Bosthoons, Looderamauns and Brehenies

Anyone who researches nineteenth-century Irish families quickly becomes aware of what is unspoken behind many records. Despite the fact that the Irish language, Gaelic, was the majority tongue in many areas until well past the middle of the century, not one state or church record writes down a single word of Irish.

“Some Tipperary bosthoon endangering the lives of the citizens. Runaway horse.” Ulysses

Think about what that meant for the people being recorded: the language in which they lived their lives was utterly worthless to the bosthoons and looderamauns running official Ireland. No wonder so many made the stark choice to abandon Irish in order to survive.

The implications for research are unavoidable. Imagine that baptismal record from the 1830s as it must have seemed to the parents. Their names are being written down, often phonetically, sometimes (mis-)translated,  in a language they don’t understand and which they almost certainly couldn’t read even if they did understand it. You may care how your surname is spelt. Your ancestors certainly didn’t.

One result is that the slow evolution of names out of Irish and into English happens before your eyes. In West Cork Catholic baptismal registers, the many Fowlues (from Ó Foghlú, derived from foghlaí,  meaning ‘robber’) transmute decade by decade into the contemporary English ‘Foley’. In other cases, the changes are dizzyingly abrupt. In North Mayo, I’ve seen the first children of a family baptised as Mulderrig (Ó Maoildeirg,

Antonio Vivaldi. A red-haired priest

‘grandson of the red(-haired) priest’, with the younger ones all ‘Reddington’, a common attempt to shoehorn the colour red into a perfectly respectable but completely different surname from the north of England. The Leitrim surname Breheny (from Bhreithiúnach, meaning ‘lawyer’ or ‘judge’) starts off in the 1830s as Breheny, becomes ‘Abraham’ and ends up’ Judge’.

Another shadow language is also there. We didn’t just take on the English language. We took it on and banjaxed it. Hiberno-English is a wonderful stew of Gaelic and medieval English, flavoured with intense local accents. If you’re wondering why you can’t find your Deane ancestors, that’s because they’re in the records as ‘Dain’ (‘Cup of tay, anyone?’). Likewise with Geaney (‘Ganey’).

And all your Grenhams are Grinhams.

The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland

Joe Lee’s review

Professor Joe Lee recently gave an extraordinary review to the new Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland ( ed. Eugenio Biagini and Mary Daly, CUP, 2017). Glowing isn’t the word: it was positively radioactive.  So of course I jumped straight in.

And he was right, it is a remarkable piece of work. Its thirty-three essays are divided into three sections, ‘Geography, Occupations and Social Classes’, ‘People, Culture and Communities’ and ‘Emigration, Immigration and the Wider Irish World’. Clearly ‘social history’ is a very broad church, ignoring the boundaries of local history, human geography, anthropology, linguistics and many more apparently separate disciplines. That’s all to the good. The more perspectives, methods and opinions are applied to the Ould Sod, the clearer and more wonderfully complicated our ancestors will be.


The really novel feature of the work, not remarked on by Professor Lee, is the weight given to what used to be called ‘The Irish Abroad’. A full third of the volume deals with the histories of Irish communities in North America, Australasia and Britain, a remarkable and welcome change of focus, that finally puts emigration at the centre of the Irish experience. The stand-out essay in the book, for me, is part of that section, Kevin Kenny’s magisterial ‘Irish Emigrations in a Comparative Context’, a masterpiece of eagle’s-eye summation and cool authority that I can see myself rereading over and over again.

Another reason I was interested in the book is that one of the people incuded once told me casually that she’d like to wring the neck of every genealogist on the planet. (Her name is available only after a few pints). I don’t think she meant me personally, though I did feel a tad nervous. It was the bluntest example I’ve come across of academic anger at the Laity (that’s us) getting in the way of the Priesthood (that’s them). I just smiled and nodded and backed away.

In one sense, of course, she was right. Genealogy can never be a truly academic discipline – it just doesn’t have the requisite dispassion and disinterest. On the other hand, a Priesthood is pointless without its Laity.

The dead are no longer entitled to secrets

Say Hello to great-aunt Attila

A widespread assumption among people who haven’t done any family history, and a reason often advanced for not starting, is that there’s a dreadful skeleton somewhere in the family past that mustn’t be brought out into the open. I used to think this was just Irish Catholic guilt seeping out of our collective unconscious but it seems to be present in almost all cultures: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, ‘Of the dead, speak nothing but good’, was first coined more than two-and-a-half millennia ago.

In Ireland, that suspected skeleton almost always boils down to a suspicion of a birth out of wedlock somewhere a couple of generations back.

It’s very hard now for us to grasp just how shameful illegitimacy was, even a few decades ago, and shameful not just for the mother (fathers usually managed anonymity or just decamped), but for the child and even for later generations. There were sem-racist overtones, hints of tainted blood and multi-generational stains. Some of the outraged comments in the baptismal entries of children born outside marriage in nineteenth-century church registers make it clear just how grievous the offence was.


My favourite outraged clergyman

The possibility of descendants suing for the insult to their ancestry was one of the main reasons the Catholic Church was so little reluctant to have their records digitised as recently the 1980s. Now, though, there is no shame: one man I did some research for was very hurt to find out about his mother’s illegitimacy after her death. But the hurt was only because she had not trusted him enough to tell him while she was alive.

Austrailian crown jewels

Similar reversals of attitude have happened in other areas. Convict ancestry was once something Aussies kept quiet about. It’s now a badge of pride. Having a relative who entered a workhouse used to be a disgrace for the entire family, a feeling that probably accounts for the loss and deliberate neglect of most Irish workhouse admission registers. Nobody feels like that now.

Today, we have different taboos. All our empathy is for the destitute pauper, the poor convict, the single mother and child. Skeletons are Halloween jokes.  And the dead are no longer entitled to secrets.