By the late 1980s, the Irish Genealogical Project was just getting into full swing. It was funded by piggy-backing on local voluntary groups, state retraining schemes, Bórd Fáilte, the cross-border Ireland Fund and a bit of whatever you’re having yourself. The aim was to transcribe and computerise all the major genealogical record sources and then use them to boost tourism in some unspecified way. Behind it stood the then Taoiseach, the thankfully unique Charles J. Haughey. The vehicle was to be the network of local heritage centres that became the Irish Family History Foundation, the organisation behind the present Rootsireland.
The IGP behaved initially as if professional genealogy did not exist, which, unsurprisingly, got right up the noses of professional genealogists. Surprisingly, however, we proved adept at political lobbying. As a result, in 1990 we were offered an official role in the Project. As part of this, out of the three project managers to be employed one would come from our ranks. In addition there would be state funding for research projects to be proposed by individual genealogists. My colleagues in APGI very generously (I think) put me up for the job.
It was a weird position to be in. When I started I had no office, no functions, no job description and was seen by many in the IFHF as a fifth columnist, one of the enemy. Eventually, I acquired a desk in a corner of Fergus Gillespie’s office in the Genealogical Office and a job doling out funding to my genealogist colleagues. The money, believe it or not, came from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Fund, originally intended to house Irish ex-servicemen after World War 1. Yes, yes, I know I was complicit in oiling the squeaky wheel. Some good did come of it, though. Harry McDowell’s excellent Irregular Marriages in Dublin before 1837 (Dundalk, 2015) is just one of the tangible offspring.
A lot of the day-to-day work of a professional genealogist then consisted of repeated consultation of the same reference works in the same order – find a townland, identify the civil parish, work out the Catholic parish, check the diocese, check the dates, order the microfilm. My first meeting with a database, Microsoft Works 2, took place in Fergus’ office on an IGP computer. It was a light-bulb moment. Everything could be put together just once and would then be permanently available at the click of a button.
Putting everything together just once was the tallest of tall orders, but this was a possible escape from the IGP. So I began to tunnel out. All my spare time went into stitching together the Townlands Index with the National Library parish register listings and gravestone listings and census substitutes and estate records …
In 1995, bleary-eyed and bone-weary of the IGP’s interminable committee meetings, I quit. The plan was to sell a fully-fledged stand-alone expert system, “Grenham’s Irish Recordfinder”, capable of taking whatever a user knew about an Irish ancestor and producing a formatted report detailing all the relevant sources, with advice, reference numbers, and locations. It was based on Microsoft Access 2 runtime and came on no fewer than 21 floppy disks.
I’m no salesman. Happily, Paddy Waldron introduced me to the recently-started Irish Times website. They bought 50% of the online rights in December 1995 and my children could eat again.
It took until 1998 for the online version to go live, but from then until 2016 the site provided the basis of my livelihood. Its development also gave me the opportunity to fill in some of the vast gaps in my programming and database knowledge, solving knotty problems with the time-honoured practice of repeatedly banging my head off the monitor.
When the Times ended our collaboration, they very generously let me have the online rights back. I did fourteen years programming in six frantic months to bring you the current incarnation of the site.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I got into this mess.