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.
Like everyone else in Ireland, I’ve been aghast at the revelations of the treatment of the bodies of babies and infants who died in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home between the 1920s and the 1960s. Once again, we’re reminded how little value independent Ireland placed on its own children, with particular loathing and cruelty reserved for the children of the poorest and most vulnerable.
And it is Ireland that bears responsibility, not just the Catholic Church. The men and women who ran these institutions were our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, not alien occupiers dispatched from the Vatican, as some recent anti-Catholic commentary seems to imply. I remember my father jokingly threatening me with Salthill Industrial School for some misdemeanour in the early 1960s. He knew, and I knew, that there was horror behind its doors.
Bystanders most of us may have been, but innocent? No.
As a researcher, the aspect of the Tuam story that struck me most strongly was how local historian Catherine Corless went about retrieving the memory of the children who died in the Home. She examined all the local death records in order to identify the deaths of those who had died in the Home and then bought individual General Register Office print-outs at €4 each.
And of course all of these records are now free online and easily searchable up to 1964. And there are many other Mother and Baby Homes whose infant deaths have not been retrieved, where the memory of those children is still obscured.
So it’s now possible and simple to extend what Catherine did to those other children. This is a list of the fourteen homes being investigated by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.
Pick a home, go to the Advanced Search section of the IrishGenealogy civil records site and confine the search to that home’s Registration District, with the age at death 0, 1 or 2 . Then just work your way, year by year, through the death records, as Catherine did. It quickly becomes clear just how appalling the child death rates were in those institutions.
Where are they all buried? Almost none in marked graves, that’s for sure. At least the act of retrieving their names might begin the process of ensuring they are not completely forgotten.
Almost all the genealogy writing and coding I do is the product of advanced laziness. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors came about because I needed handy pigeonholes for all those source references I couldn’t be bothered to remember. The databases and websites arose out frustration at having to repeatedly check the same reference works in the same order – find a townland, identify the civil parish, work out the Catholic parish, check the diocese, check the dates, order the microfilm. Argh. Shortcuts, give me shortcuts!
So most of this website is the result of me building tools to make research easier for myself.
One of the problems with this approach is that it tends to favour just getting things done over deciding what to do or telling other people about what you’ve done. As Bill Gates once said, small organizations spend almost all their resources doing things, and large organizations spend almost all of theirs talking about what to do. And organizations don’t come any smaller than me.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that after ten months, I’ve finally got around to having a proper “What’s new?” page, with dated details of all the record references and new features I add, as I add them, and a proper “email me when you add something” service.
Many veteran researchers have a soft spot for the Registry of Deeds in Dublin. Research here is research as it should be, with much climbing up and down ladders hefting giant hand-written tomes, much poring over 200-year-old legal abbreviations and inhaling 200-year old dust. All that’s missing are the powdered wigs.
But an irksome aspect of recent research there has been the Registry’s official policy on photography. It is utterly bananas.
Every archive balances the contradiction between making records accessible to the public in the present and keeping them safe for the future. And every archive except the Registry has long recognized that encouraging readers to take digital images is a near-perfect answer: it decreases wear and tear on the originals and gives readers a chance to chew over complex records at their leisure. But the Registry bans cameras completely and polices the ban with CC-TV in every research room.
Now FamilySearch.org has rendered the ban moot. So moot, in fact, it couldn’t possibly be mooter. In 1950, the Mormons made a microfilm copy of all of the Registry’s records, Lands Indexes, Grantors’ Indexes, Memorial Books, the lot, all the way from its opening in 1708 to 1929, comprising a massive 2686 microfilms. And they are now digitising the microfilm and making it freely available online. So far, all the Grantors’ and Lands Indexes up to 1929 are complete, all of the eighteenth-century memorial books are complete and about 90% of 1800-1850 memorials are there. The intention appears to be to complete the set.
Hurrah. Almost everything of interest to genealogy is now online, and imaged very well indeed. So much for the camera ban.
Don’t get me wrong. Research on these records remains as cumbersome as it ever was: identify deeds of interest from the indexes; find the matching volume number, then the right page number, then the right memorial. But now, instead of humping 50-pound books up and down ladders, you’re downloading 500 MB microfilm files.
A couple of spin-off implications come to mind. First the heroic volunteer transcription site “Registry of Deeds Index Project Ireland” has depended up to now on its transcribers having physical access to the Mormon microfilms. With direct online access, it should gain hordes of new transcribers and gather serious speed. Hurrah again.
Second, I don’t think I’ll ever breathe that centuries-old dust again. Or maybe ever get out of my dressing-gown.
Every single human intervention in a record-set leaves its own layer of errors and omissions. Even the originals have mistakes. My own birth cert records my father as a farmer, something that irritated him immensely when he found out – he was proud he couldn’t tell one end of a cow from another. I presume the registrar in Portiuncula hospital in 1954 didn’t know Da’s occupation and made a reasonable guess. In 1950s rural Ireland he would have been right most of the time.
Add to that the errors made when the records are catalogued. And then the omissions when they’re microfilmed. And the ones that are overlooked when the microfilms are digitised. Not to mention the mistranscriptions.
It’s a wonder we can find anything at all.
What set me off on this was last week’s post about 1911 census returns imaged online but not transcribed. It produced an itch that had to be scratched: what about all the other 1911 returns that are missing? Some fell down the back of a desk early on and never made it to the National Archives. Some were missed by the Mormon microfilm team, but exist in hard copy in NAI. And some were microfilmed but never made it online, for reasons only known to the digitisers, Library and Archives Canada.
So I’ve scratched that itch and put together a master list of
online but untranscribed,
microfilmed but not online,
not microfilmed but in hard copy
gone, God knows where.
The sources are the Rootschat forum on the topic, NAI’s own list of what’s missing (don’t ask) and my own fevered scratchings. I hope it will provide a home for any other refugees.
The method used by the National Archives of Ireland to digitise its genealogical records was sensible and straightforward. It took the existing microfilms (all created by the LDS Church) as the starting point and used digital images created from the microfilms as the basis of transcription and to provide an online copy of the original.
So far so good.
The first result is that the online collections include any flaws in the microfilms. For instance, the 1901 microfilms omitted the reverse of all Form As, which contain useful place-name identifiers, and so these are missing from the online image collection. Or areas missed by the microfilm team – Ramelton Road in Letterkenny – are still offline only.
The second result is that it is possible to use the online image collections as if they were microfilm, scrolling forward and back through them in sequence.
How do you do this? In your browser address-bar, you’ll see something like “census.nationalarchives.ie/reels/nai002500860/”. Just add 1 to that number to go forward a frame and subtract 1 to go back.
But the real question is why in the name of all that’s holy would anyone want to treat these image collections as if they were microfilm? Haven’t we spent half our lives praying for an escape from microfilm?
We don’t get away that easy. Just one example: the 1911 finding aid used to oversee the transcriptions included a category “Townland”. Many enumerators’ returns for small, single-street villages left the townland name blank and entered the name under “City, Urban District, Town or Village”. But where the finding aid left the townland blank, the transcribers presumed there were no returns and left it untranscribed. So around forty smallish villages are imaged online, but not findable by searching the 1911 database of transcripts.
The only way to research them is by going to the initial image and scrolling through them by hand. Precisely as if you were at one of those blasted microfilm machines.
So now you know why you couldn’t find Ballaghdereen and Moate and Kinvara in 1911.
Below is a table of the omissions I know of, with a link to the initial file. Let me know if you come across more.
Street-villages untranscribed in 1911, but imaged online
[This post was originally published in March 2016, but got washed away in the Great Delete of June 2016. Joe Buggy wanted it back, so it's his fault. Paddy Waldron continues to unearth other missing returns at Rootschat.]
Griffith’s Valuation is an astounding achievement, a masterpiece of Victorian social quantification that measures every property on the island of Ireland with painstaking, pinpoint precision. But it is not a census, and to use it as a census substitute, you have to understand how it works.
Griffith was charged with producing a scientific basis for property taxation in Ireland, and that is exactly what he did. Every building and every field in the country was assessed in meticulous detail to produce a monetary figure that represented the income that property should produce every year. The results were published between 1847 and 1864 in a series of 301 volumes.
These volumes were a public statement of the property tax liabilities of the inhabitants of the areas they cover, and were open to challenge. So accuracy was paramount. And part of this accuracy was precision about the date of publication – property, then as now, was a moving target.
For researchers, those precise dates of publication can be very important: if your William Burke was in Boston in March 1856, that can’t be him in Castlebar on January 26th 1857.
So how do you get that precise date? Every volume has the date on its title page. And you can get to the title page by going through Askaboutireland.
Run a search (e.g. http://goo.gl/JFSkd8 ), then open up a page image in a new tab or browser window. If you want, you can then just click the “previous page” link until you get to the volume title page.
But each volume can have up to 500 pages, making that process mind-numbingly tedious. Here’s a shortcut: in the browser address bar, you’ll see something like “griffiths.askaboutireland.ie/gv4/z/zoomifyDynamicViewer.php?file=210173[…]”
The”file” in that address is made up of two parts, a three-digit volume number and a three-digit page number. The example above therefore refers to volume 210, page 173. If you want to go to page 1 of volume 210, just change that 173 to 001 in the address bar, hit “enter” and there you are. The precise publication date is usually about two-thirds down on the left. In the example, it’s January 26th 1857.
[This post was originally published in March 2016, but got washed away in the Great Delete of June 2016. It's useful enough to republish, I think]
As a leading question, this ranks close to “When did you stop beating your wife?” For years I’ve dodged it by mumbling about coincidence and the need to make a living. Recently, though, I had to answer in public, and found myself coming out with some truths.
First, I love the endless solving of thousands of small puzzles. It is literally addictive. The tiny hit of satisfaction from uncovering a minuscule piece of the jigsaw and seeing it fit with the whole is very like the sweet little nicotine rush I used to get from each pull of a cigarette. The compulsion to go on is continually reinforced, and the fact that no family history can ever be completely finished, that the bigger puzzle can never be solved, just amplifies that compulsion.
Second, the part of genealogy that I enjoy most, making heritage databases, has a near-religious rightness about it. As in Van Morrison’s classic ‘Cleaning Windows’, things that were opaque are made clear. And like Van, I take an evangelical pleasure in it. As well, of course, as the less pure satisfaction of revenge on records that used to consume days of my life but now take only minutes.
Most of all, though, genealogy brings history to life in ways that are endlessly enthralling. To use records properly, you have to try to see them through the eyes of the people who made them, the recorders, as well as the people who are recorded. The result is a worm’s-eye view of history, where the laws of statistics don’t apply and great events happen away in the distance.
As a way of understanding history, it has its flaws – our ancestors didn’t necessarily understand what was happening to them, any more than we understand what’s going on around us now. But it certainly helps.
Last week’s historic newspapers post omitted to mention a few salient facts. The two websites I wrote about are both subscription-only, though irishnewsarchive is free in public libraries in the Republic and britishnewspaperarchives offers a pay-as-you-go option, ideal for occasional users like myself. I also failed to point out that on this site I try to keep tabs on which publications and what years they both cover – check out Waterford, for example.
Now, let the quibbles begin.
One group of important papers still falls between the gaps left by both sites. These are the large numbers of local papers published between 1750 and 1820, catering mainly to the Anglo-Irish – literate, propertied, urban, English-speaking, precisely the people most affected by the destruction of the Church of Ireland parish registers in 1922. The British Library doesn’t have many of them and they certainly don’t form part of the Independent News & Media archive. NLI has the largest collection, still only searchable manually. And so still a time sink.
The one way to short-circuit the manual search is a wonderful collection of abstracts created by the indefatigable Rosemary ffolliott more than 40 years ago. She went through almost every newspaper published in Munster and south Leinster between the mid-1750s and the early 1820s and extracted every single item of biographical interest – BMDs, of course, but also bankruptcies, changes of business address, reports from overseas wars, elopements, in short anything that might be of interest to a family historian, covering tens of thousands of families.
She then arranged them alphabetically in two series, one covering mainly Cork and Kerry papers, the other Limerick, Ennis, Clonmel and Waterford.
Her impish sense of humour is evident. The following two items follow each other in her arrangement:
Cork Constitution Thu 6 Nov 1767: “Married last Sunday Mr Harding Daly of Whitehall near Kittmount to the agreeable widow Fleming of Hamon’s Marsh with a fortune of £800.”
Cork Constitution Mon 9 Nov 1767: “The paragraph mentioning the marriage of Mr. Hardng Daly to the widow Fleming appears to be without foundation.”
One of the (many) bees in my bonnet is just how hard it is to get access to the collections. Both are on microfiche, but the only place I know that has the full set is Dublin City Library and Archive in Pearse St.
FindMyPast/Eneclann digitised Rosemary’s other major achievement, The Irish Ancestor. I would have thought these collections would be ideal for them.