Accentuate the negative

I recently overheard a bar room theology session end with a triumphant “But you can’t disprove that God exists!” Unfortunately, the logic works both ways: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it’s not much good as evidence of presence either.

Research in Irish records means constantly confronting such uncertainties. Irish genealogy’s motto should be “Absence of evidence”.

Evidence of Absinthe

Not long ago, I took on what looked like a very straightforward search for the baptism of a James Holohan, born to a Holohan/Molloy couple around 1850 in Kilkenny. The Catholic baptismal records of the county are good for the period and, in my experience, the Kilkenny transcripts at kilkenny.rootsireland.ie are very accurate. So there should have been no problem.

But there was no matching baptism 1840 to 1860. No baptism for other children of the couple 1830 to 1870. No matching baptism with mother’s name missing. No parents’ marriage. No baptism outside Kilkenny. An absolute blank on every single front.

This was more than annoying, it needed explanation. Even if one baptism was missing or mis-transcribed, siblings’ records or a parents’ marriage record should be providing enough bites of the cherry to identify at least a general area of origin.

So I listed all parishes in Kilkenny with both Holohan and Molloy households in Griffith’s in 1849 and then checked the status of the Catholic records for these parishes (all here, of course). For the parish with the single largest number of households, Ballyragget, all of the parish registers between 1807 and 1855 were missing.

Does this prove my James Holohan was from Ballyragget? Not at all. Without the records, it’s simply impossible to know. All I have is a possible explanation of why it’s impossible

So Irish researchers just have to cultivate what Keats called “Negative Capability”, the capacity “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

And don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

20 thoughts on “Accentuate the negative”

  1. I have the same problem with my great grandfather, Patrick Bradley, born
    March 1825, Carnaross, County Meath, Ireland. The Catholic Church records
    are missing for that time period. Therefore, I haven’t been able to find the names of his parents. He had an older brother named James. I am also unable to find James. Even though, according to census records, Patrick emigrated in 1852, and family lore says they came together, I cannot prove their immigration records. I remain hopeful.

  2. On a dark week in U.S. politics and governance, capping a dark few years, the Evidence of Absinthe is a laugh that goes quite a long way. Go raibh maith agat!

  3. This is a great reminder that due diligence may reveal that the most likely explanation is that the records were not preserved or perhaps never created in the first place.

  4. Is there any published listing of missing parish registers? I’ve come across a few such cases, but only after a lot of head scratching, and keep forgetting to note down which are missing.

    1. For the Republic of Ireland, the definitive source is the National Library Ireland which lists the coverage period, and gaps for Catholic Parish Registers which can then be viewed. The ‘missing’ registers would have a late starting date or if as per the example above you would see the gap shown in the listing. County libraries usually have the same listings. For example was working on finding records with a person unfamiliar with what / where is available. We were able to see on the John Gresham site the Catholic parish on a map and see a list of surrounding parishes. Going to the link for each we were able to see the periods covered.

    2. I agree!
      But I fear the list could be at least 2-3 times longer for each parrish since some have more than one gap going back in time.
      The thought of detailing each absent record to avoid repeating searches, is enough to inspire a nap. Then I have nightmares about a long stretch of butcher paper rolled out on the sidewalk to have enough room for printing missing records with date range, failed collateral efforts along with those missing date ranges etc etc.
      I’ll be watching for answers here.

  5. I’m sure you’ve considered peeking over the county borders at adjoining parishes? I know that sounds nuts because there are five bordering counties. But I located a missing couple that way. I had overlooked that there is sometimes movement across county borders, especially if the bride or groom is from another parish in another county. I have seen this happen with my U.S. ancestors who lived near state borders.

  6. I remember a problem where I was trying to find baptism records for my 2x grandmother born in the 1840s and her siblings. There were no results appearing. It turned out that all the children were transcribed as Crolly or Crotty. On the original register, the surname was written as Crolly. I think that I found them by looking up just the father’s first name and mother’s full name.

    1. The 2x great grandmother’s name and siblings were recorded as Crawley on their marriage records, birth records of their children and the 1851 census.

  7. The way in which parish records were compiled may explain some of these strange gaps. It appears that, until around 1850, Catholic baptisms and marriages were conducted in the home. The priest travelled around the parish (probably on horseback) conducting the ceremonies and making notes on each. When he returned to the parish church, these notes were transcribed into the main register. This is obvious in some parishes where a series of records are found written in one handwriting with consecutive dates, and then followed by a series in a different handwriting, sometimes covering the same period. Two priests transcribing their respective notes, it would appear. It was not until after the Synod of Thurles in 1850 that baptism in the church was made mandatory. I recently found a priest’s notebook in the Franciscan library in Killiney with 3 years (1807-1811) of records from Rathangan, Co. Wexford. These were never transferred to the main register for some reason, but are available now as a blog here http://www.ancestornetwork.ie/new-catholic-records-of-rathangan-wexford-1807-1811/. Were there other slips between the notebook and the main register ? The notebook, which is in very poor condition, also contains records of anointings, and of dues and other payments received.

  8. My immigrant family came from ‘Ballyregit’. My great-uncle and great-aunt took a trip there in the 1950s or 1960s and hoped to find family parish records. They were told the records for the relevant period (1820s-1830s) in Ballyragget itself had burned in a church fire. I believe the fire was at St. Patrick’s in Ballyragget, which was rebuilt around the Great Famine. I found a fitting marriage record for the parents in St. Mary’s, but no baptism records anywhere for any of the five children. Kindly pass the Absinthe 🙂

    1. Yep, that’s what I heard, a church fire or more so the combustion of the priest’s house apparently. This burnt Ballyragget church register is like a mini Public Records Office fire for my family history and for those of lots of others from the area. I am able to bridge it with other records like gravestones, tithes records etc but a much fuller detail of families from that time has been lost. By the way John, there are still Holohans in Ballyragget who might be able to help.

  9. Nice analysis. But, sometimes, there is no explanation. Back in the 1980’s, I visited a church in New Orleans, Louisiana and found records on my ancestors. I set aside my research for some 30 years, forgot I had those notes. So, 3-4 yeasts ago, I researched that same church and the clerk at the church told me no such records existed for my ancestors. Imagine my surprise, when I came across those long forgotten notes and saw my notes from a day when I saw this baptismal records with my own eyes.

    Or, one more, we know in my family that a grandmother lived in New Orleans in 1880. We have contemporary records affirming same. Yet, she do snot appear in the U.S. census for 1880. Determined to uncover this mystery, I browsed through pages and pages of census records, thinking I would find some half legible entry. To no avail. Yet, we know she was there and where she lived.

  10. Genealogy research is no walk in the park, and I think Irish family research may be the most difficult of all due to lack of records and destroyed records. I am researching my husband’s family at the moment and running into some difficulties, but I’ll keep on trying. Thanks for your tips.

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