2.9 cheers for IrishGenealogy.ie

As anyone with an interest in Irish genealogy will know, IrishGenealogy.ie is the greatest thing since sliced bread. After decades playing Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey with the printed General Register Office indexes of births, marriages and deaths, the online release of the entire collection of historic GRO records was (and is) an extraordinary liberation.

Are you the right Patrick Murphy?

But like every other wonderful thing in the universe, it’s not perfect. Its quirks are legion and not always obvious. So let me list the most bothersome.

Many stem from a 1980s digitisation project that set out to give GRO staff easier access to records needed for public administration identity proof. It only went back to 1899, because its focus was on the living. If you use the post-1899 indexes in the GRO search room, you’re handling dot-matrix printouts from that project. These post-1899 birth indexes included mothers’ maiden names, very handy for reconstructing families. When IrishGenealogy began to make the indexes available online, they very sensibly used these ones. Hurray!

Except … to search using the mother’s name, you have to use the site’s “More search options” feature. Which gives no indication that if you enter a mother’s name for a birth before 1899, you’ll find no births at all.  See Kelly with mother’s name Walsh 1864-1880. Be warned.

Another problem from these post-1899 indexes is their treatment of prefixes, especially those with apostrophes, a recurring nuisance for early coding languages. So O’Brien became “OBrien”, O’Reilly became “OReilly” and so on.  IrishGenealogy tried to make allowances by having them as variants of each other, but that hasn’t quite worked. Total BMDs for O’Brien 1900-1921 are 122,200 but there are  124,565 for OBrien and for Brien 123,148. Small differences, but not if they include your ancestors. The same problem occurs with the prefixes Mc, Mac and M’. So be very wary searching for any O or Mc surnames (or any surnames that have O or Mc variants) after 1899.

A related oddity is the way the site uses surname variants in the “More search options” area. Search for a Grenham/Duignan marriage here and you’ll find precisely one match. But try Duignan/Grenham and you’ll get two. The reason is that the site searches surname variants for the first surname entered, but not for the second.  The moral: Always search for marriages with surnames both ways. Something similar happens with the mother’s surname search after 1899. Only variants of the birth name are searched, with no variants of the mother’s.

But most peculiar of all is not a bug but a feature. By default, the site searches all name fields for every surname you enter. I think this is intended to be helpful, by spreading the search as wide as possible. But the effect can be very strange. Search for a man with surname Loughlin marrying a Gertrude John and you get 1526 results, including every Loughlin (and variant) marrying a man with first name John, every John Loughlin (and variant), every Gertrude McLoughlin and, wonderfully, in an early example of New Age sologamy, John McLaughlin marrying John McLaughlin in Belfast in 1913.

This is really only a problem with marriages and with births after 1899, where there multiple surnames in each index record. But it can be bewildering. And there’s no way to turn it off.

For a hands-on video demonstrating all this, see https://youtu.be/1mAzghwXI1I



An antidote to Paddywhackery

Some years ago, I was approached by a family in the US to do research on ancestors of theirs who had left Ireland in the 1850s. In the course of finding out what they already knew, it emerged that this research was only the latest stage in a multi-generational quest that started immediately after emigration.

Like so many, the emigrant ancestors were fleeing the aftermath of the Famine and were forced into the cheapest and most desperate route. They traveled to Liverpool as deck passengers on a cattle transport from Cove, with all the filth and misery that entailed, in order to get access to a cheap ticket to New York. In Liverpool, they spent weeks, husband, wife and four children, living in the unimaginably overcrowded squalor of the city’s Irish ghetto as they waited for their passage. Then, when they were finally on the quayside and about to embark, they discovered that the youngest child,  four-year-old John, was missing. Despite frantic searches he could not be found, and they were faced with the choice of staying, with the loss of their passage-money and the knowledge of what awaited them in Liverpool, or leaving without the child. They left.

Embarking from Liverpool

Immediately after arriving in the US, the mother began to write to Liverpool police stations, orphanages, charities, anyone who could conceivably have come into contact with her child, and continued to write for the rest of her life. She never discovered what happened to him. Her other children had to promise to continue the search after her death, and then her children’s children and then their children in turn. Over a century and a half, the agony of that loss became embedded in the family’s story of itself, generation after generation, each one taking up and pursuing the lost child again.

Hundreds of thousands of stories like this are what lie behind Irish-America. When we’re tempted to jeer at the Paddywhackery of St. Patrick’s Day, we should think of them.

A fuller account of the family and their journey is at https://youtu.be/KQu9DrUsl4M

Why you can’t mass produce genealogical research

The main reason, of course, is that our ancestors are too cursedly various to be mass-researched.  So we’re doomed/blessed by our raw material to remain a cottage industry.

But there are other reasons as well. Here’s a cautionary tale. A few years back, an Irish professional genealogical research outfit (Who Shall Remain Nameless) wanted to expand their market by carrying out research on their customer base. This was before the plague of online customer-satisfaction surveys.

To gauge the level of satisfaction with their services, and come up with ways of improving them, they commissioned an analysis of recent US customers. The survey was to be carried out by a third party, without the customers knowing who had commissioned it. The first stage of the process was the simple question “Have you ever paid for someone to research your ancestors?” Without exception, every single respondent, all of whom, remember, were recent clients of this research group, answered “No.” The survey had to be abandoned.

Both the survey company and the Irish researchers were perplexed. But this was not large-scale forgetfulness or dishonesty. The reason for the outcome was, I think, a basic mismatch between the perceptions of the professional researchers and their customers. In the researchers’ minds, they were providing a professional service researching people’s ancestors, analogous to an accountant doing someone’s accounts or an architect designing someone’s home. The customers, on the other hand, thought of themselves as researching their own ancestors, with help purchased only whenever necessary. Nobody was doing it for them.

In the context of Irish officialdom’s recently-acquired enthusiasm for genealogy (with one eye on the immense economic potential for the country of those with Irish ancestry), it is important to keep this in mind. God knows the growing official support for Irish genealogy in all its guises is more than welcome. But people research their own ancestors. All professionals (or tourism bodies, or repositories, or research websites) can do is help them.

Or at least not get in the way.