Here be slightly fewer dragons

Most of the terrain of Irish genealogy is well mapped by now, with its familiar outlines of censuses, vital records, valuations and parish records, as well as the great smoking hole that is the 1922 destruction of the Public Record Office. But one area of the map remains stubbornly blank.

The Irish Land Commission was founded in 1881, initially to establish fair rents and then to break up estates and subsidise tenant purchase. In the thirty-five years before 1920, it oversaw the transfer of more than 13,500,000 acres. In the Free State it was reconstituted in 1923 and went on to acquire and distribute an additional 800,000 acres before it ceased acquiring land in 1983. It was finally dissolved in 1999. In Northern Ireland the Commission ceased new operations in 1925 and was abolished as part of the local government reforms of 1935.

In the course of establishing title to the estates it was acquiring, the Commission collected an extraordinary cornucopia of material – wills, marriage settlements, title deeds, rentals, maps, pedigrees and more, often detailing families and their holdings back to the seventeenth century.

In Northern Ireland its records are all sensibly conserved and archived in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland – try searching the eCatalogue for the exact phrase “Land Commission” to get a sense of the sheer scale of what’s there.

And in the South?  Nothing. The entire collection, now the property of the Dept of Agriculture, sits in a warehouse in Portlaoise under lock and key, uncatalogued, unconserved and harder to get at than the third secret of Fatima. The only publicly available records come in a list of the judicial decisions on fair rents, useful, but very limited.

During 35 years research, I’ve only met two people who have actually got access to the title records and one of them (full disclosure: a neighbour of mine) has just published a book using what he found.

Martin O’Halloran’s The Lost Gaeltacht: the Land Commission Migration – Clonbur, County Galway to Allenstown, Count Meath (Homefarm Publishing, Dublin 2020) is a painstaking and loving account of the Commission’s transfer of 24 families from an Irish-speaking community in Clonbur on the Galway/Mayo border to Allenstown in Meath in 1940. It was one of many social engineering projects undertaken by the De Valera government in the 1930s and 1940s, in this case attempting to seed the Irish language outside its existing home areas: Allenstown was officially designated Gaeltacht colony No. 5.

Martin only got access because he had a direct legal link to the properties in the Commission records and even then he had a hard time. But he has managed to bring back an extraordinary haul: Maps, correspondence, disputes with Allenstown natives, with the Meath hunt, between the Commission and the Dept of Education. These are all woven carefully into a reconstruction of the community, its way of life and the great webs of extended kin-groups, in both Galway and Meath. This is the community Martin grew up in, and the whole story is tinged with poignancy. The Gaeltacht and its deep local culture were lost because of official neglect after the initial transplantation.

The book is essential reading not only for those with a connection to the locales covered, but for anyone with an interest in local history, the Land Commission, extended family history or indeed the possibilities of self-publication. Martin has produced a book the equal in quality of any of the multi-award-winning Cork University Press Atlases.

It’s available in-store in Hodges Figgis in Dublin, and online from Mayo Books.


Pud a bid of budder on the spuds

Among my many hobbyhorses is an abiding distrust of the way accents distort names. Kayhill and MahONy (that’s Cah-hill and MAhony to us in Ireland) are only two examples of how the broad Atlantic has preserved pronunciations among emigrants that died out back home. Both of the American pronunciations are closer to the original Gaelic Irish (Ó Cathmhaoil and Ó Mathúna) than our present Anglophone versions.

A nice cup of tay

There are lots of other examples. In standard Received Pronuciation “ea” now normally represents an “ee” sound. In Ireland, it has retained its old “ay”. So Tottenham Hotspur and England goal-ace Harry Kane is actually one of the Keanes of Letterfrack. (And so should be playing for Ireland). I’m sure he’s had many a  nice cup of tay at the relatives.  Other examples of the ea/ay shift are Keating (Kaiting), Deane (Dane), Kearney (Carney) and many many more.


In my own family, for years I couldn’t find my grandfather’s birth record. It turns out he was registered as “Grinham”, a pretty accurate phonetic version of the accent of South Roscommon, where eggs are laid by hins and babies use their fingers and toes to count from Wan to Tin.

Peculiarities like this and the slow changes that bring them about are usually so slow as to be invisible. But something is audibly happening at the moment to one of the most characteristic features of Irish pronunciation, the soft hissing “t” or “sibilant fricative” in phonetic terms: The cattt sattt on the matt.

At first I thought the changes I was hearing – Britain becoming “Briddin” and British “Briddish” – were individual newsreaders’ affectations but now I hear them everywhere on Irish radio and TV. And once changes like this start, they’re more contagious than Covid-19.

Alas. A very famous ad for Kerrygold involved an Irish guest-house owner inviting her French guest to “put a bit of butter on the spuds, André”, a seduction that depended entirely on her double-entendre sibilant fricatives. “Pud a bid of budder on the spuds” just won’t do it.

No sulks, no sniffles

I made some major changes to the site last week and nobody noticed. In case you think I’m over in the corner having a sulk and a sniffle, let me explain what the changes were and why it’s understandable nobody noticed.

They’re all double surname searches, like the long-standing Griffith’s double surname map search. That shows, for example, parishes in Griffith’s recording both Doocey and Colbert households. This had its origins back in the Jurassic era of Irish research. Under certain circumstances, you might have a documented connection between two Irish families, but no place of origin in Ireland. So you combed through the old Index of Surnames, which showed parishes where in Griffith’s households of a particular surname were located and how many, and extracted all parishes with both surnames. It was a well-honed, mind-numbing way of creating some clues to the place of origin.

Allosaurus genealogicus, c. 1982

So when I created an online version of the Griffith’s householder search, an obvious next step was to recreate the double surname technique.

Fast forward several years and similar mapped searches for the other major Irish sources became possible: nineteenth-century civil birth records, Catholic baptisms and the 1901/1911 censuses. It then took another four years for the penny to drop: I could also do double-surname searches for these. So last week, that’s what I did.

The reason nobody noticed is that, like the Griffith’s double search, you can only do one after you’ve already done a single search. So first Doocey, then Colbert+Doocey, for each of the four sources: nineteenth-century civil birth records, Catholic baptisms and the 1901/1911 censuses.  Things buried so deep are hard to publicise.

So it’s not that I’m hiding my light under a bushel. No fear. No, it’s just … complicated.

A few caveats: like the Griffith’s double, they all exclude variant spellings. The coding was complicated enough, like standing on your head to scratch your ear, without adding variants.  The equivalent of standing on your head, scratching your ear and juggling a dozen eggs.

Also, unlike the Griffith’s, I haven’t managed to get the composite totals onto a single map. Go figure.

And, of course, they’re only useful in very particular circumstances if the surnames aren’t that common. Don’t go sticking in Murphy and Kelly, please.

Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary

Historic Irish forenames have a reputation for being dull and repetitive to the point of madness. Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary John Mary …

It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a John Sullivan in Kenmare in 1840 with fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called John Sullivan who thought it might be a good idea to name his son … John Sullivan. But he did. And  his fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents also called their sons John.

Bartholomew Ahern became Bertie because Dublin ears couldn’t cope with such a richly Corkonian first name.

Look more closely and the picture gets more nuanced. There are  strong local associations between some forenames and specific localities. You’ll almost never find a Cornelius or a Jeremiah or a Bartholomew or a Hanorah outside Munster.  Sabina (or Sally) is heavily associated with Galway and Connacht. A Philip is most likely from the Cavan/Monaghan/Fermanagh area. (But most Phillip McCabes had fourteen first cousins, forty second cousins, two uncles and six great-great grandparents all called Phillip McCabe). Gobnait is almost excusive to the Caherciveen area. Festus or Festy is only found in west Galway, around Clifden.

Knowing there were bound to be instances like this that I’d missed, I set off to mine the civil birth records 1864 to 1913. And ended up mapping them all.

As always, a visualisation makes some things jump out. Kieran is almost exclusively a Westmeath/Offaly name. But spelt ‘Kyran’, it’s almost exclusively Kilkenny.

Kierans: Birr, Athlone, Ballinalsoe
Kyrans: Kilkenny



Abigail is common only in two distant areas, around Belfast and in south-west Cork. Roger appears almost only in Connacht and Munster.

The main insight, especially from browsing the names, is that mis-spellings and mistranscriptions are depressingly common. And that some names are so numerous your computer will explode if it tries to map them all, so I left them out.  A full list, with the mind-boggling numbers of registrations, is below.

You can play with all of these for free yourself in the Names section of the site. Enjoy.

The most common Irish forenames 1864 to 1913

Note “Unknown” at No. 10 with almost 200,000 registrations. Many Lying-in Hospitals in urban areas block-registered newborns with surnames only. Be warned.

Rank Name Number
1 Mary 622,622
2 John 462,084
3 James 303,156
4 Patrick 290,455
5 Margaret 263,951
6 Thomas 241,965
7 William 239,271
8 Michael 215,226
9 Bridget 207,127
10 Unknown 187,657
11 Catherine 181,431
12 Ellen 156,439
13 Elizabeth 117,622
14 Anne 111,725
15 Sarah 95,600
16 Joseph 86,304
17 Robert 82,974
18 Edward 63,956
19 Jane 55,845
20 Daniel 55,790
21 Eliza 54,221
22 Annie 51,903
23 Peter 49,537
24 Kate 48,902
25 Francis 47,216
26 George 46,505
27 Samuel 42,136
28 Julia 39,788
29 Martin 39,499
30 Charles 39,429
31 Johanna 37,966
32 Hugh 36,411
33 David 36,134
34 Richard 35,456
35 Henry 35,170
36 Denis 33,688
37 Agnes 33,297

The kindness of strangers

Wil. E. Coyote

I’ve often wondered about those individuals who run out of their own ancestors but just refuse to give up. Sometimes they seem like Wil E. Coyote, who runs over the edge of the cliff and just keeps going. But many turn to transcribing records  to scratch that itch, and in the process provide the rest of us with invaluable shortcuts for often-obscure sources.

The granddaddy of them all was Dr. Albert E. Casey, an Alabama pathologist who had ancestors from Sliabh Luachra on the Cork/Kerry border. Dr. Casey’s response to the lack of records was simple and breathtaking. He collected and transcribed every single record of any description for the region and adjoining parts, an area roughly bounded by the towns of Mallow, Killarney, Tralee and Newmarket: parish registers, civil records, property records, court proceedings, will indexes, newspapers, townland maps, gravestone inscriptions – everything.

And he didn’t stop there. He went on to collect anything he could find relating to all of Cork and Kerry before about 1825, everything on Munster before 1625 and an extraordinary assortment of early printed and manuscript works covering medieval Ireland as a whole. The whole compilation was published in 16 indexed volumes over the 19 years from 1952 to 1971, with the strange title O’Kief, Coshe Mang, Slieve Lougher and the Upper Blackwater in Ireland. You can see the full awe-inspiring list of contents at .

The Granard census

Now someone else has stepped up to the plate. John McDonald Pepper evidently has Longford ancestors – he has produced meticulously painstaking transcriptions of two Longford Catholic parish censuses, for the parish of Granard in 1834 and the parish of Streete in 1856. He approached me for advice about making them available, so I offered.

Initially, I was going to disassemble them into database tables, but the care John has taken to reproduce the precise written formats deserves to be preserved, so instead I converted them to searchable PDFs.

Enjoy: Granard (1834) and Streete (1856).  And full credit to John.

Trust none of them, use them all

I was irritatingly curious as a child, not to say obnoxiously nosy. Even the experience of sticking my five-year-old fingers into a live electricity socket didn’t cure me. So when RootsIreland, the Irish Family History Foundation website, put up transcripts of Catholic registers from west Cork and Kerry, I immediately wondered where they came from. All the other parts of RI are anchored firmly to a local centre, but the Kerry records are just sort of … hanging there. And Mallow, the East Cork centre, is closer to Limerick than to some of the parishes in deepest West Cork now in its catchment area. No IFHF indexing centre exists for the area the records come from.

Everyday life in Drumcondra
Checking out Rootsireland’s sources

They’re certainly not transcribed from the National Library of Ireland microfilm site – the end dates go well past the 1880 cut-off used by NLI.

So did they come from  The start and finish years do match remarkably well, and that Catherine Mruphy daughter of Denis Nmruphy is there in both transcripts of Allihies. But there are peculiarities. In a simple copy-and-paste job, there shouldn’t be any differences, but there are:  In Kenmare, IG has Ellen Mc [sic] on 25 May 1812, while RI has her as Ellen McSweeney.

So they don’t seem to be copied. The one clear thing about all the records is that they’re from the Catholic diocese of Kerry. There was an IFHF transcription centre run by that diocese in Killarney back in the 1990s. When it split from the IFHF, it gave its records to the Dept of Arts, which used them as the basis of … IrishGenealogy.

So is it possible that some early version of the transcripts was still in the possession of the IFHF? That might explain why not all of the IG transcripts are there. The Diocese of Kerry certainly seems unaware of any change.

Teasing aside, a few weeks after the Cork and Kerry transcripts Rootsireland put up a wonderful fresh batch of Church of Ireland and Presbyterian transcripts for Armagh, all apparently based on the PRONI microfilms. Hurray.

And keep in mind: the RI surname variants are different to the IG variants, both infinitely superior to the and variants and all of them have transcription errors and none of them have the same ones. The more transcripts there are to play with the better. Trust none of them completely but use them all.


Don’t tell my publisher

For a while, the guides to Irish records in the free Browse section of the site have been looking more and more grizzled and long in the tooth, based as they were on the 2011 edition of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors.

Lockdown grizzled. Also long in the tooth.

So a nice long lockdown seemed like the perfect opportunity to dig in and update everything. It was a bit of a slog, though in a nicely mindless way, and now it’s finished. The entire text of the 2019 edition is up, with completely new sections on starting out and graveyards, along with new short accounts of researching Irish ancestors in the Army, attorneys and barristers, clergymen, teachers, policemen and doctors.

The 2019 edition was actually finished in August 2018, due to the long lead-in time for publishing a book. So I’ve also added in all the updates to records since then, the extra years of civil marriages and deaths on, the Galway burial registers, the new transcripts on FindMyPast and Ancestry and Rootsireland. It was particularly satisfying to include direct links to everything rather than just printing them. And good fun to lash in loads more illustrations.

Esther Johnston to Dean Swift (1718) Memorial 20 431 11148

My favourite new illustration is the 1718 deed where Esther Johnston sells her life companion Jonathan Swift “the messuage or tenement commonly known as Talbot’s Castle in the town of Trim in the county of Meath“. She got £200 out of him.  Anglo-Irish pragmatism at its finest.

But Murphy’s Law rules, even in pandemics. So naturally as I was finishing the updates last week, I got word from my publisher that the ebook versions of the 2019 edition would shortly be appearing on Kindle and Apple Books. Ulp.


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 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.

How the Public Record Office burned

The central event for anyone researching Irish history is the destruction of the Irish Public Record Office in 1922. For the previous century-and-a-half, Ireland had been methodically measured, counted and recorded unlike anywhere else in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, precisely because it was contested territory. We had the first censuses, the earliest systematic maps, the first centralised police force, the first uniform property taxes, the first island-wide legal system.

The Public Record Office in 1914.  The Reading Room is in the section with the portico. The Record Treasury, with the large rounded windows, is behind.

And from 1867 we had a wonderful state-of-the-art Public Record Office to secure the records of all that activity.

The interior of the Record Treasury c. 1920.

The broad outlines of what happened in 1922 have long been clear. The opponents of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty occupied the Four Courts campus (which contained the Public Record Office) in April 1922. Their aim was to force the Treaty signatories, their former comrades-in-arms, to choose between upholding the Treaty and starting a civil war or resuming the war against Britain.

On June 28 1922, after an ultimatum was rejected,  the pro-Treaty forces began an assault and bombardment of the Four Courts that resulted in the complete destruction of the PRO and all the contents of its Record Treasury three days later, on Friday June 30.

Bombarding the Four Courts from the south Quays. One of the artillery pieces had originally been placed across the river, took a shot at a sniper in the dome, missed and landed the shell in grounds of the British Army HQ in Kilmainham.

There followed almost a century of tit-for-tattery over who was to blame. Anti-Treaty zealots who mined the entire complex and wanted history to restart from Year Zero? Or incompetent Free-Staters using British Army artillery they couldn’t control?  Take your pick: Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael?

And there was always a convenient haziness around the exact sequence of events over that week in June 1922. No more. Michael Farmer’s The Battle of the Four Courts: the first three days of the Irish Civil War (Head of Zeus, 2019) is a meticulous work of micro-history that assembles the story hour-by-hour  weighing maps and photographs against eye-witness accounts to reconstruct an utterly convincing version of what happened.


As Fewer tells it, there is plenty of blame to go around. The Anti-Treatyites stored their huge supplies of munitions in a building adjacent to the Record Treasury (the “Headquarters Block”) and booby-trapped it with fire-bombs.  The Free-Staters breached the defences of the complex by blowing a large hole in the Church Street side of the PRO Reading Room and attacking through it.  The attack triggered the booby-trapped munitions and the resulting explosion was immense.

The breach in the Church Street side of the Reading Room.
The Headquarters Block explosion

The explosion demolished most of the block and started a ferocious fire. It did not destroy the Record Treasury, but blew out all of the vast glass windows and left the records at the mercy of the holocaust.  It took hours for them to be consumed, while the Dublin Fire Brigade looked on helplessly, unable to intervene for fear of further explosions. After it had burnt itself out, everything in the Treasury was gone.

The Treasury after the fire

The simple fact is that neither side cared a damn about the records. They were young men prepared to kill or die for their beliefs about the future. What did the past matter?

There are some positives from what happened, if you squint really hard. First, 1922 simplified Irish research, though perhaps only in the way  that Cromwell simplified Ireland. It is also one of the main reasons so much basic Irish material (the bits that survived) is so widely available for free on Irish government websites such as, and Never underestimate the power of institutional shame.

There are also attempts to put things right. The successor to the PRO, the National Archives, is very gingerly restoring some of the burnt bits in time for the centenary. And Beyond 2022 is aiming to repopulate as many of the empty Treasury record bays as possible. Good luck to them.

Whatever happened to Hindenburgh McHugh?

One of the first lessons you learn as a genealogist is that all names are equal. So you keep a straight face when you come across ‘Gelida Winterbottom’ or ‘Annette Curtin’.

Dublin voters, Glenbeigh Road 1939

Still, there are names that stick in the memory. I first came across Hindenburgh McHugh about ten years ago doing quality assessment on the Dublin city twentieth-century voters’ lists. There he was at 10 Glenbeigh Road in Cabra in 1939, large as life. Clearly, he had been christened during the First World War by parents who were not on the side of the Allies –  Paul von Hindenburg was the commander of the German Army from 1914 to 1918. This was a noisy raspberry blown in the face of Britain, the equivalent of calling a child “Winston” in Nazi Germany.

Hindenburg, not McHugh

A name like that should jump out of the birth registrations. But no, not a trace. So I asked myself how else would someone use a registration for protest. Insist on the Irish language? Sure enough, there he was on February 15 1915, ‘Hendenburg Michaél Mac Aodha’, son of Michaél Mac Aodha, Linotype operator, and Eilis née Ní Dubhda. Two noisy raspberries to Britain.

An Irish-speaking anti-British printer in Dublin in 1915? You can almost smell Sinn Féin. And there in the pensions collection was a 400-page file relating to the battles of Michael’s widow to secure a pension. He died in 1924 from TB contracted when he was imprisoned at the end of the War of Independence, having fought in North King Street in the Easter Rising. Her campaign was eventually successful and the process produced enough material for a full-scale biography.

His piano lessons, billed to the Military Pensions Board

But what of Hindenburgh himself? The name appears only once in the voters’ lists, in the very earliest surviving volume. But a ‘Michael McHugh’ appears in Glenbeigh Road later in the 1940s. The Second World War was very different to the First. Perhaps it might have been more politic not to have the name of the man who had invited Hitler to become Reichskanzler. Or maybe he just got fed up with the hassle. The Johnny Cash Boy-Named-Sue school of child-rearing can be very tiresome.

A search of death records up to the 1960s turned up a Michael McHugh of about the right age registered in 1964, listed as “Manager, Case room, Irish Press”. The Irish Press obituary (at included a photograph and a full account of his own life and of his father’s part in the War of Independence. No mention of his first name, though.

There are two lessons. First, if you want your descendants to be able to find you easily, call your children something conspicuous. I suggest “NotDonald” or “NotBoris”.  Second, I appear to have too much time on my hands.