Sir William Betham

Sir William Betham

One of my record-keeper heroes has long been Sir William Betham (1779 -1853). He arrived in Dublin for a brief visit in 1805 and by chance found himself wading through the chaotic collections of records held in Dublin Castle. As a result, he went about acquiring authority over the Bermingham Tower records, by getting an appointment as Deputy Ulster King of Arms.

Ulster’s Office was the heraldic authority for the island of Ireland, responsible for providing confirmation of their social status to the Anglo-Irish elite: the right to bear arms was (and is) purely hereditary and thus an indicator of supposed good breeding. So as well as putting order on the Office’s existing records, Betham set about creating a new reference collection covering the propertied Anglo-Irish, the Office’s clientele.

By far the richest source of family information on the propertied Anglo-Irish was the collection of prerogative wills held at the Prerogative Office in Henrietta Street. A prerogative will was one with property worth more than £5 in two probate districts ( Church of Ireland dioceses), meaning they tended to cover the top end of the social scale, the Office’s main market.

In 1807, Betham began to transcribe all the family information recorded in these wills, coming from 1536 right up to 1800. The project took him a full twenty-one years to complete, by which time he had become Ulster King of Arms himself. With the information from the wills, he then created a series of volumes  of sketch pedigrees that provided ready-made pigeon-holes for any subsequent information that turned up. These volumes, more than forty in all, are in the Genealogical Office, the successor to Ulster’s Office, now part of the National Library of Ireland and are being digitised superbly through NLI’s online catalogue.

The Stearne sketch tree, Vol. 26, St.-Sw
Vol 62 S 1721-1747. The Stearne family will used to create part of the sketch

The original notebooks Betham used for the transcriptions were purchased by the National Archives of Ireland in the 1930s and microfilmed by the LDS in 1969. And as part of their program of enhancing online access, those microfilms are now freely available online to signed-in users.

Vicars, showing the Ste[a]erne entries
One of Betham’s successors, Sir Arthur Vicars, published an index to Irish prerogative wills in 1897, which is now also freely available online. It matches Betham’s work perfectly. Any pre-1800 entry recorded by Vicars will have a full transcript of all its family information in the notebooks, and a possible expanded version in the GO manuscript volumes.

The transcripts are a magnificent source for eighteenth-century Irish ancestors, not only because we blew up all the originals in 1922, but also because the social range covered by the wills is much broader than Betham’s original intentions implied. Shoemakers, ironmongers and small tradesmen of every description are also included.  If  you lived near a diocesan boundary, it was very easy to have £5-worth of property in more than one diocese.

On the back of the LDS release, FindMyPast have come up with a transcript which I have to say I find a little puzzling. It gives no indication of where the originals are, that the images come from LDS microfilm or that the notebooks are part of a wider set of records. And then lumps the will transcripts in with Marriage Licence Bonds extracts.

But (with a bit of ingenuity) it is possible to use the index to zero in on particular entries in the notebooks, cutting out some of the to-and-froing  necessary on FamilySearch. Small mercies.


Holding on to the Dead

One of my party pieces remains a performance of this, complete with lederhosen-slapping. Please click.

IN the 1980s I lived in northern Italy, up near the border between the provinces of Trentino and Alto Adige, the latter known to most of its German-speaking inhabitants as Sud Tirol. There was a point on the road about 10k from my house north of which gnocchi turned into dumplings, lederhosen hung on the washing lines and speaking Italian in a shop or café would get you no service, just a glare.

I was teaching English in a language school where the majority of other teachers were from the UK and (like many Irish in Europe in those pre-Riverdance days) we Irish regularly had to fend off the irritating presumption than we were British. Gradually, though, we were forced to look at just how much Irish and British culture overlapped:

Tiroler Speckknoedel!

language, food, sense of humour, currency, television, shops … Compared with the chasm between German and Italian civilizations just 10k north, the Irish and the Brits were practically joined at the hip.

But there was one area that was then and still is utterly distinctive, and that’s the attitude to death and the rituals of death. Very little survives in Ireland of the pagan Celtic culture that created Samhain, the festival of the dead that underlies Halloween  – here it’s now an just Anglo-American holiday, mixing cartoon ghouls with Guy Fawkes fireworks. But the dead are still a much more important part of everyday life in Ireland.

First, there is an absolute obligation to be physically present at the moment of death of a family member, almost as if the death has to be caught and preserved. Then, funeral attendance trumps every other social duty, even for remote acquaintances. With funerals held extraordinarily close to death, within three or four days at most, which means dropping everything at very short notice. And a good time tends to be had by all – my uncle Paddy used to prefer funerals to weddings, because you didn’t need an invitation to a funeral.

And then there’s the removal, the lying-in, the wake (now more usual after the funeral), the death notice, the memorial announcements, the mass cards, the month’s mind … While many other Irish customs and traditions have withered, those surrounding death are as tenacious as ever.

Just a snippet from the Irish Independent deaths section Jan 4 1979

Which is good news for those of us who track the Irish dead (aka genealogists). Because getting to funerals is so important, the Irish newspaper death notice is absolutely essential and at its most florid can give a picture of entire extended families and social circles as well as home addresses and burial places. From about 1940, it’s a very rare funeral that didn’t have a death notice, and they’re now all searchable online at the subscription site (25% off with the discount code JGDISC25). They can provide superb evidence of living relatives. And for the past 10 years, provides a free online version. There is, needless to say, no such thing as or

One other feature of Irish funeral rituals is that we’re very proud of them. I once boasted about them to an American psychotherapist and genealogist and she responded “Yes, I’ve noticed that the Irish have problems letting go.”

Food for thought. Perhaps eventually ceasing to grieve for the dead is not a betrayal, just an acceptance that they’re gone.

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.