FindMyPast smuggles out birth and marriage records

If you do any research on Irish records you soon become aware of the great mosaic of online transcripts of what purport to be the same records. The National Library microfilms of Cork and Ross Catholic registers, for example, are transcribed on, and But IrishGenealogy didn’t transcribe the records of St Mary’s (North Cathedral) in Cork city, because they were doing their level best not to tread on the toes of any existing transcript-holders and the church itself has a transcript. Ancestry and FindMyPast need not be so bleeding-heart sensitive: the only online transcript of this huge collection of Cork city records is with them.

IrishGenealogy treads on the toe of Abdul Abulbul Amir

Similar part-overlapping record collections are also common in the state records of births, marriages and deaths. FamilySearch has a copy of the full all-island indexes up to 1922 and the Republic up to 1958, completely different, naturally, to the freshly-created indexes (to 1916, 1941 and 1966) on IrishGenealogy. FamilySearch also has a part-transcript of the first seventeen years of birth registrations, up to 1881, making it possible to search on the mother’s maiden name. Which you can only do on IrishGenealogy from 1900. But the register images on IrishGenealogy make it possible to trawl by hand through all your search results, only not before 1870 for marriages or 1878 for deaths. Clear?

And then, of course, has full transcripts of some of the local registrars’ records, different to the central copies used for IrishGenealogy and FamilySearch. And the Northern Ireland GRO has complete searchable transcripts of the local registrars’ records for areas now in Northern Ireland (to 1917, 1942 and 1967). Which overlap both some of rootsireland’s and some of IrishGenealogy’s transcripts. Whew.

Now FindMyPast has added to the merriment with a massive set of transcripts of IrishGenealogy’s register images for births and marriages.

They’ve transcribed the entire record. Any chance of a townland search?

There are flaws – Claire Santry recently pointed them out – but I still think they are seriously to be welcomed. Apart from adding another transcription (with mistakes and omissions, to be sure, but different ones), they open up the birth records before 1900, transcribe the entire record, not just personal names, and make it possible to confine a search to a local registrar’s district, a much more precise area than the Superintendent Registrars Districts available on IrishGenealogy itself. A boon if your Muphys married Murphys.

Most importantly, the service is free to anyone who registers with them.  This is one aspect of FindMyPast that isn’t nearly well enough known. Lots of their records are free, in particular the parish register transcripts and records digitised in collaboration with the National Archives of Ireland. As far as I can tell, nowhere on the site lists what’s free and what’s subscription-only.

I suspect the FMP researchers are trying to sneak free stuff out past the FMP lawyers and moneymen. So thank you, Brian and Fiona.

Irish surnames as historical evidence

Over the years, Irish surnames have received a good deal of careful attention, from Fr Patrick Woulfe’s Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (1923) to Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) and most recently Seán de Bhulbh’s Sloinnte na hÉireann: Irish Surnames (1997). Ulster names have been particularly well served. Robert Bell’s Book of Ulster Surnames (1997) and Brian Mitchell’s The Surnames of North West Ireland (2010) both dig deeper than an all-Ireland approach allows.

All of them work to a similar format: summarise received wisdom about surname etymology and meaning; give rough geographic distributions; list well-known bearers of the name. They are essentially dictionaries focused on elucidating the surnames themselves, which makes them mainly of interest to bearers of the surnames and to local historians.

I’ve produced plenty of similar potted histories myself, and found it very hard. So hard that at one point in the early 90s I ended up inventing a ‘well-known’ bearer of a surname, complete with fictional back-story. And then forgot which surname it was. So somewhere, I think on this site, is a non-existent famous person. I believe (though I can’t be sure) that I was channelling The Scarlet Pimpernel.

More seriously,  the study of surnames, in particular surname distributions, can provide decent historical evidence, especially now that technology allows historic data to be mined and examined in novel ways. One example is  mapping surname variety across Ireland in the mid-19th-century Griffith’s Valuation census substitute. Simply take the number of distinct surnames listed as householders in each county and divide by the area of the county. The result is an average number of different surnames per area.

Distinct surnames per square kilometre

Unsurprisingly, Dublin has the densest concentration of names, but the area with by far the next greatest variety is the ancient tuatha of Oriel, comprising Armagh, Louth and Monaghan. The western seaboard counties (with the exception of Sligo) have surname densities far below average, even though they were the most highly populated areas. The northeastern counties, with their mix of Scots-Irish and Gaelic-Irish, have surname variety well above average. The clear conclusion is that surname variety or density is a respectable proxy for cultural diversity. Or cultural purity.

Plenty of onomastics like this can be found at the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland,

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 Carlow,  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.