Bosthoons, Looderamauns and Brehenies

Anyone who researches nineteenth-century Irish families quickly becomes aware of what is unspoken behind many records. Despite the fact that the Irish language, Gaelic, was the majority tongue in many areas until well past the middle of the century, not one state or church record writes down a single word of Irish.

“Some Tipperary bosthoon endangering the lives of the citizens. Runaway horse.” Ulysses

Think about what that meant for the people being recorded: the language in which they lived their lives was utterly worthless to the bosthoons and looderamauns running official Ireland. No wonder so many made the stark choice to abandon Irish in order to survive.

The implications for research are unavoidable. Imagine that baptismal record from the 1830s as it must have seemed to the parents. Their names are being written down, often phonetically, sometimes (mis-)translated,  in a language they don’t understand and which they almost certainly couldn’t read even if they did understand it. You may care how your surname is spelt. Your ancestors certainly didn’t.

One result is that the slow evolution of names out of Irish and into English happens before your eyes. In West Cork Catholic baptismal registers, the many Fowlues (from Ó Foghlú, derived from foghlaí,  meaning ‘robber’) transmute decade by decade into the contemporary English ‘Foley’. In other cases, the changes are dizzyingly abrupt. In North Mayo, I’ve seen the first children of a family baptised as Mulderrig (Ó Maoildeirg,

Antonio Vivaldi. A red-haired priest

‘grandson of the red(-haired) priest’, with the younger ones all ‘Reddington’, a common attempt to shoehorn the colour red into a perfectly respectable but completely different surname from the north of England. The Leitrim surname Breheny (from Bhreithiúnach, meaning ‘lawyer’ or ‘judge’) starts off in the 1830s as Breheny, becomes ‘Abraham’ and ends up’ Judge’.

Another shadow language is also there. We didn’t just take on the English language. We took it on and banjaxed it. Hiberno-English is a wonderful stew of Gaelic and medieval English, flavoured with intense local accents. If you’re wondering why you can’t find your Deane ancestors, that’s because they’re in the records as ‘Dain’ (‘Cup of tay, anyone?’). Likewise with Geaney (‘Ganey’).

And all your Grenhams are Grinhams.

The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland

Joe Lee’s review

Professor Joe Lee recently gave an extraordinary review to the new Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland ( ed. Eugenio Biagini and Mary Daly, CUP, 2017). Glowing isn’t the word: it was positively radioactive.  So of course I jumped straight in.

And he was right, it is a remarkable piece of work. Its thirty-three essays are divided into three sections, ‘Geography, Occupations and Social Classes’, ‘People, Culture and Communities’ and ‘Emigration, Immigration and the Wider Irish World’. Clearly ‘social history’ is a very broad church, ignoring the boundaries of local history, human geography, anthropology, linguistics and many more apparently separate disciplines. That’s all to the good. The more perspectives, methods and opinions are applied to the Ould Sod, the clearer and more wonderfully complicated our ancestors will be.


The really novel feature of the work, not remarked on by Professor Lee, is the weight given to what used to be called ‘The Irish Abroad’. A full third of the volume deals with the histories of Irish communities in North America, Australasia and Britain, a remarkable and welcome change of focus, that finally puts emigration at the centre of the Irish experience. The stand-out essay in the book, for me, is part of that section, Kevin Kenny’s magisterial ‘Irish Emigrations in a Comparative Context’, a masterpiece of eagle’s-eye summation and cool authority that I can see myself rereading over and over again.

Another reason I was interested in the book is that one of the people incuded once told me casually that she’d like to wring the neck of every genealogist on the planet. (Her name is available only after a few pints). I don’t think she meant me personally, though I did feel a tad nervous. It was the bluntest example I’ve come across of academic anger at the Laity (that’s us) getting in the way of the Priesthood (that’s them). I just smiled and nodded and backed away.

In one sense, of course, she was right. Genealogy can never be a truly academic discipline – it just doesn’t have the requisite dispassion and disinterest. On the other hand, a Priesthood is pointless without its Laity.

The dead are no longer entitled to secrets

Say Hello to great-aunt Attila

A widespread assumption among people who haven’t done any family history, and a reason often advanced for not starting, is that there’s a dreadful skeleton somewhere in the family past that mustn’t be brought out into the open. I used to think this was just Irish Catholic guilt seeping out of our collective unconscious but it seems to be present in almost all cultures: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, ‘Of the dead, speak nothing but good’, was first coined more than two-and-a-half millennia ago.

In Ireland, that suspected skeleton almost always boils down to a suspicion of a birth out of wedlock somewhere a couple of generations back.

It’s very hard now for us to grasp just how shameful illegitimacy was, even a few decades ago, and shameful not just for the mother (fathers usually managed anonymity or just decamped), but for the child and even for later generations. There were sem-racist overtones, hints of tainted blood and multi-generational stains. Some of the outraged comments in the baptismal entries of children born outside marriage in nineteenth-century church registers make it clear just how grievous the offence was.


My favourite outraged clergyman

The possibility of descendants suing for the insult to their ancestry was one of the main reasons the Catholic Church was so little reluctant to have their records digitised as recently the 1980s. Now, though, there is no shame: one man I did some research for was very hurt to find out about his mother’s illegitimacy after her death. But the hurt was only because she had not trusted him enough to tell him while she was alive.

Austrailian crown jewels

Similar reversals of attitude have happened in other areas. Convict ancestry was once something Aussies kept quiet about. It’s now a badge of pride. Having a relative who entered a workhouse used to be a disgrace for the entire family, a feeling that probably accounts for the loss and deliberate neglect of most Irish workhouse admission registers. Nobody feels like that now.

Today, we have different taboos. All our empathy is for the destitute pauper, the poor convict, the single mother and child. Skeletons are Halloween jokes.  And the dead are no longer entitled to secrets.

Correcting the 1901 and 1911

If you’ve noticed an uncharacteristic silence from me over the past while, it’s not that I’ve run out of opinions. Fat chance. No, I’ve just signed a contract with National Archives of Ireland to deal with their backlog of user-submitted corrections to the 1901 and 1911 census transcripts. So I’ve been deep in the entanglements of a decade of emails.

It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Some of the work can be automated, albeit with lots of convolutions. Inevitably though, a fair amount of squinting at the images is involved.

So here are some preliminary observations from that squinting.

Not in Ireland in 1901 or 1911

The submitters take the process surprisingly seriously. I had expected to find dozens of corrections to ‘M. Mouse’ and ‘D. Duck’ . Not at all. People seem to feel that what appears on the site is in some way a public memory of their family and they just want that memory to be accurate. Many people also want to take the chance to correct the mistakes their ancestors made. On occasion, long-running grievances are discernible – a head of household’s claim to be the father of children disputed vehemently by a submitter, for example. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Whatever appears on the census form – reversed surnames and forenames, forgotten spouses, misspelt occupations, outright lies – is what has to appear in the transcript.

A disproportionate number of corrections come from particular places and classes. Cork people seem especially fussy, as are descendants of members of dissenting sects. Though it’s hardly being fussy to want ‘Independent Rolehash not Connected with any Denommation’ corrected to  ‘Independent Protestant not connected with any denomination’.

My favourites are the mistranscribed occupations. Prawn dealer for ‘piano dealer’, terrace lotto worker for ‘terracotta worker’, sister of the Mr Suline order instead of ‘sister of the Ursuline order’, hawker of Irish  for ‘hawker of fish’.

And straight from Alice in Wonderland: ‘Instire of the Peacly Tea Merchant‘. Which of course should be ‘Justice of the Peace, Tea Merchant’.

Clearly some people get a little obsessed with the corrections – the same emails crop up again and again: You know who you are. Actually I’m one myself. I’m now dealing with my own emails, which feels a bit ironic.

Finally,  some advice if you’re submitting corrections.

Putting the correction in ALL CAPS will not get attention any sooner. Nor will multiple submissions of the same correction. Nor multiple multiple submissions of the same correction. And outrage, though sometimes understandable – ‘They’re all nuns, for God’s sake!‘ – won’t get the changes made.


US Civil War ‘Widows Pensions’


A month back, in my enthusiastic review of Claire Santry’s new book (which, by the way, is now seriously outselling my own on Amazon – D’Oh), I mentioned a record-set she highlighted that I was only vaguely familiar with, US Civil War widows’ pension applications.

Irish-Amercian recuitment poster

I’ve now had a good root through them and they are truly extraordinary. Pensions were not just paid to widows, but to any dependents of those who died for the Union side in the US Civil War – elderly parents, those taking care of orphans, dependent siblings, anyone who could show that the death of the soldier had imposed financial suffering.

Why should they be especially useful for Irish research? Huge numbers of Irish emigrants fought in the War, by some estimates as many as served in the British Army in World War I. Most were Famine emigrants, some were post-Famine chain migrants and quite a few were recruited in Ireland specifically to fight. They all died in their tens of thousands.

New York Irish Brigade 69th Regiment

Getting a pension wasn’t easy. The Army Veterans Administration was the mother of all bureaucracies and the hoops to be jumped through were mind-boggling, with files ranging up 200 pages and decisions often taking more than a decade. Which is good news for researchers. Marriages, births, service histories, dependent relationships – all had to be authenticated, usually by multiple sources, giving precise dates and places, and often with eyewitness affidavits from friends and neighbours.

Because almost all the soldiers were first-generation emigrants, many claimants were actually still in Ireland and many of the marriages and births reported are Irish, in some cases reaching as far back as the early decades of the nineteenth century. This is particularly useful because large numbers of emigrants left from Western counties – Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Galway – for which few early parish registers exist. I’ve already come across a marriage in Achonry parish in 1828, with townland addresses. That’s four decades before the start of the surviving Achonry registers.

Lord Leitrim’s notice to quit

The files are even more useful for fleshing out family stories. Take the case of Unice and John Coyle, living in the townland of Muineagh in Clondavaddog, Donegal, parents of Hugh Coyle who died on June 24 1864 in Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp. Their application went through the US Consul in Derry and included letters from Unice giving painful detail of their circumstances and health, even attaching an original ‘Notice to Quit’ from the notorious Lord Leitrim. They got $8 a month. God bless America.

The only online access to the files is on, a site set up by and, unsurprisingly, not covered by an subscription. At least they’ve taken the chance to rethink the ridiculously clunky Ancestry search interface. Fold3’s is clean, intuitive and fast, making it simple, for example, to pick out all files that mention a particular Irish county.

For a detailed case history using the files to reconstruct the social history of Cruit Island in Donegal, see Damian Sheil’s excellent blog. Damian has also done maps of the locations mentioned in the files for Britain and mainland Europe, but not for Ireland.

Hmm. There’s an idea.

What a Recent Survey Told Me

A recent episode of RTE’s “The Week in Politics” once again left me frothing at the mouth. This time, though, it wasn’t the politicians. As a bit of light relief, RTE had invited a geneticist and a political scientist to discuss the results of their study into the connection between genetic inheritance and political allegiance. Worthy as that sounds, what they were actually looking at was the hoary old chestnut about Fine Gael being Anglo-Norman and Fianna Fáil Gaelic Irish. Unsurprisingly, they found that FG supporters were indeed marginally more likely to have Anglo-Norman roots.

                    Ed Gaelick, insurance specialist

But how did they discover this? They tested politicians’ surnames, of course. This is the point where I turned purple. Exactly what scientific test did they perform on the surnames to determine their level of Gaelickery or Anglo-Normanosity? Did they carefully take swabs from the insides of the surnames’ cheeks? Did they culture the surnames in their lab?

The truth is that Irish surnames are utterly unreliable as markers for cultural inheritance. Yes, ‘Fitzgerald’ sits at the other end of one particular spectrum from ‘O’Brien’. But what about a venerable Fianna Fáil Kerry surname like ‘McEllistrim’, “Son of Alastair [Fitzgerald]”?  Or the apparently impeccably English ‘Higgins’, from a diminutive of the understandably widespread peasant name ‘Hick’. Which in Ireland can be an Anglicization of either Ó hUiggín, from Uiggín, Gaelic for ‘Viking’, or Ó hAodhagáin, grandson of big ould Hugh. Put that in your political science petri dish and smoke it.

President Michael D. …Viking? Hick? Red Hugh?

Before they are anything else, surnames are words, embedded in language and mutating under the pressure of history like all other words. Maybe, once upon a time, they started out as badges of tribal identity but those badges have long been distorted beyond all reliability by the twists and turns of Irish history and individual Irish family histories. Reducing them to a quick political litmus test is just plain dim.

Leo Varadkar receiving his orders from Henry ll

The real joy in the programme was seeing the scathing scepticism of the Fine Gael politician they asked for a response, none other than the delightfully-monikered Leo Varadkar. His people came over with Strongbow, you know.


The real lesson is that scientists are only marginally less likely to peddle bunkum in return for publicity than non-scientists. I read that in a recent survey.

Adoption research

A while back, I was a guest on a radio programme and a listener texted in a plea. She was adopted, she said, and she couldn’t uncover her birth mother’s name. “Please help me to find out who I am”, were the exact words.

On one level, this is absurd: I don’t know her circumstances, but she almost certainly leads a normal life, coping (or not coping) with all the joys and worries of work and money and immediate family in exactly the same way as someone who does know their birth mother’s name. She is who she is, in other words, as we all are.

But of course I’m being disingenuous. I knew exactly what she was asking and why it carried such a resonant pang of loss. At the centre of everyone’s network of allegiances, to tribe, parish, country , race, lies the family, and embedded ineradicably in the very notion of family is the need for a blood connection. Unfair and irrational this may be, but it is very old. For most of the existence of the human race, the only dependable guarantee of safety has been blood kinship.

None of this is much help to that listener. The uncomfortable fact is that researching adoptions can be extremely difficult. The vast majority took place in order to hide illegitimacy. Finding records of people who tried to leave no official traces, who didn’t want to be found, demands levels of persistence and resourcefulness well beyond the ordinary. But the sheer intensity of that need to know remains extraordinary.

Katherine Zappone

The Irish state is finally recognising the needs of adoptees and giving them legal rights to trace their birth families. Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone’s wonderful ‘Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016‘ formalises the record-keeping obligations of adoption agencies and the tracing services they need.

Two state agencies already offer tracing assistance of sorts. The Adoption Authority of Ireland offers free personalised assistance, while TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency, is actively archiving and making available records from the local religious adoption agencies that were the norm until very recently.  The Natural Parents Network of Ireland provides support for parents of children. who were adopted.

Self-importance Well Punctured

Our sense of time is tuned to the everyday: you can’t see your children grow or mountains erode, for the very simple reason that life would be impossible if you could. Genealogy usually keeps a researcher’s nose firmly against this grindstone of the humdrum, and that’s one of its beauties; it is very hard to stray into geological time-scales and grand historical abstractions when you can see individuals and families flagrantly disobeying the laws of statistics before your very eyes. Just occasionally, however, something will poke out from the background that gives a sense of the scale of the invisible changes going on.


The surname “Costello” has more than 70 recorded variant spellings in the records of the past two centuries, from “Castolo” to “Custullo”, (see here) but it has a very precise origin. It was adopted in the 12th century by the children of Jocelyn de Angulo, son of Gilbert, one of the original Norman invaders. There is disagreement as to whether Osdealbhach, the forename at the root of the surname Mac Osdealbhaigh (phonetically “McOStealvy”), is a genuine Gaelic name itself, or a mangled Gaelicisation of ‘Jocelyn’, but there is no doubt at all that this individual was the origin of the modern surname.

Not Abbott

In 1911, around 10,000 individuals in Ireland bore the surname Costello or a variant. A first reaction might be to congratulate Jocelyn on his fecundity, but of course, over 7 centuries, anything up to half-a-million individuals could be the 20-generation ancestors of someone living in 1911, so Jocelyn was only responsible for the surname, not all the genes. Even so, the sheer numbers connected to him both as descendants and co-ancestors give a dizzying glimpse of the complexity of our relatedness.


Nothing punctures your sense of being in charge of your own life quite as thoroughly as a stinking head-cold – I have one at the moment – but genealogy can come a close second.

Back in Hot Water

A few years back I got into hot water for saying that the defeated Irish (and English) transported to Barbados after the Cromwellian wars were slaves. The vehement online response was that they were indentured labourers. Involuntary indentured labourers. With no fixed term to the indenture.  At my nit-picking best, I said that forced labour without time limit sounded very like slavery to me.

How wrong I was.

Barbados ‘redlegs’

In my utter up-from-the-country innocence I had wandered onto a battlefield in the ongoing Culture Wars. The kind of people who like to get together after dark carrying flaming firebrands have made it one of their central (idiot) beliefs that slavery was colour-blind: us whites have got over it and so should you African-Americans. Saying there were seventeenth-century Irish “slaves” in Barbados was the equivalent of putting on a white hood and lighting a nice big torch.

What brought this back to mind was discovering University College London’s extraordinary ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ website. When Britain abolished slavery in 1834, it did so by buying out every single slave in the Empire, paying the mind-boggling sum of £20,000,000 to the former slave-owners. The process naturally involved recording in detail every single one of the 46,000 compensation payments. All the records, including payees, amounts and locations, are in The National Archives in Kew.

What UCL has done with those 46,000 payments is remarkable. They have extracted and mapped the personal information – names, addresses, occupations, numbers of enslaved people – onto zoomable maps of Britain and Ireland. At a glance it becomes clear where slavery-derived wealth collected, who owned it, how much they were compensated. (Ireland appears to have had relatively few slave-owners).

This much is very interesting in its own right – the sheer social and geographic breadth of British slave-ownership is astonishing. But the project goes much further. It links the owners to the specific plantations in Barbados, Grenada and Jamaica from which they drew their profits and maps the plantations too. It looks at what the payees did with their slave-compensation money, the industries it supported, the political careers it enabled, the cultural institutions it helped to found, the great houses it built. Later generations of slave-owning families are tracked through their careers in politics, imperial administration, the arts and education, with prominent individuals highlighted throughout – William Gladstone, the Prime Minister of Britain through much of the Victorian era, was the son of the recipient of the single largest compensation payment. John Gladstone owned no fewer than 2508 enslaved people in British Guyana and Jamaica in 1834.

What the project does is something very familiar to genealogists, the bringing of forgotten truth back out into the light, piece by painstaking piece. The forgotten truth here is that much of the apparent majesty of Britain’s industry and culture was founded on slave money, a fact quickly and conveniently buried by subsequent Imperial historians.

The site also makes clear what enslaved Afro-Caribbean people got in compensation for their generations of degradation. Nothing.

Dirty Little Secrets

Tight-fitting acronym

One of Irish genealogy’s dirty little secrets is that it’s all very simple. We do like to dress up in fancy complications – a valuator’s codebook here, a tithe defaulter there.  And if we’re genetic genealogists we really really love our tight-fitting hermetic acronyms and our spangly centi-morgans.

Really, though, the logic behind research is as elementary as an infant’s building blocks. Pile one record on top of another until you can’t go any further. And that’s it. Yes, there are little bits of lateral thinking that can sometimes get around an obstacle. But it’s not brain surgery. It’s not even rocket science.

Spangly centimorgans

Another little secret is the fact that many of the processes we use are deeply repetitive and, frankly, stupid. Identify a townland. Find the civil parish. Match the Catholic parish. Do it again. Do it again.

The impulse to automate this stuff before going mad with boredom is the main motivator behind the programming I do. It’s the motivation behind the latest addition to this site, an attempt to map the numbers of householders in the civil parishes of Griffith’s Valuation onto the matching Catholic parishes. Here’s Gilshennan, for example.

The aim was to provide quick-and-dirty access to information on the Catholic records covering areas where particular families were living around the 1850s. Quick maybe, dirty certainly. Catholic and civil parishes don’t correspond precisely, which has thrown up lots of oddities. For instance, if there were seven Grenham households recorded by Griffith in the civil parish of Kilmore, and the civil parish of Kilmore is divided between the Catholic parishes of Castlemore and Kilbeg, then the map displays seven Grenham households in each parish, seven in Castlemore and seven in Kilbeg. Talk about Reproductive.

I’ve plastered the thing in disclaimers, but I have doubts about its usefulness. At the very least it shows that even if Irish genealogy isn’t that complicated it can still get pretty weird.