Between 1780 and 1845, the population of Ireland mushroomed from about three million to about eight and a half million. That much is well known and often cited as one of the reasons for the catastrophic devastation of the Great Famine of 1845-49. But such a vast increase must also have had a profound effect on family relationships.
Look at the numbers. The population tripled in size over less than three generations, a veritable explosion. And the growth wasn’t evenly spread, taking place disproportionately among the vast mass of Gaelic Catholic subsistence farmers in the West and the South. Someone born in those areas in the 1820s and 1830s was typically one of a very large family, ten or more, whose parents and grandparents would also typically have come from families the same size. So if your twenty aunts and uncles did their demographic duty, you could easily have two hundred first cousins, all almost probably living within walking distance.
And more distant cousins? Second cousins are all the descendants of a common set of great-grandparents. Taking the same average of ten per generation, you could easily have had more than four thousand of them, again almost all in the same geographic region.
Child mortality and (pretty much unavoidable) cousin intermarriage might reduce some of those numbers, but the point still stands. Immediately before the Famine, some areas of Ireland were populated by extraordinarily dense cousin networks.
Gaelic society had always been tribal, but this was tribalism on steroids. Everyone was literally closely related to everyone around them. No wonder Ancestry’s DNA service is so good at identifying genetic groupings in particular areas of Ireland – the period 1780-1830, the outer limit of its standard autosomal DNA test, is exactly the period when we very obligingly got together and married our cousins like rabbits.
Cousin-density like this also left its mark on a more recent Ireland. Membership of the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, often appears to be inheritable, with great masses of relatives voting for (or knifing) each other .
And that great population bulge may be another reason why it’s so hard to get your ancestral line back beyond 1800. Four thousand Jams O’Donnell second cousins?
The 1852 Act that (retrospectively) provided the legal underpinning for Richard Griffith’s great survey also envisaged annual revisions. It was a live tax record, after all, and needed to reflect changes in occupier, size of holding, name of lessor – anything that might affect the valuation and the tax payable. Some of Griffith’s local army of valuators must have remained in situ, supplying notice of changes to the central Office in Ely Place, Dublin.
The system in Dublin used a handwritten copy of the valuations, with amendments written over the original entry. Coloured pencils were employed to distinguish the year of the changes. (Unfortunately the microfilm copies made by the LDS Family History Library are in black and white.)
After a decade or so, the books would become increasingly difficult to read, so a fresh copy had to be made. The whole process then continued until that book in turn was cancelled and recopied.
Despite the original plans, full annual revisions were never a realistic prospect. The system eventually settled down to a natural rhythm, with a single revision (or “cancelled”) book covering fifteen or twenty years. For areas in the Republic, the revision process went on right up to the 1980s, when the local property tax was abolished, producing anything up to twelve separate books for a single area. In Northern Ireland the system changed in the 1930s and the most recent revisions are almost all for the 1920s.
The usefulness of the records is obvious: they provide a continual time-lapse record of every piece of property listed by Griffith, unbroken over the following century-and-a-half. Circumstantial evidence of death, emigration, money problems, family disputes – the revision books can contain them all.
Most importantly, the massive shift in land ownership to small tenant farmers that took place around the start of the twentieth century, and the fierce land hunger that drove it, means that there is almost certainly a family relationship between those who own the land now and those recorded in the revision books then. In other words, the books can provide excellent evidence of living relatives.
The books are available for areas in the Republic at the Valuation Office in the Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin. The VO is currently scanning the full collection with a view to making it available online. For the moment, the scans are only available onsite in the public office. Areas covered are Cos Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Limerick, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon. Sligo and Tipperary.
The Revision Books for Northern Ireland are in PRONI. An excellent PRONI sub-site allows online research by placename on the full set, with links to high-quality scans of the originals. Even for people without Ulster ancestor, the sub-site gives a great sense of just how useful these wonderful records can be.
Irish research doesn’t have many under-explored collections, so you’d expect joy unconfined to surround the records of the Valuation Office. However, most researchers’ eyes glaze over when you mention them. And for good reason. The Office is one of the oldest continuously functioning arms of public administration in Ireland, set up in 1826 and still operating today. That’s almost two centuries, long enough to produce entire Himalayas of paper, which include some of the gnarliest records imaginable.
The Office’s basic role was (and is) simple enough: to create property valuations on which local property taxes could be based. Its main achievement was Griffith’s Primary Valuation of 1847-1864. But the creation of Griffith’s was far from simple.
The initial Townland Valuation Act (1826) allowed for a complete assessment of the annual value of every parcel of land and building in Ireland, with the aim of producing a total for each townland that could be used as the basis of a yearly tax. But in 1826 nobody even knew what townlands were where, so the project became dependant on, and intertwined with, the Boundary Commission and the Ordnance Survey.
The earliest OS maps were produced for Londonderry in 1831 and it was then and there that surveying began. Richard Griffith, the Valuation Commissioner, quickly saw that the plan to value everything was far too ambitious for the resources available. While continuing to value all land, a threshold of £3 annual value was adopted for buildings to be assessed, excluding the large majority of householders but still covering a significant number of dwellings and commercial premises, especially in towns. The valuation continued on this basis for the next seven years, covering eight of the northern counties. By 1838, however, it was clear that even with a £3 threshold the surveying would never be completed. In that year the threshold was raised to £5, covering only the most substantial buildings.
The year 1838 was also that of the introduction of the Irish Poor Law, a rudimentary system of relief for the most destitute, and its funding was based on a separate property survey. It quickly became obvious that it made no sense to have two separate systems of local taxation, based on differing valuations of the same property. In 1844, with townland valuations complete for 27 of the 32 counties, Griffith was authorised to change the basis of assessment by dropping the £5 threshold and covering all property in the remaining counties, all of them in Munster.
The Tenement Valuation Act (1852) retrospectively allowed Griffith to extend the system throughout Ireland – a procedure he had in fact already begun. Over two decades of valuation he had assembled a veritable army of skilled employees, each with a precise role in his vast valuing mechanism. It allowed him to publish county-by-county surveys of the entire island between 1847 and 1864, generally with the southern counties earlier and the northern counties later.
In the course of this long-drawn-out saga, huge quantities of manuscript records were produced. Firstly, the pre-1838 valuation of the northern counties, based on the £3 building threshold, created local valuers’ “house books” and “field books”, the former including the names of occupiers, the latter in theory at least concerned purely with soil productivity. They remain particularly useful for urban or semi-urban areas in northern counties before 1838.
After the change in the basis of assessment in 1844, the main categories of valuers’ notebooks continued to be known as ‘house books’ and ‘field books’, but the distinction became more than a little blurred, with information on occupiers appearing in both. To add to the merriment, other classes of notebook were also created:
Tenure books, showing landlord and lease information;
Rent books, showing rents paid, as an aid to valuation;
Quarto books, covering towns,
Perambulation books, recording valuers’ visits, and
There are far fewer of these than of the ‘house’ and ‘field’ books.
The survival of pre-publication Valuation Office records is patchy, with some parishes having four or more books while others have none at all. The only way to find out what’s there is to examine the records themselves. There are two major collections, one in PRONI, the other in NAI. The PRONI records cover only the six countues of Northern Ireland and are only available onsite in Belfast. It’s not clear from the information they provide that any of the post-1844 books are publicly available. In 2003, the LDS microfilmed the entire collection then held by NAI and this is the collection now online at genealogy.nationalarchives.ie.
Another set of records, held by the Valuation Office itself until 2003 and subsequently moved to NAI, is still being catalogued and conserved and so is not as yet publicly available. The word is that it includes thousands upon thousands of valuers’ hand-made maps, with the tantalizing prospect of detailed field and townland maps that will hold a magnifying glass to rural Ireland of the 1830s and 1840s.
NAI has done a wonderful job of making the earlier microfilmed records intelligible and accessible. Written by former director Frances Magee, the introductory text for each of the manuscript types is a master-class in the valuation process and the codes used by the valuers. She has a book on the Valuation Office collection in the works, due out some time in the next twelve months. Roll on the day.
One caveat about the database transcripts. Something funny seems to be happening on the NAI site. Compare the search results for a Martin Heavy on FindMyPast with the results on the NAI site. There should be no difference – they’re the same underlying datasets. For the moment, the FindMyPast search is the one I trust. It’s free and also permits browsing by parish, something not available on the NAI site.
These records might seem marginal and messy compared with the published Valuation, but keep in mind that Griffith’s, far from being the record of a settled population, is a snapshot of the aftermath of a catastrophe, the Great Famine. In the many areas enormous changes took place between the original survey and final publication. In the area around Skibbereen, for example. the pre-publication records are be the only surviving evidence of entire villages that were wiped out.
Last week, RTÉ TV news ran a piece of techno-utopianism that really got my attention. A group based in Trinity College are going to create a digital 3-D model of the old Public Record Office that was destroyed in 1922.
Fair enough. The centenary of that ignominious act is approaching and it certainly needs remembering.
Then the report went on to say that the group was also going to digitally reconstruct the records that had been destroyed, thus retrieving seven lost centuries of history and genealogy. Say again? They’re going to magic back into existence the ten million or so returns from the lost censuses of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851? How? By closing their eyes and clicking their heels together three times?
The group’s website tells a more nuanced story. Yes, there will indeed be a shiny, walk-through digital model, but the approach to reconstructing records is modest enough. It centres on using Herbert Wood’s A Guide to the Records Deposited in the Public Record Office of Ireland (Dublin, 1919) to identify substitutes for what was destroyed, much as the National Archives of Ireland has been doing since 1922 with, for example, its testamentary record substitutes. The difference is that copies of, or links to, the substitute material will be organised within the virtual model, thus recreating (kind of) the experience of using the old PRO.
It’s a good idea. Any opportunity to digitise and publicise surviving fragments and substitutes is very welcome. And it should also shine a light into a few areas that don’t get enough attention – the seven volumes of thirteenth to sixteenth-century excerpts from plea rolls, patent rolls and pipe rolls in the National Library Genealogical Office collection (GO 189-95), for one.
But I think that the end result is likely to be more dystopian than utopian. At last we’ll get to see, perfectly-rendered, the size and shape of the black hole at the heart of Irish history and genealogy.
The project site has a news page that links to all the attention they got last week. It wasn’t just RTE, nearly every other news outlet got the story wrong and reported the imminent return out of digital thin air of all the lost records. The team need to be a bit more careful about how they attract attention to what they’re doing. Some of those news reports look distinctly fake.
Irish whinging about the weather can get on your nerves. But my God the 2017-18 winter deserves all the whinging it gets. It’s toying with us, pretending to stop just long enough to get us to put away our thermal long johns, then whipping back into vicious life. Here’s how I comfort myself as I stand at a Dublin bus-stop with every piece of exposed flesh flayed by horizontal sleet.
First I remember how things were just a short generation ago, when central heating was a novelty in Ireland. For the four months of winter, life shrank down to the semi-circle around the fire. Many’s the seat of a pair of trousers I singed painfully in the quest for a biteen of heat. Ochón
Then I think back further. Imagine life in the Viking town around Wood Quay in Dublin, where the only heat would come from a fire without a chimney in the centre of a mud-and-wattle hut. Then just think what persistent Irish February rain could do to a mud-and-wattle hut.
“What didn’t kill them made them stronger”? I’m sure Irish Februarys killed more Vikings than Brian Ború. So I feel thankful (and hope that bloody bus comes soon).
My real heroes at this time of the year, though, are Irish Met Office forecasters. Your heart has to go out to them. They have the most thankless task you could imagine, so they keep trying to soften the message:
“Scattered showers of locusts spreading from the West in the morning, turning to fiery hail by the afternoon and becoming persistent overnight. But it’ll be mostly dry on Friday!”
The current issue of The New Yorker has a lovely article about Jennifer Mendelsohn, an American genealogist who has taken to researching the immigrant ancestors of US politicians and pundits who make anti-immigration pronouncements. Time after time, she’s come up with ancestors who personify the supposed failings being denounced. I especially like her response to Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren who finger-wagged: “Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye”. Tomi’s great-great-grandfather was indicted for forging citizenship papers.
America is obviously ripe for this kind of thing – as she says herself, “Unless you’re Native American or you descend from slaves who were brought here against their will, you are an immigrant in this country, or you’re a descendant of an immigrant in this country.” On the other hand, I doubt what she’s doing will have much effect. Respect for the truth is not a conspicuous characteristic of those she’s challenging. I’m sure the massed ranks of Fox News commentators are laughing at her naivety as they tuck in to their breakfast of broiled baby immigrant.
One of the strongest drivers of genealogical research is the satisfaction of retrieving people who have been forgotten or deliberately written out of official history. That sense of righting historic family wrongs is powerful and addictive.
Here are two stories to illustrate why.
One famiy’s 1911 census return listed a 16-year-old son who had disappeared completely from family stories. It turned out he had enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915, and somehow survived Ypres, gas attacks and three solid years fighting in the British Army on the Western Front. But the Ireland he came back to in 1919 had changed completely. His family, now staunch Republicans, refused to have anything to do with him. So he moved to England and broke off all contact. Three generations later, his English grandchildren were tracked down and reintroduced to the wider family.
In another family, the only surviving photograph of one set of great-grandparents had a bizarre flaw. Where the great-grandmother’s face should have been, there was only a blank disk. Someone had very deliberately cut her from the picture.
For years, the family wondered what it was she had done to deserve such obliteration. Then a genealogist sifting through a deceased second cousin’s attic came across a locket and realized the photo it contained was the missing face.
Far from trying to eradicate her memory, one of her children had taken the piece of the picture to remember her by. And now her face was restored to the photo and became visible for the first time to her descendants.
Those of us who give genealogical advice sometimes joke that the job is equal parts genealogy and psychotherapy. But the healing provided by family restorations like these is genuine.
Like everything to do with Irish genealogy, the answer is that it depends. In cases where you need a quick grasp of how common or concentrated baptismal records for a particular family might be, the map is your only man. Once again, a decent picture is worth a thousand words.
I also like having click-through lists of variant spellings and totals, making it clear where the pitfalls are and how big they are. The variants also show just how localised some spelling variations can be, a valuable potential clue to a place of origin.
And of course being able to click straight through to the FindMyPast transcripts and the National Library microfilm images is the ultimate lazy shortcut, always welcome.
Flaws? I know where most of the bodies are buried, and I’m not telling.
Suffice to say that the transcriptions on which the maps are based can only be as good as the microfilms they’re based on. Which can be dreadful. And the variants are mine, not FindMyPast’s.
My heartfelt thanks to FindMyPast for sharing the data with me so generously. Unlike other large genealogy companies, they make a particular point of being collaborative, and this is spectacular collaboration. And particular thanks to Brian Donovan and Fiona Fitzsimons, the principals of Eneclann and the Irish faces of FindMyPast. Eneclann is now in its 20th year, a record for any commercial Irish genealogy company. It’s not an accident that they’ve lasted so long. Their commitment to high standards and sheer dogged hard work has earned them everything they have.
Like most public online family trees, those at ancestry.com include horrors that beggar belief: children born before their parents, the same individual on multiple lines, people married at the age of two. Looking through Ancestry’s FAQs for an answer to a question these trees frequently make me ask – “Why? Dear God, why oh why?” – I came across a statement that gave me pause: “Many members have family trees that are not yet finished”.
Mmm. Well, yes. Because what exactly would a finished family tree look like? The Mormons, in their sunny optimism, aim to unite the entire human race into a single tree going back to Adam and Eve but they still have a way to travel. For the less theologically inclined, such a tree would have to reach back at least 3.8 billion years to the organism that is the last universal common ancestor, our cenancestor. Even then, would it be “finished”? What about the origins of the elements making up that organism, and the origins of the sub-atomic particles making up the elements?
I always knew genealogy would eventually lead to theoretical particle physics and the eleven dimensions of the space-time continuum. Beam me up, Scotty.
And I’m sure some of my relatives immigrated from dimension seven.
The point is that, like families, family histories don’t come to neat conclusions and never proceed in straight lines. Research is always episodic: a day’s exploration here, an evening online there, visits to out-of-the-way archives tacked on to weekends away . Genealogical research means forever starting again. Plan for that. Record whatever you search (not just whatever you find) in a way that will make it easy to remember when you pick it up two years later. Otherwise you’ll have to do the research again.
And don’t expect to finish, whatever ancestry.com says. Your tree will always be gloriously messy, its loose ends dangling all over the place, an eternal work in progress.
Think of it as leaving something for the next generation to discover.
No matter how familiar a record source appears to be, it can always surprise.
It took me three decades of staring at Griffith’s Valuation, the main mid-19th century Irish census substitute (see askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation), to realise that its place name spellings are all identical to those in the standard reference, the 1851 Townlands Index. As anyone who has dealt with the infuriating volatility of Irish townland spellings will know, this can’t be a coincidence. The only conclusion is that both the Index and Griffith’s share the Ordnance Survey as a common standard source.
The practical implication for a researcher is that once the 1851 Townlands Index spelling is identified, that’s how the place name should appear in Griffith’s. That’s what made it possible to create a direct click-through from place name to Griffith’s on this site – see the places listed for Kilkeevin, for example.
So what about the other great spelling-variant problem, Irish surnames? Is there any evidence that Griffith’s standardised surnames as well as place names? Yes and no. For literate individuals, the rule seems to have been that the version recorded should match that supplied by the individual himself. After all, Griffith’s is a tax survey. A misspelt surname is an most obvious loophole: you have to be sure you have the right goose before you can start plucking.
For the illiterate or Irish speakers, the same motivation seems to have produced a limited local form of standardisation. While the front-line valuers might record a name as “Curlie”, “Curly” or “Corly”, the higher-ups responsible for the published version would correct to a single standard. So all who could not write their own name in English became “Curley”.
It has to be said that this is not a very useful research tool – the advice must continue to be simply “cast the net as wide as possible”. But for larger-scale population and surname studies, that localised standardisation has one useful side effect. It exaggerates the visible concentrations of anglicised surnames, providing useful prima facie evidence of clan or sept origins.