry Hunter is the Dubliner long known to be the model for the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. In 1904, after rescuing Joyce from a drunken fight, Hunter took him home and showed him a paternal sympathy that resonated deeply with Joyce, who originally planned Ulysses as a short story based on the incident. It expanded enormously between 1914 and 1922, and the figure at its centre changed from the kindly Hunter to the Everyman Bloom.

upper rutland street olddublinhousing17
Upper Rutland Street, where Marion lived out her last years

The James Joyce Centre’s website ( still refers to Hunter as “an elusive figure”. Not a bit of it. With all the records now online, his life is an open book.



Here he is in Mount Street in 1901, with his wife Marion BruĂ©re Hunter (nĂ©e Quin). He gives his occupation as “Gentleman”, and then crosses it out. But Marion remains a “Lady”. Very Bloom-like.

In 1911 they’re in Great Charles Street, less than five minutes from Bloom’s Eccles Street address. Hunter is now an advertising agent, as Bloom was. His marriage to Marion took place in London in 1899: see He was born in Ballymacarret in 1866. His parents, William Hunter and Maria Lockhart, were married in Maghera in 1856. His death in 1926 was from “cardiac asthenia”, congestive heart failure. And Marion was listed as a voter in Rutland Street, in Dublin’s north city centre, up to 1942.

Alfred Henry Hunter's death registration
Alfred Henry Hunter’s death registration

In 1890, Hunter even registered a patent of an invention “for facilitating the unlacing of boots and shoes and corsets and such like articles of wearing apparel”, as reported in The Weekly Irish Times of November 14 1890. And at least one other patent exists, for a cuff fastener.  Bloomier and Bloomier.

Alfred Henry Hunter patent Saturday Nov 14 1890
Alfred Henry Hunter patent Saturday Nov 14 1890

Given Joyce’s penchant for using identifiable individuals, an intriguing question is why Hunter had to be re-imagined as Jewish. Perhaps Everyman as a Northern Protestant was a step too far, even for Joyce.

And what about the model for Molly, Leopold’s wife? It turns out that Alfred’s wife is just as accessible, and even more interesting.

Baptism Marion Bruere Quin Kingstown 1864 (courtesy of
Baptism Marion Bruere Quin Kingstown 1864 (courtesy of

First, like Bloom’s Molly, she was christened Marion. The baptism took place in the Church of Ireland Mariners’ Church in DĂșn Laoghaire on May 19 1864, with her full name given as Marion BruĂ©re Quin. She was the daughter of Francis Quin, a professor of music, and Menella (nĂ©e Wilcox). Molly’s musical bent, so important in Ulysses, clearly has a background in Marion’s family.

Marriage of Francis Quin and Menella Wilcox 1856
Marriage of Marion’s parents, Francis Quin and Menella Wilcox in 1856

Her mother’s side are even more intriguing. The Wilcoxes, from just outside Sunderland, were cousins of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll. As an adult Dodgson regularly visited – he composed “Jabberwocky” while staying with them – and corresponded frequently with Marion’s mother, Menella. He also took an interest in Menella’s daughters, encouraging Marion’s elder sister Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin in her acting career, for which she used the stage-name “Norah O’Neill”.

Marion herself also knew Dodgson very well. In 1897, he gave her a hand-written facsimile of “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground”, the original of what was to become Alice in Wonderland, inscribed “Marion Quin, with the Author’s Love”.

Christies' catalogue description of Marion's "Alice"
Christies’ catalogue description of Marion’s “Alice”

In later life, after the death of Alfred in 1926, she appears to have fallen on hard times. She sold the facsimile at auction in London in 1938, and lived her final years in a North Dublin tenement, sharing 14 Upper Rutland Street (now SeĂĄn O’Casey Avenue) with at least six other households.

There is no doubt that the original from which Joyce drew most of Molly’s character was his wife, Nora Barnacle. But he borrowed from everything and everybody in the Dublin he knew. And he clearly knew (or knew of) Marion BruĂ©re Hunter.


Full links, and more information:

1901 Census:

1911 Census:


Sister’s birth:

Parents’ marriage:

Father’s will calendar entry:

Father’s will fully transcribed at

Alfred Henry Hunter death Weekly Irish Times Sept 25 1926
Hunter’s death notice, Weekly Irish Times Sept 25 1926

Alfred’s voter registration

Will calendar entry for Francis, Marion’s father:

Will Calender Francis Quin 1882
Will Calender Francis Quin 1882

Will calendar entry for Menella (nĂ©e Wilcox), Marion’s mother, cousin of Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll:

Will Calender Menella Quin 1886
Will Calender Menella Quin 1886

See Lewis Carrol and the Victorian Stage.

Dodgson was friendly with Marion and her sister, the actress Elizabeth Menella (“Minna”) Quin, and in 1897, shortly before his death, gave Marion a personally-inscribed gift of a facsimile of the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – see Christie’s description.

Marion B. Hunter’s voter registration 1939-42

What Irish genealogical records are online? – the quick-and-dirty answer

One of the most common questions people ask me  is “What Irish genealogical records are online?” Years ago, on the old Irish Times version of the site, I did a single page giving a quick-and-dirty overview to answer the question.

I’ve just finished an updated version for this site and the changes are extraordinary.

The Four Courts complex burning in 1922. That speck in the top right is your gt-gt-gt-grandfather’s 1831 census return.

The curse of 1922 still looms. The destruction of the Public Record Office in that year certainly simplified Irish research, but in the way Cromwell simplified Ireland. On the bright side, (repeat after me: “the glass is half-full, the glass is half-full”)  virtually everything of universal relevance to Irish genealogy is easily visible: Census/GRO/Griffiths/Church/Tithes.


Which in turn makes it relatively easy to get a grasp of what bits are searchable online and what’s still only offline.

From that Olympian perspective, a few things are clear.

First, offline territory is shrinking rapidly, mainly due to advances by global genealogy giants and FindMyPast.

Second, many records are being transcribed multiple times on different sites. What a waste, cries the naive researcher. Not at all. Every transcription adds a fresh layer of mistakes, but different transcriptions have different mistakes: using them together provides a level of accuracy they can’t have on their own.

Third, digitisation is stretching that simplified set of universally relevant records.  When you can search a century of newspapers, or an entire set of burial registers, or decades of city directories at the click of a mouse, their relative importance changes completely.

And last, but not least, Irish genealogy online remains a lot more fun than in most other places. You have to rummage right down to the bottom of the Irish drawer to get at the good bits.

Pender’s not-a-census mapped

When I started doing Irish genealogical research thirty-odd years ago, I stumbled across A Census of Ireland circa 1659 (ed. Séamus Pender, Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1939) in the National Library reading room and my heart leapt.  A published census? From 1659?  Hallellujah!

But of course Pender’s Census is nothing like a census. (The decision to give it that name was not Pender’s: the manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy had been known as a ‘census’ since the mid-nineteenth century. So forgive him.)

Part of the return for ONeilland barony in Armagh

Two classes of people are recorded. The first, ‘tituladoes’, are so called because they claim title to the land they occupy and because that title is in question. The OED defines titulado as “A thing that has only a nominal existence.” Their names and townland addresses are given in full. Because they represent the tiny property-owning class, their numbers are few.

More interesting is the second class, “Inhabitants”. These are described as English, Scotch or Irish, their surname (or a rough version of their surname) is supplied, along with their number. These numbers are for baronies, so the areas they cover are much larger than for the tituladoes.

Clearly, the ‘Census’ was part of the preparatory work for the mass confiscations that took place under the Cromwellian Commonwealth. Although the returns differ in format from one part of Ireland to another, they were designed to answer two simple questions: Who is in possession of the land? (the tituladoes) And who is likely to oppose or support their dispossession? (Numbers of English, Scotch or Irish)

Even on its own terms, the ‘Census’ is flawed. It is missing all of counties Cavan, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone and Wicklow, most of Meath (nine baronies) and four baronies in Cork. The Inhabitants of Fermanagh and Leitrim are recorded in composite groups of parishes, not baronies as elsewhere. And the recording of surnames is inconsistent beyond belief.

This much said, Pender’s ‘Census’ has one unassailable virtue: It exists. Almost no other records survive for the Ireland of this period.

The 1939 edition is available online at the IMC website. An updated version with more modern analysis by William J. Smyth, was published by the IMC in 2002. A good plain transcription, lacking the academic apparatus, is at the Clann O’Lochlainn website.

All of which finally brings me to the point for this post. I’ve spent the past few months extracting the Inhabitants’ surnames and the corresponding baronies to produce maps showing surname distribution and numbers in the mid-seventeenth century, now part of the surname search. Have a look at Whelan, for example.

Making the maps produced a little queasiness, I have to say. They do show just how long-lived is the connection in Ireland between particular surnames and places, but their implied pinpoint precision is very misleading. Treat them with caution.

Why you can’t be reading this again or any more

[This post was first published on May 23 last. From May 30, the reason you couldn’t be reading it is that I deleted the entire site by accident on that day, and my most recent backup was from May 16. Web-publishing is very like riding a unicycle on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. While juggling chain-saws. With a family of acrobats standing on your shoulders.]

I’ve always had a liking for the paradox of  Eubulides, now nearly three millennia old. He simply said: “What I am saying now is a lie.” If he was telling the truth, then he was lying, in which case he was telling the truth. And so on round and round.

You can’t help the sneaking suspicion Eubulides’ granny was a Murphy.  We Irish specialise in wonderful paradoxical non-sequiturs, from the self-evident direction: “If you want to get there, you shouldn’t start from here” to Phil Lynnott’s  immortal “Man, when I tell you she was cool, she was red hot” from “The Boys are Back in Town.

Yes, we can. That’s why we don’t need your services.

My favourite sign in Dublin used to be D’Olier Street’s “Ears Pierced While You Wait”. So much more convenient than dropping them off.  And the picture is of a (very nice) ad for an optician currently working in Drumcondra. The target market for the poster is 
 people who can’t see it.

The reason for all this Irish bull is that the Irish Times/Irish Ancestors site at is switching off this morning and redirecting its 30,000 daily page-views to this site. Which I expect by now has crumbled under the assault.

So that’s why you can’t be reading this.