Dick Eastman is wrong

On second thoughts actually no, Dick Eastman is right. The other title is just grabbier.

On third thoughts, maybe he’s both right and wrong.

The man who is wrong. Or right.

What am I talking about? I’ve just heard Dick speak on the future of genealogy at the wonderful Clare Roots Society conference in Ennis. (In case you don’t know, Dick is the prime guru of North American genealogy and has been for more than two decades. His slides for the talk are here. ) At the nub of his predictions was the idea of collaboration, in particular the notion of sharing research and connecting it with the research of others.

This isn’t a new idea. Twenty years ago it was already clear that making your tree available online was a very good way of attracting people interested in the same interconnecting families, thereby flushing out mistakes, new connections and earlier branches. The network effect was and still is at the heart this idea: as more people do it, it becomes exponentially more useful. I’m all in favour of it.

What has changed in those two decades is the rise of the social media behemoths, FaceBook, Google, Twitter … All operate under the same implicit deal: give us information on yourself that we can sell to advertisers and you can send email, message, stay connected for free. You’re paying nothing, so you’re the product, but people aren’t stupid and they know that’s the deal.

When it comes to genealogy, Dick seemed to be enthusing about genealogical social media. The crucial difference is that he makes the presumption it will happen on already-existing genealogy sites such as ancestry.com, findmypast and myheritage.

But hold on. They’re all subscription sites. So we’re supposed to pay them to host the information which makes them more valuable to us? That’s one heck of a business model:  the customer pays to supply the raw material that the company sells back to the customer.

MyHeritage offers to host your family tree.

To me, this sounds more like a three-card trick or shell game than a service.

Dick is right, I think, that the sheer scale of network-creation now happening will make collaborative genealogy more and more important. He’s wrong, I hope, that this will be done through the subscription sites.

Ireland’s public-service approach of making genealogy information free online already puts us gloriously out of step with Anglo-American commercial genealogy. There are signs that collaborative genealogy could turn out the same way – IrelandXO is just one example of a number of groups in Ireland already combining local history, genealogy and community volunteering to knit the descendants of emigrants back into their extended family.

On the giant scale that now seems possible, these could turn out more like the free-but-data-mined approach of Google and FaceBook than the walled reservations of ancestry.com or myheritage.

So Dick is wrong, but maybe only about the Irish.

Punch Drunk.

This is ridiculous. First, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht releases probably the most significant batch of Irish genealogical records ever seen online. Then, just a week later, the National Archives sees the Department’s bet and raises it by the entire pot. Six separate record collections, each of which alone would be a major gift to researchers have been published at once.

To go through them:

  • ship-premier-out-of-arklow
    The crew’s list for the Premier, sailing out of Arklow in 1872

    There are 536,413 individual records between 1860 and 1921 in the Crews and Shipping lists. They cover very port now in the Republic: a godsend for anyone with mariners in their tree.

  • The Catholic Qualification & Convert Rolls comprise two similar but distinct sources. The Convert Rolls list 5,866 people who converted from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland between 1703 and 1838. The much larger Catholic Qualification Rolls record 45,722 individuals who remained Catholic but took an oath of allegiance to the Crown in order to avail of rights newly restored under late 18th-century Catholic Relief Acts. They date from 1788 to 1845. I suspect many of both groups had their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Charles Bianconi qualifies in 1831
  • Almost all of the old Public Record Office’s pre-1858 collection of official probate records was destroyed in 1922. All the bits and pieces that happened to be outside the Record
    The 1707 prerogative will of Pharrell Cooke of Garrangibbon, Tipperary

    Treasury when it was pulverised are now on the site, covering 15,560 individuals. There are plenty of other, non-official, testamentary sources, but these are wonderful.



  • The collection of marriage licences 1623-1866 records 217,850 individuals, almost all in marriages that were in destroyed Church of Ireland parish registers.
  • After 1858, district probate offices made copies of all the wills they probated before sending the originals to the PRO. So, although the originals were destroyed, there are 179,048 copies, now fully imaged and searchable.
  • And most significant of all are the 1,366,275 Valuation Office records. These are the notebooks used by the VO’s army of valuers and surveyors to create Griffith’s
    Evictees from Boolakennedy townland in 1847
    Evictees from Boolakennedy townland in 1847

    Valuation. They predate Griffith by anything up to twenty years, at a period when the country was going through the massive upheaval of the Famine. In the hardest hit areas, they can reveal entire villages that had been wiped out by the time the full Valuation was published.



Marvellous. But there’s a bit of fatigue setting in. What’s next? The government handing everyone of Irish descent a personalised 10-generation parchment pedigree?

Please, a break. All the conga lines are exhausting.leprachaun-conga

Welcome to the Promised Land

Since last week’s additions to IrishGenealogy’s birth, marriage and death records, I’ve been wallowing around in the site, as happy as a pig in … a toy-shop. I’ve spent almost all my working life dealing with these records, or rather fishing for them through the tiny keyhole provided by the printed indexes. Suddenly we’ve been handed the key itself.

There should be conga-lines of genealogists dancing down O’Connell Street.

Some background: The General Register Office system for registering births, deaths and marriages in Ireland was (is) a perfect Victorian pyramid. The already-existing Poor Law Unions, catchment areas for a workhouse located in a large market town, were drafted in for double-duty to be used as the geographical basis of registration, and given the additional title “Superintendent Registrar’s District”. Most of them were already subdivided into local health areas, “Dispensary Districts”, which then also became  “Registrar’s Districts”.

The registration system pyramid



It  was the job of the local registrar to record births and deaths (marriages were always a bit different) in pre-printed registers. Every three months these registers were passed to the Registrar’s boss, the Superintendent Registrar. He then had copies made of all the local registers and sent them to his superior, the top of the pyramid, the Registrar General.

One of those blasted indexes

The Registrar General then had these copies indexed, producing printed indexes, covering births, deaths and marriages for the entire island, one volume per year until 1877, four per year thereafter. These are the indexes available in the General Register Office Search room in Dublin, until now, in theory at least, the only legal route of access to the historic registrations: the keyhole.

FamilySearch made a digital transcript of these indexes freely available more than five years ago, right up to 1958. In 2015, IrishGenealogy put up the GRO’s internal digital index (slightly more informative), but restricted to more than 100 years old for births, 75 for marriages  and 50 for deaths.

Kanturk, 1913. Many John Murphys.

What’s happened now is that IrishGenealogy has added online digital images of the copy-registers that its indexes point to. If you think your ancestor was one of the 25 John Murphy births registered in Kanturk Union between 1873 and 1876, up to now the only way to check full details of the entries was to buy print-outs of the images, a cool €100 in the case of the bould John. Now you can simply (and for nothing) click through each index entry and see full details: address, father’s occupation, mother’s maiden name …

Of course there are quibbles. Only the birth record images are complete. The marriage images start in 1882 and the deaths in 1891, so it’s still necessary to buy print-outs for marriages and deaths before those years. O and Mc surnames are treated very strangely in the indexes after 1900. The way the image digitisation was done makes it unnecessarily difficult (but not impossible) to reconstruct the local registrars’ records, an obvious treasure-trove for local historians. And some of the early registrations don’t seem to be imaged – Mary Scully in Abbeyleix Union in 1864 seems to have fallen between stools, for example. The FamilySearch transcript has much more information – an object lesson in the value of multiple transcripts.

But these are just tiny examples of that familiar occupational hazard, NGS, Nitpicking Genealogist Syndrome. What our Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has just done is simply extraordinary.

Ireland, a notorious black spot for family history less than a decade ago, is now a world leader in access to genealogical records.



Nobody went from Ireland to America

Nobody ever left Ireland just to go to America. Pat Naughton left Ballinasloe to go to his cousin John in Roxbury, Boston. James McCurdy went from Rathlin to Lubec, Maine, for a job promised by his mother’s uncle. Father Bud Sullivan brought rakes of other Sullivans out from Allihies to work for Marcus Daly in the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this
Butte: the boys from Allihies dug this

It’s an exaggeration, of course, to say there was absolutely no blind mass migration.  In the hopeless years of the Famine and after, plenty of people fled, desperate to be anywhere but Ireland. And there have always been a few brave or reckless souls willing to throw themselves across the Atlantic just to see what happens.

But mass emigration, then as now,  was almost always part of the accumulation of tens of thousands of individual and family decisions. Identifying and unravelling those decisions can bridge centuries and oceans and re-knit extended families. And the painstaking micro-study of migration clusters is the way to do that.

There are some excellent individual works – Bruce Elliott’s Irish Migrants in the Canadas, A New Approach, (2nd ed. McGill-Queen’s University Press 2002), which details 775 Protestant smallholder families who migrated from North Tipperary to the Ottawa Valley, is the founder of the genre and still a shining example. Peter Murphy’s Together in Exile (New Brunswick, 1990), a superb reconstruction of migration from Carlingford to Saint John, New Brunswick, is not far behind.

As far as I’m aware, though, no central guide exists to the clustering of Irish migrant origins and destinations. Genealogical anecdotes certainly abound, with dozens of unlikely pairings: Abbeydorney to Westbury;


Kilskeery to Charlestown, Mass.; Dungarvan to Yonkers. But there is nothing systematic. Ireland Reaching Out has begun a series of migration stories, but there’s a long way to go.

In any case, if you want to have a go for your own locality, there are now some excellent online tools.

The wonderful Steve Morse (stevemorse.org) allows precise reconstruction of Ellis Island origins and destinations – have a look at bit.ly/1tYA0Cq for the 2000 people from Athlone who passed through between 1892 and 1924.

For the mid-19th century, the Boston Pilot “Missing Friends” ads (infowanted.bc.edu) supply even more circumstantial detail.

And the Irish Emigration Database at www.dippam.ac.uk/ied/ is another excellent resource, even if heavily weighted towards Ulster.

The reason for bringing all this up is two upcoming conferences that I’ll be performing speaking at. The first is a free conference run by Galway County Council’s indefatigable Heritage Officer, Marie Mannion. Entitled ‘Emigration and Our Galway County Diaspora’, it takes place in the unique setting of the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival Marquee next Thursday September 8th. More information here.

The second conference is ‘The Diaspora of the Wild Atlantic Way’, organised by the Clare Roots Society and taking place  in Treacy’s West County Hotel in Ennis over two full days, September 23rd and 24th. (Brochure here)

As ever, the Society is punching well above its weight, bidding to make this the pre-eminent genealogical conference in Ireland, bringing in heavyweight international speakers and applying its usual dedication and attention to detail.

I’m certainly looking forward to it.