Adoption research

A while back, I was a guest on a radio programme and a listener texted in a plea. She was adopted, she said, and she couldn’t uncover her birth mother’s name. “Please help me to find out who I am”, were the exact words.

On one level, this is absurd: I don’t know her circumstances, but she almost certainly leads a normal life, coping (or not coping) with all the joys and worries of work and money and immediate family in exactly the same way as someone who does know their birth mother’s name. She is who she is, in other words, as we all are.

But of course I’m being disingenuous. I knew exactly what she was asking and why it carried such a resonant pang of loss. At the centre of everyone’s network of allegiances, to tribe, parish, country , race, lies the family, and embedded ineradicably in the very notion of family is the need for a blood connection. Unfair and irrational this may be, but it is very old. For most of the existence of the human race, the only dependable guarantee of safety has been blood kinship.

None of this is much help to that listener. The uncomfortable fact is that researching adoptions can be extremely difficult. The vast majority took place in order to hide illegitimacy. Finding records of people who tried to leave no official traces, who didn’t want to be found, demands levels of persistence and resourcefulness well beyond the ordinary. But the sheer intensity of that need to know remains extraordinary.

Katherine Zappone

The Irish state is finally recognising the needs of adoptees and giving them legal rights to trace their birth families. Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone’s wonderful ‘Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016‘ formalises the record-keeping obligations of adoption agencies and the tracing services they need.

Two state agencies already offer tracing assistance of sorts. The Adoption Authority of Ireland offers free personalised assistance, while TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency, is actively archiving and making available records from the local religious adoption agencies that were the norm until very recently.  The Natural Parents Network of Ireland provides support for parents of children. who were adopted.

Self-importance Well Punctured

Our sense of time is tuned to the everyday: you can’t see your children grow or mountains erode, for the very simple reason that life would be impossible if you could. Genealogy usually keeps a researcher’s nose firmly against this grindstone of the humdrum, and that’s one of its beauties; it is very hard to stray into geological time-scales and grand historical abstractions when you can see individuals and families flagrantly disobeying the laws of statistics before your very eyes. Just occasionally, however, something will poke out from the background that gives a sense of the scale of the invisible changes going on.


The surname “Costello” has more than 70 recorded variant spellings in the records of the past two centuries, from “Castolo” to “Custullo”, (see here) but it has a very precise origin. It was adopted in the 12th century by the children of Jocelyn de Angulo, son of Gilbert, one of the original Norman invaders. There is disagreement as to whether Osdealbhach, the forename at the root of the surname Mac Osdealbhaigh (phonetically “McOStealvy”), is a genuine Gaelic name itself, or a mangled Gaelicisation of ‘Jocelyn’, but there is no doubt at all that this individual was the origin of the modern surname.

Not Abbott

In 1911, around 10,000 individuals in Ireland bore the surname Costello or a variant. A first reaction might be to congratulate Jocelyn on his fecundity, but of course, over 7 centuries, anything up to half-a-million individuals could be the 20-generation ancestors of someone living in 1911, so Jocelyn was only responsible for the surname, not all the genes. Even so, the sheer numbers connected to him both as descendants and co-ancestors give a dizzying glimpse of the complexity of our relatedness.


Nothing punctures your sense of being in charge of your own life quite as thoroughly as a stinking head-cold – I have one at the moment – but genealogy can come a close second.

Back in Hot Water

A few years back I got into hot water for saying that the defeated Irish (and English) transported to Barbados after the Cromwellian wars were slaves. The vehement online response was that they were indentured labourers. Involuntary indentured labourers. With no fixed term to the indenture.  At my nit-picking best, I said that forced labour without time limit sounded very like slavery to me.

How wrong I was.

Barbados ‘redlegs’

In my utter up-from-the-country innocence I had wandered onto a battlefield in the ongoing Culture Wars. The kind of people who like to get together after dark carrying flaming firebrands have made it one of their central (idiot) beliefs that slavery was colour-blind: us whites have got over it and so should you African-Americans. Saying there were seventeenth-century Irish “slaves” in Barbados was the equivalent of putting on a white hood and lighting a nice big torch.

What brought this back to mind was discovering University College London’s extraordinary ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ website. When Britain abolished slavery in 1834, it did so by buying out every single slave in the Empire, paying the mind-boggling sum of £20,000,000 to the former slave-owners. The process naturally involved recording in detail every single one of the 46,000 compensation payments. All the records, including payees, amounts and locations, are in The National Archives in Kew.

What UCL has done with those 46,000 payments is remarkable. They have extracted and mapped the personal information – names, addresses, occupations, numbers of enslaved people – onto zoomable maps of Britain and Ireland. At a glance it becomes clear where slavery-derived wealth collected, who owned it, how much they were compensated. (Ireland appears to have had relatively few slave-owners).

This much is very interesting in its own right – the sheer social and geographic breadth of British slave-ownership is astonishing. But the project goes much further. It links the owners to the specific plantations in Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica from which they drew their profits and maps the plantations too. It looks at what the payees did with their slave-compensation money, the industries it supported, the political careers it enabled, the cultural institutions it helped to found, the great houses it built. Later generations of slave-owning families are tracked through their careers in politics, imperial administration, the arts and education, with prominent individuals highlighted throughout – William Gladstone, the Prime Minister of Britain through much of the Victorian era, was the son of the recipient of the single largest compensation payment. John Gladstone owned no fewer than 2508 enslaved people in British Guyana and Jamaica in 1834.

What the project does is something very familiar to genealogists, the bringing of forgotten truth back out into the light, piece by painstaking piece. The forgotten truth here is that much of the apparent majesty of Britain’s industry and culture was founded on slave money, a fact quickly and conveniently buried by subsequent Imperial historians.

The site also makes clear what enslaved Afro-Caribbean people got in compensation for their generations of degradation. Nothing.

Dirty Little Secrets

Tight-fitting acronym

One of Irish genealogy’s dirty little secrets is that it’s all very simple. We do like to dress up in fancy complications – a valuator’s codebook here, a tithe defaulter there.  And if we’re genetic genealogists we really really love our tight-fitting hermetic acronyms and our spangly centi-morgans.

Really, though, the logic behind research is as elementary as an infant’s building blocks. Pile one record on top of another until you can’t go any further. And that’s it. Yes, there are little bits of lateral thinking that can sometimes get around an obstacle. But it’s not brain surgery. It’s not even rocket science.

Spangly centimorgans

Another little secret is the fact that many of the processes we use are deeply repetitive and, frankly, stupid. Identify a townland. Find the civil parish. Match the Catholic parish. Do it again. Do it again.

The impulse to automate this stuff before going mad with boredom is the main motivator behind the programming I do. It’s the motivation behind the latest addition to this site, an attempt to map the numbers of householders in the civil parishes of Griffith’s Valuation onto the matching Catholic parishes. Here’s Gilshennan, for example.

The aim was to provide quick-and-dirty access to information on the Catholic records covering areas where particular families were living around the 1850s. Quick maybe, dirty certainly. Catholic and civil parishes don’t correspond precisely, which has thrown up lots of oddities. For instance, if there were seven Grenham households recorded by Griffith in the civil parish of Kilmore, and the civil parish of Kilmore is divided between the Catholic parishes of Castlemore and Kilbeg, then the map displays seven Grenham households in each parish, seven in Castlemore and seven in Kilbeg. Talk about Reproductive.

I’ve plastered the thing in disclaimers, but I have doubts about its usefulness. At the very least it shows that even if Irish genealogy isn’t that complicated it can still get pretty weird.

The Bee’s Knees and The Cat’s Pyjamas

Over the course of the years, I’ve read many books on Irish genealogy. Some are useful but a little dull or cumbersome. Some are irritatingly cavalier. A few are downright infuriating.

The lovely Claire

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any names. So let me mention one: Claire Santry. Claire is the sole begetter of the Irish Genealogy News blog, the single most trusted source of updates on Irish record releases and events. She’s also a professional journalist. One reason the blog is so successful is that she brings hard-won professionalism to it. And she’s just brought that professionalism to her new book, The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Ancestors in Ireland (2017, Family Tree Books).

It is absolutely splendid: engaging, amusing and down-to-earth, perfectly lucid but without a hint of condescension or dumbing down. She tells the stories behind the sources with a wonderful light touch and a very strong sense of personality.

The 1841 and 1851 sesarch forms explained

And it educated me. Again and again, I found out things I didn’t know: precisely how the application system for searches in the 1841 and 1851 censuses worked; what exactly the RIC gazette Hue & Cry was and where you can get at it; that you can order a copy of anything in the PERSI index via the Allen County Library website; how the Catholic Church kept marriage registration at arms’ length until the 1880s; why US civil war pension applications are so useful. I could go on and on.

Boxouts to beat the band. Nice shamrock running header, too.

As if that wasn’t enough, the design is lovely, with plenty of eye-catching illustrations, side-bars and box-outs that break up the text and make it easy to dip in  and out.

Quibbles? Some of the stretching and bending needed to fit with the Family Tree format seems unnecessary, and the slant towards North American researchers is a bit too pronounced. Mentioning the Emerald Isle on the back cover is a sure way of deterring purchasers actually living on the emerald isle.

But all in all this is now my favourite book on Irish genealogy. The bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas rolled into one. It’ll come in very handy for the fifth edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.