As a leading question, this ranks close to “When did you stop beating your wife?” For years I’ve dodged it by mumbling about coincidence and the need to make a living. Recently, though, I had to answer in public, and found myself coming out with some truths.
First, I love the endless solving of thousands of small puzzles. It is literally addictive. The tiny hit of satisfaction from uncovering a minuscule piece of the jigsaw and seeing it fit with the whole is very like the sweet little nicotine rush I used to get from each pull of a cigarette. The compulsion to go on is continually reinforced, and the fact that no family history can ever be completely finished, that the bigger puzzle can never be solved, just amplifies that compulsion.
Second, the part of genealogy that I enjoy most, making heritage databases, has a near-religious rightness about it. As in Van Morrison’s classic ‘Cleaning Windows’, things that were opaque are made clear. And like Van, I take an evangelical pleasure in it. As well, of course, as the less pure satisfaction of revenge on records that used to consume days of my life but now take only minutes.
Most of all, though, genealogy brings history to life in ways that are endlessly enthralling. To use records properly, you have to try to see them through the eyes of the people who made them, the recorders, as well as the people who are recorded. The result is a worm’s-eye view of history, where the laws of statistics don’t apply and great events happen away in the distance.
As a way of understanding history, it has its flaws – our ancestors didn’t necessarily understand what was happening to them, any more than we understand what’s going on around us now. But it certainly helps.
Last week’s historic newspapers post omitted to mention a few salient facts. The two websites I wrote about are both subscription-only, though irishnewsarchive is free in public libraries in the Republic and britishnewspaperarchives offers a pay-as-you-go option, ideal for occasional users like myself. I also failed to point out that on this site I try to keep tabs on which publications and what years they both cover – check out Waterford, for example.
Now, let the quibbles begin.
One group of important papers still falls between the gaps left by both sites. These are the large numbers of local papers published between 1750 and 1820, catering mainly to the Anglo-Irish – literate, propertied, urban, English-speaking, precisely the people most affected by the destruction of the Church of Ireland parish registers in 1922. The British Library doesn’t have many of them and they certainly don’t form part of the Independent News & Media archive. NLI has the largest collection, still only searchable manually. And so still a time sink.
The one way to short-circuit the manual search is a wonderful collection of abstracts created by the indefatigable Rosemary ffolliott more than 40 years ago. She went through almost every newspaper published in Munster and south Leinster between the mid-1750s and the early 1820s and extracted every single item of biographical interest – BMDs, of course, but also bankruptcies, changes of business address, reports from overseas wars, elopements, in short anything that might be of interest to a family historian, covering tens of thousands of families.
She then arranged them alphabetically in two series, one covering mainly Cork and Kerry papers, the other Limerick, Ennis, Clonmel and Waterford.
Her impish sense of humour is evident. The following two items follow each other in her arrangement:
Cork Constitution Thu 6 Nov 1767: “Married last Sunday Mr Harding Daly of Whitehall near Kittmount to the agreeable widow Fleming of Hamon’s Marsh with a fortune of £800.”
Cork Constitution Mon 9 Nov 1767: “The paragraph mentioning the marriage of Mr. Hardng Daly to the widow Fleming appears to be without foundation.”
One of the (many) bees in my bonnet is just how hard it is to get access to the collections. Both are on microfiche, but the only place I know that has the full set is Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse St.
FindMyPast/Eneclann digitised Rosemary’s other major achievement, The Irish Ancestor. I would have thought these collections would be ideal for them.
The cost/benefit balance in researching newspapers used to be all wrong. Any attempt to zero in on specific events or families would inevitably get side-tracked: you’d just end up reading the paper. That could be very enjoyable – the accounts of public hangings in the eighteenth century are hair-raising – but unless you could spare a week, the time expended just wasn’t worth the results. And the working presumption was that these publications were really only of interest if the people you were researching were similar to their readership – literate, propertied, urban, English-speaking.
The latter site is (obviously) British, part of the DC Thomson stable, so all of the Irish titles it digitises are also available on its sister site, FindMyPast.ie. The aim behind it is simple and vast: to digitise all the historic newspaper holdings of the British Library.
The BL has the world’s biggest collection of nineteenth-century Irish titles, so its usefulness is obvious. From 1822, every newspaper in the then-United Kingdom had to hand over a copy as part of the stamp-tax process. From 1869, the Library’s legal deposit rights were extended to newspapers. It seems to have taken a few years for news of the stamp-duty rule to reach Ireland – most of the BL’s Irish holdings date from around 1826. But after then, virtually everything is here or on its way, from the Athlone Sentinel (1834-1861) to the Wexford Independent, (1830-1871).
The Irish site, irishnewsarchives, was initially based around the archives of the Irish Independent group, Independent News & Media, including all the provincial papers gobbled up by that group over the past few decades. It has since expanded greatly, possibly spurred by the threat of its British rival and now includes the full run of the late lamented Irish Press (1931-1995), as well good collections of the Freeman’s Journal and the Belfast News Letter from the early 1700s. At its heart, though, remains the INM stable of local newspapers, for which it also acts as an ongoing archive. So if you want to know what the people of Cavan and Monaghan were concerned about last December, The Anglo-Celt archive will tell you.
As with all online record-sites, commercial or not, caution and scepticism are needed. There are unmarked holes in both sites’ coverage, to be uncovered mainly by falling into them. Both use automated Optical Character Recognition, whose flaws mean that ingenuity and persistence are often necessary – pick a conspicuous name or word and plug away at the advanced search interface.
The British site’s interface is much quicker – irishnewsarchives seems to be stuck with old Microsoft database and web software that can be maddeningly slow. But there is no question of it becoming superfluous. Legal deposit ended in 1922 for newspapers in the South (though for some reason the BL has a full run of the Waterford Standard from 1951 to 1954), so the Irish site has an effective monopoly on publications after that year, making it essential for twentieth-century death notices, politics and local news. The Irish site also has much better nineteenth-century runs of the local newspapers that are now part of INM. And you can get a discount on subscriptions by using the code “JGDISC25” (only available via johngrenham.com, subject to availability, while stocks last …).
On the other hand, the sheer indiscriminateness of the britishnewspaperarchive approach (“hoover it all up and let God sort it out”) means that it will always have some things unavailable on irishnewsarchives.
For both, the biggest change is that every name in every paper is now findable. And large tracts of all newspapers consist of personal names – prize-winners, convicts, the complete under-13s B team … One way to get Mammy to buy the paper has always been to print little Johnny’s name.
The social range of reporting also turned out to be much broader than I used to expect. The Grenhams of Moore, most definitely not Irish Times readers, are listed with droves of cousins and in-laws in a Times Ballinasloe court report in 1880, arrested for preventing a bailiff evicting a neighbour. They were obviously keen participants in the Land War, something no one in later generations knew, and which only emerged because of digitisation.
So there is no doubt these two sites have moved newspaper research from the margins to the centre of Irish family history.
But. There. Are. Quibbles. Of course. Of which more next week.
Christmas is Ireland is deeply peculiar. By mid-December collective hibernation hysteria has gripped us all and we are compelled to stockpile food as if the world were about to end on Christmas Eve. On that day, we enter the family cave, roll a giant stone across the entrance and wait a solid ten days with only our family and our mounds of decaying food for company. It’s safe to come out again around January 6.
So the annual Christmas hibernation is a good time to get stuck into a nice big project: a giant jigsaw, a marathon game of Risk, knitting a giant woolly jumper … Or mapping all the heads of household in the 1911 census of Ireland.
With data from the National Archives census site, I’ve just plotted the location of all the 3500 strange areas used for the census, District Electoral Divisions (giant jigsaw), counted the number of heads of household of every surname in each DED (marathon game of Risk) and mapped the two onto a Google map (giant woolly jumper). For a sample of what I’ve ended up with, have a look at the Lavins.
The results are useful in a number of ways. Most simply, it is much easier to grasp geographic distributions when they can be visualised and not just read. But there are many other uses – seeing the variant spellings that appear in the census, working out how the traditional homelands have shifted in the half-century since Griffith’s, catching outliers in places you mightn’t expect …
Of course there are caveats.
The way I worked out the locations of the DEDs was by identifying the latitude and longitude of a townland or street in each District, as recorded in the 1901 Townlands Index. This means that any changes between 1901 and 1911 aren’t captured and also that the point chosen on the map could be well away from the District’s centre, especially true for urban areas. And for those urban areas, the NAI transcript’s naming is truly weird. “Clifton”, “Clifton Ward” and “Clifton, Belfast Urban No. 2” are different versions of the same DED in Belfast. “Inn’s Quay”, “Inns Quay” and “Inn’s Quay (part of)” all cover the one Dublin DED. I’ve tried just to reproduce what NAI did, but be warned: at times I was utterly boggled.
There are also problems with the surnames. Over 10,000 heads of household (out of a total of 900,000) have surnames I don’t already have listed. The vast majority are certainly mis-transcriptions, but there also real names in there. George Zuorro, an Italian ice-cream seller in Belfast, is just one. Sorting out the real from the mis-transcripts is a big project in itself.