Irish Gift-horse Dentistry

For Irish researchers, the five stages of New Source Syndrome are:

  1. Disbelief – “What? After 30 years of fumbling around in the dark, someone’s just turned on the light? It can’t be true.”
  2. Unrestrained joy – “Calloo Callay, o frabjous day! Life will be wonderful from now on! The ancestors of every Irish person everywhere will be findable forever!”
  3. Mild questioning – “The transcriptions seem a bit flawed. Ah well, nothing’s perfect.”
  4. Exasperation – “For God’s sake, a simple Forward/Back button isn’t too much to ask.”
  5. Thundering, red-in-the face ingratitude: “They’ve left out Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M! How could they, the blithering idiots?”.

As you may gather, I’m at stage 5, and they did leave out Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M.

Not precisely

In the course of preparing material for my City Colleges course (new one starts after Christmas, roll up, roll up) I discovered that the brand-new National Archives sub-site, Will Registers 1858-1900, ¬†doesn’t include all the surviving material from the post-1857 will registration system.

The site states: “copies of wills proved in District Registries from 1858 on survive in Will Registers, and are an exact replacement for the originals which were lost, except of course for the original signatures of the testator and witnesses. Unfortunately, no such copies survive for the Principal Registry, which means there is very little for people who died in Dublin or had particularly large estates.”

This is true in the literal sense that there are no copies. But parts of the originals do survive, at least eleven volumes, and they’re not here.

[Update: a number of people have pointed out that there are in fact Principal Registry Will Books transcribed, though the blurb says otherwise. And the free search interface at FindMyPast allows much more flexible and accurate¬†queries. Maybe there should be a Stage 6: Shame-faced apology? Though I still haven’t found¬†Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M.]

Wha ..?

And the site has no browse section, and no guide to the years and records are covered – what exactly are the 70,000-odd “Grants of Probate” included? – and, God help us, not even a simple Forward/Back button to page through them.

What is this? 1858-1900? I don’t think so.


Still, the fact is that NAI has done a huge service to the research community with the site. It would take so little for it to be complete.

Then I could start again at Stage 1.

Painted History

Received wisdom has it that the Irish are verbal, not visual, and it’s certainly true that there are many more songs, stories and poems about Irish history than there are paintings. So the “decade of centenaries” presented a bit of a problem for the National Gallery of Ireland.

John Lavery (1856-1941): Michael Collins (Love of Ireland), 1922 Dublin City Gallery

It could have assembled a dozen or so¬† paintings loosely connected to 1916 and the War of Independence, by John Lavery, Sean Keating and Jack Yeats, but that would have looked pretty thin. So instead, very smartly, the Gallery took the opportunity to stage a full-scale exhibition of Irish history painting. Or perhaps more accurately, Irish history in painting. It’s called “Creating History”, it’s free at the Gallery in South Leinster Street in Dublin until mid-January, and it’s wonderful.

James Barry (1741-1806): The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick c.1800. Nationa Gallery of Ireland
James Barry (1741-1806): The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick c.1800. National Gallery of Ireland. The rosary followed.

There’s no shortage of Irish history, and no shortage of painterly opinions about Irish history. From St. Patrick making Irish Catholics out of the heathen Gael, to Brian Bor√ļ driving out them foreign Vikings in 1014, through the foundation myths of Irish Unionism, the siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne, they’re all here.

Samuel Watson, The Battle of Clontarf, 1844, O’Brien Collection

And all wear their hearts on their sleeves. “Tendentious” seems to have been¬†a kind of oil paint. But the deeply sectarian politics they embody has become irrelevant, and its melting away has made¬†the paintings themselves stranger and more beautiful. And most of them are huge – visiting in person is the only way to get a full sense of their scale.

Jan Wyck (c.1645-1700) The Battle of the Boyne, 1693 National Gallery of Ireland

Perhaps the most poignant are the works depicting nineteenth-century visits to Ireland by British monarchs, deeply self-important at the time and now competely forgotten.  My favourite is the painting of the hordes who turned out at Kingstown to see off George IV in 1821. Or maybe they were out in their thousands in astonishment that the sun was setting due North, right over Howth.

William Turner De Lond (fl.c.1820-c.1837) George IV leaving Ireland, embarking at Kingstown, 3 September 1821, 1821  National Trust

The only disappointment is the absence of Daniel Maclise’s deliriously lurid ‘The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow’, depicting in detail all seven centuries of sorrowful Irish history springing from the union of the Gael Aoife with the Norman Strongbow. I suspect the only reason it’s missing is that they just couldn’t get it in the room. At 10ft by 16ft, it’s the size of a large billboard. Appropriately enough.

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife, National Gallery of Ireland

A Snowfall of Chalk

Reading the Irish Landscape

One of the hardest things for the mind to grasp is the sheer scale of the timespans that surround us. I recently came across something in Frank Mitchell’s classic Reading the Irish Landscape (Dublin, 1987, 2nd ed. 1997) that illustrates that scale very vividly. He is writing about chalk and its place in the geological make-up of Ireland. Chalk is white limestone formed from the compressed skeletal remains of single-celled sea-creatures just thousandths of an inch in diameter. Hundreds of millennia of warm shallow seas are¬†needed to build up even a small deposit of chalk. But Mitchell points out that around 100 million years ago a layer of chalk more than 100 metres deep covered the whole of Ireland. Imagine that slow, invisible snowfall of tiny skeletons and then the sheer length of time required for it to produce and then compress a¬†100-metre-deep deposit.

And that layer of chalk has itself now vanished almost completely – outside the extreme north-east the only evidence it ever existed is a deep pit of chalk at Ballydeenlea near Farranfore in Kerry, apparently preserved when the limestone on which it was sitting collapsed.


Otherwise every trace of the layer has gone. How much weathering, over how long, was needed to scour away such massive quantities of chalk?

For any geologist this all happened yesterday. There are changes in the rocks around us that record events 500 million years ago, a billion years ago and more. The oldest surviving civilisation on the planet is in China, whose culture can trace itself over at least 3,000 years. Some Chinese families have traditions that follow their ancestors over more than 60 generations.

To our shallow Western sense of the past, this is extraordinary. But it is not long enough for even the lightest fall of chalk.

The Wonderful Dublin Merchant Guild Rolls

Sometimes you come across a source that shows just how shallow genealogy really is. We’re just scratching around in the very, very recent past.

The original roll

Dublin City Libraries and Archive have just put online the Dublin merchant guild rolls, dating from about 1190 to 1265. These are the records of admission to the merchant guild of Dublin city over that 75-year period, more than 8,500 entries recording names, occupations, places of origin and (in some cases) fathers’ names.

The first thing to be said is that the records are useless for genealogical research: they are just so far over the horizon of other documentary material as to be completely out of reach. So far out of reach, in fact, that I hereby offer a reward of ‚ā¨250 to anyone who can document a modern descent from anyone named in the rolls.

Walter the steersman

But they are still hypnotically wonderful. When they start, Dublin had been in the possession of the Normans for less than four decades, barely a generation. Already, though, their pan-European trading networks had absorbed the city. Those enrolling in the guild in order to trade in Dublin include merchants from places all over Germany, Italy, Spain, France, England, Scotland and Wales, and of course Norman Ireland.

The early locations of Norman settlement in Ireland are spelt out with crystal clarity in the origins of the merchants: Castledermot, Drogheda, Carlingford, Arklow, Wexford ‚Ķ There’s even a solitary trader from Achill.

Nevin from Connacht

My favourites are the four merchants enrolled from Rinndown in Roscommon.  This walled town flourished briefly in the early 13th century as a trading outpost with the Gaels of Connacht, having Lough Ree as a handy escape-cum-trade-route at its backdoor. William the Northerner, Robert the Seaman, William of Hereford and just plain Ivor all gave Rinndown as their home when they enrolled.

There are also Gaels in the records. Kellach Mac Inidi (McKennedy) seems to have been one of a number of Kennedy butchers trading in the city. Others include Mac Keyvin, Mac Scanlan, Mac Gilleroth. This period is four or five generations after the beginning of the adoption of hereditary surnames by the Irish and it is striking how the only surnames in the lists appear to be Gaelic. The Normans are still identified only by a place of origin, or an occupation or their father’s name.

The harp of Thomas le Harpur

All of this is visible only because of the extraordinary transcription done by the late Philomena Connolly. Originally published by Dublin City Council as the First supplement to The Calendar of the Ancient Records of Dublin in 1992, this republication online (with the addition of the spectacular images of the original vellum scrolls) has opened up the records to all of us.

It’s not genealogy, but I love it.