Most researchers are familiar with two types of record associated with cemeteries, headstone transcripts and church burial registers. But headstones were a luxury and burial registers, where they exist, are usually very uncommunicative about the family of the deceased.
However, a third class of cemetery record also exists, much less well known and much more informative. These are the local authority interment records.
What are they and why were they created?
The Public Health (Ireland) Act 1878 created public authority sanitary districts under the control of the Poor Law Boards of Guardians, and gave them responsibility for sewage, drains, water supply and … cemeteries. When county councils came into existence in 1898 they inherited this mortuary responsibility and, it would appear, took it more seriously than their predecessors. At any rate, they began to keep records of every burial in the graveyards they controlled.
And what records they were! Most included the plot, the address, the date of death, the age at death, the cause of death, marital status, occupation, date of burial, next of kin …
They were never intended to be public records, their relatively late start made them less obvious as genealogical sources and many have not survived, but over the past few years, some local authorities have begun to open them up for research. As guides to extended families, and clues for possible living relatives, they are wonderful. And sometimes, in the level of personal detail, just a little hair-raising.
Here’s a list of any I know are available, either online or in local archives. If you know of any others, please tell me and I’ll add them.
I got bored last Wednesday and decided to map the 1901 census. By Saturday, it was done.
Having already mapped the District Electoral Divisions for the 1911 census, it was clear that there would be less work for 1901, but I was surprised (to put it mildly) at how little was involved. Most of the effort went into tracking down DEDs which the National Archives had recorded under different spellings for 1901 and 1911. Grumble, grumble.
It’s all too easy to trip over so many maps, so I also introduced a new, maps-only navigation box (e.g. Sugrue). Because it’s now simple to skip from 1850s to 1901 and 1911, one of the unexpected things that’s emerging is how persistent some variant spellings can be in the same area over multiple generations. Have a look at McGrory versus McCrory, for example. Prima facie evidence that, though the Gaelic original of both surnames may have been Mac Ruaidhrí, there were (at least) two distinct family lines by the mid-nineteenth century.
(But wait, I hear you say. Don’t you beat everyone around the head about how unreliable Irish surnames are as indicators of lineage? Aren’t you contradicting yourself?
To which the response is that, as well as the slipperiness of surnames, one of my other axioms is that every generalisation you make about Irish genealogy can be contradicted. Even this one.)
Anyway. The 1901 map has all the flaws of the 1911. There’s still the long grind of adding large numbers of long-incidence surnames to my surnames variants tables. My summer holidays.
The site now has maps of Pender’s survey of 1659, Griffith’s (1847-64), the GRO birth indexes 1864-1913 and the 1901 and 1911 censuses.
That’s a long two-century gulf before Griffith’s. Any suggestions for a good country-wide 18th-century data-set?
The Local Government Act of 2001 provided that every local authority in Ireland had to make arrangements for the proper management, custody, care and conservation of local records and local archives. Before then (with the noble exceptions of Cork, Dublin and Limerick), local record-keeping in Ireland was piecemeal at best.
The imposition of this new role did not have an immediate or uniform effect. Some councils just added the new job to the in-tray of their long-suffering county library. Others went about setting up an archives, but only for the council’s own records. But many, painfully, with prodding and funding assistance from central government, eventually set up dedicated archives with a broad remit, to serve as a focal point for local studies, and to preserve and make available local records.
The fruits of the policy are only now becoming apparent, at least to me. An entire network of new Irish record-holding institutions is coming into existence. As ever in Ireland, when they’re good, they’re very very good. And when they’re bad … we’ll just move on in silence.
More recently, the best have begun to make collections available online, free, naturally. Here are some I’ve come across:
And of course Dublin City Archive has a fantastic (disclosure: I coded them) collection of heritage databases at databases.dublincity.ie.
Even where records are not searchable online, most of the new archives have excellent online lists of their records, many of which are only now coming to light: the estate records in Wexford, Waterford and Donegal, the Grand Jury records of Louth and Clare, the historic photographs and maps popping up everywhere.
To find the archive (if there is one) for the area you’re interested in, just google “[county] archives”.
God bless you, Section 80 of the Local Government Act, 2001.
There’s a lot of good sense to be had in a lot of reggae lyrics, but not in Junior Murvin’s ‘Solomon’ :
‘Solomon was the wisest man,
But he didn’t know the secrets that I know now.
I am wiser than Solomon …’
Every time I listen to it – frequently – I can’t resist quibbling: Yes, Junior, we now know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, that Beijing is in China and that potatoes taste good with butter and salt, and poor old Solomon didn’t know any of those things. But that doesn’t mean we’re any wiser than he was.
It’s all too easy to condescend to your ancestors, even if you’re a good Rastafarian. Time and distance naturally simplify things, and there is no doubt that our lives are very different to lives lived even 100 years ago. It is hard not think of people who lived in previous centuries as somehow less complicated than us.
Genealogy is a good cure for such thinking. The more you find out about your ancestors, the more complicated and individual they become. You can’t think of them as quaint, fixed to the one spot, sepia-toned. They moved and worried and loved and lied, and they were just as uncertain about their futures as we are about ours.
The biggest contrast between their lives and ours is comfort: we have central heating and anaesthetics. That doesn’t make us more complex, or smarter, or wiser.
And the most substantial thing that they didn’t know, and that we know now, is what was going to happen to them. There is irony in this, and some sadness, but no basis for disrespect.
The only real difference between us and our ancestors is that they’re dead and we’re not. And that’s not going to last.
I was once told by an American psychotherapist that the Irish have serious problems with bereavement. Apparently we find it very hard to let go. Maybe that’s the reason we have such a thing about graveyards. Because we certainly do have a thing about graveyards.
Last week I checked the site historicgraves.com and discovered the number of places covered had more than quadrupled in three years. It took two whole days just to add them into the listings (check out Limerick just to get a sense of the scale).
Historicgraves depends on volunteer community projects and often records much more than the inscriptions, going into the detail of the heritage of each graveyard. It currently has transcripts for 484 cemeteries, mostly in Cork, Limerick and Tipperary, though there are also significant numbers elsewhere.
There are also two other Irish groups wholly dedicated to transcription and free publication of inscriptions, www.discovereverafter.com and www.irishgraveyards.ie. Both are private companies supplying cemetery management services, with online transcript collections as a kind of by-product. Discovereverafter is based in Derry, with most of its transcripts from counties Derry, Tyrone and Armagh (118 graveyards currently). Irishgraveyards is based in Castlebar, and covers mainly Mayo, Galway and Donegal (74 graveyards).
All three adhere to the current gold standard: transcript, headstone photo and map. Despite their current regional focus, all three also appear to have country-wide ambitions.
The work of previous generations of transcribers hasn’t gone away either. For Northern Ireland by the Ulster Historical Foundation has a huge transcript-only collection for Ulster at ancestryireland.com. Other IFHF members are putting their collections on rootsireland.ie, with Derry, East Galway, South Mayo, North Tipperary and Westmeath leading the pack.
And of course more than a century’s-worth of published transcripts are also out there.
The Journal of the Association for the Preservation of the Memorials of the Dead ran from 1888 to 1934, recording tens of thousands of inscriptions, many now gone – the journals up to 1909 are now online at archive.org.
Brian Cantwell’s life’s work, Memorials of the Dead, comprising c. 24,500 inscriptions, covering all of Wicklow, Wexford and part of Dublin, is widely available in major libraries and is online at FindMyPast. Seaboard Mayo and Galway sites were transcribed by his son Ian, whose site www.iancantwell.com includes indexes, as well as an interesting history of memorial transcripton and methodological analysis.
Albert Casey’s gargantuan 17-volume O’Kief, Cosh Mang, Slieve Lougher, and Upper Blackwater in Ireland covers 42 graveyards in Cork and 36 in Kerry.
I could go on …
One of the strange upshots is that more and more cemeteries have multiple transcripts. Current leaders (as far as I know) St. James’ (Mervue) in Galway and Agher in Meath, each transcribed no fewer than four separate times.
Mairtín Ó Cadhain’s Irish-language masterpiece Cré na Cille takes place in a graveyard, with the dead giving out to each other, making scurrilous jokes and complaining about the living. I suspect a sequel might have them pleading with transcribers to leave them alone for a while.
Identifying an Irish place-name can be maddeningly frustrating. You’ve found that all-important birth record and it supplies a precise address. Now you can unlock all those records of property, tax, inheritance, tenancy … Except that the place-name appears nowhere else. There is no Ballygowanowadat recorded anywhere except this one blasted birth record. Argh.
So here are a few tips to help crack tough place-names.
First, keep in mind that the standardisation of place-names by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s covers only the OS maps themselves and Griffith’s Valuation. In every other record, record-keepers wrote down what they thought they heard. That could be a “sub-denominational” name omitted by the OS or (more likely) a phonetic form of a heavily accented local version of the name.
Accents live in vowels, so if you’re searching a database that allows wild-card searches, replace the vowels with wild-cards.
Second, remember that family lore about places of origin is the product of a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. What has arrived to you is encrusted with layers of your forebears’ mishearings. There are many castles in Kerry, but nowhere called “Kerry Castle”. But there is a village called Carracastle at the other end of the country, in Mayo.
We are now blessed with multiple online resources to identify placenames, so let me list them:
Published in 1861, this uses the Ordnance Survey standard versions of place-names as assembled for the 1851 census. Because a facsimile reprint was published by The Genealogical Publishing Company in the 1970s, database transcripts are widely available.
On this site. Expanded to include Registrar’s Districts as well as Dublin, Belfast and Cork street names. Wildcards possible.
Seanruad is a venerable and very thorough version, without wild-cards
The 1901 Townlands Index
This is the master-list used for the 1901 census. More extensive than 1851, – it includes District Electoral Divisions – but less widely available, simply because it has not been reprinted. The only online version is at the Irish Genealogical Research Society’s site. The search interface is a bit clunky, but actually allows you to pull up some unique data, for example all place-names on a particular OS sheet. And it has wild-cards.
Logainm is the Irish (Gaelic) for “place-name”. The site was originally set up by the now-defunct Irish Placenames Commission, whose mission was to identify the “original” Irish-language versions of anglicised names for official use. A large part of the site’s work still involves supplying these official versions, but it also provides public access and is more comprehensive than the Townlands Indexes, including geographic features and sub-denominational names omitted from these. It also has some wonderful historic maps in its “Toponymy resources” section. But no wild-cards.
OpenStreetMap.org is an open-source, collaborative project to map the world and make the results available free. Townlands.ie is the Irish end and is becoming more and more useful. Its main limitations are its focus on the present-day rather than the historic, and the need to use exact spelling. No wild-cards.
Google maps can be useful, though they seem to have embedded place-names that don’t show up on the map. More useful is just a blanket search for someplace that’s not turning up elsewhere. It may be via a match report for the under-eights football team or a local estate agent, but if the name exists and is in use, you’ll find it.
Irish place-names are much more than simple geographical indicators of location. They can embody family information (“Toomevara”, the tomb of the O’Mearas), folklore (The Paps of Anu) or even politics: in my own family’s home parish of Moore in south Roscommon are two townlands “Liberty” and “America”. The names must have come into existence in the late 1700s, local statements of solidarity with the American and French Revolutions.
The ethnicity calculations used by ancestry.com and many other commercial DNA testers are toxic hokum. Wonderful marketing tools precisely because they appeal to the lizard back-brain in all of us, they gloss over the fact that there is no such thing as “ethnicity”. Peoples and differences and communities there are aplenty, but ahistorical essences that define groups as this ethnicity or that? Puh-lease.
Ancestry’s assertion that “the ethnicity estimate provides a distant picture of a customer’s genetic origins, perhaps hundreds or thousands of years ago”, is just plain wrong. What you get is a comparison of your test results with a (pretty paltry) reference panel, reasonably accurate to four generations, less accurate to five, sometimes useful to six and almost always worthless before then. A distant picture it is not. (For more on the flaws of this stuff, see UCL’s “Debunking Genetic Astrology“.)
So when ancestry.com announced “Genetic Communities” as a new feature of its DNA service, I was sceptical, to say the least. Then I saw the map produced by their analysis of my own test, and I was blown away. None of my family tree is on ancestry, so it was produced purely by DNA analysis. And they hit the bulls-eye on the detailed North Connacht and Galway origins of all 16 of my 3 X great-grandparents.
How could they do this, working purely from the DNA? According to the white paper accompanying the new service, a “genetic community” is simply a group of people from more or less the same place who married each other over multiple generations, a nice, loose target, and much more sensible than “ethnicity”. They arrived at their more-than-300 communities by detailed meta-analysis of the DNA matches in more than 2 million samples. Instead of just comparing my test with all the others and seeing to whom I was most related, they took all those to whom I was related and examined who they were related to. And so on and so on.
It was then possible with the aid of an algorithm for detecting densely connected sub-networks within large datasets (the “Louvain Method“, if you must know) to identify the groups most closely related to each other. They then went on to use their own online trees to associate these groups with particular locations, and then ran the whole process again and again to zero in on sub-sub-groups. The granularity of the results is truly extraordinary. In Ireland alone, there are (so far) seventeen different subgroups, ranging from East Donegal to West Cork to North Connacht to Connemara. Each group is presented alongside a series of good short histories explaining the history of the area over the past two centuries and its outmigrations to the US.
Ancestry has used the critical mass of its huge collection of DNA test results to provide a genuine, scientifically-grounded genetic atlas of the past 200 years, no less.
I still have my quibbles (to misquote Charlton Heston, “They’ll prise the quibbles from my cold, dead hands”.) There are unexplained sciency-looking variations in the size of the location circles on the map: what do they represent? Are they unique to each test analysis, or generic? How were the precise-looking boundaries of the communities arrived at? Above all, why is it not possible to see the data underlying the maps by clicking through?
But quibbles they remain. The whole thing is nothing short of deadly.
Only one thing is certain about absolutely every ancestor you have: all of them had at least one child. Obviously. Otherwise you wouldn’t exist.
Does this mean that everyone alive today is a winner in an evolutionary competition to reproduce?
With a world population of 7 billion, we are a spectacularly successful species, but self-congratulation is a bit premature. Before we start clapping each other on the back and congratulating ourselves as champions bred of the loins of champions, it’s worth examining some details.
First, the genes of even the most fecund of our ancestors eventually cease to exist. A child receives exactly half of their genetic makeup from each parent, meaning that the original genome is diluted further and further with each generation. So it doesn’t matter if Niall of the Nine Hostages was your 35 times great-grandfather. There’s almost none of him left in you.
And what about all those who have no living descendants? Were they all spinster aunts and bachelor uncles? Not at all. Entire multiple-generation dynasties of the rich and powerful, spawning dozens of rich and powerful children who had dozens of children in their turn, have simply vanished from the face of the earth. Burke’s Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited and Extinct Peerages of the British Empire provides plenty of object lessons (and is always good for a little schadenfreude).
In fact, the iron laws of statistics show that there was a point, somewhere between 5 and 15 millennia ago, where each individual then alive was either the ancestor of every individual alive today, or has no living descendants at all. Genetic genealogy calls it the “Identical ancestors point”, because, logically, earlier than this point everyone now alive shares precisely the same set of ancestors.
Like a lot of genealogical musing, this stuff can seem very trivial or very profound, but it’s hard to stop thinking about it once you start.
When people complain to me about transcription errors in our shiny new databases, I try to reassure them: “Notch your scepticism up to 11, come at the records from as many angles as possible and always remember that these errors are the price you pay for having the databases in the first place.”
As a source, the Books’ main virtue is that they exist. If we had the censuses destroyed in 1922, they’d be a quirky footnote, a textbook example of blinkered Irish sectarianism shooting itself in the foot. Supporting your clergy by imposing a tax on near-destitute members of a rival church was hardly a recipe for inter-faith harmony.
But they are now virtually the only census substitutes for most places in the 1820s and 1830s, and the NAI online collection is the only route of access. And it’s god-awful.
First, the quality of the personal name and place name transcriptions is only wojus. In a single parish, Knock in Mayo, I’ve counted at least ten mistakes for the surname Flatley: Flattey, Hattley, Halley, Hattely, Hatley, Huttley, Slatterly, Slattery, Thally, and Harley.
OK, but at least we can use the online images as if we were at a microfilm reader and just ignore the database?
No. The parish names are jumbled up so badly, it’s impossible to be sure what images you’re looking at. To take Carlow alone, the link for Aghade takes you to Aghada (Kerry), Clonmelsh to Clonmult (Cork), Lorum to Loughbraccan (Meath), Painestown (Carlow) to Painstown (Meath) … And the online correction facility provides no way of pointing out gross navigational problems like these.
Then last week, while wandering idly through the FamilySearch online catalogue, I came across the listing for the original microfilm collection on which the NAI site is based. The layout makes it clear that the originals were organised into 140 bundles alphabetised by parish name. So bundle #1 ran from Abbey to Aghaboy and bundle #140 from Wallstown to Youghalarra. (and incidentally bundle #45 Drung to Duncormick was never microfilmed at all and so is just not digitised).
All the mistaken parish identifications are there on FamilySearch too, but seeing the original microfilms laid out like this makes it possible to burrow down to the actual start point of each tithe book. I’ve done it for Carlow (here), but with the results linked to FamilySearch rather than NAI. For one thing, the FamilySearch online microfilm reader has previous/next links, praised be the Saints. For another, where there are database transcripts, they appear below the images, providing (limited) help in deciphering.
There’s a lot more work to be done to make the other 25 counties actually useable. I don’t think anyone else is going to do it.
They’re not. All the other records in the world are weird. Irish records are the only normal ones.
‘Did you see my little Jimmy marching With the soldiers up the avenue? There was Jimmy just as stiff as starch Just like his father on the seventeenth of March. Did you notice all the lovely ladies Casting their eyes on him? Away he went to live in a tent Over in France with his regiment. Were you there, and tell me, did you notice? They were all out of step but Jim’
OK, maybe a little weird, but with good reason.
In April 1922, in the series of events that began the short but vicious Irish Civil War, a group of Republican guerrilla fighters took over The Four Courts, the complex of buildings in the centre of Dublin that coincidentally housed the Public Record Office of Ireland. They used the most solid structure in the complex to house their large hoard of munitions. This was the Treasury store-room of the PRO.
When the phoney war ended on June 29th 1922, their opponents began to shell The Four Courts and on the morning of June 30th, a series of enormous explosions took place. The munitions dump inside the Treasury had detonated. As a result every single document in the Treasury was destroyed.
Those documents included:
The census records of 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851;
Church of Ireland parish records dating back to the 17th century;
Deeds going back as far as 1174;
Court records dating back to the 13th century;
Military records with details of local yeomanry from the 18th century;
Wills going as far back as 1500;
Records of the huge land transfers of the 17th century.
Before June 30th 1922, Ireland had one of the richest sets of historical documents on the planet. What happened on that day is the reason so much Irish research on periods before the 1850s is now focussed on bizarre, otherwise unimportant sources: tithe books, rent rolls, sectarian head-counts …
But what wasn’t in the Treasury is still there: fragments on their way back from the Reading Room or out for rebinding, finding aids, published copies … And of course many records were never in the PRO in the first place – other church records, civil registration records, local tax records, the 1901 and 1911 censuses and much more.
If you’re researching German ancestors, you have to deal with records written in the German language. If you’re researching Russians, you’ll come up against Russian. If you have Irish, you’ll be looking at records apparently in English, but distorted by the huge background presence of a completely different language, Gaelic.
Take surnames, for example.
Well into the nineteenth century – especially in the poorest areas of the West and North from which there was most migration – the Irish language, Gaelic, was the language of everyday life. So when a baptism or marriage or burial was recorded, most of the people being recorded supplied their names in Gaelic. But no written records of these events were ever kept in Gaelic. So the record-keeper somehow had to import those Gaelic surnames into English.
The result was an extraordinary range of variation, with names mangled and distorted out of all recognition. First the venerable Gaelic prefixes Ó and Mac (meaning “grandson of” and “son of”) were treated as nuisances to be got rid of. Then the English-speaking record-keeper wrote down what he heard. Or what he thought he heard. Or what he thought the meaning of the surname was. Or a completely different English surname that just sounded a bit similar.
So Ó Maoildeirg (meaning “grandson of the red monk”) became Mulderrig. But it also became Reddington: I’ve seen members of the same family baptised as both. Mac Giolla Bhríde (“son of the follower of St. Bridget”) became Bride and McBride and Gilbride and Kilbride. Mac an Bhreithiún (“son of the judge”) is in the records as Breheny and Brehon and Judge and Abraham. Ó hIongardáil became the stout, bully-beef English surname Harrington.
In sum, one of the biggest obstacles to successful research in Irish records is the lack of appreciation of the extraordinary variation in the written records of Irish surnames. They are unimaginably slippery.
There are so many of you and so few of us
The relationship between Ireland and the descendants of those who left Ireland is unique. There are over ten times more people claiming Irish descent in the US alone than there are in the Old Country itself.
For a long time, this was a source of shame in Ireland – what kind of a country forces so many of its people to leave? Genealogy, for the Irish overwhelmingly a process of re-knitting family connections broken by emigration, was bizarre and unrespectable.
“We spent a long time sweeping all that under the carpet, don’t be bringing it out now”.
In the 1990s, that began to change. For whatever reason, we began to come to terms with Ireland’s history and official attitudes to what was now our “disapora” began to shift. The Irish nation became looser and baggier, to include Irish-America, Irish-Australia, Irish-Canada. (Irish-Britain is still a bit of a stretch, but we’re getting there.)
The effect has been that it is now straighforward to take any Irish family back to the mid-nineteenth century, a revolutionary change completely unforeseeable even two or three years ago. And Irish research is the least commercialised of any English-speaking country.