Ridiculously bitty little scraps of half-records

The burning of the Public Record Office in Dublin in 1922 is the sole reason why we spend so much research time on ridiculously bitty little scraps of half-records. We’re like archaeologists trying to reconstruct branches of humanity from a piece of fossilised jawbone. Except that we also want to know who the jawbone’s parents were, who it married  and the names of all its children.

The PRO before 1922
The PRO in June 1922

The 1841 and 1851 census search forms are some of the most peculiar of these fragments. They came into existence because of the introduction of the Old Age Pension in early 1909. To qualify for the princely sum of five shillings a weeks, applicants had to be “of good character”, have an annual income of less than £31-10s and demonstrate that they were seventy or more.

But the state only began to register Irish births in 1864, more than twenty years after the relevant period. So a system evolved to get the PRO to use the 1841 and 1851 census returns for proof of age. Based on an address and parents’ names supplied by the applicant, either directly to the PRO or through an official of the Pensions Board based locally (Customs and Excise men in an unusually popular role), the Office would search the returns and confirm the necessary age.

After we went and blew up all the originals (thank you, Ernie O’Malley), only the PRO search forms survive for most areas. They are useful primarily for the information submitted by the applicants, but sometimes the search results include scribbled summaries of the others recorded on the form. In the sample 1841 image, John Murphy of Castlegar, Ballynakill Co. Galway has his parents confirmed as Thomas and Mary, but the “particulars found” include the fact that they married in 1833 and others in the household were Elenor (5), Patt (4) and Biddy (2). In the 1851 search, however, only “John aged 20” is noted.

John Murphy 1841
John Murphy 1851








At their best, then,  they can come close to the full original. But how many exist? There are 32,472 forms in total for the Republic and 3,568 for areas now in Northern Ireland. This represents less than 1% of the households covered in 1841 and 1851 As with so much of Irish genealogy, luck is an essential ingredient.

The forms for the Republic are online at The National Archives of Ireland. The search interfaces at ancestry.com and FindMyPast.ie are better, with FindMyPast especially useful in the way it allows the easy retrieval of all forms from a particular parish. FindMyPast is also completely free. The FamilySearch version won’t let you look at the images outside a Family History Centre, for reasons only the LDS know.

The Northern Irish forms are on microfilm in PRONI and published by Josephine Masterson as Ireland 1841/1851 Census Abstracts (Northern Ireland) (Baltimore, MD: GPC., Inc., 1999), transcribed on ancestry.com. 


The first batch of 1901 and 1911 census corrections, all 15,962 of them, went live on census.nationalarchives.ie on Thursday last and great sighs of relief were breathed all round. Well, by me anyway.

For the past two months I’ve been working my way back through the user-submitted emails, checking them against the images and separating them into saints and sinners. At the same time, along with NAI’s IT staff and developers, I was working on getting the validated corrections live, a more complex operation than you’d imagine. Because the census data is static, it makes perfect sense to have the live version as a set of indexes rather than a transactional database – no moving parts, so much more stable, as well as faster to search.

Moving parts

That means, in order to add or change anything, the indexes have to be rebuilt from scratch. Not impossibly complex to do (he said, not having done it himself) but not something you’d want to be doing every day either. In the tables of personal information alone, there are approximately 10 million records, each with twenty items of data. Turning all of those into a static index produces almost 200 million index entries.  So carefully does it.

Those 15,962 represent all emails received between October 25 2016 and September 11 this year, the date I started. If you submitted between those dates, your correction should now be live, provided I agreed that it was accurate. If you don’t see it, have another go and make me look again. And of course I’ve made my own mistakes , slated for correction the next time round. The aim now is to have a regular monthly batch update.

In the course of working eyeball-to-eyeball with the emails it’s hard not feel I’m getting to know the submitters. Some people seem to be swept away by the urge to correct. Having found a mistake in their own family, they just can’t stop: suddenly it’s four in the morning and they’ve sent off a hundred emails. Others, by the look of their email addresses, are spending most of their work day actually correcting the census. Tut tut. And I feel for the poor soul who discovered that his ancestors had recorded their religion as Baptist and retrospectively converted them to Presbyterianism.

East Galway. Where they send the same email more than once

One enterprising crowd in east Galway seem to have got together with the aim of completely correcting every single entry for the area. Good for them. Except that part of their agreed procedure appears to have been to send each correction at least three times. Just to be sure. Thereby ensuring it takes at least three times as long for the corrections to be validated. Grrr.

Another group I can’t help empathising with are the transcribers. What a strange and wonderful place early twentieth-century Ireland must have seemed to them, a land where people had jobs as coco drivers, boot owners, professors of surging and pork rangers, where children could be sixty years older than their parents and gender-roles were so fluid you would commonly find mothers-in-law who were male labourers aged 30. It feels a shame to be erasing that parallel Ireland.

Eoin MacNeill. Garlic would have improved his disposition.

Wouldn’t we all live in a much more interesting place if Eoin MacNeill really had been the secretary of The Garlic League?

Does genealogy make you a better person?

In the middle of a recent panel discussion,  the words “genealogy makes you a better person” emerged from my mouth. My fellow-panellists, and a fair number of the audience, looked at me as if I had just announced that the moon was made of cheddar, politely ignored the remark and moved on to saner topics.

He got the halo by finding his granny. Click for more detail.

Nobody was more surprised by the remark than myself. It has depressing echoes of the hoary adolescent debate about the utility of art. Does reading and appreciating a great poem have any moral effect? A long time ago, after half a decade spent in the company of third-level teachers of literature, I came to the conclusion that the answer was No. If anything, spending your professional life immersed in great writing appears to have the opposite effect. Pettiness and spite seem to be pettier and more spiteful among specialists in literature than anywhere else.


A common effect of genealogical research

And, on the surface, genealogy is hardly much better. Cranks and shysters make up a disproportionate number of us. Our committee wars are acrimonious and interminable, following the axiom “the smaller the teacup, the bigger the storm”. The goal of our research is not disinterested truth but more information about ourselves and our families.

And yet the very process of family history research, its sheer amateurishness, does have a strong positive effect, at least on some people. It teaches that we are all mongrels, providing a powerful antidote to snobbery and racism. It shows that history is not a simple competition between good guys and bad guys and, by extension, that neither is the present. It provides a powerful emotional antidote to social atomisation.

Maybe some nuance is needed: the study of ancestors won’t make bad people good.  But it can make decent people more decent.