Why the bishops were afraid of the parish registers

About six years ago  I was involved in validating the first transcriptions of Catholic parish registers being made from National Library microfilms for IrishGenealogy.ie.  The process required detailed scrutiny of the original image for every transcript that didn’t match my list of standard names, or that just looked fishy. So I had to scrutinise records I wasn’t actually searching for. In the baptismal register for Skibbereen, I came across this:

“23 November 1827 Catharine of Richd Leonard and Mary Regan, New Bridge, Sponsors: John Glosson Cate Sullivan”

I’m not sure why I thought it looked fishy, but when I went to the image, I found a very good reason for always checking the original:

Click here for the original (in case you think I made it up)

It reads: “Nov. 23 1827 Catharine a bastard reputed daughter of Rich’d Leonard a soldier and Mary Regan wife of Tim Lordan late of New Bridge now living in Crookhaven. The mother of this infant is not only a public adulteress but also connected with a gang of coiners or makers of false money. Sponsors: John Glasson Cate Quinlivan by Rev P. Sheehy”.

A worried bishop

One of the reasons, the Church was so squeamish for a long time about access to its historic records was fear that they might be full of stuff like this, PPs foaming at the mouth with steam coming out their ears, spouting material ripe for a good long libel case up in the Four Courts. It’s certainly true that the Rev P. Sheehy sounds apoplectic: he goes out of his way to make clear that the strumpet is not living in his parish, Skibbereen, but away beyond in that notorious den of iniquity, Crookhaven.

But Catharine, Richard, Mary and Tim are all long dead, as is the Rev P. Sheehy. And what they’ve left behind here are the bones of a Victorian three-decker melodrama, the most wonderful skeleton-in-the-closet you could possibly imagine.

And just to show that Church indignation was highly selective, here’s another baptism from that same batch, from Bantry, also in West Cork,  on June 24 1825:

“John of Rich’d Earl of Bantry & Cath Sullivan Sp Mich’l Lenihan & Julia Bourk (spurious)”.

How very discreet.

[A version of this post first appeared as the December Document of the Month on the site of Accredited Genealogists Ireland. ‘Tis the season to be lazy.]

New free Irish genealogy education site

Some things got left behind in the great wave of 1916 centenary events and publications, and one of them was a project I was involved in.

Our logo

2016 Family History is a new, free Irish genealogy education website, produced as a collaboration between the National Archives, the Department of Education and IrishGenealogy.ie. The initial aim was to create something that could be used in the classroom as part of the history curriculum, and the Learning Resources section (brainchild of the redoubtable Mary Ó Dubhain) is designed to provide teachers with ready-made tasks and lessons, all usable online or downloadable as a single pdf workbook.

However, it became clear very early that there was no reason to define the target audience so narrowly. Why not structure it so that anyone could work their way through at their own pace and get a good grounding in the basics of Irish research? So that’s what we did.

There are eight modules, focused on the bread-and-butter of Irish genealogy, civil, church, property and census records. The format is the same in each case: a short introductory video, a description of the source and a series of practice exercises (answers provided).

These exercises are connected to the two case studies on the site, one going through Seán Lemass’s family history (there had to be a 1916 connection), the other taking an ordinary working-class family, that of John Purcell, born in Dublin in 1902, with roots in Kerry. Users can work their way through these family histories in a single go, or build up to them using the module exercises.

Shh. This is the launch.

It was fun to do, though we missed so many deadlines that there was no official launch. So this is the launch, the softest one ever. Sshhh.


I was wrong, wrong, utterly wrong.

Last week’s whinge about the National Archives Will Registers sub-site was just plain wrong. Everything that should be on the site is there, including the infamous Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M.

Egg on face

Stage 6 of New Source Syndrome is grovelling, shame-faced apology. Sorry.

The story of how I came to be so wrong and how I was corrected is instructive, though. I looked at the short blurb on the site, saw no mention of the surviving Principal Registry books, and spent a fruitless hour trying to find them. Scanning manually up and down the microfilm images for the title pages was equally frustrating. So I leapt to my conclusion.

Two morals: don’t be so quick to leap to conclusions, Boyo. And the search interface of the Archives site is pretty crude. No blame there: I know what the budget for the site was, precisely one brass farthing. And the deadline was the day before yesterday. The wonder is that they managed to get the material online at all.

It was the spelling mistake that threw me. Honest.

I found out about my mistake from Brian Donovan, head of Business Development at FindMyPast.ie. He emailed me to point out that FMP had actually done all the digitisation for the National Archives, and supplied a link to Principal Registry Wills, 1891, G-M, free on their site.

Brian also pointed out that my exclusive focus on the National Archives’ own site was misplaced – all of the material released in the Great September Infodump and now at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie is also on FMP, completely free to search but with the benefit of their surname variant system and much more fine-grained search options. And Previous/Next buttons with all their images.

He is absolutely right. The interface at FMP is orders of magnitude superior to the Archives’ own, simply because FMP had time and budget. Any research I do in the future on these records will be via FMP.

An interesting sidelight is the question of why the versions of the records at FindMyPast haven’t got the attention they deserve. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy (though just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean  … )

Don’t count the teeth.

FMP is a subscription site, and the working presumption – don’t be so quick with the presumptions either, Boyo  – is that their records are behind a pay-wall. The free access they provide to the NAI records is just not promoted strongly enough, at least for me. – if you look at their list of record sources, there is no indication of which sources are free and which paying. And loads of them are free.


So I’m off to comb through them one by one. No gift-horse dentistry this time.