How I work

Not underwater

Two incidents gave me pause last week. First, at the swimming pool, a stranger approached me and said “You must have put a lot of work into that last edition”. Half-blind without my glasses and almost completely naked, I did not feel inclined to debate. I just submerged.

Second, I had a very pleasant Q & A session in Dublin with a tour group run by the New England Historic and Genealogical Society. But the tour leader introduced me as just plain ‘God’. Now I’m plenty vain (aw shucks), but that’s getting a bit uncomfortable.

The implication of both is that I labour mightily in the vineyards of genealogy, when in fact I don’t work much at all. A large part of my time is spent staring into space, with the occasional upgrade to staring at a wall.

Like most lazy people, I’m a passionate believer in the Twofer, making a single piece of work serve more that one purpose. Back when I was being paid to train National Library staff to run the first incarnation of the genealogical consultation service, I took my innocent charges to the Public Record Office in Belfast. I also took five accumulated research files that needed work done in PRONI, so they got to see what research could be done there by watching me do the research. I still remember the pleasure. Sweet.


Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the Twofer principle at work in this blog. Quite a few posts bear a strong family resemblance to columns that appeared in The Irish Times some years back.

And Twofer certainly defines the relationship between Tracing Your Irish Ancestors and this site. I spend seven years accumulating new references and slotting them into the forest of pigeon-holes that make up the site’s databases. Then I decant the whole thing into the next edition of the book. Sweet.

To be fair to myself, other talents are also required, in particular a very high boredom threshold, honed, no doubt, by all that staring into space. It stood me in good stead this week as I combed through all the Rootsireland and Representative Church Body listings for any changes.

It takes all sorts, I say. And I’m definitely an AllSort.

It’s alive!

Forty years ago, when I asked my mother about her grandparents, her response summed up the Irish outlook of those days:

“What do you want to know about them for? Sure aren’t they all dead?”

This is not to say that family was unimportant. Far from it. My mother and her sisters could spend hours knitting together second and third cousins and neighbours and the in-laws of in-laws. In a tribal society nothing is more important than who your relatives are. Obviously, common ancestry determines the relationship, but that’s its only importance.

This makes for a peculiar relationship with the past. On the one hand, we’re drenched in it. Every rock in every field has its own name, history and controversy, and the issues that fueled politics and rebellion two centuries ago still underlie Irish politics today. For better or worse, history is no bewigged pageant here.  It’s alive.

An Englishman encounters Irish history.

On the other hand, we have very little sentiment about what we inherit. In the space of little more than a century, we’ve shed a national language and a national religion, two national currencies, as well as membership of a kingdom, an Empire and a Commonwealth. In the last decade alone we’ve re-invented ourselves as business moguls, four-hour commuters, consumerist party animals, abortion-friendly LGBT celebs … Who knows what’s next?

With change at this pace, eventually even the strongest roots begin to shrivel, and the past acquires the rosy glow of distance. For most Irish today, the tribe is not as straightforward as it used to be, and one way the difference is showing is how Irish genealogy is seen in Ireland. It’s no longer the preserve of the blue-rinsed or the tartan-trousered.

So fear no more. When you tell someone Irish you’re researching your ancestors, they’re no longer likely to question your sanity.

The normal laws of space-time do not apply

How much can we rely on family oral traditions? The question attracts a horde of ifs, buts and maybes.

Take the undying belief of large numbers of families in the west of Ireland that one of their ancestors was a survivor of the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588. As many as 24 ships were indeed wrecked on the Irish coast, but the conditions that greeted anyone who made it ashore were hardly conducive to settling down and raising a family. The English military force in Ireland, too small to fight off an invasion, compensated with savagery, slaughtering every Spaniard who couldn’t be ransomed. The native Irish did not show much hospitality either.

An envoy of Phillip II sent to Ireland in 1596 to seek out survivors could find only eight individuals.

But hold on. What about those eight? If just one of them had two surviving offspring who stayed in Ireland, who in turn each had two offspring – a very conservative survival rate – and this rate of reproduction continued in each of the 13 or so generations down to the present, that single survivor would now have 8192 descendants, plenty to provide a basis for a family tradition. Though, of course, the tradition remains impossible to prove.

That’s the difference between genealogy and academic history. Because we focus on individual stories, the strangest statistical flukes crop up again and again. The wonderfully conspicuous Balthazar McGuffin will appear nowhere in the records of the 1870s, where you expect him. But dozens of Balthazar McGuffins will then begin to crop up in the records of freed slaves, or medieval guild rolls, or at the court of Catherine the Great. “Black swan” events like these give historians attacks of the vapours, and very understandably.

As for quantum physics, so for history: at the smallest level, the normal laws of space-time do not apply.

The intersection of Touro and Marais in New Orleans. Also the centre of the universe

Early Irish newspapers

Early Irish newspapers are a much under-appreciated source, at least for that small minority to whom they are relevant. That minority was literate (in English), almost all belonged to the Church of Ireland and they were geographically concentrated enough to provide sufficient readers. So the main areas of publication were Dublin (from about 1720), Belfast (1737), Cork (1750), Limerick and Clare (1750), Carlow/Kilkenny (1768) and Waterford (1770).

William O’Neill disavows the debts of his wife Alice in 1801

Given that so many early Church of Ireland parish registers have been destroyed, the usefulness of family announcements is obvious. In some cases they will be the only surviving record. More interesting for hunters of closet skeletons are the ‘advertisements’ and business announcements. Many of the former consist of husbands publicly disowning their runaway wives’ debts; many of the latter are bankruptcy notices.

Finns Leinster Journal Saturday August 13 1791

One reason why these newspapers are underused is that they are not digitised to the same extent as nineteenth-century publications. The London Stamp Office began passing copies of the publications it regulated to what is now the British Library only in 1822, which means that the Library’s collection (being digitised at  is quite patchy for newspapers before that year. There is a decent collection on (image-only, for some reason) and the Irish Newspaper Archive has a good run of the Freeman’s Journal, The Belfast News Letter and Finn’s Leinster Journal.

One of Rosemary’s cards

But for years the only decent large-scale shortcut into these papers has been Rosemary ffolliott’s vast and painstaking ‘Index to Biographical Notices Collected from Newspapers, Principally Relating to Cork and Kerry, 1756–1827’ and ‘Index to Biographical Notices in the Newspapers of Limerick, Ennis, Clonmel and Waterford, 1758–1821’. As well as her legendary thoroughness, Rosemary brought a nicely tuned sense of humour to the task. Here are two index entries transcribed from her Cork and Kerry index:

C[ork] C[onstitution] 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”.

Followed immediately by:

C[ork] C[onstitution] M 9 Nov 1767 the paragraph mentioning the marriage of Mr. Hardng Daly to the widow Fleming appears to be without foundation”.

Evidently Mr Harding Daly was chancing his arm.

I’ve been banging the drum about the ffolliott indexes for years, hoping someone would digitise them. My heart leapt last month when I saw that FindMyPast had put up a transcript. Off I trotted to track down the images for Harding Daly and the agreeable widow Fleming. No sign of them. So I started to poke about and some serious peculiarities showed up. A newspaper (from Portuguese-speaking Ennis?) called the Clare Journao. Also the Cloneml Advertiser, the Xlonmel Gazette,  Rinn’s Leinster Journal, the Limerick Chhonicle,  the Limerick Evening Postl. And a periodical called Fitzgerald Penrose. Wha?

Browsing the transcripts threw up even stranger oddities. A single transcript from the Cork Constitution where there are almost 13,000 from the Limerick Chronicle. Eight transcripts from the Cork Journal, as compared to 800 from the Waterford Chronicle. Only 131 entries for the whole of Cork, with 1587 for Limerick.

So it would appear that only the Limerick, Ennis, Clonmel and Waterford index is actually there. It would also appear that nobody bothered to look at the transcripts before putting them online.

The moral, once again, is that you should give all online sources a good poking before trusting them.

More on newspapers in the browse section. Also county-by-county listings of dates and location.

Digits, orifices and appendages

I saw my first actual Protestant at the age of ten, when he joined fifth class in St. Paul’s National School in Castlerea. After making sure that he wasn’t trying to enslave me, steal my land or force me to speak a foreign language, I counted his all digits, orifices and appendages. Astonishingly, he had precisely the same number as me. His name was John Smith, but his father was the heroically exotic Houston Wells, the lead singer of our local Country-and-Irish showband, the Premier Aces.

Castlerea, 1963. I’m there between Peter Doherty and Turlough Finan.

That deliriously confusing early lesson in cultural diversity came to mind as I watched TV coverage of the most recent Irish citizenship swearing-in ceremony. More than 3000 people from dozens upon dozens of nationalities became Irish. Chilean-Irish, Nigerian-Irish, Moldovan-Irish, Pakistani-Irish … For someone my age, brought up in the weird inbred monoculture of 1950s and 1960s Ireland, it should have felt bewildering. But no, it was actually very moving.


Anyone with a sense of the seismic convulsions Ireland’s population has undergone over the past three centuries knows that what’s happening now is another great change: Castlerea in 1963 was vastly different from Castlerea in 1913, which was vastly different again from 1853 … Where we are now seems to be an immigration sweet spot, the cusp of the next great shift, with large (but not too large) numbers of immigrants coming from so many different places that it’s not possible for ghettoes to form or prejudices to congeal.

Not yet, anyway. In 2053, when Brazil are playing Latvia in the All-Ireland hurling final, things might be different. Diversity is all very well but, personally speaking, I wouldn’t want too many of them Roscommon people living near me, with their strange clothes and funny-smelling food and peculiar accents.

The Premier Aces

Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

Holding onto your sanity can be tricky when your occupational raw material consists of the legions of the dead. So genealogists have to develop techniques to try to retain that little spark of normality, or at least to try to pass for normal. It’s time to share a couple.

First, keep things in proportion. At all costs, avoid ancestor worship. A single living person is worth every forebear you have – genealogy is not a matter of life or death, only the latter. Don’t place too much trust in history. The past is not a reliable guide to the future. The fact you haven’t died so far doesn’t mean you’re immortal.

And never forget that, however absorbing it can be, there is something inherently ludicrous about pursuing traces of the long-gone through mountains of decaying paper. Here’s one way I use to keep that sense of genealogy’s absurdity alive.

Familiar, no?

One of my jobs when I ran the Irish Times Irish ancestors subsite was to manage the main email address, This appeared on hundreds of pages across the site and was, of course, repeatedly harvested by spammers. In an effort to disguise their obnoxious shysterism, these people often take the first part of an email address, hoping that it is a personal name, and shoehorn it into the email subject line to try to personalise their pitch. In this case, the first part of the address being “ancestor”, some lovely incongruities resulted.

I collected them, God help me. Along with the census mistranscriptions, they have made a small but a significant contribution to whatever sanity I have left. Some of my favourites:

– Ancestor, reverse the signs of ageing.
– Ancestor! Fix your garage door now!
– Ancestor – let’s get together for lunch next week.
– Your background check is now available online, ancestor!

Not forgetting the evergreen:
– Ancestor! Cure your erectile dysfunction now!

The fifth edition of Tracing your Irish Ancestors

The fifth edition of Tracing your Irish Ancestors is published today. At least I presume it’s published today, because Amazon have started selling it today.

Launch party? You’re looking at the launch party. Only one edition actually had a formal launch, the third I think, and that was just because I wanted to impress my teenage son. The effect lasted about twenty minutes but it was worth it. He’s now well beyond impressing.

Featuring three of my four grandparents

So why another edition? My late father’s comment after the second was a laconic “Could you not get it right the first time?” Three editions later I can imagine what he’d say.

Part of the impetus is certainly from the publisher, hoping to get everyone who bought the last edition to cough up again. Such ignoble motives are beneath me, of course. When the first edition came out back in 1991, I thought “That’s that, job done”. What quieter, more stable backwater could there be than Irish genealogy?

And of course Irish genealogy has been non-stop, hell-for-leather breakneck action ever since.

Hell-for-leather breakneck action

The pace of change has actually accelerated since edition four in 2012 and that alone is a good reason for an update. Just think about a few of the resources online since then: the GRO record images on IrishGenealogy, a revolution on its own; the National Library Catholic parish register images; the huge increase in digitised newspaper archives in Britain and Ireland; the amazing LDS Registry of Deeds collection; and the flood of new Irish digitisation produced by the competition between Ancestry and

I could go on. And I have, in the book. It’s grown from 580 pages to 690. Bring a wheelbarrow.

I’ll be speaking at the National Archives on April 16 next and at the National Genealogical Society conference in St Louis between May 7 and 12 and I’ll be happy to sign copies then. The North American edition is due out from the Genealogical Publishing Company shortly. In the meantime …

My census correcting comes to an end

My contract with the National Archives to clear the backlog of census corrections emails has come to an end. After eighteen months of grinding through 250 emails a day, it’s a bit of a relief. Yes, I managed to suck the 102,000 outstanding emails into a database that allowed easy comparison between the  original image and the suggested corrections, and yes that also meant it was possible to identify many duplicate suggestions.

Brown without an e

But the low-hanging fruit were all picked a long time ago. Over the past months most of the corrections seem to be along the lines of “My granny was 17, not 16. And her surname was Browne, not Brown.”


The 90,000 emails (88% of the total) contained almost a quarter of a million suggestions, 95,000 correct, 80,000 duplicate and 40,000 inaccurate. I can guarantee there will be no official enquiry into cost overruns or ballooning budgets.

Exposure to the censuses at this scale gives insights into some of their peculiarities. A surprising number of people in 1901 and 1911 were hazy about precise family relationships. Grandparents repeatedly list their grandchildren as nephews or nieces. Why? In Italian nipote actually means both “grandchild” and “niece or nephew”, so perhaps something deep in our mental family structure equates the two-step distance of sibling’s-child and child’s-child. Or maybe it was just doddery grandparents. In any case, their descendants wanted it corrected. And of course it couldn’t be, because whatever was recorded on the form has to appear in the transcript.

The transcribers enforced this fanatically when it came to religion, for some reason. Not surprisingly, many people wanted “Roaming Chatilic”, “Presbitrian” and “Babtist” corrected, but if that’s what was written … On the other hand, there were many stinkers in Ireland a century ago, but none recorded “Free Stinker” as their religion.

The most poignant were emails where people expanded on the information supplied, correcting “Scholar” to “My grandmother”, expanding initials or later lives or even, in one case, washing the family dirty linen a century later:
Transcribed: John Murphy son 10

The mistranscriptions kept me sane, especially the occupations: “Panty boy” for Pantry boy, “Alien apprentice” for Draper’s apprentice, “Publican and Flasher” for Publican and Flesher, and the evergreen “Penis tuner” for “Piano tuner”. Fine old Edwardian trade, penis tuning.

I also came across unexpected individuals. The real Thady Quill, not rambling, nor roving, nor footballing, nor courting, just a simple farm labourer.

Eoin MacNeill

Alas Eoin McNeill no longer leads  the Garlic League .

But the League lives on!

Where did St. Patrick come from?

One aspect of the myth of St. Patrick that I’ve always found peculiar is his early kidnapping and enslavement. Not the fact of it – Patrick’s Confessio is absolutely authentic, the fifth-century Irish enjoyed rich pickings in the decayed remnants of Roman Britain, and slavery was deeply embedded in Gaelic Irish culture. In Brehon law, a female slave (cumal) could be used as a unit of value in financial transactions. It took quite a few cumail to buy a horse, apparently.

Begone! And take the good weather with ye!

No, what’s odd is the conflict between the general acceptance that Patrick was a Romanised Welshman and the place where he ended up herding sheep. Mount Slemish is between Ballymena and Larne, way up in the north-east and a long, long way from Wales.  So a fairly unnatural place for a low-value boy-slave to end up.

Norman Davies’ wonderfully batty Vanished Kingdoms, (Allen Lane, 2011), suggests an explanation. The book aims to draw attention to European states that have disappeared virtually without trace, such places as Burgundia, the Visigothic kingdom in Spain known as Tolosa and (weirdly) “Éire”. For St. Patrick, the most interesting is the kingdom of Alt Clud, “The Rock”, centred at Dumbarton just outside Glasgow and taking in most of what are now Kilbride, Kilmarnock and northern Galloway. In Davies’ account, the kingdom lasted from roughly the fourth century to roughly the ninth, and was North British in the original cultural sense, with its people speaking Cumbric, a p-Celtic language closely related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Part of the evidence is the only surviving authentic writing of Patrick’s apart from the Confessio. His Letter to Coroticus is a severe dressing-down aimed at a ruler identified by Davies as Ceredig Gueldig, the earliest king of The Rock. Who better for a bishop to wag his finger at than his own leader?

Interpreting records from the period is notoriously problematic, akin to picking one’s way through a vast swamp using a few tiny, unstable stepping stones, but Davies’ performance is as nimble as a mountain goat. He makes it hard to resist the picture of the young Patrick on Slemish looking out across the narrowest stretch of water on the Irish Sea to his home in Alt Clud.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

How I got into this mess (part 2)

By the late 1980s, the Irish Genealogical Project was just getting into full swing. It was funded by piggy-backing on local voluntary groups, state retraining schemes, Bórd Fáilte, the cross-border Ireland Fund and a bit of whatever you’re having yourself. The aim was to transcribe and computerise all the major genealogical record sources and then use them to boost tourism in some unspecified way. Behind it stood the then Taoiseach, the thankfully unique Charles J. Haughey. The vehicle was to be the network of local heritage centres that became the Irish Family History Foundation, the organisation behind the present Rootsireland.

The IGP behaved initially as if professional genealogy did not exist, which, unsurprisingly, got right up the noses of professional genealogists. Surprisingly, however, we proved adept at political lobbying. As a result, in 1990 we were offered an official role in the Project. As part of this, out of the three project managers to be employed one would come from our ranks. In addition there would be state funding for research projects to be proposed by individual genealogists. My colleagues in APGI very generously (I think) put me up for the job.

It was a weird position to be in. When I started I had no office, no functions, no job description and was seen by many in the IFHF as a fifth columnist, one of the enemy. Eventually, I acquired a desk in a corner of Fergus Gillespie’s office in the Genealogical Office and a job doling out funding to my genealogist colleagues. The money, believe it or not, came from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Fund, originally intended to house Irish ex-servicemen after World War 1. Yes, yes, I know I was complicit in oiling the squeaky wheel.  Some good did come of it, though. Harry McDowell’s excellent Irregular Marriages in Dublin before 1837 (Dundalk, 2015) is just one of the tangible offspring.

A lot of the day-to-day work of a professional genealogist then consisted of repeated consultation of 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. My first meeting with a database, Microsoft Works 2, took place in Fergus’ office on an IGP computer. It was a light-bulb moment. Everything could be put together just once and would then be permanently available at the click of a button.

Putting everything together just once was the tallest of tall orders, but this was a possible escape from the IGP. So I began to tunnel out. All my spare time went into stitching together the Townlands Index with the National Library parish register listings and gravestone listings and census substitutes and estate records …

In 1995, bleary-eyed and bone-weary of the IGP’s interminable committee meetings, I quit. The plan was to sell a fully-fledged stand-alone expert system, “Grenham’s Irish Recordfinder”, capable of taking whatever a user knew about an Irish ancestor and producing a formatted report detailing all the relevant sources, with advice, reference numbers, and locations. It was based on Microsoft Access 2 runtime and came on no fewer than 21 floppy disks.

I’m no salesman. Happily, Paddy Waldron introduced me to the recently-started Irish Times website. They bought 50% of the online rights in December 1995 and my children could eat again.

It took until 1998 for the online version to go live, but from then until 2016 the site provided the basis of my livelihood. Its development also gave me the opportunity to fill in some of the vast gaps in my programming and database knowledge, solving knotty problems with the time-honoured practice of repeatedly banging my head off the monitor.

When the Times ended our collaboration, they very generously let me have the online rights back. I did fourteen years programming in six frantic months to bring you the current incarnation of the site.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I got into this mess.