When people complain to me about transcription errors in our shiny new databases, I try to reassure them: “Notch your scepticism up to 11, come at the records from as many angles as possible and always remember that these errors are the price you pay for having the databases in the first place.”
Going through the National Archives online Tithe Books collection over the past week, I repeated that advice to myself over and over, but it didn’t work. I just don’t want to pay that price any more.
As a source, the Books’ main virtue is that they exist. If we had the censuses destroyed in 1922, they’d be a quirky footnote, a textbook example of blinkered Irish sectarianism shooting itself in the foot. Supporting your clergy by imposing a tax on near-destitute members of a rival church was hardly a recipe for inter-faith harmony.
But they are now virtually the only census substitutes for most places in the 1820s and 1830s, and the NAI online collection is the only route of access. And it’s god-awful.
First, the quality of the personal name and place name transcriptions is only wojus. In a single parish, Knock in Mayo, I’ve counted at least ten mistakes for the surname Flatley: Flattey, Hattley, Halley, Hattely, Hatley, Huttley, Slatterly, Slattery, Thally, and Harley.
OK, but at least we can use the online images as if we were at a microfilm reader and just ignore the database?
No. The parish names are jumbled up so badly, it’s impossible to be sure what images you’re looking at. To take Carlow alone, the link for Aghade takes you to Aghada (Kerry), Clonmelsh to Clonmult (Cork), Lorum to Loughbraccan (Meath), Painestown (Carlow) to Painstown (Meath) … And the online correction facility provides no way of pointing out gross navigational problems like these.
Then last week, while wandering idly through the FamilySearch online catalogue, I came across the listing for the original microfilm collection on which the NAI site is based. The layout makes it clear that the originals were organised into 140 bundles alphabetised by parish name. So bundle #1 ran from Abbey to Aghaboy and bundle #140 from Wallstown to Youghalarra. (and incidentally bundle #45 Drung to Duncormick was never microfilmed at all and so is just not digitised).
All the mistaken parish identifications are there on FamilySearch too, but seeing the original microfilms laid out like this makes it possible to burrow down to the actual start point of each tithe book. I’ve done it for Carlow (here), but with the results linked to FamilySearch rather than NAI. For one thing, the FamilySearch online microfilm reader has previous/next links, praised be the Saints. For another, where there are database transcripts, they appear below the images, providing (limited) help in deciphering.
There’s a lot more work to be done to make the other 25 counties actually useable. I don’t think anyone else is going to do it.