We have grave concerns …

I was once told by an American psychotherapist that the Irish have serious problems with bereavement. Apparently we find it very hard to let go. Maybe that’s the reason we have such a thing about graveyards. Because we certainly do have a thing about graveyards.

Last week I checked the site historicgraves.com and discovered the number of places covered had more than quadrupled in three years. It took two whole days just to add them into the listings (check out Limerick just to get a sense of the scale).

Richard Welsh with skull & cross-bones

Historicgraves depends on volunteer community projects and often records much more than the inscriptions, going into the detail of the heritage of each graveyard. It currently has transcripts for 484 cemeteries, mostly in Cork, Limerick and Tipperary, though there are also significant numbers elsewhere.

There are also two other Irish groups wholly dedicated to transcription and free publication of inscriptions, www.discovereverafter.com and www.irishgraveyards.ie. Both are private companies supplying cemetery management services, with online transcript collections as a kind of by-product. Discovereverafter is based in Derry, with most of its transcripts from counties Derry, Tyrone and Armagh (118 graveyards currently). Irishgraveyards is based in Castlebar, and covers mainly Mayo, Galway and Donegal (74 graveyards).

All three adhere to the current gold standard: transcript, headstone photo and map. Despite their current regional focus, all three also appear to have country-wide ambitions.

This is not to mention the transcriptions being carried out by heritage groups supported by local authorities or libraries: in Galway, West Cork, Kildare and Meath, Clare, Wexford … Where have I missed?

And then there’s the IGP archives, volunteer-supported and growing rapidly – their transcripts for Mount Jerome in Dublin (to mention just one) are superb.  Not to forget Dr. Jane Lyons’ massive collection of more than 70,000 records on her site from-ireland.net .

Not Irish, but a favourite.

Many non-Irish sites have also picked up the bug. There are plenty of Irish transcripts on the venerable interment.net and findagrave.com, and many Irish headstone photos on gravestonephotos.com.

The work of previous generations of transcribers hasn’t gone away either. For Northern Ireland by the Ulster Historical Foundation has a huge transcript-only collection for Ulster at ancestryireland.com. Other IFHF members are putting their collections on rootsireland.ie, with Derry, East Galway, South Mayo, North Tipperary and Westmeath leading the pack.

And of course more than a century’s-worth of published transcripts are also out there.

  • The Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead ran from 1888 to 1934, recording tens of thousands of inscriptions, many now gone – the journals up to 1909 are now online at archive.org.
  • Brian Cantwell’s life’s work, Memorials of the Dead, comprising c. 24,500 inscriptions, covering all of Wicklow, Wexford and part of Dublin, is widely available in major libraries and is online at FindMyPast. Seaboard Mayo and Galway sites were transcribed by his son Ian, whose site www.iancantwell.com includes indexes, as well as an interesting history of memorial transcripton and methodological analysis.
  • Albert Casey’s gargantuan 17-volume O’Kief, Cosh Mang, Slieve Lougher, and Upper Blackwater in Ireland covers 42 graveyards in Cork and 36 in Kerry.

I could go on …

One of the strange upshots is that more and more cemeteries have multiple transcripts. Current leaders (as far as I know) St. James’  (Mervue) in Galway and Agher in Meath, each transcribed no fewer than four separate times.

MairtĂ­n Ă“ Cadhain’s  Irish-language masterpiece  CrĂ© na Cille takes place in a graveyard, with the dead giving out to each other, making scurrilous jokes and complaining about the living.  I suspect a sequel might have them pleading with transcribers to leave them alone for a while.

How to identify Irish places

Identifying an Irish place-name can be maddeningly frustrating. You’ve found that all-important birth record and it supplies a precise address. Now you can unlock all those records of property, tax, inheritance, tenancy … Except that the place-name appears nowhere else. There is no Ballygowanowadat recorded anywhere except this one blasted birth record. Argh.

So here are a few tips to help crack tough place-names.

First, keep in mind that the standardisation of place-names by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s covers only the OS maps themselves and Griffith’s Valuation. In every other record, record-keepers wrote down what they thought they heard. That could be a “sub-denominational” name omitted by the OS or (more likely) a phonetic form of a heavily accented local version of the name.

Accents live in vowels, so if you’re searching a database that allows wild-card searches, replace the vowels with wild-cards.

Second, remember that family lore about places of origin is the product of a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. What has arrived to you is encrusted with layers of your forebears’ mishearings. There are many castles in Kerry, but nowhere called “Kerry Castle”. But there is a village called Carracastle at the other end of the country, in Mayo.

1851: Look at the bottom name

We are now blessed with multiple online resources to identify placenames, so let me list them:

The 1851 Townlands Index:

Published in 1861, this uses the Ordnance Survey standard versions of place-names as assembled for the 1851 census. Because a facsimile reprint was published by The Genealogical Publishing Company in the 1970s, database transcripts are widely available.

  • On this site. Expanded to include Registrar’s Districts as well as Dublin, Belfast and Cork street names. Wildcards possible.
  • Shane Wilson’s site allows wild cards and browsing by sub-division
  • Irish-Place-Names.com is a slick, easy-to-use version of the 1851, though not as useful as some others.
  • Seanruad is a venerable and very thorough version,  without wild-cards

The 1901 Townlands Index

This is the master-list used for the 1901 census. More extensive than 1851, – it includes District Electoral Divisions –  but less widely available, simply because it has not been reprinted. The only online version is at the Irish Genealogical Research Society’s site. The search interface is a bit clunky, but actually allows you to pull up some unique data, for example all place-names on a particular OS sheet. And it has wild-cards.


Logainm is the Irish (Gaelic) for “place-name”.  The site was originally set up by the now-defunct Irish Placenames Commission, whose mission was to identify the “original” Irish-language versions of anglicised names for official use.  A large part of the site’s work still involves supplying these official versions, but it also provides public access and is more comprehensive than the Townlands Indexes, including geographic features and sub-denominational names omitted from these. It also has some wonderful historic maps in its “Toponymy resources” section.  But no wild-cards.


OpenStreetMap.org is an open-source, collaborative project to map the world and make the results available free.  Townlands.ie is the Irish end and is becoming more and more useful. Its main limitations are its focus on the present-day rather than the historic, and the need to use exact spelling. No wild-cards.


Google maps can be useful, though they seem to have embedded place-names that don’t show up on the map. More useful is just a blanket search for someplace that’s not turning up elsewhere. It may be via a match report for the under-eights football team or a local estate agent, but if the name exists and is in use, you’ll find it.

Irish place-names are much more than simple geographical indicators of location. They can embody family information (“Toomevara”, the tomb of the O’Mearas), folklore (The Paps of Anu) or even politics: in my own family’s home parish of Moore in south Roscommon are two townlands “Liberty” and “America”. The names must have come into existence in the late 1700s, local statements of solidarity with the American and French Revolutions.

Liberty, Co. Roscommon

Ancestry.com’s new “Genetic Communities”

The ethnicity calculations used by ancestry.com and many other commercial DNA testers are toxic hokum. Wonderful marketing tools precisely because they appeal to the lizard back-brain in all of us, they gloss over the fact that there is no such thing as “ethnicity”. Peoples and differences and communities there are aplenty, but ahistorical essences that define groups as this ethnicity or that? Puh-lease.

Ancestry’s assertion that “the ethnicity estimate provides a distant picture of a customer’s genetic origins, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years ago”, is just plain wrong. What you get is a comparison of your test results with a (pretty paltry) reference panel, reasonably accurate to four generations, less accurate to five, sometimes useful to six and almost always worthless before then. A distant picture it is not. (For more on the flaws of this stuff, see UCL’s “Debunking Genetic Astrology“.)

138 on the Irish reference panel? There are more on any 16A Dublin bus.

So when ancestry.com announced “Genetic Communities” as a new feature of its DNA service, I was sceptical, to say the least.  Then I saw the map produced by their analysis of my own test, and I was blown away. None of my family tree is on ancestry, so it was produced purely by DNA analysis. And they hit the bulls-eye on the detailed North Connacht and Galway origins of all 16 of my 3 X great-grandparents.

That’s my mother’s people where all the communities overlap. 

How could they do this, working purely from the DNA? According to the white paper accompanying the new service, a “genetic community” is simply a group of people from more or less the same place who married each other over multiple generations, a nice, loose target, and much more sensible than “ethnicity”.  They arrived at their more-than-300 communities by detailed meta-analysis of the DNA matches in more than 2 million samples. Instead of just comparing my test with all the others and seeing to whom I was most related, they took all those to whom I was related and examined who they were related to. And so on and so on.

It was then possible with the aid of an algorithm for detecting densely connected sub-networks within large datasets (the “Louvain Method“, if you must know) to identify the groups most closely related to each other. They then went on to use their own online trees to associate these groups with particular locations, and then ran the whole process again and again to zero in on sub-sub-groups. The granularity of the results is truly extraordinary. In Ireland alone, there are (so far) seventeen different subgroups, ranging from East Donegal to West Cork to North Connacht to Connemara. Each group is presented alongside a series of good short histories explaining the history of the area over the past two centuries and its outmigrations to the US.

Ancestry has used the critical mass of its huge collection of DNA test results to provide a genuine, scientifically-grounded genetic atlas of the past 200 years, no less.

I still have my quibbles (to misquote Charlton Heston, “They’ll prise the quibbles from my cold, dead hands”.) There are unexplained sciency-looking variations in the size of the location circles on the map: what do they represent? Are they unique to each test analysis, or generic? How were the precise-looking boundaries of the communities arrived at? Above all, why is it not possible to see the data underlying the maps by clicking through?

But quibbles they remain. The whole thing is nothing short of deadly.

Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited and Extinct

Only one thing is certain about absolutely every ancestor you have: all of them had at least one child. Obviously.  Otherwise you wouldn’t exist.

Does this mean that everyone alive today is a winner in an evolutionary competition to reproduce?

Not quite seven billion

With a world population of 7 billion, we are a spectacularly successful species, but self-congratulation is a bit premature. Before we start clapping each other on the back and congratulating ourselves as champions bred of the loins of champions, it’s worth examining some details.

First, the genes of even the most fecund of our ancestors eventually cease to exist. A child receives exactly half of their genetic makeup from each parent, meaning that the original genome is diluted further and further with each generation. So it doesn’t matter if Niall of the Nine Hostages was your 35 times great-grandfather. There’s almost none of him left in you.

Go on. Have a good gloat.

And what about all those who have no living descendants? Were they all spinster aunts and bachelor uncles? Not at all. Entire multiple-generation dynasties of the rich and powerful, spawning dozens of rich and powerful children who had dozens of children in their turn, have simply vanished from the face of the earth. Burke’s Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire provides plenty of object lessons (and is always good for a little schadenfreude).

In fact, the iron laws of statistics show that there was a point, somewhere between 5 and 15 millennia ago, where each individual then alive was either the ancestor of every individual alive today, or has no living descendants at all. Genetic genealogy calls it the “Identical ancestors point”, because, logically, earlier than this point everyone now alive shares precisely the same set of ancestors.

Like a lot of genealogical musing, this stuff can seem very trivial or very profound, but it’s hard to stop thinking about it once you start.

And yes, I do suffer from insomnia