Sausages, Genealogy TV and WTF?

The new Irish series of Who Do You Think You Are? kicked off last week and once again,  despite myself,  I enjoyed it immensely. The franchised format is restrictive and repetitive – a celebrity finds out their ancestry at the same time as the viewer, travels to distant record offices, discovers contrasting family branches and solves knotty research problems by looking in a big book in a picturesque church.

Picturesque church

But RTE (and their production company Animo) have grasped very well that the  genealogy is only a pretext for telling stories and they can make those stories resonate with their audience, humanising history by making it family history. Also getting a celeb to blub onscreen is good.

The bould Damien

I was especially riveted by the first show in the series, which dealt with singer Damien Dempsey, not just because the stories were excellent, but because I had been doing research for him for the past three years. So my jaw hit the floor as what appeared to be my research emerged from the mouths of a variety of historians and genealogists. I paused the list of credits to see if I had a mention, but nothing. Wtf? says I to myself.

So I emailed the friend responsible for organising the show’s research and asked her “Wtf?” She had never heard of my research. So nobody stole my work.  She had had to duplicate it because she didn’t know it existed. I then emailed the bould Damien and asked him “Wtf?” And he responded that he hadn’t told the production company about my research. Wtf?

He didn’t say why, but I presume part of the deal was that he had to be discovering things onscreen at the same time as the viewer and so had to be able to feign ignorance. He did a great job of feigning. I foresee many starring roles in the Gaiety panto in his future.

Damien’s future?

To cap it all, I’m appearing myself in a short segment of one of the next episodes, presenting a piece of research that I didn’t do. Ironic or what?

The moral (to paraphrase Bismarck) is that genealogy TV is like a sausage. Best not to see how it’s made.

Definitely half-full

One of the many mixed blessings to emerge from the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922 is the attention that we have been obliged to give to records that are fragmentary, or very local in scope, or just downright peculiar. After almost a century, however, it is hard not to feel that desperation has already forced us into every nook and cranny. There are just a few unexplored frontiers left, and estate papers are probably the most valuable of these.

National Library of Ireland Ms 12790

Between 1700 and 1850 the majority of the population lived as small tenant farmers on large estates owned by English or Anglo-Irish landlords. Inevitably, the administration of these estates produced mouth-watering quantities of paper: maps, tenants’ lists, rentals, account books, lease books and much more. But the records are not systematic, vary enormously in the areas and periods they cover and in their level of detail, and in many cases have simply not survived. Those that have survived are scattered across multiple archives and libraries. As well as Ireland, many of the larger landlords also had holdings in England and Wales, and many records of Irish estates have ended up in English and Welsh archives. Tracking down these surviving records has long been beyond the stamina of all but the most stubborn of researchers.

Gortnalamph townland in 1800 in the Earl of Leitrim estate papers (NLI Ms 12791)

The Landed Estates website (, a project of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway, has been a precious beacon of light since 2008, bringing together precise location data, photographs, published material and information on the scope and location of surviving records for estates in Connacht and  Munster.  The level of detail is exemplary, providing an extrordinary insight into just how interlinked many of the landed families were. The integration with Google maps allows a visualisation of the relative positions of the estates, a good rough guide to an area you’re interested in.

Above all, the project should be providing a wonderful central storage point for all the information emerges in the future. However, nothing has been added for at least five years. What about all those juicy Headfort estate papers in Meath or the wonderful Ulster collection in PRONI?

Yes, the glass is nicely half-full. Please fill it.

Lord Leitrim’s place. Not Gortnalamph


Not a goldmine

IrishGenealogy, I love you

Many times I’ve sung the praises of the Irish public service’s role in the recent revolution in Irish genealogy.  What happened, mostly, is that individual civil servants stuck their necks out to do what they saw as the right thing, not just for their own institutions but for the country and for the descendants of those who were forced to leave. Wonderful things we now take for granted – the online civil registration records, the National Archives census site, the National Library parish register images – are there not because there was an overarching master-plan (God forbid) but because individuals just did it.

The problem is that such decisions can all too easily be reversed. A small but worrying recent example is Ordnance Survey Ireland.  When they initially digitised their map archive, it was available on an expensive subscription website, presumably because someone in the office said “We’re sitting on a goldmine here, lads!” When it turned out not to be a goldmine, they sensibly picked themselves up and moved on, making the entire set free at They made it possible to lay historic maps over contemporary aerial images, create direct links into the historic maps based on latitude and longitude, even customise layers on the historic maps to highlight graveyards or forges or asylums or turloughs – anything that was recorded on the original.

Glorious Oughterard in 1839

Ah, happy, bygone days.

First, in a fit of copyright cold feet, (“But what about copyright, lads?”) a crude intervening map was overlaid on the historic 25″ and 6″ maps, making it difficult to zoom out and get overviews.

And now is completely gone, replaced by Gone is the ability to link directly to locations. Gone are the layers of graveyards and forges. In their stead, is a new ‘improved’ system.

Definitely slicker

In defence of OSI, the old application was getting very old and insecure (“But what about security, lads?”). The main purpose of the organisation is to supply map services to other arms of the state, not to pander to a few heritage map nuts. And the maps are still there, still layerable and still free. They’re just not as searchable or accessible.

It’s a pity, not a tragedy. The real cause of the shiver up my spine is the evidence that wonderful decisions made ad-hoc can so easily be reversed.

More than Family

No matter where in the world your ancestors came from, genealogy eventually shades off into local history. Because of the destruction of so many records in 1922, in Ireland we reach that point much sooner than most other places. I recently reached it myself.

More Lohans and Crehans than you can shake a stick at

The problem was to interpret records from an early baptismal register from Killian parish in east Galway. Over the first three decades of the 19th century, dozens of families of the same name were recording baptisms, using and reusing a tiny number of forenames. To cap it all, many of the placenames were not listed in any reference sources.

On examining property records and maps, it emerged that there were actually multiple small rundale villages spread over three townlands. Rundale was a tradition of land sharing very close to medieval European practices, which lasted in Ireland up to the mid 19th century and beyond. Small strips of land were co-operatively managed by extended groups of up to 20 or so households, and periodically redistributed. It was deeply uneconomic and loathed by landlords, but the people involved led an intensely rich communal life, with a wealth of traditions, musical, verbal, folkloric, culinary.

Ballynacorra 1838

Looking at the 1830s map of these mini-villages, some things became clearer. At last I understood the extended family’s weird long-standing attachment to an apparently nondescript patch of East Galway.

It also became clear that I was never going to be able to sort out one family from another with baptismal records, or indeed ever. My idea of what makes up a family just didn’t apply. Looking at the villages on the map, with their tight nets of in-facing houses, vegetable gardens and outlying fields, I could see these people working, dancing, telling stories, intermarrying generation after generation, with intermingling lives that did not have the boundaries that I take for granted.

Even by the 187os the field patterns are almost identical

I’m pretty sure I’ll never uncover the names of the direct generations before 1800.  But there’s plenty of compensation in the vivid sense how they lived.

An austere and lofty bunch

Archivists are an austere and lofty bunch, forever struggling with the contradiction between preserving their beloved records and having to make them available to the grubby-fingered public. And utter impartiality is required  – that collection of 1930s postcards has to be just as important as a set of medieval royal charters.

So it is a rare and wonderful day, the archival equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, when an archivist is captured by a set of records and devotes herself to understanding and making them intelligible. That seems to have happened to Frances McGee, former director of the National Archives of Ireland, and the result is her extraordinary The archives of the valuation of Ireland, 1830–65 (Four Courts Press, 2018).

More than any other set of Irish records, the manuscript maps and notebooks that predate the publication of the Primary Valuation are difficult to grasp in their entirety. Partly, this is because they can be very technical, concerned with producing a uniform property-tax base across the entire island under difficult and changing physical and legal conditions. Partly, it is down to the records having been held by different institutions. For researchers, there can seem to be a bewildering plethora of overlapping record-types.

As in the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant by touch, we have until now only been able to understand parts of the collection. Frances McGee shows us the full magnificent beast.

Parts of her book are painful but necessary, a systematic analysis of each of the class of notebooks produced at each stage of the different valuing processes. But the pain is well worth it. Finally it is possible to see how and why they all relate to each other.

The section on Valuation maps is a revelation. The notebooks were only one part of the valuing process – the field and office maps were absolutely central. Once NAI completes the conservation and digitization of its more than 12,000 valuation maps, there is no doubt they will revolutionise Irish local and family history before 1865.

The book comes to life when the author allows her enthusiasm for the documents’ worms-eye view of pre-Famine Ireland to shine through, quoting numerous examples: one valuator’s description of the state of a building in Ballina, Co. Mayo in 1841:

“This was used as a cholera hospital and in consequence could not since be let as a dwelling. Is now let to the hunting club for the huntsman and the offices as kennels”;

Muff, Donegal in 1834:

“a place of no trade and only two fairs in the year”.

The townland of Ballyrune in Limerick in 1849:

“All the tenants in this townland were ejected on 1 April 1849.; There is no part of the land at present occupied.”

My main criticism of the book is that it treats only the 30,000 items currently held by NAI, saying very little about records held elswhere. It also works on the unspoken assumption that all of these records are currently available to the public, which is far from the case. The treatment of the collection online at, the only current access for the grubby-fingered public, is a little too austere and lofty: “Some documents are searchable online for free …[at]“.  Well, yes. Which ones?

If you’d like more, I’ll be speaking about the full Valuation Office archive (and channelling Frances McGee’s book) on Friday next at the Celtic Connections conference in Boston.

We have history

A few years ago, Cork historian Barry Keane came across a Home Office file in the UK National Archives, HO 317/78, “Activities of named paid informants against Irish secret societies”. (The wonderfully bland online catalogue entry is here.) It covered various years between 1886 and 1910, but almost all of it had been redacted. When Mr Keane appealed to the Home Office for the missing information, the entire file was withdrawn. He requested a review under the Freedom of Information Act, was turned down, appealed to the Freedom of Information Tribunal and finally lost that appeal after a two year wait.

Nobody will talk to them if we find out who spilled the beans in 1898

His appeal was rejected on two grounds. The first was precisely the reason our own Central Statistics Office gave for not releasing the 1926 census: if people know they might be identified three generations into the future, they won’t co-operate now. This was laughable when put forward by the CSO, and even more so when a Metropolitan Police officer – behind a screen at the appeal hearing, no less – claimed that making the century-old informers file available would put the entire UK covert human intelligence system at risk. A very sensible minority dissent on the tribunal described this argument as “self-evidently absurd”.

The other reason for refusal, that descendants of those named in the file might be in danger, or exposed to opprobrium, is less absurd. Maybe Cork is now all forgiveness and sweetness and light, but I’m not so sure about elsewhere in Ireland. After a talk I gave in Armagh a few years back, one of the audience questions was from a woman who wanted to know where the historic files naming “the touts” were stored. I don’t think she was researching her own ancestors.

I’m with the tribunal majority on their decision. In Ireland, some things just take longer to become history.

You can make up your own mind: the full official transcript of the hearing is on the tribunal website.

How Gaelic surnames were Englished

Hereditary patronymic surnames, Ó (“grandson of”) and Mac (“son of”), were a central part of Gaelic Irish culture from at least the 11th century, testament to a deep need for public markers of family membership.

But this was not the product of some mystical Celtic yearning for blood connection. Far from it.

Not why the Gaels adopted surnames.

For almost 1,000 years, the main unit of Gaelic society was not the nuclear family as we conceive it, but a very particular version of the extended family, the derbhfhine, all the descendants of a common great-grandfather.

Among other things, property ownership rested with the derbhfhine, not the individual. So what you could own – cattle in particular –  depended on who your kin were. No wonder genealogy loomed so large and surnames that signalled kinship were so important.

Why the Gaels adopted surnames

The name you bore was transparent to those around you, not just, as today, a convenient marker, but instead laden with resonance: stories, possessions, reputations, feuds, homeplaces . . . Gaelic surnames were deeply ingrained in everyday social interactions, as vital and ordinary as language or weather or food.

Imagine, then, the reactions of the Gaels when the first English arrived. John Bird? George Winterbottom? William Featherstone? The initial response must have been simple hilarity. How could there be people with such ludicrous names, telling nothing of parentage and kin?

The laughing can’t have lasted long. Over the course of the long, catastrophic 17th century, the old Gaelic institutions crumbled under the weight of the English conquest and took with them the centrality of Gaelic surnames.

And after only a few generations, those whose grandparents had laughed at the opaque stupidity of English names were having their own names mangled into opacity by English-speaking administrators: Harrington, Waters, Rabbit, Kidney, Boner . . . all names deriving from perfectly traditional and transparent O and Mac patronymics were stripped of all their old significance to force them into English.

Have Irish surnames stopped changing?

After Independence, official Ireland understandably set about undoing the grievous distortions wrought on Gaelic surnames by English-speaking administrators. Every surname now had to have an official Irish-language school version, on the basis that we were all Gaels and had had our original names stolen from us.

For the purposes of officialdom, my father became Mac Grenacháin; when I went to school, I became O’Grianáin; my son was later dubbed Ó Gréacháin.

Never mind the tunnel view of history and the hair-raising presumption that Ireland was racially pure, the implicit understanding of surnames was simply nonsensical.

Because the most important fact about all surnames is that they are words. They don’t have DNA, go to any particular church, salute flags, vote or fight. They simply swim in the ever-changing sea of language, evolving as all languages do under the pressure of accents, education, fashion, politics, economics.

Martin (“The General”) Kayhill

For example, the American pronunciation of the surnames Cahill (“KAY-hill”) and Mahony (Ma-OWN-ey) often has Irish people sniggering up their sleeves. But these pronunciations are much closer to the original Irish-language versions of the names (Ó CATHmhaoil, Mac MaTHÚNa). The fork in culture between Irish-America and Ireland preserved something over there that we over here have anglicised more thoroughly.

Whether American or British, the language Irish surnames have swum in for almost two centuries is English. Seen in this light, the 20th-century Gaelicisation of surnames, the great wave of adoptions of O’s and Mc’s, was not the reclamation of something lost but a further evolution, a flawed reinvention of an imagined past – ask Theodore O’Kechuckwu, living at 1 Washington Street in Dublin in 1949.

Theodore is registered to vote at No. 1, between the Foleys and the Hogans

The evolution of surnames has not stopped, though it has slowed, not just in Ireland but throughout the developed world. Mass literacy and computer technology have make it more difficult for change to occur – simply seeing your name in print on a computer screen every day lends it apparent permanence.

Apparent only: I have no doubt that in a few centuries people will look back in amusement at our qnt srnm spllngs.


Free downloads from the (other) National Archives

The National Archives (the one at Kew in London) has a very irritating name. Which nation? It’s not Britain, since Scotland is excluded; it’s not the UK, since Northern Ireland is excluded; it’s not England, since Wales is included.

T other NA

Post-colonial nit-picking aside, TNA (even the acronym is annoying) is a wonderful and much under-appreciated resource for Irish research. Apart from British Army records, now largely available online on and, huge quantities of the records produced by imperial administrators in Ireland found their way back to London. For someone used to working with Irish records in Ireland, TNA’s vast, densely-populated archive series, many spanning multiple centuries, are simply stunning, like visiting a cathedral after a life spent in a cave.

One pew in the catherdral

The biggest problem has always been that the Archives is in London. Improving access is a long-standing priority and over the past decade, the online catalogue ( has become an extraordinary research tool in its own right, summarising in miniature many of the originals. After using it for years, I began to mine another generous feature, the “digital microfilm” service. TNA has digitised thousands of microfilms and is making them downloadable for free.

They are elephantine PDF files, slow to arrive and searchable only by hand, just like the microfilms themselves. But you don’t have to trek to Kew to see them. Among the records relevant to Ireland are Admiralty and Coast Guard records from 1816, the printed annual Army Lists, detailing every officer in the army from 1754, and the General Register Office Indexes to Foreign Returns of Births, Marriages and Deaths 1627-1917.

It has to be said that the site (deliberately?) makes the digitised films very awkward to get at. Start from the full list, read the accompanying step-by-step instructions very carefully,  and then just keep burrowing.

Whatever its flaws, this is genuine public service. Irish institutions please copy.

Thank you for your concern about my sanity

The clearance of the National Archives census correction emails backlog is approaching the half-way point, making it a good time to draw breath and take an overview.

I’ll have processed around 50,000 of the 100,000 emails by the end of June. Most of them cover multiple records, so they include about a quarter of a million suggested changes in all. So far, half are turning out to be accurate, a third are duplicates (corrections suggested more than once), and only 15% are downright inaccurate.

Over there with ye, accurate ones

The accurate are going live in monthly batches on, around 60,000 so far. Keep in mind that these corrections are exclusive to the NAI site – you won’t find them in the copies of the 1901 and 1911 censuses licensed by the commercial sites, Ancestry, FindMyPast and MyHeritage.

Most of the inaccurate suggestions are people trying to correct their ancestors’ mistakes, a self-evidently fruitless task. There are one or two along the lines of: “Forename: Dick; Surname: Head; Occupation: Nazi”, but a lot fewer than I expected. The vast majority of people take the accuracy of their ancestors’ records very seriously indeed. In some cases, so seriously that they go back every six months and enter the corrections again, hence the many duplicates. Patience, please.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not ploughing through every single email by hand. Extracting the suggested corrections into a database has made it possible to identify (some) duplicates programmatically, to pick out common errors, to weed out spam, to concentrate on corrected occupations only … In the end, though, it does come down to comparing the image with the suggestion. So really all I’m doing is varying the angle of attack in order to preserve my sanity. My dog has his doubts about how successful the effort has been.

Bertie, perhaps not the best judge of sanity

Sanity is also the pretext for my growing collections of gems. They’re not all transcription errors, though some of those are wonderful. I’m really hoping for a revival of the fine old Edwardian occupation of “penis tuner”,   and there’s no doubt a Trekkie fan of Mr. Sulu transcribed all those nuns as “Members of the Mr Suline Order”.

But some of the returns themselves give a nice flavour of the people they record. Hugh Holmes, the Lord Justice of Appeal in 1901, has four unmarried daughters in their twenties. He evidently feels the burden: under “Occupation” for all of them he enters “They toil not neither do they spin“. Edward Small, aged two in 1901, seems to have been teething. His father enters his occupation as “A Bawler“. And Bridget Cronin, the spoilt only child of John and Nora in Crohane in Kerry, is recorded as a “Bold Pet“.