The cousins! The cousins!

Between 1780 and 1845, the population of Ireland mushroomed from about three million to about eight and a half million. That much is well known and often cited as one of the reasons for the catastrophic devastation of the Great Famine of 1845-49. But such a vast increase must also have had a profound effect on family relationships.


Teenage marriage, cousins to dance with and only a potato crop to harvest. What could possibly go wrong?

Look at the numbers. The population tripled in size over less than three generations, a veritable explosion. And the growth wasn’t evenly spread, taking place disproportionately among the vast mass of Gaelic Catholic subsistence farmers in the West and the South. Someone born in those areas in the 1820s and 1830s was typically one of a very large family, ten or more, whose parents and grandparents would also typically have come from families the same size. So if your twenty aunts and uncles did their demographic duty, you could easily have two hundred first cousins, all almost probably living within walking distance.

And more distant cousins? Second cousins are all the descendants of a common set of great-grandparents. Taking the same average of ten per generation, you could easily have had more than four thousand of them, again almost all in the same geographic region.

Child mortality and (pretty much unavoidable) cousin intermarriage might reduce some of those numbers, but the point still stands. Immediately before the Famine, some areas of Ireland were populated by extraordinarily dense cousin networks.

Gaelic society had always been tribal, but this was tribalism on steroids. Everyone was literally closely related to everyone around them. No wonder Ancestry’s DNA service is so good at identifying genetic groupings in particular areas of Ireland – the period 1780-1830, the outer limit of its standard autosomal DNA test, is exactly the period when we very obligingly got together and married our cousins like rabbits.

The Grenhams hard at it in the 1830s

Cousin-density like this also left its mark on a more recent Ireland. Membership of the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, often appears to be inheritable, with great masses of relatives voting for (or knifing) each other .

And that great population bulge may be another reason why it’s so hard to get your ancestral line back beyond 1800. Four thousand Jams O’Donnell second cousins?




The Valuation Office: post-Griffith’s records

The 1852 Act that (retrospectively) provided the legal underpinning for Richard Griffith’s great survey also envisaged annual revisions. It was a live tax record, after all, and needed to reflect changes in occupier, size of holding, name of lessor  – anything that might affect the valuation and the tax payable. Some of Griffith’s local army of  valuators must have remained in situ, supplying notice of changes to the central Office in Ely Place, Dublin.

5 and 6 Ely Place, former home of the Valuation Office

The system in Dublin used a handwritten copy of the valuations, with amendments written over the original entry. Coloured pencils were employed to distinguish the year of the changes. (Unfortunately the microfilm copies made by the LDS Family History Library are in black and white.)

After a decade or so, the books would become increasingly difficult to read, so a fresh copy had to be made. The whole process then continued until that book in turn was cancelled and recopied.

Despite the original plans, full annual revisions were never a realistic prospect. The system eventually settled down to a natural rhythm, with a single revision (or “cancelled”) book covering fifteen or twenty years. For areas in the Republic, the revision process went on right up to the 1980s, when the local property tax was abolished, producing anything up to twelve separate books for a single area. In Northern Ireland the system changed in the 1930s and the most recent revisions are almost all for the 1920s.

Ballyminaunhill, Wexford, c. 1900

The usefulness of the records is obvious: they provide a continual time-lapse record of every piece of property listed by Griffith, unbroken over the following century-and-a-half. Circumstantial evidence of death, emigration, money problems, family disputes – the revision books can contain them all.

Most importantly, the massive shift in land ownership to small tenant farmers that took place around the start of the twentieth century, and the fierce land hunger that drove it, means that there is almost certainly a family relationship between those who own the land now and those recorded in the revision books then. In other words, the books can provide excellent evidence of living relatives.

Ballyminaunhill, final revision book. Things got complicated in the late twentieth century.

The books are available for areas in the Republic at the Valuation Office in the Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. The VO is currently scanning the full collection with a view to making it available online. For the moment, the scans are only available onsite in the public office.  Areas covered  are Cos Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Limerick, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon. Sligo and Tipperary.

The Revision Books for Northern Ireland are in PRONI. An excellent PRONI sub-site allows online research by placename on the full set, with links to high-quality scans of the originals. Even for people without Ulster ancestor, the sub-site gives a great sense of just how useful these wonderful records can be.