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.
Everything is different now. Two commercial sites, irishnewsarchives.com and britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, have opened up a vast range of titles and transformed the way historic newspapers can be used.
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.