My only venture into film or TV was the RTÉ series “The Genealogy Roadshow”, which aired seven or eight years ago. For a while, some of the neighbours’ kids who had seen it looked at me as if I had two heads. They were mistaken. In fact, the effect of the show was only to give me a head twice the normal size. The attention monster got me.
No battle-plan survives the first encounter with the enemy. All administrative systems immediately begin to run into exceptions and peculiarities
So it was with the Irish civil registration system. When it came into full existence on April Fool’s Day 1864, the law dictated that births were to be registered within twenty-one days, on pain of a nasty fine. Which meant a prime aim of those registering a birth quickly became the avoidance of the fine. Compare nineteenth-century baptismal registers with the state records and you’ll find many miraculous Irish children baptised weeks or even months before they were officially born.
But the biggest hole in the birth registration system was a feature, not a bug. It was never compulsory to register a child’s forename. This may have allowed quick registration before christening for parents, but the maternity (‘lying-in’) hospitals seized on it. It became a loophole that would allow them to mass-register entire wards full of newborns with no forename. The practice seems to have lasted until around 1910, almost fifty solid years. These are most of the children who appear in the birth indexes with first name “Unknown”.
How many are there? Search the IrishGenealogy birth indexes and you’ll find no fewer that 193,493 births 1864-1919 with no forename. There are significant numbers in every registration district, but the two largest urban areas stand out, with 21,000 no-namers in Belfast and more than 76,000 in Dublin. All the Dublin hospitals used the loophole, but by far the biggest culprit was the “Britain St Lying-In Hospital”, better known as “the Rotunda”, today the busiest maternity hospital in the world. It was busy back then as well, servicing the teeming slums of Dublin’s north city.
Hospitals elsewhere in Ireland also used the loophole, as did midwives, block-registering no-name births at which they were present. And in Protestant-majority areas in the North-East – Armagh, Cookstown, Coleraine, Ballymena, Irvinestown, Dungannon – many more parents than elsewhere registered their children without a first name, perhaps because of some Dissenters’ objections to infant baptism.
The upshot is that there are many many invisible gaps in the birth records, especially in Dublin, but also elsewhere. Search with even more caution and scepticism.
Grenham’s Third Law of Irish Genealogy states “Your ancestor’s birth was registered without a forename.” Don’t even ask about Laws One and Two.