The Catholic registers are rotting

Roman Catholic parish registers constitute by far the most important set of records for nineteenth-century Irish local and family history. And, in the furore over access, one vital point is constantly missed. The original records are still sitting in the sacristies and presbyteries around the country where they have been for the past two centuries. No organization on the island is concerned with preserving them: there is no archival programme to ensure their survival.

Why should this matter? Aren’t they’re all copied online anyway? Or in the National Library microfilm collection?

Here are some facts about the collections of copies. The National Library microfilm project, heroic as it was, has serious flaws, apart from the cut-off of 1880. A few parishes were missed entirely – Rathlin Island, for example – and some films are so out of focus as to be illegible, the main reason for the flaws in the transcripts done by Ancestry and FindMyPast.

Mitchelstown baptisms on microfilm. Not exactly a substitute for the original.

Comparing the years covered by the heritage centres’ transcriptions with the years held on Library microfilm also reveals that dozens of parishes have records earlier than those filmed by the Library: Aghada in east Cork, for example, has marriage records going back 40 years before the NLI microfilm. Roscommon and Sligo towns both have full early baptismal registers going back decades before the NLI copies.  And for Carrick-on-Shannon, NLI appears to have missed nearly all the records of one of the two chapels in the parish, Kiltoghart-Murhane, meaning only half the Catholic records are on microfilm.

The mismatch also works in the other direction. More than 100 parishes (many in Wexford) have earlier years on microfilm than in heritage centre transcript. Adamstown, Aghaderg, Ahoghill, Ballinascreen, Cappoquin … all have microfilm records earlier than the rootsireland transcripts. Were these earlier registers somehow lost or destroyed between the NLI microfilm in the 1970s and the transcription project in the 1990s? How many other registers have also since disappeared?

No copy can take the place of the original. The registers themselves are the property of the Catholic Church, and also the Church’s responsibility. If the Hierarchy wants to keep them private, by all means let them be locked away in acid-free boxes in diocesan archives for a century or more. But something has to be done to stop them from rotting away.

It’s a nae-brainer

The country in whose records we do most of our research was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It broke apart a century ago, and the two leftover bits may have cultivated wilful blindness towards each other since, but that can’t change the fact that the Irish Sea was effectively an inland lake, providing cheap and easy transport between the two islands. It was simpler and more comfortable to travel from Dublin to Liverpool than to Kilkenny.

What brings this to mind is a recent training trip to Glasgow, organised by my professional association, Accredited Genealogists Ireland.

Rab C. Click for more detail

The city itself is wonderful. I’m happy to report that the traditional Glasgow salutation is not, as I had believed, the headbutt (pace Rab C. Nesbitt). But the accent should be a Unesco World Heritage Artifact, with its swallowed consonants and vowels stretched over three syllables, all packed into in a singing lilt that hits stresses in exactly the wrong places. The quintessentially English “Keep calm and carry on” translates into Glaswegian as “Keep calm and ge’ oan wae i'”.

Just one page from the Poor Law application of Irishman Joseph Gore in 1915, supplying parents’ names, place of birth, place of marriage, siblings’ names, in-laws’ names …

The highlight of the visit was the Mitchell Library and in particular a talk (in unsubtitled Glaswegian) on Glasgow Poor Law records by Senior Archivist, Irene O’Brien. The first and most important point she made was that, despite the name, there was almost no similarity with the Irish or English Poor Law. What Glasgow had from 1845 was more akin to an all-encompassing welfare state than the begrudged misery doled out in Irish workhouses. A vast bureaucracy collected huge quantities of information on the families of applicants, who could be widows, unemployed, sick, orphans … And they’re all in the Mitchell.

For most of the nineteenth century, the gravitational pull of the city’s gigantic industrial employers drew in thousands upon thousands of migrants, from Russia, India, Poland, Italy and above all rural Ireland, rural Ulster especially. So these Poor Law Applications hold information on Irish families from well before the start of Irish civil registration or church registers. And not just names, also locations, in-laws, work histories, even little character assassinations: “an awful boozer”.

Accessing them in the Mitchell is simplicity itself. The entire fifth floor is given over to archives and family history, a database name-index pinpoints the original files, the record delivery is fast and efficient.

But … the only point of access is physically in Glasgow. There is no way to check online before visiting whether the files reference a particular family (though any family with connections in the city will almost certainly appear, even if only through a tangential branch).

I think this might have to do with the fact for Glaswegians, the city is the centre of the universe, a universe that looks very like Glasgow. It’s understandable, but a mistake. Having even the names index online would draw in many more researchers.

It’s a nae-brainer.